Christmas 2016 was not exactly a happy time for me. I'm Jewish and I've never shared any Christmas traditions with my mom so I often feel alone and left out that time of year. Sitting at home and feeling particularly depressed, I vowed to go away for the holiday the following year. The exact destination wasn't particularly important though I hoped it might be somewhere new to me. My primary concern was to ensure that I'd be in a more positive frame of mind which I knew would be easy if I was busy indulging in my favorite passion of exploring... away from anyone who could hurt me.
In the summer of 2017, I became serious about committing to my goal and decided to start focusing on a specific destination. Since I only wanted to take 1 day off work (in addition to the 4 day weekend we already got), I limited my choices to regions within about 8 hours of travel time. I figured that it would be better to travel to a touristy area where activities would still be open on Christmas day. Ideally, I'd want to head somewhere warmer than the Northeastern US.
As I started doing research, I was not particularly surprised to discover that airfares were super expensive during Christmas week. So I shifted my strategy to see if I might have better results using airline points instead of cash. And that's how I ended up booking a trip to Belize, which was a destination which had first caught my eye back in December 2016. I usually prefer to fly non-stop but unfortunately there was only 1 such flight from this area, and it was on an airline where I don't have points and a day that wouldn't work for me. So I was stuck having a layover in Miami which made me a little nervous, especially when the flight times changed such that my stops on both ends were a half hour shorter than they'd originally been. But I figured that whatever was meant to be would happen, and so I tried to be pretty chill about the not-so-generous connection times.
Finding a hotel proved to be trickier than I'd expected. I spent a lot of time just trying to determine which region to visit. Ideally, one might split a stay in Belize between a beach area and a jungle area. But with just 4 nights, switching between hotels would waste too much valuable time. Another issue I encountered was that many hotels required minimum stays of 5 nights of more during the peak holiday season. Eventually, I found a cute and convenient hotel in Ambergis Caye which seemed appealing. After a friend who'd stayed there reassured me, I splurged a bit and booked a beachfront room. Being able to open my eyes to the sight of the Caribbean each morning would be amazing!
When people asked me what I'd be doing on my trip, I answered truthfully that I would be thrilled just to enjoy the 80 degree temperatures. I didn't want to make too many concrete plans, though I knew I'd end up snorkeling since Belize boasts world class snorkeling sites that some say are 2nd only to the Great Barrier Reef.
I booked just one activity in advance- a tour to explore the Mayan ruins inside Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (known as the ATM cave for short). When researching Belize, I saw that many people said that this cave was one of the best places they'd visited in the world. So that sounds awesome, right? Except that people have also cautioned that the cave is best skipped for anyone who has claustrophobia or a fear of heights- and I have both. I scoured the internet for every review I could find and the overwhelming consensus of those who actually suffer from the aforementioned phobias was that they found the visit rewarding and that they were very glad they gave it a chance. Even so, I found myself feeling slightly terrified at the prospect of visiting a cave that others have described as an Indiana Jones type adventure which requires being in good physical shape; I am neither a huge thrill seeker nor a model of fitness.
I booked the cave tour for Christmas Day because I figured many other places would be closed so that would be the perfect day to be occupied with a full day excursion. In addition to my apprehension about the cave itself, I had an additional fear that the tour company would cancel if not enough other people booked since they might not run the tour for just one person. A similar last minute cancellation happened to me in Australia and, given my past bad luck with Christmas, it would really suck if history repeated itself. But I tried to remain optimistic with my plan to spend Christmas Day stretching my comfort zone by embarking on a unique cave adventure through the Mayan underworld... as I remained excited about all the possibilities open to me while spending a long Christmas weekend in Belize.
As my trip was fast approaching, I couldn't help talking about it throughout the work day. I truthfully described my plans as being a defensive trip; I intended to protect myself against the possibility of another depressing Christmas by changing my narrative. I also mentioned that the previous evening I'd had an epiphany of a perfect name for my upcoming journey: "Belize Navidad."
Finally it was time to go home- and on the way, I stopped to get a new USB charger cord for my phone since my old one had been getting quite ratty. I was obviously pleased when I was able to buy a purple cable! I can never have too much purple in my life.
I always get most of my packing done on the weekend before I travel, which lets me devote a decent block of time to the process and also gives me time to make some tweaks during the upcoming days. Usually, I just add and/or remove a few things. But less than 2 hours before leaving home for my Belize trip, I completely changed my mind about my choice of luggage. Since I wasn't going to be able to avoid checking a bag because of my sunscreen (which is too large to be allowed in a carry on), I decided that it made no sense to try to squeeze my stuff into a tiny duffle. So I dumped everything out and transferred it all into my slightly larger wheeled suitcase. I also moved some items from my carry-on backpack which made it lighter. It may not have been optimal timing to completely reorganize my luggage right before leaving for the airport, but score one for great last minute decisions!
Since I was spending the night at an airport hotel because I had a super early flight the next day, I didn't need to leave at any specific time. After my friend B came over, we spent a little time relaxing and watching "Wheel of Fortune" together before I finally hugged the Furricanes one more time and headed out.
I always enjoy spending time with B when he is kind enough to drive me to the airport. However, I felt really bad for him because he had a horrible cough. I also hoped he wouldn't get me sick; I'd had enough of being ill during my travels during my Labor Day trip to Disney World! Fortunately, I suffered no adverse health effects this time.
When B dropped me off at the airport hotel, it really started to sink in that my adventure was starting to unfold. I checked in quickly and headed up to my room- only to be greeted by the unsettling sound of a toilet that had probably been running for quite some time... which really wasn't the best omen. I was ready to call down to the front desk to ask for a different room, but first I tried jiggling the toilet handle a few times which mercifully stopped the toilet from running. I didn't want any unpleasant surprises later so I flushed the toilet to see if it would be ok. To my relief, it was. And then I flushed it at least 2-3 more times to be extra super duper positive that the thing would not malfunction and cause me problems later.
Confident that I wouldn't need to switch rooms, I placed an order for Fresh Bites, which is the relatively new no frills room service option that is offered by Marriott. My food came super quickly which was great. However, I was disappointed that the delivery person didn't ask me to sign for it which meant that I was unable to leave a tip since I didn't want to use up my small bills. My grilled cheese and fries was a wonderful light dinner; I didn't really need anything fancy, and didn't mind that it was delivered in box with plasticware within a brown bag.
Sitting in the quiet hotel room by myself, I was overwhelmed by a sense of calm. While I was excited for the adventure that would begin the next morning, it still didn't feel totally real yet to me that I was about to embark on travels to a new country. I went to sleep early, but before I called it a night, I posted a teaser on my Facebook with a photo of my hotel room. For once, I hadn't made any public comments about my travel destination and I was intending to surprise anyone who cared to follow along.
By far, the greatest benefit of staying at the airport Marriott is the ability to roll out of bed, take an elevator downstairs, and arrive at your gate about 30 minutes later without ever having to walk outside. No need to pad your departure to account for traffic- just wake up, stumble downstairs, and be thankful that you have TSA pre-check so you can whisk through security! You don't even have to be fully awake, as long as you are able to get moving, which is beneficial when your flight is at 6:30am. I actually ended up waking up at a ridiculous 3:40am before my alarm, but I was nonetheless grateful to be able to make it to the gate so quickly and easily.
