“Un-Belizable”:Belize Jungle, Caves and Reef (with a stop in Tikal, Guatemala)
“Un-Belizable”: Belize Jungle, Caves and Reef (with a stop in Tikal, Guatemala)
Story and Photos by Tab Hauser
After looking at different options for our early summer family trip we picked the country of Belize. The reason for Belize was because of its diversity in activities. Our goal was to get to see the forests and caves for a few days inland and then visit Belize’s Caribbean Sea and reefs. To start our trip off we landed in Belize City Airport we were met by the staff of Chaa Creek Lodge. As part of our package we were driven to the Belize Zoo on the way to the lodge. The Belize Zoo is a small one set in a jungle like environment. They claim their animals were never bought or captured but were rescued. The exception we were told was the beautiful jaguar captured because it strayed from its normally hunting ground to the farms nearby. After an hour at the zoo we were back in the van for the 90 minute ride. Our impression was that the Belize Zoo is nice but we would not make a special trip there.
Chaa Creek Lodge Infinity Pool
Spacious Cottage At Chaa Creek Lodge
At Chaa Creek Lodge check in was quick and we were guided to our comfortable thatched roof cottages while being told about the pool and facilities as well as our “Inland 4 Night” package. Our package included food and 2 ½ days of different adventures. After getting our luggage we decided the pool looked very inviting so we jumped into its warm water while ordering colorful cocktails and snacks. That evening during our 4 course meal we picked the “Jaguars Paw-Crystal Cave” half day tour for our first adventure.
Crystal Cave At Jaguar’s Paw, Note The Sparkling White Reflection On Ceilings And Walls From Flash On Many Photos
First Adventure: Cave Tubing At Crystal Cave
The next morning after good breakfast the four of us were in the van for the 1 ½ hour ride to Jaguars Paw. This area is a main attraction for river tubing and zip lining for the cruise boats that call on Belize. We bypassed the cruisers by making a right turn away from them following our two guides. (The cruise lines do not take passengers to Crystal Cave). After being fitted with a helmet attached with an LED light, floatation vest and real truck tube we walked quickly for 5 minutes through the jungle with mosquitoes in chase. This took us to the mouth of a large cave with a river running out of it. At the cave entrance the mosquitoes disappeared when we sat in our tubes and hand paddled gently away from the entrance and the natural light. We curved deeper into the cave to the point of our head lamps being the only source of light. Along the river banks we saw the large stalactites (the formations from the ceiling), stalagmites (the formations that build up from the floor) as well as places where the two met. We also saw pretty ribbon formations on the walls and ceilings formed by thousands of years of dripping water carrying minerals. Our guide said these formations grow about one inch a century. Some of the formations were over 15 feet long! During our float we also had small bats occasionally fly over head where the height of each cavern area ranged from 20 to 100 feet. Crystal Cavern sparkled with our headlamps on its walls and ceilings. The name comes from millions of specs of pyrite that line the walls and ceilings. The cave also glistens from the droplets that stay on the walls and ceilings caused by condensation.
Low Ceiling Area
Maya Crushed Pottery On The River Banks
Our guides during our float told us about Maya rituals and sacrifices that took place here as well as the geological history of the caverns. We stopped a few times to stretch out and see pottery as well as the occasional human bones left behind. After about 90 minutes we stopped and walked up an embankment in the cavern. Here we followed the guides through some colorful and narrow rock and mineral formations that were similar to walking a maze. Floating with the current back took half the time. Near the end our guide sized us up and when we got back to the mouth of the cave changed plans. Rather than have us walk through the jungle and the mosquitoes they assisted us in climbing down some rocks and put is back into our tubes where the river branched off and picked up speed. They had us lay flat and go with the quicker current instructing us to paddle to the left avoiding the wrong fork further down. This was not only fun but refreshing as the end of this separate cave entrance formed a natural pool that none of us wanted to leave. While this was called a half day adventure we were not back until 3PM. Later that afternoon after spending an hour in the pool we borrowed a canoe and went up the river for 30 minutes that passed Chaa Creek Lodge. We had an “Un-Belizable” first day. It also thought it was special nice not sharing the cave with any other group that afternoon.
