This looong post may bore you to tears if you don't have plans in the near future to visit Belize, but this is just the sort of thing I would have loved to have found when researching the trip. TripAdvisor is great and all, but I need pictures!
We spent a week in San Ignacio, a town near Belize's western border that serves as a hub for hitting up many of the Mayan ruins and adventure tours in Belize. We broke up that week with an overnight trip to Guatemala. Then we went to the small island of Caye Caulker to laze away the end of our vacation ocean side.
Honestly, I was looking forward to tromping around Mayan temples and exploring caves (the first part of our trip) more than snorkeling and sunning myself (the second part), and, while both halves of our trip were awesome, temples and caves are just too cool!
And food? I've never had an easier time eating as a vegetarian while traveling. Granted, you'll see lots of burritos and beans and rice in my pics, but I can't think of a single place we stopped in that didn't offer something vegetarian. Many restaurants (in San Ignacio, in particular) had tofu, veggie patties, and veggie sausage options. So, why did I eat so many plates of rice and beans? Because I truly love rice, and could eat it every day. Also, most rice and bean plates come with a side of coleslaw, and I could eat that every day, too.First things first. Somehow, we were upgraded to first class on USAir on the trip down, and while I was excited because I've never flown first class before, I felt like a schmuck eating the free souffle-like cheese quiche with sun dried tomatoes, salad, and warm roll (side of sausage removed), and getting treated like royalty while everyone in the back had to shell out the moolah for Coke and granola bars.
From pictures, all the ancient Mayan cities we went to look similar (pyramidal with lots of steps), but they're all simply amazing! And what's even more amazing is that there are tons of these structures that are uncovered from the dirt, trees, and jungle that now sit on top of these thousands-of-years-old dwellings. I kept joking that every Beliziean citizen had a Mayan ruin in their backyard, and with many citizens owning hundreds of acres of land, it's not a joke.
Above is Caracol, one of the largest ancient Mayan cities, covering 65 square miles, but much of it is left covered (takes lots of money and labor, plus preservation is best achieved by not uncovering the temples and exposing the limestone bricks to the elements, but by simply cutting the large trees on top of the ruins down to prevent their roots from displacing stones).
Carocol is about a 2 1/2 hour drive from San Ignagio down a pothole-riddled dirt road, so you'll find yourself there with only a few other tourists, which is quite nice.
The University of Pennsylvania had their hands in the excavation of Caracol, along with many other Mayan sites, and, of course, took some goodies home with them, so a trip to the University of Pessnylvania Archeology and Anthropology Museum in Philly is on the top of my to-do list.All of our day trips with guides from San Ignacio were with either Mayawalk, Pacz, or David's. Mayawalk and Pacz pretty much offer the same tours, while David's kind of has the Barton Creek tour monopolized since he's the guy who explored the cave first. All operators were pleasant and knowledgeable, with David, the man himself, coming out on top as a truly friendly dude.
Soooo...we judged by the included lunch. And Mayawalk won hands down with their vegetarian lunch of seasoned tvp, rice and beans, fried plantains, and banana bread made early in the morning by one of the operator's sisters. Seriously good! Not convinced? Wait until you see Pacz's lunch. David's doesn't include lunch, but he'll give you oranges and bananas from his own trees.Quite a few Chinese restaurant in San Ignacio, and most of the supermarkets are owned by Chinese folks. I think Chinese food is the same the world round...except for in China. Maxim's has typical Chinese American food. Don't know why I'm always seduced by sweet and sour dishes, but I'm always disappointed when I eat them. Watery and very sweet. Our day trip into the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave was seriously the most fun I've ever had on vacation. If you have only one day in inland Belize, do this! Walk 45 minutes through the jungle (it's like a greenhouse's contents spilled out onto the ground), making three river crossings (if you don't count the first one that leads from a road to a road), swim into the mouth of the cave, then walk through ankle to chest-high water through the cave, squeezing through and climbing up rocks until you get to an elevated chamber where Mayan pottery and skeletal remains are, literally, inches from your feet! Top row: broken pottery; skull. Bottom row: pottery detail of a monkey; the Crystal Maiden.
