Coral Islands Tour by Islands Expeditions in Belize
Bengül and I got into the cab at 4:00 am for the international airport. It was one of our last minute vacation plannings. We had decided to go somewhere warm, wherever that was. Destination Belize City. Due to tightened security there was a huge line-up at the U.S. border check-in. The security personnel starts their shift at 5:00 am. We stood there watching them passing by Tim Horton’s coffee mug in their hands. We were lucky to be more or less in the middle of the line. It didn’t take too long to go through the check compared to the early days after the September 11th.
Our flight was quiet and smooth. They don’t serve any meals for economy class anymore, so we only had pretzels and juice. We arrived at Miami to connect to the next flight to Belize City. We passed through the U.S. security again. Both flights were with American Airlines. We arrived at the tiny Belize City airport around 12:30 am. Our hotel room was booked at Biltmore Plaza (one of the best in the city, later we’ve learned).
After an hour or so of settling to our room, we looked for things to do for the next two days before we meet with the tour group. We decided to spend the rest of the day in downtown and also booked a guided tour to a place called Lamanai for the next day.
Downtown looked quite barren. There was a place called ‘Tourist Village’ which appeared to be under renovation as we have walked in. According to the guide book and people we have talked, Belize City used to be not very safe, but apparently improved. There were streets that were not recommended after dark. We had a late lunch at Smokey Mermaid, tasting local beer Belikin. The Tourist Village was basically catering to the cruise ship people paying their daily visit by boats from their far ashore anchored vessels.
The hotel was about three miles north of the city, so we decided to walk back rather then hiring a cab. It took us more than an hour and a half. We saw the university building along the way.
We slept early and had a quick breakfast at the hotel next morning before joining a group for the tour to Lamanai at 8:15. The tour guide was Mario from Discovery Expeditions, an interesting Mayan-looking guy. He entertained us with his stories through the one-hour bus trip to the start of the actual tour. We learned about the “sleeping police”, which is a name they use for the speed bumps scattered along the highway.
We had another hour of a boat trip down the New River to the Lamanai city remains. Mario and his young assistant tried to spot various wild lives along the way: crocodiles, birds, trees.
We arrived at Lamanai at lunch time. We had not ordered for vegetarian meals, so Bengül ended up eating two rice dishes. The next two hours, we hiked through the site, climbed up one of the temples which was 272 feet high. A Royal Ontario Museum archeologist had discovered the site around 1960s.
There was a unique Mayan mask sculpture on one of the temples (called N9-56), covered with a plastic roof to protect it from the elements. Its nose was eroded due to rain. Mario told us alot about the Mayan history as archeologists have discovered. One can say that Mayans had some kind of an obsession with astronomical cycles and calendars. Mario also told us about the coming end of the 52,000 year cycle (13 baktun) according to Mayan calculations, which is around December 21st, 2012.
We were back at the hotel at 5pm. We tested the dining room in the hotel called Victoria House, which is apparently a very famous place. Before going to bed, we rented a car for the next day, to go to another ancient Mayan site named Altun Ha.
We were picked up by a guy from the car rental company and went to their office to sign the papers. Grey clouds were gathering in the sky, but the guy said, “No, no…” when I asked if rain is coming soon. Sure enough, as soon as we began to drive it started to rain. The road to Altun Ha gets bad after 20 miles of smooth ride on the new highway. The old one was a single lane road, with potholes and almost disappearing asphalt. We kept giving way to the opposing traffic by driving on the shoulders. We arrived before the cruise ships did and had the whole site to us for almost an hour. We declined the offer to get a tour by a local guide and walked around by ourselves. There was no written information around, so we ended up just walking, learning the history later from the books.
There was a rudimentary map showing another set of remains, which seemed to be farther away. We tried to find it hiking on a narrow path in the thick jungle, but we could only made it to a farm house and went back to our car after trying several routes. Most cruise buses arrived just as we were leaving, which was a good thing, because we met a few on the way back, realizing what it means to be on a single lane opposing a bus.
We had lots of time with the car, so we decided to go to somewhere else, the Belize Zoo. We drove for another hour after arriving to intersection where there is a short-cut to the western highway from northern one. On the intersection, we were stopped by a policeman, and asked where we were going. On all entrances to the city, there were police checkpoints like this that you have to stop and give a node to the policeman standing beside the road. They either wave you right away or ask a couple of questions. I suppose it’s a good thing. The connection to the western highway was amazingly in good condition. We read on a commemorate plate that World Bank financed the construction. I don’t know why.
