La Isla Bonita!

As seen from the planeLast month my wife and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary by booking a trip to Belize.  We had planned to do a different destination every year for our anniversary and in the past we’ve visited the Dominican Republic and St. Lucia.  None of these places even came close to the level of awesome that is Belize.

Belize is a small central american country nestled between Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  It has the second largest coral reef in the world and is famous for it’s great diving spots.  Surprisingly, it’s an english speaking country.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about that last part.  When I’m on vacation in a foreign country, I like to “feel” like I’m in a foreign country.  Language always helps with that experience.  Of course that concern melted right away as soon as we arrived.

Our flight down on United was pretty reasonable.  I’m of the opinion that there’s really no such thing as a good airline anymore, but United didn’t screw us on this trip so I guess if we use that as a measuring stick, they were great.  The crazy part about the flight down is that it’s 2 hours from DC to Miami, and only 1 hour and 45 minutes from Miami to Belize City.  I would have thought that leg of the flight would be longer!  Once we landed our large plane at Belize City’s tiny little airport and deplaned, we were greeted with beautiful subtropical weather!  I could instantly feel the stresses of this past year melting away!  When we booked our trip, we considered staying at a resort on the mainland but a friend of mine told us that we HAD to stay on a small island just off the coast – Ambergris Caye.  In fact, it was imperative that we stay at Captain Morgan’s Retreat, on the north end of the island.  This meant that we’d still have to take either a plane or boat (or both!) to our final destination.

In Belize, the plane services run a lot like the bus services here in the states.  This was pretty cool.  You just buy a cheap ($50) ticket and wait for the plane to load up!  Of course these are not exactly jumbo jets ferrying folks around between the islands – these are Cessna Caravans that seat like 10 people max.  I used to fly Cessna 172’s back in Texas so I was really looking forward to this flight – it’s what I refer to as “real flying.”  Our plane flight to the island was very relaxing and to be honest, pretty neat!  Our pilot made a quick stop to drop off a couple on one of the other islands, before finally dropping the rest of us off in the small town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.  I have to say, these guys know how to fly!  I would love having a job like that!

Once we got off the plane, we were shuttled off via taxi to an awesome dock bar called Wet Willy’s.  from Wet Willy’s dock you can pickup a water taxi to any of the resorts on the island.  I was instantly excited because I had read a previous trip report saying that Wet Willy’s had the best margaritas on the island.  Clearly we had to find out for ourselves.  Report: Verified!  Wet Willy’s also has a Taco Tuesday ($1 Belize / $0.50 US), really cool staff and owners, and great food!  I’m told that they even have the famous Viper Rum there!  I highly recommend spending some time here, especially at night when the rays come in and swim around the lights on the dock!

After a few margs, the water taxi for Captain Morgan’s Retreat finally arrived and we piled our luggage and ourselves aboard for a short ride to the resort.  The water was calm and beautiful, and the ride was very scenic!  I remember thinking, “what an awesome place!”

As seen from the pool!Once we got to Captain Morgan’s pier, we were greeted with a view of paradise.  The resort is a series of thatched roof bungalow-style buildings around a central pool and dining area, with an immaculate beach.  We did a quick check-in and got into our room which would serve as “home” for the week.  The neat thing about the rooms is that they are basically suites.  There’s a living room, kitchen, and large bedroom with attached bathroom.  On the front porch is a couple of comfy lounge chairs, a table, and a great view of the ocean.  One thing that I noticed immediately is that there is no phone in the rooms.  In my opinion this is a huge bonus.  Captain Morgan’s is all about unplugging from the world and relaxing.  They do have wifi, but only in the central area near the pool and guest services.  Life on the island is meant to be simple!

We unpacked our stuff and after a while of sitting on the beach, we decided that we needed to see more of San Pedro.  On the island you have two choices for getting around – water taxi or golf cart.  Cars are rare and probably very expensive to rent.  The water taxis run “every hour” (island time) during the day, but we wanted more freedom so we opted to rent a golf cart for the week.  I highly recommend doing this because if you just rely on the water taxis, you’ll miss a LOT of cool things on the island!

We went to guest services at the resort and rented our faithful steed (a standard issue Club Cart), and promptly took the road south back into town.  The island really has one main road linking the resorts on the north end with the town on the south end.  I call this a “road” but it’s really a series of interconnected craters and bumps.  At first this can be a terrifying experience bouncing around this small road with just enough room for two golf carts side by side, but you get used to it quick.  After a while it even becomes fun!  There is all kinds of neat places to visit along the road and we made mental notes of which places we had to check out while we were there.

