Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Mexico-Belize-Guatemala trip, July 2005

Flights - American Airlines LAX > Dallas > Cancun, return Belize > Dallas > LAX

The flights were all pretty uneventful and routine. We took the red eye from LAX to Dallas and then had to spend about five hours or so in Dallas waiting for our connection to Cancun, which ended up being delayed about an hour or so. The layover in Dallas was brutal since we were so tired and their chairs are in no way designed for sleeping. The flights back were fine and all were on time. American does not offer any food or snacks except pretzels on these flights, so be sure to grab a bite to eat before you go or on the layover.

Best Day Tours – transportation from Cancun to Playa del Carmen

Although there is a cheap bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen, we wanted to meet my husband’s parents at the Cancun airport and ride to the resort in Playa with them. I knew they would be more comfortable in a pre-arranged van. Best Day Tours was on top of everything and had good communication with us by e-mail before our trip. They even let his parents know that our flight was delayed and offered to take them to the resort rather than waiting for us if they wanted. They chose to have a beer and wait for us outside the airport. We ended up having the van to ourselves, which was nice, since we hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks and had lots to talk about! The ride down to the Iberostar Tucan took about 45 minutes and the driver was very polite and professional. They also had a representative meet my father-in-law in the lobby after we checked in to arrange the time for their return transfer. The man was very helpful and gave him a lot of safety tips and information about the area. They also arrange tours if you want.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico (four nights)
Iberostar Tucan/Quetzal Resort

We spent four nights at this resort to attend the wedding of my husband’s cousin and his new bride. We had originally reserved a room on the Tucan side, but they ended up booking everyone in the wedding group on the Quetzal side. I was a little concerned at first, but quickly realized that both sides are exactly the same. My in-laws had reserved an ocean view Junior Suite and we were given a room about two buildings away from them near the pool. Many of the others from the wedding group were staying in or near our building too. I really enjoyed the location of our building (#22) because it was really close to the pool, beach, and snack buffets. It’s a bit of a walk to the main restaurants, lobby area, and disco, but it’s real easy if you take the outside sidewalks rather than the jungle path. The jungle path is nice for viewing all the pretty birds and interesting animals, but it can be a little rough if you aren’t in the right shoes!

We aren’t normally big on the all-inclusive thing, but this place does about as good of a job as they can. The drinks are plentiful and in decent sized cups. They will give you call brand liquor if you ask for it. The beer selection was pretty limited. I think it was just Dos XX. The breakfast buffet was the best food of the day; those omelets can’t be beet! The dinner buffet was pretty good as far as buffets go, although I’m not a big fan of them in general. We ate at the Italian restaurant for the rehearsal dinner and the steakhouse for the wedding reception. I can’t say I was blown away by either one; however, we were given limited menu choices since we were part of a group. Maybe other items from the menu would have been better. To be fair, my husband loved his steak at the steak house. We also had dinner at the Mexican restaurant on our last night. It was really good and the margaritas were tasty. The appetizer, salad, and desert bars at all the restaurants are quite good too.

The rooms are pretty basic hotel rooms, but clean, comfortable, and well air-conditioned. We didn’t go on our deck much because of the heat and mosquitoes. Screen doors would have been a bonus. They keep a mini-bar in your room stocked with complementary beer, water, and sodas, which is a nice touch. I just wish it had some liquor too! The pool area is huge and lovely, although the water a bit too warm, almost like bath water. The swim up bar was a better temperature, but too shallow and rather crowded. The beach is absolutely beautiful, almost picture perfect. The water is an unbelievable color blue, the perfect temperature, and calm enough to swim in comfortably. It drops off pretty quick after you step in, so you don’t have to go out far to swim at all. I think that could be the result of erosion from Hurricane Ivan last year. I hear all the beaches in the area are much smaller than they were before the hurricane.

The wedding was one of the most beautiful weddings we’ve ever witnessed. The resort did a great job of making sure everything went smoothly for them. This was a great place to spend a few days celebrating the wedding with family. My only complaint, if any, is that they only allow one guaranteed restaurant reservation for a four-night stay and they counted the rehearsal dinner as that one reservation. We were still able to get one more reservation through luck on the waiting list, but they don’t tell you if you’re in or not until 6:00 the day of your reservation, which sort of leaves you hanging if you want to make any plans for that day/night. Their towel policy is also a bit strict. They issue a “towel card” to each person. You have to turn in the card to receive a towel and then you get it back when you return the towel. You are charged $10 per card that is not turned back in at checkout. Sure enough, someone stole one of our towels off of a lounge chair! It had only been there for ten minutes. We had to fill out an “official” report at the front desk in order to get a new towel card without paying the ten bucks. It was pretty funny reading some of the other reports on the chart, describing “how, where, and when” their towel disappeared.

