6/29/14

Belize

When you arrive in Belize, a sign should greet visitors that says, “Set your clock back 50 years and leave your worries behind.” With beautiful beaches, abundant nature, rainforests, and adventures in Mayan culture and history, it was the perfect anecdote to our busy lives with two teenagers. Located in Central America on the Caribbean Sea it shares borders with Mexico and Guatemala.  From California, we flew to Houston (3.5 hours) and then a quick plane ride to Belize (2.5 hours).

We decided to visit two different areas of Belize. Many tourists head to the Cayes (small islands) of Belize, most popular are Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. We chose however, to go off the beaten path a bit and spend a week in the town of Placencia, known for its miles of white sand beaches, laid back Caribbean attitude, and access to coral reefs for snorkeling.  We rented a house on VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) for a week. The second part of our trip, we traveled up north to San Ignacia to explore the Mayan ruins including a day trip to Guatamala to the spectacular jewel of the Mayan Civilization, Tikal.

We rented a car for our two week vacation and chose Crystal Car rental based on good reviews and advice from the homeowner of our vacation rental who provided us with many good tips before our arrival.  Upon arrival after a short wait clearing customs we walked a short distance across the parking lot and easily found the car rental agency. One of the great things about Belize is that although you’re in a foreign country, everyone speaks English since it was once a British colony (formerly British Honduras.) A short time later, we were in our Jeep SUV with a map in hand. We arrived at 4:00 and chose to stay close to the airport for the night before starting the three hour journey to Placencia.

Belize City is the closest city to the airport and most people stay there if they need an airport hotel, but I hadn’t read very good reviews of the city, so I found a hotel in the nearby town of Burrel Boom to stay the night. After missing the turn off for the hotel and having to back track to find it, we arrived to the roars of howler monkeys in the trees. The hotel was perfect with everything we needed for our first night (hammocks outside, a beautiful river, iguanas climbing in the trees).

Placencia


The next morning after breakfast, we hit the road to Placencia. The owner of our house assured us that the roads were safe and well-paved and we weren’t disappointed. Basically, there are three main highways and the roads are well marked.  The only thing to watch for is the speed bumps in small towns, sometimes marked as bumps and sometimes as humps.

We arrived in Placencia excited to see if the house we rented lived up to the photos and reviews on–line. One look at the private beach in front of the house with a dock and palapa and we were all smiles. After entering the house and agreeing that it was perfect, we quickly changed into our bathing suits and minutes later were jumping off the dock into the incredibly warm, beautiful Caribbean ocean with ear-to-ear grins.  After a quick dip, our son pulled out the kayaks that came with the house and I went for a quick kayak ride with him on the turquoise water.

Later, we drove into Placencia (the house was outside of town about 20 minutes). Along the way we passed many low-key beach resorts including Francis Ford Coppolo’s resort The Turtle Inn.  The town is a small, laid-back Caribbean town with colorful buildings a market, and small shops and restaurants. We parked and found a sidewalk that runs parallel along the beach and soon found the Tipsy Tuna, a beachfront bar and restaurant where we settled in at a table in the sand for dinner.  After dinner, we stopped at a local grocery story and loaded up on food for the week.


The week flew by relaxing in the sun, taking dips into the water, kayaking, and reading.  Summer is the rainy season. We saw a little rain in the afternoons, but otherwise the weather was great. It was a little windy though, so it was too choppy to snorkel at the reef near our beach house.  We arranged with a dive master recommended by our rental house owner to take us out to a local reef at the cayes near Placencia. Junior took us on his boat for the day to a small island owned by his cousin called called Frigate Caye. The water was crystal blue and I felt like I was in tropical aquarium swimming with many colorful varieties of fish. Junior pointed out a puffer fish, squid, and a tiny octopus.  We ate the lunch we brought on the caye and Junior took us to another reef to snorkel the rest of the afternoon.

The next day we hired Junior to take us in the boat to a town called Monkey River. The rainforest adjacent to the river is known for its howler monkeys and many local tour companies offer day tours to the area. Junior took us up the coast about an hour to the town located on the beach at the mouth of Monkey River. We picked up a local guide, Raymond, to accompany us up the river and into the rainforest. Along the way, Raymond pointed out crocodiles along the shore (you’re completely safe from a distance), turtles, and birds like Egrets and Blue and White Herons. Down the river about 45 minutes, we went ashore into the lush rainforests to find monkeys. Junior pointed out frogs, and leaf cutter ants, and the various layers of vegetation in the rainforests until we found a troop of howlers high up in the canopy feeding on the palms. We followed the black monkeys moving quickly like trapeze artists through the branches and tops of the trees. 



