A January 2003 trip
to San Ignacio by ShannonBrooke
Quote: In January 2003, my partner and I spent one week in the jungles of Belize, with a side-trip to Tikal in Guatemala. In that time, Belize worked its spell on me. I will definitely be back.
The loveliest thing about Belize, pardon the cliche, is the people. They are not out to make a quick buck off of you, and it feels as if you are friends with your tour guides, waitresses, and hotel staff. People wave to you as you walk down the street, out of pure friendliness. You are treated like just another human being, despite your differences. Belizeans will talk about their lives, and there is a sense that even in this tourist town, life would go on without the tourists.
Don''t forget your DEET. You won''t feel the mosquitos biting you, but you''ll be covered in bites by the end of your trip if you don''t.
The Belizean dollar is set at 1/2 an American dollar. You can often use your American dollars, but remember that is actually . It''s very easy to make change here.
The Batty''s and Novelos bus service offer two options. The regular bus makes many stops. The air-conditioned express makes fewer stops.
Contact Lenny Wragg at the Aguada for transfers. He drives frequently to pick up Aguada guests, and is happy to add in some extra riders. It was in early 2003.
You can walk around San Ignacio. Walking is not the best way to get around. Read on.
Transportation by Group Tour
To get to remote sites, join a tour. Roads are bad and require a truck. The tours know where they are going and they are experienced at driving in all conditions, even rivers!
Taxis and Busses
Take a bus or a taxi to nearby attractions like Xunantunich. Buses aren''t always timely, so you can get a taxi. Taxis are a great way to find out more about the area. Our taxi driver recommended Sanny''s, a seafood restaurant.
That's not to say that you couldn't. Not only does the Aguada have its own restaurant and bar, it has Lenny. Lenny is the hotel manager and can arrange any kind of tours you want for no extra cost. He can even arrange a few days out at the cayes --something we plan to take advantage of next time.
The Aguada is a very inexpensive hotel by US standards, but it doesn't lack any of the amenities. Air-conditioning, hot water, and 24-hour electricity are just some of the amenities --and in Belize, this is something to write home about. The staff will do your laundry, and you can check your e-mail. One way that they won us over, was by changing us to a larger room during our stay without charging us more money for it. We didn't even have to ask --they suggested we might like a larger room.
Of course, I must mention their menagerie. In their backyard, I counted one horse, five rottweiler puppies, one bunny rabbit, and countless iguanas. It was like having our own zoo. Because the dogs do not come inside the hotel, my allergies were not affected.
Try to stay in one of the upstairs rooms.
This is a great family hotel that has won a place in my heart.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 25, 2003
P.O. Box 133
San Ignacio, Belize
The chef used to work for some of the fanciest restaurants in the Caribbean, and now he brings his expertise to San Ignacio. His fish dishes are delectable, although his chicken dishes are only mediocre. Best of all, this fine dining experience is comparatively inexpensive to similar fare in the States.
The chef and the waitstaff were incredibly sweet, and we ended up chatting with the chef after dinner, a common occurence in Belizean restaurants.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 25, 2003
San Ignacio, Belize
Restaurant | "Hannah''s"
Hannah''s is a very small restaurant. We were lucky enough to get the last seat, a minute table by an open window. The restaurant was packed to the brim with other travellers.
The owners previously lived in the United States. One of the cooks - the husband - is from Africa while the wife is Japanese. After our meal, the owner came out to talk to us. They told us about starting their business in San Ignacio, how the first year they had been surprised by the various bug infestations and the rainy season.
In contrast to their origins, the food is Southeast Asian and Indian. We enjoyed a delicioius curry here, along with a yogurt shake. The menu was huge, several pages long. Hannah''s offers many vegetarian items.
Everyone we met was raving about this place, and it lived up to our expectations.
5 Burns Avenue
San Ignacio, Belize
I''ve never had Sri Lankan food before, so I can''t say if it was authentic. It reminded me of a combination between Indian and Creole food. In particular, there was a dish that reminded me of jambalaya, savory rice packed with meat and onions. I also had a chicken curry. We were stuffed!
January brings delightfully cool weather to Belize, and we enjoyed sitting outside in Serendib''s courtyard. Christmas lights and plastic tables with umbrellas kept a festive outdoor scene.
