Thursday, September 1, 2011

Petén and Belize!

This post is about the options for a trip extension after the Beca week for any members of the Wilson/Throckmorton clan who want to join Stacey for some additional adventure in northern Guatemala and Belize. The words in pink are live links to websites.

At the end of the Beca week we'll wind up in either Antigua or Guatemala City late afternoon on Sunday, July 29th. Some folks will fly out Sunday night or early morning Monday. We could take a 1st class night bus to Flores (8-10 hours, I'm guessing $25/pp) or fly there either Sunday evening or Monday morning early (~$140/pp one way). Either way, I can arrange for my friend Roxy Ortiz to pick us up. Roxy is an amazingly knowledgeable archaeologist/naturalist and great company.

She'll take us to her mom's place, Hotel La Mansión Del Pajaro Serpiente. I haven't stayed there but it looks like a beautiful place on Lake Petén Itzá with individual villas with air conditioning ($55/double) and without ($44/double); this area is low-lying and will be HOT in July and August. There are single and triple rooms, too.
If we fly up Sunday night (which is a switch from what we'd talked about on the phone, Tracy, but would buy us an extra day in Belize), we could visit Tikal Monday morning and explore around the hotel and nearby Cerro Cahui Protected Biotope or swim in the pool and the lake to cool off in the afternoon. If we take the overnight bus Sunday night or fly up Monday morning (the 30th) we'd do this Tuesday because early morning tours are the best way to visit.

Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is located in the the Petén Basin of northern Guatemala and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. There are traces of early agriculture dating as far back as 1000 BC; the majority of the building took place in the 4th through 8th centuries AD and by 950 AD it was all but deserted. The setting is very jungly - lots of wildlife including ocellated turkeys, lots of tropical birds, coatis, and several kinds of monkeys.
Here's Roxy talking with my group in 2009 on top of Temple 4 - jungle as far as you can see in every direction with just the tops of other temples rising above the canopy. Here's a clip from a Star Wars movie that was filmed there.
We'll spend a 2nd night at Hotel La Mansión Del Pajaro Serpiente and have Roxy drive us to the ruins of Yaxhá for a quick visit enroute to the Belize border which is about an hour's drive from the hotel. It's another important but much less-visited ruin and was the site of Survivor - Guatemala in 2005.
From the Belize border we'll head to our lodging choice for the night. A good and inexpensive option is the Trek Stop in San José Succotz Village. Costs are $24 - $38/double in various little pine cabins surrounded by huge mango trees. There's a little restaurant and a share kitchen where we could prepare some of our own meals, shopping in the village for groceries. There's also a beautiful butterfly enclosure and it's near the Mopan River and the ruins of Xunantunich in case we aren't ruined-out by then. Here are some photos from our stay there with the kids in 2003.
Another option, about 5 miles to the east in a residential neighborhood near the town of San Ignacio (a hub in western Belize) is the Aguada Hotel. It's very nice and has air conditioning and a pool for $44-65/double (some larger rooms available).
The Macal River Camp is a more expensive option and would make accessing tours a bit more challenging, but the setting is amazing; we saw toucans, aracaris, and iguanas from our hammocks. It's $55/pp which includes dinner and breakfast served in an open air palapa. You can hike and canoe on the Macal River but we wouldn't have much time for that if we were just staying 2 nights.
There are lots of options in western Belize for hiking and caving but one of the coolest I've done is the ATM cave: Actun Tunichil Muknal. Here are some photos of our visit there in 2009 with Mike's brother's family. After hiking in about a mile, you swim into the cave and scramble up the creek that runs through it until you reach a dry part that you explore in stocking feet - lots of pottery and the bones of sacrifice victims left by the Maya 1000 years ago.
I just learned of a new, larger cave system nearer the Trek Stop and the Guatemala/Belize border: Actun Chapat. Whereas ATM gets hundreds of visitors a day, this one is rarely visited. It involves heading up through the jungle in a vehicle and on foot and has a variety of chambers with intriguing formations, underground lakes, bones, and Maya artifacts. The reviews on Trip Advisor are impressive.
Either way it's a full day trip after which we could return to the same lodging or move on. One option for moving on would be the one-of-a-kind Belize Zoo. If you stay the night there ($~30/pp for the dorms - pictured below - or up to $80+/double for various houses) you can do a night tour ($60 for 4). That might be fun or it might just be one more move and expense.
The zoo during the day is pretty special, too - basically they've cut paths for people through the jungle so the animals, all indigenous to Belize, are in very natural habitats. If we're not staying it would be good to get there 1st thing in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds. Here are a few more pictures from our 2003 visit.
Afterwards we can hop a bus to Belize City (a few dollars each)....
...and a ferry to Caye Caulker, an island off the coast ($10/pp each way).
Caye Caulker has a wonderful Caribbean vibe and a largely Creole population.
There's good food, great snorkeling and diving, and a variety of lodging options. We stayed at Sailwinds ($65/double, larger rooms available) - it's right on the water and close to everything which is convenient but not quiet. It's a little funky and the Trip Advisor reviews are mixed. It's the yellow building pictured here and the next picture is the view from the deck at dawn.
If we're willing to share bathroom and kitchen facilities and forego air conditioning, Yuma's House is a good budget option next door to Sailwinds, $12.50 for a bunk in a dorm, $28.50/double for a private room with shared bath. It has it's own dock and basically the same convenient but not quiet location. Here are the Trip Advisor reviews which are pretty strong for a budget place.
Another option that looks great on Caulker is Maxhapan Cabañas - a few cute little cabins on the edge of town, good for both easy access and quiet. The cabañas each have 2 double beds, micro, fridge, table and chairs, and a deck area with a hammock. The beach is a block or 2 away but it has a nice sandy garden hang-out area and includes free use of bikes and snorkeling equipment. The Trip Advisor reviews are outstanding and the cost is $65/double + $10 for each add'l person in the room.
The reef is close but not swimming distance; full day snorkeling trips run $40-50/pp. Here are some photos I took while snorkeling there.
-parrot fish-
-horse-eyed jacks and a nurse shark-
-sting ray-
-spotted eagle ray-

-green sea turtle-
If we spend Sunday and Monday night with Roxy and 2 nights in western Belize, we'd arrive on Caye Caulker mid day on Thursday. We'd have Friday for a snorkeling trip and time to explore Saturday morning before I leave to meet Mike at the airport. If you have more time, you could stay longer and either ferry to Belize City ($10/pp) and take a taxi to the airport ($25 per taxi) or fly straight to the airport ($72/pp).

That's all I've got for now! Let me know what you think. LOVELOVELOVE, Stace

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