Walking Through A Maze
15 Foot Mineral Formations Dripped Down Erie Cavern Rooms. Note High Water Mark
Getting Helped To Lower Level (Photo Taken using only LED headlamp!)
Light At the Crystal Cave’s Exit
Second Adventure: A Wet Dark Hike In Actun Tunichil Muknal
Our second day adventure was going to even top the first day. In fact, the lodge recommended we do Crystal Cave the first day so that the “wow” factor will be at its peak and it was. Today we visited a cave called ATM. This stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal. Actun Tunichil Muknal has been in featured in National Geographic, IMAX and the Planet Earth series. We completely understand why after spending an amazing day here.
The Entrance and Start of Cave Hike Actun Tunichil Muknal: First Part Was the 20 Foot Swim Across Entrance
Our guide today was Juan Carlos. He told us the drive would be over 90 minutes with the last 8 miles being on a very bumpy slow going gravel road. JC as he is called told us about the Belize and area we were in. We learned there are 12,000 Amish in this country of 325,000 that sell fruit and dairy products after passing 2 men in blue shirts and suspenders selling watermelon from their horse drawn cart. On the way to Actun Tunichil Muknal JC stopped at his favorite place for tamales to give us a taste of local Belize.
We Found The Water Temperature Comfortable and The Hike Not Too Tough . The Mineral Formations All The Way Were Beautiful
After arriving at the gate entrance we had to walk 2 miles on a level path through the forest crossing the knee deep river 3 times. At the cave entrance we were given helmets with LED lamps and told to swim 25 feet from the cave entrance to where the shallower river trail starts. The trail in Actun Tunichil Muknal is in the river that runs through the cave. It can be knee to chest deep in parts. The hike through had very diverse settings and looks. The stalagmites and stalactites along with the different natural cave formations were incredible. We saw all of this only the LED lights on our helmets and JC’s big flashlight. Without this you could we could not see our hand in front of your face. The trail also had us occasionally climb over rocks and small boulders that fell a long time ago from the ceiling. JC knew the route well and would warn us of any shin damaging under water obstacles or drop off ledges to deeper areas.
These 3 Pictures Were Taken Without Camera Flash Using Only The LED Headlamps and Flashlight Giving An Idea How We Saw Things
After about a third of a mile we had to carefully climb out of the narrow river and up 20 feet using boulders as steps to another level to see crushed 900 year old Maya pottery used in ceremonies. We also came across a few skulls and bones. In this area we were told to remove our water shoes and travel in socks as to not take any chances and step in the wrong area. We continued on this upper level of the cave to an even larger and taller room.
Melissa & Daniel Hopped Up To The Next Level,
Juan Carlos Carefully Helps Maureen Old Pottery Was Strewn About This Level
Thousand Year Old Remnants Of Rituals and Human Sacrifices
Hauser Family Photo Opp At 900 Year Pottery
Melissa Hauser Spying Through
This cavern ceiling here seemed naturally sculpted over every inch. I had almost wished that we could light up this vast space with some serious light. From the end here we climbed a ladder to a third level to observe a skeleton that has been laid out for perhaps 900 years. This is skeleton is known as the Crystal Maiden because the bones are completely calcified and shine when a light is pointed on her.
Climbing To See Small Cavern Of Crystal Maiden Skeleton ,
Maureen Passed On The Ladder & Enjoyed Quiet Time Below
My Camera & With its small Flash On it Could Not Do Justice On the Naturally Sculptured Walls and Ceilings In The Upper Cavern
Our climb down from the cavern to the river required us to use extreme caution and had JC request no one talk but concentrate. He helped Maureen by squatting down in a position where she was able to use his knees as a step rather than stretch too far between boulders. Half way back Melissa requested we turn off our headlamps and walk in one section in the river in total darkness with one hand on the rock wall and another one on the person in front. Juan Carlos picked an area with no drop offs or low rocks to get hit in the head. It was a very long 30 seconds that we were totally in the blind. If you have a little bit of an adventure spirit and in decent shape put Actun Tunichil Muknal as a top destination for anyone in this area.
