As a parent of two students and a husband to a teacher, one of my favorite days of the travel year is the day that the school schedule comes out for the next school year. I immediately start dreaming and scheming, thinking about where we can travel and when.
The first thing that Chrissy and I noticed when this year’s schedule was released was that she and the boys would have a full week off ahead of Christmas. We could actually go on vacation for a full 7 days and still be home to celebrate with family.
My eyes lit up. I grabbed my laptop. The travel planning was on.
A short time later, there was a fare sale I couldn’t resist and before we knew it we were booked for a week in Belize. By the way, if you don’t follow @TheFlightDeal on twitter, you really should. Some of the deals they post are amazing.
Belize had been on our short list for quite a while, but it never quite made it to the top. That was a mistake. We would soon find out how perfect Belize is for our family. Here’s a little bit of what we discovered on our trip.
Any time there are beaches, snorkeling, and seafood available, we are going to be there. In the case of Belize, we decided to split our time between Caye Caulker and San Ignacio. Caye Caulker would provide the relaxing part of the trip and San Ignacio would provide the adventure.
Caye Caulker is a tiny island off the coast of Belize on the Caribbean side of the country. It’s great for diving and snorkeling and forgetting about life for awhile.
One of the mottos of the island is “No shirt, no shoes, no problem,” and that is truly the case. After we got to our hotel, our boys didn’t wear shoes the entire time we were on the island. What could be better for a kid? Or an adult? They didn’t even have to put on flip-flops to go out to dinner. It was awesome!
While on the island, we spent plenty of time in hammocks, an afternoon at the in-water tables at The Split, and a day out on the water, snorkeling, swimming with sharks and rays, and enjoying that soft ocean breeze.
As a fairly active family when we travel, we were all worried that Caye Caulker would get a bit boring after a day or two, but in the end, we found ourselves wishing that we had more time to play with the shelter puppies, wander the packed sand streets, and enjoy the island life.
One thing we heard about while on our trip was the ability to book jungle treks with some of the local guides. You get to go deeper into the jungle, see some of the more secluded Mayan ruins, and perhaps catch a glimpse of some of the animals of Belize in the wild.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to do a jungle trek on this trip, but it definitely gave us an idea for a future visit. Instead, this time we saw our Belize animals in a more structured way. Well, except for the ocean animals we saw snorkeling.
On our way from Belize City to San Ignacio, we had our driver stop at the Belize Zoo. The Belize Zoo includes only animals that are native to Belize and they are housed in their native jungle environment. No alterations have been made to the habitats other than fencing and gravel paths. The animals are living in the same type of forest that they naturally would.
Most of the animals at the Belize Zoo have been rescued from injuries or confiscated from people keeping them illegally as pets. As a result, the animals have great temperments and even come over to see people who visit, instead of hiding like most zoo animals do. It was a great way to see the wildlife of Belize up close and we would highly recommend a visit as you transition from relaxation to history and adventure.
With Mayan sites dating back as far as 1200 BC, there is plenty of history to find in Belize. One of the easiest sites to visit from San Ignacio, Cahal Pech, is just at the edge of town.
We stopped by for a bit of exploration and learning before heading out to do some cave tubing in the afternoon. There were hardly any visitors and there were sections of the complex we had all to ourselves. In a way, the stonework and overgrowth of vegetation reminded us of some of the less visited temples in the area around Siem Reap, Cambodia.
It is thought that Cahal Pech was the hilltop palatial home of an elite Mayan family and with 34 buildings ranging in height up to 25 meters, it must have been something to behold back in its day. Actually, it is still something to behold and is well worth a couple hours of your time.
Our youngest, Cole, would tend to disagree due to the fact that he sat on an ant hill as he was climbing around and ended up having to strip off his clothes while we brushed off the biting ants. That was, however, quite amusing for the rest of the family.
Other than the ants, our kids loved climbing around all of the structures. There are no off-limits areas and you can climb as high as you want. It was fun for our whole family to imagine what the grounds would have looked like from high up in the throne room.
Our biggest adventure in Belize was also a historical tour. It was just a bit more of a challenge to get to the artifacts.
Perhaps you will get an idea of what we are looking at if I quote the sales posters that the tour companies in San Ignacio used.
ATM Tour: The Actun Tunichil Muknal tour is the most famous tour/trip in Belize. It’s a 30-45 min hike through the jungle followed by several hours romping around dark corridors and tunnels used by the ancient Maya for sacrifices and rituals. Strewn about the place are skeletons, pots and a variety of other remnants of ages past. Difficulty: You really should be moderately agile to go on this tour.
All I can say is that the above description definitely underpromised. Also, they are not kidding about the moderately agile part.
Before going, we had read a few blogs and articles about this tour, so we thought we knew what to expect. We were wrong.
ATM Tour Experience
The tour does indeed start with a 45-minute hike, but that hike also includes 3 river crossings, the first one being 6 foot deep. Once you reach the cave, you have to jump in the river and swim into the cave entrance. From that point on, you spend about 2 hours anywhere from climbing on the rocks over the river to swimming in water over your head.
You climb, pull, squeeze and slither your way deep into the cave and finally reach the ritual sites. Do to accidents in the past, visitors are not allowed to take any cameras into the cave, so sadly we don’t have any pictures to remember this section by. We will, however, never forget the time that we had to take off our shoes and climb over stalagmites and across rock formations to reach what we wanted to see.
Due to past damage of someone stepping on an artifact, shoes are removed for the last hour of the hike in and out. The belief is that without shoes, you will be more careful where you are stepping.
From pottery vessel groups with clearly ritual layouts to skeletal remains of human sacrifices, you will never be closer to ancient artifacts. They are amazing to see up close and are an excellent end to the tour. Except they aren’t at the end. You still have to get out of the cave.
Caving In Reverse – gnivaC?
Remember that hike/climb/swim in? Well yeah, now you have to do that in reverse to get out. Exiting the cave goes much quicker but still takes around an hour. At one point, we asked our guide how many times he had been into the cave. He said well over 3,000. He even said he could get back out from that point in the dark.
One thing led to another and the next thing we knew, we were all in line with our lights out and him leading us through the dark. We went through crevices, climbed up and down over rocks and went about 5 minutes in the pitch black. It was awesome and terrifying at the same time.
At the end of the 4-5 hour tour, our whole family agreed that it was almost definitely the coolest thing we have ever done. If you have the chance and aren’t scared of cold water, darkness, climbing over uneven rocks barefoot, small spaces, and skeletal remains, definitely put the ATM tour on your list!
Belize Is For Families
Honestly, 7 days was too short for our time in Belize. There were so many things we just didn’t have time for.
Once we are all SCUBA certified, we will definitely be back to dive the Blue Hole and some of the other amazing sites along the reef. Doing a multi-day jungle trek sounded amazing to all of us. There are plenty of foods we didn’t try, cities we didn’t visit, and beaches we didn’t lie on.
What we did see, we loved. Every member of our family came home happier and more relaxed than when we left for Belize. Our only sadness was that we couldn’t stay longer. We will go back, probably more than once, and we suggest that you visit too.
For those of us in the US, Belize is quite close and there are multiple airlines that fly there. Travel there is pretty easy as well. They speak English as their main language and their money is tied to the US dollar at a 2 to 1 ratio. You really don’t have any excuse.
Watch for a deal, look for award seats, and do whatever you need to do to get your family to some fun in the sun. Belize is an amazing spot for families to explore.