Warning: long post!
This trip was in the works for a couple of years. Chloe and I agreed we would visit South America together. That changed to Central America when I did more research and found out more about Guatemala.
Additionally, one of my coworkers raved about Guatemala and Belize as “must see” places. So you’re telling me we can visit the jungle, Mayan ruins, caves, volcanoes, and snorkel the second largest barrier reef in the world, for relatively cheap? It didn’t take long after we looked further into Guatemala that we decided it’s where we had to go–and hey, why not tack on Belize?
I’m going to write this in a way that explains our experiences (good and bad) while including some tips for those who would like to do a similar trip. Spoiler alert: it was amazing. If you’re looking for a budget friendly super-adventure, Central America is worth checking out. I’ll also point out what I’d do differently next time.
First off, we only had a week to do it all because of work and money restraints, but it was not enough time for us to do everything we wanted to do. We had to cut things out. We still had a great time, but this trip would have been more relaxed and included more “musts” if we had at least a few more days, if not a second week. But hey, work with what you’ve got, right? And we had an incredible time (I will try not to exaggerate, so when I say amazing, I mean jaw dropping, “happy cry”-inducing experiences).
Anyway. What was on our list to do?
1. Hike a volcano (Chloe denies this was on her bucket list but it totally was!)
2. Explore Antigua
3. See Tikal
4. Go caving in the ATM cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal)
5. Snorkel near Caye Caulker (and hopefully see manatees)
What did we originally want to do, but had to eliminate from the list because there wasn’t enough time?
1. See the Biotopo de Quetzal, where you can usually see the famous bird of Guatemala
2. Semuc Champey, which looks beautiful. Lots of rivers, waterfalls, and caves.
Once I started looking at airfare to get down there, I realized the cheapest combination was to fly from Tijuana to Mexico City, then to Guatemala City. Then we’d take buses around Guatemala and Belize, then fly from Belize City to Houston to San Diego. It seemed complicated, and it honestly was. The hardest part was taking the local buses and figuring out how to get to Tikal from our hotel, and how to cross the Guatemala/Belize border. But hey, it’s all part of the adventure! And a grand adventure is exactly what we had.
Actually, the moment Chloe got to the Tijuana airport, she had an issue–the airline, Interjet (totally calling them out), refused to check her in to her second leg flight from Mexico City to Guatemala City because she didn’t have a flight out of Guatemala. But we DID have a flight out of Belize! So why is that not sufficient to show that we weren’t just going to stay in the country? I got so annoyed, I was like fine, check her in to the first flight to Mexico City and we’ll deal with it there.
I was relatively sure that the employees down there wouldn’t be as hard-headed, to put it bluntly. And that’s exactly what happened. Granted, we had to exit the gate area and go on a wild goose chase to get her the boarding pass for the second flight, but we got it. Oh, then when I tried to show them my electronic one, they said I had to get a printed one too. It was just a pain in the ass to get it all sorted out. But we got on that plane. We landed in Guatemala City, stayed the night in a nearby hotel, and slept so well knowing that we had finally made it!
Speaking of which, we did splurge a little on the hotel in Guatemala City. We wanted a nice safe place to stay near the airport since our flight was getting in late (11 pm). I had heard that the city wasn’t super safe, so we stayed in a hotel that was a bit more expensive. But, we shared a room (just like the rest of the trip) so each hotel night cost was split in half.
But that was it for Guatemala City–we took a shuttle to Antigua that morning. We didn’t do any sight seeing in Guatemala City. The shuttle to Antigua showed up late and the driver drove like he was trying to give us a heart attack. Neither was surprising to me, but I think Chloe was pretty stressed on that bus!
Antigua was recommended as a cool city to see Spanish architecture, some ruins, and volcanoes surrounding it. It was beautiful. My favorite parts were seeing the city from the “Cerro del Cruce” viewpoint and getting drinks on the rooftop bars.
The Spanish architecture was interesting and beautiful, but it’s obviously something that the Spaniards brought, destroying the original buildings and trying to change the culture. Plus, I’ve seen some amazing architecture in Spain–which I do highly recommend visiting, 15/10 would do again.
I really enjoyed riding in the tuk-tuks, which are basically covered, motorized tricycles. They did not take the cobblestone streets well at all. But man they were fun! And super cheap to ride in, too. We took one to the lookout in Antigua. We also took one in Flores.
