Sun and Sand in the Yucatan and Belize

Winter 2007 

Map of the Yucatan

Map of Belize

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February and March 2007

This year we scheduled our trips so that we would be in Ottawa over Christmas and early January to await the birth of a new grandson. Roman Auerbach was born January 6, 2007 to our daughter Erica and Andrew Auerbach. We stayed around for a few weeks to help out with the new baby and his big brother Atticus, then we took off for seven weeks in the warmer climates of Mexico and Belize. The plan was to take advantage of the good airfares to Cancun and re-explore the Yucatan and Belize. As the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

We were at the Ottawa airport at 5 AM on February 8, 2007 ready to check into our 7 AM Delta Airlines flight to Cancun via Atlanta. The check-in clerk seemed a bit perplexed by our reservation and called over another employee. We were told the reservation had been cancelled. We were shocked. We had found a great rate from a reseller on the internet and had the printout with all the information. Something about a duplicate reservation, causing a cancellation was mentioned but we had never been notified. Ray had mentioned that the charge had never gone through on our credit card, but we had not been concerned. At least one of our previous trips had not been charged until after we had departed. We should have checked our reservation more closely but we didn’t.

What were our options? Delta told us there were seats on both planes and but the price, including taxes was $1900 each! That was too rich for our pockets. We said no thank you and left. Our next call was to the Air Canada reservation desk in the airport. They could give us flights to Cancun leaving at 8 AM via Toronto and the price was a total of about $1000 each. That sounded great, although it was somewhat more than our “bargain” fare we thought we had bought. As well, we had $200 vouchers from Air Canada that we had received as an incentive for agreeing to be bumped on our return flight from Calgary just a few days before. We took their offer and off we went. The lesson we learned is that when you reserve with a reseller over the internet, always look for the ticket number as well as the reservation number on your notification and confirm with the airline that they have your reservation.

We started our trip this year in Puerto Morelos, then returned for the last five days before flying home. This was a favourite beach destination last year and we liked it even better this year. Puerto Morelos is only 30 km south of Cancun but it has not experienced the over-development of Cancun. It is a thriving fishing village with a beautiful, clean white coral sand beach and the protected coral reef 600 M offshore. Even more appealing to us was the discovery of small underwater coral mounds and a small cenote sinkhole just a short distance from the shore. We had brought masks and snorkels with us this year but we didn’t even need fins to gaze at all the colourful fish. There were lots of lazy barracuda, sting rays and even a turtle close to shore. We stayed in a small hotel a few blocks from the beach, took long walks on the beach and sampled many of the good restaurants that surround the main plaza in town. We even visited a Botanical Gardens started by Dr Alfredo Barrera where we walked the 3 km of trails built around collections of native trees and plants, plus reconstructions of a Chicle workers' camp and an oldMayan house. We are surprised that most Yucatan tourists would choose to go to Cancun or Playa del Carmen rather than Puerto Morelos. On the other hand that undiscovered quality is part of its charm.

Isla Mujeres was a new destination this year. We travelled by bus to Cancun where we took a ferry to the island. The main town is lined with restaurants and souvenir shops, quite different from Puerto Morelos. It took a few days for us to get used to the crowds and to enjoy its charms. Our first choice of accommodation did not work well. Our clue that we were in the wrong place came when we were issued tickets for a free drink at their beach bar, which was only open from 11 PM to 3 AM. We changed the next day after enduring the loud throbbing beat of the music until early in the morning. Luckily we found a better place for the same price in town.

The best beach, small Playa Norte, was lined with rental chairs and large mattresses that were filled with basking tourists. We never did reach water over our head but the water was pleasant and relaxing. We took a snorkel trip to see the fish swim around the reef just offshore. The current was quite strong so we just floated along until the boat picked us up again. In one area we floated over bell-shaped concrete forms that act as an artificial reef and provide safe homes for the fish. The concrete forms also provide some protection from the hurricanes that sweep along the coast.

Isla Mujeres is in its prime in the evening. Streets are closed to cars and strolling musicians entertain in front of the restaurants and bars. The entire population of the island turned out the weekend we visited to see the annual Carnival celebrations. Dance groups, from small children to adults, dressed in elaborate costumes and performed well practised Mardi Gras dances.

Whenever we travel we try to use our timeshare exchange and treat ourselves to a little luxury for a week. This year we were booked into the Mayan Palace on the Mayan Riviera between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen. We arrived laden with groceries purchased in Cancun as we were to have a one-bedroom suite with full kitchen. We spent the week lounging by the huge pool complex or on the beach, taking long walks down the beach and just relaxing. We did take a shuttle bus one day to replenish groceries and visit Playa del Carmen. Playa is a bigger and more expensive than Isla Mujeres with even more tourists, but the beach is nice. We had a nice lunch in a beach restaurant but were glad to say goodbye at the end of the day.