When the monkeys out ran us, we hiked back to the boat and headed down the river to the town of Monkey River where we had lunch. Raymond joined us again and gave us a tour of the town, which consisted of a dirt path through a row of houses (there are no paved roads to Monkey Village and the only vehicles that can get through are trucks).  There was one small, unmarked store, which had what I assumed was the only TV in town since it was the only building with a satellite dish. The main industry of the town had once been banana farms and fishing, but now tourism was edging them out as the main industry. We stopped by the private school. The teacher in me couldn’t help but look into the classrooms. They reminded me of a 1950’s classroom with plain wood desks and black chalkboards. A group of students appeared and I asked them questions about school and took a picture with them before we left.

On the trip back, we stopped in an area and located manatees swimming in the ocean.

San Ignacia, Mayan Ruins


Our week in Placencia flew by too fast and sadly we left the beach house for our next adventure in Mayan history. We left the glimmering Caribbean sea and drove up to the town of San Ignacio. Along the way we stopped at St. Herman’s cave and the inland Blue Hole.  We’d read that these were worth seeing. We’d heard that cave tubing was a lot of fun, but the $125 each tour price was over our budget, so we were happy to see that they offered cave tubing at St. Herman’s cave for $50 each which was more reasonable.  In a matter of minutes we had tubes in our hands and were following our guide, Omar, to the entrance of the cave. At the entrance, Omar handed us headlights and we followed him into the dark cave to the water. Once in the water, the current gently pulled us through the giant cavern under stalactites and around stalagmites while our guide explained that the Mayans viewed caves as the sacred underworld. The Mayans used the caves for religious practices including bloodletting and human sacrifice.

After our tubing adventure, we drove one mile to the inland Blue Hole (a famous diving location in Belize is the Blue Hole located in the ocean. This one is completely different and called the inland Blue Hole).  Included in our tubing was the $5 each entrance fee to both sites. We walked a short walk down to the Blue Hole which due to limestone deposits on the bottom is a beautiful turquoise color surrounded by green vegetation like something out of a fairy tale.  I kept expecting Ariel from a little Mermaid to appear from the depths and start singing.  People were swimming in the hole, but since we didn’t have towels, we decided to forgo a swim.

Our next stop was the town of San Ignacio. The town is about a 15-minute drive to the Guatemala border. We found our hotel, the Maya Mountain Lodge easily, unpacked and went to explore the town. There was construction in the town (which really only consisted of one street) and a detour through town got us lost for about 20 minutes, but finally we found Burns Street, a pedestrian street with restaurants.  We ate at Eva’s, a mediocre restaurant at best, and then walked down the street. We stopped at a gelato cart run by Fabio, an Italian, and had extremely cheap gelato (.50 for one scoop). We met an American couple there who had bought a 12 acre farm up the road and split there time between Belize and Taos, New Mexico.

ATM tour

I was very excited to do this tour as it sounded like an Indiana Jones Adventure. Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) is an archeological site. The Mayans used the cave for religious ceremonies and sacrifices and the bones of the crystal maiden are the highlight of the tour.  You can only visit the cave on a tour. We used Pacz Tours http://www.pacztours.net. The tour starts with a 45 minutes hike with three creek crossings to the entrance of the cave. Once there, you swim inside and the adventure begins criss-crossing over and under boulders and traversing through a river deep inside the dark caverns.  The guide pointed out rock formations modified by the
Mayans to create shadows within the cave. Once in the depths of the cave, we climbed up onto a ledge, removed our shoes (kept our socks on) and entered into the world of the Mayans 1,000 of years ago.  We walked past pottery used in sacrificial ceremonies, bones and skulls of babies, teens, and adults lay eerily still unmoved for over a millennium.  We made one final climb up a metal ladder and we were face to face with the complete skeleton of the crystal maiden. The bones were calcified and shimmer like made of crystal. Who was she and why was she chosen? I pondered as we left her dark crypt and made our way back toward the light and
civilization.






