After a great trip, certain moments will stand out in your memory. For this trip, it could easily have been standing atop a Mayan Pyramid in the middle of the jungle, or snorkeling with sharks, rays, and a manatee, but the moment that stands out in my mind was floating through a cave on a raft of inner tubes, with my headlamp playing off the roof of the cave. If you are looking for adventure, this might just be the itinerary for you.
Table of contents: ()
- Traveling to Belize City
- Arrival in Belize City
- Meeting the Group
- The Golden Bay Belize Hotel
- From Belize to Guatemala by Public Bus
- Leaving Belize and Entering Guatemala
- Yaxha, Guatemala
- Exploring Flores
- Back to Belize
- Cave Tubing
- San Ignacio, Belize
- Caracol Mayan Ruins, Belize
- Public Bus to Belize City
- Ferry to Caye Caulker
- Caye Caulker
- Bikes with Purpose
- Snorkeling on the Belize Barrier Reef
- Sunset Cruise
- Caye Caulker to Belize City International Airport
When my plans to attend a conference were canceled I found myself with a week’s vacation I needed to use by the end of the year. Where could I go for only a week where I could see a new country or two, have some adventures, and only use 5 days of vacation?
I zeroed in on a small group trip offered by G Adventures to Belize and Guatemala called “Classic Belize & Tikal“. I had never been to either country, nor had I traveled with G before but I knew their great reputation from numerous friends and bloggers who had.
In full and fair disclosure, after I decided on this trip I pitched G Adventures to sponsor me in exchange for this blog post and for a podcast about the trip. They paid for my tour and half of my single supplement. I paid for all meals, flights, and extra activities. Don’t tell G, but if they had said “no” I probably would still have done this trip and would have been happy with my decision.
This tour focuses on Belize but throws in 2 days in Guatemala so you can visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal. It starts in Belize City, travels to Flores Guatemala then back to St Ignacio Belize, and ends on the island of Caye Caulker off the coast of Belize.
Traveling to Belize City
One of the advantages of a trip to Belize is that it’s fairly easy to get to from the United States. For the people on my tour who lived in either the U.S. or Canada, we all flew on the same day that our trip started. The trip started with a meeting at 6 pm on Saturday night. Starting at 6:30 am from San Jose California, I was able to get to the hotel two minutes before that starting meeting. I usually recommend that you arrive a day early for a trip in case there are flight problems, I routed my flight through Los Angeles, which wasn’t going to have summer thunderstorms, and hoped for the best.
Arrival in Belize City
The international airport in Belize is not a large airport and getting into the airport and through customs was fairly simple for me although one of the members of my tour group did have some choice thoughts about the organizational skills of those who were guiding people through customs.
I grabbed a local taxi after getting local currency from the ATM at the airport. The taxi ride from the airport to the Golden Bay Belize Hotel in Belize City took about half an hour and cost $30 USD.
The local currency in Belize is the Belize Dollar. It is pegged to the dollar at a value of 1 USD to 2 BD. Most places in Belize will take either and your change may come back in either currency. If you are bringing dollars to use they should not be overly worn.
We had barely left the airport grounds before the taxi driver asked if he could give two “friends” a ride. He picked up two ladies who were standing by the airport entrance but waved off a 3rd woman. I did not get the impression that they were friends so much as that this informal ride-sharing is a way to make a couple extra dollars. The skies opened up with a downpour moments after our newfound friends got in the cab. While the official language of Belize is English I was given a crash course in the local Creole. I could only pick out every few words from the conversation.
Meeting the Group
I have done several small group travel trips in the past including trips that I run for Amateur Traveler. I have sworn off big bus tours with 40 people, but I love the format of traveling with a small group of people and find that an adventurous trip tends to attract a certain kind of person. If you need to be pampered… this is not your trip. If you want things to be just like they are at home… this is not your trip.
We met our guide Suzy and the rest of the group in the top-floor restaurant at the Golden Bay Belize Hotel. My group included:
- Suzy who was guiding her 97th tour for G Adventures. While originally from Scarborough in the UK (North Yorkshire), she lives in Guatemala and speaks fluent Spanish. She has also worked all over the world as a dive instructor.
