Belize (2016)

After traveling far and long the past few years, I decided to select a location for 2016 that would be:

  • Easy to travel to from Austin, Texas
  • Offer an opportunity to rest and relax quickly (i.e. in a little over a week)

For this I selected the country of Belize and the St. George’s Caye Resort.

Day 1: Travel & the Rotarians

Since our flight wasn’t until 12:45 pm, I had a nice preparatory morning. Flights are becoming even harder on my body and no matter how well prepared one is, flying can be mentally/emotionally challenging too. So I was proud of myself that I got a good yoga session, breakfast, and other self-care practices in before SuperShuttle arrived at 10:10 am.

We had an eventless ride to the airport and enough time to grab something to take with us for lunch, since we had a tight connection via Houston. (Aside: I really wish there was a direct flight to Belize City, it would be so much easier! But it seems as though almost EVERYBODY we met in Belize had to go through Houston.) I was pleased to discover that Annie’s Cafe & Bar’s french fries were gluten free, so I got that and a burger with a GF bun, which was also a surprise. I’d been craving a burger for awhile. Unfortunately I know from experience their fries don’t “keep”, so that was “second breakfast” at around 11 am.

We were delayed getting out of Austin, which meant a ridiculously tight connection in Houston. We ran like crazy from gate 41 to gate 1 (which was actually closer than expected since the gate numbers wrapped around and ended at 42, but was still further than you might expect). When I tried to board, I was told I needed a “Docs OK” stamp on my boarding pass, so I had to run back to the counter while seats got taken. The lady there seemed annoyed, saying “I’d only announced it like 10 times”. I kindly informed her that I just ran off another plane. We realized afterwards that in Austin the Southwest representative stamped the wrong boarding pass for me, and so we were very diligent about that not happening on the way back!

We landed only a little late (slightly before 5 pm) and our one checked bag made it. We were told that phones should be put away as we went to get our passports reviewed. So sorry folks, no selfies from the line! When we got outside, we looked for a driver holding a sign with our name, but failed to find anyone. I must say, several workers outside the airport were SO helpful. I was trying to get my phone restarted and set up to check the phone number of the resort that was supposed to include the driver, and when I mentioned St. George’s Caye, a woman called for me before my phone even started up! In a few minutes she indicated that “that white van” (unmarked) was our ride. We walked up to him and Danil asked for proof that he knew who we were, and he said our names and flashed a sign. OK, whew.

After a 30-45 minute ride we were at a dock. Cornell (our driver) turned us over to Hector, who with another guy loaded our bags onto a boat and started hauling ass to the island. It was beginning to get dark. We had a 20 minute boat ride that was so much fun. The sun was setting but it was still warm. I’d forgotten how much I loved being on a boat, wind tossing my hair in all directions. On the way there, we hit something though! Hector circled us back around to check it out: it was a log that could do some real damage to the water taxis.

Arrival at St. George’s Caye was in the dark: Jahnene presented us with a welcome punch drink, advised us that our bags would be taken for us to our cabana, and gave us a tour of the facility. I found it quite challenging to get oriented because I couldn’t see! After getting checked in, we had only a little while to get cleaned up for dinner, which started with appetizers at 6:30pm. Our over-water cabana (#6) was really neat. It was like a tiny house without a kitchen (though it did have a mini-fridge stacked with cold water bottles). We showered and I coated myself with some deet-free bug spray to walk over to dinner. (Aside: mosquitoes LOVE me, and I was determined to protect myself!)

The first night’s dinner was lovely I’m sure. But unfortunately I was feeling pretty sick! I remember asparagus, shrimp, and a baked potato as the main course; I can’t remember the soup or the appetizer prior. What might have happened is that when I ate the appetizer, I accidentally ingested some of the bug spray that was on my hands. I was also trying new supplements, and we’d traveled, so who knows. I felt flushes of heat, dizzy, etc. It made it really hard to eat. We were also seated at the end of a huge dining-room-like table with Barry (the  manager), his wife Ashley, and 14 rotarians who seemed like old friends, so it was like joining a party where you didn’t know anyone and felt terrible as well! We learned that Barry and Ashley were ex-pats from Austin TX. Before dessert was served, we excused ourselves and went back to the cabana where we read and tried to sleep.

