Into the Caves; San Ignacio, Belize

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!!

Getting There

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.

Accommodation

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!

Activities:

Maya Ruins

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.

Chocolate Tasting

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%.

Rum Tasting

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.

Eating

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)

ATM Caving

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!

Onward Travel:

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.

San Cocoa, Belize

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!

Belize Chocolate Company
Belize Chocolate Company

Continue reading “San Cocoa, Belize”

Isla de 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!

Continue reading “Isla de Cacao”

BIG Chocolate, small Island

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.

The guided chocolate tasting at Belmont Estate with Dr Sukha

Continue reading “BIG Chocolate, small Island”

The Future of Grenadian Cocoa

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!

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 23.13.06.png

Continue reading “The Future of Grenadian Cocoa”

Chocolate Secrets of the Caribbean

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.

Mahi mahi rice n peas.jpg
Some of the best grilled mahi mahi I’ve had!

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.

Continue reading “Chocolate Secrets of the Caribbean”

Grow Your Own Chocolate

Since I’m fascinated with where food comes from, the next logical step in my ‘farm-to-table’ ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate adventures was to try growing my own cacao trees…in London!

It was a challenge, with the first hurdle being to get fresh pods back from Ingemann in Nicaragua through US customs. After enduring a good hours’ worth of questioning by a typically Texan border enforcement official, the pods were let through!

My cacao pod stash, on arrival at Heathrow!
My cacao pod stash, on arrival at Heathrow!

Continue reading “Grow Your Own Chocolate”

A Northern Ireland Chocolate Quest

When you’re asked by the Academy of Chocolate to attend and speak at the Finnebrougue Fine Food Fair in Killyleagh Castle, Northern Ireland, courtesy of Food NI 2016 – the obvious answer to this request is ‘yes’.

The trip was all planned out by Food NI, and after an exhilaratingly turbulent 55 minute flight from Gatwick, I touched down in Belfast City Airport, greeted at the airport by Sharon Machala of Food NI – my chauffeur for the next 28 hours (this was very much a flying visit).

Continue reading “A Northern Ireland Chocolate Quest”

Chocolate on the streets of Venice

August Bank Holiday weekend saw the boy whisk me off to Venice for a belated birthday surprise! Arriving close to midnight, we stayed in the San Sebastiano Garden Hotel; a little out of the centre, but easy walking distance to the action.

Like most trips, I like to research the destination as much as I can, and create a little map with timings and things to do at each location. Very geeky, I know, but it means that if time and/or funds are not on your side, you can still let the place get under your skin, just about.

Geeky Venice Map
Geeky Venice Map

Continue reading “Chocolate on the streets of Venice”

Rummy Yummy Hot chocolate

Hotel Chocolat Hot Chocolate:

Hotel Chocolat are probably what most people think of when considering well-known chocolatiers in London, and although they are a ‘highstreet chain’, their chocolates (and hot chocolates) are not only divine award winners, but also inventive! My favourite is their classic hot chocolate, with a bit of a twist. Whilst a classic hot chocolate with chocolate shavings on top is an option, there’s something really special and a bit naughty about adding a shot (or two) of rum into the mix, and topping it off with the extremely flavourful cacao whip.

Rum Yummy Hot Chocolate
Rum Yummy Hot Chocolate

Continue reading “Rummy Yummy Hot chocolate”