By Suzanne Solsona
When you are married to a man who has seemingly been everywhere and done everything, traveling to a place that renders him speechless is quite a feat. Caye (pronounced “key”) Caulker, Belize and the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala managed exactly that, enthralling three generations of our family in just two short weeks.
In March 2011 my husband, Javier, our two boys, Nash, 2, and Rio, 5 months, and my father spent two weeks in Belize with a side trip to Tikal in Guatemala. We chose Belize because of the relatively short flight from our then home in San Mateo, Calif., and because my dad and husband had never been there. And for me? After five months of dealing with a colicky baby, sunshine, beach and tropical fruit was an easy sell.
First we landed in Belize City, the country’s coastal capital, rented a vehicle and headed toward Tikal in Guatemala, where we’d visit the next day. We booked a lovely hotel in San Ignacio, about 71 miles southwest of Belize City. An ideal hub for those looking to explore Mayan ruins including Tikal, about 90 minutes west of the Belizean border; it’s also popular for its various outdoor activities such as caving, kayaking and hiking.
But our first stop in San Ignacio was a local market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, when we happened upon a large group of kids playing in the Macal River. Since we are avid photographers and love to take portraits of local people, we spent an hour with them as they happily posed for the cameras. Having a baby in a carrier makes a female photographer that much more approachable, so getting up close with the children was a breeze.
The next day we arrived at Tikal National Park in time to tour the ruins for a couple of hours before they closed for the day. Isolated in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle, Tikal was one of the major centers of the Mayan civilization, which existed from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D., and was named in 1979 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Important not only for its cultural and historical significance but also its rich biodiversity, the entrance fee of $20 per day is reasonable, especially considering the significance of the site.
There is so much to see and experience because the site is enormous, more than 200 square miles comprising six major temples. The thought of people living their lives there thousands of years ago is almost incomprehensible, so I was grateful to catch a glimpse of that ancient culture as we stumbled upon a ceremony of indigenous Guatemalans. Dressed in colorful, traditional textiles, we watched them dance, chant and burn fragrant herbs. I felt as if we were intruding, but the participants seemed more than willing to let us watch and take photographs, smiling graciously. What were they celebrating? I am not sure and, really, I am not sure it matters. But it was amazing to witness and connected me to the site in a mystical way.
As for my boys, I’ll admit this tour was more suited to adults and older children. And although we carried them a lot of the way, they were troopers considering how much we walked. Nevertheless, Nash often requested to go back to the hotel, which we later learned was the result of sunstroke. He threw up all night after our first afternoon there, but luckily we always carry Pedialyte powder sticks with us. So after plenty of hydration and rest, he was fine the next day.
We stayed that night at the Park’s hotel, Hotel Jaguar Inn Tikal, which was reasonably priced, comfortable and convenient. And it was even more worthwhile staying there because it allowed my husband and father to take the sunrise tour of the ruins with a guide. I would have loved to have gone too, but sometimes being the mama means staying with the babes and missing out a bit. But they told me the guided tour was worth the early wake-up call, offering effusive praise of the guide and the experience. Even though they toured the same ruins that anyone can visit, the simple fact of being there with a tiny group watching the sun rise let them be in the moment and experience vistas that few people will ever get to witness.
After more nearly two full days of touring the ruins, however, we all felt we’d experienced the ancient site to its fullest and headed back to Belize. Waking up in Guatemala and going to bed in Belize was not at all a bad way to celebrate what happened to be my 39th birthday! The border crossing between countries was easy, and officials even remembered Nash from two days before. My point? Traveling with kids in Central America was extremely easy for us (it helps to speak Spanish) because family and children are such an important part of the culture. Got kids? Go there.
We spent the next five days in San Pedro, located on the Southern part of the Ambergris Caye, one of the many beautiful, Caribbean islands of Belize. Once dependent on fishing, it is now a bustling tourist destination full of foreigners seeking sand and sun. As a result, the area is flush with hotels within all price ranges.
We stayed at the Royal Caribbean Resort, away from downtown but within reach of most amenities. We had our own cabins with kitchenettes, so my father enjoyed some privacy. The resort’s beach was limited, however, so if you’re planning to spend a lot of time there with the little ones, this might not fit as well. But it was perfect for us and an early-rising Nash as we caught a beautiful seaside sunrise each morning.
Despite the island’s touristy feel, we found bits of culture by walking everywhere, exploring every side street we encountered. We’ve never been a stroller family, and vacation is certainly no time to start, so it can be challenging to walk around with children. As we searched for authentic experiences, I held Rio in a carrier, and Javier shouldered Nash.
We enjoyed talking with locals, finding out where they buy groceries and what they like to do. A big upside of traveling with children is that people tend to let their guard down, so we could sit in one place for hours, watching local life and taking photos of it all.
Overall, San Pedro was nice, but I’ll admit it wasn’t my favorite. I prefer less touristy destinations, and Caye Caulker was just what I craved; tiny, quiet, perfect for a few days of relaxation. Although the beach at Caye Reef was limited to a bit of rocky sand, we made the best of the fact that we could launch our kites and kiteboard just steps away from our condo. Lovers of fish, we also enjoyed fabulous seafood whether prepared in our condo’s kitchen or at a local restaurant. And the locals were very welcoming, including staff at the little clinic we visited when we discovered the baby had an ear infection.
Boasting the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, Belize has some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world. Unfortunately I was still breastfeeding and not able to go, but my father did and said was the best he’d ever experienced. Not only was the guide exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable, but he also enjoyed spotting fish and sharks in the clear, calm Caribbean waters. Considering he has snorkeled in Hawaii, Australia and many other parts of the world, that’s a pretty good endorsement.
Three years later, we still dream of the times we spent in Belize and Guatemala, even joking about being able to retire one day on Caye Caulker. Every day was spent outside, enjoying the fresh air and laid-back locals. Life slowed down. And I loved it.
If you go:
Once a British colony known as British Honduras (gaining independence in 1981), Belize is the only Central American country where English is the official language, although many speak Spanish as well. Money is easy to get from local ATMs, and flights are convenient and frequent into Belize City. From there you can take a short plane trip or boat ride to San Pedro or Caye Caulker.
- Belize City: Hotel Belmopan, 55 Regent Street, Belize City, 501 227 7351
- Tikal: Jaguar Inn, Edmundo Solis, firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel. (502) 7926 0002
Tours: Jaguar Inn Hotel
- San Pedro: Royal Caribbean Resort, #1 Seagrape Street, San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye, 2 miles south of the center of San Pedro Town, outside the U.S. call or Fax (281) 652-5937
- Caye Caulker: Caye Reef, Bobbi Hammond (Manager), e-mail email@example.com Tel/Fax: +(501) 226 0381 or Cell: +(501) 610 0240 or click here to contact
Suzanne Solsona is owner of MyMayu footwear. She lives near Vancouver, British Columbia.