- A couple from Leeds in the UK, he is a photographer and she is a researcher
- A telecom engineer man originally from the Philipines but living in Dallas
- A Nurse Practitioner from Nashville who works in a clinic for refugees and immigrants
- An assistant TV director from Toronto Canada
- A school teacher from London
- A college professor from Central Pennsylvania who has a minor in archeology
- A Hawaiian cruise ship crew member originally from California
I think it’s probably fair to say upfront that you could do the same tour and you can.t possibly have as good of time as I had because of the quality of my traveling companions. My apologies, I’m sure yours will be fine but mine were awesome.
The Golden Bay Belize Hotel
The Golden Bay Belize Hotel was our home base for just one night but was a fine place to stay. Of course, we had to immediately get in the habit of not drinking the tap water, and not flushing the toilet paper, but welcome to Central America. The hotel had a lovely restaurant, with a wonderful rooftop view of the city, and a great breakfast that was included as part of the tour. Like so many other places we ate in Belize the service was not the fastest, but the food was great. G Adventures does not stay in the same hotels for every trip in every city but spreads the love around to support the local hotels.
From Belize to Guatemala by Public Bus
G Adventures has two different tours that cover similar itineraries. One tour is branded with “National Geographic” and is a more expensive and higher-end tour. On that tour, you are going to get a private bus through Belize to get to Guatemala. On this tour, you’re going to get to the bus station and take the public bus as far as the Guatemala border.
This trip is meant for people who want to experience the local culture. The public bus ride is just such an experience. Suzy bought our tickets for the bus but honestly, I’m not sure why they sell tickets because they don’t limit the number of people on the bus to the number of seats. On a busy Sunday morning, there were three people for every two seats on the bus. All the bus driver expected was that we all found someplace to pretend to sit down while he pulled out of the bus depot. I found myself standing for the first 40 minutes of the bus ride through the Belize countryside.
The public buses are well-maintained, so G Adventures feels safe using them, but they are re-purposed school buses from the United States. The air conditioning system is just the open windows. We were on the local bus so we stopped quite often as people got on and off. About 40 minutes out of Belize City enough people got off that I was able to find a seat. It’s a crazy system, but it is affordable and efficient for the locals.
Leaving Belize and Entering Guatemala
We took the bus as close as we could to the border with Guatemala and had a private bus that took us the last few miles. We left Belize (paying a $20 USD fee to leave… even though we had barely arrived), walked into Guatemala, and picked up a private bus. The local buses in Guatemala are not as well-maintained so G Adventures does not use them for their tours.
On the itinerary, our next stop would be Flores Guatemala, but our group was interested in adding on an additional Mayan site so instead we headed across the bumpy dirt roads to Yaxha (pronounced Yasha). This would be the first of our additional activities. These activities are not included in the price of the tour, but the trip was much more fun for including them. We often did these activities as a whole group, but your experience may be different.
Tikal is the most popular Mayan site in Guatemala because it has the most excavated buildings. Because of that, it has more tourism and more infrastructure, including paved roads. Yaxha is a smaller site but a great introduction to the Mayan classical period. The classical period ran from 200 to 900 AD and most of the local Maya ruins come from this period. Archeologists still debate what caused the end of this period and the abandonment of these great cities in the jungles of Guatemala and Belize. The leading suspect is that the civilization was destabilized by a long period of drought.
As with each of the Mayan sites we visited, the area is filled with tree-covered hills of various sizes. Each of these hills is itself another unexcavated ruin. One of the reasons why every site has not been excavated is there are just too many. But also, excavating a site will expose it to the elements and will start its degradation.
Some of the ruins at a Mayan site will be temples, some will be houses of nobles (like a smaller version of a temple), some will be ball courts, and some will be administrative buildings. We were also introduced to the tall, elaborately sculpted stones called stelae. These would often tell the story of one particular ruler.