Overall, I found the IB Tucan/Quetzal to be a really good value for the money, as far as All-Inclusive resorts are concerned. I’d especially recommend it for groups and weddings. This is a place where you can really relax and not worry about anything (except maybe a looming hurricane). Lucky for us, we just happened to be heading down to Belize the day before Hurricane Emily was set to arrive! It’s my understanding that the resort suffered some damage but was back up and running pretty quickly.

Playa del Carmen – town
We only got to visit the actual town of Playa del Carmen for a couple hours one afternoon. It cost $5 U.S. by taxi each way. We strolled around town and down 5th Ave. and picked up a few items and souvenirs. We also needed some super strong glue to fix my husband’s hiking shoe that experienced a blow out at the airport on the way down. That was quite a task because we had no clue how to say “glue” in Spanish. We finally went into a Century 21 office and found a local gringo that understood us. He sent us to some giant super store in the San Francisco area. They had what we needed, but the walk was long and hot. I would love to spend more time in town and try the local restaurants and bars some time. We’ll have to make another trip to Playa and stay at a non-inclusive hotel next time!

Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to San Ignacio, Belize

Getting there – Well, it took us four taxis, three buses, and fourteen hours to get to San Ignacio from Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It shouldn’t normally take that long, but Hurricane Emily was due to arrive the next day, so traffic was heavy and the Novellos buses were not coming north of Corozal. It took us a little while in Chetumal to figure that out, so we lost some time there too. The ADO bus from Playa to Chetumal was quite nice and as comfortable as a bus can be. The bus from Corozal to Belize City wasn’t too bad either, except our driver appeared to be nodding off on occasion, which was a bit scary. B was on edge the whole way, ready to jump up there and grab the wheel at a moments notice! The bus station in Belize was pretty chaotic with everyone evacuating the islands and all. The direct buses were all sold out, so we ended up taking the chicken bus. It wasn’t crowded but the transmission had trouble shifting, often leaving us wondering if it would ever get moving after each stop. We met a few nice couples during our journey, from Canada, New York, and the Netherlands. We kept each other company and helped each other figure out the logistics along the way.

We arrived at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, happy to have a reservation. The entire town was basically sold out, due to the islands being evacuated. I guess all the travelers decided San Ignacio was the place to go. We checked in around 9:30 pm. Our room was pretty basic, given the high price, but we were just happy to have a bed and shower at that point! We chose this hotel because it has a nice pool, a restaurant, a bar, and air conditioning. They were also offering a fourth night free deal on the price. One tip is not to book any tours through the hotel. They charge about double the price charged by Mayawalk and Eva’s in town.

We cleaned up and had dinner at the Running W Steakhouse in the hotel. The food was quite good and the service was friendly. We took a few beers back to the room and called it a night. The next day we didn’t do much because we were expecting bad weather from the hurricane. We dropped some laundry off at Martha’s, checked our e-mail at Café Cayo, and then went back to Martha’s for lunch. The food was pretty decent, but the service was not too good that day. They were extraordinarily slow and then they brought me the wrong meal. I don’t eat chicken, so I had to wait for them to cook another whole meal. Oh well, no big deal. Our laundry was ready in less than two hours, which was nice.

We ate dinner at Hanna’s that night. They have a diverse menu and nice atmosphere. We both had curry that was absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, we both felt sick to our stomachs and spent way too much time in the restroom that night, so we opted not to go back there. It’s hard to say if Hannah’s was really the problem or if it was something else, but we didn’t want to risk it again! By the way, Hurricane Emily turned out to be a non-event in San Ignacio. We had about an hour of rain and that was it.

Our second day, we went on the Barton’s Creek Cave tour with Mayawalk. Our guide, Francisco, was friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. He really took his time in the cave while other tours zoomed in and out past us. I felt like we got the best tour of any other group we saw. Jimmy from Mayawalk drove us to and from the cave. He is a nice fellow who has a lot to say about everything Belize. He loves to discuss environmental and political issues. He’s quite opinionated, but seems to truly care about the future of his country. I found some of what he had to say rather fascinating. He also stopped at an Amish (not Mennonite) farm on the way to the cave, where we got to meet a family and take a close up look at their sawmill. I was really impressed at how hard those people work! The cave was also absolutely amazing to me. I’d never really been deep inside a cave before. I was worried that I might get claustrophobic, but instead I was in total awe of the natural beauty. After exploring the cave, we took a swim in the creek and then went back to town. The tour was scheduled to end at 1:00 but we got back after 3:00 because they really took their time with everything!