The next day (day 2), we hiked Pacaya Volcano. The shuttle picked us up at like 6 am for this. We signed up last minute through the hotel, and it only cost $10 per person, including transportation to the volcano and a guide. The hike itself only took a few hours–it’s a half day tour. I personally loved the tour. It wasn’t the easiest hike, but it wasn’t the most difficult either. And the payoff was seeing a volcano, including spits of lava flowing down from the top. We roasted marshmallows on the hot lava rock.
I do want to mention that our tour guide was not very good. He didn’t explain much, and he was impatient when we wanted to stop and take a breather. At the end he told us straight up that we should all tip him. So I would recommend doing a little research when you book guides. Not all are created equal.
After the hike, we had a few hours more to kill in Antigua before getting on our bus to Flores.
Anyway, that night, with volcanic dust still stuck in our eyelids and between our toes, we hopped on an overnight bus to Flores, which is a small town near Tikal. The bus left at 9 pm and arrived at 6 am, so I knew it would be hell. We got “luxury” semi bed chairs, which were definitely worth that extra cost. I heard that it would be cold on the bus since they blast the AC, but even with long pants, a sweater, and two blankets, I was still a little cold. The bus also stopped at like 1 am to get gas and allow people to go to a real bathroom (the one on the bus was strictly for “liquids only”). Then at 3 am we were woken up at an agricultural checkpoint. Chloe and I pretended to be asleep and got out of having to get off the bus.
The whole way we also had an old, confused lady incessantly asking questions and rambling on while we tried to sleep. Thank goodness I had ear plugs and an eye mask with me. Still, I think I slept a total of about 4 hours. I wasn’t sure if I would survive the long day ahead–we were planning to see Tikal that day.
When we got off the bus, we were looking like zombie porcelain dolls. A bunch of locals crowded our bus asking if we needed a ride to our next destination. Why yes, we did. But I forgot they say never to go with those guys since they’re basically just going to scam you. But yeah, I was half asleep so we got in their minivan, like children lured by a stranger with candy.
Once they brought us to their business location, I realized what they were doing. Chloe and I quickly picked up our things and ran away to catch a tuk tuk to the real public bus station. This is another situation where my Spanish came in really handy. I’m not sure how people that don’t speak Spanish survive doing a trip like this. Sure, in the big touristy areas you’ve got plenty of people who speak English. But in the smaller towns, not so much. At the public bus station, we got on a “collectivo” which just goes around picking people up and dropping them where they ask. It’s just a minivan, though. We stuck out like sore thumbs. But no one talked badly of us (sometimes people will assume I don’t understand and say things).
Anyway, after about an hour on there, we finally made it to our hostal in El Remate. Or at least, a street a half a mile from our hostel. We honestly had no idea what the address of the place was, so I just said “drop us off at the center of this town” and we followed signs. Luckily it was a tiny town.
It’s a beautiful, tiny, fishing town on a lake. Our hostal was tucked away in the jungle and was very cute. Very basic though! The showers were luke warm at their best. But the people were nice and we made friends with a very sweet dog there.
When we asked about how to get to Tikal, they were like, oh that bus only leaves in the morning and you missed it. What! I scrambled trying to find a way to get us to Tikal that day, because we had a sunset tour reserved at 3 pm. Basically, we had to hire a taxi to get us there. It was either that or wait until the next morning to go, which we didn’t have time to do. But the taxi worked out well. He even waited for us while we were in the park. All said and done it actually wasn’t too expensive considering we had our own private driver. That’s something I would plan better if I did it again. But, it worked out.
When we got to Tikal we met up with our guide, Roxy, who knows so much about the ruins, history, culture, and species of animals in the park and where to find them. She was a GEM. At the beginning of the tour, we got to hop on the back of a pickup truck to get to the ruins quicker. Roxy seemingly knew every employee in the park. That ride was a refreshing start to the tour.
We got to see spider monkeys, coatimundi, a toucan, and various other bird species. We also heard howler monkeys in the distance. We hiked up a few of the temples and looked out over the top of the trees. It was incredible. I had a moment of reflection to think about my mom. I wish she could have been there. I also know that she would have wanted me to enjoy it to the fullest. We watched the sunset over the temples sticking out from the jungle, as the howler monkeys vocalized and a toucan flew by. It was a magical, once in a lifetime type of thing.
At that point I thought the tour was over–no. Roxy took us to see a couple more ruins and then to trek through the jungle in complete darkness. She had a flashlight but it was just us two and Roxy (and all the animals making noises). We saw a group of coati scurrying up a tree to go to sleep. We also were careful about where we stepped, trying to avoid snakes. We found a giant toad. I have to admit I was afraid of jaguars stalking us. So that was a little nerve wracking. But Roxy got us back safe, and I highly recommend her as a tour guide in Tikal. She speaks English and Spanish fluently and she’s easy to understand.
