Visiting Western Belize

Traveling to Belize without coming inland is like getting a soft serve ice cream and not eating the cone. Come on! Eat the cone!

I spent a significant portion of my life on, in and around the water and I readily admit that the Cayes of Belize are inviting and hard to leave once you get there. As a matter of fact, I suggest coming inland first. Inland Belize has a lot to offer and I do not claim to be familiar with all of it. A great source of information for all areas of Belize is www.belizeforum.com.  A great source for what western Belize has to offer is me.

Let’s start with leaving Belize City. I highly recommend it.  There are several ways to do that and your budget, schedule and desires all play a factor. Consider the following:

Bus. If you arrive at the airport, a taxi to the bus station is $25US (usually for 3 people) then a bus to San Ignacio will be about $5US, per person.  This entire evolution may take much of the day. It’s inexpensive but there are other reasonable options.

Private shuttle. A private shuttle from the airport to San Ignacio can be as little as $23-35US per person and takes about an hour and forty five minutes from the time you walk out of the airport doors. Try William, belizeshuttle@yahoo.com or Elias, galvezelias@hotmail.com. I know them both personally and they can usually be booked for the prices mentioned.

Rental car. I have rented cars here in Belize many times but never from the airport so I’ll refrain from comment on who to rent from. I do know this, you want a good, mid-sized vehicle like an SUV or even a small truck like a Toyota Hilux.  The airport rental companies may try to put you in a mini SUV with 4WD. Many people rent them and they are good on gas but I prefer a more substantial vehicle for Belizean roads. I assure you that will wish you went with a larger vehicle if you intend on exploring a bit. Expect to pay about $75US per day. If you are going to be out and about, active and getting around the area, a rental is a good value. If you are going to arrive at a destination, pull the plug and vegetate you will be paying $75 a day for a rental to sit in a driveway and it’s not a good value. If you have no idea what you are going to do or you know that you want to alternately explore and vegetate you should take a shuttle to San Ignacio and consider renting a vehicle there, as needed. I use Matus Auto Rental   but Safe Tours Belize are good people with good vehicles.

Lodging. The San Ignacio area has a great deal  to offer, from high end resorts like the incredible Chaa Creek to a wide range of options for the traveler on a tighter budget. We are going to look at the less expensive options.

A great place to stay just outside of San Ignacio is The Parrot Nest Lodge located in the village of Bullet Tree Falls. The accommodations are simple, set among lush tropical gardens, and right on the Macal River.  There are even a couple of tree-houses you can stay in. Free river tubing and some of the very best food in the San Ignacio area are a couple more highlights. “The Nest” is owned and run great people and staying there is more like staying with friends than staying at a commercial establishment.  San Ignacio is a 7 minute cab ride away and it only costs a dollar or two to get to town. Expect to pay about $40US per night to stay at Parrot Nest Lodge.

Downtown San Ignacio is a very cool place and if you want to stay right downtown I recommend Rosa’s Hotel. Rosa’s has private bathrooms with hot & cold water, rooms with AC & cable TV or several even cheaper rooms without AC.  A free continental breakfast is available and the upper veranda, overlooking San Ignacio, is a great place to catch a nice breeze and enjoy the free wifi.  

Staying anywhere downtown has it’s advantages but one minor disadvantage is the noise that any downtown area brings. At Rosa’s I love that the AC or the fan helps drown that out. Rosa’s Hotel is run by the very competent Tony Hovis who is always ready to help visitors with local insight about tours, restaurants and nightlife. A room will at Rosa’s will cost you between $27.50 and $37.50US. It is a great value and puts you right in the heart of the action in San Ignacio.

If you are feeling a little more adventurous you should check in with local legend David Simpson of David’s Adventure Tours. Not only is he one of the longest established  tour operators in the area but his Maya heritage becomes readily apparent when you visit his family property, El Guaca Mayo (The Scarlet Macaw). Located on a very large, unexcavated, Maya ruin, you are unlikely to be able to see something like this anywhere else in your travels. Additionally, he has lodging available on site for $36US per night, per person. It’s a pretty rustic situation but it includes dinner, breakfast, transportation and a guided tour of the property which is only accessed by canoe. David’s office is easily found in downtown San Ignacio and the phone number there is 011-501-804-3674.

