I am so pleased to introduce you all to budding travel blogger, Jenny, this week. I’ve already been enjoying her marvellous travel experiences over at Bulldog Travels. And, not only is she a fantastic photographer, but she talks about her love of food and off-the-beaten track adventures, including her road trip across Belize, which she’s been kind enough to share with us in this edition of Holiday Snapshots.
What do you look for in a holiday?
The seemingly easy questions are sometimes the hardest. I am open for darn near anything in a vacation. But, I have to admit the traditional beaches, sight-seeing, activities do not always spark my interest particularly because they are either expensive or insight crowds of people. I have certainly done those typical touristy things especially when I am traveling with other people who desire to do the traditional. And to be honest, I would feel robbed if I missed out on many of them, but I like to dive down a little closer, and find out what else is out there and what the average tourist is missing.
When I travel I prefer to see the real side of a city or a country through its people, its food, and its activities. For example on a recent trip to Belize I was very enamored by the street food. I asked local people where they ate and tried those spots rather than the spots where all the rest of the tourists ate. I didn’t go to Belize to talk to other tourists, I went to talk to people from Belize. I try to avoid tours unless I need to. Rather I like to go around on my own to explore sites. Early in the morning or in the evening are often best because tour groups have gone home and I can have the freedom to take photos unhampered by crowds.
Another way I like to see a location is by planning a little bit of down time in between spots of interest. In other words, leave time to explore the places in between the big tourist locations. For example, in Belize I planned to spend the day at a ruin outside of San Ignacio called Xunantunich and also Cahal Pech. I knew it wouldn’t take us the entire day to explore and I was hoping there would be something else in the area to see. We ended up stopping by a local artist’s shop to look at his handmade woodwork (Yes, we took home a lovely piece that is now hanging on my living room wall). We also stopped by a Botanical Garden called Displooy advertised by a small roadside sign. After driving 10 miles down a dirt road, we were rewarded with an absolutely wonderful way to spend the afternoon. Botanical Gardens are a dream come true for this photographer!
Where did you go?
We went to the beautiful Country of Belize, with a side trip to Tikal in Guatemala.
Why Belize and Guatemala?
I chose these destinations for a few reasons. First of all, I took a trip in 2005 to Costa Rica with a good friend of mine. Since that time I met my husband and he has heard stories of large blue butterflies, monkeys, sloths, colorful frogs, leatherback turtles, and volcanoes over and over again. I always wanted to take him there.
Belize struck me as similar to Costa Rica considering the wildlife factor but also boasts a reef that I was told rivalled the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. My husband and I really enjoy snorkelling, realizing there is a entire strange new and beautiful world in the water. Lastly, Belize is within proximity to Tikal in Guatemala which I have wanted to visit since I saw its peaks in the Star Wars movie as a kid. So, I thought Belize might boast amazing wildlife with access to world-class snorkeling and impressive Mayan ruin sites. And its somewhere I had never been!
I took my intrepid and patient muse of a husband. He loves to travel along with me and patiently waits while I take thousands of photos of seemingly nothing. He lets me take photos of him in front of all sorts of glorious sites. He drives me wherever I want to go no matter the road quality… the junkier the car the better. He stops anytime I yell, “Stop”. Most recently he slammed on the bicycle breaks this time, when I yelled, “Stop, puppies in a box. Puppies in a box!” The local SPCA-type organization in Caye Caulker was doing outreach on the street to locals and were trying to catch people’s attention by bringing out their puppies. Boy, did it work for me.
What type of places do you like to stay in?
Oh boy. So I think the places we stay when traveling can contribute greatly to ones travels despite the fact that travelers often do not spend all that much time in the room itself. For example, I stayed in a minor and inexpensive Chateau in France that was one of the highlights of that trip. I have stayed in a Thatched-Roof cottage in Ireland that I hope to revisit again this summer. I stayed in a small hotel on the Mont St.Michel in France that was nothing to write home about but allowed us to stay overnight on the island after all the tourists went home. I stayed in an eco-friendly little cottage in Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast that boasted sounds of the rainforest and the ocean all at the same time. I love trying to find interesting, eclectic, and inexpensive places to stay.
How about you Belize accommodation?
I have tried many things when planning our accommodation; Craigslist, hotels.com, VRBO, local tourist boards, travel book recommendations, even Google searches for (location name) + quaint or boutique hotel… In Belize I decided to give airbnb a try. I love the idea of retaining properties VRBO style without the complication of filling out a contract and with the immediacy of paying online. It was a little hit and miss on this trip sadly.
The first place we stayed at in Bullet Tree Falls near San Ignacio, Belize was a lovely setting and a very quaint stilted house. However, bats lived in the walls keeping me up at night, there was no drinking water, garbage cans, or toilet paper. And by sheer coincidence the property ran out of water on our second day which left us with no water to shower, hand wash, or ahem… flush.
We later stayed in a property in Placencia, Belize that was glorious as the Austrian owners kept a tight ship. They were lovely people with whom I could have easily moved in with and stayed forever. They provided us with top rate food and activity recommendations for the region and even let us borrow their rowboat to float out on the water.
But, the last place on Caye Caulker brought us back down a bit. The property was frankly misrepresented online, was full of sand flies, and actually had two large roach occupants that I was sure I would bring back in my suitcase if drastic measures were not taken. It was very inexpensive and did have a bed and a bathroom but I was hoping for something a bit more comfortable without the price tag of a multiple star hotel. So, you win some you lose some. This trip did not display my best accommodation choosing magic for sure. But, I haven’t lost hope. The next one will be better!
Your most memorable moment/s of the trip?