You know you’ve reached town when you arrive at the toll bridge.  In order to cross you must purchase a ticket (1 way or return trip).  We crossed this bridge so often that we knew the police man who guarded it by name.  If you find yourself crossing this bridge, be sure to tell Matthias that George and Rebecca said, “Hi!”  🙂  Traveler’s Tip:  The tolls are only collected on this bridge until 9PM.  If you drive up after 9PM and hand them your return ticket, they will happily accept it.  Of course you don’t have to.  You can hold onto your return ticket and use it the next day!

Once in San Pedro we were greeted with more stuff to see and do than we could process.  If I were to write it all up here, it would fill a book.  Instead, I’m just going to write about the highlights and places that we highly recommend:

Wahoo's Chicken DropWahoo’s Bar & Grill:  This place is great!  It’s right on the beach, like almost everything else, and on Thursday nights they host a San Pedro tradition – The Chicken Drop!  This is how it works:  You have a large board with 100 squares on it.  In each of the squares there is a number.  Next they bring out a well fed chicken.  A random guest is asked to gently shake the chicken up and down three times before blowing on it’s butt (for luck).  The guest places the chicken on the board where it’s allowed to roam around.  The chicken and guests are then serenaded by Barrington and the Islander’s theme song,”Sexy Chicken,” and eventually the chicken feels nature’s call.  Whatever numbered square the bird “drops” on is the winner!  Prizes range from $50 to $1000 Belize dollars.  Warning:  The Sexy Chicken song will stay in your head for months after this experience.  We ended up buying the CD!  🙂

Elvi’s Kitchen:  This is one of the two best places to eat on the island.  This is where we celebrated our anniversary and it couldn’t have been better!  The food was absolutely amazing and the atmosphere was indescribable, but don’t be in a hurry because it takes them a while.  We were both very impressed by this place.  If you are looking for a very nice intimate place for dinner with top notch food, you HAVE to come to Elvi’s.

Waruguma:  At first glance, this place looks like a hole in the wall.  We probably wouldn’t have considered stopping here, but one of the locals that we met in San Pedro recommended it.  We decided to give it a try, and we were sure glad we did! They make this Salvadoran food called a “pupusa,” which is a fluffy corn tortilla stuffed with meats, beans and cheeses.  WOW!  Could this be the perfect food??  The staff is very cool and the pupusas are made right out front by the owners!  We ended up stopping here every day – we just couldn’t get enough!

My Secret Deli: This is a great local spot for dinner.  They serve a lot of different things but we were told to try the stewed meats.  We had a plate of the stewed chicken and rice and it was out of this world.  Plus, the prices are LOCAL prices, which means you can get a great meal with next to nothing!

Other great places include Mango’s and Carumba’s.  We went to so many places in San Pedro that I can’t remember every one of them, but they were all amazing!  Regarding the town, I will say that this is the first foreign place that I’ve ever been where I didn’t feel like I had to watch my back.  We both felt very safe the whole time.

When we woke up on the second day, we heard that all diving had been canceled due to high winds. The water was calm inside the reef, but once you get outside of the reef, things get rather “sporty.”  This was no big deal because we didn’t plan on doing any diving this day anyways.  Instead we were headed inland to the Mayan city of Lamanai!  Lamanai is one of the largest of the ruined Mayan cities, second to Chichen Itza, and we couldn’t wait to see it first hand!  We were told to meet up with the tour operator, Searious Adventures, in front of Guest Services at 7:45AM, and the boat leaves at 8AM.  So we wondered over to where we were supposed to meet them, only to find the area deserted.  We waited for about 10 minutes and asked a few folks if they had any insight as to why the tour operator wasn’t there.  Their best explanation was, “maybe they are on island time.  They’ll surely be here sometime soon.”

In the distance I could see a boat lazily drift over and tie up to the dock.  Bex and I were still tired from the night before so we decided to take this time and get some coffee.  As we walked towards the coffee shop, the tour operator shows up and angrily informs us that we have made him late and we have to go now.  Of course we realized that he was the guy we saw tying up to the dock 10-15 minutes late already.  We informed him that nothing is going to happen before we get coffee, so he huffs off back to the boat.  Once we joined him at the boat, we were treated to another ration of his grumblings about us making him late.  “Dude!  We saw you tying up like 10-15 minutes late already!”  This was not the way great days are started….

The boat took off with us aboard, and we ended up stopping at every resort along the way to San Pedro.  With a full boat, the operator pointed us towards the mainland and punched the throttle. After about a 1 hour in the boat, we finally reached the mainland and disembarked.  This was one of two restroom stops along the long journey to Lamanai.  Once everyone was “relieved,” we all loaded onto a bus and headed up the north highway to what I think was Orange Walk.  This was a LONG bus ride.  In fact, we were able to catch up on a bit of sleep along the way.  When the epic bus trip was over we unloaded at the second restroom stop and prepared for the long boat ride down the twisting and turning New River towards the Mayan ruins of Lamanai.

