Belize: Mayan Ruins and Caribbean Pleasures

“Belize: Mayan Ruins and Caribbean Pleasures,” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, Ithaca JournalElmira Star-Gazette andBinghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Feb. 22, 2014, 1D, 7D.

“Living in Belize is like living in the US in the mid 1950s.” (US expatriate who with his wife left Seattle to retire in San Ignacio)

Introduction: History and Background

penguinTikal, Guatelmala

My wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I like to be in a warm place between my Cornell semesters, and this year we chose Belize—formerly British Honduras–a relatively small country that became independent in 1981 and is bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and on the west by Guatemala, and to the east by the Caribbean Sea.

Because it was once a British colony and people speak English, Belize is a good place for US and Canadian citizens to vacation. Most tourists go to Belize to learn about the Mayan culture and to enjoy sea activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and swimming. Birding is also popular. Families and young adults find ample resources for adventure activities such as rappelling and zip lining as well as cave exploration and cave tubing, particularly at Actun Tunichil Muknal, offered referred to as ATM.

Of the 325,000 people, many are descendants of Mayas, and these are often Catholics; others include US expatriates, Chinese, Indians from India as well as Amish and other Mennonite settlers who live in their own self-defined enclaves. Tourism is the major industry. The soil is not great, but good enough to support large gardens and small farms. In San Ignacio many tourist workers supplement their seasonal incomes by growing their own food and selling the surplus.

penguinPelican, San Pedro, Belize

Given the beauty, climate, and size (8800 square miles), I am somewhat puzzled as to why so few people live in Belize. Part of the reason is the lack of employment and subsequent emigration. With such a small population, Belize also lacks the tax base to sustain an infrastructure of roads to fully support its tourist economy. Except for the main roads to major cities (which are at least paved in most places), what we would call a system of roads ranges– even to the major Mayan tourist sites– from unsatisfactory to virtually non-existent.

Guatemala claims all or part of Belize as part of its country and were the British not ready to send warships, Belize might be annexed. While the population is increasing, I wonder how an underpopulated country without major exports can sustain itself indefinitely.

San Ignacio

San Ignacio, our first stop, is in western Belize in the rain forest area. When we were there in the second half of December, the unusually long 2013 rainy season had just concluded. The rain made the some of the important Mayan sites temporarily inaccessible, but they re-opened while we were there.

We purchased our trip through Belize Specialists who arranged our hotels and most of our tours. But a better way is to book hotels and purchase tours while there.

Our San Ignacio hotel, Canal Pech Village Resort, was a disappointment. Originally, we were shown to their cabanas (drab little rooms within a self-contained structure) which we rejected in favor of a larger but undistinguished room with a king size bed; the ceiling had water stains that needed painting, the TV didn’t work, some of the towels were barely more than rags. Not only did the hotel fail to provide shampoo and bottled water in the room (one can’t drink the tap water), but we also had our share of cockroaches as guests. Service in terms of responding to requests is quite slow. The view of San Ignacio from our room was good, although the town itself offered very little. Suffice it to say I would stay elsewhere.

Right below the resort—which was a resort in name only because besides a few small pools and a bar, it had few facilities—was a significant Mayan archeological site called Cahal Pech that we visited. The excellent compact Cahal Pech museum (no charge) a few hundred yards from our hotel was very helpful in our understanding the various phases of Mayan culture. Also on the plus side the tour arrangements at the hotel were satisfactory, including our trip across the Guatemala border to Tikal. Another plus was the hummingbirds we saw from the open dining room.

After our tours we had an early dinner at the hotel. The Belizean food was decent, the portions modest in size, and the cost reasonable by US standards—about $35 (all prices will be in US dollars) for two without alcohol– although expensive by local Belizean standards. Everything is extra, including a $4 charge for a few dinner rolls. Appetizers, sides, and deserts are disproportionately expensive and, on the whole, not as tasty as the entrees.

