Template for the whirlwind two-day tour of mainland Belize

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My brother Jim and I below El Costillo at Xunantunich, the top Maya archeology site in Belize.

My brother Jim wanted to close out his recent visit with an experience on the mainland of Belize. We had two days left and the “tour” had to end up at the international airport for his flight home.

We put together a whirlwind tour. And if I don’t mind saying, this could well be the template for The Two-day Whirlwind Tour of the Mainland.

Two Maya archeological sites, the Belize Zoo, visits to Spanish Lookout and San Ignacio with one great dinner and one decent breakfast that included fryjacks — and of course the thrill of navigating through Belize City and risking life and limb on 70 miles worth of the George Price and Great Western highways, bisecting the entire country.

Two Tucans at the Belize Zoo.

It started with the  7:30 a.m. San Pedro Express water taxi — riding on top to Caye Caulker then down in the hole for the rainy run to Belize City.  After grabbing a few meat pies and our bags we picked up a Kia Soul from Crystal Auto, my favorite car rental agency. Always friendly and accommodating, and always there at the water taxi when we arrive. And most important — well-serviced vehicles. The Kia hadn’t even clocked 2,000 miles and still had that new car smell.

Listen, I might have opted for the ancient school buses that ply the highways but time was of the essence on this trip and we were going for maximum impact.

Our first stop on the George Price Highway was, naturally, the Belize Zoo, just 25 miles inland. Arriving around 10:30, the air was still cool and there were more animals than people. Cruise ship vans wouldn’t be arriving for another hour or so.

The national animal of Belize, the embattled tapir at the Belize Zoo. Its worst enemies these days are encroaching development and the highways.

This is a zoo like few others. The animals are all native to Belize and they are either rescues, donations, former pets, or confiscated from illegal owners. Nobody went out and trapped animals for “research.” The environments are as natural as you could hope for in an enclosed area — no concrete-and-wire cell blocks, no fiberglass rocks or fake trees. It is all tropic and all real.

Thanks to the unseasonably wet start to 2018, zoo vegetation was lush and green.

Look! A Minion in pajamas! Kidding. It is an owl, at the Belize Zoo. We had fun staring and blinking at each other for quite a while.

Nowhere else in Belize can you so completely comprehend the majestic variety of plants and animals to be found in this tiny country. Over-development, over-hunting, and poaching guarantee you are unlikely to casually encounter many of these animals in the wild.  Even then, you could never get this close to a tapir or a jaguar in the wild.

Afterward, we stopped for lunch just up the road at a favorite place called . . . what the hell?  Lil Texas Barbecue? What happened to Amigo’s?

Bought. Sold. Renamed. Completely unimproved in any way. It was never great food but it was a good lunch. Those days are over.  Only the decor is unchanged.

Still trying to digest whatever it was we ate, we took a detour through Spanish Lookout —  just so I could say “See? Just like Indiana!” Even though I have never been to Indiana.

This building dominates the skyline of San Ignacio today, seen here from the back side. I’m not sure what this will be when it is finished but it includes two very large clocks at the top.

Spanish Lookout stands out in Belize because of the nicely paved roads, big box stores and factories, and big houses surrounded by seas of green lawn. And the Mennonites. This is where they live and work. I for one would like to put the Mennonites in charge of roads and general appearances for all of Belize.

Here’s the view lo0king up from downtown San Ignacio.

Road note: The new Western Highway bridge into San Ignacio is quite a pleasant shocker — high, wide, well-paved and landscaped.

We checked into the Maya Bella, a fairly new boutique hotel in San Ignacio. Now my first choice is usually the Rainforest Haven Inn, if only because they have the Marie Sharps hot sauce “museum” in the lobby. But it was booked.

Turns out the hotels are pretty similar — sparsely furnished, roomy, clean and inexpensive. Both have excellent rooftop lounging areas with nice views.

After settling in we took the death march up — and I mean up — the hill to the Cahal Pech archeological site. Not the most impressive Maya ruins in the region, but an interesting first introduction. I like to think of Cahal Pech is the spa-like place that busy Maya elites from Tikal, Caracol, and Xunantunich went to unwind, get away from all the noise, war, commerce, drought, and human sacrifices.

Or maybe not.

It was late in the day and the air was cooling under the tree canopy. And again, my favorite thing — hardly anybody around.

You can sit, soak up the history and imagine the Maya life here many hundreds of years ago.

It was turning dark when we reached downtown and headed straight for Ko-Ox Han Nah on Burns Avenue — the part you can still drive on.  Those of you fluent in Mayan will quickly know this is the aptly named restaurant “Let’s Go Eat.”

Cahal Pech always holds the promise of tranquility, if you arrive late in the afternoon or early in the morning. The Maya spirits almost feel like they are talking with you as you sit in the park-like setting.

It is unpretentious, open, airy, usually busy, and serves meals that will leave you groaning with pleasure at the end of the evening. Mind you, two pork chops with all the trimmings and I ended up handing off one of the chops a skinny and grateful night clerk at the hotel. I couldn’t finish. Most meals are like that. Fullsome, tasteful, and made from locally sourced animals, vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

More from Cahal Pech in the heart of San Ignacio.

