Plot Twist: I Went to Belize
When I decided to stop riding my bicycle, I didn’t have much of a plan. In fact, I didn’t have a plan at all. I just knew that I no longer wanted to ride west into the punishing wind. So I defected to my parents’ house in Omaha where I spent two restless weeks alternately lying on the couch binge-watching Netflix, lying on the couch devouring A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and lying on the couch bemoaning my boredom.
I spent a lot of time wondering if I’d made the right decision when I chose to stop riding—and also a lot of time eating Twizzlers and looking up plane ticket prices to every foreign city I could name. Most of them were too expensive to consider, but there was one destination that fell within the affordable range: Belize City. I was surprised to discover that I could fly round trip to Belize City for less than the cost of a round trip ticket to Los Angeles. I’d never even considered Belize as a potential destination before finding it on Kayak’s Explore tool, but a few days sitting on a Caribbean beach sounded good to me.
I sent out a group text to see if anyone wanted to tag along and was doubly surprised when my brother John said yes. So on Friday, we booked flights. On Sunday, I hitched a ride back to St. Louis with my brother Luke and his girlfriend Sara, who had come up to Omaha for a friend’s engagement party. On Monday, we booked accommodations. And on Tuesday, we were in Belize.
Day 1: St. Louis to Belize City
When I initially broached the subject of traveling to Belize and John agreed to go, he immediately said that his only requirement for the trip was that he get to see some Mayan ruins. I knew next to nothing about Mayan history, and I didn’t even realize that there were Mayan ruins in Belize. John did some research and decided that he wanted to see the ruins at Tikal, which is just across the border in Guatemala.
Our flight left St. Louis at 5:45am and after a quick layover in Dallas, we landed in Belize City at 11:30am with the intention of finding our way to the city of San Ignacio by evening. We took a taxi from the airport to the bus station and just a moment after we entered the station, a school bus pulled up to the gate, a man leaned out and yelled “San Ignacio!”, and suddenly a throng of people surrounded the bus, clamoring for the door. We squeezed our way on board, found the last two open seats, and settled in for the two-and-a-half hour ride to San Ignacio.
On the way there, the woman next to me told me about Belize’s trouble with gang violence, including a recent murder in which a young woman was stabbed to death. She also told me about the simmering tension between Belize and Guatemala. Apparently, Guatemala is claiming Belize’s Cayo district as its own and threatening to invade. Oh and also, according to my seatmate, all of the drugs in Belize come from the porous Guatemalan border.
The gist of our conversation was this: “Welcome to Belize! Home of murderous gangs! Hard drugs! A corrupt police force! An even more corrupt government! Extreme poverty! Potential violent foreign invasions! Oh and our beaches are nice and we make really good cole slaw. Enjoy your stay!” (She was actually quite nice, if a tad pessimistic.)
We arrived in San Ignacio mid-afternoon and wandered our way over to our hostel where we checked in and dropped our bags before heading out to find some food. At a small snack shop, I ordered panades (Belizean empanadas, 3 for 50¢) and John got a taco and a burrito ($3 total). Upon finishing, we walked back to the hostel and took much-needed naps.
The rest of the first day was pretty low-key. I read for a little bit and John journaled, and then we went out for supper at a Belizean-Indian restaurant where I ordered the Belizean chicken special (roast chicken, rice, beans, cole slaw) and John ordered escabeche (onion soup with chicken and jalapenos). Both were delicious.
Day 2: San Ignacio to Tikal
Our plans for day two were simple: find our way to Tikal and spend the afternoon exploring the ruins. Though there are many tour operations in San Ignacio that offer tours of Tikal, the day tours were too short for our taste and the overnights were too expensive. So we opted to find our own way into the park. After asking pretty much everyone we came across if they knew how to get to Tikal, we decided to take a taxi to the Guatemalan border where we would walk across and then find a collectivo (public bus) to take us to Tikal.
The first part went pretty smoothly. After exchanging our Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzales with some men in the parking lot of the customs office, we walked across the border, got our passports stamped, and paid our exit fees. Immediately upon entering Guatemala, we were confronted by several taxi drivers who wanted our business. We tried to brush them off, saying we were going to take the collectivo, but after speaking to one of them about where the collectivo stopped and how much it would cost, we realized it would just be more efficient to take a taxi to Tikal. So we climbed in Mario’s beat up old Camry and off we went.
After a couple of hours of watching the Guatemalan countryside fly by, we arrived in Tikal National Park where Mario dropped us at the Tikal Inn. He offered to come pick us up the following morning, but we turned his offer down (a decision we would later come to regret) and headed into the hotel. After checking in and dropping our bags, we headed over to the park to explore the Mayan ruins.
