City markets & jungle trails — into the heart of Guatemala and Belize

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Flowers are sold on the church steps at the Chichicastenango market.

by William Schoenemann, Port Ludlow, WA

Latin America is so close to the U.S., but for some reason (mainly security) many international travelers shun countries other than Costa Rica. My wife and I decided we should visit some of our neighbors.

Finding a reasonably priced trip that took in more than one country was not easy, but we finally decided to go with a customized itinerary from Global Travel, visiting Guatemala and Belize in February ’03.

Surrounded by volcanoes

We made our own arrangements on Grupo TACA airlines, which cost us a little over $400 each for the open-jaw trip from San Francisco to Guatemala City and return from Belize City.

Our guide, Andre, was waiting for us at the airport and we proceeded on a 3-hour drive to Lake Atitlán. We found the terrain fascinating as there are 32 volcanoes in the country, only a couple of which are active. We were held up twice by demonstrations of teachers protesting government policies.

Hotel Atitlan (phone 502 762 1441, fax 502 762 0048 or visit www.hotelatitlan.com) in Panajachel, overlooking the lake and two volcanoes, is a gorgeous facility with acres of gardens and flowers everywhere. There are birdcages all over with rare birds plus two free-ranging scarlet macaws, one of which came down from his perch, raced toward us and nipped both my wife and me without any provocation. I think he was showing off for his mate.

We were so sleep deprived from our red-eye flight that we took an afternoon nap, after which we strolled through the gardens for an hour. At the hotel restaurant we enjoyed an excellent 4-course dinner with fish as the entrée.

Souvenir shopping

The center court of the Tikal ruins.

The next day, after a buffet breakfast, Andre picked us up for our first venture, a ferry ride across the lake to Santiago de Atitlán. Walking through the town was interesting, with lots of souvenir shopping. The beautifully embroidered potholders were a bargain at less than $1 each.

The combination of Mayan and Christian beliefs in the area results in some unique ceremonies. We stopped at a spiritual house where two parishioners were worshiping and intoning in front of an armless and legless wooden figure with a cigarette in its mouth. In the local church, there were life-size figures in colorfully dressed clusters representing the various tribal cultures in the area.

Andre hired a private boat to speed us back across the lake, but the motor overheated and so the ferry arrived ahead of us. Then we drove around the lake to Santa Catarina, where we visited a weaving shop that made gorgeous fabrics.

We continued on to San Antonio and a shop that sold good-quality woven goods. This was the shopping highlight of the trip, as we purchased great placemats and napkins for less than $1 each, along with an apron and a carry-all bag in which to put our new treasures.

Chichicastenango

It took almost two hours to drive to Hotel Santo Tomás (phone 502 756 1061) in Chichicastenango. This hotel could have been a monastery in its prior days, as vestments adorned the walls, and old wooden footlockers and a fireplace were located in each room. The courtyard was lovely, with a fountain and another bevy of exotic birds sitting on perches.

For dinner, our very tasty prix fixe of four courses was accompanied by a small but loud mariachi band.

The market in Chichi, as it is lovingly called by locals, is famous, so we had arranged our itinerary to visit on a Sunday. (It is also open on Thursdays.)

After an early full breakfast at the hotel, we attended the Catholic church service in the market square. There was standing room only while the chorus sang accompanied by a guitar.

The market is huge and extends out from the square into the city streets. By the time we left, it was teeming with Mayans who, although small in stature, were carrying huge loads on their backs.

Antigua and Tikal

At noon we took a 2-hour drive to Antigua, the old colonial capital of Guatemala. Our hotel, the Casa Azul (phone 502 832 0961 or visit www.casazul.guate.com), was quite charming with several courtyards and a profusion of flowers. Our room was large with three separate “booths” for shower, sink and toilet.

We proceeded to walk around the main square, visiting several churches and a museum. Since it was Sunday, the colonial home which was on our recommended list was closed. We ate typical Guatemalan meals at Da Gusto, which was around the corner from our hotel and near the main square.

The next morning, we took a 6:30 flight to Flores, from where it took two hours to drive to the jungle and Tikal. After checking in at the Jungle Lodge (phone 502 476 8775), we proceeded on a guided tour of the Mayan ruins at Tikal.

