After an exhilarating time exploring the wild jungles and mysterious Mayan ruins on mainland Belize, it was time to soak up some surf and sun on one of Belize’s many cayes (islands). I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end my wonderful week in Belize than in Caye Caulker. Located roughly 21 miles northeast of Belize City, Caye Caulker is one of 400 cayes along Belize’s 180-mile long coastline and after Ambergris Caye is the second most visited. However, don’t let her popularity fool you. This tiny island offers island and ocean loving travelers a wonderful refuge to swing away lazy afternoons in a hammock or take an adventure of a lifetime swimming with nurse sharks and sting rays in the nearby Belize Barrier Reef. Best of all, Caye Caulker still has retained her laid-back island charm despite the upswing in tourism. Whether a few days or a week, there is plenty of things to do in Caye Caulker. Check out my guide on how to go slow, as the locals say, in Caye Caulker.
After almost a week in Belize exploring the ancient Mayan masterpieces of Lamanai, Xunantunich and the depths of the mystical underworld of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, one would think that I’d had my fix of Mayan ruins. However, as soon as I realized that one of the grandest ancient Mayan cities of all, Tikal, was right across the Guatemalan border from our base in San Ignacio, I knew I’d have take a day trip to Tikal. With over 3,000 buildings spreading across 212 square miles of thick rugged jungle, Tikal is the largest and most restored archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya Civilization. Yet, the plot thickens. Recent LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping has revealed that the ruins of Tikal are even grander and more magnificent than ever imagined.
Deep beneath the jungle canopy lies 61,000 hidden structures representing part of a vast network of ancient Mayan cities that were perhaps the most advanced civilization of its time. The historical and archeological significance of the findings is immense. Could Tikal be even grander than the ruins of ancient Rome or Egypt? With all the mysteries surrounding Tikal, I knew I’d have to see for myself.
Resting majestically atop a plateau overlooking the Mopan River and the Guatemalan countryside of Western Belize lies Xunantunich, one of the largest ancient Maya cities ever built. These impressive yet mysterious ruins were lost for centuries until discovered in 1890 by a local villager who mistakenly thought he had seen a ghost of a maiden giving Xunantunich its infamous name which translates into “Stone Maiden”. Built in the 7th century, these incredible ruins feature some of the most stunning hieroglyphics and friezes in ancient Maya culture as well as intricately carved stellas, 25 temples and well-preserved palaces.
Today Xunantunich is Belize’s most visited site, and the surrounding area of the Cayo District has become one of the most popular destinations in mainland Belize known for its multitude of Maya sites as well as its incredible caves, waterfalls, rivers and lush jungles. There are tons of adventure activities to be found which include hiking, kayaking, swimming, canoeing, zip-lining and of course exploring the incredible cave systems. You can easily spend a few days here with the highlight of your visit being a trip to Xunantunich.
The Maya empire evolved around 2000 BC and thrived until their decline in 1500 AD. The highest point and power of Maya Civilization was known as the Classic Period from 250 AD – 900 AD. It was during this time that the political system changed into a Theocratic system where rulers represented the Gods to the lower class people on earth. Knowledge was power and since low-class people had no education, they believed whole-heartedly in their rulers. The Classic Period was a flourishing period of massive growth and the building of the incredible temples, pyramids and cities that are left behind today.
Xunantunich may have been occupied as early as 1000 BC but it was little more than a village. The large architecture that we see today began to be built in the 7th century AD. An estimated 7,000-10,000 people lived at Xunantunich during its peak and the city was quite possibly politically aligned with neighboring Naranjo just 9 miles west in Guatemala. In 1000 AD Xunantunich was abandoned right around the time that many other large Maya cities were being dismantled as the Maya civilization was falling apart.
Xunantunich is unique because it is the oldest continuously excavated Maya site in the country. The ruins were first explored in the 1892 by Dr. Thomas Gann, a doctor from Britain. Gann returned a second time in 1924, unearthing many Maya treasures which have tragically been lost or given away to private collectors. There has been continuous excavations and restorations since 1990 by the University Of California (ULA) under the direction of Dr. Richard Leventhal. These excavations continue to bring new discoveries and treasures helping historians and archeologists piece together the ancient Maya past.