How much time do you have? My favorite themes are certainly food, animals, and nature. The street food in Belize is amazing, fresh, interesting, spicy, and inexpensive. I would recommend anyone break free of their fears and eat street food like tacos, tostadas, salbutes, garnaches, and panades. It is better and fresher than anything you will find in a traditional restaurant, and it will save you an insane amount of money.
The Belize Zoo is a fantastic place to visit to see specimens of Belizean wildlife. Additionally, if you are careful and pay attention there are many wild creatures about that are fun to observe. The bird watching is amazing, in addition to observing bats, turtles, crocodiles, iguanas, howler monkeys, butterflies, coatamundis, Tapirs, and more.
And lastly, the wild flowers, trees, forest, etc are an amazing backdrop to all of the Mayan ruins in Belize. While parts of Belize are a bit sparse closer to Belize City if one gets out of town they will observe natural beauty surrounded by the interesting and special history of the mighty Mayan culture.
What did you get up to?
Visiting the Cayes is a lot of fun. It is a entire different world than the mainland and slightly more touristy. However, it is a fun island feel and a must see for any visitor to Belize. I stayed on the smaller quainter Caye Caulker rather than Ambergris Caye which is only a short water taxi ride away. No cars are allowed on the island which makes it fun to walk, bike, and golf cart about. Visitors are forced to eat glorious, inexpensive, and fresh seafood during their stay. They may also enjoy every type of water sport snorkeling being the most impressive to me. The reefs are amazing and sightings of sea turtles, sharks, rays, coral, even a ship wrecked barge are possible. Bring a waterproof camera if you have the means! Just pack it next to your bug spray as the Cayes are full of sand flies that will bite your sunburned skin!
Belize was an extremely good value for the money especially if you look for good deals. If you avoid the Ramada and larger places hotel rooms and vacation rentals can be found for a song. And, if the traveler is willing to open their mind to street food it is entirely possible to eat a mean for under $2. (No, that is not a typo I said $2.) Having said that, though, there are plenty of traditional restaurants that will gladly take more of your money if you are more comfortable that way.
Your top tip/s for the area?
• Driving in Belize is not for the faint of heart. The main road, of which is there is basically only one, is very rough in and of itself. It is not even entirely paved the whole way. All secondary roads are either partially paved or not paved at all. In some portions of the dusty roads drivers may be required to ford rivers. So, I recommend renting the jeep so you will be more comfortable and will have confidence when fording any type of waterway – not all roads have water crossings, but I certainly found one when driving to Barton Creek Cave systems.
• I personally think it is worth it to rent a car and drive the country because you will stumble upon a great deal more than you would in a tour bus, but I understand driving may not be for everyone. Lastly, get gas when you see a service station. They are not plentiful round and about the country.
• Belize takes US dollars or Belizean dollars. There are certainly ATMs and most vendors will take credit cards. However, I noticed small street vendors both food and otherwise, and many small places don’t take credit card. So, I do recommend that you carry some cash both out of convenience and in order to maximize the business person’s return.
I snapped a photo of this young boy cleaning fish on the dock outside his grandmother’s café called Maggie’s in Caye Caulker. He is standing in front of the fishing boats who just brought in their catch. The sun is setting behind him. Just outside of the frame the grill is fired up and his grandmother is BBQing dinner for her guests. He was inpatient with his grandmother because she would not let him grill his own fish. Alas, he was too young for the job he wanted to perform to be like the rest of his family working around him. I took this photo with my iPhone instead of my Nikon because it is all I had with me at the time. But, I feel it is not only a beautiful photo but it captures the real and peaceful life this restaurant family is living. It was a special moment to observe and is my favorite photo from Belize.
Would you recommend to a friend? Would you go back again?
I would go back again. But, I will admit that there are a lot of countries in Central and South America that I have on my list so I would probably explore those before going back. I would recommend Belize to any kind of traveler. However, I would only recommend driving in Belize if you are of sturdy driving and traveling stock. Otherwise, I would recommend a tour, taking the bus, or hiring a guide to take you around. Regardless, I would recommend the country to anyone, while guiding them to travel options that may fit their particular concerns.
• My Nikon and iPhone cameras are more important than anything. I would skip food if it were required to get a good shot.
• In Belize bug spray and sun block are vital to those of us mother nature gave pale skin!
• A good map is a must if no GPS or cell service can be found or afforded. Without it you will be stuck with local directions that consist of “turning at the third tree, then turn at the bus stop, follow the power lines until you get to a crossroads and then turn right, look for the house on the corner…”
• Belize birding book and a pair of binoculars would be pretty handy in this country as the birds are glorious and would be fun to identify. I am told it is the fastest growing hobby in the United States and I can see why. It is exciting and frustrating all at the same time. Try getting a photo of a bid that doesn’t want to be seen that looks similar to 30 other local birds!
• Road trip snacks and bottled water. Service stations or convenience stores are not as plentiful in Belize as they are at home. And since happy stomachs are an integral part of enjoying any trip I recommend either bringing snacks with you or picking them up upon your arrival to ensure you and your travel companions don’t suffer from the hungry grumpies.
What is your most favorite place in the whole world and why?
Oh sheesh. What a question. I would have to say Western Europe. Ha. No that is a cop out. My heart always brings me back to Ireland. I was raised with a pride associated with my Irish heritage. I have been fortunate enough to visit the country three times with my brother and recently with my husband. I will be taking my parents and my brother and his family there this summer for their very first trip which is very exciting. I love Ireland for its rugged beauty, its romantic and heartbreaking history, and for the humor and curiousity of its people. The Irish are likely more interested in you than you are of them which makes any interaction meaningful. Add some Guinness, Jameson and a whole lot of humor and singing and what’s not to like about Ireland?
If you would like to be featured on Holiday Snapshots, please email me at [email protected] and I look forward to including your travel stories.