Highlights of Our Ignacio Stay

penguinGuatemalan child sleeping atop pyramid at Tikal

Tikal, one of world’s great Mayan ruins along with Chichen Itza (Mexico) dates from the 8th century and is a highlight of the Classic Period (AD 250–900). It has impressively preserved pyramids, temples, and palaces, although the site is not fully excavated. The Mayas had a highly developed civilization, with the most elaborate written language in the Pre-Columbian Americas as well as sophisticated architectural, mathematical and astronomical systems. When I was in school, students were taught that the Mayas were unlike the violent Incas and Aztecs, but we now know that they fought ferociously, placated their gods with human sacrifice and also mutilated themselves to please their gods. They had a hierarchical society with kings who were considered demi-gods.

caracolDan with Tarantula, Tikal, Belize

Visitors can do more climbing at Tikal as well as at major Belizean sites than at the major Mayan sites in Mexico. During high season 800 people at most visit Tikal each day and a more usual number of visitors is usually about 300. On the drive and on site we saw howler and spider monkeys and some magnificent birds, including the multi-colored toucans. Holding a supposedly non-poisonous tarantula on my wrist was an interesting experience, but later I wasn’t sure that playing with tarantulas is the best idea.

At another site, Barton Creek, there are underground caves where the Mayas buried corpses; the Mayas regarded these caves as sacred. You can rent a canoe or, as we did, hire a guide who paddles you through the only open cave of the six limestone caves at this site. After the cave tour (a kilometer long) I took a swim right outside the cave. . We enjoyed the Barton Creek Cave canoeing trip, although getting there entailed a drive over extremely rough roads.

caracolCaracol, Belize

On another day we visited Caracol, one of most important Mayan sites. It us older and larger than Tikal, although not as fully excavated. Only a handful of people were there, in part because of its inaccessibility from road damage on the worst roads I have ever seen, including those on four safaris in Africa. Yet even on a good day, only a tiny number of people visit this site that has some wonderfully preserved structures. Climbing the various temples and palaces was quite exhilarating and allowed for some terrific views. Because bandits cross over from Guatemala, the area is patrolled by armed guards. Our visit to Caracol was followed by followed by a dip in the pools in Pine Mountain Reserve. We couldn’t visit some nearby caves within the Reserve because the roads were impassable

Ambergris Caye

Because we were disappointed with Cahal Pech Village, and our second hotel, Victoria House, had room for us, we left a day early—after a morning birding excursion—for Ambergris Caye We were able to change our flights without charge on Maya Air and we drove to Belize City to catch the 15 minute or so flight.

Victoria House is a quite casual but tasteful resort on the ocean, and one with excellent, indeed, superb service. At Victoria House, we stayed the first night in a modest room that the hotel found for us on a short notice; even though smaller, it was much nicer than our room in Cahal Pech Village. We then moved for five nights to a self-contained cassita; the cassita had its own front porch with a nice view of the Caribbean.

Victoria House lacks a gym and tennis courts, but I did some exercising with ocean swimming which, having grown up near the ocean, I find exhilarating; I also swam laps in their infinity pool. The hotel also provides complimentary bikes and kayaks. We were our usual amateurish selves when kayaking on a windy day.

At the hotel, we were at times bothered by mosquitoes, especially when it rains as it did for a while most days during our visit. The hotel and Ambergris Caye also had more than their share of flies.

What is great in Belize are the snorkeling and scuba diving, especially at Hol Chan Marine Reserve (which costs a $10 per person park fee). While snorkeling, we saw dramatic reefs, green turtles, moray eels, small sharks, black and red snappers, groupers, star fish, and other assorted and often beautiful fish. Then on to “shark ray alley” where we saw enormous and plentiful rays along with sharks, one of which we petted while our guide held it. I am not sure in the 100 times I have snorkeled, including in the Galapagos and at Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, I ever had a better snorkeling experience.

On the second of our pre-booked snorkeling trips, we went to Mexico Rocks that was, in terms of what we saw, more like our snorkeling in other Caribbean venues. We should have returned to Hol Chan. For our snorkeling trips, Belize Specialists hired AquaScuba, and AquaScuba did the bare minimum with the least grace, although our guide to Hol Chan was quite good. Waiting for Maya Air to deliver a couple from the mainland, AquaScuba left an hour late the first day and the second day sent us with a surly guide who took his girl friend along and paid more attention to her than us. When I told the guide that we had paid for a guided trip, he swore at me and took us back after maybe 30 minutes in the water rather than the expected 70 minutes. Those who booked with the hotel directly got much better service than we did.