Once we got back to town, we stopped at a tiny restaurant to eat the local specialty–whole fish, caught from the lake. It was very good, especially because it felt so authentic eating where the locals did. This was the type of restaurant that ONLY had outdoor seating. I haven’t mentioned this yet: bug repellant is a MUST for Guatemala and Belize!
The next morning, day four, we knew we needed to get into Belize by “collectivo” from the little town of El Remate. We donned our backpacks and hit the road. By the way, carrying a backpack is definitely the way to go if you’re going to do a trip like this. Rolling suitcases will just get in the way and be a pain to carry around.
Once we figured out which direction to go, we needed to get some money at an ATM. At that point, we saw howler monkeys in the trees. That was amazing to see them in such a public area, where we least expected. We took two different buses, and the second one dropped us off at the border of Guatemala and Belize.
I enjoyed the ride, seeing how people live in all the tiny villages. Once we got to the border, we had to walk across and catch a taxi to San Ignacio, our next stop. Chloe was ecstatic upon entering Belize and realizing that she could now understand the language and speak to the locals 😂. Actually, in Belize we heard a lot of English, Spanish, and creole. It was my first time visiting an English speaking country outside the US.
Our first day in San Ignacio was relaxing. We had just had some really long days, so we ended up going to get lunch, then swimming in the river, and then dinner. The weather was hot, so getting in the river felt really good, even though the bottom was all rocks and pebbles. A lot of local kids were playing in the water, so I appreciated that they didn’t point and laugh at me as the weird tourist carefully placing my feet so as not to hurt them (that didn’t work. Every step hurt).
Day five was the big day of exploring the famous “ATM” cave. The cave that many people said we just had to do. I was slightly terrified thinking about it. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I looked up descriptions of it online. I psyched myself out, which I don’t recommend doing. I thought I would feel trapped once I got in there. I knew I wasn’t claustrophobic, but I didn’t like getting into something that wasn’t easy to get out of. And I knew from having MRIs that I didn’t like being in that machine.
Anyway. Yeah, it’s a cave. Yes, there are tight spots and you need to swim in parts of it. There are also 1,000 year old skeletons and pottery. There are amazing cave formations and at parts it opens up like a cathedral. It’s super cool and interesting. And me, the scardey cat, had a smile the whole time. I was eating it up! Seeing those skeletons in person really brings you into the story of how they got there. The stalactites and stalagmites sparkled under the flashlight, from the minerals built up on them. We hiked about a mile into the cave. It was hard to imagine the Mayans going through all that to make these sacrifices.
Note: the following photos of the cave are not mine. Cameras are no longer allowed in the cave due to one idiot dropping their camera on a thousand year old skeleton and putting a hole in it.
There’s a part where the guide asks you to grab the shoulder of the person in front of you and turn off all headlamps. The darkness was mind boggling. The darkest place I’ve ever seen–or not seen. You couldn’t see anything at all. My eyes strained trying to find just a spec of light or a reflection. But absolutely nothing gave off light. It was kind of scary, but also exhilarating to walk through the cave system for a couple of minutes like that. We even trudged through some water in the darkness. Chloe did not like that part, and briefly turned on her headlamp. I told her no, you can do this! and she turned it back off. She didn’t stop saying that it was “not OK!” though. We got each other through this experience, for sure!
When we finally made it back out of the cave, I felt incredibly proud of myself for completing the journey. Yes, I did it! I conquered my fears, and pushed through (literally). I think the fact that we kept moving along in the beginning helped me to get through it. I didn’t stop to contemplate if I should go in–I just went in. Once we were pretty far in, I just kept taking deep breaths and focusing on what the guide was telling us. I realized that it wasn’t so bad, and it was actually one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. A lot of people describe it as an Indiana Jones adventure. I completely agree! That being said, if you’re actually claustrophobic (like can’t get in an elevator), or you have a phobia of caves, then this isn’t the thing for you. However, if you’re just a little unsure, scared, or nervous about it–you should go for it.
Advice for those who want to go:
1. Go during the dry season
2. Wear a swimsuit with quick dry clothing over it
3. Wear keen water shoes
4. Bring a pair of socks for walking in the upper chamber of the cave
5. Don’t bring in anything inside with you except the socks (put those in your helmet). If I were wearing a backpack it would have been a pain
6. Go with a reputable/highly rated tour company
Once we got back to our hotel room, we got ready to go out for a few drinks to celebrate our successful caving trip.
