Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Belize Reviews and Accomodations

Most people spend time near the ocean and in the jungle when they visit Belize. We stayed a variety of lodging facilities which I have detailed below.
Let me make a couple points, however, before I launch into detailed reviews.

Firstly, Belize, although one of the more well-off countries in Central America, remains very poor. Many of the houses consist of one-room shacks on stilts. Poverty is clearly evident as you travel the country. Keep in mind that your accomodations will likely exceed anything that 'normal' Belizians will call home. That said, your hotel will probably be very simple and will likely be lacking hot water showers. It's not exactly the Ritz Carlton. There are a few exceedingly fancy resorts in Belize, Francis Ford Coppola owns a few, but frankly you really won't experience much of the country if you stay holed up in one of the resorts. Get out a bit.

Secondly, Belize has set aside a vast percentage of its land in the form of national parks. Eco-tourism plays a significant role in the economy and Belize is celebrated for its extraordinary biodiversity of both plants and animals. Expect to find some of that "nature" in your hotel. You should not travel to Belize if you have trouble with mosquitoes, spiders, frogs, snakes, and other creepy crawly critters. I was bit by more bugs, stung by more fire coral, and had close encounters with giant spiders and snakes than I have ever been (including a six month stint in Costa Rica). And it was great. The wildlife is incredible. But, if you can't handle that, then I suggest you take a nice trip to Cancun, a place practically devoid of nature.

Also, there is a lot more to do in Belize than hang out on the beach. People who enjoy outdoor activities (snorkeling, diving, caving, birdwatching) will get much more out of their vacation than those who want to chill in the sand.

I've tried to provide as much information (websites, phone numbers, email addresses) as possible, but don't hesitate to contact me if you need additional details.

Slickrock is an adventure company that owns 1/3 of a private tropical island on an atoll off the coast of Belize called Long Caye. They offer half week and week-long packages that include lodging (private cabanas on the beach), meals, sports equipment, and transportation to the island. Accommodations are rustic but lovely; some people are troubled by the composting toilets and central shower facilities (read: no bathrooms in your room).

Long Caye will be most appreciated by those folks looking for an active vacation. Here the emphasis is on water activities: snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, and fishing. Most people gather for a volleyball game in the evenings and cards after dinner. The food is excellent and there are plenty of luke-warm beers and fantas in the fridge.

Long Caye is probably one of the best places in the world for diving. Off The Wall Dive Shop, located 200 feet down the beach, is staffed by friendly owners (Jim and Kendra) and fairly good equipment. Long Caye is located on the edge of the continental shelf. Water depth goes from approximately 40 feet to over 2,000 feet, straight down. Diving "off the wall" is an incredible experience. Biodiversity is impressive; it is not uncommon to see rays, nurse sharks, eels, and turtles on a dive. Best of all, the dive boat carries 6 people (max) and we never once ran into another dive group.

Here is dive master Ralph, doing the daily pre-dive meeting
PapaEagle Ray

Here is a view of Slickrock. The kayak and hammock huts are visible in this picture.
A view of our cabana. It was located directly on the water's edge. That's Chris reading a book in the hammock.
The accomodations are rustic but the view is unbeatable.