My wife and I are somewhat jaded when it comes to ruins — we say we are “ruined” — however, the Tikal complex is huge and very impressive. We walked to the top of one of the temples and after 177 steps in the heat and humidity were completely worn out.

After a refreshing nap, we visited the local Mayan artifact museum (entry fee, $2), which was worthwhile.

Our accommodations were typical for a jungle lodge, and the meals were adequate.

On to Belize

A one-hour-plus innocuous boat ride on Lake Peten Itza, near Flores, started out our next day. A 2-hour drive from Flores then took us to the border in time to have a good shrimp lunch at the Mopan River Hotel, located on the highway. The owner was an extremely nice lady who proceeded to take us on a tour of her property on which she grows a large assortment of fruits, herbs and flowers.

Fish mongers in Chichicastenango.

After the tour, we walked across the border to Belize and were driven to The Lodge at Chaa Creek. My wife and I have been to 96 countries and this was one of the most fabulous places at which we have ever stayed. It is located outside of San Ignacio, about a half hour’s drive from the border.

Our accommodation was an air-conditioned, 3-level bungalow complete with a huge living room, large sleeping area and excellent bath and washroom facilities. Our large deck included a spa, which we utilized both evenings to cool off as the weather was hot and humid. The deck overlooked the Macal River and was next to a large tree in which eight iguanas were resting, some of them at least four feet long.

Dinner was served in a rondavel with a really nice atmosphere. The menu selection and food were superior, and both nights we sipped on our giant margaritas carried over from cocktail hour.

The first night, we elected to go on an optional night walk. This provided mostly exercise, but we did see a large number of spiders (whose eyes shine in the light), including tarantulas, and an opossum.

River and ruins

After a made-to-order breakfast on our first morning, we went on a 1½-hour canoe trip with a guide down the Macal River to San Ignacio. It was a very pleasant trip with my wife directing and the guide and I doing the work.

We were dropped off to explore San Ignacio, which reminded us of Tijuana. Our recreation was people watching, as the cast of characters walking by us seemed to come from another world.

After we returned to the resort for lunch, we were scheduled to go to Xunantuntich, another Mayan ruin. We weren’t exactly thrilled at this prospect, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Our tour guide had worked on the digs there for 16 years and was a fountain of information. The ruins have had significant reconstruction, so it turned out to be an interesting and educational experience.

The next morning we had scheduled an optional 6:30 bird walk, which we thought would be canceled as it was raining hard. However, the rain stopped and, to our surprise, we were able to count a significant number of birds, including the rare emerald toucan.

We also ran into two agoutis, which are like giant rats without tails. (Agoutis are now called “royal rats,” after Queen Elizabeth was served them during a royal visit to Belize, which is still part of the Commonwealth of Nations.)

After breakfast, we visited the on-site nature center and butterfly house, where we learned about the fascinating life cycle of the blue morpho. As we stood there, two of the butterflies emerged from their pupae. For some reason, the blue morphos liked me, and as I stood in the cage six of them landed on my shirt and head. Although their droppings stained my T-shirt, I didn’t really mind. I might change my name to “The Butterfly Man of Belize.”

Jungle accommodations

As luxurious as Chaa Creek was, our next stop, at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge (phone 501 822 2800) near Belmopan, was at the opposite end of the accommodations scale. We were put in a “double cabana,” which was one side of a screened-in cabin. The bathroom was 50 yards to the right and the showers, in a bamboo enclosure, consisted of a bucket with holes.

At the family-style, rather ordinary dinner, the owner gave us a lecture about the dangerous fer-de-lance snakes and the 150 large tarantulas he had personally released. We decided to upgrade to a cabin with en suite facilities for an additional $40 a night. It was just as well, as my wife developed the “Mayan miseries” and was in the bathroom most of the night.

River tubing

Since my wife still wasn’t feeling well the next day, I went on the Caves Branch River tubing expedition on an individual inner tube. This was a really fun float on a chilly stream into a cave with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. We came across some very large caverns as well as several sites where the Mayans had left religious artifacts and drawings.