Cave Art Modeled By Melissa Tight Spots But Fun All The Way The Kids Took A Different Path
The Cave Entrance Juan Carlos Keeping A Watchful Eye On Us Heading Back
Day Three: Down Day At The Lodge:
Our third day at Chaa Creek we decided to stay on property and do a few things that they offer. We started with a 2 hour horseback ride through the forest and up to the tallest area on their 400 plus acres. We found the horses very clean. In fact even in the high heat neither my horse Destiny nor the stables smelled. The ride was easy and at our pace. The horses stayed one behind the other most of the way with a little trotting here and there. We could have trotted more but did not wish to. The ride took us to a place with good views in an area of Maya ruins that were not refurbished.
Me with Destiny One of the Locals Maureen on the Forest Trail
After our ride we visited the small butterfly pavilion on premises with highlight being in the screened in room with a couple of hundred of them flying around us. After this it was a fast stop at their small natural history museum and then down to the pool for the rest of the afternoon. Before dinner I did take a stroll by myself on the river walk to see what their camping area looked like. Here I saw several small cottages on stilts with half of the structure being a patio and the other half sleeping area. It looked like there were shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. During my walk I spotted or was spotted by two small foxes.
Dan Swarmed By Butterflies Laying Eggs
Dung Beetles Rolling A Piece Quickly
Chilling Out On Hammock At Cottage
Yes, There Are Bugs Around
View Over Cottage In Front Of Ours
Beautiful Infiniti Pool To Relax After Our Adventures
Dan Studying a Butterfly On His Finger
Day Four: To Tikal, Guatemala
On our last morning at Chaa Creek we were up early for the 2 ½ ride to ruins of Tikal. After 30 minutes we crossed the border into Guatemala and switched to another driver and guide. Tikal is known for one thing and that is the amazing Maya ruins. There are 4000 structures in this area dating back from 800BC to 900 AD. Of the 4000 structures 20% are excavated of which you can only really see 20% of those if you spent a full day here. As our visit here was only a half day our guide Hugo asked if we wanted him to talk more and see less or talk less and see more. With that in mind we went with the see more and had him tell us about Tikal on the ride to the park.
Temples and Structures from The Ancient City of Tikal
We covered a lot of ground from 10AM to 1:30 seeing the main temples, plazas, ball fields and large structures. Even though the temperatures hovered at 100 degrees with 100% humidity I was pleased to hear our daughter tell us that Tikal, like Egypt, Petra in Jordon and Angkor Watt in Cambodia we visited earlier were worth all this sweating. In fact this place reminded us of Angkor Watt in some ways but here temples are solid so there is nothing to walk into. It is also less ornate due to the natural decay of the place. Most structures have some collapsed ceilings and walls. We were able to visit a few semi enclosed and simple rooms.
Views Of Tikal From The Main Temple Area
We did have two favorite spots. That was the acropolis with the Grand Plaza having Temple 1 and 2 near each other. The other place was when we climbed nearly 200 feet up the easy and modern steps to Temple 4 for the view. If you saw the original Star War series one of the scenes was filmed here and only lasted less than a minute. At Temple 4 we just stared into the miles of jungle in the back ground a few taller temples in the foreground. We wish we had another hour here to go back to the Grand Plaza and just sit under a tree and marvel at the pyramids.
View From Temple 4 (Star Wars Scene (A New Hope) Was Filmed From This Spot. the view is amazing and one to savor.
We did miss two temples due to our short stay but after seeing the scale model city at the visitor’s center we were OK with that due to their longer walking distances. From the visitor center it was a little over an hour to the Flores Airport. Tropic Air runs two flights a day to Belize City in their comfortable single propeller seven passenger planes. Our connection was 25 minutes but with 7 people there is never a delay in luggage or clearing Customs again. In fact when I emailed Tropic Air I was told not to worry about it as they would hold a plane until ours arrived if necessary. The flight from Belize City was a scenic 17 minutes. (no movie or meals but you do get to sit behind the pilot to make sure he was doing a good job!)
Dan Hauser’s Last Look At One Of The Tikal’s Maya Temples
Back To Belize on Tropic Air
After four nights in the jungle at Chaa Creek with not an air conditioner to be seen within miles it was nice to be in a modern two bedroom 2 condominium with TV and internet. Mark the manager of the Phoenix was nice enough to turn the temperature down for us at my request via email when I gave him our flight number. Dinner that night was at their in house top rated Red Ginger which we were happy to say was indoors with AC also.
