Xunantunich, one of the most famous Mayan sites in Belize.
I took my parents on vacation to Belize and Costa Rica between February 10-February 15, 2016. This was the first time I planned, booked, and paid for the entire trip for us as a family. I promised to show them the world, and these were our first two countries.
Why Belize and Costa Rica?
Our trip was only six days long, so we would lose too much time flying to another continent. I also didn’t want jetlag to impact us, so that left Central America. None of us spoke any Spanish, so the most English-speaking friendly countries were Belize and Costa Rica. Belize’s national language is English, whereas Costa Rica is so tourist friendly that it wouldn’t be a big issue.
Spending money is also convenient. In Belize, no currency exchange is needed. USD is accepted everywhere and has a flat rate of 1 USD to 2 BZD. For Costa Rica, USD and credit cards are widely accepted.
The goal was to spend the first 2.5 days in Belize, and the remaining 3.5 in Costa Rica.
Day 1 – Maya site and the best hotel ever.
On February 9, we took a redeye flight at 11:59pm from LAX to Houston, then arrived at Belize International Airport at 11:45am.
The flights were miserable. None of us sleep well on planes, and the three-hour layover was brutal. But once we descended towards BZE, the exhaustion was replaced with excitement as I saw the world renowned coral reefs.
No scuba diving on this trip, but I will be back to dive. Belize has world famous dive sites.
Belize is a small country: less than 200 miles long, 90 miles wide, and a population of less than 250,000 people. The international airport was tiny with only one terminal, and we walked directly from the landing strip to the gate.
Our private shuttle service picked us up directly at the parking area. His name is Teddy Valdez, the owner of Teddy’s Shuttle Service (which I highly recommend). It cost us $120 USD one way from BZE to San Ignacio.
Along the way we stopped for some water at a grocery store. Grocery stores are almost entirely owned by Chinese people throughout the country. It was strange seeing them in this country filled with Spanish speakers.
Teddy took us to a restaurant on the way to San Ignacio. We ate a standard Belize meal comprising of rice and beans, potato salad, fried banana, and chicken. The outdoor seating was nice. Teddy ate for free and explained that tour guides usually eat meals for free when bringing tourists.
We continued our drive westward after lunch. Along the way we saw a small town with the Taiwan flag on display. Teddy explained that Taiwan’s agricultural department had been helping Belize advance their agriculture, and the two have a strong relationship. The two countries are along the same latitude, and thus the ecosystems were similar. There are entire Taiwanese communities in the country!
The homes we drove shared some resemblance. Many were hoisted up several feet with wooden or brick columns. Not only would this help with flood protection, it also reduced heat insulation when the weather became hot. Many of the homes were large and multi-story, whereas others looked like small shacks. Since the population was so small, each home had abundant front and backyards.
Since we were short on time, we drove straight to our first site instead of checking in at the hotel. We passed Santa Elena and San Ignacio, and made our way to the Mayan site called Xunantunich.
This required passing the Mopan River via a hand-cranked ferry. We stepped onto the platform, and someone manually spun a winch to pull us over. Teddy made us get out of the car. “All passengers are legally required to exit the vehicle in case of emergencies, but the captain is required to stay with his ‘ship’ at all times.”
One mile up a windy path later, we arrived at Xunantunich. Tickets were $5 USD each, and we walked up the ruin.
The national flower of Belize.
A long flight of stairs to the entrance of Xunantunich.
Pictures don’t really do the site justice, but you can see how big the site was in comparison with my parents. We slowly made our way up. The stairs were steep; my mom is only 4’11” tall so she was practically climbing up each step.
And we finally reached the top! In the picture above, you can see a small road to the left. That road actually separates Belize from Guatemala; we were only one mile away from the border. With so little pollution, visibility was great. We enjoyed the view and the cooling weather for 30 minutes before making our way back down.
Lots of giant iguanas could be spotted around the site. They seemed tolerant of human presence, but panicked and ran if we made any sudden movements 10 feet away.
It was time to go to the hotel. We went back to the site entrance, and Teddy drove us to our hotel at Bullet Tree Falls, a small town northwest of San Ignacio.
The name of our hotel is Parrot Nest Lodge, and I must dedicate an entire section to this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ve stayed in four- and five-star hotels throughout the world, and this became my #1 favorite hotel stay. Ever.
I found this place via TripAdvisor. Guests stay in lodges and tree houses in the middle of the jungle, right next to the Mopan River. Even booking ~1.5 months in advance, I wasn’t able to get a tree house; the ground-floor lodge was the best they could offer.
The entrance to the lodge, serious Indiana Jones style.
The treehouse I wanted.
The hotel grounds.
Our room contained a double and a twin bed, and nothing else. Shared bathrooms and shower rooms were about 20 steps away outside.
I feel Parrot Nest Lodge appeals to a certain crowd. In the evening, all the folks were invited to each dinner in the outdoor lobby. We sat family style and talked with each other, eating a spectacular meal. The owner freely let his three dogs and two cats roam the premises. Each of them were outgoing and sought our attention. They walked around inviting back scratches, and the German Shepherd was particularly playful and played tug of war with a rope.
After most of the guests went to sleep, I swung on a hammock and enjoyed the natural ambience of birds and running water. Finally got access to WiFi here and did some work on my phone. Still couldn’t help but work, whether I was on vacation or not.
Day 2 will cover canoeing through an underwater cave, exploring another Mayan site, and walking through the town of San Ignacio.