Ok, time for some shameless, self promotion. Barton Creek Outpost was named one of the top 5 “Highlights of Belize” by the Lonely Planet Guidebook and they also said, “It’s the kind of place you visit for a day and stay for a week.” The Outpost is a backpacker hotspot and is set in one of the most beautiful inland locations in Belize. Camping is super-cheap, rental tents are available and there is a new dorm-style bunkhouse that overlooks a beautiful creek in a jungle setting. The food is consistently amazing and the people that come through are usually as cool as the other side of the pillow. There are free jungle hikes as well as big adventure in the form of guided hikes to remote waterfalls, cliff jumping from another set of falls, rock climbing (nothing technical) & horseback riding is available through nearby Mountain Equestrian Trail (MET). Don’t take my word for it though, Google search Barton Creek Outpost Belize and see who is saying what. The Outpost is located about 16 miles outside of San Ignacio and is not always easy to get to but the website has a page devoted getting there. If you are coming to western Belize, check out the Outpost.

Maya Ruins. I enjoy exploring ancient Maya Runs as much as the next guy and the biggest one in Belize is Caracol. Having said that, I hardly ever go there because the 57 mile dirt road is usually like the surface of the moon.  If you want to go, driving to Caracol is an adventure within itself and there are several excellent spots to check out on the way back, more on that in a sec.  There are also several tour companies that will take you, more on tour companies in a sec. As an alternative to Caracol, the large Maya ruin Xunantunich (The Stone Maiden) is very impressive, easy to get to and about 7 miles west of San Ignacio on the highway. A taxi there can be as cheap as $2US per person and the bus is a little less. Some of the best trinket/craft shopping is also found right outside of the Xunantunich entrance.   

The Maya ruin Cahal Pech (Place of Ticks) is essentially in San Ignacio, small, very cool, generally tick-free and worth your time as well. Don’t be fooled into walking though, a cab is cheap and worth it. Entrance into these places in currently $5US.

These are not the only excavated ruins in the area. If you are student of the Maya and want more, more, more then you can easily find it.

Tour Companies. There are quite a few tour companies around here, some are very good, some are the opposite of that. I will recommend a couple that I know personally and have extensive experience with.  

Pacz Tours is a very good all around good company. They have good vehicles, professional guides, are safe and very well run. Pacz offers trips to nearly every site in western Belize and it’s hard to go wrong using them for anything and everything.

Kin Winik is small operation run by John Chuc, a Mayan tour guide with 20 years guiding experience. John offers personalized tours at good prices, is very knowledgeable, dependable and I highly recommend him.  Check out his website for more info.

David’s Adventure Tours has been around a very long time and is personally run by local legend, David Simpson. I spoke about him above and I recommend him for a memorable experience with lots of local flavor.  David can often be reached at 011-501-804-3674. His office is easy to find between the bus station and the market in San Ignacio.

John and David are each going to provide you with a very personal, customized, excellent adventure. Pacz tours is probably a bit more polished, has a bigger budget, a fleet of vehicles and you are likely to be on your very well run tour with a group of others. It would be difficult for me to choose any of these above the others. I highly recommend all three.

Day trips in the area.

ATM Cave. The crown jewel of western Belize. The most highly sought after tour in the area. The most marketed trip in the west. It’s worth it. Go see it. If you stay at the Outpost I can probably get it for you cheaper than you can get it yourself. I recommend Pacz for this tour. Cost: $65 – $85US pp.

Mountain Pine Ridge.  To come to western Belize and not see Rio On Pools and Big Rock Falls should be a crime. And by “see” I mean spend the day climbing on, swimming in, jumping from and physically enjoying.  If you stay at the Outpost we can help get you there. If not, I recommend David Simpson and John Chuc. Cost: $65 – 90US, pp and well worth it. If you have a rental you can find them both yourself.

