It was both a pleasure and a privilege to meet with Emily Stone, a pioneer in the cocoa industry and founder of American-based cocoa bean brokers Uncommon Cacao. During our travels through Guatemala, we were lucky enough to join Emily and her team at Cacao Verapaz – one of the majority-farmer-owned subsidiaries of Uncommon Cacao – for two days during their aptly named ‘Guatemala Chocolate Week’. We were also lucky enough to find (possibly) the world’s largest cacao pod!!
Flores is in an interesting pocket of Guatemala, part of the Mayan heartland of Central America. A little island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza and once cut off from the mainland, it is now only accessible by tuk tuk across a narrow bridge. It is believed Isla de Flores (Flores Island) itself withstood the invasion of Spain’s forces for some time and was the last Mayan stronghold to fall, in around 1697. We based ourselves here so we could predominantly explore the wonders of Tikal ruins, about an hour north in the Guatemalan jungle.
With 4 days in the Cayes now behind us, we headed inland. I’d heard of a great chocolate shop in San Ignacio, directly on our way to Flores in Guatemala, it would be silly not to go. We also knew there were some great deep caves in the jungle and much less touristy ruins (compared to Tulum and Tikal). Although a tourist hub, many people skip San Ignacio, preferring to take the direct shuttle bus from Belize City to Flores. We were so glad we didn’t as this little town really has a lot to offer to easily cover in two days.
San Ignacio is actually the second largest settlement in Belize after Belize City. It earned its original name ‘El Cuyo’ meaning Island in Spanish from being surrounded by rivers and a creek, but then the creek dried up and now there is only one river which requires the Hawkesworth Bridge, the only suspension bridge in the country, to cross it. Before the Spanish, Belize was inhabited by the Maya and several ruins survive today showcasing their existence. Closest to town is Cahal Pech, but there are others including; Caracol, Xunantunich and El Pilarl.
After the fall of the Maya, ongoing squabbles between Spain and Britain over Belize continued until the mid 20th century when Belize began seeking independence from Britain. According to some reports, Mennonites hailing from Mexico who settled in Western Belize indirectly supported Belize’s eventual independence through providing food, by farming the land untouched by earlier settlers.
Nowadays Mennonite communities are responsible for over 80% of Belize’s agricultural produce; mainly grains, dairy and oranges. We saw glimpses of Mennonite culture as we passed white farm gates with neatly manicured meadows and fields. But Belize is not without its troubles, Guatemala still claims it owns some or all of Belize and we saw evidence of this on alot of Guatemalan maps showing Belize as the 25th state of Guatemala!!
After leaving Caye Culker on the first water taxi of the day (about 630am) and having to pay another port tax at Belize City port, we made a beeline for the bus station. Belize City isn’t the nicest of places, so we did this connection during the day. Given the amount of hassle we got at about 9am in the morning I can only imagine what it’s like at night!! Yes there is a shuttle bus by ADO from Belize City direct to Flores that goes through San Ignacio, but it doesn’tt actually stop there. So instead we took a Belize ‘chicken bus’ (pimped out old American school bus) for $8 BZ each from Belize City to San Ignacio. The bus had to be full before we set off, so we spent the 4-5 hours folded into our seats with our bags balanced precariously on top of us. There was a pit stop at a funny little town called Belmopan (which actually turns out to be the capital, even though its smaller than Belize City or San Ignacio) for a quick pee and some snacks.
We arrived in San Ignacio, heading straight to The Old House Hostel – which was part way up the steep hill leading to Cahal Pech. A great little place, lovely verandah to chill out in the evening, well equipped kitchen, nice spacious rooms, shared bathroom and the coolest ‘Ginger Ninja’ cat in existence. This is not a party hostel, but it is also not a boring hostel as everyone is sociable and eager to make friends. Once room sorting and bag dropping was done, and I had finally convinced the Ginger Ninja that there were better things to do than provoke Sam and lie on my scarf, it was time to head out and explore!
