(December 2013) – Caye Caulker & San Ignacio, Belize
Christmas time (no mistletoe or wine)
After just 4 days with the group, I already felt so relaxed and thankful that I had such a lovely bunch of people to spend Christmas with. It’s funny, despite how much solo travel I’ve done over the years, I still get the same nerves and apprehension when I embark on a new trip and that worry of ‘Will I meet anyone?’ is always amplified when you know you’re going to be away from family and friends at such a social time of year. But, thankfully I had a whole host of new friends to keep me company!
After a morning Skype call with my mum, dad, sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew, I finally headed on up to The Split – the island’s sunbathing deck and social hub, for some relaxation and a couple of cheeky beers.
After a lunch of fresh ceviche and tortilla chips, I was growing a little restless and so opted to join Morten and Sam for a swim across from The Split to the neighbouring island. In reality it wasn’t actually that far, but the current was intense, forcing us from one side of the jetty and only just making it to the opposite tip of the other island. After we’d caught our breaths, we didn’t let the ‘Private Property’ sign stop us as we stumbled barefoot onto the grassy verge. It all felt a little ‘Robinson Crusoe’ as we wandered further inland, avoiding trampling on the hermit crabs as we went. It wasn’t until we reached a gated house with three blood-thirsty looking dogs, that we decided to head back to our own island for a little play on the swings.
A cold Christmas dinner at Wish Willy’s wasn’t really what I had in mind to kick off the evening’s celebrations (thanks to the group who stole our reservation!) but with plenty of rum punch to go around and a bit of festive spirit, we made the most of it and even the unexpected downpour couldn’t dampen our spirits.
It’s just a shame that one or two other people in the group couldn’t seem to ’embrace the bizarre’ like the rest of us. I think people forget sometimes that you have to go with the flow a little more than usual when you’re travelling. Everything isn’t going to be the same as what you would experience or expect back in the comfort of your home, but that’s part of the fun of discovering a new place and culture. I’ve found that it’s often the most challenging times that you look back on and either laugh about or realise that it made you grow in some way.
Anyway, after dinner, we headed to IandI reggae bar where things quickly got much more festive. After a relatively tame few nights, I think we were all feeling the party spirit. Somehow the conversation came on to ‘body shots’ and when I mentioned to Natalia that I’d never done one before, the tequila soon came out!
A little later, I spotted a cute guy across the bar. I’d mentioned to a few of the group how much I LOVED Australia and wanted to move back there, so when Phillip found out that he was Australian, he was more than keen to set me up. I’m a little old fashioned when it comes to stuff like that though and generally prefer the guy to make the first move, so I carried on dancing with my friends (secretly hoping he would).
Around 12pm, IandI bar closed and so everyone headed to the next bar, Oasis. That’s one of the nice things about Caye Caulker, because it is such a small place, even the businesses look out for each other and instead of competing, they each take their slice of the business by opening at different times.
As we continued the dancing, I was attracting some harmless but definitely unwelcome attention from one of the Belizean store owners I’d been chatting to earlier that day. So, when the Australian guy pulled me away, I was more than glad to be rescued and naturally had to thank him with a Christmas kiss.
We carried on dancing the night away but when 3am rolled around, I soon realised that most of my group had gone their separate ways: some carrying on the party with drinks on the beach, others smooching in hidden corners. Lane (The Aussie) kindly offered to walk me home and we said our goodbyes. There was no chance of a holiday romance as I was leaving the next day, and to be honest I was kind of glad. I’d come away to forget about guys and focus on having fun by myself for once.
A different side to Belize
The next day, the rain came and there isn’t all that much to do on Caye Caulker when it rains. So, when the boat came just after midday, we were all ready to see what lay ahead in the next place – San Ignacio.
After another long bus ride, we arrived at our home for the next two nights, The Trek Stop Eco Lodge. By this point in the trip, I was covered in mosquito bites. That, mixed with a hangover and general tiredness perhaps clouded my view of the lodge, but I must admit, it wasn’t my favourite stop on the tour. The excursion the next day though, was definitely amongst the highlights!
Before I left for Belize, my friend Scott had raved about how great these caves were but when I saw the presentation from the tour guides, I did think to myself “It’s just a bunch of caves, what’s the big deal?!“. Well, I can now firmly say that my mind has been changed.
We left the lodge at 11am (starting later than most tours usually do in order to avoid the crowds) and headed to San Ignacio town to pick up supplies: water and sturdy shoes for those who didn’t already have them. Being the big girl that I am, I decided that I didn’t want to get my trainers wet and covered in mud (ridiculous I know) and so convinced myself that my brand new Moroccan sandals would be fine..how wrong I was.
The caves are well hidden and so after an hour’s drive outside of San Ignacio, we arrived ready for a trek through a muddy jungle for another hour in order to reach the cave entrance. I would have been fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had rained earlier that day and so the mud was thick and sticky, challenging my sandal’s sturdy straps at every chance it got. They resisted well though and when we reached the first river, I was glad of the shoulder-height wade through the rapids, if only to clean my muddy shoes.
What felt like an age later, we finally reached the entrance to the caves. It wasn’t that warm a day and having expected it to brighten up in the afternoon, most of us hadn’t really dressed appropriately for the trek. The tour guide (ex military) looked less than impressed as we shivered and moaned, contemplating heading back to the van. By this point it was around 4pm and after witnessing first-hand how difficult the trek to the caves had been in daylight, a few of us were now concerned about how difficult it would be to get back in the dark. But, whilst a few people opted to head back to the van, I didn’t want to miss out.
And then my sandal broke.
Luckily, the lovely Natalia was on hand to lend me a shoe. Not that she had a spare one, she just offered to lend me hers, leaving herself with just one shoe…the sign of a good friend in my books!
We entered the caves by swimming through a 10ft deep pool which led us into the cave entrance. We then continued wading over rocks and gravel, occasionally swimming through pools of water, for around 1.5 miles, all with just a headlamp each to light the way. Once inside the caves, I was so glad that I hadn’t let the cold and fear get the better of me. I was loving the sense of adventure and the challenge of not feeling entirely safe. I can’t imagine being able to do something like this in the UK, not without signing a waiver and being fitted with a backpack worth of safety equipment first.
Along with the challenge of trekking through the caves, we also learnt a bit about the Mayan culture and saw artifacts which had been perfectly preserved for hundreds of years (due to their calcification from the water and calcium carbonate in the rocks combining). The highlight of the trek though, had to be scrambling up a 10ft rock (no ropes) and stumbling deeper into the cave where the full skeleton of a Mayan princess, sacrificed to the gods, remained.
(Unfortunately we weren’t able to take a camera into the caves and so I don’t have any images to show but you can always Google!)
Then it was time to do the whole journey in reverse, exiting the caves in the pitch black and stumbling back through the jungle. By this point my other sandal had snapped and so Natalia and I each leant on one of the boys as we made our way through the mud, trying to avoid ants and snakes along the way.
We arrived back at the lodge looking a little worse for wear at around 10pm, just 5 hours later than originally planned. Poor Kaylie looked so we relieved that we’d all come back in one piece!
After cleaning up and sitting down for dinner, we all headed to bed as we had yet another early start the next morning as we crossed another border and entered Guatemala.…