One of the attractions on the New River along the way to the Mayan ruins is a wildlife sanctuary.  Our guide, who I’m going to call Dr. Nutso, was very proud of the sanctuary and boasted to us about how many animals are here.  I had a bad feeling when he asked the folks in the boat, “does anyone like monkeys?”  Of course the whole boat replied, “ooh! Monkeys!  YAY!”  Well, Dr. Nutso has a treat for us!  This sanctuary is home to a very large population of spider monkeys.  These adorable creatures are “very curious and friendly,” he explained.  We were given some basic instructions like:

  • Don’t make sudden movements
  • Hold onto or hide your belongings, or the monkeys will take them
  • Don’t try to pet the monkeys


Once he was satisfied that the entire boat was familiar with these simple instructions, Dr Nutso pointed the boat towards a gang of spider monkeys playing in a tree about 100 yards away. Spider monkeys are interesting creatures.  They climb and contort in all different ways as they make their way around the treetops.  I have to admit that I was fascinated with the way they could move, but as the boat inched it’s way closer to them I could feel the apprehension in our fellow passengers.  As soon as the boat got close enough, what I assume to be the ambassador of the spider monkeys jumped aboard to greet us.  Only, he seemed a little irritated and somewhat aggressive! Maybe he didn’t get enough bananas from the previous tour group?  After a quick look around, our new visitor strolled right up to this poor french fellow who I’ll call Mr Mustache (who didn’t speak english so he couldn’t understand the previous instructions).  Of course our french friend decided that he must have a picture of our new friend, so he reached for his camera.

And that’s the moment when our furry friend lost his mind!  With a terrible shriek, he grabbed the Mr. Mustache’s arm and reared back, his dagger-like teeth glistening in the hot sun, and chomped down on the man’s arm taking a sizable chunk out of it!  It happened so fast that there was no time to react!  In response, everyone in the boat suffered a level 5 freak-out, which I’m guessing scared the monkey enough to back away to the very bow of the boat with his tail gripping onto the tree from whence he came.

It wasn’t long before the monkey’s initial shock of the boat passengers freak-out wore off, and I could tell that he was considering another attack run, to finish what he started!  This was shaping up to become an all-out wild kingdom fight to the death, and it wasn’t going to be pretty for either side.  I started yelling, “BACK THE BOAT UP!!!  BACK THE BOAT UP!!!”  The rest of the boat joined my survival chant, and after a few moments Dr. Nutso regained his snap and decided to comply.

As the folks aboard the boat settled down, we could all see that our Mr. Mustache’s arm was bleeding pretty badly – probably because a monkey tried to gnaw it off.  One of the passengers asked our tour operator if he had a first aid kit.  Of course, he did not!  I mean really, with letting wild animals aboard your boat to gnaw on tourists, why would they ever need a first aid kit right?  Score another point for Searious Adventures.  Luckily one of the passengers had a bandage in his backpack, and he went to work on the monkey victim.  He was able to control the bleeding, but it was clear that our victim needed a hospital and a number of stitches.  We mentioned that to the tour operator, and he began discussing with Dr Nutso about how they didn’t have time to get Mr. Mustache to the hospital.  After a bit of this back and forth, the whole boat got angry and informed the tour operator in no uncertain terms that we were NOT going on with the tour until the monkey victim is dropped off on shore so he can seek medical attention.  With no other choice, our guide steered the boat back to shore and our french friend got off.

With that business out of the way, and the entire boat making it very clear to our guide that we were not interested in seeing anymore monkeys, we started on our long river ride to Lamanai.  It was a quiet boat ride, with everyone just replaying the events in their heads, but we weren’t going to allow the monkey attack to ruin our day (except for Mr. Mustache, who I’m sure got to experience a dose of 3rd world jungle-medicine which no doubt ruined HIS day)!

After about an hour we finally arrived at the ruins of Lamanai, which sits alongside the New River.  Dr. Nutso began his tour by telling us about how awesome and superior the Mayans were, and how great the ruins are.  I was beginning to think maybe this guy IS a Mayan.  He was a very serious man and perhaps took his job a bit too serious.  We came across the first pyramid and he began his long monologue about the rich history of the place.  I was thinking, “No kidding, rich history!”  But while he was busy capturing our attention with his long diatribe, Bex and I started to notice that other tour groups were having fun climbing on the pyramids!  Surely we could stand some time away from Dr. Nutso in order to enjoy the ruins too, so we slowly backed away from the group and made our way towards the pyramid steps.

When we started our climb, Dr. Nutso must have noticed that we were no longer paying him 100% of our attention because he called up to us, “you must stay with the group!  You are not allowed to climb that yet!”  We made sure he understood how we felt about his permission, and continued our climb to the top.  Traveler’s tip: Mayan pyramids look easy to climb until you get on them and realize that they are steeper than they initially appear!  I will say that the view was awesome and we certainly got a workout from that climb!

