Sunday, April 10, 2011
An Amazing Trip to Belize (Placencia and Maya Beach)
He is drawing his circles around me tighter and tighter, shooting through the water like some sort of intelligent torpedo. He is definitely sizing me up, and at 6 foot 3 inches, I am probably only marginally bigger than this top-predator. I try to turn in the water as he circles me and darts around me at high speeds. I can clearly see rows and rows of sharp teeth. I am swimming in the middle of the Belizian ocean with no land in sight and only blue water below me, faced by Barracuda.
Hard to believe that just a few days ago, I was in my office in Houston. Then, on a Thursday morning we headed out for Belize, a destination we had on our radar for a while, even though Belize is generally overlooked by the traveling public. It seems to have the stigma of a place only the more adventurous travelers go. And while it certainly is a great location for “adventure travelers” who enjoy things like jungle hiking and kayaking, it never struck me as an extremely wild place to go to, and it does so even less now that I have actually visited.
Belize, or “British Honduras” as it was known up to 1981 before it gained independence from the United Kingdom, lies just south of Mexico on the Caribbean coast. It is reachable with a short 2 hour flight from Houston, which makes it just a tad further than destinations like Cancun, and a lot closer than Costa Rica and other places in Central America that seem to get more attention. It has much more of a Caribbean vibe than Mexico does, with many of its beaches and islands very closely resembling the picture perfect stereotype of a Caribbean scene, which is often difficult to find in real life. The people we met were all super-nice and we always felt we fit in a lot more than in places like Jamaica. Maybe the fact that Belize is the only English-speaking Central American country, helps. It takes away the “I am in a foreign place” feeling a bit, but it also helps in other ways. Or maybe it’s that while the atmosphere certainly is laid back, things don’t seem to be quite as chaotic and unorganized as in other Central American and Caribbean places. If your cab driver says he will pick you up at a certain time, he will be there. While many things are simple, they seem to be more orderly and better maintained than you’d expect.
Landed in Placencia. Time to get the bags.
Belize has one main airport of importance, which is in Belize City (which is not too surprising since the whole country is small and it’s population numbers less than 1/3 of a million people), which is where our flight from Houston took us. We then took another 20 minute flight on Tropic Air further south to Placencia. It is worth pointing out that the second flight is quite a bit different from the first one. Out of Houston, we took a big Continental (or “United” I should now say, I guess) airliner, but the flight on Tropic Air was a small 10-seater plane. There was one pilot, and our luggage was thrown in the door in the back of the plane, and off we went. Placencia airport is a small jungle airstrip (complete with a road crossing near the runway and a gate going down when planes approach). After you land, you just grab your bag from the plane, and off you go 2 minutes later. Kornel – our cab driver to the hotel – was already waiting for us with his old van. So off we went – picking up one of Kornel’s friends whom we happened to pass by on the way and gave a lift – and 15 minutes later we were in a beach-chair at the hotel. It wasn’t even noon yet.
The beach at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro
We checked into a small place a little outside Placencia called “Maya Beach” (and the aptly named “Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro”). We (and by that I mean “Ellen”) did quite a bit of research on hotels before we went. In Placencia, you can get anything from the $600-a-night “Turtle Inn” hotel (owned by Francis Ford Coppola) to privately owned bed & breakfast places. Our hotel was also privately owned but a step up from the bed & breakfast variety. I would call it a “Boutique Hotel”. We were aiming for a privately owned place that had only a few rooms to avoid crowds, and had unique rooms and direct access to the beach. We were also aiming for good food. The Maya Beach Hotel turned out to be all that and more! Next time to go, this hotel will be the first place I will check for availability for sure!
The view from our room at the Maya Beach Hotel.
What I really liked about the hotel was that it had a definite Caribbean feel to it. Each room was unique, as the hotel basically is a built-out beach house. We actually had to switch rooms twice since we booked on short notice, so we got a good sampling. We had and entire floor in a separate house, which would have slept a family of 6 (with kitchen and fridge and all). It had its own pool and a really nice veranda right on the beach. We stayed in an upstairs room which had a balcony and an amazing view. We stayed in a “small” (and by that I mean “bigger than your average hotel room, but smaller than the other rooms”) room that opened up right onto the beach. This wasn’t your average 5-star hotel experience, and things certainly were a bit rustic. If you are looking to get pampered and want to spend your days indoors getting massages, this is not the place for you. But if you are looking for a unique clean place that enables you to experience the awesomeness of the Caribbean, then this is where you want to be.
