We spent nine glorious days and eight nights in Belize earlier this month (and if you follow me on Instagram, you're likely grateful I'm home now and have stopped posting pictures of margaritas). It was quite possibly the best trip Mike and I have taken together. Even better than a trip we once took to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where we slept on top of our jackets because there was not one but two questionable stains in the room.
We often return from a trip, blissed out by that perfect vacation mixture of rest and adventure, plotting where we'll go next. We came back from Belize, though, plotting when we get back there next. It's a place we're already desperate to return to (with Kyle next time), it was just that incredibly beautiful and special.
We spent our first six nights on Ambergris Caye, the larger of the two islands we stayed on, both not far off the coast of Belize. Those nights we stayed at Portofino Resort, six miles north of San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye. I debated between staying closer to town or further out--and read about a zillion reviews on TripAdvisor to help me decide--but a LivingSocial deal showed up in my inbox one day for Portofino (a place I'd already looked at and pinned as an option), and it felt meant to be. It was a great discount, and after a little more research, we snatched it up.
And, thankfully, I can't imagine ever returning to Amergris Caye and not staying at Portofino.
I probably emailed the resort dozens of times before we arrived, with various random questions about our stay, and each time I got a polite and gracious email back within hours (often faster). This kind of service was just more of the same while we were there. For example, the cabana we checked into upon arrival turned out to be really close to the resort's bar and restaurant. This wasn't too big an issue in the evenings--both closed around nine each night (which sounds early but was never a big deal, and if you want drinks in your room after 9pm, just pick up beer or wine in town)--but was an issue in the morning, when the restaurant began serving breakfast far earlier than I prefer to get up on vacation.
I was nervous about bringing this up with the front desk, but they not only quickly and graciously moved us to a room farther away, it was a bigger room too, and at no extra cost.
We fell into a lovely routine while at Portofino. We'd wake up about 8:30 or so, and we'd throw on clothes and head to the restaurant where continental breakfast is complimentary (toast, fruit, coffee, juice) and you can add eggs or bacon for a few extra dollars. (There's also a full breakfast menu, if you're feeling hungry or spendy.)
We'd sip coffee and feel the sun on our shoulders while we ate breakfast. I eat a lot of granola bars in the car while I drive an hour to work each morning, so these mornings--sitting with my husband, drinking coffee by the ocean--were soul-restoring. We'd then lay around for the next couple hours, reading or napping. One morning we got massages on the beach and one day we took a fishing and snorkeling excursion with a lovely couple we met at the resort, but most of the time, we looked a lot like this.
I've asked Mike if he can look into putting palm trees in our backyard, hanging a hammock between them, and then figuring out a way to move the ocean a few feet from all that. He's seeing what he can do.
The resort offers free use of bicycles, and we'd take those out a couple times to eat lunch or have drinks at nearby resorts or restaurants. One was X'tan Ha, a place a couple miles north of Portofino. We ate burgers at their bar, and we were forced to stare at this. Repulsive.
See that table in the bottom lefthand corner of the picture? That's a table IN THE WATER, and I'm a little sad it was occupied when we arrived because I would have loved to say "Oh, no big deal or anything but we ate lunch in the ocean--no, not on a boat!--actually sitting in the ocean. You don't do that on your vacations?"
I also feel this is the perfect time to tell the story of how I fell into the ocean while riding our bikes to X'tan Ha. See, there's a path that runs alongside the beach and it ran from our hotel to this one, and while I don't ride bikes on a daily basis or anything, I feel rather confident in my general bike-riding abilities. Like, say, if I had to get out of a hairy situation and only had a bike to do so, I'd basically say with a lot of confidence, "Hand me that bike!"
But this particular bike I got from the hotel would not stay on the path. It hated the path. It veered and pulled and at one point, I just fell right off the thing into the ocean. Mike was like, "What just happened?" And I was like, "THIS BIKE IS OBVIOUSLY BROKEN." (This sums up my marriage in two sentences. Mike asks a calm, somewhat confused question and I respond in all caps.)
