The Kindness of Strangers: Belize

The Kindness of Strangers: Belize

 

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No other country has left such a positive impression on our departure than Belize.

I woke up this morning realizing for the very first time in my life, I could possibly miss a flight. Let me break down the math for you:

It was about 7:45am and our flight was leaving at 12pm. That meant we had about 4 hours and 15 minutes to get from San Pedro to Belize International. Working backwards from takeoff, it takes about 20 minutes (9 miles) to drive to the airport from Belize City, 10 minutes to find a cab in Belize City, 100 minutes for the water taxi to reach Belize City from San Pedro, and 30 minutes for us to walk with our bags from our hostel to the water taxi terminal in San Pedro. While that seems like we had more than enough time, the rate limiting factor lied in the irregularity of the water taxi departures; the one we wanted was leaving in 15 minutes at 8am (impossible to reach by walking unless we ran with all our bags), and the next one was leaving at 9:30am (which + 100min water taxi ride + 30min cab ride to airport) left us less than 20min to check in and get through security and board.

So our only hope for a stress-free departure was to find a cab that would take us to the water taxi terminal in San Pedro. Unfortunately, because of its laid back residential vibe, taxi cabs are hard to come by where we were. But lo and behold, we decided to give hitchiking a try and not even 3 seconds of Anna sticking out her thumb a guy in a golf cart scooter (the preferred mode of transportation in San Pedro) drove us all the way to the water taxi terminal in less than 10min without charging us a dime. We made the 8am taxi. That was Act of Kindness #1.


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When we reached Belize City, we fought off taxi drivers trying to rip us off at the destination terminal (a universal language in all countries, so it’s not a Belize thing) and tried to look for food given the extra time we had. We decided to drop by at a place called Dits, known for its scrumptuous chicken stew and coffee. When the bill came out to be $9 Belize Dollars ($4.50 USD), we realized we were in a bind: we only had $6.75 BZD and the rest in large, cumbersome $20 USD bills. While we insisted that they take our $20 USD bill, the folks at Dits were so gracious enough to ask for the $6.75 BZD instead (“we like your attitude. you have a good soul,” they told me, “see us again when you come back!”). That was Act of Kindness #2.

  

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Upon leaving Dits, we got into a cab and headed up to the airport where we found out our cab driver was a dual citizen of Belize and the U.S., lived in Harlem, NYC for half his life, has seen most of the world, and his father was a renowned diplomat to the United States who could speak 12 languages. He also taught us how to understand Creole and gave us a little background of Belize from a native. Although not necessarily an act of kindness #3, he was representative of the kind of people we met everywhere in Belize: generous, laid-back, gracious, and kind.

From the openness of our waiter at Fido’s Restaurant (last night’s dinner), to the small-town closeness of the crowd at DandE’s (that frozen custard joint), to the pep of the office staff at San Pedro’s Inn (our hostel), to the spontaneous acts of kindness this morning, I can see why so many people choose to retire in Belize. Where the pace of life here is as slow as what you would find in Laos (another big spot for retirees), here in Belize the locals actually pay attention to how you are. It really is a place where life moves slowly and everyone around you is there to help.

 

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- At time of posting in NYC, it was 14 °C - Humidity: 89% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

From Guatemala To Belize (11 Years In The Making)

From Guatemala To Belize (11 Years In The Making)

 

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The first time I’ve heard of Belize was when I was 14 years old. 

I was sitting on the 7 subway train coming into Manhattan and my friend Sara Yoo was sitting across from me when she looked at me in the eye and firmly declared: “I want to visit Belize before I die.” The conviction on her face left such an impression that her dreams had made a mark on mine as well. Since then I’ve never forgotten Belize…and 11 years later I’m finally here. It’s a literal childhood dream come true.

 

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Despite a ridiculously relaxed and simple border crossing (similar to the one we did in Vietnam to Cambodia) that made it seem anyone can simply just walk on over, the differences between the two countries are noticeable from the getgo: 

From Mayan to Rastaman, crew cuts to dreadlocks, spanish to creole, crooning Guatemalan singers to chilled out Bob Marley, the road from Guatemala to Belize is as if you’re witnessing the progression of the region’s history in fast speed. Gone are the typical images you may have of Latin America; Belize is much more Caribbean than you expect.