The ruins of Cahal Pech stand as an impressive testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the Maya people of pre-colonial Belize. At the ruins site there is also a small museum with interesting historical perspective on this area of previously Maya county. Most people focus on Chetumal, Tulum, Tikal, I for one am really glad we included this in our trip as it gives perspective on just how far reaching the Mayan civilisation actually was, and the squabbles that ensued between different Maya settlements! According to one calendar in the museum, there were many conflicts between Tikal in Guatemala and one of the sites, Caracol, in Belize, resulting in the capture of one of Tikal’s great leaders, ‘Double Bird’ who was then sacrificed by Lord Water of Caracol.
Some discoveries have lead to the belief that Cahal Pech was predominantly used for ritual purposes, featuring the earliest carved Stela in Belize, coming into existence around 200 – 100 BC. Stela are believed to be altars, possibly used in some form of sacrifice or worship. Since most of the Maya codeces were destroyed with the invasion of Spanish Catholics, any inscriptions that are found are all but impossible to decipher, so no one can work out what the stela were really for. Further discoveries at these sites show Maya used vessels to consume cacao as a drink, and also proof of trade between settlements has revealed dried cacao seeds were used as a form of currency.
After exploring the ancient delights ofCahal Pech, it was time to explore another site of San Ignacio, the Ajaw chocolate shop, well worth a visit with some interesting products to try. Made by hand by those who run it, they also host workshops and chocolate tastings within the space. They use beans from Maya Mountain, from farms in the south of Belize and actually have listed on the walls some useful words in Quechua Mayan language. We grabbed some samples to take, which went down all too quickly, not just because they started melting as soon as we left the shop! We were delighted to find they too had that traditional Belizian zestyness we had originally discovered with Belize Chocolate Company, despite being a very dark chocolate at around 80%.
As is the way in the tropics; where there is chocolate there is rum, so understandably that evening we’d sniffed out a rum store hosting rum tastings. We were taken through all the rums in the famous Belize ‘Traveller’s Rum’ range (yes, including the paint stripper rum that had so ruined me on Caye Caulker!). With this tasting we were also treated to a talk on the history of rum production in Belize. Given that sugar had been cultivated in Belize since 1848 by Yucatan immigrants, it wasn’t until only 70 years ago that rum making actually started here, this is due to the fact Belize was taxed heavily for molasses – the by product of sugar – which was then sent to other British colonies for rum making. As a result, locals were unable to afford to keep the molasses in the country and so would sell it on. We also learnt about the heads, hearts and tails of rum and what constitutes a good rum. My favourite was ‘Travellers’ rum – 1 barrel, 5 year aged.
Now feeling somewhat merry from the tasting, we wandered down to the main square where a live band were setting up. It turned out we were here just in time for the annual long boat race, which starts from the little river in San Ignacio, with competitors rowing all the way to the mouth of it, by Belize City. Given that the race kicked off at 5am the next day, we sensibly decided we would just come for the pre-race kick off party.
Still on a Fry Jack obsession, we scouted a couple of good places here, but directions left a lot to be desired, given we were told ‘just go to Chicken Road 1 and you’ll find it there on the left’. We didn’t find any semblance of anything food stall-esq, but we did find a garden full of little kids who seemed to be twerking to someone’s gangsta rap booming from within the adjoining house.
We eventually found what we think was the right food place, a little shack on the main road, without a sign, no where near what we thought was ‘Chicken Road 1’. I realise this is not helpful, but if you ask at your hostel they may be able to give you better directions. We did, however, find a knockout place for dinner. Down in the main square we come across a couple of street food stalls that seemed to be ran by an entire family; father mother and the kids, packed to the rafters with food and locals. We tucked in here, it was affordable and tasted sooooo goooooood!! (Add directions)
Next morning was a relatively early start, which would have been fine if my stomach hadn’t decided to morph into soup the night before, resulting in my staking claim to the porcelain throne for a lot longer than I was comfortable with. Eventually free, and with enough Imodium and rehydration salts to restock half of Boots, I boarded the bus. I had finally reached my bod’s limit of Fry Jacks.
The ATM (Actun Tunichil Minal, or ‘Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre’) tours are marginally cheaper than the ‘crystal cave’ tours, still included crystalised skeletons, and are (apparently) less intense. Having said that we still found ourselves swimming through a very deep and intricate waterway in the dark, on occasion having to squeeze through impossibly thin cracks in the rock with cut throat sharp edges, to get through the whole system.