Tikal Ruins

The next day was our journey to Guatamala to Tikal. The study of ancient civilizations has forever fascinated me and it’s been on my list for years to visit the Mayan ruins.  I was a little leery of going to Guatamala as their government has been unstable in the past and I’d heard that it may be unsafe.  I checked Trip Advisor and saw that  there haven’t been any problems the past few years, and also checked with the tour company. who assured me that it was safe. I was glad I trusted them as it was an amazing day and adventure.  We used Pacz tours again. 

Our guide who went by the name “Juice” was both a Guatamalan and Belize citizen which I learned was common in the towns near the border. He was also of Mayan descent and was able to share much about mayan history with us. Juice picked us up in a van at our hotel and we picked up a couple on the way so it was a small group. He drove us to the border, a 15 minute drive. We went through the border without any problems. Due to international tourism agreements, we had to switch vans and have a Guatamalan driver once in Guatamala.

The drive to Tikal took 1.5 hours through small towns. We stopped in one town along a lake to watch the Guatamalan women washing clothes in the lake using stone slabs to scrub the clothes on while their children swam nearby.

At Tikal, we did a short hike to the ruins. The area is surrounded by jungle teeming with birds. Along the way, we saw howler monkeys swinging and shrieking in the trees above us. We reached the main plaza at Tikal and took in the majestic stone pyramids, palaces, and carvings from an amazing civilization. We walked up stairs to the top of Pyramid 3 and looked out over the complex of structures. We spent the next few hours exploring the site and learning about the Mayan culture.

Xunantunich Ruins

 I noticed a sign for these ruins on our trip back from Tikal. They were in Belize just over the border and our guide told us they were worth visiting. The next day, we drove from San Ignacio about 15 minutes to visit. You need to take a short very ride in your car across a river to get to them. A man manually cranked the ferry across the river. We arrived when it opened at 8:00 and had the place to ourselves.

Smaller than Tikal, but no less impressive we climbed the main pyramid and enjoyed the view of the surrounding forest. At 10:00 the tour bus began arriving with loads of tourists. We waved as we exited back to our hotel where we gathered our belongings and made the two hour drove to our airport hotel. The next day we said a sad farewell to Belize.

 Hotels and Restaurants:

Placencia and Airport Area:

Black Orchid Resort (15 minutes from airport/free airport transportation provided)
Vacation Rentals By Owners –VRBO (beach house in Placencia Listing # #229207)

Placencia Restaurants:
Tipsy Tuna Beach Bar
De Thatch restaurant (on the beach, great fish)
Maya Resort Bistro (best food in Placencia, a little pricey, but worth it)
Higher Grounds Coffee – great spot in the trees in downtown Placencia, good bagels and carrot bread.
Tutti-Frutti Gelato – downtown, great ice cream
The Shak – good smoothies and ceviche

San Ignacio Area:

Maya Mountain Lodge

San Ignacio Restaurants 
Ko-Ox Han nah – great local cuisine
Fuego – Great location on the square, good food
Gelato stand on Burns Street run by Fabio from Italy – inexpensive, good gelato









 




Peru


Looking for adventure, culture, history, natural beauty and mystery rolled into one? Then Peru is your perfect destination. My husband Gary and I traveled to this colorful country 17 years ago and swore we’d come back when we had kids (in fact, I’ve been planning this trip in my mind since they were born). We felt our kids who are now 15 and 13 were ready to explore the wonders of Peru.

Peru isn’t a large country, but it offers a wide variety of adventures. We narrowed it down to visiting Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and the Amazon rainforest.  We also thought about visiting the bordering country of Ecuador and the Galapagos islands, but that put us out of our price range.

To save us headaches and stress, I used a tour company to help with the trip. Peru can definitely be navigated on your own, but since we don’t speak Spanish and wanted some peace of mind, it was nice to have guides to help along the way. We aren’t a hop on the tour bus type of family as we enjoy the freedom and independence of discovering a country on our own, so I chose a company that would plan our trip and provide guides along the way without putting us a large group and planned itinerary. We used Peru Best Tours and were happy with their services.


Lima

We flew into Lima the capitol city and we’re met by our English-speaking guide at the airport. Planes from the U.S. generally arrive after midnight, so we were happy to have someone meet us at the airport and drive us to our hotel. We had an early flight the next morning to Cuzco, the ancient capital of Peru.