Our waiter was incredibly friendly. He seemed very happy that we wanted to try Sri Lankan cuisine. He asked us to come back the next night, but of course we wanted to try some of the other restaurants in town. Serendib is on my list of restaurants to revisit next time I''m in Belize.
Serendib also seemed popular with locals. We were seated next to large Belizean family. The restaurant was completely full inside, and there were few empty tables in the garden.
27 Burns Avenue
San Ignacio, Belize
Attraction | "Cave-Canoing"
We were picked up in a large pickup truck. It had a metal framework over the bed, which is where we joined some other travellers.
This truck went over a number of dirt roads. We even had to get off the back of the truck and walk up hills. We drove through a river, just like an adventure movie. We saw a huge snake on the way --it had been tied up by some workers by the side of the road. Despite my love of reptiles, I resisted the guide''s offer to put it around my neck.
On the long ride there, we also saw a Mennonite community. It was very much like an Amish community, only I''m used to seeing these people in the farms of Pennsylvania, not the jungles of Belize! They were driving in a horse and buggy over the rutted dirt road, and it actually looked like the buggy might be able to handle it better than the truck we were in.
When we got there, we walked for a bit. We rejected the life-jackets as the water is shallow, and got into the canoes. I gave Alli the front seat, so that she can take pictures, and then, as it turns out, the person in the front is responsible for holding the canoes together inside the cave as well as holding the lights. My job is to connect the lights to a battery with jumper cables, as well as occasionally hold the two canoes together. I manage to snap a few pictures inside the cave.
This tour does get a bit boring once you''ve been in the cave and seen some of the broken Mayan pots and lots of stalagtites. Then you start thinking "My butt hurts" and "How much longer til we get out of here?"
The last part of the trip, after turning around, they tell you to turn out all the lights. You just sit in complete blackness. Then in the distance, you see a light. This light formed the shape of an angel or a woman, or for me, it resembled the Virgin. What you don''t realize is that you''re drifting slowly towards the cave mouth, and what you are seeing is the crack of the opening of the cave. As you draw closer, the brilliant greens of the river outside the cave are accentuated by the blackness you are leaving. The world looks so bright, and I felt so grateful for sunlight.
Barton Creek Cave
Upper Barton Creek Village
San Ignacio, Belize
Attraction | "The Ultimate Jungle Experience"
You are semi-immersed in water for most of the six-hour trip. You have to walk quite far to the remote location, trekking across three rivers. Within the cave, you are swimming, climbing, and contorting your body into strange positions to progress safely through the cave. You go in around noon and come out of the cave around 4:30, but it feels like an eternity.
Deep inside is a cavern of monstrous size, filled with gorgeous configurations of stalagtites/mites, broken pottery, rock formations that evoke Mayan gods, and the requisite human sacrificial remains. If you have a good guide, seeing this will be the best part of the trip. However, I enjoyed the process of getting to/from the cavern best.
I should note, at one point we got to where we had to climb a steel ladder up to another ledge. Up here, there is a pretty amazing sacrifice - what they call the crystal princess. She was killed here with a large stone - perhaps tied to a stick. Either they swung it into her stomach, or they held her against a wall and swung it into the small of her back. Regardless, she was laid to rest in a dancing position. It is hypothesized that she was a sacrifice to thank the gods.
Ultimate Jungle Experience
Actun Tunicil Muknal cave
San Ignacio, Belize
We travelled to Caracol with Everald. W you arrive at Caracol, he is bubbling over with information. Everald works at the site during the off-season and is also a professional archaeologist. Giving tours allows him to take summers off and work at Caracol. As a result, he knows more about Caracol than most tour guides and is on good terms with the archeologists. He can tell personal stories about excavating some of the temples that no other guide can. In fact, I learned more about archaeology at Caracol than I did at Tikal.
Caracol is definitely a work-in-progress. To protect it, they sometimes rebury the temples. Replacing the carvings with plaster is another method they have used for conservation. It looks natural, and preserves what the carvings originally looked like.
No food is available and bathroom facilities are limited to an odiferous outhouse. Since it was a long drive, I had to use the facilities. A powerbar truly "powered" me up the largest temple.
Most tours provide a lunch after seeing the temples. Afterwards, most stop in Mountain Pine Ridge, to see some caves and to swim in the natural waterfalls there.
