A Travellerspoint blog

June 2021

Belize Road Trip: San Ignacio


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Together with its sister city Santa Elena, San Ignacio is the second largest metropolis in Belize and the only major city in the western part of the country. The city was fairly busy when we drove in, perhaps because it was midweek. We went straight to the market which had a more upbeat feel than the Michael Finnegan market in Belize City. We had lunch at the food stalls which served mostly Latino dishes like quesadillas and pupusas as well as some barbecue.
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I wanted to get to work on our list of activities in town right away since we only had that afternoon and the next day. I expected everything to be shut down for Good Friday and we had to get a fairly early start on the road Saturday morning. I hadn't had any luck reaching the Marie Sharp showroom by phone but I had hopes that I'd be able to set Mei Ling up with one of their cooking classes if we walked in. Marie Sharp is the best known hot sauce brand in Belize, producing thirteen different habanero sauces and a variety of other condiments. The factory is in Dangriga but there's a showroom in San Ignacio which has a reputation for offering excellent classes on Belizean cuisine. We found the location and a banner advertising the showroom but there was no door to be found. Eventually someone yelled at us from a balcony that the showroom and the hotel housing it had closed because of the epidemic.

Fortunately we were close by Ajaw Chocolate and Crafts which proved to be open, although once again the person minding the desk seemed rather nonplussed to have visitors. She was even more surprised when we knew the correct spelling of Ajaw (a-how), although we had just learned it a few minutes earlier from asking directions. She took us through a brief presentation of how chocolate was derived from cacao beans following which the kids were able to make their own rather bitter chocolate paste from the ground up beans. It took a surprising amount of sugar to make a palatable drink out of the paste. Across the street from Ajaw was a majestic four story yellow house that was probably the most beautiful residence we had seen in the country. Afterwards we walked down to Burns Avenue, the main pedestrian street downtown. Here the effects of the pandemic were most visible with many shuttered shops and restaurants. Hopefully they were just in dormancy waiting for the travelers to return and not out of business for good.
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Our new accommodation at Table Rock Jungle Lodge was on the main road from San Ignacio south to San Antonio. There was a lot of road work and we had to detour through a colorful little village called Cristo Rey. The frequent buses had to do the same and there was one little side lane on the detour where I had to look carefully to make sure we had a clear path until the next turn because there wouldn't be enough room if a bus came from the other direction. At the lodge there was actually another car in the parking area, our first time sharing an accommodation with other tourists. The owners had done a good job of maintaining a forested environment but of course there wasn't the same sense of remoteness from civilization that we had in Chan Chich. The most beautiful spot was the infinity pool built on a slope with nothing but jungle on the other side.
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We drove back to San Ignacio for dinner at The Guava Limb, one of the best reviewed restaurants in the city. The food was better than the other restaurants we'd tried in Belize and the setting was very pretty. As usual we were the only customers when we arrived although another couple had arrived by the time we left.
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In the morning we headed back to the market for breakfast. Unlike the previous afternoon the parking spots outside were full and we had to park in a dirt lot a block away. We put together a solid meal and explored the stalls at their busiest time. Although it was more lively than the Belize City market it wasn't very large and we had seen everything after a few minutes. There was no comparison with the markets we had been to in Nicaragua or Mexico.
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Afterwards we drove to the San Ignacio Resort Hotel to experience the Green Iguana Conservation Project. The project was initiated in response to a dramatic decline in the green iguana population in Belize due to overhunting. We were lucky a guide was available that morning as we were the only ones visiting and it seemed that as with everywhere else the tourists hadn't returned yet. The guide took us to the enclosure and briefed us about the life cycle of the iguanas as well as numerous interesting facts about their biology. He advised us that iguana hunting was strictly prohibited during the breeding season from February to June, which left us scratching our heads about the trussed up iguanas we had been offered for dinner at the Michael Finnegan market. Large adult iguanas lazed in the sun within the enclosure while another specimen noisily crawled around on the plexiglass roof. The guide told us they had released him to the wild but he kept returning to the project to be fed.
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The juvenile iguanas were kept in a separate enclosure and the guide allowed us to gently pick them up and place them on our arms and shoulders. They instinctively crawled to the highest place to seek the sun which eventually led them to the top of Mei Ling's head. The bright green color of the juveniles exactly matched the foliage in their enclosure.
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We had wrapped up our activities in town a little more efficiently than expected so we headed back to the lodge for a swim. Table Rock was built above the Macal River upstream of where it divided San Ignacio from Santa Elena. We grabbed a few inner tubes and walked along the path down the hillside to the river where we eventually found a little beach where we could put our tubes in the water. For some reason I drifted downstream much more quickly than the kids and I got rather nervous even though they were wearing life jackets and can swim. To make things worse I heard a loud splash coming from the area of a submerged tree at the river bank. It seemed quite unlikely the lodge would be promoting tubing in an alligator-infested river but in the moment it seemed like the set-up of a horror movie. I kicked furiously at the water to get back upstream to the kids who were already bored and wading to the beach.
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Our last full day in Belize was Good Friday, a major holiday with mandated closures of most stores and restaurants. We'd already seen everything of interest to us in San Ignacio anyway. The lodge staff thought that the Belize Botanic Gardens would be open so we decided we would go for it. Although the gardens were quite close to the lodge as the crow flies, the only bridge to the other side of the Macal River was at San Ignacio. We had to drive back to San Ignacio and then another half hour on the Western Highway and a dirt road to the gardens. It would have been quite a disappointment if the gardens had been closed but fortunately they were open. Of course we were the only visitors and we had the expansive gardens entirely to ourselves. The gardens were so large it wasn't possible to see everything but I think we acquitted ourselves well. Some of the highlights were an orchard of tropical fruits, a grove of the thickest and tallest bamboo I've ever seen, and a wooden tower with a viewing platform. Mei Ling took some amazing pictures of flowers and insects with her Huawei phone.
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The only other activity I could find for the afternoon was an hour and a half away, but it was either that or laze around at the lodge for the rest of the day. I didn't want to waste any opportunities so we piled back into the car and retraced our path on the Western Highway past San Ignacio to the road that led to Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Once again I was glad we had the four wheel drive as each successive turn off led to a rougher road. The last stretch would have been close to unnavigable in a regular car, with huge pits and ruts in the dirt that tossed us from side to side as we slowly crept towards our destination.