The morning of day six, we went by shuttle to Belize City. The drive was pretty as we got to see a lot of Belize’s countryside. It took about two hours to get there, and we arrived right at the water taxi station to take a water taxi to Caye Caulker. This was by reserved shuttle, which is a lot nicer and faster than the public buses (but also more expensive) .
The water taxi ride was beautiful. It felt great sitting up top with the ocean wind blowing on my face. The water is a beautiful light blue, and in shallow areas you can see the bottom. We passed by a few tiny islands, and in about 45 minutes pulled up to Caye Caulker.
It’s a pretty small island with the motto “move slow”. Literally if you walk fast people will look at you weird and tell you to slow down (that happened to me. I’m a naturally fast walker). The “roads” are compacted sand. The cars are golf carts. The taxis are golf carts. Not that we needed a taxi. Everything we needed to get to was within 5 minutes walking distance.
Caye Caulker did not disappoint. I couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. It’s definitely an island paradise. Nothing fancy, and definitely not the rich person paradise filled with yachts and expensive restaurants–but a very beautiful and relaxing place. Hammocks were everywhere, even in public areas.
Our favorite spot was the Iguana Reef Beach Bar. This is the place to be if you want to sit back, relax, enjoy a drink and the beach. Plus, there’s a seahorse sanctuary right at the dock! I was skeptical at first that we would even see one, but we saw a few of them. The bar has a great happy hour, and hammocks both in the shade and out over the water.
Around 5 pm every evening, pelicans gather to wait for fisherman to bring them sardines. This place is also the best to watch the sunset on Caye Caulker.
On day seven, our last full day of the trip, we went on a full day snorkeling tour. I was expecting to see lots of fish, some sharks and rays, maybe a sea turtle, and if we got really lucky, a manatee. We made four or five different stops, so I’m glad it was a warm day. We started out getting to see a green sea turtle pretty early. Our guide was good about making sure the group didn’t overwhelm the turtle. We also saw all kinds of fish, including wrasse, trunkfish, triggerfish, barracuda, parrotfish, sergeant majors, horse eyed jack, spadefish, and surgeonfish just to name a few. We stopped at a ship wreck that was only about 20 feet deep and saw some cool fish there too. I enjoyed diving down to look through the holes of the ship and peek at the fish inside.
For lunch, we sat in the boat near an area where sea turtles frequent. We watched a couple of them swimming around and coming up for air as we ate our sandwiches and listened to the guide’s reggae music. Later, at the Hol Chan reserve, we saw spotted eagle rays, a hawksbill sea turtle, green moray eels, and southern sting rays. We also stopped at a spot where nurse sharks frequented. Our guide fed them and I was swimming about 5-10 feet from a nurse shark feeding frenzy. I remember swimming with them at the aquarium I worked at, but these guys were much bigger and there were about 10-20 of them gathered up.
At one point while we were on the boat, we saw a pod of dolphins swimming nearby. The guide asked if we wanted to stop and jump in. Not more than 2 minutes later I was grabbing my mask and snorkel as fast as I could and jumping off the bow to try to swim with the dolphins. For a few magical seconds I saw them in the water, swimming by. It didn’t last long, but what an amazing moment!
We didn’t get to swim with manatees, but we did see at least one swimming and coming up for air. Toward the end of the tour, they took us to see the seahorses, and near there, some tarpon. The tour was so much more than I expected. We were pretty tired and sunburned at the end, but it was so worth it. I think that was my favorite day of the entire trip.
After our tour, we went out to eat at a place called Wish Willy. It’s quite the experience, because it’s just one guy doing everything. He’s a very good cook and specializes in typical Belize food. But you can’t go there in a hurry, because he’s literally cooking for everyone and serving everyone. Drinks are in coolers and you just help yourself–he’ll count the bottles left on your table and charge you accordingly. It was some delicious food, worth the wait!
On our last morning, we grabbed some fry-jacks for breakfast. They’re basically fried dough with various fillings. I got mine with chicken, refried beans, and cheese. It was delicious!
To get to the airport, we took the water taxi back to Belize City, then a taxi. The flights back went smoothly, and I was so happy to see Mitzy when I got home. I literally worked one day, then left again to go to DC to surprise my dad for his birthday.
Now it feels good to be back home in my own bed, with Mitzy snoring next to me. 🙂