Chris spent a lot of time in the hammock.Slickrock Review:
This was our second trip to Long Caye (the last trip was in December 2001). Spending a week with a group of people with whom you're not acquainted can be a bit of a gamble, especially when on vacation. Fortunately, the nature of this vacation tends to attract pretty like-minded people and we found our fellow islanders to be friendly and entertaining. There were a total of 22 guests on the island that dwindled to about 10 half way through. Group activities were scheduled daily (kayak and snorkel adventures, windsurfing lessons, birdwatching walks, etc.) and people picked their activities, depending on how they were feeling. The trip leader, Victor, was a friendly guy who was knowledgeable about the area, planned plenty of fun daily activities, and who very graciously spent a couple hours standing chest deep in water teaching Chris, Papa and I how to do Eskimo Rolls in a kayak. Chris also took a windsurfing tutorial and we learned how to kayak surf (way more fun than it sounds). Some nit-picky things that I would consider changing: a) The composting toilets are great; however, I think an updated version would be greatly appreciated by the guests. Off The Wall Dive Shop has a version that is more user-friendly (no separation of various wastes required). b) Better lounge chairs. All around Belize we encountered low-slung wooden chairs that encouraged poor posture and were uncomfortable for those trying to read. A few chaise lounges would be greatly appreciated. I almost appropriated one from Off The Wall but didn't want to face the wrath of Jim. jk. c) mosquito nets in all of the cabanas. We switched cabanas on the second day because we wanted one that had a better breeze (it was hot and humid). The breeze improved but our new cabana didn't have netting over the bed and I found myself slathering on gallons of bug stuff on a nightly basis. And I still got eaten alive.
Except for those relatively minor complaints, things were great and we had a lovely time.

Off the Wall Dive Shop Review:
Jim and Kendra own Off the Wall Dive Shop that, while separate from Slickrock, is just a few hundred feet down the beach. Jim ambled over every morning during breakfast to get a head count on divers. Along with our family, there was only one other diver staying at Slickrock. Combined with one or two other divers lodging with Jim and Kendra, our dives usually had six people or fewer. On the last day, Papa and Chris were the only two divers (mom and I were having ear troubles). Off the Wall employs a number of friendly and entertaining dive guides. Dives were typically 45 minutes in length and ranged from 40 to 100 feet in depth. A couple of the dive masters were particularly good at actively searching out fish, eels, sharks, and then writing down the species on their underwater dry erase boards. I found this to be particularly helpful, especially since I wasn't familiar with the surroundings. Another note: Long Caye is located in a protected area: no disturbing of the ecosystem is allowed. We had a couple of touchy-feely people on our dive trips, I guess I would encourage Off the Wall to be more forceful in stating that corals and other features shouldn't be messed with. Otherwise, it was a pleasure to dive here and we'd definitely love to come back. Several people in the Slickrock group took scuba lessons; Long Caye would be a great place for those wanting to learn how to dive or needing to do their final checkout dives for PADI Open Water certification.

Green Parrot Resort, Placencia, Belize

Following our week at Long Caye, we made arrangements to take the dive boat to Dangriga, only about an hour and a half boat ride from the island. Dangriga is on the Belize mainland. From there, we caught a puddle jumper (small plane) down to Placencia. Belize is known for their whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. Every year, the whale sharks congregate near Placencia to feed on snapper (fish) spawn. The schools of snapper are enormously large and they coordinate their spawning sessions to coincide around the full moon in March, April, and May. Unfortunately, we didn't see any whale sharks during our outing but the snapper school is quite a sight, as are the packs of circling bull sharks that were also in evidence. The bull sharks were quite exciting. Thankfully they were well fed (courtesy of the snapper) were not looking for other tummy stuffers. While in Placencia, we stayed at the Green Parrot Resort.

Green Parrot Resort

Chris and Tom spending some time on the porch
The interior of the cottages: simple and clean

On the wharf at Placencia.

Green Parrot Review:
The staff at the Green Parrot was very friendly and helpful. Each couple had their own cabana which came with kitchen, bathroom, and loft bedroom. The hammocks on our front porch were my favorite feature. Staying here for two nights was perfect; I think any more than that would be difficult. The water quality in Placencia can't compare to Long Caye and the never ending windy conditions were a strain for those wanting to enjoy a peaceful day on the beach. Also, the food was rather bland and took forever to arrive. I would recommend buying food from local markets or eating at nearby restaurants or resorts.

Maya Center, Belize

Tutzil Nah Cottages
Maya Center, Belize

After two days in Placencia, we eagerly headed inland to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary near Maya Center. We spent the night with Gregorio and his family at the Tutzil Nah Cottages.