 

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The border crossing is exactly like that of what we did in crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia: get off your bus, get your exit passport stamp, cross the border, get your entry passport stamp, declare customs, get back on the same bus.

 

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And then you’re off to Latin America’s version of the Caribbean:

 

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So after a 5hr trip from Tikal Inn (leaving at 8am), we arrived in Belize City in the early afternoon at 1:30pm. At the moment the bus stopped to park, we were rushed out to a water taxi ($30 Belize Dollars or $15 USD; $55 Belize Dollars for a roundtrip ticket that’s good for 3 months) that would take us to the Northern Cays for the true Belize experience: Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye

The former is smaller, more remote, and easily explorable in the span of 2 hours. Ambergris Caye (or aka the town of San Pedro) is more developed as a tourist haven, but supposedly still retains a laid-back paradise feel to it that would make a backpacker feel less guilty for making this a destination. Due to our limited time, we chose the latter.

 

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Caye Caulker; look how clear the water is!

 

Views from our water taxi:

 

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Notice the difference in the color of the water as we approach the barrier reef

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Ambergris Caye

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Ambergris Caye dock

Our immediate reaction of San Pedro: a damn charming tropical paradise. Enough said. Yes, tourists and tourism abound, but the town has more of a “mom and pop” shop feel than anything resembling gentrification. 

Therefore, San Pedro feels genuine, as if you’ve stumbled upon a sleep little resort town only the “cool kids” know about.

 

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And the coastline…don’t get me started how pretty it is.

 

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But the real draw of Belize is its sense of humor and its unique examples of character we encountered:

 

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And of course, after 11 years of dreaming of Belize…

 

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Belize just got served.

 

So we walk along the coast some more…

 

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And we stumble upon a public performance at San Pedro’s Central Park:

 

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Drumline dance circle

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Drumline dance battle!

 

Afterwards we search for a place to have dinner along the beach.

 

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Central Park at dusk

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Dinner by the beach at Fido's

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And then we look for dessert at San Pedro’s famous DandE frozen custard shop, which was delicious. 

DandE is supposedly San Pedro’s sole frozen custard and sorbet dessert shop, and we get a sense that the entire expat community descends upon DandE nightly as the people who run it seem to know everyone by first name when they walk in. It was touching to be given a window into San Pedro’s expat community here, as it was made even better slurping on frozen custard  as we watched the night go by.

 

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Central Park at night

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Celebrating the near end of our trip with DandE frozen custard! (The "E" of Dand"E" stands for Eileen and she's in the back!)

 

All in all, a quaint little day in the tropical paradise of San Pedro. Of all the places I’ve been to in my life, this is one of the very few places I can say that I wish I could’ve stayed longer…as mad as it even feels to me when I say it: tomorrow I fly home. And I don’t want to go home yet.

 

- At time of posting in Belize / Phillip Goldston Intl. Airport, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 69% | Wind Speed: 9km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds

 

Stars And Sunrises: Tikal

Stars And Sunrises: Tikal

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From the dark of night...

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...to the light of dawn. Keep reading.

 

Random: Did you know that Tikal is the same place George Lucas chose to film Yavin IV (the location of the Rebel base) in Star Wars IV: A New Hope?

 

A screenshot from Star Wars: The Millennium Falcon arrives at the Rebel base in Star Wars IV: A New Hope

 

Well, our version is prettier:

 

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...no Milliennium Falcon, but the "temples" are still there.

 

Panoramas of Tikal by day:

 

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But the real treat, of course, are the images that the average tourist doesn’t get as often.

Tikal by sunset (yesterday):

 

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Tikal by night:

 

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and Tikal by sunrise:

 

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For the sunrise option in Tikal,you’ll have to plan ahead; it’s a little more tricky to pull off than the simple “Oh I’ll just wake up earlier and catch a tuktuk to wherever I’m supposed to be.” For starters, you must stay INSIDE the park the night before; you can’t catch a shuttle bus from nearby Flores or El Remate (the usual backpacker haunts) at 3am as the first shuttle buses between those places don’t start running until 7am after sunrise. Our original goal of heading straight from Guatemala City to Tikal early and catching the sunrise the moment we arrived were dashed away when we realized the latter fact; it’s a good way to make sure tourists pay for an overnight stay in the park.