1000 Foot Falls. Don’t be fooled. Miss it for sure! It’s a long drive to see something from a view point of 1000 yards away with no way to actually get to it and enjoy it. I’d decline to go if someone told me they’d take me for free and buy me lunch.

Rio Frio Cave. Worth a stop if you are already driving by it, coming back from Caracol for example. Worth a miss if you have to travel to get there.

Bol’s Cave. You will have to drive by it to get to the Pine Ridge. It’s warrants a visit and houses an amazingly large collection of Maya artifacts. Most tour companies don’t stop there because the people that run it do not offer reasonable compensation for tour companies to stop. It’s worth paying your guide to stop there. Try $7.50-10US for the guide and $15US to see the cave. It’s worth it.

Barton Creek Cave.  It’s 200 yards from the Outpost so if you are with us already you shouldn’t miss it. If you are not at the Outpost, truthfully, Big Rock Falls and Rio On Pools are a better time although more physically demanding. Cost: $50–90US.

Horseback Riding. Mountain Equestrian Trails was featured in the book, “1000 Places To See Before You Die” with good reason. If you like to ride you cannot do better than an adventure with MET. They have great lodging, excellent food, and the family that owns it are simply the best. The cost of lodging is a bit higher than some other places but let’s face it, quality is usually worth the price.

Ok, to review….eat the cone, miss 1000 foot falls and stay at Barton Creek Outpost. Any questions?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

A Couple Of Great Values For Exploring Belize

Even if you are not a stereotypical backpacker you can dress like one and do the whole backpacking thing through Belize on the cheap. Another option is to stay at some backpacking hotspots & then sneak off to more luxurious digs here and there.  Part of the attraction of these places is paying, for example, $15 a night on lodging and having money left over to get out on some excursions.  People who come to Belize and do not go on some of these trips are missing out on the best that Belize has to offer.

Since I live inland I know a great deal about what is available in this area. I have been in business here for over 6 years, primarily catering to backpackers, and have traveled around the country a bit myself.  I have some personal experience with a few things that I love to do and will limit my comments to those things.  There is a lot more out there than I am personally knowledgeable about and I certainly don’t intend this to be an all encompassing guide. Al Gore invented the internet for that.

In part 1 of this 2 part series we’ll look at exploring the islands along Belize’s barrier reef.

As much as I’d love to believe that Barton Creek Outpost is the highlight of Belize I have spent much of my adult life as a Navy Deep Sea Diver and a boat captain so there is a special place in my heart for turquoise waters, palm trees & warm island breezes. There are many inexpensive ways to experience all of this but here are a few that I have personal experience with.

Seakunga, Placencia. “Seakunga”, it’s fun to say the word and fun to stay there. We call Seakunga “Barton Creek Outpost on the beach”.  It is a great facility that offers beachfront cabanas w/private bathrooms ($60US a night) as well as a large dorm style cabana ($15US a night pp) and tent rentals on the beach ($15US per night). Showers with hot water & bathrooms are available for campers as well as in the dorm style accommodations.  Seakunga has been in business since 1994 and specializes in kayak adventures, both on the sea and inland whitewater trips.

Sea kayaking can be day trips from Placencia or fully equipped, guided, multi-day, island hopping trips. Island hopping excursions involve power boating to beautiful remote islands then deploying the sea kayaks to explore the area on your own. Guests snorkel & fish at their leisure then camp on the islands at night.  

The cost for island hopping is $150US pp, per day. That includes powerboat with captain, kayaks & gear, meals, unlimited rum punch & snorkeling. They do not have fishing gear but when I went I rented good spinning gear for $10 a day from another source in Placencia. This trip is an incredible value and can be overnight or several days.

Raggamuffin Tours out of Caye Caulker. Among other things, they offer an amazing 3 day sailing trip from Caye Caulker to Placencia with snorkeling and fishing along the way. The sailboat typically has about 12-14 passengers & remains in the inner reef to take advantage of the calm sailing waters.