From the park entrance, it’s a short hike through the rainforest to the first set of ruins: the Great Plaza, which contains two large temples and two acropolises (acropoli?). Visitors aren’t allowed to climb the temples, but we were allowed to climb and wander through the acropolises, so that’s what we did. The signage in the park is limited and doesn’t offer much in the way of historical information, but we learned from some other tourists that the larger temple was built for a king and the smaller for his queen.
We spent the afternoon wandering through the park exploring the ruins, and even though we didn’t have a guide or much information about what we were looking at, it was still pretty amazing to see structures that were built two thousand years ago. Many of the ruins in Tikal have not yet been excavated and we quickly learned that often what looks like a hill is actually a structure of some kind, buried beneath hundreds of years of jungle growth. We left the park eager to learn more about Mayan history and culture.
Day 3: Tikal to Caye Caulker
We woke up at 3:30am for a guided sunrise tour of the park—our main reason for staying overnight at Tikal. After a cup of coffee, we set off into the dark jungle following the light of our guide’s iPhone flashlight. As we stopped at the park entrance, our guide pointed out a tarantula in the dirt by the steps. Another guest asked if its bite was poisonous, but our guide assured us that it would just induce a headache and a fever—nothing to worry about. The tarantula scurried under the steps, and we continued on into the jungle.
As we passed through the gate, our guide (who never gave us his name) told us that if we saw yellow eyes, that was a deer. Green eyes indicated a jaguar. “If you see green eyes, don’t run. Because that might be the last time you run,” our guide said. And with that ominous warning, we continued forward.
After ten minutes, a sudden loud growl echoed through the rainforest. For a second, I was certain that a jaguar attack was imminent and we were all about to die a very violent death, but our guide didn’t seem worried or slow his pace. When the growl stopped he smiled and said, “howler monkeys.” Let me tell you, the call of the howler monkey sounds absolutely nothing like what you would expect a monkey to sound like. The males have a deep, impossibly loud guttural howl that they do to warn off other alphas. Walking through the dark jungle listening to the monkeys call back and forth was a pretty amazing experience and definitely worth the trouble of getting to Tikal.
When we arrived at the Great Plaza, our guide told us that the word Tikal means “place of the voices” in the Mayan language. As we stood in the middle of the plaza between the two temples, he clapped his hands loudly to demonstrate the plaza’s echo. A higher echo from the queen’s temple was quickly followed by a lower note from the king’s. Pretty neat.
We arrived at Temple IV, the largest temple at Tikal, just before sunrise and ascended the wooden staircase to the top where we sat in silence with a hundred other tourists and watched as the sun rose over the jungle. (Fun fact: this same view of Tikal made a brief appearance in Star Wars.)
As we made our way back to the Great Plaza, our guide told us that the fragrant frijoles smell that permeated the forest came not from the hotel’s kitchen but from the tropical cedar tree. We also spotted a variety of wildlife, including a family of coati searching for spiders and a solitary anteater high up in a tree. No jaguars though. Shucks.
After the tour, we packed up and walked out to the parking lot, hoping to find a bus that would take us back to the Belizean border. We’d asked around the day before at our inn and another one next door about transportation options, but both inns wanted to charge us $90 each for a bus ride to the border city of Melchor, an amount neither of us were willing to pay. After wandering through the parking lot looking lost, a taxi driver approached us and John negotiated a ride for $55 for the both of us. It was just the two of us in the air-conditioned comfort of his eighteen-seater van for the ride back to the border, which took only an hour and a half. Turns out you can go much faster when you’re not driving an ancient battered Camry.
After we crossed the border and took a taxi back into San Ignacio (15 minutes), we hopped on a bus back to Belize City (2.5 hours) where we took another taxi (10 minutes) to the water taxi depot where we hopped on the water taxi (45 minutes) to the island of Caye Caulker. We had a 4pm debriefing meeting at the tour company with whom we would spend the next three days on a catamaran, and we walked up to their office at exactly 4pm.
After the meeting, we walked to our hotel on the other side of the island and checked in. I had hoped to spend some time exploring Caye Caulker but by the time we dropped our bags, it was 6pm, sunset was imminent, and I was starving. I abandoned my ideas of swimming at the Split and we walked back to the main area of town to find dinner. John ordered the seafood ceviche and red snapper while I opted for a quesadilla. Ordinarily, I try to make more of an effort to eat authentic local food, but I was exhausted from what felt like three full days of non-stop travel and I just wanted to eat something comforting and cheesy.