The zoo was very small but very rewarding. We saw puma, jaguar, crocodile, keel-billed toucan, eagle, spider monkey, tapir, etc.
We drove back to Belize City and dropped the car and they gave us a ride to the municipal airport, where we were to catch a flight to Dangriga (Stan Creek) to meet the group. This is the first time we were on a small propeller plane. It was a 15 min flight. A taxi cab met us at the airport and took us to the hotel where we met other guests. They were: Victor and Dimitri from Toronto, Courtney and Elaine from New York, Linda from Calgary, Lisa and Felicia from California, David from Massachusetts. One of our guides was Andrew; the other Omar was on the island waiting for us. The hotel was not in good condition, but we were going to spend only one night here and next day is the day 1 of our kayaking trip. The tour manager Denver gave us a talk on the roof and we had dinner and a little drumming show before we went to our beds. We danced with the local Garifuna drummers and children.
The day started with rain. We had breakfast on a local café before packing and going to the boat that will take us to an island. We have packed our raincoats in, so we had a little bit of frustrating moments until we found our gear among the same colored dry-bags. The boat ride was choppy and wet, but we arrived safely on the island named Garbutt’s Caye, with already pitched tents. We met Omar, a local, which will guide us together with Andrew and catch fish for dinner.
We got our paddling gear spent rest of the day kayaking around the caye which was surrounded by mangrove islands.
Just before dinner, three more guests arrived in a motor boat, Kevin and Nancy from Toronto, Linda from Calgary. Kevin and Nancy were doing the Jaguar Expedition and they had just completed a river trip through the jungle.
The day began windy. After about four hours we arrived to a resort on the Tobacco Range, which is actually very close to the coral reef area. It had a small bar and a number of cabin lodges. We had our lunch and did some snorkeling afterwards. We saw lots of colorful tropical fishes, and a huge dotted ray.
We paddled to our actual camp site, Coco Plum, arriving just after sunset. One of the islands we passed along the way was owned by the famous Belizean sauce maker Marie Sharp. Another interesting one on the way was an island called Man-o-war, which was a bird sanctuary and covered with tall trees, home to hundreds of frigate birds, and other wildlife. We decided to come back here and have a look tomorrow.
Omar dived for food for us on the way. We pinched our tents in dark and had delicious conch fritters for dinner.
Today was a resting day. The wind was blowing from the wrong direction, so our guides decided to shift around the schedule. In the morning we paddled to a coral area and did some snorkelling. Among lots of colorful fish and coral, we spotted a shark sleeping in a tire at the bottom. After lunch, we went to Man-o-war Island to see the frigates. According to Andrew, the island is home to boa constrictors, and other wild life, and was declared as a nature reserve.
Frigate birds made this island their home and they have always been returning for nesting, even after devastating hurricanes. Male frigate birds have a red throat which they inflate and use it to make a sound to attract females. It’s not exactly known why these birds prefer here so much. One idea is that high trees on the island, in contrast with surronding islands with low vegatation is attracting them. Interestingly, the reason why the trees are so high is also being explained by the existence of birds!
After Man-o-war Island, we paddled to the resort on the other island that was once connected to ours. After a hurricane, a shallow opening had appeared, splitting the island into two. We sat down for a while on the bar, had some drinks and relaxed.
We had excellent fish for dinner, prepared by Omar.
On the last day of the year, we are headed to the Blue Ground Range. We will come back to Coco Plum tomorrow. We paddled about three hours and arrived at the range, welcomed by a black dog and a fisherman. The island was just large enough for our group.
We spent a couple of hours in our tent because of the rain. Omar showed us how he gets the conch out of its shell. He cracks a whole at the side of the tip of the shell with a hammer, and cuts the muscle that attaches the conch to the shell, and then drags the conch out easily, tossing the shell to a big pile of old shells.
You wouldn’t think its edible, but conch soup is delicious. We celebrated New Year at 8pm (according to Iceland time !), sitting around a camp fire, which was very difficult to start off because of the humid environment. We had cake, wine and we lasted until about ten o’clock, which was very late, in terms of Caribbean standards.
We left the black dog and paddled a bit south to do some more snorkeling. We headed back north, running into another Island Expedition group. We gave them some of our extra veggies and fruits.
