Like the Caracol Mayan ruins, Belize is a gem hidden in the jungle waiting to be discovered. For a tiny country, it really packs a punch.
A little slither between the Central American jungle and the Caribbean Sea, Belize can be an adventure holiday, a beach retreat, a culture trip – or all of the above. We visited from Colombia with it’s enormous, crammed cities, and Belize was a breath of fresh air, green, open and untouched. The difference was especially stark as we’d come from New Year in Cartagena, couldn’t have been more different!
It’s an English speaking country as it was part of the British empire until 1981, which makes life easier, though they do still drive on the wrong side of the road. They also keep things simple by fixing the exchange rate at $1 US dollar to $2 Belizean dollars so no fiddly conversions to be done, which I appreciate.
Even the area right outside the main international airport at Belize City felt unspoilt and low key as we drove the main road west to the Cayo district, through the beautiful countryside to the town of San Ignacio and its twin on the other side of the Macal River, Santa Elena. Both towns are colourful and buzzing, it’s easy to get a feel for life here. This is your jumping off point for activities like white water rafting and caving and foodie treats such as coffee and chocolate tours. The roads are not all paved so be prepared for a bumpy ride as you turn off the main roads for your accommodation or activities outside of town.
Black Rock Lodge
Worth every bump in the road was our first location, the amazing Black Rock Lodge, an eco lodge in a spectacular setting deep in the dense rainforest of the Mayan Mountains, on the bank of the Macal River. TC loves to be in the middle of nowhere and at one with nature. He loves the peace, scenery and opportunities for wildlife spotting – he turns into a twitcher on hols, who knew. Black Rock Lodge was his idea of heaven. He was up at 5am listening for bird calls and trying to spot the local toucans – there are three kinds, don’t you know. The lodge has a huge pedigree in birdwatching as the owner is a big fan and you can join an early morning walk with the knowledgeable guides.
With just 20 cabins ranged over the bank of the river with plenty of room around them, its possible to feel like you are the only people in the place. Each has a balcony with a couple of hammocks so you can hang out outdoors, literally, taking in all the sights and sounds. We had a river front cabin at the furthest reach from the communal areas which was perfect – really well appointed and comfy inside and in the thick of the rainforest action outside. We were also just above the natural pool formed by the rocks in the river, with a little pontoon, perfect for a refreshing swimming.
Being in the middle of the jungle means you can’t pop out at the drop of a hat for a snack so dining all happens in the main palapa, a large open building which serves as the hub for all activity. With a viewing platform over the valley this is where everyone gathers to soak up the view and to bird watch. This is also the only wifi spot in the resort so everyone huddles for a check in at some point during the day. I loved the freedom of not being in contact with the outside world for great swathes of time. We meet our fellow guests for breakfast bright and early, everyone discussing where they are off to for the day. If you’re close to home on a local hike or on the river, you can have lunch here too, or take a picnic out for your day trip.
Evening meals are a real communal affair set at long tables where you sit with a different group of your fellow guests every night. So we’d meet at the bar for a cocktail and discuss our day, find out what everyone thinks of the local sights, who survived the rapid run without taking a dip. The food is really lovely, four courses and plenty of it, all sourced locally or grown in the on-site allotment (there are chickens and goats to visit too). We enjoyed a great variety over our stay, from giant breakfast burritos to exotic fruit. After dinner we’d hang out with our new friends and share our experiences and a nice bottle of wine. It’s a really good time.
There are so many tours to take from the lodge. We loved a half day on the river in a kayak with a brilliant guide to spot the wildlife and name the myriad of bird species. You won’t believe the noise the howler monkeys make, its positively prehistoric and so loud. They hang out on the river bank and can be relied upon to wake you up at least once a night with a sustained burst of howling. Some days we just hung out and enjoyed the peace, the local hikes and the gorgeous pool, whilst everyone else was out.
Black Rock Lodge is serious about the eco bit too. They are self sufficient in terms of natural springs providing the water and their own solar and hydro power. They grow their own produce on site organically and work hard to reduce their waste. They also employ lots of locals on site. You do your little bit by leaving your phone and your hairdryer in your suitcase – its actually very freeing just to put your hair up and not worry about appearances, everyone is in the same bad hair boat anyway – and limiting your impact on this serene place.
This was absolutely our favourite thing. We discussed the Mayan ruin options with the guides and fellow guests and decided on Caracol rather than Tikal, just over the boarder in Guatemala. Although Tikal is bigger, it’s also more well known and more crowded so we opted for Caracol and it was absolutely the right decision (if you are only doing one Mayan site), it was splendid. Its quite a drive and the roads aren’t great which is enough to put some people off, but we really didn’t mind it and the peace and space when we arrived made it all worth while. During our whole morning we shared the site with about 20 other people.
The largest ruins in Belize, much of Caracol is still covered by jungle but when you climb up high and look over the skyline you get a real feel for the sheer scale of the city and it’s amazing to think it supported over 120,000 people. With a great local guide you learn how amazingly sophisticated the Mayans were. You can see the homes of the well off and the poorer servants, there’s even the ball courts celebrating victories over other settlements. The complex includes five plazas, an astronomic observatory and over 35,000 buildings which have been identified. You can climb up the massive pyramid capped by three temples which rises over 140 feet above the jungle floor and look out over Guatemala. It’s amazing to wander round this quiet site deep in the jungle and imagine what life was like here in 1200 BC. That’s well old.
It’s definitely worth having a guide to give you the lowdown and all the guides we came across at Black Rock Lodge were exceptional – friendly, knowledgeable and intent on you having a great experience of Belize. Our guide, Freddie, is something of a legend in these parts. He’s very warm and enthusiastic and does a great line in bird calls. He really bought Caracol to life for us. More to the point, at lunch time he produced an amazing picnic spread, gingham table cloth and all.
So, that’s part 1 of our Belize story, enjoying the jungle. It was an incredible adventure providing a real feel for how glorious this largely unknown county is. And don’t think you have to skimp on luxury because you are in the back of beyond. Black Rock Lodge certainly caters for your every need – as long as that doesn’t include wifi or a hair dryer. We loved the communal vibe which is great for meeting people from all over the world in a relaxed atmosphere (Brexit as a constant discussion topic notwithstanding). And then we could go back to our cabin and hang out in the incredible tranquility – howler monkeys permitting. The Lodge is really a symbol Belize – a real hidden gem.
Check out part 2 of our Belize adventure – the beach.