One of the biggest and most impressive Maya buildings ever found was discovered in Xunantunich. Known as “El Castillo” (The Castle), it is covered in elaborately carved friezes, and remains the second-tallest tallest man-made structures in Belize. One of the figures carved on El Castillo is a three-dimensional seated person which is rumored to be the “stone maiden” that the villager saw when he stumbled upon the site.
I woke up to the singsong sound of birds as the sun burst through the drapes, casting a zigzag of light across my room. After two carefree days at the Black Orchid Resort near the tiny village of Burrell Boom in Belize, I’d finally been brought back to life with a newfound energy that had long disappeared. I jumped out of bed, excited for the day ahead as we were heading to San Ignacio, the heart and soul of the Cayo District in Western Belize where we’d be swallowed into a world of thick, lush jungle, mysterious caves and extraordinary Maya ruins. But first, we were making a stop in the village of San Antonio, home of the largest Maya community in all of Belize. In San Antonio, we would learn about an exciting initiative helping to empower local Maya women called the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative supported by our tour company G Adventures and their nonprofit partner Planeterra.
As out group gathered into the van, I sat up front next to the driver so I could learn more about the four different ethnic groups in Belize. Our driver Carlos was Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Indigenous decent) which is the largest ethnic group in Belize making up approximately 34% of the population. After Mestizo, the next largest group is Creole followed by Maya and Garifuna. The Creole and Garifuna population both are descendants of African Slaves whereas the Maya population is centered within the tropical lowlands of Central America. Over time, the Maya spread out into parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. The Maya make up about 11% of the population in Belize and there are three different linguistic groups: The Yucatec Maya who came from Mexico and live in the north, the Mopan Maya who live in the Southern Toledo district, and the Kekchi Maya who live in Western Belize.
Nestled in a verdant valley, about a 20-minute drive from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena in the heart of the Cayo District of Belize lies the village of San Antonio. Populated by primarily Yucatec Mayas, the village is known for its beauty and art, and has a strong farming and agricultural heritage. When we arrived at the co-op, the first thing I noticed was the beauty and lushness of San Antonio. We were surrounded by tropical trees and flowering shrubs. It was no surprise that the Yucatec Mayas chose to settle in San Antonio for its fertile land. Agriculture is king in San Antonio yet it has its downfalls especially for the women who have large families and don’t have the means to earn an income outside of farming.
The San Antonio Women’s Cooperative was founded in 2001 to help promote and conserve Maya heritage, culture and tradition within the community and provide women with an alternative, sustainable income outside of farming. Since most Maya families have on average seven children and education is not free in Belize, girls are often the ones left behind and have few options besides raising a family. Poverty is a big issue and finding employment (especially without an education) in a small village is challenging. The San Antonio Women’s Co-op offers education in traditional pottery making, embroidery, cooking and serving guests through sustainable tourism as a means to preserve their culture and make a living. Today, there are 25 women in the co-op and they are working to encourage youth to participate as well.
One of the highlights of any trip to Belize is a visit to the ancient Maya world and thankfully one of the best ancient Maya sites, the Lamanai ruins, is not far from Belize City and can be easily seen in a day. Lamanai is one of the largest and oldest Maya ceremonial sites within the region consisting of over 700 impressive structures. Lamanai – which translates into “submerged crocodile” – dates back to 1500 BC and tells the story of the ongoing Maya resistance against the European invaders for centuries making this site the longest known occupation throughout the Maya empire. It wasn’t fully abandoned until the 17th or even possibly 18th century. Its impressive setting along the banks of the New River surrounded by lush tropical jungle make a visit to the ruins all the more meaningful.
