I daydream often, usually waiting in the carpool line or during a quiet moment at the office. My mind wanders over all the places we traveled last year, and I’m always surprised where it lands. Sometimes it’s to our friends in Kenya or India, but most of the time I remember the warmth of the sun and the salty oceans in Australia and Thailand. I’ve never considered myself a beach bum, preferring lots of activity to lying on the sand or by the pool. When we were together snorkeling, diving or boating through choppy seas, I enjoyed those days the most.
Since spring break isn’t the best time to take a 22-hour flight, we were pretty excited to investigate a closer option. We hadn’t yet explored Central America, and the little country of Belize, with its mysterious jungles and beautiful barrier reef, caught our eye. In only three hours, we could explore under the sea, trek through caves and zip line through the palm trees.
After an easy, direct flight from Atlanta, we rented a car from Belize City and drove inland about 90 minutes to the Cayo district. We arrived at the Belize Jungle Dome, aptly named, and met our host family, Andy and Simone Hunt and their boys Aidan, 11, and Lucas, 14. Fleeing the London city life more than 15 years before (she was a 90’s MTV veejay, he a UEFA footballer), they adventurously bought this small hotel alongside the Belize river and chose a simpler life of homeschooling their boys in the remote countryside. It’s the perfect blend of rustic treehouse living with a pool, delicious homemade meals and toucans right outside your window.
They arranged fantastic excursions for us, our favorite being the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) temple caves. I’ve never experienced anything quite so intense! We hiked through the jungle for 30 minutes, swimming and wading through the river multiple times. Once we reached the mouth of the mountain cave, we jumped into a refreshing, blue pool of water 15-feet deep and swam straight into darkness. From there, we climbed rocks, swam through dark, narrow openings that I felt sure Mitch would get stuck in, and finally reached the back of the cave where our guide revealed pottery remains and skeletons that suggested religious rituals dating back to 700 AD. It was a full day of intense physical activity and interesting history…an amazing opener to our Belize experience. Sadly, no cameras are allowed in order to preserve the area, but here are a few stock photos that give you a taste.
The next day we had a much tamer morning, zip lining through the treetops and tubing through quieter caves at a more relaxed pace. Our afternoons and evenings were spent relaxing at the Jungle Dome, where Luke joined the other boys jumping off overhanging trees into the rushing river below. This place is truly a paradise for adventurous and playful kids, and I watched along the riverbank relaxing with a coconut cocktail in hand.
The second half of our week was spent on Ambergris Caye, one of the islands off the coast within view of the breaking waves of the world’s second largest barrier reef. We opted for the local passenger ferry ride from the mainland and stayed at another rustic hotel with a beautiful oceanfront view, Caribbean Villas. The highlight of the accommodations was the 20-foot slide straight into the ocean known as El Diablo.
Each morning we were picked up off our pier and whisked off to Chuck and Robbie’s dive shop for snorkeling and diving expeditions. My favorite spot was Mexico Rocks, but we all loved Coral Gardens and swimming with the sharks and rays at Shark Ray Alley. Mitch was gone an entire day to dive the famous Blue Hole, a 350-foot sinkhole in the middle of the ocean explored by Jacques Cousteau, filled with stalactites and bragging rights.
The main town of San Pedro on Ambergris is a bit gritty but gave us the local vibe we are always seeking, preferring to find the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street food instead of being enclosed behind resort walls. We loved the $.50 tacos and burritos at Neri’s, the fresh ceviche at Wild Mango’s and the banh mi sandwiches and burgers at Two Tree Banh Mi. We also had a beautiful dinner outside over the water on our last night at Banyan Bay’s Pier 366.
Luke gained celebrity status around the island after being asked to participate in the locally-renowned “chicken drop” at Caliente beachside bar. On Thursday nights, bets are placed on a Bingo-like patio floor where a local bird is placed and cheered on until he poops on one of the numbers as the DJ spins thumping tunes. Luke was asked to be the chicken assistant who firmly holds the birds and (gently) spins them around before placing them on the board. He worked the crowd with his antics and wild grin as he clutched the chickens, three of them in total, before watching them work. PETA would’ve had a fit and I half-wondered if DEFACS might show up and deem us irresponsible parents, but in the end it was all in good, clean fun and Luke was recognized around town the rest of the week as “chicken drop boy!”
We were all relaxed and in good spirits when we boarded the ferry and headed back to the mainland for our flight home. To find another place that is full of adventure and raw beauty without a sterilized tourist whitewash, just three hours away, was good for my soul. We don’t have to fly halfway around the world for an authentic experience, and we will be back soon to Belize.