Later on, I talked to THREE people who fell off their bike (none of them directly into the ocean, unfortunately, so I had no one to commiserate that particular point with) and we confidently concluded that there's one lemon of a bike at Portofino. Obviously don't let this deter you from staying there. Mike swears his bike was fine and I saw many people riding their own bikes without veering anywhere, so your chances are great to get a bike that won't just toss you into the ocean. Also, if you do get the lemon, we can eventually start a Facebook Group and that feels kind of worth it, don't you think?
We also walked down to Jambel Jerk Pit one day, which gets a shout out for being one of the best meals of our trip. It's a resort that closed but the restaurant stayed open, and it was absolutely delicious. (We saw a second location in San Pedro, if that turns out to be easier for you.) (I like how I'm writing this under the assumption that you'll totally be traveling to Belize one day.)
The resort also (wonderfully) has a boat you can jump on to head into town or to other resorts and they'll pick you back up, if they can. If they can't, there's a water taxi that you can call, and most hotels or restaurants will help you make those arrangements. But we only had to take the water taxi once, I think, and Portofino took care of us the rest of the time. One place we absolutely loved (and went two nights in a row, even) was Palapa Bar.
It's a bar/restaurant that juts out over the water, so you are seriously looking at this view from your bar stool.
The food was also amazing. I live in the land of tacos, but the fish tacos at Palapa were the best fish tacos I've ever had. Maybe the best tacos I've ever had. (That's probably the most times I've ever written tacos in one paragraph.)
Oh, one thing I forgot to mention was that we did take a half-day snorkel trip one afternoon to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, and it was the best snorkeling I've ever done (though I haven't done a ton of snorkeling, I have to admit). Still, we saw so many fish, it was like being tossed into a scene from Finding Nemo. Which I said to the tour guide, and he looked at me like I was ridiculous. The second part of the trip--the Shark Ray Alley part--is exactly as it sounds, a place where a whole bunch of nurse sharks and a whole bunch of stingrays gather around boats while you snorkel very, very near them. This sounds terrifying, but it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. (Mike rolls his eyes when I say this because he's the shark expert of the two of us, and he's all they're nurse sharks, let's save that sentence for when we're near a great white or something--to which I say, tell me how that is, I'll be at the hotel pool whenever that particular opportunity presents itself.) Still, swimming with a bunch of sharks! I felt very badass that night.
Another routine we sort of fell into was congregating around the hotel bar each night, which is why we became fast friends with a handful of people. Portofino is a small resort--just 16 rooms, I think--so you can feel like you're in paradise by yourselves for most of the day, but if you hang out by the bar long enough at night, the same lovely people will eventually wander by. So, we would drink and talk and laugh with new friends, and it was such a unique travel experience for us. When one couple left a day earlier than us, in fact, we genuinely missed them that last night. The couple we fished with met us at the dock the day we left, to see us off with hugs and waves. I felt so grateful to be in paradise with Mike, letting months of stressful work projects and the busyness of life just melt away, but I also felt grateful to meet such wonderful people, people I'd never have met otherwise.
We left Portofino and Ambergris Caye on Saturday morning, heading for Caye Caulker for two nights. We took the water taxi to the smaller island, and it took about 30 minutes to get there. Once we arrived, we grabbed a golf cart taxi, which cost $5USD, and went to SeaDreams Hotel. Caye Caulker is a much smaller and more laid back island, and we probably liked this island even more. We only spent two nights because of our LivingSocial deal through Portofino, but we'll probably split our time evenly between the two next time, and I'd recommend that to anyone planning a trip.
We also loved SeaDreams. It's a much smaller, sleepier place than Portofino, of course, but just so cozy and lovely. There's an upstairs bar and breakfast is complimentary each morning.
The hotel has its own dock, too, and you can do what we did--buy ice cream cones and watch the sunset from it.
After we had a drink at the hotel bar the evening we arrived--they give you a buy one drink, get one drink free coupon each day of your stay--we headed to dinner, which was a 10-15 minute walk. We ate at Rose's Grill & Bar, and it was good.