It's absolutely crazy that they let you do this, especially considering that a couple of clumsy people have already stepped on and broken pottery and bones. This would never be allowed in the US, and who knows how long they'll continue to allow this.The ATM tour was with Pacz. Great tour, awful lunch. The veggie sandwich was lettuce and a couple of pepper and cucumber slices on sliced bread with mayo. The snickers bar was so old the inside had shrunk and separated from the chocolate. It's the only time I can remember spitting out chocolate. Bag of fresh watermelon and plantain chips were just fine.But that's OK, because I was stuffed from our breakfast at Cafe Sol in San Ignacio. That's a veggie breakfast burrito stuffed with some sort of veggie and soy scramble. Below is a veggie patty with egg and cheese on a homemade garlic bagel. The bagel was actually up to par. And that patty held me most of the day. Lots of veggie options at Cafe Sol.After the long day in the ATM cave we headed to Erva's in San Ignacio. Billed as serving some of the best Belizean food in San Ignacio, we wanted to check it out. Well, Belizean food is usually some sort of fish dish or stewed meat served with rice and beans, fried plantain, and a side of cole slaw with a milkshake to follow. So, for me, I had...the rice and beans! Erva's served it with a side of heavily salted tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions in lime juice. You just can't screw up rice and beans, and if you do, it needs to go in the trash.The Old French Bakery with it's small counter filled with pastries and a rack of bread loaves sits across the street from the bus station in San Ignacio. Top left is the bran-iest banana bran muffin I've ever had. Edible, but I imagined I was a horse eating from a grain bag as I tackled the muffin. The croissant is nothing to speak of, but the custard roll with chocolate chips at the bottom is to die for! We returned day after day to procure more custard rolls, but apparently they're not made daily. Sadness.If you have four of more days in Belize, definitely spend two days traveling to Guatemala and exploring Tikal, an extensively excavated ancient Mayan city with mind-boggling tall temples. Although, really, what's uncovered is only a fraction of what is there. Tikal might rival ATM cave, but how can you compare the two different sites.
Above is Temple V, and at 190 feet tall, it's the second tallest temple at Tikal. And this is how you get up there. Only slightly slanted back, the steps are basically a ladder shooting straight to the sky with small platforms every dozen or so steps. Yep, so high, it disappears into the sky. And this is what you see when you're up above the rainforest. More temples! And parrots flying...below you!Temple IV, at 212 feet, is the tallest temple at Tikal, and was the tallest structure in North America before the construction of skyscrapers. We forgot to take a picture of it from below because we were in a hurry to scramble to the top to watch the sun set. Star Wars fans will also recognize the view from the top of Temple IV, because that's where they placed the cameras to shoot the last scenes of the first movie. Temple of the Jaguar. Recognize this from the movie Apocalypto? Mel Gibson copped all sorts of icons and ideas from all over North and Central America to make his fictional movie, which is a hoot to watch if you're an actual Mayan archeologist like the woman below. We spent the first half of a day traveling from San Ignacio in Belize to Tikal in Guatemala. Buy an entrance ticket into the park after 4 pm and you can stay inside the park until it closes at 6 pm...and the ticket is good for the entire next day, too. This is why you should spend the night at one of the three hotels in Tikal.
We stayed at Jaguar Inn (the cheapest hotel) and it was just fine. But Tikal Inn offers a morning tour starting at 5:45 am (see, you gotta spend the night on site). It just happens that the owner of Tikal Inn has a sister, Roxy, that is a Mayan field archaeologist on sabbatical who gives tours of Tikal through Tikal Inn, and is taking care of the hotel while her brother is away for personal matters.