Bats abound a plenty and we found them high up in the belly of the caves, along with ridiculous looking predatory spiders (that actually look like a cross between a crab and a locust!), fresh water crabs and an array of tropical fish – including some that happily nibbled at the sunburn on our shoulders. After swimming, wading, squeezing and climbing up bare foot over large boulders, we reached our destination – a plateau strewn with Mayan artefacts, skeleton parts and, at the very top, a well preserved crystallised skeleton from god knows how long ago. Sadly, as a result of some daft tourist dropping their camera on a crystallised child’s skull and breaking it (you can still see the hole even now), all cameras and recording equipment are banned, to prevent the same misfortune happening again. Many artefacts have been found incredible well preserved, and one pot in particular (creatively called ‘The Monkey Pot’) bears a ‘signature’ resembling a monkey.
Be warned – you must pee before entering the cave (there will be no toilets inside and you cannot pee in the water, you’re all swimming through it so that would just be gross). Before leaving the tour bus make sure you’ve locked away all valuables in your bags and don’t have anything of importance on you that can get soggy. There’s always one person who leaves their wallet in their pocket – don’t be that person!
The cheapest Option
Chicken bus San Ignacio to Benque Viejo Del Carmento > taxi to the boarder > exit Belize and enter Guatemala (there should be no fees to pay for either) > a taxi from Guatemala boarder side to Melchior de Mencos > chicken bus to Santa Elena > Tuk Tuk over the bridge to Isla de Flores.
The fastest Option
Taxi from San Ignacio to Belize boarder > exit Belize and enter Guatemala > walk over bridge past the army barracks on your left, first road on your left after the barracks takes you to the ‘Colectivos’ (minibus / minivan) area on your right hand side > Colectivo to Santa Elena > Tuk tuk to Isla de Flores.
We took the fasted option, as there were four of us. Based on a tip off from our taxi driver, we exchanged money at the boarder – on the Belizian side for better rates. Look for the man with an ID card around his neck stating he is an official money exchanger, and always calculate your rate on your phone first to double check they aren’t trying to be sneaky. We then drifted through immigration; receiving our exit stamp from Belize from one booth, and walking two steps over a grubby yellow line to the Guatemala booth (literally just next to the Belize one) to receive our Guatemala entrance stamp, granting us 90 days. (Guatemala is part of the CA-4 or Central American Four; comprising Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, so these 90 days cover you for all of those countries (although Honduras believe they are no longer part of it, so they charge you entry fee to Honduras). Anyway, it’s worth checking your itinerary to make sure you are not staying over a total of 90 days though these four countries).
Well that was easy, or so we thought. Walking past the lorries and other large vehicles towards the bridge and the collectivos, we were approached by armed guards who directed us to a small trestle table under what seemed to be some sort of old hanger. From what we understood, we were not allowed to pass over the bridge until we had entered this other area to pay our ‘Guatemalan entry fee’. According to many reports this payment is subject to change (we paid Q20 – Quetzales / $3USD each in early March 2018), is actually a scam, and I’m sure if our Spanish was good enough we could have talked our way out of it. But we figured it was not worth the hassle of an argument with a gun in your face in pidgin Spanish.
Once paid we made our way over the little bridge until we saw the Colectivos on the left. Then it was haggle, haggle, HAGGLE!! All online reports had said to pay no more than 60QZ per person which should include 5QZ for the Tuk Tuk driver. Warning: the minibus driver will try and scam you at the end saying a higher fee which will not include the tuk tuk fee.. Stick to the price you haggled to and pay the Tuk Tuk driver separately.
After the magic of Mexico, meeting the lovely chocolate makers of Cozumel island and finally getting my PADI Open Water cert it was time to head south, and dip into the Caribbean English-speaking enclave of Central America known as Belize, for four days in the Cayes, spending most of our time on Caye Caulker.
Originally inhabited by the Maya, the first European who settled in Belize was actually shipwrecked off the Yucatan Peninsula in 1511, he was a Spaniard named Gonzalo Guerrero. First captured by the Maya, he later married into a Mayan family and settled in Northern Belize. The first Brits to settle in the early 1600s were pirates…arrrrr…so they left little records as they stayed in makeshift camps from which they would then raid Spanish ships, before the more stable less aggressive industry of logging was introduced around 40 years later.