The end of this fraught journey was a little anticlimactic, a small clearing with a couple of other SUV's already parked. We took a series of steep wooden staircases down to the creek. Some of the steps were broken or missing so I stayed in front of the kids in case one of them tripped. At the bottom was a series of pools of murky water separated from each other by piles of boulders and rocky outcrops. Once we were close to the bottom we could see a thirty foot waterfall in the background. The kids wanted to swim but the cloudiness of the water made me worried that one of them might get their leg trapped in the rocks under the surface, so I only let them dip in the shallow pools right at the edge. Afterwards we found a relatively flat area of the rocks and ate the barbecued chicken and flatbread we had bought on our last pass through San Ignacio.
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The next morning we didn't need to rush because we had an afternoon flight. We made one final stop in the market for breakfast and bought a hand-carved wooden plate as a souvenir. The two hour drive back to the airport was uneventful except that we did not pass a single gas station in the last thirty minutes. We were prepared to accept the penalty for the half-empty tank but the clerk at the rental office looked so perturbed that I agreed to follow her directions to the nearest station. With a full tank I was finally allowed to return our car to the clerk who didn't bat an eye at the thick layer of road dust that encrusted it.
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Our short trip to Belize had felt like it lasted much longer than a week. We returned home confident that we had captured the essence of a new and unique country, a diverse and oft-forgotten outpost of English colonial culture in Central America.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:22 Archived in Belize Tagged road_trip belize san_ignacio family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman Comments (0)

Belize Road Trip: Chan Chich


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When I was researching the best jungle lodges in Belize there was one name that kept coming up. Chan Chich Lodge was built on the site of a former logging camp by Sir Barry Bowen, the scion of one of the most wealthy and prestigious families in Belize dating back to the early days of British colonization. The enormous estate surrounding the lodge is called Gallon Jug, which it part of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area that occupies a large portion of northwestern Belize. Chan Chich is best known for birdwatching but is also considered an ideal location for spotting larger jungle animals since it is one of the most remote lodges in the country.

Most visitors reach the lodge either by airplane from Belize City or by arranged ground transport from Belmopan or San Ignacio. We were a rare breed arriving in our own rental vehicle which may have been the reason for the complete absence of any signage indicating that we were headed in the right direction. Not long after the turnoff from the Western Highway we found ourselves being directed onto a one lane dirt road with well over an hour of driving left to go. As the miles passed by without any change in the surroundings I grew increasingly nervous that we were being led to a dead end hours away. We had a Garmin with a local SIM card but the directory didn't recognize Chan Chich or Gallon Jug no matter how many ways we entered it. Eventually we reached a gate across the road in what looked like a tiny village. A guy playing soccer with some kids in a nearby field stared at us with a confused expression. I figured we had finally reached the end of a long false path but the guy came over to the car and asked me in Spanish where we were going. I asked him if this was the way to Chan Chich and he nodded and waved in the direction past the gate. He seemed very surprised to see tourists driving to Chan Chich in their own vehicle and asked to see my reservation. I was able to pull it up in my e-mail and he shrugged and opened the gate. This gave us some renewed confidence but we still had an hour to go.