The fun part was when everyone turned off their head lamps and floated downstream. I was the last person in the flotilla, and when I could no longer hear anyone I turned on my light and was alone and disoriented. Fortunately, I ran into another group and returned safely.

A few caveats

A scene from the Chichicastenango market.

After another 2-hour drive, we arrived at Jaguar Reef Lodge near Hopkins Village. The lodge has a great location on the beach, and the facilities are upscale with air-conditioned bungalows. The breeze was blowing, keeping the sand flies down, and the beach turned out to be a great place to walk, the Caribbean Sea lapping at our feet. Our dinner that night in the open-air restaurant featured lobster and was excellent.

At breakfast the next day, the sand flies/no-see-ums were out. These are vicious little pests that draw blood; their bites tend to itch for weeks.

Our itinerary for the day called for a visit to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which has the reputation of having the highest concentration of jaguars in the world. After a 7-kilometer trek in the heat and humidity, the only thing we saw in the dense jungle were some fresh jaguar tracks and some birds new to our list. It turns out few people really see the jaguars, as they are nocturnal.

After a picnic lunch, we set out for a waterfall. The 3½-kilometer walk was grueling in the heat, with an 800-foot rise and slippery footing in the rainforest environment. By the time we got there, we, at 70 years young, were exhausted and the waterfall turned out to be only 20 feet high. Also, there were 25 people in the small swimming hole next to the falls. My wife went in, but I just sat there and took pictures. This was one outing I could have done without.

Dramatic dining

Dinner that night was an adventure as a major storm drifted through. There was lightning on one side and, in the other direction, a full moon shining on the sea. We sat at an outside table, but the wind and rain finally forced everyone inside. When we placed our table inside, the thatched roof leaked and rain again fell on us. The employees made the best of a bad situation and we wound up eating a pleasant dinner with interesting new friends.

The last few excursions

Our last day in Belize started with a 3-hour cruise on the Sittee River, where we saw turtles, crocodiles and birds. It was a very pleasant trip. We were supposed to do some snorkeling on the famous Belize reefs; unfortunately, there were small craft warnings and snorkeling was canceled.

After lunch we hired one of the resort’s guides to take us on the one-hour drive to Dangriga for $40. While the driver was really informative, the town of Dangriga turned out to be a real bust. The driver told us that we would be finished in a half hour and he was absolutely correct.

At breakfast we had been told about a local artist, Benjamin Nicholas, who has an excellent reputation in Central America. Our driver took us to his home and it was quite an experience. There was no room to walk around the house/studio without bumping into something, and, at 72 years of age, Nicholas turned out to be a real character.

He talked our ears off as he tried to explain why he had 15 or so paintings in process, none of which were finished. He is talented and has a unique style and also has received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth.

We wound up buying one of his wife’s doll creations, one which also was unfinished, missing the facial features. In addition, he gave us one of his postcards for our promise to mail him copies of the pictures I took in his studio.

Overall, our trip was a resounding success.

Trip expenses

Belize readily accepts the U.S. dollar. In Guatemala I found it was easier to deal in quetzales, although vendors usually accepted dollars.

Artist Benjamin Nicholas in his studio in Hopkins Village, Belize.

The cost of our customized 11-day itinerary was $2,535 per person, including all tours and meals except for lunch and dinner during the first three days in Guatemala.

Global Travel (phone 44 1268 541732, e-mail info@global-travel.co.uk or visit www.global-travel.co.uk) is based in Essex, England.

The Lodge at Chaa Creek (phone 501 824 2037 or e-mail reservations @chaacreek.com) has rates varying from $50 per night in the tented Jungle Camp to $275 for the Tree Top Jacuzzi Suite. Meals were extra, with dinner at $26.

During the winter season, the Jaguar Reef Lodge (phone 800/289-5756 or visit www.jaguarreef.com) charges $195 per night for a cabana. The full meal plan cost us an additional $35 per day, which was a bargain.

The remaining hotels we stayed at all had rack rates of $100 per night for double occupancy, except the Casa Azul with a rate of $78 for a second-floor room.

