Belize is a small country, in fact slightly smaller than Vermont or New Hampshire. We spent the first couple weeks exploring the northern territory’s Cayo District along with some of the Islands off the northern coast. Following a brief stopover in the capital city of Belmopan, we made our way to the small coastal city of Hopkins.
After arriving in Hopkins and taking a driving tour of the town, which took all of 10 minutes, it was apparent that most of these islands and coastal cities throughout Belize had very similar characteristics. The streets are all unpaved, the homes are mostly wood shacks built on stilts, a high percentage of the residences are used as hostels or guest houses, they each have an upscale resort or two, the restaurants are mostly people’s homes that they serve food out of, and every block seems to have one or more bars on it. There is a heavy Caribbean influence and laid-back vibe that is very inviting, which makes it extremely easy to kick back and relax.
As for our time in Hopkins, we spent three days taking advantage of the fact we could park our truck on any of the beach front streets and camp out for free. The law along the coast in Hopkins is that no one can own the land 60 ft. back from the water’s edge, which not only provided us with some peaceful sleeping conditions, but also created a nice stretch of coastline for the town. It may surprise you to hear, but Belize is not known much for beaches, in fact much of the coast line is rocky or insulated by thick seagrass. That being the case, this stretch of sandy coast peppered with swaying coconut trees is a pleasant change in scenery.
Since we made a commitment to stop drinking for a while after our stretch of partying on San Pedro and Caye Caulker, our days became much more tranquil. As I said before, Belize’s Caribbean vibe is centered around bars and drinking, so it wasn’t the easiest place to begin our stint on the wagon. We spent most of our time relaxing on the beach, reading books, playing games, writing and exercising. It’s funny how much you can accomplish during a day when you’re not catching a buzz…
Speaking of buzz, we spent a bunch of time while in Hopkins hanging out at this small cafe that was attached to a little hotel. It was run by a cool young couple from New York who had moved down to Hopkins with their family a few years ago and purchased this property. Now they have their kids attending the local schools and they spend their days running this small business and enjoying the slower pace of life in Belize. They import their coffee from Guatemala and man was it powerful stuff. I was never a coffee drinking in my past life, but now that I am experiencing this high quality roasted coffee from the mountains in Mexico and Guatemala, I have really began to enjoy it. Just another way to catch a buzz I guess.
It certainly did seem like a fun little drinking scene in Hopkins though. Much like the rest of Belize, each bar seemed to have something unique to offer, whether it be games, live bands, or even drum circles on certain nights. One of the bars had its own mini-golf course so we decided to put our will-power to the test and go check it out, without indulging ourselves with a cocktail. The course turned out to be hilariously unique, albeit a little ghetto, and extremely difficult. We ended up playing the course twice and each of us had a couple Happy Gilmore moments. More than once putters almost went flying across the course, but we thought of our happy place and made it through without smashing anything.
Luckily for us, beyond the bar scene, Belize also features a slew of national parks and nature reserves filled with exotic wildlife and beautiful waterfalls. There are a handful of parks near Hopkins, so we talked to a few locals and decided to get away from town and visit Mayflower Bocawina National Park.
Mayflower Bocawina National Park
It was a short 30-minute drive outside of Hopkins and did not disappoint. The park is on the smaller side, but is loaded with waterfalls and tropical wildlife. There are a handful of trails to hike, ranging from short & easy 30-minute hikes, to long & challenging 6-hour excursions. The long one that they say takes about 6 hours makes a big loop around the entire park and brings you to 4 or 5 different waterfalls. We weren’t feeling overly ambitious that day, so we selected one of the more intermediate trails.
The trail was called Antelope Trail and featured a somewhat strenuous ascent 1000 ft. up alongside a waterfall. When I was told the falls were 1000 ft., you can imagine what I was expecting, but I came to find out that instead of your standard waterfall featuring a river flowing over a cliff, it was a river that cascaded gradually and continuous down 1000 ft. The largest single drop in the chain of the falls was only about 20 ft. Expectations aside, it made for a beautiful hike up the mountain side. As you neared the top, the trail became steeper and more treacherous, but thankfully the park had installed a series ropes designed to help you ascend.
When we got to the top, we were greeted with a gorgeous 15 ft. waterfall that flowed into a perfect swimming hole. The jungle that surrounded was thick and created a space around the pool that made it feel like it was in a perfect little bubble. As for the water, it was unbelievably clear, the perfect temperature for cooling off after a strenuous hike, and had a vibrant turquoise/green hue. I did a little investigating and found that water was deep enough, so both Lindsey and I scaled the side of the falls and found a great spot to jump. It wasn’t all that high, but it had to be one of the most picturesque cliff jumps I have ever done. I was psyched that I got Lindsey in on the action, and I even was able to get a mid-cliff jump selfie!