Obviously, being somewhat awake at 5am required caffeine. My eyesight may be crap but apparently my vision is laser sharp when Diet Dr Pepper within view- I was pretty damn pleased with myself when I spotted my favorite beverage at one of the airport kiosks while walking through the terminal. Sometimes, it's the simple joys in life that are most wonderful.
The seating at my flight gate seemed like some kind of high tech experiment. Instead of the traditional rows of seats, there were clusters of chairs around tables with tablets you could use, probably for a fee. I was too tired to pay attention beyond simply enjoying the fact that there was a convenient outlet where I could charge my phone.
As I waited, I noticed that the woman who had been seated across from me got up and left her bag unattended. I hoped that we wouldn't all die as a result of some nefarious object hidden inside. Needless to say, I was greatly relieved when she returned carrying some food... and when she asked me to watch her bag the next time she got up to leave.
All I wanted to do was to get on the plane so I could slink away to sleep in my seat. My main source of amusement as I waited was the auction for volunteers to board a later flight. Because of my connection, I didn't want to get in on the game- and certainly, the initial offer of a $300 voucher was hardly tempting. But the price increased to $600... then $700... and $900. That's a pretty sweet deal! Even after the boarding process commenced and I was seated on the aircraft, I heard an announcement over the P.A. system that the offer was being increased to an amazing $1100. Oh, if Miami had been my final destination, I would have been all over that voucher! Eventually, the airline got enough people to cooperate... I know this because one woman made her way up the aisle saying that she was a volunteer, only to be sassed by a flight attendant that she was too late.
The plane ride to Miami was simply a blur of fatigue. I didn't actually get much sleep, though I managed to listen to "Come From Away" and Pia Douwes. Since I only had 1 hour to connect to my flight to Belize City, I was glad that we took off on time. En route, I checked the AA website and was thrilled to see that my flight was on track to arrive a bit early.
We were on the ground at 9:03am, about a half hour early. However, the flight attendants requested that everyone stay seated so that paramedics could attend to a passenger. Fortunately, everyone cooperated and we were able to deplane somewhere around the originally scheduled time. I was reminded to be grateful for my health; I'd much rather have to deal with a pesky time crunch than whatever ailed the other passenger.
I've connected through Miami airport once before but I'd had the luxury of 3 hours between flights so I didn't realize how immense the airport was. I took advantage of the skytrain to travel between my gates, but it has few stops so a lot of walking was still involved. I arrived at my next gate just a few minutes before they started boarding.
As soon as I boarded my 2nd flight, I slowly opened my bottle of Diet Dr Pepper (I can't recall if this was the same bottle I'd purchased at 5am; I can't imagine it lasted that long but I have no notes that I bought anything in Miami) And suddenly my seat was the setting for an unwanted episode of "Fizzy Soda Gone Wild" Yikes! I got the attention of the flight attendant but she said she'd be back when it was less busy; the aisle was still crowded with a steady stream of boarding passengers. So I just sat and stared uncomfortably at the puddle lurking on the floor beneath the middle seat, helpless to do anything beyond proactively warning the people who eventually came to sit in my row. Fortunately, the vast majority of the soda ended up on the floor between seats; only a few drops ended up on me. Eventually- after what seemed to be an eternity but was probably only 15 minutes- the flight attendant returned with some napkins. By then, most of the liquid had been absorbed by the carpet. Oh well.
My 2nd plane ride was a bit shorter than the first. I closed my eyes, but was not really able to get much sleep. I followed along the flight path on the seatback video and gazed out curiously when I saw that we were passing over Cuba; I'd love to visit there someday. After listening to more "Come From Away" (which I'm sure shocks no one), it was time for the plane to start its descent into Belize. I excitedly tried to see if I could spot my island destination amid the turquoise waters off the coast of the mainland. Then the sea disappeared as my eyes greedily took in the sight of greenery and waterways below. Belize. A new country for me to explore. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself to live the moments.
Customs at Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport were pleasantly quick. I was shocked when my bag was one of the first on the carousel; I guess that must have been a perk of my short connection time. Typically, my next stop would be to change money but one of the awesome things about Belize is that vendors accept US dollars on a fixed exchange rate of 1:2 with Belizean dollars. (another convenient thing about traveling there is that English is the official language!)
After collecting my bag, I had to transfer to Tropic Air for a quick flight to San Pedro town on the island of Ambergris Caye. And when I say "quick", you might think I mean an hour long flight. Nope- try 15 minutes. To save myself some hassle, I'd agreed to let my hotel set up the round trip flight for me.
Uncharacteristically, I hadn't done much research about the transfer process at BZE airport, but the process could not have been simpler. There was a clear sign for transferring flights and beyond that I could easily spot the check in desk for Tropic Air. Although I'd been booked on the 1:30pm flight, they moved me to the 12:30 flight- woo hoo, I'd be arriving an hour early! Someone took my checked bag, and then I zipped through security into the small boarding lounge. I only had a short wait until my final flight of the journey.
When it was time to board, I walked out the doorway toward a super tiny jet. I expected that the airline would want to gate check my large backpack but that didn't happen. Forget about stowing bags in an overhead compartment- the plane was too small to provide that option. Instead, I had to hold it on my lap; there was barely enough room between me and the seat in front for my bag. Oh well, for 15 minutes, it would be fine. I took out my DSLR so in hopes of snapping some quality photos during the flight; I was infinitely jealous when a passenger was directed to sit up front next to the pilot in what seemed designed to be a copilot's seat- super cool!
Before we could take off we had to wait for some incoming flights to land. During this time, the pilot slid open part of his window and stuck his hand outside. It wasn't quite as funny as the barefoot pilot on the Maldives sea plane, but I found it amusing nonetheless.
The flight itself was as picturesque as I'd hoped; since we weren't flying at a really high altitude, I could clearly see the water and greenery below. Pretty soon, the plane descended on a tiny runway in the middle of an island. I'd arrived at my destination, approximately 8.5 hours after vacating my hotel room.
Baggage claim was decidedly informal. Once the bags were transported the short distance to the terminal, you'd just hand someone your claim ticket and they'd exchange it for your bag. Super easy. I wasn't sure if someone from the hotel was supposed to meet me but I knew it was only a short walk away. (not even a quarter mile) So, when I didn't see anyone waiting, I pulled up the maps app on my phone to get my bearings and set off.
The first thing I noticed upon leaving the tiny airport was the large "Welcome to San Pedro" electronic billboard directly outside- it oddly looked like someone's idea of Egyptian art. I pulled my suitcase along the cobblestone road which was bustling with golf carts traveling in both directions; it's one thing to read that golf carts are the primary mode of transport on the island, but it was quite another to find myself amid tons of these tiny vehicles on an unfamiliar roadway. The little vehicles zipping by added both a vibrant energy and a small town feel; San Pedro immediately felt unique compared to anywhere I'd been before. I basked in the warmth of the sunny day, a welcome contrast to my home town. After passing by the ice cream place I wanted to try later, I spotted what appeared to be an opening to an oasis. This was my hotel.