We were able to climb the tallest pyramid in Yaxha to see the view of the site and its surrounding lakes and jungles. The pyramid was accessed via a set of wooden stairs and we stood on a wooden platform affixed to the pyramid to protect it from the feet of hundreds or thousands of tourists. Much of the group climbed a smaller pyramid where you were still allowed to traverse its steep uneven steps.
The Mayans built their cities in the jungle so bring bug spray, sunscreen, a hat, and lots of water. Also, you might want to bring a small pair of binoculars or a good telephoto lens because your guide will also be pointing out the local fauna including toucans, spider monkeys, and… if you are luckier than we were… howler monkeys.
Our home base for two nights was in the colorful town of Flores Guatemala which is located on an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza. Flores is connected by a causeway to the larger city of Santa Elena. It is a touristy town that serves as a hub for exploring Tikal and the area. Walking from one end of the island to the other will only take you about 5 minutes.
Our group stayed in the Hotel Peten. The hotel has a lovely small indoor/outdoor pool with a swim-up bar and a view of the lake. The hotel also had a good restaurant.
We arose early to get out to Tikal to beat both the crowds and the heat of the day. We drove for an hour before we stopped for breakfast at a restaurant along the way, having pre-ordered the night before.
Tikal is a huge Mayan site. When we had finished with our tour we were still a mile walk from our bus. I finished off my water bottle and bought 3 more cold drinks along the way from local vendors. When we were in the jungle it was warm but when we were on the top of a pyramid exposed to the sun it was hot.
This is not a site where you see every building but instead sample the buildings that have been excavated. I climbed two pyramids in Tikal although others in my group climbed at least one more, but by the time we got to the main plaza what I really needed was my 3rd cold drink and some time in the shade.
If Tikal looks familiar, then you have probably seen the original Star Wars movie where Tikal was used for filming the rebel base on the jungle-covered moon of Yavin 4. This is where the attack on the Death Star took off from.
One of the members of our group had been wanting to visit Tikal since she was at least 10 years old. At 10 she had written a report for school about the Tikal Mayan site. It was fun watching someone fulfill a dream.
In addition to numerous species of birds (including wild turkeys), we also encountered ring-tailed coatimundi and spider monkeys during our visit.
When we returned to Flores the group headed in different directions. Some grabbed a nap or a swim while others had lunch or explored the local shops. We met up again at sunset for a cocktail at Mangos Bar at the top of the Hotel Isla de Flores. The hotel has no elevator and I felt the climb after the pyramids of the last 2 days.
Activities in the Flores Area:
- Yaxha Archeological Site $75
- Swim in the lake – free
- Tikal Archeological Site – included
- Jungle ziplining $40
- Sunset boat trip $20
Back to Belize
The next day we retraced our steps and headed back to Belize. We took a private bus to the border where we were greeted with a private bus again on the Belize side of the border. We were picked up by the tour company that sponsored a cave tubing adventure that the entire group had decided to add to our trip. Suzy was able to join us as well since the whole group was doing the same thing. We stopped quickly at our hotel in San Ignacio long enough to drop off our luggage and change into swimwear.
The Cave Tubing in Belize was not the same as my previous adventure of blackwater rafting in New Zealand. The water in Belize is significantly warmer and the spaces are, in general, larger and less claustrophobic. We drove halfway back to Belize City to get to the cave adventure. The tour included a Belizian lunch and a serious rum punch that went straight to my head. Normally one would traverse the cave and then eat lunch but we did not get to the site until well after lunch. We then carried our own inner tubes for about 20 minutes into the jungle, crossing the river a few times to get to the put-in spot.
While we jumped in the water to cool off our two guides lashed our inner tubes into one long raft, two inner tubes wide. As we traversed the cave and the river we had one guide in the front and one in the back who would steer, swim, or drag our rafts into the right current. Everyone in our group had been outfitted with a helmet with a headlamp on it so that we could see where we were going in the dark.
Partway through the cave our guides asked us if we wanted to explore so we got out of our tubes and clambered up onto the rocks and up to a natural skylight of the cave. Then we looped around to where the Mayans of the classical period had left pottery shards as part of sacrifices in the cave.