We had a quick snack at Café Cayo when we got back. That place is great for lunch, a quick snack, or a simple dinner. You can’t beat the air conditioning, movies, and high speed Internet either. Their mixed drinks are a bit pricey, but the margaritas were delicious! That night we ate dinner at Martha’s. The service was much better this time and the food was delicious. I tried a vegetarian dish made with local greens that was really flavorful. I think this is a good restaurant overall. We tried to book the Mountain Pine Ridge tour through Mayawalk for the next day, but they didn’t have enough people signed up, so we booked the trip through Eva’s across the street. We had a few beers at the hotel bar and then went to bed.

Our third day in San Ignacio, we went on the Mountain Pine Ridge tour with Angel, which left from Eva’s in the morning. We split some French toast at Eva’s before leaving and it really hit the spot. We were on the tour with four girls from various countries who had all met while attending Spanish school in Antigua, Guatemala. They were a fun and lively group who we enjoyed having with us on the tour. Angel took us to the Rio Frio Cave, Rio On Pools, Big Rock Falls, and Five Sisters Lodge. The Rio Frio Cave was kind of cool, but not too impressive after seeing Barton’s Creek the day before. There was a nature walk near the cave, which everyone except me did. I somehow managed to get lost when I went ahead of everyone while they were still in the cave. I missed the trailhead and ended up wandering about a mile down the road until Angel and B drove down and found me. Don’t ask how that happened, I must have totally flaked out. Oh well, everyone else seemed to enjoy the walk.

The Rio On Pools were a real treat. Nice and refreshing and we ate our lunches there, which were provided by Eva’s. There was an incredible amount of food in those bags. We ended up bringing our leftovers home to snack on later that night. They also were nice enough to accommodate my request for a vegetarian meal. We spent a while just relaxing in the various pools. Angel made sure we all sat in the waterfall for a shoulder massage and slid down the natural water slide, very cool. After that, we went to Big Rock Falls. The hike down is rather steep and then you have to climb over a whole bunch of rocks to get to the falls, but the view is worth it. There are a couple pools to swim in and you can also jump off some rocks into the pools. Angel showed everyone where the safe spots were to climb and jump. Being afraid of heights, I opted out of this! I also slipped on a rock going from one pool to another and managed to gouge my leg open pretty good. Luckily, I didn’t need stitches so all was okay. The hike back up can be rough if you’re out of shape, but it was actually easier than the hike down. Our last stop at Five Sisters Lodge was nice and relaxing. B and I decided to enjoy the view from the bar with Belikins in hand, while the girls went swimming down in Privassion Creek.

We went back to our hotel and took a nice swim in the pool before cleaning up for dinner. We had our last dinner in San Ignacio at the Indian restaurant about a block past Martha’s if walking from the center of town. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the place, but the food was wonderful. The service was outstanding too. We didn’t realize they don’t sell beer, but when we asked for some the waiter went and bought a few at the store and brought them back to us! What this place lacks in atmosphere it really makes up for in the food and service.

San Ignacio, Belize to Tikal National Park, Guatemala

The trip to Tikal was much easier than we anticipated. Our hotel called us a taxi that took us to the border. Our taxi driver introduced us to Alexander Rodriguez (aka A. Rod.), the moneychanger guy, who exchanged some money for us and walked us through the border. He then introduced us to his friend, the Guatemalan taxi driver, who took us all the way to Tikal. The taxi ride was about $50 U.S. Our driver was friendly although the conversation was severely limited due to our poor Spanish. He took us directly to the Jungle Lodge in Tikal and helped carry our bags to our room.

We arrived in Tikal around 2:15. We asked if we could wait to buy our ticket until we were actually entering the park after 3:00, to get the next day free, but no go. Those guards would not let us pass them without buying a ticket for that day and we didn’t want to sit there for 45 minutes, so we paid the extra $14 U.S. for both of us. Check-in at the Jungle Lodge went smoothly, although I was disappointed to learn that the pool was being completely rebuilt and would not be open during our stay. Our room was decent, but definitely overpriced for what you get. You’re really paying for the privilege of staying within the park.