Sunrise over the Caribbean. Picture taken from the porch in front of our room.
Given that this was a relatively short trip from Houston, we had most of the day left to enjoy and we spent it lazily on the beach and on the veranda in front of our room. At night, we enjoyed the Bistro’s fabulous food, and we quickly switched (as hard as this might be to believe for people who know me) into a relatively early schedule, going to sleep much earlier than I normally would (it gets dark early in the Caribbean) and we also got up quite early because we had an excursion booked the next day.
Note a bad place to hang out and relax…
We headed out relatively early and went to a Mayan archeological site before noon. Lubaantun is an interesting although not all that large site in the middle of the jungle. You can see remains of ball-courts and other structures. It doesn’t compare to sites like Tikal or Chichen Itza, and I wouldn’t have made the trip just to see this site, but in combination with other things, it was worth seeing. We also had an enjoyable lunch right on site, sitting between Mayan ruins.
After lunch, we drove on a bit further (as it turns out, there is quite a bit of driving over bad roads involved in all these trips) to get to a cave system. This is one of the adventurous things to do in Belize: You hike through the jungle following a river until you get to a cave the river emerges from. Apparently Belize is riddled by these underground river systems. In our case, we entered the system in our swimmies and with small headlamps attached to our foreheads and started to swim upstream into the pitch-black cave. What an experience! The Mayans believed these caves were the entrance to the underworld, and I can only imagine the first Maya entering this cave with a torch (which probably went out 100 feet into the cave). It turned out to be a pretty easy swim that took us about 30-45 minutes to reach the end of the cave system (or at least the end of the human-accessible part of the cave). At that point, we spent a bit more time in the cave and swam under a waterfall, before we turned around to swim downstream.
The entrance to the cave, where you start your swim.
On the way out, we stopped and turned out lights off for a while to get a good impression of how thoroughly dark it really was. Even after a few minutes, my eyes couldn’t adjust enough to pick up my own hand in front of my eyes, and I generally tend to see pretty well at night. Terry Pratchett would have said “this darkness wasn’t just the absence of light… this Darkness was spelled with an upper-case D and engulfed everything like a mud-slide would burry a nickel”. But then he is British.
One of our co-adventurers swimming through the cave with a head-lamp.
The author, getting ready to dive in under the waterfall.
The hike through the jungle itself was very enjoyable as well. We followed the river back out, and at some point I took a dive into the river for a short and refreshing swim. One just hasn’t lived until one takes a swim in a natural river in the jungle. (Of course in an older blog post, I said the same thing about getting peed on by a Monkey. I have now changed my mind on that. Swimming in the river was better).
Time for a refreshing dip in the jungle river.
A “visitor” coming in over the phone wire.
On subsequent days, we spent hours kayaking out to, and circumnavigating a small mangrove island where we briefly spotted a dolphin near out kayak (or it might have been a manatee… I am not sure… somehow – don’t ask me how – it could have been either). We biked into town. We walked along the beach. And we relaxed in one of the many hammocks the Maya Beach Hotel has. We snorkeled, and we took several off-shore boat trips out to islands and to dive, each of which was amazing.
Kayaking to a nearby mangrove island.
And that’s how I ended up swimming off-shore, eye to eye with this enormous Barracuda, who keeps darting around me with a very clear interest in me. I keep turning in the water in an effort to keep up with this amazing fish as I catch some movement out of the corner of my eye: A large Southern Stingray approaches majestically gliding through the water. I snap a quick picture of the Barracuda and exhale through my scuba regulator to descend to a slightly deeper depth. A second Stringray comes into view and I manage to snap a picture of both of them at the same time before a turtle draws me off into a different direction.
Two Southern Stingrays in a single photo.
Turtles can be quite majestic under water.
A turtle swimming right under the surface in the clear Caribbean waters.
Oh, and did I mention? Scuba diving in Belize, on the world’s second largest Barrier Reef (outsized only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) is just out of this world too! But that shall be the topic of a different post…
Posted @ 1:37 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)