There are many places I haven't gone. There are
many I yearn to see. This is a story about a place
I've never been and one that, honestly, was never
even a blip on my radar. As told to me by my daughter,
Emma, this is the account of her adventure to
Belize and Guatemala.
Belize, which only gained its independence from
Britain in 1971, is a tiny English speaking country
in the midst of a slew of Spanish speaking Central
American neighbors. It is nestled against the
Caribbean Sea just a few hundred miles south of
Mexico's more famous resort of Cancun and on the
eastern border of Guatemala. Although it is only
80 miles wide by 174 miles long, Belize boasts
diverse habitats - forested mountains, tropical
rainforests, white sandy beaches, and a myriad
of small offshore islands called "cayes"
that lure divers, snorkelers, fisherman, or those
just looking for their own private paradise.
"I flew into Belize City," Emma wrote,"
and immediately went to the boat terminal to take
a speed boat crammed with people to Caye Caulker."
While Belize City is the old capital and the largest
city in Belize, any charm it once had has been
whittled away by poverty and a series of hurricanes.
Clearly it is a place to be in transit to and
quickly in transit from. The boat ride to Caye
Caulker takes about an hour.
"Caye Caulker is a small island. You can
walk completely across it in less than ten minutes.
There are lots of hostels and inexpensive hotels
and a handful of restaurants and bars, most with
their own little docks extending into the sea.
You get around barefoot or on hired golf carts.
It is very, very chill."
Ambergris Caye is a larger island north of Caye
Caulker with more tourists. Its hotels are bigger,
fancier, and pricier. You can take a variety of
day trips from either island.
The Hoi Chan Marine Park is just north of Caye
Caulker and is a world class destination for diving
and snorkeling. When Emma wasn't snorkeling, or
swimming with sharks and sting rays in the warm,
shallow waters of Shark-Ray Island, she lazed
about on shore, swaying in a hammock, under palm
tree shade. The Blue Hole is another destination
near Caye Caulker. It's a 1000-foot diameter circular
reef with a dramatic deep blue, 400-foot sinkhole
in its midst formed apparently by the collapse
of a subterranean cave. It's rated as one of the
best dive sites in the world.
After a few days exploring the cayes, Emma took
a water taxi back to Belize City and headed for
the bus terminal.
"I got on an old American school bus with
people packed three to a seat. As we drove through
poverty stricken countryside, people would grab
their belongings and jump out the back of the
bus seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Road signs,
in English of course, well described the vibe
of the country. 'Drive,' one sign read, 'like
you are making love to the road.'"
She got off at San Ignacio, a small town on the
western edge of Belize just ten miles from the
Guatemalan border. San Ignacio is a jumping off
point for nearby tours of jungle shrouded rivers,
dramatic caves, and spectacular and curious Mayan
ruins on both sides of the border - Carcol, Zunantunich,
Cahal Pech in Belize and Tikal and El Peten in
"Our guide drove us about an hour out of
town and into the jungle. We changed into our
bathing suits by the car and took an easy hike
through the jungle carrying inner tubes. We then
slipped into a river that quickly flowed through
a spectacular string of caves. With flashlights
atop our heads, we floated through pitch black
caves on our inner tubes with our lights flickering
over great stalactites draped from the roof of
the cave. I imagined Mayans with torches seeing
these sites and contemplating their shadows as
gods or devils. It was absolutely gorgeous - but
floating in complete darkness and silence was
eerily claustrophobic. A fantastic lunch greeted
us at the end of our inner tube adventure and
then we set off for the Belize Zoo. Although the
zoo is small, it has a great collection of animals
you rarely see in the U.S. and is set in the jungle
where you stand only feet away from the animals
- as if they had just dropped some chain link
fence in the jungle and whatever got stuck inside
became the exhibit. It was extraordinary and worth
The following day, using the local MayaTour Company
(Mayatours.com), Emma hopped in a van with half
a dozen other tourists and headed for Tikal in
"Crossing the border was hectic, crowded,
and confusing and Tikal is a several hour drive
over very, very bumpy dirt roads. You can also
fly directly into the city of Flores - which makes
the trip to Tikal much shorter."
In Tikal, 2000 year old Mayan step pyramids seemingly
erupt of nowhere in the jungle.
"We hiked through jungle, watched monkeys
swing from trees, and climbed up and around Mayan
temples. Being in Tikal is like being sucked back
in time and you truly realize the intelligence
of the Mayan people and the mystical energy of
The nearby town of Flores is set on a small island
on the man-made Lake Peten Itza. Its homes and
stores are painted in bright colors giving the
town a special warmth and charm.
"Flores is a great place to stay before or
after going to Tikal. There a many good hotels
and restaurants. We stayed at one with a balcony
overlooking the gorgeous lake. Be sure to take
the boat ride around the lake. It's scenic and
From a nearby small airport in Santa Elena, Emma
flew to Guatemala City which she described as
crowded, dirty, and smoggy, and from which she
quickly fled to her final destination, the nearby
colonial city of Antigua. Antigua is one of the
most beautiful cities in Latin America with cobblestone
streets, terracotta homes draped with bougainvillea,
grand colonial cathedrals, all surrounded by the
imposing peaks of active volcanoes - Volcan Acatenango
and Volcan Fuego.
"Antigua is a tourist mecca. Lots of young
people flock here to study Spanish. I was one
of them. The only problem is that there are so
many tourist-students that wandering the streets
you hear almost every language being spoken except
After enrolling in my school (Academia de Espanol
Guatemale - www.acad.conexion.com), the principal
took me to the home of a Guatemalan family where
I would be staying. Four Dutch girls were staying
there too and we became quick friends. After breakfast
each morning with our family, we went to Spanish
classes for half a day. We had our afternoons
free to be tourists and our nights for dinner
Another Emma adventure was the "chicken bus"
trip to Guatemala City. These are old school buses
painted in garishly bright colors.
"The 'chicken bus' is crazy! A man literally
leans outside the door as the bus drives by and
screams, 'Guate, Guate Guate!' You then run to
the bus which barely comes to a stop, jump aboard,
and try to find a seat among people carrying everything
from their children, to vegetables, to live chickens.
The driver then drives on like a bat out of hell,
blaring his horn, and sashaying around steep corners
and down cliff side roads. The trip is a lot like
Space Mountain without the safety features. If
you want to pray for dear life and feel like a
local, I highly recommend it."
After a week studying Spanish in Antigua, Emma
took another bus to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan.
"The lake is huge, surrounded by a number
of small towns. Panajachel is the largest with
a huge boardwalk main street and hundreds of street
vendors. Lago de Atilan is one of the most beautiful
places on Earth with many of its towns still very
untouched by modern civilization. But while the
locals have kept their native culture, there's
also a 'hippie-like' atmosphere with many 'gringos'
having come to settle around the lake. From Panajachel
you can take a boat to any other town around the
lake. And each has its own special charm. For
example, in the village of Santiago, there's an
idol called Maximon. The idol is unimpressive,
but getting there, discovering where they keep
Maximon and watching the Maya worship this wooden
cigar smoking image, decked out in scarves, was
If you want to swing in a hammock in the middle
of the jungle or float in waters surrounded by
a view of volcanoes, Lago Atitlan is the place.
If you're looking for a four star hotel and great
service, it's not."
Clearly Emma enjoyed her trip to Belize and Guatemala.
The area is blessed with inspiring scenery, curious
wildlife, beautiful beaches, lakes, and islands,
and a rich culture - at once ancient, colonial,
primitive, and modern. I have never been there.
But it's now big on my travel radar.