Making our way down the Yucatan coast, we stopped in Tulum, intending just to overnight, but ended up visiting the first time for three days and on our way back to Cancun, we stayed for five more days. This year we stayed in town at Rancho Tranquilo. Extensive renovations have been carried out over the past year and the guests and owners are very friendly. The rate for our simple thatched roof cabaņa included breakfast and there was an inexpensive shuttle bus ride to beach.

We took an excursion to the UNESCO site, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, 5000 sq km of tropical jungle, marsh, mangroves and lakes on the coast. The local Mayans have formed a co-operative to show visitors their home territory. We visited just a small section at its northern tip and were amazed at its variety. We visited the archaeological site Muyil, which dates from 300 BC and once housed 55,000 people, but was abandoned in the 17th C. There were three pyramids uncovered, one had a concave top which when filled with water acted as a mirror to chart the skies. We walked through the jungle to the shore of a broad lake surrounded by marshland and piled into motor boats. We crossed the lake and followed a narrow canal built by the Mayans to connect to a second lake. We crossed the second lake and entered a narrow river. This was a major trading route linking the Mayans to the ocean. We stopped at a wharf built next to a small Mayan temple. We donned life jackets, upside down like a diaper, to float nearly two km down the river. The river was shallow but the current was swift enough that we didn’t need to swim at all, just enjoy the scenery. The boats picked us up and we returned to the lakeside where we were fed a typical Mayan lunch of empanadas and tamales. Then it was on to our last activity, a swim in the clear blue water of Chrystal Cenote. The Yucatan peninsula is a porous limestone shelf, riddled with fresh water filled limestone sinkholes called cenotes. Even the two lakes we had crossed were cenotes. We used our snorkels to see tiny fish swimming near underground tree roots. We got back to Rancho Tranquilo in time for supper, tired but satisfied with our day.

Laguna Bacalar, near the Belize border, was recommended as a peaceful stop. The bus we took seemed to be labouring as it rolled down the highway. The driver stopped to find out what was wrong then drove to the nearest Mayan home. The driver filled the radiator of the bus with water from a well, one of many connected to underground cenotes and conveniently located next to the road. We made it to our destination. We stayed in Hotel Laguna, a slightly tired hotel but nice place on the shores of the beautiful tourquoise waters. We were within walking distance of Cenote Azul with its pleasant restaurant. The cenote was good for swimming but we couldn’t see very far due to the depth of the waters. We asked a couple from BC who was visiting the cenote how long they had been in Mexico. They hesitated then admitted they left home in August 2004 and have been exploring Mexico and Belize in their RV ever since. We aren’t prepared to be away from home that long yet!

The Belize border is about 50 km from Laguna Bacalar. We planned to take a taxi to the town of Bacalar, 5 km from the hotel, then catch a bus to Chetumal, where we would transfer to a Belize-bound bus. In my rusty Spanish I asked the hotel clerk to call a taxi to take us into town. We no sooner appeared with our bags than the taxi was there. I established how much the trip would cost, which is what you do when there is no meter. It seemed a bit higher than I expected but the driver assured me that 50 pesos (USD5) was the going rate. When we reached the highway, the driver headed towards Chetumal instead of the bus stop in town. We were confused until we realized he was taking us all the way to Chetumal, a half hour drive! We truly had a bargain ride. It sometimes pays not to have a full understanding of the language.

We got a bus going straight to the town of Orange Walk Belize and were on our way. The border is a nuisance but it just involves standing in line to get our passports stamped and paying 100 pesos each to leave Mexico. A group of Mennonites, dressed in traditional clothing, was on our bus and one of the men asked us where we were from. He said he was part of the “plain people” from Missouri on their way to visit a Mennonite Colony near Belmopan, the Belize capital. He had been in Belize several times on missions organized by his church. Belize has many thriving Mennonite colonies. They comprise just 5% of the Belizeans but produce 65% of the agriculture in Belize. Belize has recently declared that the Mennonites must pay taxes. This has prompted some of the families to leave Belize as they traditionally pay no taxes and receive nothing from the government, taking care of their own social and medical needs. Belize is worried that if more leave their agriculture would be in serious trouble.