Day 2: Elusive Sleep, Yoga on the Dock, & Learning to Do Nothing

Sleep wasn’t coming to me that first night, though when morning came I felt a little better. If you liked, the resort folks would deliver a carafe of coffee and fresh orange juice to your cabana in the morning (we decided they showed up around 6 am). It was difficult to tell whether it was raining outside or not: the thatch roof made noises when the wind blew. But it was not actually raining for our first full day, which was nice.

Breakfast was from 7-9 am in the lodge where all the meals were served. Because I was still feeling off, we decided to take the breakfast back to the cabana, where I noticed that my eggs were cooked in what tasted like tons of butter! The bacon was extra crispy though.

At around 10 am, I decided to try doing a yoga practice on the dock. All I can say is, wow. This was one of the best things about being here. I would place my towel the same direction as the boards, tucking in the sides so the wind wouldn’t blow it. And I just improvised. I had all the time in the world. No obligations, no “fitting in” a practice in a specific time-frame. It was magical.

We also ended up taking a walk. While standing in the center of the resort, you could see water on both sides, so there weren’t many choices! We started at the lodge where we eat, facing the water on one side, and walked to the left on a little sandy path. What we hadn’t realized–but quickly did from the walk–was that the good folks here had recently (i.e. August 2016) been hit with hurricane Earl. Many houses were abandoned and torn apart. There were workers out repairing some houses, and many docks that were wiped entirely away. It was very quiet, and there were lots of birds to see.

img_2151Lunch was from 12-2 pm. I believe the rotarians had left in the morning around 10, so it was a nice quiet scene. We met a nice couple from Michigan who told us about a little aquarium, run by a child, that was on the island and was worth seeing. Unfortunately we didn’t find it the two days we walked, and didn’t get another opportunity.

After lunch we explored more of the resort in the daylight, noting where the pool was, where the SUPs, kayaks, etc. were located. Then we tried to take a nap. Nope. Not happening. Around 4 pm I was hungry again–as a “grazer” who eats a little bit every couple hours, it was interesting to shift to a 3 big meal/day pattern. I ended up eating one of my Lara bars until I got re-patterned. Then I started feeling bored. I wanted to DO something. I know we had planned to do one excursion, but it was Sunday, and that wasn’t going to happen until Tuesday. How would I ever survive??

At dinner I availed myself of the included rum punch to try to help with sleep–not my favorite tactic but I was getting desperate, and I was curious to see what it tasted like and if it would work. We sort of knew the couple from Michigan now, and we met another nice couple from Oklahoma. I must say here that the folks at St. George’s Caye were EXCELLENT about food sensitivities. I specified ahead of time that I was strictly gluten fee and somewhat more lenient on dairy; they always brought me special versions of appetizers, soups, main courses, and desserts (usually fruit coated in a sugary syrup, which later I switched to plain, because the fruit was spectacular enough!). But they were open to changes and requests and it never felt like an issue. Which was really nice not to worry about being on vacation!

After dinner, we read in bed and went to sleep earlier than usual.

Day 3: Absolutely Nothing

img_2168 img_2169I woke finally feeling rested. Yay, rum punch? Today is the day we got breakfast down. Oil instead of butter, and I got a heaping side of veggies so it was more like my breakfasts at home, but made for me. Danil discovered the fry jacks, and whether stuffed or un-stuffed, they were an interesting treat for all who were curious. I was so tired of doing nothing that I actually signed up to go snorkel in the afternoon (trips were daily at 9 am and 2 pm, weather permitting).

After breakfast and my yoga practice, we practiced Tai Chi on the sand together, which was fun, because we had completely different sand trails. 🙂 Lunch included an amazing coconut rice, and the first chicken I’ve actually found tasty in ages. I also discovered that punch (sans rum) was a good hold-over in the long stretch between lunch and dinner. To be fair, we could have gone to lunch later, but we didn’t. I got a second yoga session in at the dock because the img_2155snorkeling trip was cancelled (it looked like a perfect day; I don’t recall the reason). Dinner that night was LOBSTER, yum!

As you can see it was an uneventful day. Fortunately I brought a BIG book for reading: Gandhi: An Autobiography–The Story of My Experiments with Truth (560 pages). And yes, I did finish it before we left! Since this day is light, here was my favorite house from our walk (probably because it was purple.