After checking in, we ate a quick snack at one of the food comedores and then ventured into the park. We picked up some information booklets at the information booth and inquired about hiring a guide. The man indicated that we should wait and hire a guide in the morning, since it was so late already that day. We took our information booklets with us and headed into the Gran Plaza. We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the Gran Plaza, the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis. We walked as far back as Temple III and then decided to head back to the hotel because it was getting late. The park was absolutely wonderful that late in the day. There was hardly anyone there and all the birds and monkeys were coming to life. I heard some really cool birds that I had never heard before!

We stopped at the Jungle Lodge bar on our way back and ended up hanging out there the rest of the night. We met a couple girls from Los Angeles who we talked with for a few hours. We ended up eating dinner at the buffet in the Jungle Lodge restaurant, because it was convenient. We ate while it was still fresh, so it turned out to be way better than we expected, although that’s still not saying much. The pasta really hit the spot though. After ringing up a $32 (U.S.) Gallo beer tab, we decided to take showers and go to bed. The power went out sporadically throughout our stay, in addition to the scheduled power shut down from 11:00 pm until 6:00 am. It got unbearably hot at night without the ceiling fan, but it was nice to be there in the middle of the jungle listening to the birds and howler monkeys.

The next day we decided not to hire a guide because we were afraid he would take us to all the places we had already seen, so we took our little booklets and ventured back in on our own. This time we took the path to the right and walked past Complexes O, Q, and R and then up to Temple IV. That jungle path was super hot and totally infested with mosquitoes. All the Deet in the world could hardly keep them away! We were ready for some Gatorade when we got to the drink stand at Temple IV. Brad climbed to the top and took lots of pictures, while I chickened out and waited at the bottom. Given my fear of heights and how out of shape I am, climbing that thing just didn’t look like fun that day. We continued around to Mundo Perdido and Temple V, before calling it a day.

Tikal to Flores, Guatemala

We checked out of our hotel at 1:00 and they arranged for us to be on the next shuttle to Flores at 2:00. That gave us just enough time to explore the small museum at Tikal. The museum had lots of neat artifacts and is worth a quick visit. The ride to Flores took a little over an hour and was pretty uneventful. The views of Lake Peten Itza on the road from Tikal are gorgeous. The picturesque town of Flores is located on an island in the lake. It’s a neat place to spend a night relaxing and souvenir shopping.

We stayed at Hotel La Casona de la Isla right on the lake. The room is very basic, with hard beds and old linens; however, the air conditioning, pool, and view of the lake make up for the beds. This is a decent, reasonably priced place to spend a night. We ate lunch in their restaurant after arrival and I hate to say it but it was not good. It was actually the worst meal of our whole trip. The service was good, but the food was just lame. That afternoon we wandered around town, took some pictures, and booked our transportation to Belize through the travel agent across the street. We had dinner next door at Captain Tortuga’s (or something like that). Happily, that was one of the best meals we had on our trip!! The food and service was excellent, they are right on the water, and the prices are quite reasonable.

Flores to Caye Caulker, Belize

We booked the 7:30 AM San Juan Tours bus through the travel agent across the street from our hotel. She told us that the San Juan Tours bus was just as nice as the Linea Dorada bus at 5:00 AM, so we opted for the later bus. That was a mistake! The bus turned out to be an old broken down hunk of junk that made the chicken bus look first class and they were an hour late picking us up. Somehow that bus managed to get us there, but it was terribly uncomfortable and slow. If you’re planning to make this trip, forgo the extra sleep and take the first class Linea Dorada bus. It’s the same price!! We arrived in Belize City near the water taxi terminal. Somehow, we managed to get scammed by a taxi driver who convinced us that it was a long walk, so we paid him $5 Belize to take us to the pier. Some of the people walking from our bus actually got there before us, how pathetic! At least now we know not to do that again. We waited about an hour for the next water taxi and then boarded the boat to Caye Caulker. The ride was smooth and easy and we were there in no time.

Caye Caulker, Belize

We stepped off the boat and walked about half a block to our hotel, Seaside Cabanas. Chris, the friendly British manager, quickly showed us to our room. We had reserved cabana #1, which was the best room in the hotel. It’s right on the edge of the water with a roof top deck. All their rooms are brand new, with all new furnishings, due to a fire they had a couple years ago. The hotel also has the only pool on Caye Caulker and a nice bar with great happy hour specials on rum drinks. Seaside Cabanas and Caye Caulker was by far our favorite place of all the places we visited on this trip. We could have easily spent a whole week there.