We climbed down and rejoined our group as they headed towards the jungle, and the next pyramid site.  Our guide was feeling a bit more surly and it became clear that we had somehow angered the Mayan gods.  “Oh well, he’ll get over it.”  As we strode through the jungle, our guide kept telling stories meant to frighten the group.  He kept offering to poke some folks with a crazy “pain poker” or something, which caused whole body pain.  Basically he wanted to show up the group.  Perhaps he really was channeling some long dead Mayan, proving my suspicions! We came along a jungle vine, and our guide started daring the members of our group to swing on it.  The man had previously dared us to let him poke it with a pain stick!!  Fearing some other hidden trick, nobody from our group would volunteer.  What our guide was completely unprepared for was the fact that my wife is an aerialist!  “Jungle vine??  Danger???  Feh…”  Up went Bex, right up the vine.  When she got to the top, she inverted!  The whole group gasped in fear and appreciation at the sight, and the tour guide just stood there slack-jawed and speechless!  Traveler Tip:  Never dare an aerialist to climb or swing on something!

With our tour guide firmly put in his place, our group traveled on to see the other pyramids and sites within the Lamanai complex.  It really was impressive.  Those pyramids were HUGE!  When we finally came to the last pyramid, I was shocked by how big it was.  This thing was made almost completely solid.  My mind couldn’t even wrap around how much this thing would weigh!  I tried to get the whole thing in a single picture but that proved impossible.  Despite how steep the climb looked, there was already a large group of people climbing it.  Someone had the bright idea of installing a rope along the final bit of climb, to help people make their way up and down.  I’m no fan of heights, but Bex talked me into it so we began our climb to the top.  At about the half way point there was a ledge where we could stop and rest.  I made the mistake of looking up at the climb ahead of us, and made the command decision to chicken out!  Undeterred by my lack of bravery, Bex continued her climb all the way to the top.  I’m not kidding when I say that I could barely see her up there!

After a while, our group had returned from their climbing and we made our way back to the boat worn out and tired, and not looking forward to the long trip back.

I should mention that there are mosquitoes in the jungle.  I mean there are a LOT of mosquitos in the jungle.  Had Bex not had the brilliant idea of packing mosquito repellent, we would have been eaten alive before the tour was even half over!  Some folks did not have the same brilliant idea, and so we ended up donating a lot of repellent to other members of our group.  We used an entire can of OFF on this tour!

During the long boat, bus, and boat back to San Pedro we were left to contemplate the events and sights of the day.  We were all tired and half fried from the sun.  There was only one altercation between our tour operator and a tourist on this leg of the trip, but it was a nasty one (the tour operator groped her!) and although it was a fun trip once we got to the ruins, I think we were all glad to be done with Searious Adventures!

The weather was still windy for the next couple days, taking the possibility of any diving out of the equation, but that was ok with us.  It just gave us more time to explore the island, and I’m glad we could do it.  We saw and did so much cool stuff that there isn’t even time to write about it all!

One night while driving along the “road” headed back to our resort we saw this sign that we had seen before and wanted to check out.  So we drove our faithful Club Cart down the thin sandy path that the sign indicated until we reached what I would call the perfect setup – The Pirate Bar!  (That’s not it’s real name.  This bar is a local hangout and the owner made me promise not to tell it’s real name).  This was exactly what you envision when you think of a beach front bar!  We were greeted by a lady behind the bar who had clearly been enjoying the evening, asking us, “what can I get ya?”  Bex indicated that a margarita would be nice, so the lady started asking those around her how to make a margarita!  I’m not sure how it came up, but it turns out that this lady wasn’t the bartender, she was a patron.  The bartender was too drunk to make it to work so the patrons just fended for themselves!

We inquired as to what food they had, and we were informed that the kitchen *might* be closed but they weren’t sure.  As it turns out, the “kitchen” was the grill sitting off to the side of the bar.  There was no menu – only what got caught or cooked that day!  The owner came out and informed us that although the “kitchen” wasn’t closed, they only had pork chops.  It had been a long fun day and a pork chop sounded just right!  After a few minutes he brought out what was the best pork chop we had ever tasted!  I’m not kidding, this pork chop was amazing!

After a few beers and margs, we started meeting the locals.  We couldn’t have asked for a cooler group of people!  Bex informed the owner that it was my birthday, so the owner went inside for a second and came back with a slice of cake!  I have no idea where or how he got this cake but it too was amazing.  We were both blown away by the hospitality of this place!  It’s very hard not to tell the name of this place, but if you ask me in private I’ll give you the skinny…

We also had a good time mini-boating around the island, and just hanging out around town.  The rest of the week went by too fast and before we knew it, it was time to head back to the real world.  I have to say that of all the places we’ve been, Belize has been the best.  We can’t wait to go back next year!  We took a lot of photos, and you can see some of them HERE.