Over the course of the week, we also saw many men repairing the seawall and the dock near the lodge. Men would stand waist high in the water and shovel muddy sand into a boat. When the boat was full they’d bring it in and dump it to the other side of the wall. We were all particularly intrigued when a very large vessel with long, thick logs pulled up to what was left of a dock, and the men unloaded them by pushing them off the vessel and into the water. There was another worker removing nails from what looked like the planks that would be used for the dock. Being curious and having lots of free time, we wanted to know how exactly they would drive the logs down into the water and sand to make the frame for the dock. We learned that there was a machine they’d put down into a log-sized tube to “blow” out a hollow opening into which they could drive the log straight down. They’d made great progress by the time we left.

Day 4: Last Day of Nothing (Or So We Thought)

OK it’s now MONDAY. We quickly lost track of the days (and the time, except when it came to eating). We hung out by the pool today, and took the double-kayak out briefly. I think we also tried walking the other way, but it started drizzling and we met with a house that seemed to be at the end of the trail, punctuated with two dogs that went wild when we got near (were they fed recently??). I also got my only mosquito bite on the trip this day. Dousing in bug spray was common, especially after 4 pm.

In keeping with the repair theme, our little over-water cabana area had 6 cabins, so we had a little sub-family back there. Naomi would swim 4 laps back and forth from our dock to the yellow house on the little island across the way (initiated with a little scream), I’d do my yoga practice, the guys would be in kayaks and or in hammocks reading.  We would see lots of fish (including a ray) from our U-shaped dock, but what we also noticed was that there seemed to be some broken off dock supports. We wondered whether the dock looked different before. Sure enough, Google satellite shows that at one time, there was more.

Day 5: Lamanai & Nature Speed Boat!

Bored yet? I certainly was. Fortunately, we had pre-booked our tour to Lamanai because I have NEVER seen any Mayan ruins. Little known fact: when I was in high school I used to want to be an archeologist. Anyhow…we had to be at the dock at 7:30 am to leave.

It took about an hour in the van (punctuated with interesting information from Cornell as we drove and breakfast) to a dock. (An aside for travelers like me who have pea-sized bladders: I was very pleased to find restrooms both at the mainland dock and after the van ride that were very clean!)  Then we got on a boat for about an hour ride in the New River to get to the ruins site. Carlos was our driver and wow, was he fantastic.

img_2184We sat in the back row, 3 people per row. Carlos got us oriented and then started to speed along the river, which was very twisty and fun going fast. But every so often he’d slam on the brakes and point out some animal or bird that we should take note of. We were not sure how he spotted many of the things he saw while driving and talking about his country.

During the ride there, we saw (and fed) a spider monkey, an yellow-orange iguana sunning himself in a tree, a few birds, and a tiny crocodile with his mouth open (this is one we have no idea how Carlos saw). This picture of the monkey is my favorite, if only because Carlos kept telling us, “get your photos, he isn’t going to pose for you!”

img_2212When we arrived at Lamanai I could feel the completely different energy. Everything was so quiet, peaceful, sacred. We visited each of the temples–including the Jaguar, Mask, and High Temples, as well as the Royal Complex. We learned that there are many more things awaiting discovery, but that funding is absent and so it remains untouched.

The photos are from the High Temple. The first is me at the bottom (all covered up not because it was cold, but because there were a lot of bugs out there, including mosquitoes and no-see-ums). You might think I was paranoid but if you saw how many other guests had been covered in bites, you’d have been too!

img_2215The second is the furthest up the temple I got. There was another “layer” but the stairs in front required deep lunges or legs much longer than mine! After that we had the lunch that was brought for us–another note about food: whenever you went on a tour, if you had food allergies that was still covered–and visited the  museum. This is where I had some of the best plantains ever, and more fantastic chicken. Some of the group visited the gift shops there as well, and then it was back into the speed boat to reverse our way back to the island.

And what a treat we had on the way back. In addition to the ride being faster and seemingly twistier, Carlos STILL spotted a crocodile. Here’s a short video. I wish I’d kept it running a little longer because he started to move! But of course I was like “drive away!!”


For a good day and a half after this trip, I didn’t have my land legs 100%. Highly recommended, although getting there and back has to be part of the adventure for sure.