Indeed, I was lodging in a resort full of thatched roof cabanas that blissfully felt like of a slice of paradise. The internal pathways were all covered in sand, and were lush with foliage and palm trees. My room first floor room offered a jaw droppingly beautiful view of the Caribbean which was only steps away. The resort's vicinity to the town of San Pedro- literally just outside the gates- made its location ideal because it allowed me to easily alternate between lazily relaxing on a resort and exercising my adventurous spirit by exploring the town. I couldn't be happier with my choice of accommodations.
I was amused that the doors to my room were decorated with wreaths saying "Belize Navidad", and also disappointed that I hadn't been nearly as clever or original as I'd thought when I'd come up with that phrase myself. I took my time unpacking and enjoying the cute room and soaking up its amazing view. After getting up ridiculously early and spending so many hours in transit, I was glad to be able to simply relax without needing to worry about where I needed to go next. I posted a selfie on Facebook to see if anyone could guess my location. I have enough travel savvy friends that my destination was discovered pretty quickly.
Sometime around 2:15, I succumbed to the temptation of ice cream and retraced my steps to the little yellow building I'd passed earlier. When I saw the list of flavors on the blackboard, I was overwhelmed; how was I ever to choose? The friendly server offered to let me taste some flavors. My first request was for something called "Cookie Monster". When I saw that the ice cream itself was a blue color that evoked the color of the Sesame Street character, I knew that this was the flavor for me. It was so delicious and refreshing.
After my tasty treat, I decided to further explore the colorful little town of San Pedro. I love wandering around new places and discovering all the little touches that make them special. In this case, I was struck most by the kaleidoscope of colorful signs and facades. I started off by navigating the crowded streets that were teeming with golf carts, but then moved to walking on the beach which was more peaceful. Most establishments opened to both the road and the beach, while pedestrians tended more to walk along the latter. Walking along the beach also allowed me to see a variety of piers extending into the turquoise blue waters.
In my research, I'd read that the "Central Park" was supposed to be decorated for the holiday so I definitely wanted to include it in my initial explorations. I'd expected it to be a traditional park- i.e. an area covered with grass... but it was more like a square with a playground just off the beach. A tall Christmas tree stood out from amid the clusters of palm trees lining the perimeter; it was quite a unique sight juxtaposed against the Caribbean beach. The sparkly elves and reindeer were adorable, but the obvious highlight was the large Santa dressed in a swimsuit and flippers with "You'd better Belize it!" emblazoned across his bare stomach.
Nearby was one of the stores I'd wanted to check out, Belizean Arts. After being greeted by a pair of friendly people at the front of the shop, I was in awe of all the beautiful handmade objects for sale. A pair of turquoise earrings quickly caught my eye and I ended up buying them as well as another cool looking handmade pair. I vowed to return during my stay.
While walking back along the sandy beach, I couldn't resist stopping at the Belize Chocolate Company. I was hoping to get a cookie for later but they were sold out, so instead I ordered a milkshake. Sipping on my amazingly decadent milkshake while sitting on the deck and gazing out at the Caribbean was pure bliss!
Back at the hotel, I wandered around a bit to get a better feel for the layout of my home for the next few days. While walking on the pier that extended into the sea, I spotted the tour desk and booked a snorkel excursion for the following morning.
I was thirsty so I set back out in search of something to drink. I figured that I'd find more extensive and cheaper options in town than in the hotel. After poking around a bit, I found a convenience/grocery store right by the airport, and I bought a few beverages to keep in the refrigerator in my hotel room.
I sat out on my veranda as the sun began to set. Since I was facing toward the southeast, the sun itself was not visible but I enjoyed feeling the gentle breeze as I watched the colors change in the sky. The weather was perfect- warm enough to go swimming but not so sweltering that you'd be miserable walking around.
After darkness enveloped the island, I decided it was time to get some dinner. Too tired to do more exploration, I decided to just go to my hotel's restaurant. Located just off the beach, it was an ideal open air setting with a thatched roof. The servers were all friendly, which was a bonus. Having glanced at the menu in a booklet in my room, I'd been set to order spaghetti. But when I examined it further in the restaurant, I couldn't resist trying the garlic pesto fish. It was quite tasty!
When I returned to my hotel room at around 8:30pm, I settled in a bit and then I just collapsed! It had been a really long day of travel and exploration. I was full of joy to be engrossed in a fabulous adventure. Belize was wonderful so far and I couldn't have been more pleased with my choice of destination.
My alarm was set for 6:30am but I woke up a little earlier. It was already light outside so I ventured out on my deck with my camera to gaze out at the nascent dawn. It was a very relaxing way to start my first morning in Belize.
After putting on my bathing suit under a rashguard and long swimming pants, I headed back to the hotel restaurant for some breakfast. I ordered my typical Namibia breakfast of eggs and bacon, and it came with a side of Johnny Cakes which is a heavy biscuit-like bread that was quite tasty. As I was sitting and goofing off online on my phone while waiting for my food, a waiter came over and sweetly offered take my picture with the phone. It's nice to have some photos of myself that aren't selfies.
After breakfast, I headed to the pier for my snorkel trip. It was absolute mayhem! There were so many people checking in for both snorkeling and diving that it was overwhelming for someone like me who doesn't like crowds. Especially since I had to go back to exchange my fins twice before I got ones that didn't feel like they would slip off; the ones that worked were actually child sized. The workers had to break out some brand new snorkel masks, and I got one of those which had to be burned so it wouldn't fog up. There was a lot of activity focused on that section of the pier as everyone tried on their equipment to make sure it was right. I have no idea how much the holiday week factored into the crowds; it seems like the resort could be crowded during other times as well.
It was a relief to finally get in the boat and start riding off through the peaceful waters, leaving the hectic dock behind us. As we made our way to the reef, I started chatting with the woman next to me and discovered that she was celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary along with children and grandchildren. When she found out that I was alone, she decided to "adopt me" as part of her family. We had to split up into 3 groups of 8 and my heart sunk since I'd head a party of 8 check in and figured that I'd need to swim with some other people. But it turns out they were actually a party of 7- the party of 8 was another group. What perfect luck!
After I climbed down into the water at our first snorkel site, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, I was relieved not to have a panic attack like I'd experienced in Australia. I'd been fine in Panama, but I still don't take it for granted that I won't have any issues adjusting to breathing through a snorkel tube. I swam with a life jacket wrapped around my waist for added security- this wasn't quite as nice as it had been to use pool noodles as flotation devices in Australia, but it worked.
Our stop at Hol Chan involved a lot of swimming and I enjoyed the serenity of gazing at the fish and coral beneath me, taking many photos with my waterproof camera. Our guide pointed out an octopus hidden within the coral, and there were tons of fish swimming by. One of the aquatic highlights was seeing a Ray just before getting back on the boat. Every time I go snorkeling, it feels like I am visiting a fantastical and peaceful word beneath the surface of the water. I'd rather be able to set off a bit on my own, because having to keep around 8 other people (including the guide) obviously made the experience less tranquil.
