Barefoot in Belize Part Two: From Belize City to Guatemala

Ed and his wife before traveling to Belize City from Caye CaulkerMost of our trip to Belize was spent relaxing on Caye Caulker. However, we also visited Ambergris Caye, our island’s northern neighbor, where we stopped for lunch during our snorkeling excursion. Given some time to explore the town of San Pedro, we found that everything was bigger, noisier, and a bit more expensive. You can drive a car there and party in late-night dance clubs. 

From Caye Caulker, we booked a cave tubing excursion out of Belize City. Our driver and personal tour guide picked us up at the ferry dock in a comfortable air-conditioned car. He talked about his country’s history on the way to the caves. Once there, our driver changed hats and became our river guide. Carrying inner tubes and donning helmets with headlamps, we hiked upriver, into the jungle. 

Hike to Adventure Near Belize City

The guide filled us in on flora and fauna along the way. The trek was uphill but easily manageable. Wading into the cool and slow-moving river was incredibly refreshing. Cathryn felt startled by something nipping at her legs. Apparently, they’re called Kissing Fish and are sometimes kept in tanks and used for exfoliating. Cathryn didn’t enjoy the spa treatment and was happier laying in her tube. 

Cliff swallows darted in and out of the mouth of the cave. Nothing but a dark hole in the rock, we could only see with the aid of our headlamps. Floating with the current, our guide steered us around rocks and walls. To me, a cave is a cave, and I’ve seen many. But tubing on a river in the dark heightened my senses — the sound of gurgling water, dank smell of the still and cool air — it was amazing. 

An image of a boat on Penten Itza Lake
Penten Intza Lake

Fresh Out of Belize City

Being so close to the border of Guatemala, and a fan of Mayan ruins, I booked an excursion to Tikal. From the ferry dock in Belize City, we were to board a luxury bus that would take us to the border. After waiting over an hour in the sweltering heat, a chicken bus pulled to the curb. It looked nothing like the shiny new one we’d seen in the brochure. I wasn’t surprised. 

It was a hot, bumpy, and grueling four-hour trip to the Guatemala border. Cathryn learned the hard way not to keep our money in a suitcase. One of the porters on the boat had ripped us off. Mobbed by currency exchange dudes, we had no cash to trade. Our driver found and rescued us from the hoard and escorted us to our private vehicle. I sighed with relief at the sight of all the new tour vans lined up in a row. Ours was not one of them. 

An image of the van Ed and his wife took in Guatemala.
A Guatemalan Limo

Eduardo was our English-speaking driver. He looked to be about 30 years old, the same age as his vehicle. The A/C wasn’t working and neither was Eduardo’s English, but we shared a laugh at having similar first names. It wasn’t our last laugh. When we stopped for gas, Eduardo couldn’t get the van started again. After watching him fiddle with tools and the battery, I offered a solution. Noting our chariot was a stick-shift, and that the road ahead was downhill, I suggested that we push-start the van. 

A Rolling Start To Tikal

A spider that crawled from the jungle near Belize City

Eduardo rounded up some help and the push was on. Being paying customers, Cathryn and I got to sit inside while the men pushed. On a good roll downhill, our driver jumped in and dropped it in gear. Eduardo turned to us and offered a big smile that was shy of a few teeth. We were off to see the wizard. 

Checking into our room just outside the park gate, howler and spider monkeys greeted us, playing in the trees. We felt thrilled about staying right in the jungle, in an upscale hotel. The novelty wore off when Cathryn discovered a spider the size of her hand in the bathroom. At that moment we understood why there was netting around the bed. 

Welcome to the Jungle

The ruins at Tikal are similar to others I’ve seen at Chichen Itza and Uxmal in Mexico but different in that the main plaza was tighter and more closely surrounded by jungle. My jaw dropped when I walked out from under the thick canopy. The ceremonial temples stood like ancient sentinels, their tops peeking through the treetops. The dark patina of the Mayan structures made them look mythical. 

Ed and his wife at the Tikal Ruins near Belize City

Eduardo was waiting in his Rolls Canardly (rolls downhill but can hardly make it back up) at the park exit. He drove us to the island of Flores on Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala’s second-largest lake. A causeway links the island to Santa Elena and the mainland. It was our chosen pit stop on the way back to Belize City. The town has an undeniably European flair, with pastel-colored buildings and cobbled streets.