Located about 25 miles south from Orange Walk Town on the shore of the New River Lagoon, getting to the ruins is half of the fun and is quite frankly an adventure in itself. The majority of tourists opt to take an hour long speedboat ride to the site so you can observe and explore the fascinating flora and fauna that live along the mangroves of the river. Blessed with over 590 species of birds in Belize and plenty of unusual trees and plants, not to mention sun-bathing iguanas and crocodiles, the ride is magnificent and adds to the adventure of the arriving at the ruins. The ride back is full speed ahead and all the more thrilling.
Lamanai was my first experience exploring the fascinating ancient world of the Maya during a week long trip to Belize and Guatemala, and began a deep curiosity and appreciation for Maya culture and civilization.
The Yucatan Black Howler Monkey is the largest monkey in the Americas, and found only in a small section of Central America. Originally called baboons by the locals, the Yucatan Black Howler Monkey has been listed as an endangered species since 2003 and its population has declined over 60% due to loss of land, hunting and disease. Yet an innovative, community-led grassroots project called the Community Baboon Sanctuary located in the Belize River Valley outside of Belize City is doing wonders to conserve and protect both the monkeys and the local community who support them. It was the first place I visited on my trip to Belize with G Adventures and was the perfect way to start off a week of adventure and sustainable travel.
I arrived in Belize City on a non-stop morning flight from cold, wintry Minnesota. The moment I walked off the plane, I was greeted with the sticky, thick humidity of the tropics. A smile instantly came across my weather-worn face. I was ready for some sun and adventure, both which would be coming over the next eight days in Belize exploring the jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, and marine life in the world’s second largest barrier reef.
After gathering my luggage, I was greeted by a representative from the Black Orchid Resort where I’d be spending the first two days of my trip. Located next to the mangrove banks of the Belize River near the tiny village of Burrell Boom, it was the perfect alternative to staying in Belize City. The Black Orchid offered peace, beauty and nature yet was not too far away from the major tourist attractions and very close to the Community Baboon Sanctuary where we would be spending our first full morning.
After an evening of settling in at the hotel and meeting my fellow group of travelers with G Adventures, we were ready to depart for a morning tour of the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS). I was extremely excited to visit the CBS because I love monkeys and I am passionate about seeing sustainably run conservation projects on the ground. We arrived around nine and were met by our guide Robert who would first give us an overview of the project and then take us on a wonderful nature walk within the sanctuary where we would learn about the flora and fauna of the rainforest and be able to observe the monkeys in the wild.
The CBS is an exemplary community-led grassroots conservation project that works to protect the natural habitat of the endangered Yucatan black howler monkeys while also working hand in hand with the local community through education, community development and sustainable ecotourism practices. The CBS was founded by American primatologist Dr. Robert Horwich in 1981 after he identified the region of the lower Belize River Valley as one of the largest habitats of black howler monkeys in North Central America. Working with the local community of private landowners, the pioneering idea of creating a voluntary sanctuary for the monkeys was formed. Property maps were drawn up for each landholder and they were asked to sign a voluntary pledge that outlined the management plans for conservation.
On the Caribbean coast of Central America to the south of Mexico and the east of Guatemala lies the tiny country of Belize. One of the smallest countries within Central America, with a mere population of around 382,000, Belize has an incredible amount to offer the intrepid traveler. Belize’s lush jungle, stunning barrier reef, plethora of ancient Mayan ruins, rich culture, and downright natural beauty make it a haven for adventure junkies, nature lovers and those wanting to experience island life on one of its many cayes (islands). Furthermore, Belize is Central America’s only English-speaking country making travel much easier for those who don’t speak Spanish or Creole.
After exploring much of Central America and particularly falling in love with the beauty Costa Rica, I personally wasn’t sure how Belize would compare. I had honestly never truly given Belize a thorough review, as I had only visited Belize City and one of her lovely cayes for a day trip when we were on a family cruise years ago. But that one visit to paradise was enough to whet my appetite for more and instill a desire to return for a full blown week long adventure. The only challenge was that I would be traveling alone.