Day 5: Checking Out Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is two made up of the North and South Island. San Pedro is a town about a two thirds of a mile long and only 2 streets wide. It is filled with tourist shops and places to eat as well as everyday stores for the locals to shop at. Our first day here was a down day. In the morning we rented a golf cart with aggressive tires and explored part of the island for a few hours. First we went to a hotel south to Banyan Bay on reports that you can actually swim off the beach. While they have nice sand the water past 20 feet is sea grass and two shallow to swim. From there we took the cart to the North Island where Dan decided it was his turn to drive. A mile past the bridge the road gets pretty rutted so the drive is a little slower than the 20 mph top speed our cart did. Here we pulled into different hotels to see what they looked like and hoping to find a place to swim. After 4 miles we stopped at a bar, had a few mango smoothies and turned back to our condo where we settled in at the pool and then swam off the dock in the Caribbean Sea. All hotels have docks in front to swim off of. If you go late in the afternoons you may be swimming with the locals as we did. We found it strange they would simply go in with their clothes on. Boys and girls would go in with their afterschool clothes and their mom’s in dresses would simply follow sometimes holding a baby.
Our second day in Ambergris Caye had Maureen & I take a 3 hour trip to Ho Chen and Shark Alley Preserve some 4 to 5 miles from San Pedro. We did a one tank dive at Ho Chen where we saw the reef in excellent condition but nearly got sucked out of the cut there by the outgoing tide. It is supposedly an easy 28 foot dive but fighting the fast current was not fun. Our guide says that once in a while the park rangers have to pick up divers outside the reef. We only dove for 30 minutes as we exhausted fighting the current. The second stop on our 3 hour tour was Shark Alley. Snorkeling here gets you up front and personal with nurse sharks and stingrays.
Nurse Sharks and Stingrays at Shark Alley
Maureen Petting A Nurse Shark
We saw one guide from another boat bring up stingrays on his head. A large one swam up to his face as if wanted a hug. The nurse sharks also circle any new boats to the area because they know there will be food in the water. One guide got a hold of a 5 foot shark, turned it upside down which immobilize it and handed it to a 12 year girl to hold. She was in awe while the others touched its soft body gently. (Nurse sharks do not have sharp teeth and are usually bottom feeders so they do not pose any risk to people) While I may not agree with training sea life in the wild, it was an impressive site to see them interact with people. If this interaction makes people aware of these wonderful creatures to protect the environment it may do more good in the long run.
Last Full Day: Boat Trip
On our last day in Belize we opted to make it a long one. This meant taking a 2 1/2 hour boat ride to the famous Blue Hole along with 2 other stops. For divers this was a 3 tank dive while my kids and wife with an ear issue did 3 snorkel stops nearby. The Blue Hole is the only known feature of its type in the world. While it looks like a volcanic atoll one would see in the South Pacific, it is actually a cavern whose ceiling collapsed filling it in with sea water. The Blue Hole cavern was formed millions of years ago when the sea level was much lower. It was formed by rainwater filtering through the limestone eating out the insides. When the sea level was had risen the ceiling collapsed filling in this dark 430 foot hole. From the air it sticks out as perfectly dark blue circle about 1000 yards across.
Diving the blue hole is interesting but not something I would call one of my better dive sites. The profile here is deep. Amigo Divers guide masters were clear in their instructions during our dive briefing. We were to go down to 110 feet where there is a ledge. From there we go another 20 feet below this ledge and swim around the large stalactites. He said that anyone experiencing nitrogen narcosis or feeling “narced” as is called should go up 10 or 15 feet until their head clears. Also because this was a deep dive our time at 130 feet was only 8 minutes as to not allow too much nitrogen to build up in our bodies or run low on air. (Air is consumed much faster as you go deeper). At the Blue Hole they had us do our safety stop at 20 feet for 8 minutes rather than the 3 minutes at 15 feet. While I was not thrilled at the 130 foot depth it was impressive looking down to what seemed the abyss as well as looking up to the surface that seemed so far away.
