Do You Belize in Magic?

Itinerary:

  1. Day 1: Land in Belize City, ferry to Caye Caulker
  2. Day 2: Scuba diving from Caye Caulker
  3. Day 3: Ferry back to Belize City, ATM cave tour
  4. Day 4: Depart from Belize City
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Stunning views flying into Belize City

Our Odyssey:

I can’t belize Tim and I never prioritized getting down to this Central American gem sooner!! Okay, I couldn’t resist the obligatory pun, but honestly, our quick weekend trip to Belize wowed us beyond words!

As part of our effort to stay warm during Wisconsin’s freezing winters, Tim and I decided we would spend a weekend each month through the winter in a different Central American country. Our plan had been to start with Honduras in December, but after stumbling upon some intimidating travel warnings about the city we were planning to visit, we booked a trip to Texas instead.

Anyway, next on deck was Belize in January! An easy 2.5 hours direct flight from Atlanta brought us to Belize City on a Thursday afternoon. From there, we caught a cab (flat rate of $25 USD) to the ferry port and bought tickets for the next ferry to Caye Caulker, an island 20 miles northeast of Belize City. The vibe on this island couldn’t be more laid back. There are no paved roads, and no cars for that matter – just golf carts, bikes and bare feet.

We rented a small apartment from Airbnb, that came with a (mostly) friendly neighborhood cat, mediocre AC, and a dingy communal hot tub (to be fair, this was a pretty cheap and basic rental). We spent our afternoon exploring the small town. For dinner, we stopped at one of many places offering fresh lobster, called Enjoy Bar and Restaurant. For a mere $10, I got an entire grilled lobster, rice, veggies and garlic bread for dinner. It was heavenly!!

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Our apartment cat.

The next morning we joined Belize Diving Services for a 3 tank dive trip. It was a very early morning (5am) and a very long and rough boat ride to our first dive spot- the famous Great Blue Hole. There are two ways to dive the Blue Hole – deep or shallow. Deep is limited to those who have completed a certain number of dives (I think 25 if I recall correctly), while all others can take a shallow dive. The main difference is that the deep divers descend far enough to enter cavernous areas of the hole to see the stalactites, while the shallow divers can only see the stalactites from above.

While Tim and I have our advanced diving PADI certification, we have only dived a handful of times, so we fell into the shallow dive group. The experience was still very worthwhile, however! The dive starts like any other – you gear up, jump off the boat, and descend to the sandy floor. Then, our guide led us over to an underwater cliff – the wall of the Blue Hole. From there, we descended into the hole alongside the wall. More impressive than the descent, though, was the ascent back to the surface and coming back over the cliff. I think some of the best images I’ve seen online that capture this experience are ones where a diver appears to be “jumping” off of the cliff.

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The Blue Hole as seen from on the surface. 

Our second dive site was Half Moon Caye Wall, which is a coral reef dive full of diverse marine life. On this dive we saw a very shark-like shark (we later learned it was a Caribbean reef shark- I encourage you to look up photos!), and a sting ray, among many beautiful tropical fish.

We then took a lunch break on Half Moon Caye. This small island seemed to me the most perfect tropical paradise – vibrant green palm trees lining the island, surrounded by blue from the sky above and the sea below, and countless frigate birds swirling overhead. We enjoyed a delicious and simple lunch of chicken and rice with Fanta (my guilty pleasure tropical soda drink) on picnic tables on the shore. After eating, we took a hike to a bird sanctuary.

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Half Moon Caye – could a more tropical-looking island exist??

The hike itself, before even getting to the bird sanctuary, was like a tropical island wildlife safari. We saw a hermit crab, several large iguanas, and a Belizean Atoll gecko (very rare to see, and only found in this region). The bird sanctuary itself is completely open with no enclosures – just a viewing platform surrounded by trees full of red-footed boobies and frigates puffing their red chests to attract mates.

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A red-footed booby 

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A male frigate tries to attract a mate.

On our walk back, as we neared the shore, we then saw not just one, but two, baby Caribbean reef sharks swimming in the surf, followed by another sting ray. It was astounding to see so many diverse animal species on this one small island and I still can’t believe (or belize…) how lucky we were to have chosen a tour that stopped at this magical place.

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Stingray

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Baby Caribbean reef shark 

Back on the boat we ventured to the Long Caye Aquarium, a dive site known for its abundant wildlife. Not to give away the ending here, but this was the best dive Tim and I have ever had. It was simply amazing, and had me wishing there was a more dramatic way to express enthusiasm while underwater than just making the “OK” sign with my hands while making big eyes and nodding my head.