Cockscomb has an interesting history: Mopan Mayan peoples who were living in the area were removed (without compensation) from the area in 1984, during the formation of the park. Many now live just outside the park and act as tour guides for those wishing to view the wildlife within the area.

The Cottage

Our guide, Julian, was excellent
Bird (and crocodile) watching
Boat-billed Heron
Tutzil Nah Cottages Review:
Gregorio, a Mopan Mayan, owns a cottage in back of his home that he rents out to visitors. The cabins are small and very rustic but his wife is an excellent cook and I enjoyed her dinner of simple chicken and rice/beans as much as the meals we had from some of the 'fancy' resorts.

Gregorio's brother Julian was our guide and he was by far the best bird spotter that we encountered on this trip. We spent a lovely day spotting hummingbirds, parrots, herons, trograns, tanagers, etc. Papa had a close encounter with an agouti and a weasel. Julian was especially talented at spotting critters during our night hike. Insects, amphibians, and mammals were all on display.

In short, this is a lovely place to visit if you are a birdwatcher with a conscience. Prepare for rustic settings and have a lovely time.

Caves Branch, Belize

Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge
Caves Branch, Belize

We transfered from Maya Center to Caves Branch, near Belmopan. Caves Branch is known for an extensive cave system that can be explored via innertube as it has a river that runs through the middle.

We stayed at the tree house, a cabana perched on the edge of the slope.
The interior of the tree house:

Outdoor showers with hot water: Heaven.

My favorite part!!!
Floating down the river.
Caves Branch Review:
The fact that the owner, Ian Anderson, owns the cave is the biggest draw for staying at the lodge. The cave is fascinating and has plenty of bats, fish, mayan pottery and carvings to make it quite exciting. Unfortunately, we got stuck with a large noisy group of girls from Nova Scotia who made the trip not quite as pleasurable. Not much respect for their surroundings. I thought both our guides were very knowledgeable and they did a good job of keeping other cave groups segregated from ours as to not cause too much confusion.

The lodgings at Cave Branch have been upgraded since we were last there. We stayed in one of their treehouse cottages, which was by far the plushest of our accomodations in Belize. Hot water! Comfy beds! Mosquito screening! Unfortunately, the tree houses are built quite close together and we ended up next to a vocal and argumentative family. Thankfully their kids had a sleep over with some other kids (in another treehouse) and we avoided a noisy night.

The food was decent and plentiful. Mom and dad went for an early morning bird watching trip and found it to be very satisfying. One of their guides, Esperanza, was especially adept at spotting birds.

San Ignacio, Belize
Black Rock Lodge
San Ignacio, Belize

Unfortunately, Chris had to head back to home and work after we left Caves Branch. We rode with him as far as Belmopan before heading west to San Ignacio. We stayed at the Black Rock Lodge, outside of San Ignacio. The setting of this lodge is spectacular. We stayed for four nights and had a lovely time horseback riding, canoing, birdwatching, and caving.

The cabins
Black Rock Review:
The setting of this lodge (directly above the river and across from a protected forest) and the guides are the main reasons that make this an excellent vacation retreat. We spent the first day birdwatching with Carlos, a fabulous birder, and the afternoon tubing down the river. There is a lovely 4 foot fall at the end of the trip that provided lots of entertainment. Both my parents discovered the secret to staying upright during the drop but it took me at least four times to make it through without swimming. Of course, once I mastered the falls, we had to do it several more times to perfect our technique. It was great.

The next day we took a long horseback ride up to a mayan cave which turned out to be quite a treat. The horses were in great shape, our guide Luis, was a pleasure to spend time with, and he let us trot and gallop around the countryside, something you would never see in the states. I was really sore the next day! Our last day was spent taking a leisurely canoe trip down the river to the Chaa Creek Lodge. The pace of the canoe was ideal for spotting wildlife and the mini rapids were fun to navigate. We had a nice lunch at Chaa Creek and then took a quick tour of their natural history museum and butterfly farm, a must for any biologist!