That night we had an even more fantastic dinner: Jason and his son Noah had gone out fishing that day, and brought a barracuda back for the kitchen to prepare. Santiago and his allies in the kitchen did this amazing cinnamon-based rub that we just have to try ourselves. If I hadn’t been with other people I’d have just eaten that and left the rest of dinner to the table. By this time we were also friends with Jim and Kailee from Denver CO, and were talking to Naomi and Rick about what our friends from Michigan said about the Belize Zoo. We initially heard about the trip but decided not to go, because you know, it’s a zoo. But apparently it’s NOT like our zoos: it’s more of a rehabilitation place for injured and animals in need. Plus, rumor had it you could get in a cage and feed a jaguar.

Day 6: “Junior” & the Belize Zoo

img_2267img_2264The next day was almost a repeat of the first in terms of schedule, except with the 8:30 am start we were able to have breakfast at the lodge. The boat ride over to the mainland was a bit choppier than usual, and my new friend Naomi now understood why I’d bundled up my body and hair. We got to see Sabrina’s (Barry and Ashley’s daughter) route to school via the same boat. It reminded me of how I used to spend an hour getting to school via two different buses: but more exciting.

We took a different route in the van this time, so Cornell was able to show us different things, including “his” house–very luxurious (and a joke), the prime minister’s house, etc. There were certainly several big fancy homes, and then in other places, still folks living without electricity. Our first stop was at one of the three colorful “Belize” signs, where there was also a sign about no swimming because of crocodiles; apparently people do it anyway. More disturbingly was the fact that we were pretty much in a playground!

When we arrived at the zoo and while Cornell got our tickets for us, Kailee and I preemptively went to the ladies room. OK here’s the only challenging restroom experience: the toilet was TOO HIGH, with nothing to step on around it. Maybe if I’d been taller?? It took me about 10 minutes to figure out how to make it work. I can’t say it’s not funny now.

From their brochure: “The Belize Zoo was started in 1983 as a last ditch effort to care for 17 animals which were left from the filming of a natural history documentary…NONE of the animals here were taken from the wild. They have either been injured, orphaned, born here, given as gifts from other zoos or are confiscated pets from the government…Many of these animals could not survive if they were released back to the wild, and become “ambassadors” for their species. The Zoo serves as a stronghold for conservation and environmental education for the people of Belize…if we can’t release them back into the wild, we’ll give them a home!”

So, wow, what all did we see once we arrived at the zoo?

  • Several kinds of birds (toucans, a cool owl, blue crown mot-mot, jabiru stork, harpy eagles, among others):
 img_2326  img_2319  img_2321  img_2285
  • Several kinds of cats (jaguarundi, ocelot, puma, jaguar, margay); for more about these cats check out the Belize Big Cats List. The jaguarundi reminded me of our cat, and was even purring (see short video clip).
  • Spider and howler monkeys (please don’t howl at them, the sign said!)
  • Gray fox, deer, cotimundis and tapir (otherwise known as the five-legged “mountain cow”). We fed the last two leaves that Cornell selected for us.
img_2338 img_2302 Tapir

Check out this video of the cotis–they were wild!

 

img_2306Some of our group took Cornell’s lead and tasted termites from one of the nests (see last photo in the set above). I’m adventurous, but on that I drew the line.

Although we were all in various stages of wet from the rain, I love this photo of our little group around the Jabiru!

The highlight of course was that four of us were able to interact with Junior, the 5 year old jaguar who had been born at the zoo. After splitting the $50 fee, Rick, Jim,  Kailee, and I were guided into the cage, just as the first drops of rain began. It was a little unnerving because you knew that Junior was somewhere. Once inside the cage we sat. The one thing I didn’t like about this experience–though I realized it later–was that they had trained Junior to do somersaults. But other than that, we all took turns feeding him chicken (a small piece with our own bare hands!) then touching his tail, belly, and hind legs while he devoured it. He also licked all of our foreheads. It was wild feeling him pacing on the top of the cage. Here are some video highlights from inside:

 

Here’s what it was like from outside (edited of course)–I love some of the commentary. For the record no, we didn’t sign a liability waiver!

 

After this very full and long morning, we visited the gift shop and then got back into the van to end up at…Cheers (with a tropical twist). No kidding. Mile 31 1/4 Western Highway Belize. This of course inspired a conversation about the Bull & Finch Pub vs. the restaurant with the recognizable Cheers sign: now I see that B&F has renamed to Cheers on Beacon Hill. Ha! After that was the fun distinctions of “rice and beans” vs. “beans and rice” (served together in the former and separate in the latter). Many of us also had refreshing watermelon juice.

