Belize for the family

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13 years
11 years
9 years
7 years
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Date: 
2010-03-15 to 2010-03-21
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Belize is beautiful. It’s also a very accessible destination for families in North America. Additionally, it makes a nice easy introduction to Central America as the national language is English. A former colony of Britain, British Honduras became Belize in 1973, almost ten years after the British Crown granted the colony sovereignty. It wasn’t until 1981 that Belize gained complete independence. It’s a very new nation, and the growing pains can still be felt, most acutely in the cities.

Tobacco Caye center of islandBelize is a beautiful country and very safe to travel in as a family. We’ve road tripped it in our own vehicle, and also come in by bus from Guatemala. It is more expensive than the surrounding countries of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, especially gasoline, if you are self-driving. There are only two paved roads in the country, one running north to south from the Mexican border along the coast, the other running perpendicular to that into Guatemala towards Tikal, a popular tourist route. There are buses between every city and large village. Collectivo pick-up trucks run the local roads and can be picked up easily enough. If you are self driving, plan to go very slowly, due to road conditions in much of the country. That said, it’s a fantastic place to spend some time slow traveling and enjoying some off the beaten track adventures.

If you have two weeks, here are our picks for places to see and go that don’t get good coverage in the guidebooks!

Big Rock Falls

Big Rock FallsThe Big Rock Falls are also in the Mountain Pine Ridge reserve and can be visited easily on the same day that you head to Rio On Pools. If you are staying in San Ignacio and don’t have a vehicle of your own, it is easy enough to arrange (through your hotel) a taxi for the day. There are a few companies in town that run day tours to the major points in the reserve also. This is another great place to swim and leap off of cliffs into clear blue water. If your kids are not strong swimmers, this might be a good place to wear flotation devices as the push from the waterfall is strong in the main pool!

Rio On Pools

Located on the main road (which is not paved) through Mountain Pine Ridge reserve outside San Ignacio, these pools are not to be missed and are a family favourite. Lots of steps lead down to the river where the water, flowing out of an underground river collects in natural rock pools and then tumbles down from pool to pool as the riverbed descends. There are lots of shallow pools for younger children to safely enjoy and a number of natural rock slides between the pools that are loads of fun to slip down on your bottom! Pack a picnic and plan to spend a half a day!

Community Baboon Sanctuary

The Community Baboon Sanctuary is located just west of Burrel Boom in Belize.  It’s a little tricky to find (although reading the signs instead of knitting probably increases one’s odds of locating it on the first try) and we made one 13 km wrong turn before pulling in next to a busload of school children.  The sanctuary was the brain child of a scientist from Wisconsin who studied the monkeys and made it his life’s work to protect them.  Contrary to the name of the place, it is a reserve for Black Howler Monkeys, which the locals have always called baboons.

Community Baboon SanctuaryWe learned so much in an hour. Our guide introduced us to local medicinal plants, including one that is a “bush pregnancy test, the leaf turns yellow if you’re pregnant.” We were introduced to saw palmetto plants, mahogany trees (national tree of Belize) cashew trees (and the wine made from their fruit, which is different from the nut) and the palm locals use to make cooking oil. Hannah was suitably horrified when our guide pointed out the huge nest of termites in one tree and then explained how they make little mud tunnels down the trunk of the trees to get to the ground where they find dead wood to eat. “Termites are high in water content, as well as protein,” she explained. “If you find yourself stuck out in the jungle you can eat them. I find that they taste a lot like mint and crunch like a carrot!” she added, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. She scratched open the mud tube and picked one out, popping it into her mouth for effect.  Not to be outdone, Gabe licked his finger and picked one up, “Yep, kinda minty, not bad.”  Add termite to his list of insects ingested on this trip.

The howler monkeys exceeded everyone’s expectations. Ezra, after his nocturnal encounter with their eerie cries in Guatemala was braver than expected. These fellows came right down out of the canopy and sat on a branch just inches away.  Two mothers greedily ate banana pieces out of the children’s hands while their tiny babies hung by their tails and frolicked on the green branches. When the banana had run out one of the mother monkeys cocked her head to the side and then reached out for Ezra’s head. He stood stalk still as she picked through his hair for a moment, grooming him, and looking for lice, happily, she didn’t find any.  He rolled his shoulders and grinned, “EVERYBODY likes to rub my head, even the monkeys!!”

 Gabriel scored the only injury of the day. He was bitten. Not by a monkey, but by a BIG warrior leaf cutter ant. Our guide stomped hard on the nest several times to anger the ants, who promptly sent out their finest for our review. She showed us how sharp their teeth were and how to use them as “jungle stitches” if you get a really bad cut in the jungle, by holding an ant by the posterior and having him pinch across the cut with his razor sharp jaws and then twisting his body off so that his head and jaws remain imbedded in your arm. It was in the middle of that dramatic lesson that the screaming began. Gabe was, all of a sudden, howling like a monkey and jumping around on the ant nest (inducing more mean ants to surface).  He’d been bitten, and hard by the look of the blood pouring from the wound and dripping down into his shoe. It took him a while to recover, even after my joke about it being a “hands-on field trip.”  Somehow, the humor was lost on him.