Our tour with Roxy was invaluable and worth much more than the nominal fee we paid her. The woman did not skip a beat, and spewed facts for a solid four of more hours. She loves talking Mayan culture and history, but hates taking care of the hotel. As soon as her brother comes back (this year!), she's out of there. If you go to Tikal this year, spend the night, and book a tour at Tikal Inn with Roxy!Our food at Jaguar Inn was hit or miss. The Spanish tortilla with potatoes and processed cheese was not bad. Top right is some sort of rice dish covered with tomatoes and tuna. It was watery and weird. Bottom right is not a dish of tar, but sweet fried plantains covered in a very dark and chocolaty mole sauce. Quite good.For about half of the prices at Jaguar Inn you can walk back up the entrance road to the more ramshackle Imperio Maya restaurant. This is a plate of beans and rice, not rice and beans. Beans and rice is beans on the side of rice. Rice and beans is beans mixed into rice. Got it? The green sicks are chayote, which are quite common when you order steamed vegetables. And those are french fries that were pealed after the order was put in and fried in their, essentially, outdoor kitchen after they lit the wood. Tortillas, peppers, and salt accompany the meal.We got a chocolate covered banana from a kid walking around with an insulated bag in the parking lot while waiting for a collectivo to take us part of the way back to Belize.Back in San Ignacio again, we switched up our accommodations for variety, and I have to give a shout-out to where we stayed.We stayed at Iguana Junction, which is actually in Bullet Tree Falls. Bullet Tree Falls is three miles outside of San Ignacio, but it's only a cheap taxi ride away or a one hour walk from the hubbub of the city.
Iguana Junction is run by Dawn and Collin, an English couple that fell in love with Belize (like so many people do), and moved there. Dawn and Collin are fabulously nice people, and run the place like a B&B. And Collin will wait around in the morning to drive you into town on his shopping runs, which saves you some taxi dough.
The dinners and breakfasts Dawn and Collin make are wonderful. She made us a quiche with cayote, salad, jacket potatoes, and ginger biscuits (they're English!) with lemon curd and vanilla yogurt the one night we opted to dine in (sorry, no pics). Dinner with Dawn and Collin (and other guests) is quite fun. I could chat with them all night long.
I really can't say enough good things about Iguana Junction and their quaint property with a large deck overlooking a river; a large palapa with hammocks; and their rustic, but tidy cabanas. To my delight, their cat, Hattie, loved on me every morning. And their dog, K'an, is a goofy sweetheart. And, unbelievably, Iguana Junction is cheaper than most accommodations in the area!
I also can't say enough good things about Louise's (or is it Louisa's?). The food at Louise's is the best food I ate the entire trip. Louise's is run out of a house around the corner and down the street from Iguana Junction, with only a sign saying "closed" or "open," so you're just gonna have to stay at Iguana Junction and get Collin to point it out for you, as he did for us.
Louise's is run out of the underside of a house on stilts, and the set up is what I would call a fantasy, open-air basement with a bar at one end and a kitchen at the other. Louise is a woman who grew up in the bush of Belize and does the cooking. Remo, from Turnersville, NJ (!), is married to Louisa, and runs the bar. Remo is quite the character, and was exited to see us Philly folk and regale us with all sorts of crazy stories about Philly in the 70's and marrying into a Belizean family from the bush. Like Iguana Junction, Louise's is another place you could stay all night and be entertained by the proprietors.
But Louise does magic with food! The menu is limited to whatever she puts on the board, but she'll whip something up for you, as she did for us when we told her we were vegetarian. What you see above is just a salad, bread, coleslaw, and fried potatoes (we caught her off guard the first night), but they were exceptional! The fried potatoes were perfectly seasoned and crisped, the coleslaw had just the right amount of creaminess, the salad dressing for the salad had us begging for the ingredient list, and the bread was truly fresh. She even brought out a huge tub of herbed cream cheese to spread on the bread.On a second night, we went in for more of Remo's tales and Louise's food. She served us a fabulous veggie soup (not pictured) while we waited on a veggie burrito stuffed with sauteed onions, tomatoes, squash, and who knows what else; it was very dark. Sounds simple, but, I'm telling you, she's got crazy food magic. The best thing I ate the entire trip!More Mayan ruins! Just can't get enough. Cahal Pech is an ancient Mayan site about a twenty minute, uphill walk from the center or San Ignacio, so is a good trip to do on your own when you want a slow day. There's a nice little museum to go through before you enter. Cahal Pech translates into "place of ticks." I didn't get any ticks at Cahal Pech, but I did get a tick between my knuckles at Tikal! Bluuuaagh!