To be honest, I was pretty grumpy as well. When I initially started planning my trip to Belize, I’d imagined a lazy week hanging in a hammock on Caye Caulker. But the trip to Tikal took up three days and now we had no time to explore the island. Although I was glad to have seen the Mayan ruins, I was also annoyed at all the time we’d wasted in taxis and buses. After spending the previous two months in constant movement on my bike tour, I was ready for some stationary adventure and yet, once again, I found myself sleeping in a different place each night.
There’s a specific mentality—a uniquely American mentality, I think—that tells us we need to try to squeeze the most out of the time we have. From the time we are young, every moment in our lives is scheduled. Even free time should be spent being productive in some manner, whether it be volunteering, working on a side project, or writing the next great American novel. We allow ourselves very little time to just be.
When you exist in a culture that reveres hyper-productivity, it’s easy to bring that mentality on vacation as well. The world is so big and there are so many things to see and do and taste and experience, why wouldn’t you try to do them all? Right now? Sometimes it can feel like if you aren’t taking advantage of every opportunity available to you, you’re guilty of being lazy. And there is no worse crime in American culture than being lazy. The American dream is about hard work and grit and bootstraps and forward motion, not lying in a hammock staring at palm trees for days on end.
All of this is to say that in Belize I realized how critical it is for me not to over-schedule my time. It’s okay to step outside the productivity hyperloop once in awhile. To move slower, put away screens, do nothing, simply be in the moment.
Day 4: Caye Caulker to Rendezvous Caye
After eating breakfast at a restaurant on the beach and getting fitted for snorkel gear, we boarded the Ragga Empress, a 38-foot catamaran upon which we would spend the next three days sailing south through the Caribbean. In the course of my research, I’d read a couple of blog posts that gave the tour rave reviews, so I sent an email to Raggamuffin Tours to see if we could book spots. I initially got a reply saying the Friday tour was full, but then the afternoon before we flew out of St. Louis, I got another email saying that two spots had just opened up, would we like them? I immediately sent a reply, “Yes please!”
Captain Shane gave us a quick rundown of the rules of the boat and then we were off, sailing through water so blue it looked fake. There were twenty three guests and four crew members, which sounds like a lot, but the boat offered plenty of space for everyone to stretch out. After a couple hours of sailing, we anchored at our first snorkel spot on Belize’s Barrier Reef. Neither John nor I had ever snorkeled, so we were both a little nervous, but after a quick lesson from Shane on how to wear our masks, we jumped in.
The water was perfectly clear and warm, and we immediately saw two great big spotted eagle rays flying near the ocean floor. As we swam along, Shane pointed out different species of fish and coral, taking extra care to point out the fire coral (which, if touched, stings “so bad so bad so bad” according to Shane). He spotted a green moray eel hiding in the reef, which I couldn’t distinguish from its surroundings, and also speared a barracuda, which escaped.
Towards the end of our swim, Shane suddenly popped his head out of the water and started yelling at us to swim around the reef to come look at something. I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but when we all swam over to where he was, we saw the source of the commotion. A giant sea turtle! It floated in the middle of our circle for a few moments before swimming away into the blue.
That being my first snorkeling experience, I wasn’t sure how it rated but when we climbed back on the boat, we were told that that was about as good as it gets. Which proved to be true, as we didn’t see any other turtles or rays on our subsequent swims.
That night, we camped on Rendezvous Caye, a sandy island about the size of a soccer field. It had a couple of buildings containing restrooms and the caretaker’s living quarters, as well as several open-air thatched-roof huts, and that was it. The night was hot and no one slept very well, but we were on a picture-perfect uninhabited Caribbean island, so who cares?
Day 5: Rendezvous Caye to Ragga Caye
In the morning, we packed up our tents, ate a delicious breakfast prepared by our very hard-working chef Jacob, and hopped back on the Ragga Empress. I spent most of our sailing time simply lying on the deck or on the net above the water at the front of the boat, doing absolutely nothing. It was perfect.
We stopped to snorkel a couple of times and at one point, John and I accidentally swam too close to the shore of an island and found ourselves in waist-deep water surrounded by coral. After a tense few moments, we eventually found our way to deeper water and back to the boat. Although it was fun to snorkel in the turquoise blue waters, nothing quite lived up to the sights of our first snorkel stop.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with naps, snacks, and the ubiquitous shouts from Captain Shaq of “rum punch!” and “refill!”. Raggamuffin Tours takes their rum punch seriously. (And yes, I drank it. It was delicious.)