Here’s a video we made during our visit that will give you an idea of what to expect!

Tobacco Caye

Getting There & Where to Stay:

We weren’t entirely sure how to get here and we were even less sure of what to expect.  Tobacco Caye is a five acre island about 18 miles off the coast of Belize.  We’d called ahead to make a reservation at Lana’s, as we’d met a couple of backpackers who recommended her as “the grandma of the whole island.”  Reservations might not be the right word. We couldn’t call, as there’s one pay phone to the entire island, and that’s it. We spoke to someone on the mainland who sent word out by boat that we were coming, only he told her yesterday so the first thing she wanted to know when we arrived today was why we were late!  “Ask for Captain Buck at Riverside Cafe,” was all of the instruction we got as to how to get here. I've geocoded "Dangriga Docks" as that's where you'll jump off from the mainland. You can arrange to park your car for a few days, where it will be watched, at Val's Hostel.

Sunset Tobacco CayeWe made an interesting parade heading down the main street in Dangriga, hauling a melange of waterproof Ortlieb bicycle bags, dive bags, instruments (Hannah goes nowhere without her violin) and those hardy Mexican mesh bags that are worth the 3000 miles to get them. Ezra moaned loudly about his heavy load (the lightest by far) as we stopped to buy a new package of Dramamine (or what passes for it here) at the pharmacy and to hit the ATM one more time… Lana takes only cash.

This little island is all we were hoping for: tiny, remote and not overrun with other folks. It’s all privately held land and each family has built a few cabanas or rents out a few rooms. The accommodations here are simple. We had the entire downstairs, which consists of two rooms, plywood walls painted Caribbean blue, sheets hung for curtains in front of the commode and shower stalls, an oil cloth covered table and a bed with only sheets printed with lips for covers. There is a screen door to keep out mosquitos; it’s ramshackle at best, but exactly what we were hoping for, and idyllically perfect for the next week. The best part is that all of your meals are included with accommodations and they are fantastic! Fresh seafood, fresh fruit and the best of down home Belizian cooking. I spent two days in the kitchen with Lana just writing down recipes!

The children and I took the big excursion around the entire circumference of the island.  It took ten minutes to walk.  We noted the carefully raked sand (no need for shoes for the rest of the week!) and the numerous coconut palms, the dive shop and the Marine Center. At sunset the thatched roof bar opened at the far end of the island the local boys oozed out of their cabins with their drums to paint the night for dancers.

GREAT NEWS! At the time of this writing, it appears that Lana’s has added a website with proper contact info! That will make your planning SO much easier!

South Water Caye Marine Reserve

Tobacco Caye is located in the middle of a marine reserve that stretches over 62 square miles. The Marine Station for the reserve is located on Tobacco Caye and is a hub of conservation and education for the region. There is excellent snorkeling right off of the beach of the island. Alternately, you can hire AC or one of the other local boys to take you on a boat trip to some of the other areas of the reef for beautiful clear water snorkeling and some of the best reefs on the coast. If you’re lucky you might even see whale sharks or manatees!

SCUBA Certification and Diving

Barracuda, Tobacco Caye

The Belize Barrier Reef is the biggest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere and Tobacco Caye is located right on it! We chose this as the best spot to get our children SCUBA certified. Their teacher lived right on the island with us. Instead of doing their beginner work in a pool, they were able to do it right off of the beach in the warm ocean. Their certification dives happened off of the same dive boats that were taking seasoned SCUBA divers and they got to see green sea turtles, amazing sponges and a great, big, eel in addition to a stunning array of fish and other marine life. If you plan a minimum of four days on Tobacco Caye and make your arrangements in advance it’s a wonderful place to get SCUBA certified, or advance your training towards dive master. Ask for our friend Eric, he runs the dive shack!

Fishing

We highly recommend that you arrange a fishing trip while you’re on Tobacco Caye. Our friend AC runs his own boat from the island, and is a full time resident. He knows all of the best places and comes back with happy clients and big barracuda! We’ve spent several delightful days on his boat fishing, bird watching, hunting the elusive manatee in hopes of a swim, and leaping off the bow into the crystal blue waters of the surrounding reef. No need to book in advance, just ask for him the moment you get to the island. He can also rent you a mask and fins for the time you’re on the island so that you can snorkel at will! Of course when you fish they’ll take you outside of the Marine Reserve, as the entire area around the Barrier Reef is protected.

This video will show you the highlights of the Rio On Pools, Big Rock Falls, & Tobacco Caye... in which we catch an eel!!

Gallery: 
Rio On Pools
Big Rock Falls
Tobacco Caye center of island
Snorkeling Tobacco Caye
Fishing trip, Tobacco Caye
Community Baboon Sanctuary
SCUBA certification Tobacco Caye
Lana's On The Reef: Basic accommodation, Tobacco Caye
Lana's on the Reef: Basic accommodation, Tobacco Caye
Tobacco Caye Sunset
Community Baboon Sanctuary
Tobacco Caye
Tobacco Caye
Dinner, Tobacco Caye
Tobacco Caye
This is AC, see him for fishing or boating!
Barracuda, Tobacco Caye
Sunset Tobacco Caye
Places: 
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions

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