We had a couple little bobbles that made staying at the Black Rock Lodge fun and interesting. The first day Karin noticed that a snake shed was hanging from the rafters of our cabin. This wasn't much cause for alarm until a very pretty mouse decided to climb up the window next to my bed. He was a very cute mouse (he looked a bit like a kangaroo rat, very pretty) and I named him Phillip. Unfortunately, Phillip's continued presence and the evidence of the snake shed caused a bit of debate. I have a very healthy respect for snakes, having worked at the Pacific Science Center; they are not, however, my most favorite of animals.

Evidently Phillip was quite a territorial mouse and he had already claimed ownership of my bed. He spent the night expressing his anger at my presence by running around the bed and peeing on the sheet. Not very accommodating, was he? It was a long night. I spent most of it reading a book with a head lamp and giving Phillip the evil eye whenever he came too close.

Our lovely hosts, Sylvan and Nadia, promptly moved us into a new cabin. Round one to Phillip. Unfortunately, Phillip met his match the next morning in the formidable form of the cleaning lady. He ran out to defend his territory (the bed) against her the next morning and she sent him flying across the room with one grand sweep of her broom. So much for the have-a-heart traps that Sylvan was preparing to place in the cabin.

The avian, insect and reptile life at Black Rock was amazing. I got several very cool beetle and cicada shots and have a rather surprising encounter with a long red banded snake outside our cabin. It was quite exciting. Overall, this was a lovely place to visit and I would definitely come back here again. The lodge is also close to various maya caves and ruins but we had done those on a previous trip and were more interested in doing active nature things. The ATM cave got great reviews though from fellow lodgers.

Whew! What a post. My fingers are tired. I think that should do it. I profiled all the places we stayed plus Off the Wall Dive Center. The only scuba place I didn't profile was the one in Placencia: Sea Horse Dive Shop. Frankly, it wasn't my favorite. The gear was falling apart (I had a BC malfunction that cut short my first dive), there were too many people in the boat, and it was pure chaos in the water. I'm surprised we didn't leave anybody in the water when we pulled out. I would go with Off The Wall instead, they do the whale shark dives as well and are more reliable.

More Contact Information:

Slickrock Adventures
Long Caye, Belize
Ask for Cully or Lucy
POB 1400
Moab, UT 84532
Toll Free: (800) 390-5715
Toll: (435) 259-4225
Fax: (435) 259-6996
Physical Address in Moab:
59 E. Center #C
E-mail: slickrock@slickrock.com

Off the Wall Dive Shop
Long Caye, Belize
Ask for Kendra or Jim
Physical Address: Long Caye, Glover's Reef Atoll, Belize, Central America
Mailing address: P.O. Box 195 Dangriga, Belize, Central America
Email: offthewallbze@xplornet.com
Website Address: www.offthewallbelize.com
Also look us up at www.slickrock.com (scroll to diving)

Green Parrot Beach Houses
Placencia, Belize
Green Parrot Beach Houses Resort
No. 1 Maya Beach
Placencia Peninsula, Stann Creek District
Belize, Central America
Email: greenparrot@mail.com
Phone: 011-501-523-2488
Tutzil Nah Cottages
Maya Center, Belize
Gregorio Chun
Tutzil Nah Cottages
P.O. Box 246
Stann Creek District
Belize, Central America
Tel: 501-520-3044
Maya Center Village
Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge
Caves Branch, Belize
Mile 41 1/2 Hummingbird Hwy., P.O. Box 356. Belmopan, Belize, Central America
Jungle Lodge (via Radio Phone): 011-501-822-2800 Fax: 1-888-810-1333
E-Mail: info@cavesbranch.com
Black Rock Lodge
San Ignacio, Belize
Mailing Address: Black Rock Lodge P.O.Box 121,
San Ignacio, Cayo Belize, Central America.
email: blackrock@blackrocklodge.com
Office Hours: 9am-5pm CST (no daylight savings)
Tel: 501-824-2529 Lodge: 501-820-3929
Radio Phone at the lodge (Emergency only): 501-824-4308