After careful research, I found the perfect way for me to visit Belize without my usual traveling companions, my family. I joined a small-group tour with G Adventures, a Canadian-based company with a focus on responsible travel and tourism. I had learned about G Adventures years ago when I heard its inspiring founder Bruce Poon Tip present at a travel blogging conference in Toronto. I was instantly impressed with his vision and passion for sustainable travel through G Adventures’ for Good Programs around the world. I was thrilled to see G Adventure’s Belize Trip used local tour guides, drivers and locally-owned hotels for all the stays, and also included three G for Good Program visits where we could support the local community. I booked the trip in early December and anxiously awaited the departure just as winter in Minnesota was gathering steam.
Gently pushing off the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica lies the beautifully pristine Osa Peninsula, a magical paradise of untouched primitive rain forests, deserted beaches and rural communities relatively hidden to mainstream tourism. Known for its conservation efforts and robust ecotourism industry, the Osa Peninsula is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet with over 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity in less than one millionth of the Earth’s surface area.
With utterly jaw-dropping beauty, immense expanses of virgin rainforest and parts of lush green jungle that literally look like it is dropping into the celestial blue sea, the Osa Peninsula is my favorite part of Costa Rica. What I love best about the Osa Peninsula is it is still a bit of an undiscovered jewel. Despite a handful of small towns sprinkled throughout the peninsula, the majority of the Osa is uninhabited and undeveloped. Even the airports are simply plain old landing strips in the middle of a field or jungle. Its lack of development and its immense bounty of undisturbed nature and wildlife make it the ideal part of Costa Rica to experience pura vida, the pure life.
While many travelers chose to visit the more popular parts of Costa Rica such as the endless beaches of the Guanacaste, the precious yet touristy Manuel Antonio National Park in the Central Pacific Coast or the cloud forests or Arenal volcano of the Northern Zone, a visit to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula will be sure to be an experience not like any other.
Where else can you be rewarded with the opportunity to immerse yourself with the local life, culture and extraordinary nature in one of the most magical, biodiverse places on earth? The pure remoteness of the Osa Peninsula works to keep the hordes of tourists away which is an added bonus. If you want the pure, real deal then go to the Osa Peninsula. It is sadly the last frontier of Costa Rica and hopefully it will stay that way.
Some of the unique things you can do in the Osa Peninsula include bathing in jungle swimming holes and waterfalls, birdwatching in a private lagoon, spending a night in a locally run guesthouse that is only reachable by foot, eating home-cooked Tico cuisine, all while supporting the local community. A highlight of any visit to the Osa Peninsula includes a day or more at the Corcovado National Park where you can see scarlet macaws, monkeys, sloths, tapirs and for those lucky few, an endangered jaguar. You can also spend a day dolphin and whale watching or diving and snorkeling off Isla de Caño or go for a sunset horseback ride on the rarely visited Playa San Josecito. The options are endless and after few days in the Osa Peninsula you will be wishing you had more.
The Osa Peninsula is idea for nature lovers, adventure lovers, families and couples, and especially those who are interested in supporting sustainable tourism. However, be prepared. The Osa Peninsula is still like the Outback and getting there and around requires a test of patience and some white-knuckle driving. Many places are only reachable on foot, on ATV or by boat. For those who love adventure, this is the place for you!
Last Spring, we did our first big family adventure trip to Costa Rica and it was one of our best family trips ever. Trying to figure out the best place to bring two kids, ages 10 and 12, was a bit of a challenge but after researching Costa Rica I knew it would be the perfect place for an unforgettable family adventure and I was right.
Since our trip, many friends of mine have been asking for advice on how to plan the perfect Costa Rica trip so I decided to put together a Family Travel Guide and am hoping this will become a new series of mine as I begin to bring my children out into the world. There is so much I want them to see and explore!
Why Chose Costa Rica?
Costa Rica continues to be one of the hottest destinations in Central America for nature loving and thrill-seeking tourists. Not only is this small country one of the safest in Central America, Costa Rica’s well-developed tourism industry affords numerous options for all different kinds of travelers: Eco, Adventure, Luxury, Beach, Solo and Family. Furthermore, Costa Rica’s insane biodiversity makes it a place where nature enthusiasts can see some of the most unique species of flora and fauna on the planet, a lot of which is endemic to the country. To put it simply, Costa Rica offers the perfect combination of awe-inspiring beauty, nature, beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, culture and adventure for people with all sorts of interests. It is an amazing place!