I had an amazing time, except for when I thought I was going to die. OK, so maybe I'm being melodramatic... but my breathing tube was getting clogged with salt water which made me lag behind. In my panicked efforts to catch up, I was dismayed when my leg brushed some coral when I got caught in some very shallow water. Eventually I caught up, and the guide cleared out my tube. After I no longer felt like I was going to die, the remainder of the excursion was more enjoyable.
Getting off the boat for our second stop, Shark Ray Alley, which was a few minutes away, one of the women had apologized to me for her daughter cutting in front of me. I just shrugged and said with a smile that we're family. They were really awesome to include me, and I enjoyed spending time with them.
We stayed much closer to the ship this time, so it was a more mellow experience. The crew was tossing food out to attract sharks and sting rays. I'm not sure if I saw many of the former because it was hard to see with everyone crowded around the small boat- but there were tons of rays. I just enjoyed being out in the water on such a beautiful day, and I ended up being the last to return onto the boat.
When we got back to the pier, I said my goodbyes to the kind family who had included me as one of their own for a few hours and I went back to my room to relax and drink one of the Coke Zeros I'd purchased the previous day. I'd been instructed to call the tour company to confirm my Christmas day cave tour after my arrival in Belize so I picked up the phone and dialed the first number in the email they'd sent. After receiving an odd message about insufficient funds, I assumed that my hotel phone wasn't set up for making outbound calls. So I went to the front desk and asked the clerk for assistance. I was disheartened when the same message played when using their phone. But there were some other numbers listed so we went down the list and tried the 2nd number, only to get a voicemail. 0 for 2- I was getting rather concerned. After calling the 3rd number, I was relieved to finally be able to speak to a human. However, he sounded really unprofessional and gruff and I found it hard to hear him. He couldn't even answer when I asked for details on the lunch that was included- good thing I was merely curious and I don't have any allergies. Contradicting my previous instructions to meet in the hotel lobby, he told me that I'd be picked up at the pier. As I hung up the phone, I had a sinking feeling; my fears about the tour getting cancelled were not allayed.
But there was nothing more I could do, so I returned to the little ice cream place to get some lunch. Ice cream totally qualifies as a meal on vacation, so don't judge! Again unsure of what to choose, the person behind the counter pointed out that they had a new flavor from the previous day, Dark Temptation, so I gave it a try. It was a fabulously rich chocolate ice cream!
I'd seen a sign at the airport advertising flights over the iconic Blue Hole which is an gorgeous circular dive area about 45 miles from Ambergris Caye. I've read that it is more beautiful from the air than from a boat, though it offers awesome opportunities for scuba divers. It would have been the perfect addition to my itinerary. But when I inquired, I was disappointed to find out that Tropic Air didn't offer flights on any days that would work for me. (I'd checked out several options online with the same results) Oh well.
I once again wandered through San Pedro town, taking photos with my DSLR which had a polarizing lens attached this time. It was so beautiful, and I was particularly enjoying the lovely weather. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped again at the Belize Chocolate Company. I was pleased that they had chocolate chip cookies available so of course I snagged one. I also bought chocolates to bring home as presents... as well as a couple for me. The first time I tried to get back to the hotel room, I noticed the maid was working on my room so I lingered for awhile longer.
When I finally returned to my room, I took a quick nap. Afterwards, I went online to check the hours of the pastry shop where I was planning to grab breakfast the next morning only to discover that they were closed on Sundays. Since I'd already seen that some stores would be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Christmas, I high tailed it over there, not expecting much to be available within an hour of their 6 pm closing. Alas, all of their highly touted croissants were gone- but all was not lost since they were selling cute boxes of macarons! Plus, I was relieved to see a sign posted that they'd be open Tuesday which meant I could pop over in the morning before I flew home.
Not nearly as tired as the previous day, I was definitely up for eating somewhere in town. A couple people had recommended Blue Water Grill to me, so I walked a bit up the beach to the restaurant. Arriving a little before 6pm, I asked if I could eat there despite not having a reservation. There was plenty of availability and I was ushered to a table at the edge of the restaurant with an amazing view overlooking the short beach. This was another open air restaurant, like at my hotel, but this one had more of a direct view of the beach.
I splurged on a cocktail that was called "Monkey Pod Mai Thai" which was described as "Caribbean white rum, lime juice, pineapple juice, orange curacao and cashew nut orgeat topped with Gosling's dark rum and honey passion fruit foam." It felt like the perfect beverage to be sipping on an island paradise while gazing out at the sea and watching the sky grow dark. I zealously gobbled up the bread which was served before my meal along with a balsamic/oil mixture for dipping.
For my main course I'd ordered the Lobster pizza which was described as "Wood oven roasted lobster tail, smoked pork belly, garlic wilted spinach, caramelized onions & a fontina-mozzarella blend." One of my biggest regrets of the trip was that I could only eat half of the large pizza; normally, I'd take the leftovers home but there was no microwave in my room plus I wasn't planning to go straight back to the hotel. I hated wasting such a delectable meal.
When I got the check, I decided that it might be nice to leave some extra generous tips to get in the holiday spirit whenever I received good service. Nothing too crazy, mind you- but 2 or 3 times more than I'd normally leave. I wrote "Merry Christmas!" next to the tip amount on the credit card slip. This was a habit I'd continue throughout the remainder of my trip. I really hope the tips were appreciated in the spirit with which I offered them. I encountered so many delightful people during my visit, and this was one way I figured I could show my appreciation. Both the hostess and the waitress had been especially attentive and friendly.
Whenever I travel, I try to research special events that may be occurring in my destination. In doing so, I stumbled upon a notice for a Jankunu Festival that was scheduled for 7pm at the Central Park. Described as "a satirical dance where individuals dress like English colonial slave masters with a pink face mask and dance off-beat to a fast tempo drum beat", the event definitely sounded intriguing.
When I arrived at the park, a nice couple wearing Santa hats asked me to take their photo in front of the Christmas tree. When I asked them to reciprocate, they offered to let me borrow one of their hats, and I felt like it would have been rude to say no. Santa hat pictures are typically not my thing, but sometimes it's nice to do something different. I conversed with them a short bit and found out that they were from Dallas which made me sing some "Come From Away" to myself.
I have to confess that I had been a little nervous about going to the festival. In addition to being cautious about going out places at night in strange cities, I wasn't sure if the event was meant to attract tourists. Indeed, glancing around, I could easily tell that I was vastly outnumbered by locals. But that was actually a plus because I felt privileged to be attending an authentic cultural experience rather than the kind of often stereotypical performance that is clearly manufactured for tourists; I don't really enjoy the latter very much and try to avoid them.
The show started about an hour late which I chalked up to "island time." Once it began, I was mesmerized! I've always loved percussion so the music was right up my alley; you couldn't help enjoying the pulsating rhythms. The first dance was a traditional Jankunu dance as described earlier. I sensed that the dancers were local kids and adults rather than professionals which added to the charm. And they were sensational! I loved how they would each take solo turns performing the stylized dance. The shells on each dancer's knees would rattle in rhythm with their movements which nicely complimented the sounds of the drums.