The accommodations were nice, nothing fancy, but clean and comfortable.  The wake-up call came all too early at 4:30 a.m. and we ate a quick breakfast provided by the hotel before our pick-up and transfer to the airport. Flights to the main destinations in Peru are the quickest and easiest way to get around. The flight to Cuzco was just over an hour.

In the airport, we happened to run into our son’s hero, Devin Supertramp. Supertramp is a You Tube moviemaker who happened to be traveling in Peru to make a movie at Machu Picchu. His girlfriend, a You-Tube singer sensation, accompanied him. We had a nice chat with Supertramp and he posed for a few pictures with our kids.

Cusco

Our guide met us at the small airport in Cuzco and loaded us into a black SUV. We immediately felt the effects of the 11,220 foot elevation of the city. I felt slightly short of breath like I’d just walked up a stairway. The locals chew coco leaves to alleviate the effects of altitude and we often found coco tea and leaves out at the hotels.We were whisked away for a short drive to a lovely Spanish style hotel, Rumi Punku, in a convenient location just a few blocks from the main center of Cusco, but in a quiet area for a restful stay.

Cusco was the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire and declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 by Unesco. It is a major tourist destination and receives almost 2 million visitors a year.  The Incan civilization was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. It arose from the highlands of Peru sometime in the early 13th century and spread to parts of Ecuador, Bolvia, Argentina, Chili and Columbia.  The Spanish conquered the last Inca stronghold in 1572.
The name Q’osqo (Cusco) means navel of the world and you get a sense of being in the middle of something special with its stone streets and building foundations laid by the Incas more than 5 centuries ago. The city is small enough to get around on foot. On our first morning, we walked down a narrow cobbled pedestrian path to the historic center, the Plaza de Armas. Two women in traditional dresses of bright reds and greens holding onto ropes attached to llamas greeted us. Women like this are all over town. The pictures are fun and great souvenirs, but you’re expected to tip them about $1 per person in the picture.
We walked down to the main plaza area. There was loud music playing and a parade snaked its way around the plaza with marching bands and young school children dancing in brightly colored traditonal costumes in orange, red, and greens. We’d arrived at the time of the Inti Raymi, the winter solstice festival (Peru is south of the equator so our summer is their winter. The temps are generally in the mid 60’s this time of year).
One quickly discovers that Cusco has a layered past. When the Spanish conquered the Incas they quickly built their own churches and structures over the existing Inca temples. The Incas surrendered to the new religion but quietly kept their own alive. A painting of the Last Supper in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo on the main square has the 12 disciples eating guinea pig, a traditional Inca delicacy.
Later that day we took a city tour that included the Qurikancha which was an important temple in the Capital city dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. The walls and floors were once covered with sheets of solid gold that were used by the Incas as ransom for the life of their leader Atahualpa. The Spanish Colonist built the church of Santo Domingo on the site using the Incas foundations for the cathedral. You can still see the distinctive Inca stone blocks at its base.



Our tour took us to the outskirts of Cusco to Saksayhuaman. Thought to be an Incan fortress, the immense boulders carefully constructed without mortar are a testament to the engineering genius of the Inca.
Later we ate at the restaurant Boca on a small street off the main plaza. The trendy d├ęcor reminded us more of the restaurants in America and it shouldn’t have surprised us that our waiter was a recent transplant to Peru from New York City.
Sacred Valley Tour
The Urubamba Valley, is a beautiful stretch of small villages and ancient ruins nestled in the shadow of the towering Andes. Spanning out from Cusco, the valley is home to many spectacular Inca ruins including Pisac and Ollantaytambo.

River Rafting
We had one free day in the Cusco area, so we decided to spend the day river rafting on the Urubamba River. We used Mayuc tours.  http://www.mayuc.com/en/urubamba-river-rafting.php. The river was class 3 and perfect for the family.

Machu Picchu
Our guide picked us up early for the trip to Machu Picchu. He had arranged prior to our trip for our tickets which is important because they only allow a certain number of people into Machu Picchu each day. (You can purchase your own tickets on-line). We also arranged to stay a night near the site so we could spend two days rather than one and also so we could climb Huayna Picchu (you also need to get a ticket prior to hike Huayna Picchu because they limit the number of hikers each day).