We saw more sharks, and then, magically, a green sea turtle, large (the size of the top of a coffee table) and clear floating near the coral directly in front of us. Tim and I saw a sea turtle once before in Florida, but the water was so cloudy that all we could make out was a faint dark blob. This, on the other hand, was what my turtle dreams are made of. After diving in Thailand, diving in the Great Barrier Reef and making Tim stay up all night at a turtle rookery in a small town on the east coast of Australia, only to never see a magical sea turtle until our murky Florida encounter a year ago- this was absolutely incredible and breathtaking (thankfully not literally because that’s the last thing you want while on a scuba dive!).

We were able to observe the turtle for several moments, peacefully and elegantly hovering in front of us. Eventually, bored or full or ready to carry on, the majestic animal turned away from us and paddled out to sea, eventually vanishing into the distance.

The water wasn’t done wowing us yet, though – just a few minutes after our sea turtle experience, a fat, 8ft long (at least!) green moray eel slowly slithered below us. We actually saw this same eel several times on the rest of our dive, swimming back and forth against the coral water. It was both spooky (eels are like the snakes of the sea, and a giant green one may as well be an anaconda) and mesmerizing.

Other highlights and rare sights – stone fish, a bull shark, and just a few moments before we rose, a second turtle – this one a hawksbill (we think).

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Tim spotted me spotting something! 

When we all surfaced, everyone immediately began talking excitedly about everything we had seen. One couple had just gotten certified the previous week – we were so happy for them that they got to have such an amazing dive so early in their experiences! Everyone in our group agreed it was the best dive they’d ever had. It certainly was for us!! In fact, after this dive Tim and I both said (somewhat jokingly) that we didn’t think we really ever needed to dive again – at least not for a while – since after this dive we got to see everything we’d ever hoped to see while diving.

Back on the boat we had a 2 and a half hours ride back to Caye Caulker. Several people napped – diving is exhausting!

And back on land Tim and I returned to our apartment, showered up and then ventured out for our last night on the island. We stopped by a restaurant our Airbnb host had recommended and each had a drink. The restaurant was empty and had kind of a sad vibe so we decided not to eat there. It was also much more expensive than the place we’d eaten at the night before – so after our drinks we paid and returned to the Enjoy Bar and Grill where I ordered another $10 lobster meal. It was perfect.

The next morning we caught the 6am ferry back to Belize City, where a driver met us to take us inland to the town of Teakettle, where a guide met us and another couple to lead us through a tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (also called the ATM) cave. This cave was first entered by the Mayas in 300-600 AD and was the site of sacred sacrificial ceremonies for hundreds of years. The unique combination of nature and history made the decision to visit this spot an easy one for us.

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The road leading to the ATM hike.

To get to the cave, we had to hike about 40 minutes, with several river crossings and over muddy ground. Once at the cave entrance, we then had to swim into the cave to get to landing where the “trail” begins. The route then follows the underground river several kilometers (though only a smaller portion is open to tourist visits). We had to swim, climb and squeeze our way through the cave, all while taking in the stunning decorations (stalactites and stalagmites) of the rooms we entered. We even saw a few little bats in a cubby within the ceiling. As we got deeper into the cave, we began to see shards of pottery and fragments of bones – remnants of the ceremonies held here over a thousand years ago. The whole experience must be how Indiana Jones felt venturing through rugged, untouched terrain, discovering artifacts as he went. This is by far one of the most amazing and unique travel experiences Tim and I have had.

Our guide explained that the Maya believed this cave to be the home of the god of the underworld, and like many other Mayan gods, this god required regular human sacrifices. The fractured bones are the remains of those who were sacrificed, and there are two skeletons that are particularly well-preserved and complete. It was unsettling to see these remains of human individuals who had lives and loves and hopes now resting where they were killed to appease a god. It was also incredible to be one of the few who have the opportunity to witness this piece of human history and the mysteries still unfolding as active archeological research is done.

After the tour we had a late lunch back at the truck before returning to Belize City, where Tim and I stayed for the night before flying back to Atlanta the next day.

Although our visit was short, Tim and I saw enough to be convinced that we absolutely must come back to Belize sometime soon. In no other place I’ve visited has it been so easy to experience tropical diving, ancient ruins and jungle adventures all in one quick weekend. I can’t wait to go back!

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