After these dancers were done, the announcers introduced another dance. At the time, I thought it was called "Cherry Canary" which puzzled me since the dancers were dressed like cows not birds. But after doing a modicum of researchonline, I discovered that the dance was actually called "Charikanari." A main theme of this mischievous and fun performance involved people sneaking up behind the cow dancers, tapping on them teasingly, and then pretending that it had been someone else. These interactions always evoked a joyful response in the crowd, especially the children who would erupt in giggles.
Everyone seemed to be having a grand time at the gathering. There were foods and beverages for sale but since I was full from dinner, I didn't partake. The children seemed to have fun shooting off fireworks, especially when waiting for the event to start. The festival was a small, low budget event in its first year- but it was authentic and full of joy and community pride. I am so glad I caught it!
When they announced an intermission at a little after 9pm, I decided to head back to the hotel. I'd been enjoying the festival but I was getting tired of standing and I felt like my experience was as wonderful as it could get. I wasn't totally comfortable with walking back alone in the dark but it wasn't far. I decided it would feel safer to walk on the streets than on the beach. Despite my trepidation, it was a pleasant walk; the path back was so much quieter than during the day when it was busy with golf carts. The only moment that felt a little weird was when the creepy guy hanging around outside a restaurant or bar near my hotel called out at me. But he was equally creepy during the day so it didn't really phase me.
Back at the hotel, I relaxed and wrote some notes. I also ate the chocolate chip cookie which I'd purchased earlier- it was fabulous! I felt really happy about my day and was particularly pleased that I didn't chicken out of either snorkeling or the festival.
I woke up at 6:20 but since I didn't have any major plans, I dozed and lazed in bed, which felt amazing after the previous 2 busy days. At 9:15, I heard a knock at my door. I was surprised that the maid came so early since she'd been there much later the previous day; I asked her to please give me a few minutes and she was kind enough to oblige.
I hurriedly got dressed and put on the "Once on this Island" t-shirt which I'd recently purchased when I'd seen the show on Broadway with the idea of wearing it on this trip. After munching on a couple macarons, I set off into San Pedro town. The previous evening, I'd been intrigued to pass a store that sold scented soaps. When I'd searched online, I'd been disheartened to discover that they are closed on Sundays. However, after perusing their Facebook page, I discovered to my delight that they have a special annual sale on Christmas Eve day. So, not only would they be open this Sunday... but everything would be 15% off! What fantastic luck!
Belizean Breezes has 2 locations and I decided to head to the larger one, which was not the one I'd passed the previous night. It was a little tricky to find, even with the directions online, but once I did, I was in absolute HEAVEN! Not only did they sell all manner of scented bath products (which of course I had to sniff), but they also had an inventory of colorful jewelry that was fun to peruse. If that wasn't enough, I loved the sarcastic answers to ridiculous questions that decorated the wall behind the cash register. (one question was "Do you live on the island?") The owner who was behind the cash register was quite outgoing and friendly, and I warned her that I'd probably be there for awhile.
I spent a delightful hour pondering my purchases. It wasn't too hard to figure out what to purchase for myself but I had a harder time trying to decide what to get for my nieces who both love scented body products. Based a bit on the owner's recommendation, I selected "Monkey Farts" soap for J both because of the amusing name as well as because I thought she'd enjoy the tropical scents. I also picked out an Island Vacation bath bomb for her. M seems to prefer more floral scents so I bought her a Jasmine and Plumeria soap as well as a Sweet Rose bath bomb. I bought myself 4 soaps, trying to select the ones with the most unique scents (Vanilla Butterscoth, Andes' Mint, Island Celebration, and Belizean Breezes Signature Scent), as well as a relaxing Lavender Vanilla body butter.
My bag was pretty heavy and I felt it would be better to store the bath products in A/C, so I headed back to the hotel room via the convenience store by the airport where I stocked up on some more beverages. After resting up a bit, I headed to the hotel gift shop and purchased some more gifts to bring home; I was so glad that I could easily find souvenirs that I thought everyone would enjoy. (contrary to some of my other previous trips)
I was getting hungry so I headed to the hotel restaurant for some lunch. I ordered an Orange/Banana/Strawberry smoothie and boneless chicken wings with garlic sauce. My seat offered me a great view of the turquoise waters made for an exquisite background to my tasty meal.
When you travel, you sometimes face difficult decisions. Today, I struggled with choosing between swimming or ice cream after my mid-day meal. I ended up deciding on the former, which I figured correctly would allow me to work up an appetite for the latter. Despite being an island, Ambergris Caye does not feature world class beaches. In fact, most of the beach areas are apparently not well suited for swimming but my hotel was an exception. I often observed the staff engaged in sweeping the sand to keep it clean and clear of debris. Plus you could safely enter the calm waters deep enough to submerge.
I swam around a bit, and just tried to soak in the atmosphere and appreciate how lucky I was to be floating along in such a beautiful tropical area in December. It felt fabulous. But I didn't want to get sunburned, so after I'd had my fill, I retreated to a chaise lounge that I'd positioned in the shade. While relaxing and drying off, I engaged in some people watching since I hadn't brought any of my electronics out with me. I was particularly curious about the family who eventually occupied the lounges in front of me. It sounded like they'd arrived on 2 separate flights and also like they didn’t all know each other that well (i.e. someone was asking about what foods someone liked) I also couldn't help noticing that after a tween girl was searching for her lost necklace, her mom just said she'd buy her another without even a word about how she should be more responsible. I know that conversation would have gone differently if it had been between me and my parents when I'd been that age!
After taking a quick shower to rid my body of sand, I went back for one last trip to my favorite ice cream shop. It was closing at 6 for Christmas Eve and then would remain closed for the following 2 days. I was craving something refreshing, and Mint Chocolate Chunk was the perfect choice. On my way out, I left some money in the Dora the Explorer tip jar.
I walked into town, stopping at the smaller soap location; I'd made the correct choice to make my purchases at the larger location which had a greater selection. I also stopped once again at Belizean Arts and admired much of their offerings though I couldn't justify buying anything more for myself.
On the way back to my hotel, I wandered toward the coast on the Western side of the island; in the area by my hotel, the 25 mile long island of Ambergris Caye only stretched for a few blocks from West to East. I was able to catch a more direct view of the sunset than on my hotel's side of the island, and I enjoyed exploring some colorful streets that I hadn't seen before. I eventually crossed back to the beach on the more familiar side of the island and admired the purple blue twilight sky. Obviously, I took many photographs as I wandered and explored. It was a delightful way to spend the late afternoon.
Since it was Christmas Eve and I had to get up super early the next day, I decided it would be easiest to eat dinner at my hotel again. It wasn't necessarily the best food, but they had a varied menu and the service was always wonderful and friendly. This time, I had the spaghetti and meatballs that I'd planned to order on my first night. And I had a side order of "Awkward Argument" courtesy of a couple sitting right near me who were tossing one liners like "When I'm sorry, I actually f-ing grovel!" Umm, ok then. I was so happy when a waiter temporarily distracted them with a discussion about rum. Dining solo was a much better option when compared to being in their argument.