Some of the braver members of our group jumped off a rock back into the dark waters and we were led into a smaller cave with at least one bat. Bats… you may not be surprised to hear… have a harder time navigating when people are screaming. We squeezed through a few more claustrophobic passages and then got back on our innertube raft to rejoin our leisurely float trip.
I remember lying in my innertube with my light playing off the cave roof above me and thinking I could now die happy.
San Ignacio, Belize
Our base for adventures in Belize was San Ignacio. We stayed in the lovely and comfortable Midas Belize Hotel which is also used by the higher-end National Geographic branded trip. The hotel has comfortable public spaces, a large outdoor pool, and a restaurant.
We spent two nights in San Ignacio with the day in between used for more optional adventures. On this day our group broke in at least 3 groups.
One couple visited the Raptor Center and had their pictures taken with owls and other birds of prey.
A couple of people visited the famous ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave. This is another water-filled cave where there are still the remains of some ancient Mayans who were left as sacrifices in the cave. Because of some unfortunate incidents when some of the ancient skeletons were damaged by inattentive photographers, you are no longer allowed to bring a camera into the cave.
- Crystal Cave $110
- ATM Cave $110
- Cave tubing $90
- Caracol Mayan ruins $115
- Xunantunich ruins $15
- Barton Creek canoeing & Big Rock Falls $110
- Cahal Pech ruins $5
- Mountain Pine Ridge combo $80
- Horseriding at Buena Vista Farm $75
Caracol Mayan Ruins, Belize
I joined two other members of the group to visit our third Mayan site, Caracol. Caracol was a city that was even larger than Tikal but is much less excavated. The city is thought to have been twice the size of modern Belize City with twice its population. The name comes from the Spanish word for a snail shell and was named for the winding road to get there.
This road once kept many people from visiting the site. It used to be a bumpy 5 hour drive from San Ignacio and the road was so hard on the tour company vehicles that they could not make a profit visiting the site. The road to Caracol is now paved halfway there as part of an international project to make tourism easier. Expect in a few years the site will have large buses from cruise ships but for now, the site still takes 2 hours to access and includes a free “Belize massage” for the latter half of the drive.
Illegal activities in the surrounding jungle also used to mean that cars would travel to Caracol in caravan, fortunately, that was no longer needed.
I had the singular privilege to visit the site with our guide Leo who had worked on the dig for 3 seasons when the site was originally being excavated. Leo could point out which buildings he had worked on and what they had found in various niches.
Also in my group our former archeology student had been invited to join the dig for a season early in the work on the site. She got to finally see the place that was the “road not taken”.
The main pyramid in Carocal can be climbed. There are no wooded stairs to ascend like at Yaxha or Tikal although, hopefully, it will have one before the hords of tourists arrive. The pyramid is unusually large at the top with the different temple structures.
There were some of the original Maya stelae near the visitors center but Leo told us that 30 stelae had been taken from the site and most of these have completely disappeared.
Read more about Caracol: Visiting the Caracol Mayan Ruins in Belize
Public Bus to Belize City
The next day we departed San Ignacio via another public bus. It was not a Sunday so we all had seats. We were also on an express bus instead of a local bus so the trip to Belize City was faster on the return trip.
In both directions, the bus stops at the capital city of Belmopan. Belmopan was explicitly created as the capital of the country to move the capital from Belize City which was constantly under threats of hurricanes. After 75% of Belize City was destroyed by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, it was time to do something different. This tour does not explore Belmopan.
Ferry to Caye Caulker
This tour ends on the island of Caye Caulker out by the Belize Barrier Reef. From the bus station in Belize City, we met with a couple of taxis to transfer to the ferry terminal. We had an hour or so for shopping and eating before starting the approximately 1-hour trip to the island. We checked in our luggage and let the ferry personnel load and unload it from the ferry.
Caye Caulker is an island about one mile long. It is about 4 blocks wide. The town of Caye Caulker Village has a population of 2,000 people and is a colorful and touristy beach town. The island was split in half by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. You can take a small ferry across the “split” to explore the northern half of the island.