Once you find that place to stay overnight (either Jaguar Inn, Tikal Inn, or camping out inside the tent gear you already brought over), plan to wake up at 5am so you give yourself time for a little hike to the top of Temple IV (about 2km from the park entrance). You’ll also have to buy a “Sunrise tour” ticket at the entrance for 100 quetzales (about $11-$12 USD) as well as an ADDITIONAL full-day entrance ticket (150 quetzales or about $20 USD).

We, however, were able to finagle our way out of this requirement by telling the guards in Spanish we had to catch a 7am bus to Belize and that we only intended to take 2-3 photos of the sunrise before bouncing out of there (we weren’t lying, actually!). This convinced them, and we ended up saving $20 USD at the gate.

 

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Thanks to an offered complimentary sunrise tour by choosing to stay at Tikal Inn, we awoke at 4am to enjoy a free mini tour of Tikal before sunrise; this allowed us to sneak glimpses of local wildlife including jaguars, crocs and grey foxes at night. Our guide also explained in detail about Mayan culture and civilizations as well as teaching us how to count numbers in the carved Mayan hieroglyphics. And keep in mind, all of this was free including a complimentary dinner and breakfast at Tikal Inn! Highly recommended deal.

By 6am we hiked up once again to the top of Temple IV to catch a stunning sunrise over the sound of howler monkeys (the same sound they sampled for many of the dinosaur cries in Jurassic Park) in the jungle:

 

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First break

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Of course, I couldn’t help but to do it one more time:

 

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Tikal just got served at sunrise

 

After savoring in this dose of gorgeous, at 6:30am we race-walked back to Tikal Inn to catch our 7am bus to Belize. We just barely made it: From the top of temple IV to Tikal Inn should be about a 30 minute trek . 

The bus then took us to Puente Ixlu where we waited for the direct bus to Belize…

 

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…to be continued…

 

- At time of posting in Ambergris Caye, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds

 

The Kindness of Strangers: Belize

“My God, It’s Full Of Stars.”

 

A picture worth (a trillion) stars:

 

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More on this picture — and another with a shooting star — in the rest of this entry…

Although I came for the sunrise above Tikal’s famous Mayan ruins, it’s afternoon light is no less impressive.

It’s been pretty much straightforward since our last update: we arrived in Flores, took a 10am 1.5 hr shuttle bus to Tikal’s parking lot, and started our day among the jungle and ruins.

 

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The only really tough decision you have to make is whether or not to stay overnight back in Flores or within the Tikal grounds itself. If you choose the (pricier) latter, you have the only chance at seeing Tikal by sunrise (But that’s for tomorrow’s entry). Once you buy your ticket at the booth (around 150 Quetzales which is close to $20 USD), be prepared for a small hike before you actually get to see some temples. But before arriving there, make sure you stop and admire some nature along the way. Of all the Mayan ruins, Tikal is possibly the only one actually still covered by a real jungle.

 

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And then from  a dense blanket of nature, you suddenly notice a hint of temples peeking through the jungle. Come at the right time in the afternoon and you may be lucky enough to be the only person to play among these sacred grounds. And for a moment it may seem as if you’re the first spelunker, rediscovering a set of ancient ruins before the rest of the world finds out. Congratulations, Indiana Jones. You made it to Tikal.

 

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Tikal just got served.

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To see all of Tikal, you need at least 4-5 hours in covering at least 10km of trails. We elected to explore Tikal in the late afternoon as that afforded us the pleasure of having the whole place to ourselves as well as catching the sunset in time.

 

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The ultimate showstopper, however, was to be able to also be out and about in the darkness of night…

 

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Do you see the shooting star around the top right corner?

 

Can’t end an entry better than this.

EDIT (5min later): Yes I can. I managed to publish this entry about 30 seconds before they’re about shut off all the electricity and hot water within a 5 mile radius of this park (they take this nature conservation bit seriously!)…15 seconds left…boo-yah!

