A couple years ago we were in Playa Del Carmen on one of those touristy vacations. While we weren’t at an all inclusive (I had a bad experience with the food), we were right along the main shopping strip.
We did the usual thing that anyone visiting that area would do, we walked, ate tons of crappy westernized “Mexican” food, shopped for trinkets that ended up getting stuffed in a drawer and then plunked ourselves down on a hot beach.
At the hotel we were staying at, we had bumped into a few people around the same age as us and started up a conversation. We don’t get the same kind of friendly greetings here in the Vancouver area, and so this was a breath of fresh air. Turns out they had driven 4 hours from Belize.
Since then, Belize had been on our list.
When booking our trip, I’d pulled up Air BNB and typed in Belize. We scrolled through the listings and none of them seemed to fit the kind of adventure we were craving. Then one stuck out, a big bright yellow house with a palapa roof. It was called “Chiquibul Ranch“. A ranch? As we read further, the description sounded more and more enticing. A ranch, 6 miles up a dirt road in the heart of the jungle? Off the grid? In Wild West country? The fact that this put me in my panic zone just made it all the more a “let’s book this now!”
After a tiny bit more research, we were sold.
Unlike a lot of our past vacations and much like our recent trip to interior BC, we rented a car! It was recommended to us that a jeep or 4×4 vehicle would be ideal. This was both super exciting but also totally terrifying for us. 1. We had so much freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted and as quick or slow as we wanted. 2. We have heard tons of horror stories from friends who have run into crooked authorities and having to pay their way out of situations.
We picked up our rental car and were on our way! GPS said 2 hours and 45 minutes! Which was a bit strange as when I had googled it prior to leaving, I could have sworn our drive was only going to be a couple hours. (Tip: When driving in a new country where you won’t have access to your phone network or wifi on the road, download the map of the country you’re visiting onto your phone – it works exactly the same way and you don’t have to pay for any roaming fees!!!)
The roads were long and on both sides of us were grassy green fields that went on forever. Every now and then, we’d see a little house pop up. The highways in Belize are only 2 lanes, totally not what we’re used to. Cars zipped by and if someone ahead of you was going a tad slower than what you would like, no problem! Just pass them when safe! Or…. be a rebel and give the person on the other side a heart attack as you play chicken with them. Guess that’s the Belizean way? Ty and I were amused anyway!
Our guidelines from our Air BNB host were to make sure we picked up all our supplies before heading to the house for the evening. We stopped in San Ignacio, one of the main towns in the Cayo District where we were staying. As we crossed the bridge into town, we noticed that it was market day (Every Saturday)! As we made our way around town, we also noticed that finding a little grocery store (what would be equivalent to a corner store in North America) wasn’t too difficult. They were everywhere. We picked up all our essentials:
- Coffee powder (could only find instant)
- Eggs (sold in 3’s)
- Sugar (couldn’t find any at the first store. we had to settle for sweet n low – not the most ideal for me!)
- Tea (I only had one cup of this the entire trip but I was worried that I might feel sick from the food and wanted something for comfort)
- Chicken (sold frozen as a pack of 4 in a large freezer bin amongst other interesting frozen meats. most people in Belize don’t have refrigeration or a freezer so buying meat frozen and eating it the same day is common)
- Rice (not sure how I managed this but I bought grade c rice – it ended up being tasty though!)
The rest of our food we purchased from the market.
While I’d like to say we were super duper gung ho and ready to explore, we actually arrived at our house like groggy zombies. By then we had been travelling for just about 24 hours and since Ty is a gem, he let me take little siestas at the airport on our layovers and guarded our packs. I mustered up what was left in me to make our first Belizean meal! I had read that Belizean cuisine is a pretty simple combination of chicken or other kind of meat, rice & beans. Our chicken was still in rock solid state so I sort of gave up on it and chucked it in the fridge.
We both crashed by 3 in the afternoon and woke up to pitch darkness in our stinky travel clothing to the sound of just an orchestra of crickets & birds chirping in the middle of the night. It was perfect!
The next day, we took it slow and pretty much spent the entire morning figuring out what we wanted to see.
