Week 11 – Caye Caulker and San Ignacio, Belize
Hi everyone! We’ve had an incredible week in Belize, and are about to move onto Guatemala. This week we’ve snorkelled and hammocked (definitely a verb) and explored some amazing Mayan ruins.
Today we woke up early to walk down to the docks to catch the water taxi to the island of Caye Caulker. It was only a ten minute walk, but with our massive backpacks it felt a lot longer! Caye Caulker is a small island around 20 miles off the coast of Belize City. It’s tiny and doesn’t have any cars, only golf buggies. It’s a famous tourist destination because it’s right on the Belize Barrier Reef. The island has coined the motto ‘Go Slow’, which sums up its relaxed and laid back vibe.
The water taxi took around an hour. Our luggage was loaded on to a different boat, so it was a bit worrying to see it sail off without us – and then when we overtook it, to land without it! Thankfully we were reunited safely. We dropped it off at our hostel and then went to explore.
Caye Caulker has sandy roads, a lot of palm trees, and it is surrounded by gorgeous blue sea. It doesn’t really have beaches, but all the bars own wooden jetties that jut out into the sea where you can sunbathe. All the bars were playing reggae versions of pop songs, and it was really sunny. We wandered along to the end of one of the jetties and sat enjoying the sun and the sea, before going to find lunch. We could literally see from one side of the island to the other, which was really cool.
In the evening, we found a bar that had swinging chairs overlooking the sea. The sun had already gone down so it was really dark, but there were loads of stars out. It was really nice. We went to the end of one of the jetties and sat watching the stars. We noticed a few flashes of light in the sea – we think that they must have been fish or something with bioluminesence. It was amazing.
Today we set our alarm for 5am and woke up early to watch the sun rise. It was quite chilly, but I’m really glad we did. We were facing directly east over the sea, so the colours came up slowly over the horizon. It was really beautiful.
After appreciating the gorgeous sky, we decided that we weren’t ready to face the rest of the day quite yet so we went back to bed! We took the ‘go slow’ motto of the island very seriously. When we woke up for the second time, we decided that today was a relaxing day. We found a bar called Sip n Dip. It had hammocks and swings in the sea, so we decided to go there. It was so beautiful! It actually was a bit overcast, so after enjoying the hammocks and the swings for about an hour we decided to get out and relax on the jetty instead. If it had been a bit warmer I’d have stayed in that hammock all day! We ended up spending most of the day relaxing at this bar, alternating between sunbathing and wrapping ourselves up in our jumpers and towels. It was really nice to just do nothing.
As the afternoon wore on we decided to walk down to the end of the island. Caye Caulker is technically 5 miles long, but a waterway called the Split divides it in two, so it didn’t take very long to walk from end to end of our half of the island. The far part had lots of mangroves and much less infrastructure. We caught some glimpses of a beautiful sunset between the trees. It would have been a lot nicer if there hadn’t been so many mosquitos though!
Today we booked onto a snorkelling tour. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef in the world after Australia, so I was really excited to see it. We’d read lots of tripadvisor reviews about different companies offering the tour, and then on a last minute whim decided to go with a new company who had just started up (bad decision!).
The tour had three stops, one at the reef itself, one at a place called ‘shark ray alley’, known for its sharks and rays (unsurprisingly), and the third to try to spot a manatee, although they warned us that this was the wrong season for it.
I don’t like being negative on this blog (I’ve written a tripadvisor review to vent my feelings instead!), but overall we were disappointed with the tour operators today. The boat was very slow, the guides were smoking weed, they cut our time at the main site short and in general weren’t brilliant. The sites we visited were lovely, so I think if we had been with a different company it would have been an awesome day trip.
The positives of this trip were that the reef and the wildlife were amazing. At the reef we saw beautiful coral, a lot of fish, and a moray eel that came out of his hole and kept opening his mouth aggressively at us (I imagine he was hissing but I’m not sure if eels make any noise!). At shark ray alley we saw some large nurse sharks, some sting rays and a turtle! The turtle was our favourite bit by far. It was a large loggerhead, and swam really close to us before disappearing off into the distance.
At the final stop we didn’t see any manatees but I did see another eel, so that was cool. The coral is awesome, there are so many different types. My favourite was one that was like a lacy purple fan waving in the current.
In the evening we went back onto one of the jetties and sat looking out to sea with rum and coke/tropical juice. It was a very lovely end to the day.
Today we waved goodbye to Caye Caulker and caught the water taxi back to the mainland. We dropped our bags at our hotel and then caught the bus to Belize zoo.