Where to go with older kids in Costa Rica:
Costa Rica is home to tons of beautiful beaches and resorts along the Guanacaste coastline which is ideal for families especially with younger children. You can make it really easy by staying in an all-inclusive resort offering children clubs, childcare and as many activities as your heart desires. Plus most of the resorts are just a hop, skip and a jump from Liberia International Airport making it a very easy beach and sun vacation. However, our two kids, ages 10 and 12, are not into laying around the beach and swimming all day. Nor are we!
Instead, we wanted to give them a more cultural view of this amazing place and seek adventure as well. We didn’t want to stay in just one location and preferred to move around a bit to give them a real feel of the different parts of the country. That was the hardest part with the planning as we didn’t want to move too much as that would be stressful for everyone. With nine days, we decided on three unique places staying three days each per place and allowing travel time: Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Rio Celeste. We felt these three destinations would each have something a little different and unique to explore and we were right.
Costa Rica is home to two international airports, centrally located San Jose and Liberia in the north which is only an hour drive from the beaches of Guanacaste. Unfortunately we made the mistake of purchasing our tickets based on price and chose Liberia which would have been fine if we stayed in Guanacaste. Little did we know, it was going to be a long haul (about four and a half hours driving time without stops) down to Manual Antonio where we began our trip.
Flying internally in Costa Rica is easy but not cheap and it is on small planes which I try to avoid. Initially we were going to rent a car for the entire trip but decided to break it up by using a driver for part of it and minimizing the stress. We hired Morpho Vans for a few of the long legs of our trip and it ended up being fantastic. We loved kicking back and having a local driver who could tell us all about Costa Rica and do the driving for us. One word of caution: Be sure to rent a car with all-wheel drive so you can handle some of the bumpy gravel roads and water crossing in some areas. Also, get a GPS!
An overview of our route:
We landed in Liberia at 11 am and had to make it all the way down to Manuel Antonio that day (from A to B). It was a long day but we made it just in time for sunset. We spent two full days in Quepos/Manuel Antonio, then drove back up to Arenal/La Fortuna with Morpho Vans, rented a car and spent two days at Arenal. We dropped off the car in La Fortuna, and had Morpho Vans pick us up to bring us to Rio Celeste where we spent the next two days before returning back to Liberia to catch our flight home.
All in all, our trip gave us an amazing overview of the country and each place offered unique things to see and do. We did not visit the beach area of Guanacaste or the Osa Peninsula. You could easily add on one of these destinations if you have another 2-3 days to spare.
“Every ending is a beginning. We just don’t know it at the time.” -Mitch Albom
For our very last day in Costa Rica, we decided to take a full day tour to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a remote wetland known for its incredible wildlife, located about 12 miles south of Los Chiles and near the Nicaraguan border. We arranged for our guide, wildlife specialist Odir Rojas to pick us up at our hotel early in the morning to avoid the high heat and humidity of the afternoon. We also knew that the kids would rather spend the day at the pool instead of doing another long tour so this was our compromise.
Our two-hour drive to the refuge took us north through beautiful lush Costa Rican countryside, passing through tiny farming pueblos (“villages”) and along many gravel roads. Apparently most tours that leave from La Fortuna don’t go all the way into the reserve but only on the edge. Since we were staying in Rio Celeste and had our own private tour, we were able to go all the way in. It was definitely worth the effort!
The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is wetlands area consisting of a vast network of marshes and streams that drain into the Lago Caño Negro during the wet season. Given its unique ecosystem, the reserve is world renown for its excellent bird-watching especially the many species of migratory birds that seek sanctuary in this magical place. It is very remote and there are no public facilities at refuge, only a small family owned farm where we met our boat driver for the tour and were able to use the toilet.