I went back to my room and sat outside writing some notes about my day. Well, that's what I planned to do, anyway. When the next door neighbor started smoking, I began to cough and I headed inside.
I'd half expected to get a message from the company with whom I'd booked the cave tour saying they needed to cancel but I hadn't heard anything at all from them after the odd phone call the previous day. I was still a bit skeptical but it looked increasingly likely to happen. To be honest, part of me would have been relieved if they'd canceled. I was terrified that I was going to end up panicking... and once I was on the tour, I knew there wouldn't be an option to turn around. Unless I wanted to sit and wait for 3 hours at the entrance to the cave without even a phone to amuse me- which sounded like an even worse option for Christmas than being home by myself.
My alarm was set for 5:15am, but I was stirring earlier wondering what I'd gotten myself into. While millions around the world were waking up to a day promising merriment, I was going to head off to explore a cave of Mayan ruins with a desperate hope that I wouldn't chicken out. Or die. But I think I was more afraid of paralyzing fear than literal paralysis.
I managed to get ready and arrive at the dock before 6am. It was quite beautiful and peaceful at that time of day. I sat and waited... As the minutes passed and the sky glowed brighter, I waited... Glancing every so often at the clock on my phone, I sat stoically- ready to accept my fate if the tour company did not show up. Eventually a hotel worker who was getting things ready for the day asked me if I was watching the sunrise. After explaining my predicament, I handed him the confirmation for my tour. He called one of the numbers and shockingly was able to communicate with a human being who told him that the boat was running late.
Nonetheless, I remained a bit skeptical until I saw a boat coming towards the pier. I couldn't quite decide if I was excited or nervous. It was happening. I would be visiting the much hyped (and warned about) ATM Cave.
There were 8 others on the craft, but I soon discovered that only 2 of them would be joining me at the ATM cave; the others would be on less demanding tours engaged in activities like cave tubing and ziplining. The boat ride was so ridiculously short that I could easily have walked and met everyone at the destination, which was near the airport.
A guy from the tour company took our orders for the breakfast that was included. I had a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich served in Johnny cakes. After being asked if I wanted typical morning beverages such as coffee, I was very thankful that they were able to provide me with a Coke Zero. I definitely needed some caffeine for the adventure ahead and I don't much care for hot beverages.
Sandwiches in hand, we all walked together a couple blocks to the tiny airport and then sat down in the waiting area as the tour people checked us in. We'd be flying Mayan Air which seemed to offer essentially the same experience as Tropic Air. Neither airline enforced any kind of pre-boarding security, and soon we were loaded into a plane for our 15 minute flight to the mainland. All I could think was "Shit, I guess I'm doing this."
After a quick flight, we arrived at Belize airport; I somehow didn't realize it until later, but this was a different airport than the international one where I'd flown in. We gathered with a group of other people who were already waiting to go on tours. I'm not sure where they came from, but perhaps they flew in from other parts of Belize. Still, only the other couple and I were headed to ATM Cave.
The group eventually loaded into 3 vans. During the ride, I snoozed a bit; it's quite easy for me to fall asleep in any moving vehicle. The 3 of us taking the ATM Cave tour were supposed to meet up with our guide at a store on the side of the road while the others continued in the van to their destination. However, when we reached the designated spot, he hadn't arrived yet, so we drove further down the road to meet up with him. (he was coming from the opposite direction) I thought it was unprofessional of him not to be punctual- not the best first impression.
When we finally met up with our guide, D, and transferred into his slightly battered vehicle, I was more than willing to move on from the fact that he'd been late. But almost immediately, he started complaining about getting late notice for the tour. He added that if he'd known the company would pay by check, he would not have agreed to do it, particularly on Christmas. Wait- what?!? I've taken many tours in my life and I have never once had one start off with such an abundance of negativity from a guide. The other couple and I tried to engage him in friendly conversation to lighten things up, but he'd inevitably return to complaining about something.
He went on a whole tirade about a larger woman with a fear of heights who had been on his previous day's tour. Instead of applauding her for trying to push her comfort zone, he seemed disgusted and declared that she should have chosen a different tour. I made a mental note not to mention any of my fears; clearly this was not a guide who would help me overcome them. I tried to laugh off his comments by saying that if she could make it through the cave then I should be ok. Turning to somewhat creepily gaze at my legs, he told me I'd be fine.
Adding to the increasing list of my guide's charms was that he kept stopping the vehicle to make phone calls. I have no idea what they were about. He also kept letting cars pass us. He seemed to be taking his own damn time getting to the cave.
When we reached the vehicle entrance, he had to go inside a building to take care of some business. As soon as he was gone, the 3 of us started chattering about the extreme Awkward we'd been feeling during the ride. I was relieved to not be the only one who thought the guide's tone was more than a bit odd and unprofessional. There was not much that we could do other than to feel solidarity. I snarked that I could already tell that the tour was going to make one hell of a blog entry.
D returned to the vehicle and brought an end to our venting. He drove a little further and parked the vehicle in a little area with restrooms where we could change if we needed. I was already dressed for the cave, wearing a pair of cheap capri leggings and a sporty polyester shirt over a tankini along with my Keens water shoes. I dressed knowing that we would need to wade and swim through water as part of the tour; I wanted to wear clothing that would not inhibit me and would not take forever to dry. Keens would be good shoes for walking and climbing on rocks.
D said that we would be meeting with 2 other people who had booked separately, but he was quite flippant about leaving without them if they hadn't arrived. But they were already there. When I met the friendly young couple, I knew that I would easily be the slowest of the 5 of us.
We could see other groups around us getting ready, and all of them were wearing life jackets as a matter of course. I'd seen many recommendations to wear life vests to make parts of the excursion easier even if you are a strong swimmer, but D seemed a bit put off when we requested them although he grudgingly handed them out. He also snapped at me a bit when I asked a question about bringing my socks to wear in the dry part of the cave. Patience was clearly not one of D's virtues.
To get from the car park to the cave entailed a hike which included 3 river crossings. Plunging into the first one, which was also the deepest, I was surprised by how cold it was. There was a rope you could hang onto to pull yourself across if you didn't want to swim. This crossing was the most pleasant because you didn't have to worry about tripping on rocks. However, my awkwardness was on full display as I managed to promptly lose possession of the bottle of water the guide had provided. He'd told us to place it in our life vests, but I realized when I emerged on the other side that it was gone, floating away behind me. The couple that I'd been traveling with all day gave me one of their bottles, which was really sweet.
I felt annoyingly slow in comparison to the 2 younger couples. Objectively, I don't think I was moving that sluggishly but D kept urging us to go faster, even passing some other groups, as he often repeated his motto that "time is money." He harped on the fact that 3 of us had a plane to catch to go home. I remembered bitterly how he hadn't been at all bothered by our flight schedule when he'd taken his sweet time getting to the site.
Nonetheless, there was one odd benefit to my guide's attitude: I was so concerned about trying to keep up with the group that I didn't have the luxury of excess energy with which to indulge in pondering my fears.