Belize zoo is home to a number of native Belizean animals, including tapirs, jaguars and ocelots. All of the animals were either orphaned, rescued or rehabilitated. The enclosures were all kept quite wild which was nice – the monkeys in particular basically had their own mini jungle with just a gap in the trees stopping them from escaping!
We saw tapirs, which are a pig-like animal that are apparently related to the horse and the rhino. They make a really funny noise – it’s quite a high pitched sound which was totally unexpected from looking at them! We enjoyed watching the spider monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Even when they’re at rest they wrap their tails around a nearby branch, presumably for safety or stability. One of them had a baby which was really cute.
Next we went to see the cats, including jaguars, pumas, ocelots and jaguarundi (tiny cats with a long thin body like a stoat). We were less comfortable watching them as a lot of them were pacing in front of the bars, which apparently is a common mannerism in captive animals and can indicate mental health problems. Actually it was one of the tapirs that was the most upsetting to watch, as it was walking in a continuous figure of eight pattern. It did not look like a happy animal.
For the most part though the animals seemed quite contented. The toucans seemed to like the attention, and hopped up to investigate us when we went to see them. One of the park’s huge harpy eagles had apparently been released into the wild a number of times, but kept coming back!
Today was a travel day, from Belize City inland to the town of San Ignacio, near the Belize/Guatemala border. We’re staying in a really nice hostel that feels more like a house than a hostel. It has three rooms with a maximum of four beds in each, a living room and a nice kitchen with a big dining room table. It’s especially good for us as we’re planning to save money here by cooking in the evenings. It’s nice to be somewhere that feels so homey, and with faster internet than we get back in England!
Today was a rainy day, so we postponed our plans to visit a local Mayan site. Instead we decided to visit the ‘house of culture’ in the centre of town. It was tiny! It had only opened two weeks ago in a nice wooden building that apparently used to be a hospital. It had two exhibits – one of the work of local artists, and a taxidermy exhibit of native Belizean birds.
We actually found the bird exhibit really interesting. Most of the specimens had been hit by cars or flown into windows. Each one had an information notice with details of its diet, its nesting habits and other facts. It was particularly cool to see the birds of prey and the large frigate birds up close. I’m not sure I’ll take on taxidermy as a hobby, but it was interesting to be able to examine the beautiful feathers and patterns of each bird up close.
Today the sun returned and we went to visit the local Mayan site of Cahal Pech. It’s known as ‘the place of ticks’ in Mayan, because there were so many there when it was first uncovered by modern day explorers. Cahal Pech is one of the earliest Mayan sites in Belize, with the first evidence of settlement there around 1200 B.C. Apparently the first temples were built there between 600-400 B.C. The Mayans were a thriving population until around 900 A.D, when they began to abandon a lot of their sites, particularly in the south. It’s thought that this might have been because of a severe drought that affected the region for a prolonged period of time, or possibly because overseas trading became more important. The Mayas were conquered by the Spanish in the 16th Century, which was when the remaining Mayan communities declined. There are still Maya people today, mainly in Guatemala and Mexico.
Cahal Pech wasn’t very crowded and there was no set route around it, so it was nice to feel like explorers as we wandered around. The main courtyard had lots of trees growing in it, and all of the ruins had trees growing out of the sides of them. There were two tall buildings at either end of a large central courtyard, and then lots of other smaller rooms and buildings off to the sides. The steps up to the top of the temple buildings were quite steep, but apparently this is intentional. The general Mayan population were much shorter than the people of today meaning that they’d have had to ascend the stairs using their hands. This crawling position was more reverent to the gods. Only the most important members of the community were permitted to climb the temples.
Cahal Pech had a really interesting information centre attached to it, so we read about some of the history of the Mayans and of the site. We discovered that there was a big war between Cahal Pech and Tikal, the Mayan city we’re going to be visiting in Guatemala next week. Tikal won, apparently. We also learned that they believed in blood sacrifices, and often would cut their tongues or their foreskins, or they’d cut off the tip of their finger as an offering to the Gods!
In the afternoon, we went for a massage. We’ve totally got into the whole luxurious living thing! We decided to try deep tissue massages. It was very firm pressure but it felt really good afterwards. I’m going to be sad when regular massages aren’t a part of an affordable lifestyle when I get home!
This weekend we have some incredible plans, including a caving experience and some more Mayan ruins. Next week we’re moving onto Guatemala, so the next update will come from there!