I confess to being a bit surprised by the lack of development at the reserve but by this point nothing should have surprised me. It is rural, local tourism at its finest and thankfully there has been little adverse impact to this fragile ecosystem caused by tourism. The refuge remains hard to reach, off the beaten path and undeveloped. It is a true treasure.
Odir parked the Four-Wheel Drive in the shade under a tree. We were the only ones there. A young Tico walked up to greet us and we followed him a few steps to the river to board our boat. We had the entire boat to ourselves so we were able to move around and get pretty close to observe wildlife. Our driver was very good at spotting birds from a distance and would cut the engine so we could quietly glide in without disturbing them.
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open”. – Jawaharlal Nehru
We decided on a whim to do something different and spend the afternoon tubing down the Rio Frio in Costa Rica. It wasn’t the first adventurous thing we had done since we were there. We went canyoning and zip lining in the jungle near Manuel Antonio. However, that adventure actually ended up feeling tame after our experience tubing down the Rio Frio. It was by no means the leisurely gliding down the river, enjoying the beautiful scenery go by. Instead, it ended up being a pretty wild and crazy thrill ride. We honestly had no idea what we were getting into when we signed up to go with our guide Wilson who had spent the morning with us touring Tenorio Volcano National Park. I guess that is what made the whole experience so memorable.
We met Wilson after lunch for our forty-five minute drive to the river. Along the way, we picked up his son as well as his partner who would be our river guide and safety man along the two-hour ride. We stopped briefly at the “Abrol de la Paz” (the tree of peace), perhaps the biggest tree I had ever seen in my life, and took some pictures. I didn’t catch the type of tree but it had to be hundreds of years old. It was magnificent!
We drove over bumpy gravel roads, passed a few cowboys along the way and ended up at our destination, a fenced in pasture and farm with grazing horses. There were no tourist signs, no buildings or anything in sight except the endless gravel road and the barbed wire fence. It was nothing like I had expected or conjured up in my head.
We got out of the car and Wilson inflated our tubes and grabbed us helmets. I looked around us a little confused. We were in the middle of nowhere and there was no river in sight. Wilson signaled to follow him. We ducked under the barbed wire fence, and began walking through the grassy pasture avoiding cow dung and snakes along the way. It felt like a moment out of an odd dream or a movie. We were lost in translation, not really understanding why we were hiking through a private farm carrying inner tubes and wearing our bathing suits, to get to the river. Apparently Wilson has a deal with the owners who let him use his property to do his tubing tours. We were the only guests.
We met out guide Wilson early in the morning at our hotel and were on our way to Tenorio Volcano National Park. Although the park is only about a fifteen minute walk from our hotel, the Rio Celeste Hideaway, we drove and in the end it was a good decision due to the high heat and humidity that day. It was overcast and had just rained that morning leaving a thick humid mist to the air and lots of mud.
Wilson recommended we pay the $4 to rent a pair of mid-length plastic mud boots and despite the discomfort it ended up being an excellent decision. The trails were slick in fresh, thick mud and my new hiking shoes would have been ruined had I worn them. The only downside was the boots were too big, a bit cumbersome and needed knee-high socks to avoid rubbing. I clumsily walked last in line during our three hour hike but at least I saved my shoes.
Tenorio Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio) was created in 1995 and encompasses over 18,400 hectares of rainforest and cloud forest as well as the Tenorio Volcano itself. Although the volcano is no longer active, there is still a large amount of volcanic activity present. There are hot springs and bubbling water within the river where the volcanic gases are released way below the ground.
The prize possession of the Tenorio Volcano National Park is the Rio Celeste “Blue River” that meanders through the jungle. As you hike along the trail, you can visit a spectacular waterfall as well as see where two rivers converge to create the celestial blue Rio Celeste, a natural phenomenon.
As we entered the park, the first thing Wilson pointed out was the green walking trees which are endemic in this park. They can live in water because it passes through them and a special sap drops off the ends for animals and birds to eat. Although they don’t actually walk the trees do move a small amount each year.