Squabbles ensued between Britain and Spain over the land now known as Belize, and for a while it was known as British Honduras, remaining a sovereignty under British rule until its independence in the 1970s. To this day though, Belize is still a British Commonwealth country and you will see the queen featuring on the Belizian dollar note and coins.
We took a bus at 7am from the ADO bus station in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to Chetumal for $272 MXN (Mexican Pesos) £10.23 / $3.11USD each, with a taxi to the ferry terminal costing a further $8. We needed to purchase our tickets to San Pedro / Caye Caulker at the ticket office in Chetumal. There are two water taxi companies and they run on alternate days from Chetumal to San Pedro – Caye Caulker – Belize City. After getting our tickets we then needed to line up to pay our dues to leave Mexico, which stood at around about $490 MXN or $25 / £20*.
*Now there are varying schools of thought as to whether this is a legitimate fee or a scam, most forums online will state that if you have flown into Mexico on a commercial airline, therefor arriving into Mexico ‘by air’, you are exempt from paying this tax – however YOU MUST PROVE THAT THIS TAX HAS BEEN INCLUDED IN YOUR FLIGHT TICKET. If in doubt, check with your airline or flight attendant on your flight. As it turned out, Thomas Cook do not include this departure tax in their flight costs, at least not in our one anyway. So sadly for us, we did have to pay it. The story goes, if you have legitimately paid it within your flight ticket (and can prove this in a printed ticket receipt with it itemised) then the border agent should not charge you, but be aware they sometimes decide to anyways.*
The water taxi left Chetumal, Mexico around 2pm, costing a whopping $50 USD from San Pedro Water Taxi, but before boarding we were requested to lay our bags out in a very neat line so the army (along with immigration officials) could run their dogs on them, they were checking for drugs and other contraband. Then we were away, until we got to San Pedro in Ambergris Caye, where further immigration procedures awaited us, basically the stamping of passports and paying more money – $5 BZ or £1.80 / $2.50 USD as a ‘port fee’; or what some consider another scam, as you should only pay an Exit Fee when you leave Belize, if anything at all.
Anyway, our next challenge was accommodation on the island. Which was a near disaster, as on arrival at the Drifting Coconut – a hostel towards the ‘top’ of the island shrouded in darkness, with limited running water and no electricity – had managed to double book our room, even though we had booked a month ahead. Despite this, and after getting nowhere with the woman at the desk, the owner of the hostel arrived and took me round to the other hostels that were still open, just, (most receptions close at 7pm, and it was now 5 past!) until we found an alternative – Jerremiah’s Inn – which was cheaper, yet surprisingly expensive for what we actually got; a creaky weather-worn second floor hut directly overlooking the beach. 30 second walk to the beach, 10 minutes walk to the Lazy Lizard and 10 minutes to the water taxi terminal. So in the grand scheme of things, not all that bad, and actually a welcome relief from what we nearly had.
With accommodation sorted, we could then get on with the more important activity of partying. After a surprisingly restful nights’ sleep, we spent pretty much all the next day at the Lazy Lizard on ‘The Spit’, which resulted in hopping on a boat over to the ‘leeward side’ of Caye Caulker and to Koko King for Happy Hour and sunset watching, before harking it back to main Caye Caulker for Sports Bar. Sadly I remember little of the latter as the rum punch was effectively paint stripper and I don’t even remember leaving Koko King. However, if you are wondering how to get to the less inhabited North Island for Koko King, to watch the sunset, sup those cocktails and down those chicken wings, then a shuttle boat leaves from Ocean Ferry Dock every 30 minutes between 1030am and about 2am. The shuttle is around $5USD return and you get a wrist band, but I’ve heard rumours of the rates changing depending on who’s running the boat. Either way, just remember you’re in gringo land now so its going to be expensive! Regardless, it’s a great chill out place with sun loungers and hammocks free to use, swinging beds, a volley ball net mounted in the sea and an infinity pool. But at $35USD, you’re probably better off going in the sea – it’s warm, clear and FREE – with the added bonus of fish! This is pretty much all there is to do on North Island, as the rest of the island is a forest reserve.
Once we‘d partied our hearts out we then got on with the other important activities below.
