Solo Traveler: Planning a Trip from a Distance

Ceremonial center at Caracol. Photo by Sherry Hardage
 
This toucan is one of the many tropical birds found in Belize. Photo by Sherry Hardage
 
 
Solo Traveler: Planning a Trip from a Distance
By SHERRY HARDAGE

I was asked by a friend to put together a trip to Belize for five or six people. I’d never been to Belize so it was quite a challenge to figure out where we might go, and more importantly, how we would get there.

He didn’t want to spend a lot of money and suggested we stay in a rented house together so we could cook. He and his wife were vegans, so eating in restaurants was a challenge.

These days, you’d think you could find any and everything on the Internet but that’s just not true. Small hotels, individual guides, and tiny restaurants are found through taxi drivers, hotel owners, and even people you meet traveling around.

I like to start with a good guidebook, like Lonely Planet, to get the big picture of a country. Usually there’s a history and cultural review in the beginning, along with a map showing states, districts, and areas of interest.

Once I’ve become familiar with the layout of the country. I can decide what places to visit and where to stay for maximum convenience.

I knew that Belize City was out of the question for a long stay. It has a terrible reputation as crime ridden, dirty, and full of desperate unemployed people. It does have some nice museums that are worth a visit.

We stayed in Ladyville, a small town outside of Belize City. I looked long and hard at vacation homes on VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

The house we rented was on a canal a few yards from the Caribbean Sea. It had a pool, a lovely manicured yard, and came with a van and cell phone. The van was what sold me on the house. After checking the price of renting a van for two weeks, the house/van package was a great deal.

From Ladyville. we could explore all over the northern part of Belize. We drove many miles during that week, each day going out to some destination and back.

Nearby were the ruins of Altun Ha, a destination popular with cruise ship passengers. From the town of Orange Walk there were boats going upriver to Lamanai, a Mayan city that was occupied continuously for over 2,000 years.

From Belize City we took a water taxi to Caye Caulker for a day of exploring. While there, we found a charter boat company that charged a lot less than any I’d found online. We went back a couple days later for a day on the barrier reef where we swam with rays and nurse sharks.

The Belize Zoo was recommended by all the guidebooks. The animals are all indigenous to Belize. The cages are spacious and placed in the natural jungle so the animals can be quite interactive with each other. None of the animals were captured for the zoo. All were rescued, and for various reasons, could not be returned to the wild.

Unable to find a large house to rent in the western Cayo district, I settled on rooms at a locally owned hotel that had a shared kitchen. The hotel also had a vehicle we could rent.

The owner, Shamera, was a great source of information on excellent restaurants, local tour guides, and how to use the public buses to get to outlying areas.

From Cayo we rented a new SUV and hired a guide to visit the most famous of all the Belize Mayan sites, Caracol. It was a good thing the guide came along as he took us down a maze of dirt roads with no signs. We could easily have spent hours lost in the jungle.

The road to Caracol was mud for 25 miles. We spent three hours driving in, and three driving out, for a visit that lasted less than four hours. But it was worth the trip. We climbed all over the pyramids and had some excellent discussions with our guide about the uses of various buildings.

On walks through the jungle, we learned about what the Mayans ate and how they used various plants. We even sampled sweet carrot flavored termites!

Another day, we took a public bus to Xunantunich, a ruin close to San Ignacio with a pyramid that towers above the forest and has views that extend for miles in all directions.

Nearby was a lovely butterfly preserve where we escaped from pouring rain for a while. Another ruin, Cahal Pech, and an iguana reserve were also within walking distance of the hotel.

The two highlights of our stay in the western part of the country was a long day tour into Guatemala to visit Tikal, and another day trip to the incredible Actun Tunichil Muknal cave that has sixteen human sacrificial victims, including the famous Crystal Maiden. 

Any trip will have its ups and downs, and this one was no exception. The car we had planned to rent from the hotel was mostly out of commission hence the bus rides. But those just added a unique flavor to our adventure.

We could have limited ourselves to restaurants listed on Trip Advisor, but instead took the advice of locals and ate some very interesting dishes at small restaurants.

Cave tubing had been on the plan, but the water was too cold.

Instead, we rented canoes from a local character, who dropped us off upriver for a day of paddling (by ourselves) the 14 miles back to San Ignacio.

Planning a trip from afar meant creating an overview of what to see and where to go, with important details like where to stay nailed down. But to have a good trip, there should always be an expectation that things may not go according to plan. In fact they just might go much better!

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer, and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website: www.mexadventures.com

Follow the continuing adventures on Hardage’s blog: http://sherryhardagetravel.blogspot.com/

Hardage welcomes comments via email: hardagesa@aol.com

A spider monkey in Belize. Photo by Sherry Hardage

 

 

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