While the 3 streets that run north and south have official names they are unofficially from east to west Front Street, Middle Street, and Back Street. Most of the restaurants, bars, BBQ carts, and stores are on Front Street not far from the Ferry Dock. This is a beach town. The main “roads” are mostly just sand. The whole island is mostly just sand. This is not an island you want to be on in a hurricane.
During my visit, the island had more of an aroma of rotting seaweed than a fresh ocean smell. Suzy said that was unusual and had not been the case in her trip just 2 weeks prior to our trip.
Caye Caulker is a party. This is a place where ladies walk around in their bikinis and where Suzy, who had lived on Caye Caulker for a time, seemed to know everyone.
We stayed in the appropriately named Tropical Paradise Hotel and Restaurant at the southern end of Front Street. This quaint hotel is composed of small bungalows with front porches. It has a pool with a poolside bar and a restaurant.
- Bikes with Purpose island tour – included
- Full-day snorkel trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve by sailboat (includes snorkel gear, lunch, soft drinks, rum punch) $90
- Stand-up paddleboard / Kayak $15 per hour
- Bike hire from $10 per day
- Scuba diving from $150
- Sunset Sailing (including ceviche, rum punch soft drinks) $60
- Relaxing on the beach – free
- Rent a golf cart $15 per hour
- Flight over the Blue Hole (not bookable through G Adventures)
Bikes with Purpose
Our intro tour to the island of Caye Caulker was with two high-school-age guides from Bikes with Purpose. This program is part of the local Ocean Academy school which started a high school so that kids could get a good education without leaving the island. We hopped on old cruiser bikes and toured the island.
Our first stop was Ocean Academy where we were introduced to the Ocean Acaemday way:
- Be Mindful
- Know Your Passion
- Make Money
- Create Legacy
We were also given a quick lesson in the cryptic Belize Creole.
We then biked to see the sting rays and sea horses at Sing Ray Beach across from Iguana Reef Inn, then on to the tarpon feeding dock where members of the group had a close and rather startling encounter with these endangered fish.
G Adventure Tours tries to include interaction with a local charity like Bikes with Purpose that they support.
Snorkeling on the Belize Barrier Reef
Our main adventure on Caye Caulker was a snorkeling trip out to the Belize Barrier Reef and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. All of our tour group decided to do this optional activity although one of the members of the group needed to postpone her trip until the next day because of issues with “traveler’s stomach” on the first full day on the island.
I have snorkeled all over the world and I would rank this trip in the top half of my snorkel adventures. The fish were not the most colorful that I have seen but the variety of marine life we saw was pretty great. We saw dolphins on our way out to the reef and then made separate stops along the reef to see a manatee, a sea turtle, lots and lots of rays, sharks, and coral.
The trip included the snorkel gear, lunch, and that now infamously strong Belize rum punch. With so much time in the water, I would highly recommend a swim shirt or rash guard for sun protection.
Our last day on the island was more leisurely. People explored on their own or in small groups. At the end of the day, we met up again for our last optional activity which was a sunset cruise. It was a perfect relaxing end to a great trip.
Caye Caulker to Belize City International Airport
I had missed the information on the G Adventures site and on the G Adventures App that said not to book a flight sooner than 11 am from the airport in Belize City. My flight was at 10 am. I was originally supposed to take a small plane flight from the airport on Caye Caulker but was surprised to learn when I got to the island that the airport was closed to resurface the runway. Because of that, a couple of members of my group who wanted to see the “Blue Hole” on a small plane flight could not do that on this trip either.
I was able to take the 6:30 am ferry from the island and get to the airport with plenty of time before my flight. Allow 3 and a half hours to have a relatively stress-free trip to the airport.
At least half of my group had traveled with G Adventures before and were big fans of the brand, of their tours, and of course of their guides. Add me to that group as well. If you have a week to spare and a sense of adventure, I can highly recommend G Adventures “Classic Belize & Tikal” tour.