We had some incredible seafood nachos at Rasta Pasta and then went for a quick swim, which was cut short by a swarm of mosquitoes. There was not much breeze that evening, so they had taken over the pool. Later that night, the beginnings of Tropical Storm Gert formed over the top of us. The wind got really strong and the rain came down in sheets. It stayed like that for most of the next day too. Given the crumby weather, we spent most of the next day chilling out. We had some laundry done, checked our e-mail and ate lunch at the Sandbox. The food at the Sandbox was delightful, but the service was slow even for Belize standards that day. After lunch, we walked down to The Split, enjoyed the view, and had some drinks at the Lazy Lizard. We then went back to our hotel for a swim. We met a nice couple from Bakersfield, California, and talked to them for a while. Afterwards, we cleaned up and went to dinner at Habaneros. The food was excellent, except the spicy habanero shrimp weren’t spicy at all.

The next day we had breakfast at the Sandbox. The service was better today, but I wasn’t a big fan of the lobster omelet. There was too much lobster cartilage in it. B’s breakfast looked really good though. We hung out on our rooftop deck for a while and then went on the half-day snorkel tour with Anwar Tours. The guides were very professional and we really enjoyed the trip. The first stop was kind of boring because it was just for everyone to get used to their gear and there wasn’t much to see. Our second stop was at Shark-Ray Village, which was really cool. We had never swum so close to sharks before! The last stop at the salt channel was also awesome. The coral and all the colorful fish were so beautiful. We only wish we could have spent more time there.

That evening we ran into our friends from Bakersfield again. We hung out in the pool with them for a while and then went to the I&I Bar for some more drinks. I&I was a cool place to chill out, but it was dead that night. I hope they usually have more business than that! Afterwards, they joined us for a nice dinner at Rasta Pasta. As usual, the food there was out of this world. If you ever get the chance, be sure to try their Cajun Pasta, it’s unreal.

San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize

The next morning we checked out of our little piece of paradise and boarded the water taxi to Ambergris Caye. Once again, the water taxi ride was quick and painless. The Sunbreeze Hotel was pretty close to the water taxi pier, so we were able to walk there with our bags. We were a little too early to check in, so we left our bags with them and walked over to Pauly’s pizza just past the airport toward town. Pauly’s has good pizza and even better air conditioning! After lunch we had some drinks at the Blue Water bar at our hotel and then checked into our room. We had the end room on the top floor, which also seemed to be the nicest room in the place. The view was fabulous and the room was quite comfortable. The hotel had a nice pool too. My only complaint is that they have rules posted all over the grounds and in your room. I’ve never scene so many rules at one hotel! They enforce them pretty strictly too.

After checking in, we strolled down to Ramon’s and did some snorkeling off of their pier. I was pretty impressed by the quantity and variety of fish that could be found there. Eventually it started raining, so we went into the Purple Parrot Bar and had a few drinks. We went back and swam in our pool for a while and then cleaned up for dinner. We had heard that Mango’s was good, so we walked down there for dinner. The food was good and Barefoot Skinny, a local ex-pat musician, was there entertaining the small crowd. He was a nice guy who came over and chatted with us during his break.

The next day we had a yummy breakfast at the Blue Water Grill and then we rented a golf cart for the day. We spent the day driving all the way as far north as we could and also way far south. We stopped at Captain Morgan’s Retreat for lunch and a few drinks. The pool and view there are quite nice and the bar tender was very friendly. I can’t imagine staying so far from everything, but it was nice to visit for a few hours. Parts of our drive north were very beautiful and scenic, but we were also saddened and disgusted by the endless garbage strewn along side the road and in the swamps. On our way south we stopped at Victoria House to look around. This place looked really nice. If I were ever to return to Ambergris Caye, I would probably stay there.

That night we had a really nice dinner for our last night in Belize at the Blue Water Grill. It’s pretty pricey, but we felt it was worth it. The sushi appetizer was better than a lot of the sushi in California! Afterwards we went back to our room and began to pack. The next morning we ate at the Blue Water Grill again, swam for an hour, and then checked out of our room. We had a couple stiff drinks and then walked over to the little airport. This was my first time on such a small plane, but the flight to Belize City turned out to be scenic and enjoyable! Although Ambergris Caye is nice, I’d say we both much preferred Caye Caulker for it’s laid back atmosphere, cheaper prices, and convenient restaurants.
Well, that’s pretty much it. We had an awesome vacation and can’t wait to go back to Belize and Guatemala when we get a chance! Thanks for reading my long report. I’ll be happy to answer any questions if you have any.


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