The next stop after the Blue Hole was Moon Caye where the Red Footed Booby breeds and can be viewed from a platform. Moon Caye is a tropical island where only the Belize law enforcement live and protect this island and area. The snorkeling group was let off here to do some off beach swimming along with a couple employees from Amigos who prepped lunch. Our boat continued five minutes off the island where we dove on some on pristine coral walls and formations. One unique thing that happened was our dive master stabbing a 4 inch lion fish with a 3 pronged spear. Lion Fish are the only species allowed to be killed in these protected waters because they are evasive and will harm the ecological balance of fish here. After our dive we had a local lunch of stewed chicken, rice and beans, potato salad finished off with some delicious coconut pie. On the Moon Caye our kids found a baseball size hermit crab they kept on the table to show me. My daughter also had a coconut drop near her so she took a conch shell and small piece of dried up coral to open it up and get the freshest meat and juice from. Her incident reminded me that people are nearly 100 times more likely to get killed by coconuts than diving with sharks.
Juvenile Drum Fish About 3″ Around
Giant Hermit Crab Keeping Us Company
Large Spotted Eagle Ray In Distance
From Moon Caye it was a short ride to Long Caye for another dive and snorkel stop at a place called the Aquarium. This stop as expected had lots of fish of different sizes. After the snorkel and diving it was a little more than 2 hours back to the dock where pretty much our family retired to the showers followed by dinner. Having our last day on the tropical outer island and beautiful coral reef was an excellent way to finish this family trip.
Stuffed Pepper Mahi
Shrimp Dumpling w Guacamole On Tortilla
Snapper, Black Beans and Rice
Heading Back To Belize City For Flight Home
If You Go
Chaa Creek Lodge:
What I can say about the jungle lodges in Belize is that you need to give up some comforts of home. None of the top lodges in Belize have air conditioning, telephones or TV in the rooms. They have screened windows with curtains in front and ceiling fans. At Chaa Creek Lodge you can ask for extra fans which we found helpful. The nights in June dropped to the mid 70’s. In the winter I was told people ask for extra blankets because the jungle air can go into the 60’s. We stayed in a thatch roof cottage that had local art, a nice bed and linens with a large bathroom. They do have tree house type accommodations and 2 bedroom houses for those that want the family together. For more budget conscience their is lodging in what they call their campsite cabins described earlier. Chaa Creek is on a nice landscaped piece of property with an inviting infinity pool. You can get drinks, lunch or snacks during the day there and the service was very good.
Food at Chaa Creek was also good. There was always a breakfast special and a few things to choose from as well. There fruit bowl each morning was always fresh. Lunch had more than enough choices. Dinner each night was 4 courses with a choice on the main course. What we were not told by the staff but read on the various travel forums before we left was that if you do not like anything on the dinner menu you can choose anything on the lunch menu which we did a few times. Dinner ranged from OK to very good. There is a bar adjacent to the dining area where the concierge helps plan the following day’s activities with you. Internet is available in the building near the pool that is used for meetings. They have two computers but no wireless so you need to unplug the wire from the computer to connect. The business center we found uncomfortably hot during our stay.
Service at Chaa Creek was very good and friendly over all. We also noticed the drivers and guides have a desire to want to preserve what they have around them. We also found the grounds immaculate. If you would like to experience the outdoors Chaa Creek should be on the list of places to look at. Their internet site is very detailed on what to expect and what excursions to consider.
The Phoenix and Ambergris Caye: www.thephoenixbelize.com
Ambergris Caye is a simple island where the main activities are diving, snorkeling or hanging out at the pool. You can do land activities from here but it means flying into Belize City early and transferring to a van. If you plan on doing more than one mainland activity you should consider staying a few days at a jungle lodge. In Ambergris Caye we opted to stay in San Pedro in a modern condo unit where we can walk to dinner as well as have the comforts of home. In our exploring around the island we saw a few nice resorts a few miles north of the island. Staying there would mean taking a cart or water taxi to dinner in San Pedro if you needed a change from resort food.