Rio Frio and Rio On Pools
We pull off to see Rio Frio cave. This large cave is open on both ends, creating a tunnel effect.
Everald told a funny story about one time when he took a group of girls up here on a tour. They had to pee, and went off into the woods. There they are, peeing, when they realize that they are looking right into the eyes of camouflaged British Army soldiers. The soldiers, commanded to stay camouflaged, don''t say anything. The girls run screaming back to the picnic tables. This story cracked me up.
So, back in the car and we get to Rio On pools. A campy tourist location, the warning signs are written in conversationally, instead serious and official. Rio On Pools is basically a series of pools and rocks. Water cascading from pool to pool, smoothed the rocks over time, creating natural water slide. There are some Mennonites bathing here in their full-length dresses. I remove my shorts, revealing my swimsuit and wade.
What a surprise when Carlos & his tour group show up! Carlos really knew how to put a smile on my face. He showed me the best place to catch the current and slide down the rocks. I got my thrills in, and headed back to the car.
All in all, I''d say that we''d spent all week in bigger caves and bigger ruins - so the last day felt like a let-down.
San Ignacio, Belize
Attraction | "Cahal Pech"
Cahal Pech has a small visitor's center, introducing one to the history of the site and Mayan culture. It costs about US$1.25 to enter, and this money goes back into preserving the site.
There is a snack bar and a gift shop on the site.
Cahal Pech--"Place of the Ticks" in Mayan--used to be a cow pasture. Like many Mayan ruins, it was completely obscured by vegetation and earth until the 1950s. Until the late 1980s, no archaeological work was done. Now, the site has been restored and some people dislike the way it's been done. Regardless, I knew it would be the first Mayan ruin to experience, so that the grandeur of larger ruins wouldn't overcome its smalltown charm.
It was inhabited from 1000 BCE until the 9th century AD. It is a small ruin, but it is fun to explore. The pyramids are rather small. More interesting are the former noble residences, with many small rooms and corridors.
Mosquitos don't seem any more common than in the northeast in the summer, and the bites don't even itch. much. And so much for "Place of the Ticks". I didn't see one tick! This is a good thing.
Cahal Pech didn't really wow me. I guess it probably doesn't wow anyone. I still enjoyed it, but I think I may have been tired from the flight. It's my first Mayan ruin, I was thinking, and I don't even feel impressed. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 12, 2003
Cahal Pech Archaeological Site
San Ignacio, Belize
A huge cruise ship was coming through, so the guide helped us avoid them. It was neat to have one person pay total attention to just the two of us, instead of having to struggle to keep up and hear the guide as the tens of cruise-shippers had to do.
The main building at Xunantunich is this huge pyramid called El Castillo. On the way up, we got a good grounding in Mayan mythology and life. It was my first time hearing all this, so I enjoyed it. We learned about the significance of numbers. This information came back to me again and again throughout our trip, and I tried to see these ruins through Mayan eyes after getting my education from Alberto.
The view from the top is amazing. You can see into Guatemala and back to Belize. Xunantunich was not a large settlement at the time, but it does have some interesting history. For example, we learned that the Chicleros had seen a ghostly woman here --thus the placename "Stone Maiden". Also, the stories of the fall of the local government caused me to make comparisons with our own country. In this place, the king became afraid of his constituents and built a wall to separate himself from them. In time, the people abandoned him. I was wishing we could all just abandon our leader!
Alberto had a great sense of humor. At one point, as we came down from the top of El Castillo, he told a wary cruise-ship tourist who hadn't gone to the top, that we had just finished up a sacrifice. He also graciously helped these older and less physically-conditioned tourists down the side of the pyramid.
After our tour, Alberto walked us down the hill, and we got a taxi back to our hotel. He promised to e-mail us with his brand new computer.
I have changed into little sandals with a slight heel - the closest thing I have to real sandals. Alli is wearing hiking boots with her shorts & bathing suit top. Neither of our footwear was appropriate. I was wishing I had splurged on those Tevas before we left.
First you walk up and down hill through the forest. Carlos tells us stories about the plants and the wildlife, and I even eat some of the native plants. In particular, I will never forget the taste of a plant they call "Jack-Ass Bitter". For all its bitterness, it does prevent malaria and I figured that I might as well cover all my bases.