Along the hike we heard all sorts of jungle sounds we had never heard before, but unfortunately, we didn’t spot much of the wildlife this time around. I did end up seeing some fresh paw prints from what must have been a large Jaguar, which are native to the area. Apparently spotting one of these jungle cats is extremely rare, as they do most of their moving around at night and avoid humans as best they can. We were told even seeing the paw prints is rare as they usually don’t cross over the trails used by humans. The jungle, being as thick as it is, makes it extremely difficult to spot some of these elusive animals, especially the Keel-billed Toucan, which is my main objective. I am determined to see one of these amazing birds on this trip, but this didn’t turn out to be the place.
Glovers Atoll Resort
Throughout the first couple weeks of travel through Belize, we must have seen the flyer for Glovers Atoll Resort 20 times. Glovers Atoll Resort is a small, privately owned island about 50 miles off the coast of Hopkins located within the Glovers Reef Atoll. The place is amazing for what it is, but should not use resort in the name. It’s a tiny island that you could walk around in less than 15 minutes, with no power or amenities beyond a handful of wood cabins and a basic kitchen. The Atoll itself is a large protected coral shelf, sort of like and underwater island. It’s about 6 miles wide and 20 miles long with water depths ranging from ~4ft. to ~40 ft. The shelf that surrounds the Atoll drops off to depths exceeding 2600 ft. In the middle of the Atoll there are hundreds of patch reefs perfect for diving, snorkeling or fishing, and on the outer edge there are 4 or 5 small islands, one of which is Glovers Atoll Resort.
It was a package deal for visiting the island, you go out on Sunday morning and return the following Saturday. You had the option of staying in one of the cabins on shore, the cabins build over the water, or camping. As glorious as it sounded to have a cabin over the water, we were drawn to the idea of camping on a secluded island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea for a week. Turned out to be incredible, and probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life. In fact, it was so amazing that the details deserve their own blog post. Lindsey will be sharing a story about our week camping out on this beautiful island, so stay tuned for that.
After spending a week camping out on a tiny secluded island with no power, we decided to grab a hotel room for a night to regroup before carrying on. Our next destination was Placencia, but we ended up getting a much-needed room in Hopkins for a night. It was just what the doctor ordered since we, along with most of our stuff, were a little waterlogged and sandy. We lucked out and got to use the laundry onsite and even got to see a little bit of the Olympics which we had missed out on thus far. The next day we felt like new and set course south for Placencia.
Placencia is a small coastal town at the tip of a long peninsula. It was a pleasant drive down, and also interesting to finally see a bit more of the developed side of Belize. It was the first place where I began to see nicer homes and lots of construction. Seemed as though the place was blowing up, I can only imagine what it will look like in 20 years. As you entered the town itself, it regained that Caribbean vibe we had been seeing, but seemed to be slightly cleaner and a bit classier. We found a spot for Poppins in a public parking lot in the center of town and made it home base for a couple days.
Even with the slightly classier vibe, Placencia still fell in line with the Caribbean drinking vibe we had seen all over Belize. We were sticking to our guns and avoiding the booze, so we had to find other things to pass the time. Eating is always a great alternative, and there was no shortage of tasty food to try in Placencia, that’s for sure. Our favorite meal was at Rick’s Cafe, a little Italian restaurant run by an American who uses only fresh ingredients and hand makes everything. His homemade tartar sauce was so good it almost overshadowed the Cajun Red Snapper sandwich I had, which was no slouch itself. Another night we found a jazz band playing at a pizza joint. The jazz was pretty good, but the pizza was fantastic. Now don’t get me wrong, if I had been in NY for the past few months, I bet I would be singing a different tune about this pizza, but compared to what I have been used to, this pizza was top notch. Funny how your interpretation of things changes over time and based on your surroundings.
Since we had driven past so many awesome looking resorts on our drive down the peninsula to Placencia, we decided to spend one of our days resort hopping. As most of you know, we recently got engaged, so we decided to play that to our advantage and get into these resorts by saying we were thinking of having our wedding there. After the first resort, which was a little too fancy, we ended up finding a spot with a great pool and beautiful beach, so we hung out there for most of the day. I’ll tell you what though, if we truly wanted to take advantage of that wedding thing, we could easily bask in the finer things these resorts had to offer, free of charge.
