Help a first time international traveler have a good vacation in Belize.
January 26, 2010 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to get some recommendations on travelling to Belize. I'm planning my first out-of-country trip ever from the US to Belize. I have never travelled outside of the country before and need some pointers on international travel in general and travelling to Belize specifically. I would like to stay on Caye Caulker and visit the Great Blue Hole and a couple of cave systems. I'm perfectly happy lounging by the sea in a hammock with an umbrella drink, but I'd also like to do something fun or exciting I can only do in Belize.

I think I want to stay here. Before you ask, yes I have read this, this, this, this, this, and this. People have lots of recommendations on what to do and where to stay, but I need to know more basic things. This page gives me a good idea about exchange rates and such, but I don't know if I'm supposed to change my money before I get there or after. Travel Belize has a lot of good information, but I'm still not sure if there's anything special I have to do before I leave the US. I have a passport, but do I need to like, call the State Department before I leave or something? Do I need a round of vaccinations?

I also need tips on getting around and how I can find out in advance what transportation I'll be using. For instance, how do I get from Belize City to Caye Caulker? After I'm at Caye Caulker, how do I get to the Great Blue Hole? Also, do I need to take diving lessons here before I go? And after that, how do I jaunt back to the mainland for a cave tubing trip? Should I change the order so that I go caving first and then go to the Cayes?

Another thing I'd like to know about is what the cell phone/wifi situation is like there. I think I can survive for a week without internet, but it would be nice to have access on my Palm Pre or my netbook to check in with friends and make them jealous.

So many questions. Any tips or personal experiences, good or bad, would be appreciated.
posted by runcibleshaw to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Here's the CDC page on Belize, which will give you all the health information you need.

Generally, I think people overthink international travel too much. I had a friend who went to Paris last year for her first solo trip outside of the States and sweated it like she was going to Baghdad. Relax, take it easy, don't expect to live/eat/drink/talk like an American; that's the whole point of travel. Have fun! Post some pics.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:05 PM on January 26, 2010


Admiral Haddock, that actually puts my mind at ease a bit. I just know that I am poor at planning and when I do plan, I tend to overlook one basic but important detail that throws everything off. Like, for instance, I want to go diving, but I didn't even think about the fact that I probably need prior dive training before I go. I just don't to get there and have the whole thing go explode-O.
posted by runcibleshaw at 4:20 PM on January 26, 2010


Belize is one of the easiest countries to travel around in for someone like you. First of all, almost everyone speaks English - a Creole-influenced English, but completely understandable.

I didn't bother taking any shots or pills. You'll need anti-mosquito stuff, though. They can be vicious on the coast. Sand flies are tiny little buggers that can eat up your ankles.

Fly to Caye Caulker. Flights are plentiful and cheap.

US currency, if I remember correctly from my visit there, was easily accepted everywhere.

If you already booked your hotel in Caye Caulker, spend the money and call them and ask them questions - they can probably help you book tours to the Blue Hole.

I always do mainland stuff first before settling into the beach part of any vacation. I highly recommend Caves Branch for getting a taste of life in the "jungle"; one of the most incredible experiences of my life was tubing into the caves to see Mayan relics. Great staff and they will help you transportation issues.

Panty rippers - my favorite drink made with pineapple juice and rum.

Like the Admiral says, this ain't going to Baghdad. It's a fun, easy place to visit.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:42 PM on January 26, 2010


I have been to Caye Caulker. It's a smallish hippy backpacker island. Yes, you can fly, but boat transport is just as easy, especially on a budget. Getting around is a short walk to most parts. Others may want to hire a golf cart or bicycle. Yes, the island is that small. GSM coverage roaming with ATT was spotty, but ok on Caulker on my last visit. Reception drops off once you are on a boat. Most lodging has Internet, but there are also cafes.

I second that you'll want protection from mosquitos and no-see-ems. I take an anti Malaria medication when travelling in that part of the world. Some people hate the side effects and skip this precaution, but to me its worth it. Also stay up with you Hep A and B shots.

Belize is more American than not and super easy for a first time international traveler. Be careful if you choose to partake with the local drug trade.

The Barrier Reef and the Blue Hole are about the only just in Belize things you can do from the islands. Some people might like visiting San Pedro because Madonna sung about it. It's a little bigger island, fewer back-packers, but essentially similar. The islands in general are popular for scuba, smoking pot and sailboat charter.

Personally I would also consider a side-trip to Honduras, specifically Utila or one of the other Bay Islands. More fun, more young people, super cheap, better scuba:

http://wikitravel.org/en/Utila

Or if you want to stay in Belize, two or more days in the rainforest to go spelunking in ancient Mayan burial sites... or another hour by car to Tical in Guatemala.
posted by pmikal at 5:09 PM on January 26, 2010


If you walk down the main road in Caye Caulker there are several places offering trips to the Blue Hole.