Flores to Caye Caulker

The island is small enough that we were able to walk its circumference, seeking out especially cool little cafes and courtyards. The lake looked calm and we enjoyed a sightseeing cruise on a water taxi that was nothing more than a wooden rowboat with a trolling motor. We loved Flores so much that we extended our stay by another day. 

An image of a restaurant in Flores, Guatemala, which is a quick drive from Belize City

To save time, and not endure another grueling bus ride back to Belize, we booked a flight from Flores to Caye Caulker. It was a small plane that only held a handful of passengers, but we could see right into the cockpit and had beautiful views of the Caribbean and our own Gilligan’s Island. 

There are no big and fancy all-inclusive resorts on Caye Caulker in Belize. If that’s what you’re looking for, try Ambergris Caye. But if you enjoy kite-surfing, diving, snorkeling, fishing, or just plain doing nothing but laying on the beach, then this place is for you. There’s no need to bring nice clothes. In fact, with a warm climate, you don’t need many clothes at all. It’s basically barefoot in Belize.

If you want to read about any of my southeast Asian adventures take a look at the travel section of my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

A Tour of Taxco, Mexico: Part Six

Tyler blackMy time in Mexico City was slowly coming to an end. It was nothing short of fantastic. To read more about my trip, make sure you check out part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

I had just one last excursion left before heading home. This time, I was visiting Cuernavaca and Taxco, Mexico. I felt pretty excited about this tour because I couldn’t wait to see small-town life within Mexico. Operated by Olympus Tours, I highly recommend the excursion. The tour not only operated smoothly but was full of fantastic knowledge and interesting facts that kept me intrigued throughout the day.

The tour guide picked me up in a small van right at my hostel, Casa Pepe. Interestingly enough, I was the only English speaker in the van, as the other four tourists were from Colombia. Since I speak Spanish, I told our guide that he could stick to Spanish the whole trip so he wouldn’t have to translate back and forth between languages. He seemed relieved, but not before telling me in English that the sunburn on my face looked pretty bad and how much of a typical “gringo” I was. Okay, he didn’t say that exactly but that’s what it felt like! Luckily, the other travelers couldn’t understand him so I wasn’t as embarrassed.

Cuernavaca, Mexico

We set off south of Mexico City passing over mountains before arriving in Cuernavaca an hour later. I won’t lie, I was kind of disappointed right off the bat. We stopped in a small courtyard surrounded by three churches, each built during a different part of Mexico’s history. I do love old churches and cathedrals. That was one of my favorite parts of living in Europe. But I found myself rather bored here. We ended up not seeing anything else in Cuernavaca. After an hour of walking around the courtyard, we hopped on the bus and left. Thankfully, the tour got a whole lot better.

The square in Taxco, Mexico

Taxco, Mexico

After another hour-long car ride, we came up on Taxco, Mexico. Built on the side of a mountain, the town looked absolutely stunning from a distance. I felt really excited to try and make my way to the top to enjoy the views. The van let us off in the center of town and our guide walked us around a bit explaining the history of Taxco. Unfortunately, I was too busy taking pictures and didn’t listen to a single word he had to say. I can really be the worst tourist sometimes.

After showing us some points of interest that we could explore later, our guide took us to a jewelry store specializing in silver. Apparently, the areas surrounding Taxco, Mexico are filled with deposits of silver. The Aztecs used this area to make jewelry and decorations for their gods. To this day, Taxco silver is one of the most sought after metals. I bought a few souvenirs for my family because, well, when would I get this chance again?

A statue of text reading "mexico"

A Few Hours Left

Shortly after, I went to grab lunch with two of the people in our group at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the city. I found it incredibly challenging to converse and eat without constantly taking pictures of the view. The pair — a woman and her father — wanted to do a little bit of exploring in Mexico. I told them how much I’d love to visit Colombia and they gave a lot of great recommendations. It was also great to be able to converse in Spanish again and get some practice in. 