Tours at each of the resorts were scheduled and paid for separately.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Flowers are sold on the church steps at the Chichicastenango market.

by William Schoenemann, Port Ludlow, WA

Latin America is so close to the U.S., but for some reason (mainly security) many international travelers shun countries other than Costa Rica. My wife and I decided we should visit some of our neighbors.

Finding a reasonably priced trip that took in more than one country was not easy, but we finally decided to go with a customized itinerary from Global Travel, visiting Guatemala and Belize in February ’03.

Surrounded by volcanoes

We made our own arrangements on Grupo TACA airlines, which cost us a little over $400 each for the open-jaw trip from San Francisco to Guatemala City and return from Belize City.

Our guide, Andre, was waiting for us at the airport and we proceeded on a 3-hour drive to Lake Atitlán. We found the terrain fascinating as there are 32 volcanoes in the country, only a couple of which are active. We were held up twice by demonstrations of teachers protesting government policies.

Hotel Atitlan (phone 502 762 1441, fax 502 762 0048 or visit www.hotelatitlan.com) in Panajachel, overlooking the lake and two volcanoes, is a gorgeous facility with acres of gardens and flowers everywhere. There are birdcages all over with rare birds plus two free-ranging scarlet macaws, one of which came down from his perch, raced toward us and nipped both my wife and me without any provocation. I think he was showing off for his mate.

We were so sleep deprived from our red-eye flight that we took an afternoon nap, after which we strolled through the gardens for an hour. At the hotel restaurant we enjoyed an excellent 4-course dinner with fish as the entrée.

Souvenir shopping

The center court of the Tikal ruins.

The next day, after a buffet breakfast, Andre picked us up for our first venture, a ferry ride across the lake to Santiago de Atitlán. Walking through the town was interesting, with lots of souvenir shopping. The beautifully embroidered potholders were a bargain at less than $1 each.

The combination of Mayan and Christian beliefs in the area results in some unique ceremonies. We stopped at a spiritual house where two parishioners were worshiping and intoning in front of an armless and legless wooden figure with a cigarette in its mouth. In the local church, there were life-size figures in colorfully dressed clusters representing the various tribal cultures in the area.

Andre hired a private boat to speed us back across the lake, but the motor overheated and so the ferry arrived ahead of us. Then we drove around the lake to Santa Catarina, where we visited a weaving shop that made gorgeous fabrics.

We continued on to San Antonio and a shop that sold good-quality woven goods. This was the shopping highlight of the trip, as we purchased great placemats and napkins for less than $1 each, along with an apron and a carry-all bag in which to put our new treasures.

Chichicastenango

It took almost two hours to drive to Hotel Santo Tomás (phone 502 756 1061) in Chichicastenango. This hotel could have been a monastery in its prior days, as vestments adorned the walls, and old wooden footlockers and a fireplace were located in each room. The courtyard was lovely, with a fountain and another bevy of exotic birds sitting on perches.

For dinner, our very tasty prix fixe of four courses was accompanied by a small but loud mariachi band.

The market in Chichi, as it is lovingly called by locals, is famous, so we had arranged our itinerary to visit on a Sunday. (It is also open on Thursdays.)

After an early full breakfast at the hotel, we attended the Catholic church service in the market square. There was standing room only while the chorus sang accompanied by a guitar.

The market is huge and extends out from the square into the city streets. By the time we left, it was teeming with Mayans who, although small in stature, were carrying huge loads on their backs.

Antigua and Tikal

At noon we took a 2-hour drive to Antigua, the old colonial capital of Guatemala. Our hotel, the Casa Azul (phone 502 832 0961 or visit www.casazul.guate.com), was quite charming with several courtyards and a profusion of flowers. Our room was large with three separate “booths” for shower, sink and toilet.

We proceeded to walk around the main square, visiting several churches and a museum. Since it was Sunday, the colonial home which was on our recommended list was closed. We ate typical Guatemalan meals at Da Gusto, which was around the corner from our hotel and near the main square.

The next morning, we took a 6:30 flight to Flores, from where it took two hours to drive to the jungle and Tikal. After checking in at the Jungle Lodge (phone 502 476 8775), we proceeded on a guided tour of the Mayan ruins at Tikal.