Our excursion to the resort part of town ended up leading us to a cool spot called Jaguar Lanes as well. Again, all the bars do their best to create something that separates them and provides something fun for the patrons, this place nailed it. The bar itself was basic, and the food, not so great, but the bowling alley was great. There were two sets of lanes that were backed by couches and tables as though it was someone’s living room. I dare to say it is the only bowling alley in all of Belize, so a great change-up from everything else. Only problem was that the lanes seemed to have some issues resulting from old age. To make things worse, there is only one guy in the area that knows how to fix them, so when it breaks down, its game over until that guy comes by, which could be days. We ended up getting one full game in before things broke down on us half way into the next, but it all added to the experience. All-in-all, a sweet spot, and one of the coolest bowling alleys I have seen.
Our stop in Placencia was the furthest south we planned to travel in Belize. Being that we had so much more that we wanted to do in Mexico, coupled with the fact that Belize is very expensive (comparatively), we decided to cut out the deep southern territory of Belize. Our final destination before heading back into Mexico was a massive nature reserve called Cockscomb Basin, and yes, the name is Cockscomb.
In stride with most of the Belize national parks or wilderness reserves, Cockscomb Basin is filled with rivers, waterfalls, hiking trails, and a plethora of tropical wild life. Commonly referred to as the Jaguar Reserve, Cockscomb is the world’s first Jaguar Reserve and home to one of the largest known population of Jaguars on the planet. As I had learned during our visit to the previous national park, it’s close to impossible to spot one of these jungle cats, unless you are hiking at night, deep in the park. We spent two days hiking around the different trails and sure enough, no Jaguars, but we saw all sorts of other wildlife this time around.
Seeing all this extraordinary wildlife is one of my favorite things about hiking in these tropical countries. We ended up hiking three different trails during our stay, and it took no time to run into some crazy creatures. Out of all I have seen thus far, I have been most blown away by the gigantic boa constrictor that greeted us as we entered the park. I guess I just wasn’t expecting to see anything like that, so he caught me off guard. The thing was about 6 ft. long and probably 5 inches in diameter at its thickest point. Watching it pulsate its body as it and slithered across the ground, it just seemed so calm and peaceful, yet powerful and terrifying at the same time.
Not long after our run-in with the Boa, Lindsey had herself a close encounter with another one of the Jungles deadly creatures. As we were walking the trail and looking around for tropical birds, I heard a shriek and turned to see Lindsey freaking out like Ace Ventura running out of the great white bat cave. She didn’t end up seeing the gigantic tarantula until her foot landed about 4 inches from it. The thing was about the size of my open hand, or a little bigger, with long legs covered in black hair, and a plump body with black hair covering the front half and brown hair on its backside. From the minute we noticed him and for the few minutes we watched, the thing didn’t move in the slightest, as though he was waiting for his moment to pounce and collect his prey. We didn’t wait around to see it. Beyond that, we saw a handful of other animals including some wild pigs, what looked like a marmot, and a ton of tropical birds. Unfortunately, still no Keel-Billed Toucan, so the hunt continues.
While the animal life was fantastic, the major highlight at this park had to be the waterfalls & swimming holes. Throughout all three of the trails we hiked, we didn’t run into a single person. We visited three different waterfalls and had them all to ourselves each time. Each one had its own swimming hole at the base, some larger than others. By the time we got to the third one, which was the most secluded in terms of the hike to get there, we decided it was time to get in touch with our roots as human beings and swim bare and free. I must say, I have done some skinny dipping in my day, but this was more of a casual experience that felt extremely liberating. I say casual because I didn’t feel a thrill of swimming naked, and not because it wasn’t exciting, but because it just felt natural. Something about being deep in the jungle at the base of a magnificent waterfall, diving into clear blue water. Maybe it’s because the water wasn’t even cold enough to cause any shrinkage, but whatever it was, it was perfect.
Back to Mexico!
It was nearing the end of February, and my Belize auto insurance expired on the 1st of March, so we made plans to cruise back into Mexico after Cockscomb. Our month in Belize turned out to be better than I could have imagined. Good times with loved ones, watching the Patriots lose the superbowl, partying on Caribbean islands with new friends, relaxing in laid back coastal villages, scuba diving incredible coral reefs, exploring jungles & caves, swimming naked under waterfalls, and camping for a week on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean…amazing! Now it was back to Mexico for some unfinished business. Next up: the Yucatan Peninsula, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.