With only a few hours left in Taxco, I decided to walk throughout as much of the town as possible. This was quite the feat considering the town was built on the side of a mountain. My legs were on fire (probably still feeling the effects of hiking a volcano a few days earlier). Nonetheless, it was an amazing experience strolling through small streets and alleys, seeing everyone go about their normal routines. I stopped in some more shops to buy some souvenirs. My aimless wandering even led me to a great view of the Taxco, Mexico cathedral with the valley behind it in the distance. Visiting this town definitely made up for the rather slow beginning of the tour. I highly recommend taking a tour of Taxco. Words cannot accurately describe its beauty.

Time to Go Home

I filled the next morning trying to stuff everything back into my suitcase. I definitely bought way too many souvenirs on this trip, but it was worth it. Although my flight was at 1:00pm, I called an Uber around 10:00am. I figured there would be a lot of traffic on the way to the airport. And boy, was I right. What should have been a 35-minute car ride took a little more than an hour. Luckily my Uber driver was a very friendly man with a lot to talk about, so it helped ease my nerves a little bit.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about departing and not just ending this series on a good note. I’m here to tell you my little goof. If you remember from part one, I was given a slip of paper upon arriving in Mexico with all my passport information. It was almost like a tourist visa. I mistakenly threw it away. The lady behind the check-in desk refused to take my bags without that slip of paper. She told me I had to go to the immigration office to file a new one. Panic was setting in.

A beautiful field in Taxco, Mexico

Customs Snafu

I raced downstairs to the office. Of course, there was a line to talk with the agent. He explained that I needed to print out my arrival and departure flight information. So, I had to run across the hallway to pay a guy to print the documents out for me. After finally filling out all the proper paperwork, I then had to pay a hefty amount of pesos for them to authorize me a new tourist visa. And of course, they only took cash. I made sure to spend all my cash before leaving. So, I had to race to the ATM just outside the office. And that’s when my bank decided to decline my withdrawals. I was starting to imagine what my new life in Mexico would look like. At least I spoke the language.

A town square

Lesson Learned

Luckily, my bank sent me a text asking if it was actually me trying to take out money. Once I got that authorized, I was finally able to pay for my replacement tourist visa. My heart rate was through the roof. But, problem solved! I wasn’t going to be stuck in a foreign country. Moral of the story: DON’T THROW AWAY ANY DOCUMENTS YOU GET FROM CUSTOMS.

Thank you for taking the time to read this series on Mexico City. I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip and hopefully, it has inspired you to visit. Mexico City blew all my expectations out of the water. It’s a beautiful city filled with wonderful people and an amazing culture. It’s quite a shame that Mexico City, and the country in general, is viewed so poorly in our media. I’m so glad I decided to see it firsthand and witness just how wrong everything is portrayed. I encourage you to do the same.

Barefoot in Belize: A Trip to Caye Caulker

Are you looking for a vacation destination where you can live in your bathing suit and flip-flops, with no cars or trucks allowed? Have you ever seen signs posted that say, ‘No shirt, No shoes, No problem’? Caye Caulker, Belize, is that kind of place. In this two-part post, I’ll tell you why you should visit Belize and other sites in the area. 

Visit Caye Caulker, Belize

This limestone coral island is just off of mainland Belize in the Caribbean Sea. A forty-five-minute boat ride from Belize City, my first impression of the village was that it was built with a fluorescent-colored Lego set. The turquoise water, white sand, and swaying palm trees announced that I’d arrived in paradise.  

Because the island is five miles long and about a half-mile wide, you can actually see one side from the other. Golf carts and bicycles are for rent, but you can easily cover the inhabited part of the island barefoot or in flip-flops. The island has a small airport for those who wish to fly. Caye Caulker is laid back and the perfect place to veg, but there are lots of things to see and do.

Lazy Lizard Beach Bar, Belize

The Split

The main beach is called The Split, aptly named after a hurricane ripped through the island, severing it in two. The Lazy Lizard Beach Bar is the place to see and be seen at the Split. They offer cold drinks, good food, picnic tables right in the water, and a great view from the upper deck. Gazing out to sea, you’ll discover shades of blue that defy description. 

