March 23, 2017

Adventures in Belize

I couldn’t resist the urge to soak up the warm sunshine, ogle clear blue water, and take in breezy boat rides when most people are bundled up in winter clothes. The best months to visit Belize are between December and April, the dry season. Belize is most-known for offering some of the best SCUBA diving sites in the world. SCUBA divers paradise is the Blue Hole, which is the second largest reef in the world (to the largest is the Great Barrier Reef).

I couldn’t resist the urge to soak up the warm sunshine, ogle clear blue water, and take in breezy boat rides when most people are bundled up in winter clothes. The best months to visit Belize are between December and April, the dry season. Belize is most-known for offering some of the best SCUBA diving sites in the world. SCUBA divers paradise is the Blue Hole, which is the second largest reef in the world (to the largest is the Great Barrier Reef).

Although Belize appealed to me for more than its world-class diving. Unfortunately, I’m not yet SCUBA certified, though I’m now intrigued to be more than ever. I couldn’t conquer the Blue Hole this trip, but I intend to someday. I traveled to Belize to dive into an array of adventures.

I had four days to explore this destination, which wasn’t enough time, but with my desire to become a certified diver, I know I’ll go back. This trip was just a taste of what Belize has to offer, and it was to relax in a remote resort to experience pure tranquility.

After arriving in Belize City, I then had to take a 15-minute flight in a Cessna caravan to get to Ambergris Caye, the biggest island in Belize. (Visitors can also transfer by boat, which is cheaper but takes an hour and a half). The flight was perfect and offered a spectacular view of Belize.

The hotel greeted us at the flight arrival to then take us to their private hotel boat transfer. A welcome greeting of course with nothing other than a cerveza

Staying this trip at the hotel, El Secreto which sits on the beach at the end of Ambergris Caye. The 2nd to last hotel on the island. El Secreto has a private dock and is secluded from the surrounding resorts. Consider yourself a good distance away from anything, although you can rent a golf cart to go to near-by resorts. It will take you 30 minutes by their private boat to get to San Pedro. They will provide guests with free transportation to San Pedro if they stay three nights. (I only later found this out, so be sure to inquire about the times of day this boat runs).

El Secreto is a stunningly designed boutique resort. It consists of 13 exclusive, free-standing, thatched-roof villas, and guests have the choice between Tropical, Lake View, Sea, and Spa Villa. All offer the same amenities: spacious floor plans, king size beds, large tubs, outdoor showers, and private Jacuzzis.

We stayed in the Lake Villa overlooking a saltwater lake, which I found very serene and tranquil. The resort grounds were gorgeous, not too large, and with only 13 villas on the property, it’s easy to become friendly with the staff and other guests.

If you choose to stay here, I recommend that you:

  • Pre-arrange through the hotel the transfer flight to the island. This will cost about $215 per person. (Again, another option is to take the ferry).
  • Some excursions I recommend booking through the hotel for convenience, but know the hotel adds quite a surcharge.
  • Inquire with outside tour operators in advance, as there are not many operators outside the hotel that will pick up at El Secreto.
  • Book the ATM cave tour through Maya Walk tours (outside of the hotel). You will spend half as much per person than through the hotel.
  • Ask at least two hours in advance for the staff to heat your Jacuzzi as it is not heated at all times.
  • Book spa services at least one day in advance since the spa staff is not located at the resort.
  • Know that if you plan to spend the day at the resort, you might be the only one there besides the staff. (Most guests leave each day for activities, which is great if you’d like some alone time).
  • Know that there is only one restaurant onsite, but the menu features a great assortment of cuisine.

Of course, no island visit is complete without a day of relaxation. Staying at a remote hotel easily gives you this option, with a villa overlooking the lake and a pool facing the white sandy beach. I loved the simplicity of relaxing poolside, getting lost in my current literature of choice, and embracing the silence.

The white sand beach too…

My favorite go-to on any island is ceviche and fresh tacos.

The one day we spent on the grounds, we took advantage of the free access to paddle boards. The water was unbelievably clear, so it was mesmerizing to simply paddle out and let the sea take us along. Also, you have the option to use freely their kayaks and catamaran.

In the evening before dining at their restaurant on the grounds, we were provided by the resort their signature Hot Seashell full body massage. What a relaxing and heavenly massage it was. Thank you, El Secreto for this experience.

…and now the adventure begins

To step outside my comfort zone, to get some blood flowing, and to ignite my adrenaline, I decided I had to SCUBA dive for the first time. They say if skydiving excites you, then SCUBA diving (the polar opposite) will give you the same adrenaline rush. The fear of the unknown is what you will encounter under the sea. It’s exciting, yet it challenges your inner comfort. For me, I didn’t fear seeing anything in particular underwater. I feared not trusting my breathing would remain controlled and calm, accidentally letting go of the respirator, and having water seep in places it wasn’t supposed to.