The Phoenix is one of the better places to stay at. It has a good location on the north side of town. Our condo was clean and perfectly furnished to the point that we could have lived there and changed nothing. Our unit came with a note in the fridge containing a 6 pack of Belikan Beer as well as 4 small hot sauce bottles. We were also given a 10% card to eat at the restaurants they are affiliated with. The staff was excellent and is lead by Stacy and Mark who make you feel at home and are happy to give advice out anytime. Like all of Ambergise Caye, there is no swimming off of the beach in front of it. (Do not let any advertisement in any hotel tell you they have a beach in this area that is as functional as you would expect in any Caribbean Island). Most hotels have a dock in front where you can step down or jump off into the sea if you want a break from the pool as we did. Speaking of pool we liked the layout of the two pools attached by a wall and a smaller third one adjacent to it at The Phoenix. The only miss we had here was a poolside lunch and cocktails that were not cooked right or made well. These are only very minor things and if you want to stay near town, stay at this place.
Red Ginger: in The Phoenix Hotel. We found the 5 course tasting menu very good along with the pasta dish ordered. Service was also good as we were happy on our first night not to have “island time” when it came to bringing out the food.
Caliente: This is simple Mexican and Central American food that was not expensive and good. I ordered the whole fried snapper which is something I do when in this area and it was exactly as expected.
Blue Moon: Blue Moon is the third restaurant in the list from the Phoenix. It has a diverse menu which is what we needed after so much Mexican, Maya and Belize food. Blue Moon is on the south part of town and only a 10 minute walk from the Phoenix. Our group ordered individual pizzas, lasagna and I ordered a habenero/pineapple glazed shrimp dish. Again we had no complaints. (We liked the key lime pie here)
Wild Mangos (next to the Blue Moon). On this restaurant we were split on liking it. The fish empanada starter did not taste fresh. When asked how fresh the fish was the waitress told us 3 or 4 days. I was skeptical to order the mahi dish but did so anyway. While the taste of the glaze was good, the fish itself was not great. On the other hand my wife’s chile relano was made exactly the way she liked it.
Amigos Del Mar Divers: www.amigosdive.com We used them for our trip to the Blue Hole. They usually leave on Thursdays. Amigos was recommended by Mark because of the size of the boat. It was 50 feet with a wide beam and plenty of shade if you wanted to stay out of the sun. Ecological Divers a few docks down was going to take us in an open boat which would have been uncomfortable let alone would have you burn in the sun. Amigos Del Mar does the nearby dives and snorkel trips as well.
My Secret Deli: This is a local lunch spot around the corner from The Phoenix. Everything is made from scratch from the ladies in the back. We found the quesadillas good but the fish sandwich cooked in a little too much oil. Give them a try and take the food to the hotel pool. The prices are also half what we paid when ordering from the pool menu.
Honcho’s Cart Rentals: The best way to get around on your own in town is to walk. If you are staying a couple of miles out of town or want a fun way to explore the islands we found Honcho’s Cart Rental the best price and low on hassle. For $58 with tax, insurance waiver and gas it was delivered and picked up at the hotel on time. If you shop around ask if gas, tax and the waiver is included.
Tazzy’s: we used them to book a private 1 tank dive and one snorkel trip for $50 each including the park fee. We came across them by accident when the dive outfitter we were suppose to use did not have the trip we wanted. Tazzy’s is a simple shack on stilts between Amigos and Ecological Divers. We walked by and told him what happened but he could not help us as his boat had just left and was filled with 10 divers. Being one not to lose business he had his assistant sitting in the office grab an extra boat, a couple of tanks and off we went without any surcharge for being a private dive. Keep in mind when diving Ho Chen, ask about the tide because it is not worth going if it strong going in or out.
Tropic Air: I flew with them to the southern part of Belize 5 years ago and liked them. They operate single engine planes that are safe and comfortable. They run all over Belize and to Flores, Guatemala. We found the ride all three times on time worth the time saved.
Car Rentals: I have not rented a car in Belize yet but if you do, get one with 4 wheel drive as the pave roads can get bumpy now and then. There are other roads we took to get to caves that were down right rutted out.
**Photographers Special Note: This was shot with a Nikon Coolpix 5000 using an underwater housing. I left my professional equipment home as to not worry about it being damaged in the wet caves that would have made it impossible to use without a water proof housing. Do not take any cameras that are not protected or made to get wet
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