This being a Thursday night the streets of San Ignacio were left to the hucksters, drunks and dog fleas. Not a lot going on. One good fight in which a deceptively small woman beat the bejeezus out of two guys. None of them would remember this pummeling in the morning, I’m sure.

Ah well, as they say in San Ignacio: “Early to bed, early to Pop’s in the morning.”

I like Pop’s. OK, the fry jacks are about half the size they once were but to me, they are still the best in Belize. Coffee is strong and black. It is simply the place to go for breakfast in San Ignacio.

Mental note to self: Pop’s is exactly one block behind the Bella Maya hotel. No need to put three miles on the car trying to find it.

Taking the hand-crank ferry across the Mopan River to Xunantunich with a herd of tourists and their horses. My brother Jim and our guide Eddie Panti keep a respectful distance from the ponies.

I am really impressed by the size of the breakfast I managed to consume a mere 12 hours after that enormous dinner  Ko-Ox Han Nah. I even wrapped our last fry jack in a napkin and stuck it in my backpack for a late afternoon snack.

Good news: The napkin and my backpack sopped up the grease, although the fryjack looked like a very flat latke.

My favorite view of Xunantunich, looking toward El Castillo from the eastern-most end of the archeology site.

We got to Xunantunich right after breakfast. The sunrise worshiping crowd was just leaving and near as I could tell, we were at the vanguard of regular visitors. Just us and a small cavalry of pony riders.

And Eddie Panti.

Eddie became our tour guide. And what a treat. Eddie grew up in the small village of San Jose Succotz, across the river from this Maya site and a stone’s throw from the Guatemala border. His father was a tour guide. He is a tour guide. It is what his family does, that and crafts sold in stalls near the hand-crank ferry across the Mopan River to Xunantunich. Eddie can not only give you the history, legend, and lore of Xunantinch, he can also tell you how his grandmother blended Maya beliefs with Christianity, and of the Maya dishes she prepared when he was a child.

Tour guide Eddie Panti paints a vivid picture for my brother Jim of life in Xunantunich as it was hundreds of years ago.

His vivid descriptions gave life to the ruins.

We even walked a bit off the path so Eddie could show us certain trees and bushes that can be found around every Maya site, ones that provided grains, fruits and other sustenance for his ancestors. Eddie was a gift that day. The only thing missing was the howler monkeys. Not a one in the neighborhood that day.

The last leg of our journey, for Jim, was the mad dash to International Airport so he could catch a 3 p.m. flight back to Pennsylvania.

Really, no mad dash at all. We got a great tour of Xunantunich and made the airport with plenty of time to spare at Jet’s Bar (for Jim). For me, back to Crystal Auto, then a lift to the Brown Sugar Terminal for a nice Indian meal before grabbing the next water taxi, and home by 4 p.m.

Easy peasy.

It is a long walk up to the top of El Castillo, but wow, is the grass green these days!

Ok, but here’s what I’ll probably do next time:

Skip lunch right after the zoo, and head straight for the cave-tubing and ziplining.  They’re both just a few miles west of the zoo. We’ve done them both and they are memorable to the extreme — without being extreme, if you know what I mean. You can always grab a bite on the run. I’d skip Cahal Pech that evening and head straight to dinner. The Big X in the morning will be plenty of eye-popping Maya for any first-time visitor.

Now, if you only have one day, you can use the early morning to visit the Maya site Altun Ha, just 31 miles north of Belize City, then zip over to the zoo (or cave tubing) after lunch.

Here’s one last tip, and it is important so listen up!

Before you go anywhere, open up the Belize Tourism Board’s cruise ship app. It tells you how many ships and how many passengers are in port on the day you want to visit the mainland. There is nothing worse than standing in line behind 400 daytrippers from the SS Fantasy — for anything. You can beat them to your preferred attractions, with a little planning. But sometimes it is just better to pick another day, when the port is empty.

Bonus pictures

Thank you for playing along. You have been a wonderful audience. Now, at no additional charge, I will present some of the many pictures I could not fit into the blog but can’t bear to let go …

Let’s start with a few more from the Belize Zoo. These will be followed by a couple more from Cahal Pech and some from Xunantunich. No captions will be included for your visceral enjoying. Just the pictures, ma’am.


OK! Love the animals! Now here are a couple more from Cahal Pech:


And finally, a few more from Xunantunich:




3 thoughts on “Template for the whirlwind two-day tour of mainland Belize

    emilys72016 said:
    March 10, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    Wonderful tour! I loved revisiting some of our favorite spots in Belize through your photos and prose. We never made it to the zoo or Xunantunich, much to my chagrin, but we did love Cahal Pech (also did the hike up the road and saw our first Blue-Crowned Mot Mot there). We also enjoyed Ko-Ox Han Nah and Pop’s during a few days’ stay in San Ignacio. Great memories.

    I’m curious about the odd-looking antlers on the deer in your photo from the zoo. Do you know why they are so strange in appearance?


      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      March 10, 2018 at 8:11 pm

      Great question. Some deer had antlers that looked like melted down candlesticks. Others had traditional antlers. I’ve been trying to find something written about these unusual antlers but no luck so far.


        emilys72016 said:
        March 11, 2018 at 5:13 am

        Thanks, Bob. So strange!


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