Soon after we passed this gate we began seeing some large birds on the side of the road. Some were quite brightly colored and I thought they were peacocks, but Mei Ling insisted they were turkeys. They didn't look like any turkeys I had ever seen. Despite the assurances of the guy at the gate I was still uncomfortable with the long drive on a dirt road with no signs and no other cars moving in either direction. We finally came to a sign but it only said "Warning! British artillery testing area. Proceed at your own risk." Fortunately I knew that there hadn't been any British military presence in Belize for at least forty years and the sign looked like it could have been that old. We still had a half tank of gas and the shrinking blue line on Google Maps as we approached our destination. Finally we came to a second gate with a guard station, and the man who came out told me we had just a few minutes drive to Chan Chich. A few minutes later we crossed a small suspension bridge and it was clear we had arrived at the lodge. The skies unleashed a downpour just as we pulled up to the main building but it did nothing to quench our relief at having arrived.

By this point we weren't shocked to find out that we were going to be the only guests at the lodge during our two day stay. Chan Chich was a lushly beautiful place that looked like everyone's mental image of a jungle lodge. The birds we had seen on the road were everywhere here, and indeed they were turkeys although of a very unique type. These https://www.wideopenspaces.com/ocellated-turkey/ are named for the eye-like ocelli at the tips of their tail-feathers, although we never saw them fanning their tails. In fact I thought the staff was telling us they were "oscillated" turkeys until I had a chance to look them up. The five of us were staying in one cabin with two queen beds which had been beautifully prepared for our arrival.
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The next day a guide gave us a tour of the Gallon Jug estate in a specialized jeep. The farm conducts numerous commercial operations including raising cattle and horses, growing and processing coffee and cacao, and producing hot sauces and jams. Many of the cattle are a crossbreed of the English Angus and the Indian Brahman which they have named Brangus. The advantage is the meat quality of the Angus with the heat tolerance of the Brahman.
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Because the estate has so many workers and there is no city anywhere nearby, Gallon Jug acts as its own self-reliant community. It has its own school and post office among other standards of regular city life.
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As we returned to the lodge rain clouds were gathering and casting ominous shadows over lonely, fan-like trees on the grasslands. We wondered if the people who lived and worked here felt the same sense of remoteness that we did, or if they were so used to the isolation that it just felt like home.
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Back at the lodge we took a dip in their beautiful pool and lazed around the grounds for a while. We don't generally travel for relaxation but it was pretty clear that since we aren't birdwatchers there weren't going to be enough activities to keep us engaged from dawn until dusk. Anyway, soaking up the atmosphere in the beautiful lodge was a lot better than sipping on a cocktail at a beach resort.
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After lunch we got a ride in the jeep to a small pond where we paddled a canoe around for an hour or so. Once we were on the water a strong breeze kicked up which made it quite challenging to get back to the dock. The kids kept demanding a turn to paddle which meant that we kept getting blown to the far side of the pond until I finally took over for good.
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In the evening we went on a short wildlife safari in the jeep. We'd already seen our fill of turkeys and deer and the only additional wildlife we saw was a tarantula in the road and some nocturnal predatory birds. Our guide pointed out some eye reflections in the trees and told us they were raccoons. It was growing quite chilly especially when the truck was moving so we requested they cut the drive short and we returned to base.
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Another nice thing about Chan Chich was the opportunity for horseback riding. The horses hadn't been ready on our first day so we arranged to go on the morning that we left instead. While we waited for the guide to pick us up and take us back to the farm the kids tackled the steep hill behind the main building. I was a little nervous that one of them would lose their footing and tumble all the way back down to the bottom but they navigated their way to the top and soon afterwards tore back down at a frightening pace.
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The kids told me breathlessly there were monkeys in the trees at the top of the hill. I clambered back up with them and at first I couldn't see or hear anything in the trees. I was starting to think the kids had scared them away until I started to notice some tiny movements in the foliage. As my eyes adapted to the shadows in the branches I started to notice dark shapes moving around in the upper branches, and soon enough I could make out the forms of spider monkeys as they traversed the open spaces in the canopy. They were much further away than the ones we had seen at the zoo but it was much more interesting and exciting to see them in their natural habitat. Behind me was a beautiful view of the colorful foliage and thatched roofs of the lodge.
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Soon the truck arrived and brought us back to the farm for horseback riding. They only had three horses available which was fine as we just wanted the experience for the kids. Cleo and Ian had ridden once before in Uruguay three years earlier but had only vague memories and Spenser had never been on a horse. Unlike in Uruguay the kids were riding on their own which made me a little nervous. The plan was for the guides to lead their horses while we followed on foot. Spenser was uncomfortable on the horse from the get go and after walking a few yards he decided he wanted to get off. We encouraged him to try it a little longer but we felt he was a little young to be riding on his own anyway, so Mei Ling took his place. Spenser and I stayed at the stables and studied some ants which were ferrying little buds down the trunk of a tree.
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Overall we were pleased with Chan Chich although it was probably better suited for middle-aged birdwatchers. It was good practice for future trips to the Amazon and African jungles which I expect to be more challenging in a variety of ways. We filled our gas tank back at the farm and returned to civilization along the same road we had arrived on.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:24 Archived in Belize Tagged road_trip belize family_travel travel_blog chan_chich Comments (0)

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