Lastly, we visited the Old Belize Adventure Cultural and Historical Center: a strange combination water park, marina, museum (with another gift shop of course). Cornell walked us through the museum and picked various things out of the displays to show us what he remembers from his grandparents. It was very sweet. Here are some fun photos from that experience:

img_2376 img_2378 img_2364 img_2365

The first photo is of an old sugar cane mill. The second photo is a man harvesting Chicle Sap, which was used to make Chicle Blocks, which were exported to the U.S. as “Chiclet” gum. (They don’t use this formula anymore though.) The other two are both odd and self-explanatory!

With the storm clouds looking, we headed back to the van for the drive and boat ride back to St. George’s Caye and dinner. Like those who came before us, all of us who went to the zoo raved about it, and hopefully encouraged others to see it.

Day 7: Thanksgiving!

Nothing to really say here. After two full days of adventures, we just hung around all day. We did a little SUP and had some rum punch. The weather was relatively stable.

One of the funny conversations that happened around the dining table was what type of bird folks kept seeing flying overhead: someone described it as “having pterodactyl wings”. We all had great fun saying the name of the bird, which we pronounced like “friggin” bird but is really the frigate bird.

Also, I believe it was this day that a solitary man appeared. He got a tour of the resort and joined us for lunch; we learned that he was Nigel Tisdall, a writer for the Telegraph. Can’t wait to see what he says! And what a job. Lucky bastard!!

img_2411img_2401Earlier in the week we were hoping we’d not have turkey on Thanksgiving, but once we saw “Turducken” on the menu, we all got excited and curious. It was a nice Thanksgiving dinner with a very nice group.

What was also slightly amusing was that a few days earlier we’d met a couple (Christine and Jayson, I think) who arrived immediately after a West Coast Swing dance event. Go figure. Christine and Noah got locked into a serious competitive game of chess–sometimes played in the midst of dinners by going back into the lodge between courses. This prompted interesting discussions around dining etiquette, such as when some of us who had been served could start eating. Since the lodge was the only place with wi-fi, it was the only place to Google the answers–which of course was a faux pas in and of itself!

Days 8 & 9: On the Outskirts of Otto & Leaving

So, we weren’t aware that a hurricane had hit before we arrived; additionally, the rain on our last 2 full days on the island was a little taste of late-season hurricane Otto, which hit Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Otto was the strongest late-season hurricane on record in the Atlantic. Here’s a bit what our last days on the island looked like, from inside the lodge. Note that this was a particularly calm moment.

santiago-leoNaomi and I played several rounds of…Bananagrams! I’m not sure we followed the rules exactly, but I was yelling “peel” and she was yelling “dump” and it was good clean fun. Danil played chess. We all read, talked, sat around, some drank. I had a nice conversation with Santiago, and prior to that, with Leo (photo credit: Naomi Shelan). They both took such good care of us. Leo is a fantastic artist; his drawings were everywhere. You can check out his wonderful work here.

Fortunately, the day we left the skies started to clear up. (Nothing worse than sitting on a plane with sogged clothes, shoes and luggage right?) Our new friends gave us a sweet send off at the dock, and we were back on our way to Austin via a long layover in Houston.

Further tips about being in Belize:

  • Geckos are everywhere!
  • Hermit crab racing is a thing in the evening.
  • As of this writing, they’re widening at least one of the highways (either Phillip Golden (Northern) or George Price (Western), I don’t recall), so the traffic, especially in rush hour, is something. (I’m being sarcastic; it’s dusty but not nearly as many cars as our rush hours would be.)
  • Relatedly, Cornell joked (as we did) about the speed bumps signage: men need something looking like female breasts to get them to slow down.
  • Most of the public restrooms in Belize are AMAZINGLY clean (especially at the airport). They put us to shame.
  • Marie Sharp’s hot sauce is also a thing. Quite an amazing one, especially on breakfast eggs.
  • If you want some peace and quiet in the Houston Hobby airport, check out the chapel on the lower level. Enough space for some yoga too.

If you haven’t had enough yet, you can view the full photo album.