We were greeted on Ragga Caye by an energetic dog named Lassie and her owner, Fernando, the caretaker of the island. Ragga Caye was slightly larger than Rendezvous Caye and featured three over-water cabanas, an over-water dining hall, a swimming beach, kayaks, and lots of palm trees. After setting up our tents, we all headed to the dining hall to take advantage of the wifi. I posted one photo and left my phone to charge, preferring to enjoy the scenery rather than stare at a screen. I found a hammock and settled in while we waited for the crew to prepare dinner.
After the sun went down, everyone congregated on the deck of the dining hall. At one point, as we were chatting, I noticed a flash of bright blue in the corner of my eye and looked down at the water to see bioluminescent creatures floating just below the deck. It was difficult to see what exactly they were so we were joking that they were radioactive nuclear waste fish, but Shane told us they were tiny, tiny creatures. Judging by a quick Google search, I’m pretty sure he meant they were algae.
For supper, we ate fresh-caught barracuda, lobster, coconut rice, pasta, and salad and for dessert, Jacob made a special treat of caramel flan. That night was a little cooler and everyone slept better.
Day 6: Ragga Caye to Belize City
After breakfast, we headed out on the Ragga Empress to do a little more snorkeling and see if we could spot some manatees. Guided by the eagle eyes of Captains Chris, Shane, and Shaq, we were able to see a few different manatees. Evidently, they’re quite shy and sensitive to noise, so we spent about half an hour drifting through the water and speaking softly, hoping to spot one. A few of them came up to the surface for air, and one of them even flipped her tail at us as she dove back down.
After that, we snorkeled for the last time at South Water Caye, which was so picture-perfect, it looked unreal. Then it was back to Ragga Caye for lunch after which we bid our trusty crew goodbye and boarded a speedboat, which took us to Dangriga on the mainland.
Originally, the tour was supposed to end in Placencia so several guests had booked accommodations there before we were told about the change in course. The company arranged transportation for those guests to Placencia, but when we landed in Dangriga, the pre-arranged van wasn’t there. Instead there were three taxis, each of which cost $175, which was more than triple the money that Jacob had been given to pay the van. The rest of us were planning to follow Jacob to the bus station where we would find a bus to Belize City, but after waiting for 45 minutes for the situation to be resolved, we decided to set out on our own.
We heard later that the van eventually showed up, an hour and a half late, but by that time two groups had already left in the other taxis, preferring to pay the $175 rather than wait around for a van that might never show up. This was the only snafu in an otherwise perfect tour. I would highly recommend Raggamuffin Tours to anyone planning a trip to Belize.
After some confusion at the bus station regarding which buses went where and when, we were all finally able to board a bus to Belize City. After a two-and-a-half hour bus ride and short taxi ride, John and I arrived at our hotel at about 8pm, grateful for air conditioning, comfortable beds, and clean showers.
Day 7: Belize City to Miami
The previous night, John had arranged for our taxi driver, Andy, to pick us up in the morning to take us to the airport. We hopped in his car and not one minute after exiting the hotel gate, a loud clunk clunk clunk issued from underneath the hood. “Shit,” Andy said. “Shit shit shit.” Something in the engine had slipped and although he knew how to fix it, it would take time and he didn’t want to waste ours. So he called a friend with a van who came to pick us up, and Andy left his car on the side of the road and drove us to the airport in the van instead.
We landed in Miami in the early afternoon and after unsuccessfully trying to summon an Uber pool, took the bus to South Beach where we checked into a hostel and then set out to explore. For some reason, I had an image of Miami in my mind as a sleazy sort of place, but I was surprised at how beautiful it was. The beach was massive and very well-kept and the art deco buildings were gorgeous. Of course, there were also a million tourists and dozens upon dozens of hotels catering to said tourists, but I wouldn’t have minded a few extra days there.
That night, we ate supper at a Cuban restaurant. We were seated around 9pm, but due to some trouble with a broken fryer in the kitchen, our food didn’t arrive until after 10pm—well after all of the tables around us had turned over. As a result, the manager comped our entire meal and even gave us dessert, too. Even though the staff was nice about it, after a week of non-stop movement, I really just wanted to eat and go back to the hostel and crash.
Day 8: Miami to St. Louis
In the morning, we found breakfast at a popular Italian bakery and then wandered down to the beach. We had just enough time to visit the Art Deco Museum (where I learned that art deco was in part inspired by Mayan architecture) before catching our flight back to St. Louis.
It was an exhausting whirlwind trip, but definitely worth it. I never thought I would go to Belize (or Guatemala!) or snorkel in the Caribbean or camp on an uninhabited island or climb Mayan ruins. I certainly didn’t expect to do any of that this summer. Cheers to spontaneous trips abroad!