We found a plethora of great street food stalls all over Caye Caulker, and most do amazing ‘Fry Jacks’ – basically just a deep fried tortilla, filled with whatever the hell we wanted – for about £1! Tasty, amazingly tasty, but my stomach did not thank me once we‘d had one too many!
Roy’s Blue Water Grill
We went here for snapper: stuffed, grilled, however we wanted it. It carries a price tag, but we got to choose our fish and it is worth it. We were paying the gringo / holidaymaker price after all. On our way here there were many other snapper restaurants punting for our money. We took a look, and although cheaper and still fresh (we’re on an island after all) we still had our hearts set on Roy’s.
Maggie’s Sunset Kitchen
Was good, but we were really just paying for the sunset. I say this because, although tasty, the food was over priced, small portions, and the waiter was most definitely stoned; successfully getting everyone’s orders wrong, and even then forgetting half the food. In terms of value for money, I thought Meldy’s is a much better shout.
Is actually run by the mother of one of the staff of Belize Diving Services. We soon learnt not to go here with any ideas of grandeur, or being able to choose from everything on the menu, BUT, this didn’t matter. Simply because we were going here expecting delicious, authentic, wholesome Belizian food, cooked by the amazing Meldy herself with whatever local ingredients she had that day. Have whatever is on the menu, it’s bound to be good.
Belize Chocolate Company
Technically not on Caye Caulker, they are actually on Ambergris Caye, but really, a post of mine wouldn’t be complete without a chocolate stop mention. Belize Chocolate Company is the most awesome little place run by a British couple living in San Pedro. To read more about this magical Caribbean chocolate paradise then please check out my post San Cocoa, Belize. I can’t recommend these guys enough.
Ambitious plans for spear fishing after the previous day’s Lazy Lizard and Koko King antics were sadly scuppered, as The Hangover to End All Hangovers was in control of my whole body and ability to move. I can, however, vouch for Connor, who lives at Jeremiah’s, who our friends went spear fishing with and had a fantastic time.
There are some epically large fish (that are not sharks) who hang about Caye Caulker by one of the pontoons, in an area known locally as The Tarpon View Reserve. For a small fee we could buy a bucket of smaller fish and feed them to the bigger fish, it was alarming when the bigger fish wrapped its mouth around someone’s whole hand and some of their arm to get the smaller fish. If you’re not up for feeding, or don’t want to spend the money you can always just stand back with the pelicans and watch.
After pretty much recovering from that spectacular fail of a hangover the previous day, we were up at 5am and on our way out for a 3 tank dive in the Big Blue Hole. As my first dive as a qualified OWD I was beyond excited. But, as a newly qualified diver as I could only go down to 18m, and all I could see was the wall with its surrounding underwater life. Advanced divers like Sam had the pleasure of going down to 40m, where the wall opens up into an underwater cave full of stalagmites and stalactites. But that’s not all, booking the Blue Hole dive with Belize Diving Services included a further two dives at Half Moon Caye and Long Caye Aquarium. There was a break in between these dives at a gorgeous little atol for lunch, full of iguanas, giant hermit crabs, red footed boobies and frigate birds. A great Caribbean lunch was provided by the crew. And take my advice – the rum out here is lethal, so even recovering with a hangover the day before the dive, as I’d been paying homage to the porcelain god all day that previous day, my ears hated me!
Land Based Lunching
Of course, I’m backpacking through the Americas, currently on a desert island, my life would not be complete without – yoga! Held by RandOM Yogaon the top floor of Namaste Cafe, this was something I didn’t want to miss, especially given I needed to cleanse my soul after drowning it the night before! As it’s yoga by donation you pay what you think it’s worth (and what you can afford).
Blown your budget on all of the above?
If you’ve run out of money, there are a couple of free things to do on Caye Caulker
There are various ways to keep fit on Caye Caulker; we decided against a golf buggy and just walked around the island, we also found a brilliant little set of weights that had been hand made with metal tins, a metal rod and some cement on the beach, so we felt the need to pump some iron, or pump some cement-filled tins!
Along from the fish feeding pontoon we found an area with some nets dedicated to the preservation of a small seahorse colony. Seahorses are the goofiest little things and we watched them move their way about the nets, going from the curled up ‘seahorse’ shape we are all used to, to an elongated nobly miniature trumpet with eyes as they zoom from spot to spot looking for food.
