After the nine hour overnight bus ride from Guatemala city to Flores, the thought of getting on another bus had me hesitant, but five hours compared to nine seemed doable. That was until a mini van showed up with fourteen other backpackers. The sixteen of us squeezed tightly in, and ventured on our way across the Belize/ Guatemala border and onto Belize City.
The boarder at first seemed a little intimidating. There are lots of money exchangers eager for you to swap out and change your Guatemalan currency into Belize dollars, so be prepared. We had to de-board the mini van at the border and go through by foot, making sure to fill out the departure forms and paying an exit fee (Which isn't required, but who know's enough Spanish to argue) before getting passports stamped and heading through Belize immigration. Again, more filling out entry forms before crossing the boarder and re boarding the minivan waiting for us all on the other side.
In total it was around two hours to the boarder from Flores, and hour to pass through, and another two hours to Belize city. We would have arrived quicker had our bus not been making a weird sound. The driver continued to slow down and stop every five minutes, whilst the other fourteen backpackers kept getting off and on debating what it could be. Turns out there was a small stone inside the tire which meant we drove at a pace of under forty miles an hour until we reached our destination. I decided through all that, that it was a good time to block out the unnecessary sounds of rumbling stones and frantically guessing backpackers with some music on my i phone.
Once we arrived in Belize city our Journey wasn't quite over. We had planned on staying out on one of the Islands, Ambergris Caye for three nights which was another hour and twenty minute ferry ride out towards the Barrier reef (the longest in the Western Hemisphere and the second longest in the world.) There are two water taxi ferries that will take you out to the Cayes, and both have slightly different schedules. Check what time the next one goes before purchasing your ticket, and don't buy your ticket in advance from a tour operator as part of a combined ticket. Many of the backpackers on our bus had done just that, and were left waiting for another two hours at the ferry terminal. We had purchased a ticket from the first terminal, as we were unaware that a second was a short walk away, but after discovering this, I used my accent and my backpack to my advantage and explained at the ticket counter that this was the last of my money and she eventually gave in and refunded me. A round trip to San Pedro is 65 Belize Dollars.
San Pedro is catered for tourists and some have compared it to a mini Cancun but try not to let that discourage you. If you are looking for something a little more JetSetter try staying at one of the private islands or a resort a little further north or south of San Pedro. We stayed at Sunbreeze Suites, which is directly on the beach. It's an affordable apartment style building complete with lounge, kitchen/dining, separate bedroom with a balcony overlooking the pool and ocean. The building also has it's own poolside restaurant and bar along with a front desk that will help you with checking in and out, and with scheduling your activities, such as mainland trips, snorkeling to Hol Chan Marine Reserve or Shark-Ray Alley and scuba diving out at The Great Blue Hole.
Despite the tourist trade in San Pedro, the town offers excellent seafood and great restaurants, be sure to try the local conch ceviche and fried Jacks. We had breakfast and coffee at Licks Beachside Cafe twice during our stay which was exceptional. The menu changes daily, but I highly recommend the Belizean breakfast, French toast and the oatmeal. Another great beach casual breakfast spot is Estel's. A popular destination is Elvi's Kitchen for great traditional Belizean cooked seafood and Mayan buffet. For a romantic evening on the beach try Wild Mango's, and for the best fish taco's I have ever tasted in my life go to Carumba's, which specializes in local, Mexican and Caribbean cuisine.
You just have to look out to the shimmering, crystal clear ocean to see why Ambergris Caye is a popular vacation destination. That said finding a beach to relax and swim can be a challenge in San Pedro. The hotels along this stretch of the island all offer wooden jetties that strut out into the ocean beyond the seagrass where you can snorkel and swim, but you also need to be cautious of boats and the water taxi's.
During our second day on the island we took a long walk further north, where we came across the Ak'bol yoga retreat and Eco resort which had stunning swimming facilities and beach bar, where we set up camp for a few hours swimming in the crystal clear azure waters. A little further North from here is the famous Palapa Bar and Grill which juts out into the ocean where you can order a bucket of beer for thirty Belize dollars and sit back and relax on one of the floating inner tubes in the water. Upstairs at the bar take a seat and look out at the Great Barrier reef and enjoy a choice of cocktails and snacks, make sure you try the Conch fritters.
On our third day we arranged with the hotel to go out and snorkel around The Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is 4 miles south of San Pedro and a 5-square mile underwater national park. As fishing is prohibited there is a considerable amount of sea life. Expect to see large rays, colorful coral, turtles and eels. At least that is what the guide book tells you. It fails to mention the nurse sharks that decided to tail me and scared me half to death. Don't worry they are harmless, but when you are swimming out of your depth and struggling with leaking goggles, coming face to face with one of these, that are nearly as big as myself can come as quite a surprise. We were not aware that this was going to be a forty minute guided tour of the reef before we signed up which trailed out into the deep waters, where tidal currents can be quite strong. Our guides were not the friendliest or that helpful so I wouldn't recommend using them. The second part of the tour was Shark Ray Alley where nurse sharks and rays hang out. After my prior experience swimming with sharks I opted out and remained onboard the boat whilst my boyfriend and a few other passengers decided to chance it and swam with the sharks. Thankfully everyone survived, but by the looks of the sharks they were still quite hungry, just saying.
Part 3 coming soon….