 

- At time of posting in Tikal, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds

 

The Kindness of Strangers: Belize

From Antigua To Tikal

 

Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage city rich with history (and foreign tourists), is known for many things. From its defining pastel facades to quaint cobblestone streets to the fact that it survived everything from wars to natural disasters, Antigua has come a long way to become Guatemala’s premier global hotspot.

Don’t have a lot of time here? Start with Parque Central to get a feel for the city life, and then head west towards Iglesia y Convento de la Recollecion,  a massive church built sometime between 1701 and 1708 that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1778. Rather than rebuilding, the good people of Antigua reconverted it to its  current day manifestation as a tourist attraction (30 quetzal entry fee, 20 if you have a student ID).

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Antigua just got served.

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Stone ruins scattered like forgotten jewels of time...

 

To the east of  these ruins is the smaller set of ruins: the Colegio de San Jeromino , which feels like a smaller cousin.

 

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Walk past these ruins and you’ll come upon Antigua’s signature picturesque cobblestone streets with its litany of gorgeous volcanoes in the background:

 

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Try to keep walking around so you can find Antigua’s recognizable city symbol, the Arco de Santa Catalina:

 

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While walking around, we happened upon a nice little student music festival taking place in front of the arch:

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Unfortunately we only had a few hours here before having to hop on a shuttle bus to Guatemala City, where we were then dropped us off at our overnight bus to Tikal (around $20 USD). There, we parted ways with Cynthia who’s been an absolute trooper on her first backpacking experience; even through the crappier parts of the chicken bus rides, she still thought the entire experience was “addicting.” That deserves lots of respect, and I’m already looking forward to having her join us again on future trips. I’m holding you to that!

While waiting for our bus to depart, we took the liberty of wandering around the streets of Guatemala City at night, which we were told isn’t the safest thing to do. But it certainly isn’t boring to look at either:

 

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After exploring around without incident, we  then made our way to Tikal on an overnight bus. 9 hours later, we arrived at the enchanting little island of Flores:

 

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Gone fishin'

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Flores is so small you can walk the entirety of it within an hour, the little streets included. It’s hard to imagine that as many as 30,600 people live in such small a space without making it look crowded.

Ultimately, we found Flores to be so charming of a place that it’s worth a short detour before you make your way to Tikal, which is what we’re about to do now…

 

- At time of posting in Flores, it was 36 °C - Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

The Kindness of Strangers: Belize

Chickening Our Way To Antigua


Not sure if this is supposed to be an exit sign for hotel patrons or Justin Bieber:

 

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What we woke up to this morning at 6am:

 

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We begun our day with an early morning boat ride across the lake to to the west, which is off the beaten trail (tourists usually head eastwards to San Pedro). We headed instead to San Catarina.

 

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Curiosity.

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After exploring Lake Atitlan, we decided head to Antigua for the afternoon before hopping on an overnight bus to Tikal. Deciding against spending extra on tourist-friendly microbuses, we went for the cheap but maddening public chicken buses as our mode of transport. Although not as insane as our Nepal “Bus Ride from Hell,” it was somewhat more intense in that the bus operators will do their bus to cram as many people as possible without caring about such thing like “potential fire hazard” or “total body limit.” It’s as if they feel they could defy the laws of physics in the name of making an extra buck.

So we crammed hard in 4  separate buses to Antigua: Panajachel -> Solola -> Los Encuentros -> Chimaltenango -> Antigua. Although finding connecting buses is a piece of cake (simply shout your destination to someone and they’ll take you to the right bus), it also involves trusting that your bag won’t fall off the roof of the bus, cramming with 3-4 other locals into a bench meant for 2, and even having some people sit on your lap.

 

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But after 4 of these buses on a total of a 4 hour ride (and spending only 40 quetzals! an equivalent of $5 USD), we finally made it to Antigua.

Unfortunately, we now have to book it to our overnight bus to Tikal within the next 20 minutes, which means no pictures from Antigua until I settle down on the north side of Guatemala. I literally wrote this as I was eating dinner, by the way, which was pretty rude of me.

 

- At time of posting in Guatemala Aeropuertola Aurora , it was 20 °C - Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: 12km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a