We eventually reached an area with a few picnic tables where we left our water bottles and got fitted up with a helmet and head lamp. I also put on my heavy wool socks under my keens- not a stylish look, but it worked. Travelers to the cave are no longer allowed to bring any items in with them, thanks to some idiot who had dropped a camera and damaged some ancient skeletons. I am typically reluctant to go anywhere my camera isn't allowed but in this case, the regulation was beneficial in allowing me to be completely focused on my unique and challenging experience without worrying about possibly damaging or losing a camera.
As we walked closer to the cave entrance and D explained some things about the Mayans, I realized that shit was getting very real. Oh my gosh was I really doing this?!?! I was really doing this!!! I climbed down some rocks then plunged into the water and swam through the mouth of the cave. That's right, you enter this cave by swimming right into it. As I swam/floated my way to solid ground where I could stand, my only thought was "This is so damn cool!" I wanted to laugh and smile.... and celebrate how awesome it was, especially in light of my fears. But of course we were moving at too fast a pace for me to truly savor the moment, which was a shame.
Even as the light faded behind me and disappeared, I had no fear. We soon came to one of the tight squeezes I'd read about as being a problem for those with a tendency to claustrophobia- easy peasy! You had to contort your body to pass between some rocks, but you could clearly see that you would only spend the briefest of moments in a confined space so it didn't bother me at all.
We waded, swam, dodged rocks, and occasionally stopped for an explanation. At one point D turned off all of our headlamps so we were in pitch darkness. I'd read that some guides do this, and I was glad we were able to pause in our hurried pace to experience a few moments where we couldn't see a thing. It was oddly peaceful, and definitely unique. However I could have done without D making a couple loud noises which were jarring (though not really scary). Soon our lamps were turned back on and we continued onward.
I was not wearing a watch and have no concept of how long it took, but eventually we reached the point of the Big Ass Rock Climb which is one part of the journey that had caused me some anxiety. Basically, you have to somehow get yourself up some 20 feet by climbing atop a boulder. There are no safety rails; if you fall, you are going to surely break a bone... or 20. There's no way this kind of activity would be deemed safe in the US. But we were in Belize, and as I was watching other groups descend, I still couldn't imagine how I'd ever get myself up to the top. Somehow I did, though- with the help from other guides as well as ours.
The upper chamber of the cave is known as the dry chamber, and you have to take off your shoes here. Surprisingly, this was the hardest part of the tour for me- my biggest problem was that the rocks would hurt my fragile feet as I walked on top of them. At one point, I hit my bunion directly on a rock and screamed. But of course my guide didn't even turn around to see if I was ok. I was getting more than a little irritated at being rushed, which made me too tense to really focus on or appreciate the amazing archaeological ruins (mainly pottery) that were now surrounding us. I didn't want to admit to having any problems because I was afraid D would judge me harshly as one of the people who should not have done this tour.
We soon came to a sketchy ladder which had been another part of the journey that I'd been worried about. But it was surprisingly easy for me to climb up to the ledge that contained the most famous archaelogical site- the "Crystal Maiden"; apparently the more popular theory now is that the remains are of a male, but the name has stuck. It's believed that the remains in the cave were victims of Mayan sacrifices. The Crystal Maiden is particularly well preserved, and the remains seem to sparkle a bit due to calcification.
From this point, we turned around and re-traced our steps en route to exiting the cave. I was quite nimble at descending the ladder, a feat which seemed more troublesome for some others… much to the chagrin of our delightful guide. I just imagined that I was going down a ladder into a pool, and made quick work of it. Then it was time to walk on more painful rocks until I reached the point where I could retrieve my footwear. I don't think I've ever been happier in my life to put on shoes.
Whatever goes up must come down, which means it was time for the Big Ass Rock Descent. At this point, I was feeling extremely stressed and fed up with my guide who just kept making things worse. I'd had some minor panic attacks during the top portion of the cave, but I had to keep them to myself because D had no sympathy; it hadn't gone over well at all when I'd casually mentioned that he was stressing me out. The combination of starting to feel fatigued plus feeling rushed was rather poisonous to my mindset. I'm honestly surprised I didn't hurt myself because I was so mentally checked out; thankfully some of the other tour members were able to guide my feet with their hands.
When I reached the bottom, I felt some relief that I'd survived the hardest parts of the cave. But I made a point not to be so glib that I'd lose focus since there were still some challenges ahead and I needed to continue to pay attention to my environment and maintain my footing.
I enjoyed journeying through the bottom of the cave much more than the top chamber. When we reached the last of 2 tight squeezes, I actually felt a twinge of disappointment since I knew we'd soon be reaching the exit. It was with mixed feelings that I watched the unfamiliar daylight grow brighter until I swam out of the cave.
Of course the adventure was not over since we still had the hike with the 3 river crossings. At this point, D seemed to be moving even faster than earlier- or it's possible that I was moving slower due to fatigue. He had a walking stick which was good for him but obviously useless for me. When he helped another person (from a different group) through a tricky area full of mud, he seemed annoyed that I expected him to provide any aid to me as well; he explained with some disdain that the other guy was wearing Crocs which were not as good as my shoes. Yeah well, I didn't have a walking stick and he did! I was just so mentally done with him. He took my water bottle at the last, deep crossing…. which would have been more helpful if he'd given it back. But that was obviously the least of my issues with him. Still, I maintained my sense of humor- when I found myself skidding in the mud, I quipped that I was creating a new Olympic sport of mud surfing.
Finally, we arrived back to the car. I'd survived a great challenge and overcome my fears, though unfortunately I felt no joy at the moment. What should have been a triumphant experience was indelibly marred by my guide. Sure, there were numerous times when I'd felt amazed and awed. But I hadn't been able to savor those moments and I'd felt more stressed than necessary. I am sure I would have had a much more ideal experience with a different guide, one who was more positive and motivating.
I grabbed my backpack and went into the bathroom area to change into dry clothes. There were showers, but I only used them to wash off my feet. I placed my wet, muddy clothes in zip-lock bags inside my backpack and then went back out to a picnic table where we ate lunch. The 3 of us were given simple meals prepared by D's wife- cold barbecue chicken with rice and beans which was served in uninviting Styrofoam containers. The couple who had booked elsewhere had a similar meal on nicer plates which was augmented with veggies; when they politely asked us if we wanted any ranch dressing, we laughed since we had no use for such condiments. I probably would have eaten anything at that point, but I think the food was pretty good.
Rain started to pour as we ate, and I felt fortunate to be sitting at an area undercover. I wasn't able to finish by the time D decided we had to leave and I didn't want to eat in the van, so I left the rest. During the car ride back, D apologized a bit for rushing. Maybe he had a point about the tight timing to make our flight but, if so, that is an issue that should be addressed with the tour company itself allowing for a little more time padding (although he probably used up some of whatever padding was allowed by his lackadaisical attitude to arriving at the cave). People can only move as fast as they can move and making them stressed only makes them less careful. I don't think D is a bad person and maybe he was having a rough day, but I know I would have had a much better experience if it hadn't been for his attitude.
In the car, I continued to chat with the young couple. They were also avid travelers so we'd been exchanging stories all day. I showed them some of my Namibia photos because they were interested in traveling to Africa.