From Cahal Pech, it's just a quick 5 or 10 minute cab drive to Xunantunich (more Mayan ruins!), so you might as well go. Hop on the hand-cranked river ferry, and it's a 1 mile walk up the hill to the site. El Castillo at Xunantunich is the second largest structure in Belize (the first is at Caracol), and has some pretty snazzy Mayan friezes wrapped around the top. When we rode back to Belize from Guatemala, the taxi driver that took us from the border to San Ignacio said his favorite restaurant was Benny's Kitchen. Benny's Kitchen is a five minute walk into the neighborhood directly across from the water ferry to Xunantunich, and there is a chalk board at the ferry advertising their food, and signs leading you to the establishment. Benny's serves Belizean food, so that means rice and bean, fried plantain, and a side of potato salad (if your side in Belize is not coleslaw, it's potato salad...and sometimes both!).
Below that are garnachas. We ordered these to figure out what they were exactly, since they're at every taco stand. We also ordered tostadas. We couldn't tell the difference between the two. And that's a chocolate banana milkshake. Belizean food!Sunday in San Ignacio is dead thanks to religion, but Saturday is hoppin'. Everyone comes into the city to shop, and the number of market vendors swells on Saturday. We had a slice of coconut flan from a vendor at the Saturday market. Perfect!The same taxi driver that recommended Benny's Kitchen also shared with us some of his roasted and salted pepitas. The boy loves salty, nutty things, so many little bags of pepitas were bought form corner stands like the one above.Hannah's is extremely popular with the tourists and has lots of veggie options. We ate there twice; both times because they were one of the only places open. Once because it was Sunday, and once because we needed breakfast before 7am when most places open. The first time I had a decent vegetable curry with tofu, but it would never fly in the States as decent. The second time I had a breakfast burrito, and it was just fine. Especially love the real flour tortillas that are so fluffy. But they're all like that in Belize!But for a fraction of the price of Hannah's burritos, you can get a burrito at this Mexican stand (didn't seem to have a name) just two doors down from Hannah's. They open at 7am. Most of our breakfasts before heading out were either from The Old French Bakery or from here. Breakfast burrito with beans and eggs, veggie burrito with beans and pico, or bean empanadas topped with cabbage.
We were breakfast burritoed-out, so visited Cafe Sol again and had almond banana pancakes and lime cream cheese French toast. I'm stealing the lime cream cheese idea!We went on a canoe trip through Barton Creek Cave with David's Tours . That's David top right. He's an extremely chill dude, if you know what I mean...and extremely nice. David is the first person (obviously in recent times, 'cause there are Mayan artifacts in the cave) to explore the narrow cave, so he pretty much rules this relaxing canoe tour though a cave. I got to hold the spotlight during the trip inside the cave. Wheeeeee!We booked a 14-mile canoe trip down the Macal River with David's Tours. You put in at David's property, which is on an unexcavated Mayan ruin (told you everyone had a Mayan ruin in their back yard). David partnered up with an American dude, and offers cabanas and camping on his beautiful property. It's a little out there, but if you're not interested in going into the city everyday, it might fit your bill.
The trip ends at the market in San Ignacio. Along the way, you'll see tons of iguanas. Did you know, the females are green, and the males are orange-ish? The males are much easier to spot than the females.
Pizza? Yeah, we just felt like getting pizza to go from Mr. Greedy's in San Ignacio to take back to Iguana Junction -- it's so nice there on the river with hammocks! Dawn jumped at the idea of ordering in pizza and not having to cook, so we waited for them to drive into town and pick up a pizza for themselves, and we had a pizza party. Dawn and Collin at Iguana Junction are awesome! Pizza not bad, either. Very crispy, thin-ish crust, with the edges being a little too crispy to really eat.The breakfast spread at Iguana Junction on our last day before heading out to cross the country for the islands included fresh fruit, yogurt, pancakes, and breakfast tacos (not pictured). Dawn makes the pancakes, while Collin runs across the street to buy fresh tortillas from a family. Excellent.
OMG, that was just the first week! Belize is so much fun. Stay tuned for the second week out on Caye Caulker. If you have any specific questions about transport, tours, logistics, etc., I'd be happy to try to answer them.