People do say the best things in life are free, and with home made exercise equipment on the beach and many natural underwater wonders to admire for free from the docs, the list wouldn’t be complete without the sunset! We found many spots to watch it each evening around Caye Caulker, but for this particular shot we just had to just step out of the back of Belize Diving Services and it was right there, in all its golden glowing glory. Whether hungover and / or skint, this is something you won’t want to miss.
This is only a brief selection of what there is to do on Caye Caulker, with only 5 days on the island (and one of them being spent nursing the mother of all hangovers), there will obviously be things we have missed. Feel free to share them in your comments. Equally, if you visited any of the places I suggested above, I would love to know your thoughts!
And remember, Go Slow!
It seems like such a long time ago now, but back in February we’d finally done it, we’d quit our jobs and booked a one way flight out of London. Arriving in Cancun some 18 hours later we immediately left – far too touristy for us – and headed to Playa del Carmen – still equally touristy (they have two, yes TWO Victorias’ Secret stores on the same street?!?!) but a little less intsense and better beaches.
If you’re after a 4 day itinerary in the Yucatan Peninsula that includes getting your Open WAter PADI cert and visiting one of the most amazing little chocolate shops EVER, then below is by no means an exhaustive list, but certainly ticks some of the must do big ticket items on offer along the Caribbean side of Mexico.
Having explored the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico last month, we headed south into the azure blue waters of the Cayes off the Carribean coast of Belize. Having spent the previous 4 days on Caye Caulker; sunning ourselves, relaxing and diving, our next excursion took us to Belize Chocolate Company – an inspiring little chocolate shop in San Pedro, on a tiny spit of land known as Ambergris Caye. Run by a husband and wife team, Chris and Jo make it their mission to inspire and empower Belizian youth to work with one of the country’s award winning exports – CACAO!
When embarking on an international chocolate adventure across the Americas, what better place to start than Chocolateria Isla Bella, or The Chocolate Kitchen, situated on 5th Avenue, on the stunning island of Cozumel, Mexico?
This is the story of two women’s journey to preserve the ancient cacao of Mexico and bring it to the fore in the Yucatan, Quintana Roo peninsula of Mexico; from the bean, to the bar – hand tempering every batch they make!
On such a tiny island many great things happen in the world of chocolate. After an enlightening and revitalising start to the The Grenada Chocolate Festival, with cocoa meditation, cocoa beauty product making and an intense ‘hash’ through the jungle for the first official day, followed by a truly inspirational day two up at Zabuco Estate with Aaron from Tri Island chocolate, it was now time to get down to the business of cocoa. From the macro companies to the micro, past to present it was now time to discover the other influential cocoa growers of the Grenadian (and Caribbean) chocolate scene.
Grenada is known as the Spice Isle of the Caribbean and is famous for its heady blend of clove, cinnamon and nutmeg that wafts around the island pretty much year round – you think it’s a myth until you are actually there, and it wraps you up in a fuzzy blanket of aroma as soon as you step off the plane – or was that the bug spray they doused us in before we left the aircraft? Anyway, what is still relatively unknown to many is that Grenada is also in the world’s top 10 countries for producing Fine Flavour Cacao – quite a feat given how small it is – see map below! It is also home to a very interesting man with very exciting plans for his ancestral cocoa farm!
After four long years I’m finally heading out to the Grenada Chocolate Festival, on the Caribbean island of Grenada (not the southern Spanish town of Granada – spelled and pronounced differently). My plane stops in Barbados for a few hours (it’s the Virgin Atlantic one and about £150 cheaper than the direct route or the one that stops in St Lucia to refuel), giving me just enough time to make a beeline for Oustins – a touristy foodie strip en route to Bridgetown frequented by burnt English people and pissed Aussies. As it turns out I’ve arrived for Friday Night Fish Fry, so it only seems right I settle for a grilled Mahimahi with rice n beans and fresh plantain, dressed with extra hot pepper and cocoa nib sauce and a rum punch to wash it down.
A little prop plane awaited my return to the airport, a drastic transformation from the jumbo I came over on, and in less than one hours I touched down in Grenada.