Orange Walk is a small agricultural town on the New River. We had come to take a tour on the river to visit the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. We stayed at the Lamanai Riverside Retreat, which sounds more impressive than it is. Situated on the bank of the New River, there is a popular restaurant and three simple rooms. The owner Raul and his family of nine children run the place. Raul beckoned us over to see Bob the crocodile cruising up to see if his favourite snack of chicken skin was being served. Raul has made a hobby of tagging the crocs. He and a friend drive a motor boat up the river until they spy a croc. The driver leaves the motor running to distract the croc. Raul jumps into the river and loops a wire snare around the snout of the croc and attaches a tag to the tail. So far he has emerged unscathed but I wouldn’t recommend this sport to anyone.

Our tour to Lamanai was well organized. We motored up the river for about two hours while our guide Gilberto pointed out the many water birds, crocs and lizards basking on the shores. We passed by the Mennonite community of Shipyard and small boats with men fishing for supper. Sugarcane is the main crop in this area and we passed a small rum distillery and a Sugar refinery. Trucks filled with cane line the road to the refinery and the sugar refinery runs full tilt from December to June processing the cane. The evening before tugboats had passed the Lamanai Resort towing three barges full of refined sugar. This happens twice daily.

Lamanai, which means submerged crocodile in Mayan, was occupied as early as 1500 BC and grew into a major ceremonial center with immense temples earlier than most other sites. Like the other Mayan centers, the coming of the Spanish in the 17th C spelled their doom and Lamanai reverted to the jungle. The British completed the rout of the Mayans by chasing out those who had survived plagues of measels and smallpox in order to clear the forests and plant sugar cane further decimated the Mayans. The site remained hidden until it was excavated by the University of Toronto archaeologist David Pendergast from1970 to 1983. Only five of over 700 temples have been excavated but those that have are impressive. Gilberto led us past several, explaining the history of the area as well as pointing out the many medicinal plants growing everywhere. Near the Jaguar temple we heard the unmistakable sound of a band of Howler monkeys. We watched from the ground as they called to one another for quite some time. You can’t go to a temple area without climbing at least one to get the view and the High Temple, the tallest pre-classical temple in Belize at 33 M, did provide a good vista.

San Ignacio (Cayo) is in the mountains near the Guatemala border. Once again we lucked out with a taxi ride. We arrive on the bus in Belize City ready to transfer to another bus travelling to Cayo. After refusing several offers of taxi rides, one driver explained that he had driven from Cayo to the Belize airport in the morning and was willing to bargain for a return fare to Cayo. It was a done deal and a lot quicker than the local bus that stops for whoever flags it down. The driver was promoting Windy Hill Resort in Cayo. We had planned to stay at a less expensive hotel in town, but when we couldn’t get a reservation, we agreed to stay at Windy Hill. It really was a very nice place, the only disadvantage besides being a little above our meagre budget was the distance from the town. We did enjoy our brief stay. Our cabin with a hammock on the balcony was comfortable, the service and food in the restaurant was good and the pool, set in lovely gardens, was more than inviting. We almost regretted moving into town, but we didn’t have a car and the taxi ride to town was expensive.

In Cayo we arranged a day tour to visit the Mountain Pine Ridge area. A local guide, Sam, drove a couple from Toronto and us into the forest, which years ago had many mahogany trees, but few are left today. Sam told us he had been a chicle worker for a year in his youth. The workers climbed the chicle trees slashing the bark as they went and collecting the sap in bags at the bottom of the tree. The sap was combined with water and boiled until it was the right consistency to be used as the base for chewing gum (remember Chiclets?). This was an important source of income from the 1920s until the invention of artificial gum. Much of the forest has been replanted with pine but it didn’t look very healthy. The pine beetle devastated the area and bare trunks littered the hilltops. It will take many more years until the forest regenerates. We came to visit a few of the caves. Rio Frio Cave, a huge gaping cave carved out by a river that still flows through it, was the first. We were surprised to see several armed military personnel lounging around the approach to the cave. Sam explained that there had been a rash of robberies of tourists in the area a year ago and this was the government’s solution to the problem. We visited the small hidden Jaws Cave. Sam gave us headlamps and we crawled into a room full of stalactites and stalagmites. By the time we emerged it was raining gently and the temperature had dropped enough to prevent us from swimming in the pools of our next stop, the Thousand Foot Falls. We ate our box lunch there, admired the view from afar and drove on to more waterfalls on the River On. We made our last stop at the secluded Five Sisters Resort, next to a series of waterfalls of the same name. The resort guests are not all capable of climbing the steep pathway to the falls so there is a convenient funicular to transport guests. It was still rainy so we just admired the view from the balcony.