Being a photographer is tough sometimes. I have the hardest time packing for trips and often stand and stare at all my gear. What if there are animals I want to take photos of? I’ll need a telephoto. Should I buy a telephoto for this trip? Is it worth it? Oh but we’re going to be walking in the streets and I’d want to capture some street style shots. But I don’t know how safe Belize will be? I don’t want to bring anything too flashy. We might go swimming! I’ll need my Go Pro! But… we’re not staying at a resort by a pool, or by the beach…. will we be going swimming? I don’t want to miss moments when animals are spotted! I need binoculars!! But… what about that telephoto?
I pack & unpack several times before I am satisfied with my gear. I will have to cover gear in a more in depth post. But for now, here’s what I ended up bringing:
- Vintage pair of binoculars that I picked up at a flea market a couple summers ago
- Canon G7X MkII – I have had an interest in vlogging lately and the Go Pro wasn’t doing justice. This has been an absolutely awesome point & shoot to have. It takes both amazing photo & video and is the perfect size. The battery life could be a bit better, but I’m glad I brought extra
- Fuji XT1 with 10 – 24mm lens – I was recommended this lens by a Fuji representative. At first I felt that it was a tad bit too wide and the distortion is pretty crazy at 10mm but really only on faces. You can notice it in some of the shots. Your subject would really have to be centred to avoid that crazy bend. I do however love that when I was in tighter spaces or shooting large buildings, I had the nice wide option. It really makes it quite a bit more epic
- Fuji 11mm macro extension tube – I humm’d and haaah’d at the thought of getting a telephoto. After trying out the Fuji 50 – 230 & 55-200, I just didn’t have that “yes this is it!” feel from them. Instead, I picked up a macro tube – super neat little guy! I got some pretty sweet shots of bugs and plants
- Go Pro Hero 3+ – I would have brought my Hero Session 5 however also wanted to bring my Go Pro Dome. The model I have doesn’t work with the Session and so I lugged this guy around. We ended up not swimming in very clear water so it pretty much got to go to Belize and sit in my luggage.
- 3 extra batteries – We were off the grid with a generator that we ran a couple hours a night simply to charge batteries. Super glad I bought 1 extra of each. 3 is a pretty good number to have. I ended up using at least 1 and a half Canon batteries and about 3/4 of the Fuji a day so it worked out pretty well
We started our days early. It’s the only way to catch any remaining wildlife before they call it a day! We had an orange grove on the edge of the property and were super stoked for fresh juice for breakfast.
A lot of our days were spent slowly driving up and down Chiquibul Road or Mountain Pine Road or Georgeville Road (this road had 3 different names we weren’t sure which one to use!!). The entire area is Mayan grounds and so visiting an old site was a must!
First ruins we visited was Cahal Pech right in San Ignacio. Literally right in someone’s backyard. It’s pretty neat that countries in Central and South America are still preserving the history. For $5USD, we were free to explore the grounds on our own. We weren’t allowed to be on actual structures when we visited ruins in Tulum, Mexico so this experience was pretty neat!
It took approximately 30 minutes to get out off our road and onto the main highway. On days where we just needed to stock up on pantry items, we stopped by a village about 10 minutes from us. A store? Where? Just follow the coca cola sign! It was literally a window in a lady’s house that she sold items out of. *Mind blown*
Our house ran on butane which powered the fridge and hot water tank. It was off the grid and generator powered. My brain could not understand this before arriving here. Did that mean…. I couldn’t charge my cameras? Would I have to conserve battery power so I can make sure I get all the right shots I wanted from the entire trip!?!
We had a little gas powered generator under the house which we only turned on JUST to charge my batteries. The moment all the lights were green, off it went and we’d have dinner under lamp light. It was much more peaceful and less stinky that way.
A little later on in our trip, we discovered the supermarkets! Larger stores, with a lot more items to pick from. We picked up:
- Real coffee (grounds)
- Real sugar (50cents a bag)
- Bug spray (weren’t too sure about the mosquito situation)
- Chips (coz I love chips!)
The next day, we’d finally made plans with our tour guide to check out a cave! (Note, in Belize, you must have a guide with you to enter any caves. They are very protective of the atmosphere of the caves and want to preserve them for as long as they can – which is awesome!)