Passengers camp on beautiful Rendezvous Caye and Tobacco Caye whilst visiting Goffs Caye or English Caye and South Water Caye. Cost: $300 per person for three days and includes, food, snorkeling (twice a day), fishing gear (including spear fishing), camping equipment & rum punch.

Both of these island hopping options are an incredible value. A significant difference between multi-day island hopping with these two is that with Raggamuffin you are on a sailboat with a group of people you just met (which can be great fun) and with Seakunga you can go with just you and a friend or a small group of people that you put together. Seakunga also provides the sea kayaks that allow you to go off on your own and explore a bit. It costs a little more but there is something to be said for a bit of privacy on an incredible, remote, Caribbean island. There are advantages to both.

Tobacco Caye. I love Tobacco Caye! It is a 5 acre island dotted with palm trees and surrounded by amazing blue tropical waters. If you like sun, sand, water sports, Caribbean style drumming & drinks this might be the place for you.  There are 5 inexpensive “resorts” on the island that are all a no frills type of situation. Prices start at $30US a day, per person, for a place to crash and three meals.  You can arrange inexpensive fishing & snorkeling from there for less than $30US per person for a half day.

Here are two places on the island I have experience with:

 Tobacco Caye Lodge: Probably the nicest place out there. Cost between $45-$55US, pp, per day. Includes three meals a day.  We stayed in pretty reasonable cabanas although the last time I was there I got my fishing pole stolen off the porch (I knew better than to leave it there, see my blog, “Dey teef me!”).  We had electricity about 1/2 the time and water for showers about 1/3 of the time.  Since I was having such a great time I didn’t care about showers & electricity. Fishing pole, another story.

Gaviota Coral Reef: The least expensive place out there, cost between $30-$35US pp, per night. Includes three meals. These are very simple accommodations, an island hut to crash in after you enjoy a day in paradise. Judy & Dean run the place and are very friendly, offering a warm, personal touch that is hard to find elsewhere. The adjacent volleyball court is always great fun too.

There are a couple bars on the island and, surprisingly, drinks are reasonably priced. The sounds of drumming fill the air every other night or so and the evening festivities are a blast!

Transportation leaves from Dangriga which is a place I would otherwise avoid but is a reasonable jump off point to the island. The 45 minute boat ride is about $35pp, round trip. 

There are cheaper places to stay around Belize but I find Tobacco Caye to be a very good value and they have what I’m looking for, amazing water, great fishing, aquarium-like snorkeling and a very cool island vibe.

In my next installment we’ll look at traveling inland and seeing the ruins and rainforest.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Questions Of A Middle Aged Man

This aging thing is really a pain in my ass. Besides the numerous little aches, pains, injuries, loss of vision and hearing I am experiencing it seems my friends and family are getting older as well. Now I have friends with Alzheimers, breast cancer, friends dying and it is becoming very real to me that my parents will not always be around.  I have expressed my condolences to friends who have lost their parents but I am sure I have yet to truly consider how difficult that loss must be.  I am not ready for that.

Bitching about growing old is obviously not a new pastime but it always seemed like something other people did, old people. I just turned 46 and say what you will but the backside of your 40’s is old. Should I be changing my ways? My style, such as it were?  Be more distinguished? I still feel like a child in what is now an older guy’s body. Does everyone see my inner child and say, “He needs to grow up”? Is worrying about what other people think now in my best interest? Why start that again?

My wife recently  told me that a friend of ours said to her, “Jim’s not as sarcastic & grumpy lately…” or something to that effect. WTF? I readily admit to making it a point to act the way I think is reasonable regardless of what the droning masses think but have I come off as grumpy? I don’t feel grumpy except before 8am or so. Have I been a prick and now due to my advancing years have acquired a new tag, “grumpy”?

What about my children. I have 2 adult boys in the US and three kids here, 12, 9 and 3. How will I ever be able to relate to them? Do they know that I’m cool?

Is it too late for a mid-life crisis? I am sure my mid-life has passed me by, did I have a crisis? Am I in one? I don’t feel the compelling need to buy a sports car or divorce my wife. I am considering taking up golf, that can’t be good.