I was quite relieved when we transferred from D's car to a vehicle with one of the guides from the tour company. I'd originally planned to give a generous tip to my guide since it was Christmas but I couldn't bring myself to tip D at all- not with his constant negative attitude and making things worse for me. I hope I never hear the phrase "time is money" ever. again.
The tour company guide asked us if we wanted to have beer, soda, or water. I chose the latter and cracked up when I was handed a plastic pouch full of liquid rather than a bottle. He asked us for feedback on D but I think he was thrown when we weren't exactly giving very enthusiastic reviews. We were actually being kind and constructive in the comments we shared, so he would probably have been appalled at our true feelings. (Incidentally, I know that my tour wasn't an aberration for D; I've subsequently read some absolutely scathing reviews about him on tripadvisor, although admittedly there are some positive ones as well)
One final note about D. I can't remember the context at all, but I heard him say something about Jews being separated from non-Jews and none of us being Jewish. I think he was trying to make a point about Mayan religion, but really the only point he made was about his ignorance.
Meanwhile, as we drove the hour or so back to the airport, I regretted taking a plastic baggie of water when I started to feel like I had to pee. Eventually, it got so bad that I mentioned it to the driver and asked how long until we'd arrive at our destination. He said that I should have let him know a minute earlier, but we were only 5 minutes away. That didn't sound too bad. Memo to anyone traveling to Central America: 5 Belizean minutes = 20 actual minutes. As soon as the car stopped, I bolted out and made a run for the restroom.
The flight back to Ambergris Caye was scheduled for 4:30 but we left closer to 5pm; I'm pretty sure there was at least one more flight after that so we were not in danger of being stranded. The quick flight back was just as scenic as the morning one…. and this time I was more relaxed so I could better enjoy the view. It was my 3rd flight on this route but my first time noticing that the wheels never came up after takeoff.
When we landed, I was conveyed to my hotel by golf cart which made way more sense than taking a boat. Then I hobbled to my room on tired legs and took a long shower which felt oh-so-good. I munched on the remainder of the macarons and relaxed a bit, which was much needed after the mental and physical challenges of the day.
I didn't want to move more than necessary and I wasn't sure if restaurants in town would be open for dinner anyway, so once again I dined at the hotel restaurant. It was super busy when I arrived just before 7, but they were able to squeeze me in. I had the absolute worst Coke Zero ever- it was horribly flat. But the shrimp bisque was fabulous and my entrée, Bacalar Chico Chicken, which was similar to chicken parm was quite good as well.
Once I got back to my room, I worked on my travel notes- first sitting outside on the deck and then finishing inside. I also did some packing. Feeling dead tired at around 9:30pm, I called it an early night. This was probably one of my best Christmases ever. Despite my misgivings about the guide, the ATM Cave was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience that pushed me a bit out of my comfort zone. The artifacts we saw were amazing- and what a rare treat to see them in the place where they were discovered rather than a museum. But even more than that, the entire journey was suitably challenging and decidedly unique- the cave itself was absolutely amazing with its large caverns. I'm so proud of myself for pursuing the adventure instead of taking the safe way out and avoiding it.
Since I wasn't able to take photos in the cave, I thought I'd share a short video I found online (from a tour company that I didn't use) which provides a good overall sense of the experience- although our first river crossing was much deeper and our guide never paused to describe the flora and fauna during the hike.
I'd set my alarm for 7am but because I'd gone to sleep so early, I woke up at around 6. My body was still tired and it seemed a bit cloudy out so I stayed in bed and lazed rather than trying to photograph my final Belizean sunrise.
Eventually, I got up at around 7 and headed to the bakery by the airport. Just as a few days earlier, there were slim pickings in the display. However, the offerings included croissants so I was set! I bought a cheese croissant and a chocolate croissant. And then on my way out, I turned around and purchased a second chocolate croissant. They were so yummy! I had 2 of them for breakfast, and packed the last chocolate croissant in my carry on.
It was sad when I had to check out and head back to the airport to start my journey away from sunny 80 degree weather. The Tropic Air terminal in San Pedro seemed crazy packed but I had no trouble getting on the 11am flight as scheduled.
I had about a 3 hour layover at the International airport before my flight to Miami which was scheduled to depart at 2:30pm. It was super easy to check in for my flight, although I got very annoyed when someone said I looked scared. I was sad to be leaving, but scared? Umm, no.
During my time at the airport, I engaged in some last minute souvenir shopping and ate my yummy chocolate croissant. I enjoyed people watching, though I got a bit jealous when the people next to me started to split a pizza.
I was glad when it was finally time to board my flight. Since I have an airline miles card, I am usually in one of the earlier groups to board. But the whole boarding by group number was such a cluster! It's not rocket science- you just look at the number on your ticket and get in line when your number is called. Yet, people were crowding the boarding area prematurely even moreso than usual. And it turned out the people directly in front of me had a higher number thought they claimed confusion. Are you kidding me?!? I was so annoyed with the gate agent when, rather than (kindly) correcting these idiots, she made an announcement that they were now boarding up to their number. Gah.
The flight was pretty standard- I slept a bit and listened to music ("Come From Away" and "Compass of My Heart"). The power outlets at my seat and the vacant middle seat between me and a Harvard rower were pretty crappy but I made due.
We landed in Miami about a half hour early at 5:15pm but we were stuck on the tarmac waiting for a gate to clear. In my hungry delirium (they didn't even serve any snacks onboard), I started singing to myself "some day my gate will come" While taxiing to the gate, we passed by jet that said Eastern Airlines which made me so confused; I tried to take a photo but ended up with a crappy angle where you couldn't see any plane detail.
We landed in terminal E but we had to walk all the way to terminal D for security which seemed to be in another zip code. I followed the signs to Global Entry only to discover that half of the kiosks were out of order. Some of them displayed helpful signs to that effect, but I tried 3 with no such signage and got frustrated when 2 of them wouldn't read my passport and another wouldn't recognize my finger prints. Finally I was able to luck into using a machine that actually worked and, for the first time ever, I got a printout that let me walk straight through security. On previous trips, I'd received the dreaded X mark which means you need to see an agent.
Of course, the luggage for my flight was on the furthest carousel. After going through customs and re-checking my bag, the line for security for connecting flights was insanely long. Someone from the airport asked if anyone had TSA Pre Check and then proceeded to lead a bunch of us through airport back doors to a fairly distant Pre Check line which was located in the main security zone (rather than the connecting area). I hoped it saved time but at least it meant I could keep my shoes on and my electronics in my backpack.
At this point, I felt like I was dying of hunger and when I saw a pizza stand, it was like gazing at nirvana. I wanted to have cheese pizza but the server told me it I'd need to wait 5 minutes. That would normally not be a big deal but I was so famished that I just settled on a slice of pepperoni that was already prepared and gobbled it up. Of course, once I was done, I saw both sushi and cupcakes just a tiny bit further down. Oh, well.
Nothing of much note happened on the final flight on my journey home. Except that I will neither confirm nor deny that I cried ugly tears upon listening to the lyric "No one saying you can't or you won't..." I could and did conquer the main challenge of my trip… and had enjoyed many other wonderful experiences besides.