I was a relatively late visitor to Central America. Previously, I had spent most of my time traveling in Europe and the Middle East, yet Central America was always put on the wayside. This was mainly due to the fact that it was not easy or cheap to fly to from my home in the Middle East unless I had very long layovers, multiple layovers, and a large bankroll. Therefore, I often had to put this region on hold despite always hearing about it both positively and negatively.
However, in June 2015, I finally had the opportunity to visit Central America. During that time, I was back in the US and rather than kick around the US for several months with nothing to do, I decided this would be the perfect chance to check things out in Central America since it would be my only chance to get down there in a relatively easy manner. This was especially true in my case since the next opportunity would have been a year later.
I had never visited Central America before but people often raved about it. Therefore, I decided to head there and rack up another "travel first." Of course, I made sure to do some research about which country I wanted to visit first. I had heard a lot about Central America previously. A lot of it was positive, but a lot of it was also quite negative, especially regarding the level of crime. After a lot of research, I ultimately decided to play it somewhat safe and make Belize my first Central American country since it seemed to be a popular country to visit and seemed relatively easy to get around in. Plus, not only is Belize a Central American country, but it is also classified as a Caribbean country, so I would have visited my first Central American and Caribbean country.
The flight to Belize was easy enough. If I remember correctly, I believe I had a relatively short stopover in San Salvador. When I arrived in Belize, I was amazed at how and humid it was even though I really should not have been. It was June after all, and it is a country located right next to the Caribbean Sea.
Unlike many people who stayed at resorts near the coast, I did the complete opposite. Instead of heading off to a resort on the coast for some fun in the sun, I was picked up by the owner of the hotel which I was staying in, and we headed west into the interior of the country. For this trip, I decided to stay in San Ignacio, which is a relatively small town (about 18,000 people) less than 10 miles from the Guatemalan border.
I decided to stay in San Ignacio for several reasons. First, I had read a variety of things Belize City, and it seemed like most of the action was out of the city. Plus, from what I had read, Belize City seemed to have a somewhat dubious reputation regarding safety. Second, I was curious to see a place that seemed to be somewhat secluded and away from the major cities. Third, my main reason for staying in San Ignacio was that I had planned on visiting Tikal in Guatemala, and this was the easiest way to do it since San Ignacio was only a few miles from the Guatemalan border, and it would be an easy journey from the border to the archaeological site.
During my time in Belize, it was no longer tourist season, so the hotel/resort I stayed at was practically deserted. In fact, I was the only guest during the majority of my stay there. This wasn't so bad in itself since the hotel was really quiet, and I was able to sleep very well. Yet, it would have been nice to meet some other travelers, but that was not the case.
In retrospect, if I had to be honest, I didn't really plan things out as carefully for this trip as I usually would. I had booked this room at this hotel knowing it was slightly outside the city. From past experience, I knew that while staying in the city center had a lot perks, it also had a fair amount of negatives. In this case, I decided to stay outside of San Ignacio. However, this was a classic example of a place looking a lot closer on a map than it actually was. The hotel was indeed located outside of the town, but it turned out to be a couple miles outside. The only way to get into town was to get a cab, hitch a ride from a stranger, or walk. On my first day, I thought I would try to walk from the hotel to the town. It did not happen. I gave up after walking a quarter mile in extremely humid weather. Instead, I flagged down a car that was heading into town and hitched a ride instead.
Even though I was a little bit upset with myself for booking a hotel so far out of the town, I didn't let it bother me too much since I knew this was all part of the experience. Not everything can go perfectly, and my choice of accommodation was a case in point. Regardless of all that, I found San Ignacio to be a very quiet and relatively rustic town with few other tourists. In my opinion, there really wasn't that much to see in terms of museums, but it could have also been because I went during the low season, so maybe during the high season, it is significantly different with more things to do. Yet, I still enjoyed walking around and relaxing in a couple places that sold really good fruit smoothies.
Despite the setback with the hotel and seeming lack of activities in San Ignacio at this time of year, my main interest in San Ignacio was the fact that it is quite close to a number of Mayan ruins. During my time in Belize, I visited Cahal Pech, which is a beautiful complex of ruins that sit on a hill. These ruins were interesting in the fact that they are located right in the city, so it was possible to walk to Cahal Pech from the center of San Ignacio. However, it was definitely not an easy walk. In order to get Cahal Pech, it required walking uphill in very humid weather. Despite being drenched in sweat by the time I reached the site, I was rewarded when I got to the top and found the site completely empty and free of other tourists.
The other site I visited while in Belize was Xunantucinich, which is another Mayan archaeological site, very close to San Ignacio. In order to get here, I simply stood on the side of the road outside of my hotel, waited for a taxi, flagged one down, and asked the driver to take me to the site. I was quite surprised at the short distance the site was from my hotel. It could not have been more than a 20-30 minute drive.
The journey to Xunantucinich was quite interesting since in order to cross the Mopan River, the car drove onto a ferry, and a ferry worker used a handcrank to move the ferry from one side to the other. It was not hard to imagine how difficult that would be doing that all day in the heat and humidity.
After the car exited the ferry, it was only about a 5 minute drive to the site. Unlike Cahal Pech, which was essentially deserted, Xunantucinich had more visitors than Cahel Pech, but it certainly wasn't crowded. One of my favorite parts of that journey was climbing the main pyramid and getting a beautiful view of the lush vegetation that surrounded the entire area. It was hard to imagine that this place was once home to about 10,000 people.
My final archaeological stop was to Lamanai, which is located about 3.5 hours north of San Ignacio. I will forever remember the trip to Lamanai not so much for the archaeological ruins which were quite impressive but for the number of mosquitoes. It is hard to believe, but I did not actually bring mosquito repellent on that day. Needless to say, the mosquitoes were quite aggressive, and by the end of day, I easily had over 60 bites on both arms. This actually caused me some concern since I was worried I might come down with Malaria or worse, but luckily nothing happened.
Of course, while the archeological sites of Belize were beautiful and memorable, my absolute favorite part of the trip was taking a day trip into Guatemala with a tour to see the famed temples at Tikal. It was a very easy journey from San Ignacio to the Guatemalan border, and then it was a very easy trip to Tikal. I was especially happy since I not only got to see a famed archaeological site, but I also got to visit another country; however, there are still places I really want to see in Guatemala, but that will have to wait for another time.
If I had to be 100% honest, my first trip to Central America was a mixed bag. While I was very excited and thankful to be able to see another part of the world that I had never visited before, I think I could have done a bit more research on exactly what to do and planned things out better. Yet, I am still very satisfied with all the marvelous archaeological sites I saw.
I am not sure when it will happen, but if I ever have the chance to return to Belize, I will definitely spend more time on the coast since I really want to see the famous Great Blue Hole, which is a massive submarine sinkhole off the coast of Belize.
Ultimately, my first trip to Central America in 2015 was not my last trip, and I actually went back to explore more countries about 8 months later, but that can be saved for a later story.