Finally, we arrive at the cave and get into the water. I gingerly lower myself into the cool water of the cave in my tube. I'm afraid I'll be swept away by the current - but that doesn't happen. I'm wearing my sandals and Alli has tied her muddy hiking boots around her neck. Later on, when Carlos mentions the wonderful smell of the forest, all Alli can smell is her boots. At any rate, we have little elastic headlamps on and definitely not the huge lights we had for the canoe trip.
In the first cave, I am very afraid. It is a low cave and becomes completely dark with exception of our lights, and I'm afraid I'll be swept off into the earth. We have to paddle with our hands and I'm getting behind. At one point, Carlos even has to hold my hand.
By the second cave, I figure out that I was sitting wrong in the tube. I shift my body weight and suddenly it all gets a lot easier. I'm getting more confident and starting to appreciate the view - particularly as we float towards the entrance and sunlight hits us again.
In some parts, you do have to get out of the tube because the water becomes too shallow. Here, we hold hands in a line to ensure that no one falls. Jessica's mom has my wrist held so hard that it doesn't feel right for a week.
Did I mention the little fishies that nibble on your butt?
For lunch, we disembark and eat a packed lunch on the side of the river. The river comes out of a cave here and enters another, and it reminds me of a pirate movie - of a treasure island with secret caves. This could be a pirate hangout. The vegetation is just so lush and the water turns turquoise and green. We sit on the pebbled beach and soak up the sunlight, while we watch another small group of tubers continue through. Carlos tells us that he likes to take his time on these tours, and well, isn't that the point? He clearly loves his job.
In the next cave, Carlos warns us that something is coming up. We can hear rushing water and I thought perhaps we're going to go over a waterfall. Carlos can tell that I'm scared, so in Spanish he whispers to me "No hay nada." He has hooked onto my tube with his feet and this comforts me.
There was a waterfall, but we simply pass by it. Not even pass under it as you would in one of those theme-park water rides (which I suddenly realize are based on experiences like this!). Just pass by it - and then you see the most beautiful cave entrance of all. We turn out our lights and just float by it, watching the ghostly light sift through the canopy. I tell myself I will remember this moment forever, and I think that I will.
I do not remember much of the next cave, but eventually we do come out of the cave sand just tube on the river. We're all hooked to each other now in one long line, but Jessica's mom keeps flailing off. At one point, she has to be saved by some spear-fishermen that were diving in the cave for catfish.
At this point, we were about to encounter rapids and we had to follow instructions carefully. Paddle forwards, paddle backwards, paddle right, paddle left. Nothing too bad but you can get swept right into a rock. I did - feet first thankfully. Also, sometimes you have to lift up your butt or it gets scraped on a log or a rock. All in all, it was pretty exciting and my confidence has been built up over the course of the trip. It's also an amazing workout for the upper body.
At the end of the day, this was the best excursion of the entire trip.
I also saw a lot of cement shells for future homes. Driving in, I thought these were the remains of homes destroyed by hurricanes. Come to find out, these are homes in progress. Often, they are right next to another house and it turns out, people will build the concrete structure first, and then save up money to finish it off.
Local and national elections were currently going on, and Lenny was telling us about local politics. The election signage is often in the local creole dialect and we found the signs very interesting. I actually learned much fascinating gossip from Lenny, in particular about the Belize Zoo and the different political parties. However, I do not feel it is appropriate to repeat here. I will say I was beginning to feel like Robert Kaplan, discussing politics with a local.
As I drive, I see so many potential National Geographic pictures. A beautiful dark-skinned girl wearing a yellow sundress is hanging out her laundry on the front lawn of her pastel pink house on stilts. A little dog runs along the road along our vehicle. The architecture is so fascinating -- lots of porches and exterior staircases, and everything done up in bright or pastel colors. There is this one graying shack with a brightly painted blue front door. I love that -- a spot of color that shows that people care.
It's not so different from the American rural south, and I'm not experiencing the usual culture shock when I visit a new country. The people look like people I'd know in America, particularly as we reach the part of the country inhabited by Spanish-speakers. The smells (fresh and green), the sounds (roosters, dogs, the music), the colors (brilliant greens, pinks, and reds -- worn both by the plants and the people). Belize is definitely intense as much as it is relaxing. Throughout my vacation, I reflect that such beauty always has its price.