You can definitely take diving lessons in Caye Caulker from one of the several dive shops. I dove with Belize Diving Services and would recommend them. If you have the time before your trip you might want to do the classroom/pool part of the PADI scuba certification so you don't have to do it while on vacation.

There are plenty of places with wifi available on Caye Caulker for you to keep in touch with people back home.
posted by metaname at 5:14 PM on January 26, 2010


Most of the advice here is spot on so far, but I would add, having done very much this exact thing a few years ago, that the blue hole is not a dive site for beginners, and from the perspective of the boat, there will be little of its awesomeness to see. it is also a pretty good distance from Caulker. there are many really great snorkeling and diving spots much nearer and for much less money.
Belize currency is tied to the dollar 2 to one if i'm not mistaken.
Tikal in guatemala is well worth the time, but there are Mayan sites in Belize as well.
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:27 PM on January 26, 2010


All awesome advice guys.

Panty ripper indeed.

Sounds like I may have to rethink diving unless I can find time to take a beginner class here in San Francisco before I leave. I want to do this trip before May, since I've read that that's the beginning of the rainy season, so there might be time.

Cave tubing sounds like the way to go since it involves water, nature, ruins and laying down. (The lazy river ride at the water park is one of my favorites. Then again, so is the cliff dive slide.)

I might have to do without phone, since I have CDMA carrier. On the other hand I could probably take my T-Mobile work phone with me. What they don't know won't hurt them. Probably will bring the netbook to post vacation shots on Facebook and such.

So far with your input my itinerary looks something like:

4-6 weeks before trip:
Travel vaccinations
PADI beginner class
Travel Insurance
Book Caye Caulker hotel
Book dive class/trip
Book cave tubing

Actual trip:
Arrive in Belize City
Explore Belize City
Travel to interior for Caves Branch tubing
Fly or boat to Caye Caulker
Relax/drink panty rippers
Finish dive training
Dive at Blue hole
Relax
Get sunburn
Relax
Go home
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:05 PM on January 26, 2010


If you plan to use a debit or credit card, be sure to tell the bank that you will be out of the country. If not, they might flag your account for fraud.
posted by soelo at 7:26 PM on January 26, 2010


Ah yes, I forgot about that. When I used to work retail downtown we'd get at least 2 foreign visitors a day who had their accounts frozen because of that.
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:27 PM on January 26, 2010


I was just in Belize for my honeymoon a few months ago and it was a fantastic trip. We stayed in Ambergris half the time, and on the mainland in San Ignacio for half the time.

Snorkeling
We're not divers but love snorkeling. I've been snorkeling in Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Grand Cayman ... Belize was the best snorkeling I've ever done. So you absolutely do not need to dive to have a memorable time.

Vaccinations
I'm a little neurotic about the vaccinations so we got almost everything they recommended (except for the rabies vaccine, which was too pricey and didn't seem that necessary). I would make sure you're up on Hep A/B, but otherwise we didn't run into any other tourists who were taking the daily malaria meds like we were. I didn't get a single mosquito bite but my husband was eaten alive during the jungle hike to cave tubing. The one thing you can't get a vaccine for (and that a number of local folks had me terrified of) was the bot fly (google at your own risk). Apparently it's pretty common and not really a big deal, but it's a bit skeevy. For the record, neither of us got a bot fly.

Money
Take out more US dollars than you think you'll need. They accept USD everywhere in Belize. I was there over Belizean independence day and had some problems with ATMs running out of money -- I don't know if that's common or just specific to being there over a holiday. If you go to Guatemala to visit Tikal, which we did, you will need US dollars. They will not accept Belize currency there and ATMs aren't exactly plentiful. You don't want to deal with the "exchange rates" at the border.

Favorite Excursions
We did the cave tubing at Jaguar Paw, went snorkeling in Shark Ray Alley and Hol Chan, and saw lots of Mayan ruins. Our absolute favorite excursions were a trip to the Mayan city of Xunantunich and caving at Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM). Both of these are somewhat near San Ignacio. Xunantunich is a smaller city and when we went we were the only people there for an hour. You can see Guatemala and Belize from the top of the temple. And keep your eyes peeled for monkeys.

ATM was hands-down the coolest thing we did. Do this excursion if you can. You take an SUV for about an hour offroad and hike a mile into the jungle. Once there, you swim into a gorgeous cave, wade through water and climb over boulders. ATM was a cave that was used for offerings and sacrifices. There were a ton of relics (pots, bowls, etc) and a few skeletons. They limit the number of people that can visit the cave per day, so it was relatively unspoiled.

