I admit to knowing nothing about traveling to Belize with kids. Our travel started once our children were well in their teens. My friend Lorna and her family recently returned from the tropical paradise of Belize. When she offered to share their experiences of having traveled to Belize on their honeymoon and now as a family, I jumped at the chance to have her do a guest post.
Please join me in warmly welcoming Lorna to Travel Tales of Life ~ Sue
For March break this year, my family vacationed for ten days on Ambergris Caye, the largest island offshore Belize. At 40 kilometers long and just under two kilometers wide, it’s a place where everyone cruises around in golf carts or boats.
This was our second trip to Belize, though the first time we were kidless and stayed on a private island. More commonly known as ‘Our Honeymoon’, my husband, Dave, and I slept late, ate late, worked up a tan and consumed Belikans (the local Belize beer) and trashy novels in equal measure.
We remembered the scuba diving as magical. Going back to Belize with our now six year old son, Tom, would be perfect. Time to explore the activities of Belize we missed first time round.
Super Old Stuff
We signed on for a one day tour that included Xunantunich, an ancient Maya archeological site located about 80 kilometres west of Belize City. We flew from Ambergris Caye to Belize City, a fifteen minute skip across to the mainland, to meet our guide.
It’s roughly a two hour drive from there to Xunantunich, a productive length of time for our guide was well versed in all things Belize. Just before arriving at the site, you water taxi across the Mopan River, and have the opportunity to learn about the history of the archeological site at a small museum.
Researchers have dated parts of Xunantunich as far back as 1000 BC – 250 AD, admittedly a big window, though it was later (600-670 AD) that it began to grow in size, only to be abandoned somewhere around 750 AD due to an unknown violent event, possibly an earthquake.
The site re-established itself around 780-890 AD. Xunantunich means “Stone Woman” in the Maya language, and references the ghost of a woman dressed in white and possessing fire-red glowing eyes who has appeared in front of El Castillo, the largest of the stone structures.
Walking amid excavated stone temples and grass covered plazas of Xunantunich is like stepping back into an ancient world. Standing in the shade of giant avocado trees, you can imagine the Maya villages that were once here, the “soccer” games played on the field next door, and the royalty who once worshiped their gods from these giant structures.
Along the east wall of El Castillo is a stunning white band of carved monoliths that depict, among other things, gods of creation and the tree of life, which extends from the underworld, the earth, and the heavens. Originals of some of these carved stones are stored in a shack nearby, something that in other, more wealthy cultures might be preserved in a museum.
It was smoking hot and humid the day we scrambled up the massive stairs of El Castillo, a 40 metre high structure that affords sweeping views of the jungle and the Guatamalan border.
Absent of railings, ropes, or any other safety measure that would, frankly, detract from the majesty of this site, we sat with our backs to the stone while our son, Tom, snacked on dried banana chips dipped in Nutella. I’ve been told that you can have great food or a great view, but not both. This was a clear exception to that rule.
My Shoes Don’t Work with this Outfit
When we were done with the old stuff, we back-tracked down the same highway, turning off about half an hour from Belize City to go cave tubing, a sport that is pretty much how it sounds. You float down a river with your butt lodged in an inner tube, hoping this is the river that does not contain large, amphibious reptiles.
“You have water shoes?” our guide asked, looking at our feet and wagging a finger. “No flip flops allowed.” Then, Tom said, “Mom, did you forget my shoes?” Dave and I exchanged glances. This was hard core.
There are seven miles of river cave systems in Belize, and we completed only the most accessible portion called the Caves Branch Cave. We hiked through the jungle for half an hour, a fascinating trek that included several river crossings and afforded views of countless orchid varieties, Jurassic park ferns, and tall spindly trees with spikes projecting out of the trunks like jungle armor.
At the end of the trail, we suited up in life jackets and head lamps, hopped on our tubes and started floating down the river, only to have our guide holler, “Butts up!” whenever we approached shallow rapids.
Caves Branch Cave is one of several subterranean sites carved out of the limestone foothills of the Maya Mountains by the very active Caves Branch River. The limestone caves we floated through have existed for aeons, and it was easy to imagine ancient Maya people making pilgrimages to this fertile area to petition their gods to for bountiful harvests or to use the river as a transportation thoroughfare.
Inside the caves, live a plethora of stalagmites and stalactites. We floated along in complete darkness, only to have our guide flash on his lamp at the right moment to illuminate a calcite dolphin or a the great jaw of a T-Rex. “So cool, Mom,” Tom said. “Are those vampire bats hanging up there?”
Eat What You Kill
My son, Tom, loves to fish. He also loves to eat the fish he catches. Last year, we traveled to Antigua and stayed at a resort that offered, among other water sports, deep sea fishing. One morning, the boat returned with a sizable Mahi Mahi catch, and that fish later appeared on the dinner menu.
While our son never went deep sea fishing in Antigua – I worried the roll of the sea would be too much for him – he did catch a small yellow and silver fish with bulbous eyes while dock fishing that, to his dismay, was not served for lunch.
In Belize, we contracted a boat for the family to go fishing, snorkeling, and to have BBQ lunch on the beach. I had thought we were going bone fishing, a popular sport in Belize, but it turned out we fished the reef, bringing in a dozen or so smallish fish: yellowtail snappers, snook, tarpon. Later, we saw dolphins cresting nearby, then went for a snorkel before lunch.
While there was no written menu, a disappointment to our son who wanted to see his catch in print, and while it poured rain mid-afternoon so that we ate standing up and shivering in an abandoned dive shack, the meal of pineapple salsa, squid carpaccio, warm tortillas with spicy potatoes, refried beans, and Tom’s catch-of-the-day was fresh and simple and delicious.
Sharks and Other Belize Hugables
Scuba diving in Belize is spectacular. The coral reef is alive with vibrant color, teeming with life, and it is a wonder to swim through the warm water and take in all this beauty. Plus there is the Blue Hole. My husband and I took turns diving, and each time the other would report back on sightings: I saw Spotted Eagle Rays; I saw a Loggerhead Turtle the size of kitchen table; I saw squid, octopus, a giant crab; the dive master speared a Lionfish and fed it to the Nurse Shark.
Was there a Doctor Shark? Tom asked. While we didn’t dive the Blue Hole this time round, we did in 2007. It is deep dive, roughly 130 feet, and well worth the two hour boat trip to get there. Amigos del Mar, the operator we dove with, wraps two other dives around this trip, making it a perfect day.
We took our son snorkeling at Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, areas that are chummed everyday in order to guarantee tourists encounters with sea life. To my mind, this takes away from the sport of diving and snorkeling, as you no longer need to wonder what or if you’ll see something.
Yet, it was this zoo-like backdrop that afforded my six year old the opportunity to pet Nurse Sharks (“Cool Mom”) and Manta Rays (“Too Slimy”).
Where to Stay in Belize?
In 2007, we stayed at Cayo Espanto, a tiny man-made island catering to people seeking privacy. Good food, top notch service, and it is quiet. All-inclusive, except for wine and water activities, such as scuba diving and snorkeling.
Second time around, traveling as a family to Belize, we opted for The Phoenix, a well-maintained resort located right in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Staff is friendly and helpful, and there is a good on-site restaurant, work-out facilities, great pool area. Rooms are equipped with a kitchen and laundry facilities, something I wouldn’t have given much thought to on ‘Our Honeymoon’ but that came in handy, for obvious reasons, six years later.
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Lorna Carley lives and writes in Calgary and Canmore, Canada. Lorna is passionate about literature, travel, the mountains, and her family. This is not a sponsored post and all accommodations and tours were paid for by Lorna and her family.