We went to bed early that night (like 8pm early) because for the first time the entire trip, we had to set our alarms. We had a day trip on the mainland planned for the following day and that meant catching a 7am water taxi to take us to Belize City.
One thing we had read and heard to do was cave tubing in the Belize jungle, and we wanted to pair that with a Mayan ruin tour. There were a lot of tours that paired cave tubing, ruins, and ziplining but HAHAHAHAHAHA, no. I've filled my ziplining quota for nine lifetimes, thank you very much. So we asked our hotel if we could do just the two activities and they arranged everything for us. A wonderful tour guide named Dorian picked us up from the water taxi and drove us first to the ruins where we basically had the park to ourselves.
After we toured the ruins, we stopped for lunch between the site and where we'd be cave tubing, and lunch was included in the tour price. It was delicious--and I feel like now's a good time time to say that most of our meals in Belize were absolutely incredible, from our most expensive to the food we ate out of street carts. I had heard otherwise while researching, but was so pleasantly surprised at how good practically everything we ate was.
Cave tubing was pretty incredible and while it was a long, bumpy drive to get there and a long, hot walk to where we got into the river, it felt so worth it at the end of it. You get in an intertube and float down a river, which is mostly in a cave. I don't know that I'll ever get to do that again, and the curiosity and newness of those types of things are such an important part of traveling for me. Something about choosing a place, that's basically a blank slate, and filling that time with memories you'd never have anywhere else. Cave tubing will stay with me as so very Belize. We couldn't take a camera but we did manage to get a couple GoPro pictures (just a couple; most of them were awful and blurry and Mike's already making GoPro Upgrade Plans).
We drove back to the water taxi from there, and as I rushed to make our boat, I turned and watched Mike hug Dorian goodbye, and it was such a nice moment. This man took care of us--and showed us a truly incredible country--and we'll likely never see him again. I am so glad to have that memory, of my wonderful, decent husband sharing a moment with this wonderful, decent man we met and said goodbye to all in one day. (I'm getting rather sentimental at this point in the post, aren't I? Probably time we talk about taking shots and singing karaoke.)
We got back to Caye Caulker and had heard Habaneros was a great dinner spot, but when we showed up, the wait was an hour and a half. As we turned to find a back-up, we heard a stranger invite us to join his table (sat six, but there was only three in his party). Our dinner was fantastic--totally recommend!--and after it, we headed to a local Canadian-run bar for karaoke with our new friends. We enjoyed shots like teenagers and sang songs (Mike knows all the words to Salt N Pepa's "Push It," FYI, and he didn't need to look at the screen once), but were still in bed by 10pm.
We had breakfast at the hotel the next morning before walking around, shopping, and then finally having our final lunch from the King Kebab with this view.
We flew home shortly after lunch, and while we were so eager to get to Kyle, we couldn't help feel just plain sad to leave a place so great. I want to stop everyone on the street and tell them to visit Belize if they can, and I hope we can indeed return one day (maybe for Mike's 40th birthday in a handful of years?).
A few final things: Absolutely everyone spoke English (though many spoke Spanish as well, and those who did were so gracious and patient when I attempted to try it), so you'll have no issue communicating. Absolutely everywhere took American dollars, too. The beer brewed on the island--Belikin--is one of the very few you can find (because of import laws, we think), so when you order a beer, you'll likely get this beer. It's good, don't worry. We really did feel safe the entire time--even though I'd read a few issues about safety and theft. I guess I'd suggest you just stay smart as you probably always should when traveling to another country.
Finally, I owe so much of my preparedness for the trip to a few places I want to link to here: Oyster, for the dozens and dozens of pictures of our first hotel; San Pedro Scoop, the fantastic Belize blog I read voraciously; TripAdvisor, where I spent hours reading reviews and forum postings; and my Lonely Planet guide book (I have the 2011 edition, but I linked to the recently published 2013 edition).