My wife and I are somewhat jaded when it comes to ruins — we say we are “ruined” — however, the Tikal complex is huge and very impressive. We walked to the top of one of the temples and after 177 steps in the heat and humidity were completely worn out.

After a refreshing nap, we visited the local Mayan artifact museum (entry fee, $2), which was worthwhile.

Our accommodations were typical for a jungle lodge, and the meals were adequate.

On to Belize

A one-hour-plus innocuous boat ride on Lake Peten Itza, near Flores, started out our next day. A 2-hour drive from Flores then took us to the border in time to have a good shrimp lunch at the Mopan River Hotel, located on the highway. The owner was an extremely nice lady who proceeded to take us on a tour of her property on which she grows a large assortment of fruits, herbs and flowers.

Fish mongers in Chichicastenango.

After the tour, we walked across the border to Belize and were driven to The Lodge at Chaa Creek. My wife and I have been to 96 countries and this was one of the most fabulous places at which we have ever stayed. It is located outside of San Ignacio, about a half hour’s drive from the border.

Our accommodation was an air-conditioned, 3-level bungalow complete with a huge living room, large sleeping area and excellent bath and washroom facilities. Our large deck included a spa, which we utilized both evenings to cool off as the weather was hot and humid. The deck overlooked the Macal River and was next to a large tree in which eight iguanas were resting, some of them at least four feet long.

Dinner was served in a rondavel with a really nice atmosphere. The menu selection and food were superior, and both nights we sipped on our giant margaritas carried over from cocktail hour.

The first night, we elected to go on an optional night walk. This provided mostly exercise, but we did see a large number of spiders (whose eyes shine in the light), including tarantulas, and an opossum.

River and ruins

After a made-to-order breakfast on our first morning, we went on a 1½-hour canoe trip with a guide down the Macal River to San Ignacio. It was a very pleasant trip with my wife directing and the guide and I doing the work.

We were dropped off to explore San Ignacio, which reminded us of Tijuana. Our recreation was people watching, as the cast of characters walking by us seemed to come from another world.

After we returned to the resort for lunch, we were scheduled to go to Xunantuntich, another Mayan ruin. We weren’t exactly thrilled at this prospect, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Our tour guide had worked on the digs there for 16 years and was a fountain of information. The ruins have had significant reconstruction, so it turned out to be an interesting and educational experience.

The next morning we had scheduled an optional 6:30 bird walk, which we thought would be canceled as it was raining hard. However, the rain stopped and, to our surprise, we were able to count a significant number of birds, including the rare emerald toucan.

We also ran into two agoutis, which are like giant rats without tails. (Agoutis are now called “royal rats,” after Queen Elizabeth was served them during a royal visit to Belize, which is still part of the Commonwealth of Nations.)

After breakfast, we visited the on-site nature center and butterfly house, where we learned about the fascinating life cycle of the blue morpho. As we stood there, two of the butterflies emerged from their pupae. For some reason, the blue morphos liked me, and as I stood in the cage six of them landed on my shirt and head. Although their droppings stained my T-shirt, I didn’t really mind. I might change my name to “The Butterfly Man of Belize.”

Jungle accommodations

As luxurious as Chaa Creek was, our next stop, at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge (phone 501 822 2800) near Belmopan, was at the opposite end of the accommodations scale. We were put in a “double cabana,” which was one side of a screened-in cabin. The bathroom was 50 yards to the right and the showers, in a bamboo enclosure, consisted of a bucket with holes.

At the family-style, rather ordinary dinner, the owner gave us a lecture about the dangerous fer-de-lance snakes and the 150 large tarantulas he had personally released. We decided to upgrade to a cabin with en suite facilities for an additional $40 a night. It was just as well, as my wife developed the “Mayan miseries” and was in the bathroom most of the night.

River tubing

Since my wife still wasn’t feeling well the next day, I went on the Caves Branch River tubing expedition on an individual inner tube. This was a really fun float on a chilly stream into a cave with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. We came across some very large caverns as well as several sites where the Mayans had left religious artifacts and drawings.