(Photo by Victor Graziano)
At lunch time, we happened to be around a shallow area, so we just stopped and Omar and Andrew pitched the table right in the middle of the sea, and we had lunch.
(Photo by Victor Graziano)
The way to the Coco Plum was a little bit rough and windy. It was rainy and getting dark when we arrived to the island. As a reward, we had fried plantains for dessert.
Sailing day! The last paddling day of our trip, we had some wind and our guides decided to put up the sales. It started off nicely, but then the wind changed its direction a bit and it was almost impossible to go north where we are headed. After about an hour, almost one third of the way, we had to put down our sales and started paddling. The wind and waves were coming from north-east. After about two hours, we could see Dangriga, but it seemed that we were not getting any closer. After two more hours of painful paddling, at 3pm. we made it to the shore where we were met by Island Expeditions staff. We changed our clothes, had a quick lunch, waived goodbye to Kevin, Nancy and Linda. We were ready to be taken to TEC (Tropical Education Center) between Belize City and Belmopan. The bus trip took about 2.5 hours and we arrived at the TEC just after sunset. We almost ran to the showers. After dinner in the TEC, we took a guided night tour in Belize Zoo.
TEC offers bungalow style cabins with shared baths for accommodation. Rooms are very simple but comfortable. We had a wonderful sleep in cushy mattress beds.
It’s caving day! After early breakfast, the bus took us to the point where we met two jeeps with guides. We traveled a muddy road to the edge of Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. Carlos, the guide, led us through a 45min jungle hike to the entrance of the cave. It is called Actun Tunichil Muknal and is a sacred Mayan site.
We donned our helmets with flashlights, put our stuff in dry bags and followed Carlos into the cave. We got all wet, swimming through the tunnels.
The entrance of the cave was in deep running water which we had to swim. Luckily, it was warm.
There were lots of artifacts, most of them ceramic pots and skeleton remains. One of them was a complete skeleton, belonging to a woman. Carlos was very nervous guiding us through the site, always telling us to stay on the trail, not to touch or step on an artifact. He showed us a baby skull, with a broken jaw. Apparently, it was accidentally stepped on by a tourist when a guide allowed them to see it closer.
It was interesting to watch all the formations around the cave, product of hundreds and thousands of years of accumulation of calcium carried by droplets of water.
We spent more than two hours in. We got outside following the same path. After having a quick bite, we hiked back to the vehicles. The rivers that we passed earlier were a little higher now because of the rain, but it wasn’t a too much problem. The jeeps really struggled getting us out of the muddy road. Ours broke down in the middle of the road. The other one came back and took us out in two shuttles. Local children watched us while we were waiting. We cleaned up at the TEC and after dinner, we went to a local bar called Amigo’s, which was almost closed at 8 o’clock when we got there.
Breakfast was at 7am. We departed TEC at 8:30 and left Linda and Lisa on Western Highway, where they were picked up by the local bus and continued their trip. We drove to Belize City, dropping Victor and Dimitri at the Municipal airport where they were to board a plane to Ambergris Cays. David and Felicia went to the Biltmore Plaza. Last, we were dropped at Hotel Mopan.
The hotel was under renovation, but was clean and tidy. No TV, no phones, but there was an air conditioner which was nice. The weather was very humid and hot. We walked downtown, but since it was Sunday, everything was closed. We took a boat ride to Cay Caulker, which was very nice.
From our guide book, we found a local café, Coco Plum Gardens, which was also very interesting. Its owner was a gentleman from Oslo, Norway, arrived here fifteen years ago with his son, now married, owns the café and makes great cappuccino.
The boat ride from Cay Caulker back to Belize City was entertaining. We were almost left out of the boat. Although everyone seemed to have tickets, there were just too many people for the tiny boat. Luckily, Bengül got in well before me, and I squeezed between a guy and a child just in time. A fight was about to break as one man was demanding a seat from the captain waving his ticket and there weren’t any. At the end, one lady exchanged seats of her two children for money and everything settled. I counted about 75 people on board. It was hilarious, when the boat captain was changed in the middle of the ride, and a huge guy, maybe 300 lbs, stepped in from another boat, scaring the hell out of us.
This morning we spent quite a bit of time to find a place to have breakfast. We ended up in the café of Radisson Hotel, which is, I think, the largest hotel in town. We spent some time around walking, purchasing some souvenir hot sauce and got into a taxi, heading for the airport, back home.
© Text and photos by Bengül & Murat unless otherwise noted.