Ok, that's enough rambling. I should just go look at our photos now. You'll have a great time. Everyone there is so incredibly friendly and the country is gorgeous.
posted by awegz at 7:56 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


And absolutely drink a crap-ton of panty rippers. They taste like vacation. A number of the coconut rums they have in Belize are 10x better than Malibu rum.
posted by awegz at 8:01 PM on January 26, 2010


Way to collect all the Belize travel links. I'm heading there sometime in March and you just completed half my travel research for me. Thanks runcibleshaw!
posted by Hoenikker at 8:01 PM on January 26, 2010


You'll love Caye Caulker, just hanging out diving/snorkeling/manatee watching/eating/drinking etc. Go to the Split at sunset. Get some fresh squeezed OJ in the a.m. at one of the little roadside vendors. They take US dollars everywhere. I don't know when you're going, but I went the first week of March and the sand flies (no see-ums) weren't bad at all. But, I've heard they can be awful at times so take bug stuff just in case.

Have a great time and have a Belikin or three for me!
posted by ourroute at 8:48 PM on January 26, 2010


Hoenikker, that's not even half the links I've gathered. If I have time I'll put some more up in this thread.
posted by runcibleshaw at 9:05 PM on January 26, 2010


runcibleshaw, please do. Feel free to MeFi mail me if you want to swap travel tips. I think you've done more reading then I have, but I just picked up a guide book, so I'll catch up.
posted by Hoenikker at 7:20 AM on January 27, 2010


We spent our honeymoon (10 days) in Belize, and split our time between the Pine Ridge area (NW Belize) and Placencia. Honestly, I'd choose Caye Caulker over Placenia, which had some nice hotels, but which overall wasn't as pleasant and just plain easy as Caye Caulker. (I'd travelled alone to Caye Caukler a few years ago when I was living in Guatemala).

But I'm writing to really recommend that you stay at the Five Sisters Lodge , which we loved. We also stayed at Hidden Valley Inn, which is particularly wonderful for birders, and is worth it, but didn't have the charm of Five Sisters. Both hotels are close to Francis Ford Coppola's Blancaneaux Lodge , where you can get a really nice dinner at a gorgeous (and too rich for our blood) site.

As stated above, If you're in the Pine Mountain area, highly highly highly recommend a visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal, which was absolutely the highlight of the trip. I can't recommend it enough, it was amazing. It is my best memory from Belize. Also, the trip to the nearby ruins at Caracol are amazing, better preserved than Tikal (which is a great trip, too, but is a 3 hour drive into Guatemala, which you may or may not be up for). You can arrange all of those tours very easily from almost any lodging in the area.

Also, you should probably avoid staying in Belize City at all; it is pretty sketchy. However, on the way out of Belize City, a visit to the Belize Zoo, outside of the city, is also very recommended.

Seconding that Belize is very easy to travel in. Just take basic precautions re: your safety, and bring some insect repellant. Send me a msg via Metafilter if you want any more information.
posted by seventyfour at 8:16 AM on January 27, 2010


Hidden Valley Inn, though, has the advantage of hundreds of acres of some of the most beautiful land I've ever seen, lots of gorgeous private waterfalls and pools. My wife and I never saw another person once we were off the main site.
posted by seventyfour at 8:18 AM on January 27, 2010


I would just like to say again that I'm absolutely blown away by all the great and helpful comments here. Thanks.

After doing my taxes tonight it looks like I should have a nice chunk of change to cover a week to ten day stay. Diving is still a little iffy, as I don't think I'll have the time to take the beginner classes here with my work schedule. I did get a good recommendation from my friend here in SF. He said the guys at Bamboo Reef are really cool guys and said if I was going to take classes I should do it there. Although I did find this as well.

I'll keep checking back into this thread, but I think most of my questions have been answered, and most of my concerns put at-ease. Here's some interesting links I found in my research:

Vaccinations and fees in SF.
Diving Classes in Belize.
Caye Caulker on WikiTravel.
Cave tubing tours.
Travel insurance. $66. Not bad. Advertised on Lonely Planet and looks pretty legit.
Lonely Planet, of course, is an invaluable place to start.

The same friend who recommended Bamboo Reef also told me that got a great deal on a trip to Baja by looking up a package on Orbitz and then calling Expedia to beat that deal. (I know no one needed those links, I just felt like adding more.)
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:46 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Probably no one is reading this thread any longer, but I'd like to post this (from Belize):
My Belize vacation so far
posted by runcibleshaw at 2:20 PM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


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