The fun part was when everyone turned off their head lamps and floated downstream. I was the last person in the flotilla, and when I could no longer hear anyone I turned on my light and was alone and disoriented. Fortunately, I ran into another group and returned safely.

A few caveats

A scene from the Chichicastenango market.

After another 2-hour drive, we arrived at Jaguar Reef Lodge near Hopkins Village. The lodge has a great location on the beach, and the facilities are upscale with air-conditioned bungalows. The breeze was blowing, keeping the sand flies down, and the beach turned out to be a great place to walk, the Caribbean Sea lapping at our feet. Our dinner that night in the open-air restaurant featured lobster and was excellent.

At breakfast the next day, the sand flies/no-see-ums were out. These are vicious little pests that draw blood; their bites tend to itch for weeks.

Our itinerary for the day called for a visit to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which has the reputation of having the highest concentration of jaguars in the world. After a 7-kilometer trek in the heat and humidity, the only thing we saw in the dense jungle were some fresh jaguar tracks and some birds new to our list. It turns out few people really see the jaguars, as they are nocturnal.

After a picnic lunch, we set out for a waterfall. The 3½-kilometer walk was grueling in the heat, with an 800-foot rise and slippery footing in the rainforest environment. By the time we got there, we, at 70 years young, were exhausted and the waterfall turned out to be only 20 feet high. Also, there were 25 people in the small swimming hole next to the falls. My wife went in, but I just sat there and took pictures. This was one outing I could have done without.

Dramatic dining

Dinner that night was an adventure as a major storm drifted through. There was lightning on one side and, in the other direction, a full moon shining on the sea. We sat at an outside table, but the wind and rain finally forced everyone inside. When we placed our table inside, the thatched roof leaked and rain again fell on us. The employees made the best of a bad situation and we wound up eating a pleasant dinner with interesting new friends.

The last few excursions

Our last day in Belize started with a 3-hour cruise on the Sittee River, where we saw turtles, crocodiles and birds. It was a very pleasant trip. We were supposed to do some snorkeling on the famous Belize reefs; unfortunately, there were small craft warnings and snorkeling was canceled.

After lunch we hired one of the resort’s guides to take us on the one-hour drive to Dangriga for $40. While the driver was really informative, the town of Dangriga turned out to be a real bust. The driver told us that we would be finished in a half hour and he was absolutely correct.

At breakfast we had been told about a local artist, Benjamin Nicholas, who has an excellent reputation in Central America. Our driver took us to his home and it was quite an experience. There was no room to walk around the house/studio without bumping into something, and, at 72 years of age, Nicholas turned out to be a real character.

He talked our ears off as he tried to explain why he had 15 or so paintings in process, none of which were finished. He is talented and has a unique style and also has received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth.

We wound up buying one of his wife’s doll creations, one which also was unfinished, missing the facial features. In addition, he gave us one of his postcards for our promise to mail him copies of the pictures I took in his studio.

Overall, our trip was a resounding success.

Trip expenses

Belize readily accepts the U.S. dollar. In Guatemala I found it was easier to deal in quetzales, although vendors usually accepted dollars.

Artist Benjamin Nicholas in his studio in Hopkins Village, Belize.

The cost of our customized 11-day itinerary was $2,535 per person, including all tours and meals except for lunch and dinner during the first three days in Guatemala.

Global Travel (phone 44 1268 541732, e-mail info@global-travel.co.uk or visit www.global-travel.co.uk) is based in Essex, England.

The Lodge at Chaa Creek (phone 501 824 2037 or e-mail reservations @chaacreek.com) has rates varying from $50 per night in the tented Jungle Camp to $275 for the Tree Top Jacuzzi Suite. Meals were extra, with dinner at $26.

During the winter season, the Jaguar Reef Lodge (phone 800/289-5756 or visit www.jaguarreef.com) charges $195 per night for a cabana. The full meal plan cost us an additional $35 per day, which was a bargain.

The remaining hotels we stayed at all had rack rates of $100 per night for double occupancy, except the Casa Azul with a rate of $78 for a second-floor room.

Tours at each of the resorts were scheduled and paid for separately.