lamaniLamanai, Belize

A highlight of our Ambergris Caye stay was a fishing trip arranged by Victoria House. I caught three fish—two Spanish mackerel and a good sized yellowtail–and lost a few that a better fisherman might have caught. I went with a couple and paid a third of the $234 charter cost, and we brought back nine fish. I had a grouper online that was eaten by a shark, and thought of the old man in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. We had the Spanish mackerel for lunch at Robin’s Kitchen, a nearby local outdoor restaurant, on the day we caught them and the next and last day we had our fish for dinner at Victoria House. The mackerel were the better tasting but both meals were great fun.

iguanaIguana, New River, Belize

The excursions offered by Victoria House far surpassed in quality what Belize Specialist tours arranged for us, although the hotel Jungle River Cruise with Searious Adventures to Lamanai (another Mayan site) was with the same company that Belize Specialists had booked for us. Given that we had been to the most important Mayan sites, the trip, taking ten hours, was somewhat low yield since we spent six hours getting to the site and back, and spent less than two at the site without having time to spend more than a few minutes a the fine small museum at the Lamanai Mayan site. We did see some nice birds and monkeys on the river and in the Lamanai area.

Even by the standards of Caribbean island tourist towns, San Pedro, the major town on Ambergris Caye, is an unremarkable—indeed, quite ugly– tourist town with many overpriced restaurants and some funky ones visited by locals and some local crafts intermixed with the usual tourist junk. San Pedro’s saving grace is that it is on the water but even that doesn’t help much.

Meals on Ambergris Caye

One goes to Belize for the ocean, warm weather, Mayan ruins, nature, and adventures and not for gourmet food.

egretEgret, San Pedro, Belize

Most of tourist restaurants at which we ate were decent but overpriced and for the same $70-90 without alcohol; you can get better value in major US or European cities if you know where to go. But a few local places are a different story. We had three lunches and a dinner at Robin’s Kitchen – walking distance from or hotel on Coconut Drive—where we were served wonderful Jamaican jerk chicken with great sides as well as, one occasion, jerk fish made from my catch. Blue Water Grill in downtown San Pedro, served a respectable mixed grill, a meager green salad, and the best key lime pie I ever had outside Marcia’s home version. We had a Mayan Buffet at Elvi’s that was hardly memorable–included in our Belize Specialist package–and another dinner at Hidden Treasure that I would describe as serviceable. Avoid the curried chicken; I would recommend the blackened grouper, which was quite good although not sumptuous in size and a tad dry. Picasso’s is well known for its fine tapas.

robinskitchenDan’s catch, prepared at Robin’s Kitchen, San Pedro,Belize

The best meal we had other than at Robin’s was the nicely presented Christmas dinner at Victoria House which quite good featuring, among the entrée choices, an elegant duck dish that we split. Victorian House includes a modest continental breakfast consisting of juice, a fresh fruit plate, coffee, a muffin and a piece of toast; upon request, the waitresses always brought us extra toast. What the hotel would like is for guests to order an overpriced breakfast off the menu. Many guests found the hotel’s bar menu appealing, and we had a good informal lunch there.

Belize is interesting in terms of major Mayan sites, and it is nice during a Northeast winter—especially this one with its severe early start—to be in warm weather. We probably will not put it on our regular itinerary now that we have seen most of the major sties, but I would hope to come back to Victoria House. But, based on our conversations with other tourists and my observations, I would highly recommend Belize for family vacations.

If you go:

Recommended: Victoria House and Robin’s barbecue, snorkeling at Hol Chan Reserve fishing, and, with the reservations mentioned above, the various Mayan excursions.

My advice: deal directly with the hotels and book the tours when you get there. I should have done my due diligence, because, after booking Belize Specialists I learned that its reputation was dicey, and sure enough, they promised much that was not delivered. It turns out that few people in Belize had heard of them, and those that did had a dim view of Belize Specialists.

Bring US dollars because some hotels and restaurants will not give you the official exchange rate of $2 Belize for $1; you may also find your credit card showing an exchange rate in the neighborhood of $1.82 Belize in addition to as much as 3 % t extra for International transactions that most US credit cards charge.

Author of numerous travel articles and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, recently released in a new paperback edition). ), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at and followed on twitter at and