There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu. One is the Inca Trail, a 4 day trek through the Andes mountains to the heights of Dead Women’s pass at 13,780 feet. I’ve had friends who’ve done the trail and say it’s an amazing experience, but in my research I found it wouldn’t be enjoyable with two teenagers in tow, so decided to save it for a future trip.

The other way is by train (much better with kids).  There are different trains you can choose including the upscale Hiram Bingham train. We picked the Expedition train  and it was very comfortable. The train trip takes 3 hours.

You depart the train in the town of Aguas Caliente. From there, you take a tourist bus up a windy hill to the site of Machu Picchu. If you are staying the night, the hotels will meet you at the train station and take your luggage for you. We quickly dropped our luggage and got in line for the bus.

Machu Picchu- Once at the site, we met our prearranged guide and explored the beautiful ruins. The pictures of Machu Picchu are breathtaking, but to be there is even more remarkable. There is something calm and peaceful about the site. After our tour, we explored on our own. At about 3:00 the day tourists leave for the train and the site clears. The same was true the next morning when we arrived. We were very happy to have stayed the night to give us a less crowded experience.

The next morning, we awoke early to a early bus to the site. We had tickets to climb Wayna Picchu for 7:00. Wayna Picchu is the mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu. They only allow 400 people to climb it a day, so getting tickets in advance assures you a spot. Since we were visiting just a few days after the winter solstice, we hoped to catch the sun’s rays hitting the temples precisely, but it was cloudy that morning.  We arrived and got in the line for Wayna Picchu. They check each person’s ticket and have you sign a book as you enter (this is a way for them to check that nobody is staying overnight on the mountain). The climb up is strenuous and steep up stairs built by the Incas hundreds of years ago, but frequent stops and the excitement of the journey make it doable for the whole family. The trek took about 1.5 hours and down about 45 minutes. The kids loved the adventure. At the top is a wonderful view of Machu Pichhu and the towering Andes.

Amazon Jungle and Rainforest

The Amazon jungle is a short 30-minute plane ride from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. A representative from the Jungle Lodge greeted us at the airport. They took us to their headquarters where we boarded a bus to the river. The drive to the river was about 45 minutes where we and then we embarked on a boat ride two hours down the river to the lodge. Along the way, it started to rain so we bundled up in our rain panchos until the storm passed.

Once we arrived, we took a 5-minute walk on a trail through the dense jungle vegetation to a clearing with a giant beautiful jungle lodge. We were taken to our rooms, an oasis with a hammock, two beds covered with nets (keep the bugs away), and one wall open to the jungle.

We were assigned a guide to our group of 8 (our family, an Australian couple, and a single woman from California). All meals were provided each day. The next three days were spent exploring the rainforest. The first night we went caiman (small alligators) spotting on a boat on the river. The next day we hiked to a river to find otters (couldn’t find any) and climbed a canopy tower for a birds-eye view of the forest. Later we took a quick boat ride across the river for a farm tour. The small farm grew bananas, oranges, papaya and cocoa.

The next day we awoke early for a boat ride and hike to an area with parrots and scarlet macaws. Along the way, we were treated with a view of spider monkeys and jostling high in the canopy. Later after lunch, we met a Shaman (medicine) man for a tour of a medicinal garden. At night, we joined the creepy crawler tour of spiders in the rainforest.

The next day we took the boat back to Puerto Maldonado and a plane ride to Lima.

Lima

We had an overnight in Lima before our flight back to the states. Our tour company arranged a city tour of us where we saw the catacombs of the church of San Francisco where guides estimate over 75,000 bodies are buried. After, we had ceviche at a restaurant before heading back to our hotel. In the morning, we had a few hours before going to the airport and walked along a road on a cliff high above the ocean. The weather was overcast like June gloom at home.

Hotels:
Lima: Mama Panchita
Very basic but good for a nights sleep. Breakfast included.
Safe area.
Cusco: Rumi Punku. Loved this hotel. Nice rooms, beautiful courtyards, good breakfast and great location.
Aguas Caliente (near Machu Picchu)
Santuari
Basic, good location. Breakfast included.
www.santuariohotel.com
Jungle Lodge:
Refugio Amazonas – Loved it. Beautiful accommodations and rainforest experience.
They also have a comparable lodge (Posada Amazonas) that is a shorter boat ride, but we wanted to be deeper into the forest for more animal viewing.

Machu picchu tickets