What kind of man am I? Why do I still feel the need for my Dad to be proud of me? Is death looming or am I the young man that my elders assure me I am? I often feel wise although I suspect a close examination would reveal a bumbling moron.  What, who is the true me? Am I thoroughly honest with myself? Do I put on airs? Am I keeping it real?  Is everyone else really so screwed up, why don’t they take my advice?

These are the things on my mind. Does anyone else think like me or even care?

Wondering WTF

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

I Think My Flesh Eating Parasite Is Gone

I post this short note to simply follow up with my previous posts on this subject.

After a series of injections is looks as though my bout with Leish Maniasis is done. The sores are dried up & almost gone. I have high hopes of being off the leish. If anything changes I’ll keep you appraised.

Off The Leish

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Attacking My Flesh Eating Parasite

This is a follow up to the article I posted regarding my ongoing battle with leish maniasis.

My 12 week intimate relationship with leish maniasis is hopefully coming to a close. After trying 3 cycles of antibiotics, topical ointments and compresses with a local herb (Jackass Bitters) I have submitted myself to a series of injections with the drug Glucantime. Each treatment consists of 5-7 injections in each of my two sores, twice a week for 4 weeks. I have heard that the injections have a list of side effects that would make a crack addict squeamish but am forging ahead nonetheless. So far, and I just started today, the worst side effects seems to be the physical pain caused by taking 5-7 injections to an open wound. I have 2 such wounds. More to follow.

The day after…The side effects from the meds are more apparent. Achy flu-like symptoms and feeling especially run down. The sores themselves are nasty looking! Irritated, swollen, red, yucky… More to follow.

Next day…sores hurt & look bad but I feel fine in general.  I’ll update as anything changes.

Taking My Medicine

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

I Think I Have a Flesh Eating Parasite

So, for the last couple months the festering sore on my wrist has at times grown, seemed to shrink, and oozed continuously but it has never healed. Oh yeah, I have two, one on my left wrist and one on my right elbow. Each one is slightly larger than a US silver dollar. Locals stop me all the time and ask, “You have a bay sore?” “…chiclero” “…leish?” “… had a blood test?” Anyone with past experience sees it and thinks, “Leish Maniasis”. Liesh is a disease caused by parasites and transmitted by a species of sand fly.  I get all kinds of

Leish Maniasis? Tropical disease.

Sore on Left Wrist

Bandaged Up

Leish Manasis, tropical disease.

Two Sores.

recommendations, “Pour bleach on it”, “Squeeze the berries that grow in the orchard on it”, etc…

My wound care treatment has been treating one wound while ignoring the other, a seldom used medical practice. Up to this point the sore on my left wrist has been covered with triple antibiotic, covered with guaze and wrapped with an ace bandage.  I also have been through a whole tube of Bactroban that a friend recommended. The sore stays covered maybe 80% of my waking hours. It always oozes, has not healed and is larger now, same as the one I have ignored. Oh yeah, 3 separate cycles of antibiotics haven’t helped either.

Probably 6 weeks into it I went to a local doc who sent me to get a blood test. After waiting a week for the results the 24 hour test they told me it’s not leish maniasis. I didn’t believe the lab for reasons that are not limited to the typical inefficiency we all experience here but also include a medical receptionist who seemed to hate me, a hurricane and numerous gory photos of other cases of leish. Additionally, the doc, prior to sending me to the lab, says he is sure it’s leish. I stopped him on the street after the test and conveyed the results.  He didn’t believe it either and asked me if I wanted to come in to receive treatment. I told him yes but first I’m going to try a treatment most everyone seems to agree on, Jackass Bitters.

Jackass Bitters is a local plant that seems to be good for your everything. I have personally experienced the positive effects of Jackass Bitters tea killing pesky stomach parasites but that ain’t all. These bitters are also used to treat everything from malaria to vaginal itching. In this case I will boil the leaves to a tea and apply the soaked leaves in a compress that I will change 3 times a day.