We visited the Barton Creek Caves. I’ve done a lot of self discovery in the last little while and…turns out I am slightly claustrophobic. I am also sort of freaked out by being in water where little critters might reside. Also terribly afraid of heights – my legs turn to jello. It’s funny though, these fears have only made my drive to travel and challenge these even more. Some items on my bucket list include:
- Swimming with whales
This tour took us 1km into the caves as this is as far as archaeologists have discovered any artifacts such as pottery as well as human remains. While it was a bit creepy at first, entering the cave ended up being a pretty cool experience. As we paddled in, our guide explained that we were now entering the path to the underworld. The Mayans believed that this was a channel between the living and the dead. Many did not like being in the cave however sacrifices were conducted there.
At certain points the cave got preeeeetty tiny. Bats would flutter around the tops and underneath us you could see little catfish in the water. Can you say eerie?
As our tour came to an end, you could start to see the light again. Our guide told us that this was a special moment as many who were sacrificed never got to experience this. Pretty magical moment!
We had many “holy crap that just happened” moments and definitely were in culture shock the entire time and one of these moments was when we reached the altitude of pine forests. PINE FORESTS! Who knew there were pine forests in Belize? I sure didn’t! I loved it! The air was dry, the water by the pools were cool. It was perfect for swimming in.
Since we were staying in land, we decided that there had to be a day where we travelled to the coast to check out what that looked like. We made a day of it and headed towards Dangriga, a little down just 2 hours South of Belize City.
As it also was back at Chiquibul road, life was too very chill and laid back in Dangriga, something that’s going to take me a while to get used to I think.
We did a bit of a walk about then headed further south to a town called Hopkins where we enjoyed a lovely lunch at Luba Laruga. Like Dangriga, Hopkins was also quite quiet and the food was amazing! The local beer, Belikin, is also pretty good! (Note! Compared to most other Central and South American countries, Belize isn’t that cheap. Our meal at Luba Luruga ended up being around $30-$40 which included 2 beers and a coke. It’s decent and not overpriced than what you might find in say, Vancouver, but pretty average. Amazing flavours and totally worth it though!)
While the coast was quite beautiful, we still really enjoyed being in the jungle!
Life is quick in the city. We work, we eat, we sleep. The cycle repeats itself over and over. Taking this time to slow down and just live was exactly what we needed. We weren’t in a hotel. We weren’t around people, we weren’t worried about how we’d look in our bathing suits or about sitting outside to tan. We lived. We cooked. We read. We listened to the sounds of the jungle. We freaked out whenever bugs fell from the palapa roof. We cringed when a mouse got into our food. But we lived. Our digestive systems have never felt this good, especially being on vacation.
Since we were there during the week, we got to see life as you know it in town and along the little street side villages. School kids walked, biked and bussed to school all dressed in their uniforms. Reminds me of when I was in school back in Singapore.
One of the ruins we explored was “Caracol”. It was one of the largest in the area and once home to 120,000 people! (Note! If you’re planning on heading up there, the military heads up there at 9:30am and returns at 2:30. It also take 2 hours to drive there. Why must you go with the military? The ruins have only recently been discovered and a lot of it still has yet to be explored by archaeologists. To an average person like me, I think the ruins are amazing and touching or taking anything that might take away from the “wow” would be terrible. But lots of people have stolen artifacts and items from these sites totally taking away from the history!!!)
After a long day out, we decided to skip the cooking and head up to a lodge along our road for dinner. We’d passed this sign a few times which read “All Day Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner”. It sounded perfect!
When we got there, we were greeted by a gentleman who was reading the paper. He was quite surprised to see us but welcomed us in and served coffee. After chatting with him, we learned that things are quiet nowadays. His theory is that ever since Trump was elected, many Americans and Europeans aren’t coming down south anymore just out of fear of travelling through the US and Mexico. There is a lot of uncertainty in the air and I guess people are just waiting it out.
We spent the next couple hours sipping our coffee, watching the sunset and then getting attacked by mosquitoes – the first we’d encountered since being there. They were vicious!!!!!
There were so many other moments and beautiful things we saw in Belize and every moment of it was just amazing. The people, the animals, the lifestyle, it was all perfect.
Belize is definitely high on our list and we are totally coming back, next time to visit the Cayes! For now, it’s back to city life.
Jamie is a Photographer & Local Artisan in Burnaby, BC
Got a question? Want to chat? I’d love to hear your travel stories!