I did a Discovery dive, where the instructors briefly go over the equipment and how to use it. When I say brief, I mean brief (so you can imagine the shred of comfort you gain). We spent 10 minutes in shallow water, practicing using the equipment and learning what to do if certain things happened underwater. Then we headed to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. I was able to dive to our deepest point, which was 25 feet. Diving is mind over matter; it’s about trusting that you are okay underwater and simply relaxing as you glide through it. There is such a Zen, peaceful feeling when you flow through water.

On this dive we saw large stingrays, nurse sharks, and a wide variety of fish. I was proud of how well I did but also realized I need much more experience… I see this as becoming a new favorite activity. Actually, I’m going to get certified, darn it.

After the dive we ventured to Shark/String ray alley to snorkel. What an amazing experience! I had not one ounce of fear and was ready to find some sharks. And sharks I found, we were surrounded. It was remarkable swimming with them. I know they were nurse sharks, and they might seem docile, but they can and will bite if you disturb them. Their bite is compared to the suction of a vacuum—they don’t let go! So heck yeah, I’ll say I was surrounded by sharks. What an experience!

Afterwards we traveled to Caye Chalker, a place I recommend visiting. The island has a laid-back vibe, piping reggae music along the waterfront. The island boasts an adorable array of colored buildings. Fresh fish, live bars, juice stands, and young coconuts lined the streets (aka roads for the golf carts). It’s so small you easily can walk from one end to the other.

We ate a delicious meal at one of the local spots that sold fresh fish. Then we hit up a coffee shop to grab refreshing iced coffee. It made me crave something sweet, so I popped a Rum ball in my mouth. The small ball was out of this world! I immediately went for another. Perhaps it tasted especially great on a hot day, but it packed an intense amount of flavor.

Finishing up this adventurous afternoon, we headed back to the resort. We took some time to relax back in the room, laying in the hammocks right outside, swaying by the lake. We poured some delicious red before an evening at the hotel restaurant.

Rise in shine…but first coffee!

On our last day in Belize, we had an incredible adventure touring the famous, much-anticipated Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, best known as the ATM Cave. The ATM Cave is the most sacred cave in the world, according to National Geographic. For me, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and unforgettable in every way.

Our adventure was arranged by MayaWalk tours, which is an eco-friendly, family-owned, highly-rated, local operator. I highly suggest you book an ATM Cave tour through them. They are welcoming and professional, and they deliver immediate responses. The wonderful Samantha will always be ready to answer any questions you have about the tour before booking.

MayaWalk tour picked us up after our early morning arrival by ferry. We took the earliest ferry—at sunrise—so that we could join the first tour group of the day. We then took a 45-minute drive to meet the rest of the group, which we joined to then take a van to the entrance of cave.

The ATM Cave was only discovered in 1989 and has been growing in popularity ever since. Access to the Mayan sacrificial site within the cave involves hiking, wading and swimming through the cave, but nearly a mile underground, you will reach the resting place of the “Crystal Maiden”, what is thought to be a complete female skeleton that sparkles from eons of crystal calcification. The cave also contains Mayan pottery shards, many showing the “kill hole” intended to allow spirits to escape. More than 1,400 objects from the ancient Mayan culture have been catalogued, including tools, weapons, pottery objects, and water vessels. It is believed that the Maya used the ATM Cave as a religious site, where they performed bloody sacrifices in an attempt to appeal to the gods during times of war. Archeologists have determined that the ATM Cave was used throughout the end of the Classical Period (800 to 1000 AD), a time when much of Belize was suffering from drought. Back then, the only form of light used in the cave came from burning torches. In the cave, the guides will explain what certain formations were believed to be seen as when the Mayans flickering their torches upon entry into the cave.

Unfortunately, a tourist who visited the cave four years ago dropped a camera onto a skull and damaged it, so Belize officials now ban all cameras and videography from the cave. This makes it even more a reason to experience it for yourself.

At the beginning of the tour, you will walk about 20 minutes on flat ground until you reach the river, which you will swim across. What a way to get the adventure started! You will then cross the river twice more, although it will only be knee-deep at most. Then you will enter the cave, and immediately start swimming. Then the thrill begins….

You will spend an average of three hours in the cave. I won’t ruin the experience for you by going further in depth, but it was a riveting experience and a wonderful cultural and historical adventure. I can’t recommend it enough to experience this for yourself at least once in your life.

(photos below provided by MayaWalk tours)

Before leaving San Pedro, I was able to visit with some locals during Carnival time. On this Sunday, Front street, the beach and central park were given over to paint wars by kids.  The town, kids, and adults were drenched in paint. We picked the perfect night to be able to witness the culture and liveliness of the island.

the view on our return to the resort….

Thank you Belize for the adventures and memories!

Advice from a palm tree…

~ Soak up the sun

~ Stand tall & proud

~Remember your roots

~ Drink plenty of water

~Be content with your natural beauty

~ Enjoy the view