Accommodations on Caye Caulker range from a simple one-room ocean-front bungalow on stilts to upscale condos with amazing sea views and amenities like pools and beachfront bars. Short and long-term rentals can be found through VRBO and Airbnb. There are some places where you can step off your porch and into the ocean. 

The Split, Belize

With the exception of coconuts and some tropical fruit, food has to be imported onto the island. Fortunately, there is no reason to go hungry with everything from pizza and burgers to pasta and steak. It’s a seafood haven, and lobster is abundant (when in season). We found lobster at beachside barbeques and restaurants, grilled, baked, or put into things, like fritters and salads. Our favorite was the lobster nachos. 

The ocean side of Caye Caulker is protected by a barrier reef. It is a diving and snorkeling mecca, and, according to some, is only second to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The half-day snorkel trip was our best underwater experience ever, bar none. We saw giant sea turtles and stingrays, all sorts of colorful fish, and even got to pet an eight-foot nurse shark. There are a handful of dive shops in the village, offering snorkeling, diving, and fishing packages. 

Pops’ Fishing Charter

Belize was the first big trip that Cathryn and I took together so I wanted to do something special. I booked a fishing charter with a local guy named Pops. Not the one-eyed peg-legged pirate we expected, the handsome young man offered an afternoon of fishing, quickly followed by a trip to his family island, where he prepared us dinner. Cathryn landed two barracuda. While Pops hoped to add lobster to the menu, his traps didn’t offer any of appropriate size. 

Pops’ island was nothing more than a sand spit two miles off-shore, with a coconut tree in the middle and mangroves at one end. Island security greeted us at the dock — five mixed-breed dogs who were all happy to see Pops, and quickly warmed to us. They lived on the island, keeping an eye on things when dad wasn’t around. 

Boat in Caye Caulker

We made quick work of exploring the island, which was less than the length of a football field and barely wide enough to support a game of horseshoes. The only buildings were a bunkhouse, work shack, and an outdoor kitchen, powered by a homemade solar and wind system. Taking it all in, I had to wonder if my surprise to Cathryn was a good idea — I’d made arrangements with Pops to spend the night there by ourselves. 

Fresh Catch for Dinner

Spike, the pit bull and head of security, stood guard on the end of the dock while our host cleaned our fresh catch. It was awesome and scary at the same time when a nurse shark showed up for the tasty scraps. What happened next is something I would never have believed if I didn’t see it for myself. Spike lunged from the pier onto the sharks back, sending it into a frenzy, splashing us with seawater. Pops laughed. Apparently, Spike didn’t like sharks. 

Our host made us fresh salsa from scratch as an appetizer. While we snacked, he started a fire with coconut husks and filleted one fish and cut the other into steaks. He marinated one and fried the other. It was an amazing meal. Pops left us food for breakfast and said he’d be back by noon the next day. With the nearest person and/or phone two miles away by water, I figured the only danger would be pirates or a freak storm. 

I went to the outhouse after Pops disappeared on the horizon. It was typical of the old outdoor structures I’d used before, with one distinct difference. It was built on stilts in the water, and only accessible by walking a wooden plank. Flushing was taken care of by Mother Nature. When I stepped off the plank, I saw Cathryn wearing nothing but a smile. Moby was playing over Pops’ sound system. 

 

True Paradise

Like Adam and Eve, we sat in our personal paradise watching the millions of stars in the Milky Way appear like twinkle lights on a giant black velvet canvas. It was the most amazing display I’ve ever witnessed. Our minds melded with the sounds of Pink Floyd, aided by a mixture of wacky tobacky that our host had left us. Life was contemplated, and in that moment, we were one with the universe. 

We spent the night in the bunkhouse, with an ocean breeze blowing through the open windows. The puppy we named Blue curled up on the floor beside our bed. Spike took his job seriously, and slept on the top porch step, blocking entry to our door. He was one of a kind. When we went for a swim the next morning, he acted as shark patrol and swam in circles around us. 

We spent a month on Caye Caulker, but traveled to Ambergris Caye and mainland Belize for cave tubing. We also visited Guatemala to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Check out part two of our trip to Belize for the rest of our adventure. 

If you want to read about any of my southeast Asian adventures take a look at the travel section of my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

by Edmond Gagnon