The prettiest drive in Belize is the Hummingbird Highway between Belmopan, the inland Belize capital and Dangriga on the coast. The road winds through a narrow jungle valley with orange groves rising to green hills on either side. We stayed in the Garifuna village of Dangriga overnight on our way to Tobacco Caye. The Garifuna are descendants of African slaves, with a little South American indigenous mixed in for good measure. They were transported originally to St Vincent in the Caribbean and subsequently sent by the British from one island to another until they settled in southern Belize in the early 19th C. If you ask any Garifuna, they will tell you they speak three languages, Garifuna, Creole and English, the official language of Belize. We could understand some of the Creole but Garifuna was unintelligible to us. Sunday morning is the time for families to attend church in Dangriga. Choir members carried their long robes and hymnals and women, some dressed in a long flowered dress reminiscent of the Africans we saw last fall, passed us on their way to church.

Tobacco Caye, a 40 minute motor boat ride from Dangriga, was just as nice as we had remembered from our visit two years ago. It is still a very quiet, simple tiny 5-acre island right on the corals of the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. We stayed once again in Gaviota’s in a small cabin with electricity supplied by a generator until about 10 PM, but with communal showers and toilets. Included in our charge of USD32 per day were three delicious meals served family style in the screened dining hall. The snorkeling right off the beach is great. We saw stingrays and spotted eagle rays, lots of tropical fish and even to my consternation, a shark, although it was identified later as a harmless Nurse shark. We stayed four days and wished we had stayed longer.

We had never visited Hopkins, a fishing village on the coast just south of Dangriga. Upon arriving in town without a reservation, we saw an appealing sign advertising Kismet on the beach “just a 10 minute walk” away. It wasn’t the best place to stay in town but by the time we had walked more than a km with our packs on our backs to find it we were reluctant to return to town to find another. A ditzy New Yorker woman and her Garifuna boyfriend Elvis ran it. After ten years in Belize I think she needs a break. She had a non-ending litany of complaints about the village, some well-founded, but some we sympathized with the locals. At least she cooked a good fish dinner, caught by Elvis in front of the hostel. One of our landlady’s complaints was the amount of garbage on the beach and we had to agree. The locals don’t want to pay for garbage pickup so they haul it to the edge of the narrow strip of sand beach and burn it. Piles of black residue lined the shoreline. Just next to Kismet was a fancy new vacation home complex, far grander than anything else in town, which is nowhere near ready for a tourist influx.

One advantage of visiting Hopkins was its proximity to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sancturay. An American Alan Rabinowitz who tracked and studied jaguars established the reserve in the 1980s. Jaguars are nocturnal so we didn’t see any, but there are supposed to be at least eight in residence. Instead, we went to hike the trails. The reserve is hug, 98,000 acres, but we explored only one small section. It was overcast when we started out from Hopkins, but the sun came out for a brief time, causing the temperature to rise just as we were engaged in scaling a peak. I have not been so out of breath in a long time. It must have been because of the heat. Anyway the view from the top of Victoria Peak, the second highest in Belize, and several others, was lovely. We didn’t even mind the periodic rain as it cooled us down. Half way back to our starting point was a waterfall with a good swimming hole at its base, just perfect for the end of a hike. Another time I would like to try the tube ride down the river and stay overnight for a guided night walk. There is lots of territory to explore.

Placencia is undergoing quite a bit of development but it is still nicely low-key. We travelled by bus from Hopkins to Placencia along a bumpy red dirt road past waves of expensive vacation properties under construction. This is in stark contrast to the beachside town of Placencia where simple accommodation is the rule. The construction of a new airport at the north end of town is making the area more accessible. In the meantime it is still pleasant, uncrowded and quiet. The coral reef is 17 km offshore but the sand beach is wide and the water is clear and warm. We chose to return to Placentia this year because of the better swimming, compared to the sea grass choked shores of Caye Caulker. We were glad we came. We got a simple room a block from the beach and kicked back for another five days. The restaurants were good and several bars offered evening entertainment. Friday night was drum night in one bar. A five piece band of locals played a combination of traditional African drums, maracas, conch shell and two turtle shells hung by ropes around one man’s neck. The beat was infectious and the variety of sounds and rhythms was just right. We ended our visit with an evening at the lovely Garden Restaurant being entertained by a young American man playing classical and acoustic guitar. No wonder North Americans are buying property in the region.

Placencia is not the only Belize location becoming popular with North Americans. We stopped overnight enroute to Mexico in Corozal and talked to a Canadian man getting ready to build a home on the coast just north of town. We met several other Canadians and Americans, attracted by the fact they don’t have to learn another language, also building homes in the area. The Belize Government has offered tax advantages to foreigners, especially older people, to build homes and the prices are still reasonable.

All’s well that ends well. We ended our trip as we began, back in the Mexican beach towns of Tulum and Puerto Morelos. Once again we escaped the worst of the winter. We came back with good tans after all that time on the beach. It was a relaxing trip with time to read and some new and old places to visit.

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