Fast forward, 2 weeks later….Turns out Jackass Bitters isn’t working. Yesterday a close friend of ours came by and checked me out. She has spent years in the jungle dealing with the many ailments that are inherent to living here and has treated leish maniasis many times. Mamma, as we call her, is also a registered nurse in the US, is exceptionally bright and probably is not proud of me for letting this thing go for so long.  She took some lovely pictures and told me she’d consult with a dermatologist she works with here and get me on the proper treatment. I meet with her for a follow up today.

I’m looking forward to progress. In addition to the obvious pain in the neck of having 2 large seeping sores on my body (seems you don’t really get used to that) I’m a bit self conscious about it. I usually have at least the worst one covered but as I sit here right now with 2 large bandages on I think I look like a car accident victim.  I mean, who wants giant bandages wrapped around their wrist on one hand and elbow on the other? The only thing worse is leaving them exposed and seeing the recoil from people who see my horrendous condition. I am not an animal!

I hope to start treatment soon and will keep you posted…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

I Got Wood

Late October, 2010. Hurricane Richard had residents and tourists scrambling for shelters, it blew down a lot of trees, wrecked homes and directly impacted over half the population of Belize. The official damage estimate is almost 25 million US dollars. A man was killed by an escaped jaguar and two fishermen appear to have drowned. Despite all that, it was not the overall catastrophe predicted by many.  

At Barton Creek Outpost, in the hills of western Belize, it was more of a nuisance than anything. We did the appropriate amount of scrambling around, moved things to higher ground, worried about falling trees and flooding and then left the jungle. The Outpost was left in the capable hands of an Irishman and an Englishman who assured me afterwards they did not get really drunk and sing ancient songs about their homelands. 

Winds and rain came rolling into downtown San Ignacio about midnight. From the safety of Rosa’s Hotel we watched the vacant streets take a lashing from the wind and rain but saw no real damage. I enjoyed being up late with my wife watching the storm.

Back at Barton Creek Outpost there was no significant damage except we lost our two rope-swings.  Quite a few trees did fall and we were fortunate that they didn’t crush anything man-made this time. A combination of Mennonites, volunteers and campers helped us clear a couple bigger trees, cut them up and send them floating way. The wood from those trees was not useable but our Mennonite neighbor, Amos, searched the 165 acres to see if any fallen trees were good for lumber. The initial report is yes and we should collect a few hundred dollars from the harvesting of the downed trees.

The fallen trees are cut up with a very large, two person, cross cut saw. Two strapping young Mennonite lads can do some serious cutting with one of those babies. These guys can cut trees nearly as fast as a chainsaw and it’s an impressive display of technique and power watching them work. If I’m the one doing the cutting, I prefer the chainsaw.    

Regardless of chainsaws, crosscut saws, hurricanes or regular tree harvesting, taking a tree requires a permit from the local Forestry office.  We have harvested a few trees from the property and obtaining a permit to drop the occasional tree is usually easy. There is a cabana and an outhouse here that were made from lumber we harvested.

The cut trees are dragged out of the jungle by a horse or team of oxen, depending on the weight.   Oxen are stronger. At some point the logs are loaded onto the appropriate horse or oxen drawn cart and taken to one of two sawmills nearby. One sawmill is hydro powered while another is horse powered. Both are amazing.

Once the Mennonites cut the wood into boards it is either stored and used by them or sold to lumber yards or woodshops in San Ignacio. I have hauled a few loads of lumber from Barton Creek to San Ignacio and their product is always well received and gets top dollar. Top dollar at the moment is $1.37US per board foot for grade “A” Mahogany.

It is against the law to ship raw Mahogany out of Belize yet it is still done every day by many lumber yards and furniture companies.  People here know it and it’s a damn shame.  Don’t tell anyone though, it’s a giant industry with big league players.

 What is legal is the shipping of furniture made from legally harvested trees. Our friends at Artisan Woodworks produce some beautiful work and ship it all over the world.  Check them out at www.artisanwoodworksbelize.com. They have the talent and experience to make anything you need and they have a great line of Mahogany & hardwood patio furniture that is reasonably priced and ships out nearly immediately.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments