Mexico’s Mini Miami – Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo

The day after we checked into the Deseo [Hotel + Lounge] in Playa del Carmen a group of guests arrived from Miami. This begs the question: why come to Playa del Carmen from Miami when Playa is, essentially, Mexico’s Mini Miami with chic shops, great bars, restaurants and clubs and a long, wide beach just emerging from a multi-million dollar rehabilitation?

For one thing, people come to Playa from all over the world (including Miami) because they can afford to stay in design-centric, risk-taking hotels like Deseo (which is the word for desire in Spanish) and its sister down the block Hotel BÁSICO (more about her later).

Words like “crisp” and “white” certainly spring to mind at Deseo. Some of the rooms are on the small side but the suites are certifiably huge loft-like spaces with patios and enough space between the king size bed and the enormous bathroom to put in an indoor hammock and a huge bathtub and still have room to dance around naked if you want to. Sexy.

Deseo gets even sexier at night when the pool bar gets packed with guests and non-guests enjoying a DJ and the melodramatic (even with the sound turned off) old b/w Mexican movies which are projected onto a big white wall.

The pool at Hotel Deseo by day…

...and by night.

Deseo’s sister, Hotel BÁSICO (both hotels are part of Grupo Habita), is located just a few blocks away. BÁSICO pushes the hotel envelope even further than Deseo does, channeling a cool cargo ship aesthetic and a stripped down look, hence the name.

The starkness and industrial-ness and found-object chic (a wooden saw handle is affixed as a door handle) is not for everyone–especially if you’re shy (most rooms are profoundly open). Design aside, the hotel’s restaurant served up some of the best aguachile (a kind of cross between gazpacho and shrimp cocktail) we’ve ever had and the lobby shop was particularly strong in the earthy, hand-made jewelry department with more merch (including more for men) in the works.

Rooms at Hotel BÁSICO are, well, basico. However, they also feature quirky high design. For example, the black "vertical blind curtains" are made from strips of rubber.

The overall effect of Hotel BÁSICO is of being on-board the hippest cargo ship ever. These industrial-looking tanks are actually the hotel's twin rooftop pools.

Both Deseo and BÁSICO are right on the central pedestrian mall/shopping strip on Playa. It’s actually called 5th Avenue and, true to its name, it’s full of shopping aimed at people who always seem cooler than us (again, just like Miami). Karen did break down and buy a new swimsuit here, however, which should give you an idea of just how infectious the consumption vibe is.

One of the hippest hotels in Mexico gets a lot of its distinct style by co-opting (and improving) elements normally found on cargo ships.

Another way Playa del Carmen reminds us of Miami is the crush of restaurants–some very good, most pretty expensive by Mexican standards. Thank goodness we found El Fogon, an always-crowded taco shop and grilled meat restaurant that served up dishes that were delicious and affordable. We were also grateful for open-air breakfasts at La Cuerva del Chango down a residential street toward the beach off the far end of 5th Avenue. The garden setting is gorgeous, the portions are huge and the dishes are delicious. Try the savory crepes–really more like fancy and light enchiladas. Oh, and Playas even got Miami-style private beach clubs (Hotel Deseo and Hotel BÁSICO both provide free guest passes to three of them).

Good, affordable, non-foofy food can be tricky to find in Playa del Carmen. That made us love the scrumptious and well-priced tacos and grilled meat dishes at El Fogon even more.

Literally on our way out of town after our first quick trip through Playa del Carmen something caught our eye. Just off 5th Avenue we spotted a huge building that looked like condos or apartments. On closer inspection it turned out to be a hotel, but not just any hotel.

There were mannequins posed on many of the balconies and thousands of red light bulbs illuminated the interior ad the exterior. Did we mention the astroturf? We had no time to explore further but we vowed to return to  Hotel Reina Roja (which means red queen in Spanish). Two weeks later we were checking into this new addition to Playa del Carmen.

One look at the mannequin-draped exterior of the Hotel Reina Roja was enough to inspire a return trip to Playa del Carmen so we could check out its experiment in hotel sexiness.

Owned and designed by an architect from Mexico City (his name is on a plaque on the front of the hotel), the Reina Roja has been dubbed a “Mexican emergent architecture theme hotel” and that about sums it up.

Red and black dominate.  The hallways above the lobby leading to the rooms are locked and have been turned into quasi-cages with wire fencing (to keep “them” out or to keep us in?). Speakers in the hall play a constant, incongruous loop of bird and nature sounds. One of the lobby bars features floor to ceiling built-in shelves lined with magic potions more often found in the self-help section of most Mexican markets–sprays, candles, powders and oils to help you achieve everything from a better sex life to success at work to the ability to make your gossipy friend shut her mouth. More than 100,000 red LED light bulbs give the entire hotel a kind of bordello glow.

Each room at the Hotel Reina Roja features a different illuminated headboard--from bathing beauties (aboe) to old VW bugs to a shot from a random stranger's beach wedding in Playa.

The roof-top pool at Hotel Reina Roja may only be a couple of feet deep but it's still thick with hot hipsters.

Then there are those mannequins. The half-clad things are everywhere–in the restaurant, on balconies, in a cage in the lobby. The maids brush their wigs daily and the staff moves them around and poses them for best effect. It’s equal parts sexy and creepy.

Yeah. This woman in the lobby restaurant/bar in Hotel Reina Roja is always there. That's because she's one of the hotel's resident mannequins...

...and so are they...

..and she's a Hotel Reina Roja mannequin too. We love the pillow behind her that says "Be Fabulous."

Speaking of equal parts sexy and creepy, during our stay the hotel hosted a fetish party which attracted locals, tourists, guests and revolved around watching various “fashion” shows of fetish wear and accessories and gawking as a guy airbrushed clothes on naked people. It was voyeuristic and participatory at the same time.

Over the course of a few days we watched hundreds of people walk past the hotel and each and every one of them stopped and stared, just like we did the first time we laid eyes on the red queen. Love it or hate it, the Reina Roja demands to be the center of attention and it certainly wins the prize for the most unorthodox hotel we’ve stayed at (so far).

Revelers at a recent fetish party at Hotel Reina Roja.

Performers at a recent fetish party at Hotel Reina Roja decorate the already-photo-plastered hotel elevator (seen empty on the right).

Now through the end of August, 2010 you can check out Hotel BÁSICO for yourself at a special rate of around US$315 for two nights for two people including yoga lessons, breakfast and happy hour at the hotel’s popular rooftop bar (book by emailing the hotel and asking for this special summer rate).

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Beach Boom – Tulum, Mexico

Tulum has been a major travel destination for years and the place has gone through many changes and much growth. The town of Tulum itself still feels like a Mexican town bisected by a highway. Yes, a shade more touristed than most Mexican towns but with enough local tourists from around the country to keep it real.

The beach area of Tulum is where the big changes are most evident and most ongoing–so much so that we stayed for an extra week to check it all out.

Beach art in front of La Zebra.

We were lucky enough to call La Zebra home for the first few days. Not only did we love the place (more on that later) but it’s also a good example of how things are changing in Tulum. Once a budget-bungalow joint that was free of frills and pretty cheap, as beach digs go, La Zebra was purchased by John Kendall who upped the comfort and decor level considerably.

One of the nine beach-chic cabanas at La Zebra in Tulum.

La Zebra (from US$110) is now a wonderful place to get your fix of beach-chic, Tulum style. Nine cabanas come in skittles colors and have plushly finished interiors (no leaky palapas here). Bathrooms inlaid with gorgeous stones, festive zebra-print linens, a small bottle of complimentary tequila and best of all: they’ve put the fans inside the mosquito nets so you can actually feel the breeze while you’re sleeping! There ought to be a law…

Cabana #1 is larger (two bedrooms), has a really sexy outdoor tub that’s enclosed in walls but open to the sky and is closest to the water. This cabana is perfect for a family or two couples. Just note that there’s no door between the bedrooms.

A shallow basin of water to rinse the sand off your feet before going into your room is smart. This version, outside every cabana at La Zebra, in the shape of a bare foot is the most charming version we've ever seen.

There’s also an even larger room above the restaurant that’s perfect for larger families/groups plus a stand-alone two storey positively luxurious house just a few steps down the beach which they have the gall to call the “Beach Shack.”  In the “shack,” the downstairs room has a king bed and an open-plan bathroom. The upstairs room has two twin beds and a bathroom and it opens onto a big furnished deck with a sink, fridge and outdoor tub. The place just screams “Party!”.

A suite and five more cabanas, with a shared plunge pool, are tucked right across the road on the jungle side of the property.

The bar at La Zebra is one of the best on the beach and their passionfruit margaritas, made with freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice, are legendary.

It took a long time and a lot of effort to get this sugar cane press to La Zebra in Tulum, but anyone who orders a margarita or mojito here will tell you its worth it.

As wonderful as the rooms are, you probably won’t spend too much time in them. La Zebra is right on the beach and it makes good use of its location with comfortable outdoor lounging areas and an inviting bar. Even if, like us, you believe the margarita is more often butchered than perfected, spin the dice one more time and order one at La Zebra.

Made with all natural fresh ingredients, including sugar cane juice squeezed using a hulking old press that’s attached to the bar, La Zebra’s passionfruit margarita is the welcome drink of choice. Warning: you will want more.

Beach lounging, La Zebra style.

Even hipsters have to eat and the restaurant scene in Tulum is definitely up for the challenge. We managed to grab a table at El Tabano (which, oddly, means horsefly) and were immediately struck by the juxtaposition between the staff and diners (all could have been models, except us of course) and the lovely ladies doing the cooking who looked like typical Mexican mamas and daughters busy getting the work of feeding the masses done. They could have been slinging tacos from a street cart but here they were busy drizzling balsamic.

It was a comforting combination that made us expect lively company and great food.  We got both.

As a birthday-party-in-progress passed around tequila shots we settled into our long wooden table and surveyed the more than 15 wines on offer and a menu that ran the gamut from seafood to tortilla lasagna (all listed on a massive chalk board). The homemade bread was delicious, the salad was huge and fish prepared in beer was out of this world–rich, salty, sweet, tender. The soggy and bland tortilla lasagna may need to be re-thought though…

Friends of ours (hi Joe and Pooja) raved about their celebratory meal at the Italian restaurant at Posada Margherita where they ate delicious food and drank lots of good wine. When they realized the restaurant was cash only (heads up) the proprietor told them “Don’t worry. You can pay me tomorrow. What’s important is the food.” Seriously.

That same night we enjoyed, of all things, a Thai meal at the restaurant at Mezzanine Hotel which manages a very urban look and feel (it could be in New York City’s meatpacking district). We sometimes feel guilty for “cheating” on the local cuisine when we choose to do something like eat Thai food in Mexico, but our meal at Mezzanine was worth any charges of food adultery.

Another thing we liked at the Mezzanine: the hotel throws a weekly party with a live DJ. To staff it, they fly in top-spinners from around the world and put them (and one lucky guest) up in a special DJ room at the hotel for two weeks at a stretch. The DJs get an awesome Mexican vacation and guests of Mezzanine get awesome parties.

The Thai restaurant at the Mezzanine Hotel in Tulum got the decor and the food right.

Opened in 1993, Zamas (which means new beginning) is a beach side option that helped spearhead the cool movement out here. Even today it retains a hippy movie set look and feel that’s easy-going and welcoming enough to make sense of the infrastructure, aspects of which could use a new beginning.

A standout at Zamas is the open air restaurant  ¡Que Fresco! where the pizzas are dreamy (out of a real pizza oven!) and the seafood chowder is complex and not fishy at all. Sadly, we didn’t have time to try the rest of the items on the inventive (but not outlandish) menu, but we’ll leave that up to you.

The owners of Zamas are currently transforming a home in the most interesting neighborhood in Vallodolid and plan to open it as their second hotel soon.

Perhaps the ultimate stamp of hip-dom is the fact that Grupo Habita, creators of iconic boutique hotels across Mexico including Condessa DF, Maison Couturier and Boca Chica, is working on a new hotel on the beach in Tulum–look for it to open its doors in 2011.

The view from our beach bungalow at Zamas in Tulum during a break in the rain.

Yes, the chic factor is gobbling up the beachfront in Tulum, but there’s still plenty of jungle and mangrove wilderness here too, thanks in large part to the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an. This 1.3 million acre preserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. The place is full of birds and mammals and even Mayan sites. Kayaking is the main way to explore the preserve since roads and trails are scarce/nonexistent.

Here we are on top of a tower overlooking the vast and varied Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an near Tulum.

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Whale Shark Hunting – Hopkins, Belize

If someone said to you “hey, the world’s most gigantic and elusive fish is pretty much guaranteed to show up at this spot on these days, all you have to do is jump in the water,” wouldn’t you jump? That’s how we ended up going whale shark hunting in Hopkins, Belize.

Decades ago fishermen in Belize started noticing giant creatures in the water around the full moons in the spring and early summer when local mullet snapper spawn off the southern coast. Not realizing that whale sharks, which can grow to 60 feet long, are neither whales nor sharks but toothless and harmless filter feeding fish, the fishermen were terrified. But SCUBA divers and snorkelers were thrilled and the site of this annual whale shark convention, Gladden Spit, was soon inundated with neoprened hopefuls.

The area has since been protected and designated the Gladden Spit Marine Preserve, but a controlled number of divers and snorkelers are still allowed into the water during what’s become known as whale shark season. We recently joined them.

Honestly, does anyone look good when they’re SCUBA diving?

We’re not usually nervous when we dive, but all the hype and anticipation about the possibility of seeing a whale shark (one of the world’s largest yet most rarely seen animals) had our nerves going. Descending into the big blue of the open ocean, without the usual reef around us for visual and navigational reference, also got our hearts pounding. It was beautiful and disorienting at the same time but there was no time to worry about that. We had mullet snapper to find.

Hopeful divers form a circle to concentrate their bubbles in a way that mimics spawning mullet snapper in an attempt to attract a whale shark. It didn’t work.

The whale sharks come here to eat the mullet snapper spawn. Find the massive schools of mullet snapper and you find the whale shark. Theoretically. Thanks to hard working (and fast swimming) dive masters from Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort in the town of  Hopkins we had no problem finding the fish.

Whale sharks proved more of a challenge.

We found plenty of mullet snapper but where were the whale sharks that feed on their spawn?

After three fruitless dives over two days we were getting frustrated–and desperate. We only  had one more dive left and we weren’t feeling particularly lucky. How, we wondered, can something so big be so hard to see?

It was hard to tell if the bottlenose dolphins that swam around us for almost an hour were laughing at our vain attempt to find a whale shark, or just being friendly (photo courtesy of dive master Sam “I am” Noralez).

On our fourth and final dive we again found plenty of mullet snapper but no whale sharks. Then, as if to put things into perspective, a pod of bottlenose dolphins found us and swam amongst us for the rest of our 50  minute dive. They may not be whale sharks but how many people can say they’ve been able to swim with dolphins in the wild?

The pool at Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort was so inviting we had to get in even though we were water logged from our SCUBA search for whale sharks.

We  limped back to our home base empty handed, but Hamansi Adventure and Dive Resort was a great place to try to get over our disappointment. This resort and dive shop just got Green Globe certification. Your welcome note  is written on a dried leaf, re-fillable water bottles are encouraged to reduce plastic bottle trash and guests can offset the carbon produced by their vacation. Animals wander through the beachfront property. The waves crash. The breeze blows.

The beach in front of Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort. There are whale sharks out there somewhere…

Though we were disappointed that we didn’t see a whale shark it was hard to get too stressed out at Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort.

There are other things to do in Hopkins besides look  for whale sharks–like eat. To say Hopkins is a small town is a bit like saying whale sharks are big fish. However, this small town has some pretty big city eats including Chef Rob Gourmet Cafe (the menu changes pretty much daily but we loved the snapper with papaya “ketchup”) and Driftwood Pizza on the beach (our roasted garlic and marinated zucchini pizza was a dream washed down with an ice cold Belikin beer).

Big cuisine in the tiny town of Hopkins.

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Sky, Sand, Sea, Sun, Sharks – Ambergris Caye, Belize

In this era of increasingly painful airline travel we have been very grateful that we’re on a road trip.  However, there are times when flying is the best option. Luckily, flying to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye in Belize via Tropic Air was a delight. Our flight was low key, easy, efficient, comfortable and scenic and delivered us to world of sky, sand, sea, sun and sharks.

We arrived at the municipal airport in Belize City about 10 minutes before our flight was scheduled to leave. After checking in at the Tropic Air desk in what was, essentially, a tool shed with lights, we cleared security by flashing some i.d. and then we got our boarding passes–big re-usable color-coded cards.

In the last of a downpour we climbed on-board a plane that was so small it looked  like we could pick it up if all of the six assembled passengers worked together. Once on board we got no big safety speech. No lame crew jokes (it’s a plane not a vaudeville show people). No chummy introduction from the captain. No infuriating announcement that there will be no food/pillows/blankets/magazines/cabin pressurization.

By the time we’d fastened our seat belts (minus the patronizing demonstration from the non-existent flight attendants) we were already pulling onto the runway which, from where we sat, looked like it was constructed roughly 4.5 inches above the water line. For the next 15 minutes we cruised low and steady over the clear blue water out to the San Pedro airport where we landed without circling even once. What a pleasure!

Check out our in-flight video and see for yourself:


The new Tropic Air terminal in San Pedro is substantially more sophisticated than its tool-shed counterpart in Belize City. There’s A/C, a big tubular aquarium and the 208 Lounge upstairs (named after the Cessna model the airline mainly flies) which promises “Not airport prices. Keeping it local!” Again, what a pleasure!

Now, if you’re picturing the town of San Pedro or the island of Ambergris Caye as some kind of undiscovered hideaway where you’ll string your hammock between a couple of palms and live off of coconut water and fish you barter for with local fishermen you’re more than a decade too late.

Modern San Pedro is a developed tourist destination with all that implies from guest houses to coffee shops to souvenir stores to guides plying their services to drink specials and ladies’ nights. It is not unpleasant–the streets are still walkable and the vibe is still low key and the beach is still gorgeous. And, at the end of the day, Ambergris is still the kind of place where the local greeting is “Smile! You’re on vacation!”

Beach bungalows at Matachica Beach Resort.

Toward the far northern end of Ambergris Caye, past San Pedro and the thick of the hotel and resort developments (some of them resemble horrid condo buildings) that have engulfed it and spread outward, things begin to thin out a bit. The north end is where we were headed since we were staying at Matachica Beach Resort.

One of the two pools at Matachica Beach Resort.

We were picked up at the airport by hotel staff in a golf cart (love those things) then we got on one of the hotel’s boats for the 10 minute ride along the coast of the island to the resort itself. It’s always a good sign when they take your welcome cocktail order and radio it in so it’s waiting for you when the boat docks and our time at Matachica just got better from there.

Sunset from the private pier at Matachica Beach Resort.

A luxury beach bungalow at Matachica Beach Resort.

Read our piece about Matachica for iTraveliShop for more–including news about their brand new bigger and even better beach bungalows and new huge infinity edge swimming pool.

One of the biggest draws of Ambergris Caye is the chance to get in the water in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve with a wide array of sea life including sharks and stingrays which thrive in the shallow, warm, fish-rich protected waters of the reserve.  Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the oldest marine reserve in Belize, covers about three square miles of ocean and reef and the reserve is divided into four zones.

We spent the afternoon of our first day on Ambergris snorkeling around Zone A, the Hol Chan Channel.  The water was shallow and clear and warm and we had a lovely time with fish, sea turtles, moray eels, eagle rays and other reef creatures.

Check it out in our snorkeling video, below:


Next we went to Zone D in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a place called Shark Ray Alley. True to its name, nurse sharks, southern stingrays congregate here in large numbers.

Nurse sharks looking for a handout around our boat as we arrive at Shark Ray Alley. These small-mouthed, non-aggressive sharks look a bit like slugs with fins and their skin feels like sandpaper.

Marine life is attracted to Shark Ray Alley because local fishermen have cleaned their catch at this spot for decades and the animals have become accustomed to an easy meal of scraps. Whenever a boat approaches the sharks, fish and rays swarm assuming its a fisherman about to toss some delicious fish guts into the water. As we prepared to jump in and snorkel around the water was thick with nurse sharks.

Such a high concentration of wild animals of any sort gets your attention. Make them sharks (even gentle nurse sharks) and you get our full attention. Once in the water, we were able to snorkel amongst the nurse sharks, who seemed almost bored of humans.

Check out our Shark Ray Alley snorkeling video, below, to see some of what we saw:


Over the next two days we were back in the water doing some SCUBA diving. There are many dive shops on Ambergris Caye but we chose to Ecologic Divers for a number of reasons including the fact that they really are trying to be a green diving company–they sponsor clean-up projects and offer free dive instruction to  local high school students who participate, for example. We also liked the large number of locals they employ at every level and the playful professionalism of the owners and dive masters.

Ecologic Divers’ office and dock in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Our first day on the boat with Ecologic we hit the Hustler’s Special dive site which had a nice gentle current and produced a spotted eagle ray a remarkable amount of gorgeous coral and intriguing deep gouged-out canyons below us. Then it was on to the Tres Cocos dive site which was similar to Hustler’s Special in a lot of ways.

Karen and Eric checking out the wet stuff off Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Some of the beautiful reef life we saw while SCUBA diving near Ambergris Caye, Belize (photo courtesy of Ecologic Divers).

Karen negotiating a trench during a dive near Ambergris Caye, Belize.

A banded shrimp and two brittle starfish inside a sponge (photo courtesy of Ecologic Divers).

Our second day of diving took us to the Tiburon Canyon dive site where we saw five nurse sharks in first three minutes of the dive plus a loggerhead turtle. We finished up with The Tackle Box, a dive site that was teeming with colorful reef fish–the most we saw on any of the four dives we did in the area.

Did we mention that the Ecologic dive staff did all the hard work (like lifting tanks) and even gave us refreshingly fragrant hot towels on the boat between each dive?



Our Mares masks and fins and our Oceanic regulators and dive computers. Ecologic Divers happens to have top-shelf, clean, well-maintained gear in its rental room but many dive shops don’t.

We  fit right in wearing our Costa del Mar sunglasses–everyone from our Tropic Air pilot to boat captains to dive masters wore Costas to cut the glare off all that water.

A waterproof housing for our Flip video camera (good up to 30′ deep) which let us shoot the snorkeling video in this blog post.


Anyone interested in getting to Ambergris Caye/San Pedro from Chetumal in southern Mexico can do it directly via high speed water taxi without going through Belize City. The trip takes about 90 minutes one way (plus customs and immigration formalities which have been reported to involve some delay). The fare is $60US round trip.

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Bird Brains and Rocks in Our Heads – Crab-Catcher Lagoon and Lamanai Mayan Ruins, Belize

Belize is teeming with wildlife and the remains of ancient Mayan cities. The two go particularly well together just up the New River from Orange Walk Town where the bird-rich Crab-Catcher Lagoon laps at the doorstep of the fascinating rocky remains of the major Mayan city of Lamanai.


Paddling out onto Crab-Catcher Lagoon at 5:30 am for some pre-breakfast bird watching.

Mayan-made Crab-Catcher Lagoon

Crab-Catcher Lagoon is 28 miles (45 kilometers) long and, at times, it feels more like a winding river with its many arms and channels–some of them dredged by the Mayans as a way to bring water to their city at Lamanai. The waterways eventually open up into a wide, deep lagoon and the entire area is favored by birds and crocodiles and the occasional thirsty jaguar which we never saw but we’re not bitter or anything.

Bird-rich Crab-Catcher Lagoon offers many watery routes some of them dredged by the Mayans.

A howler monkey clan (check out the fingers on the baby) was hanging out right outside our bungalow at Lamanai Outpost Lodge one morning.

 Wildlife of Crab-Catcher Lagoon

Though we saw gorgeous birds nearly everywhere we looked, it was ants that lead us to our rarest sighting. During our early morning canoe trip we heard a ruckus in the underbrush and nosed in to investigate.

Then the earth began to move as swarms of army ants marched across everything in their path, oblivious to the rarely-spotted Yucatan jays (they’re the blue ones) which hopped around gorging on the insects. Check it out:



Black-collared hawks let us get within a few feet of them before they took off.

A pygmy kingfisher is no bigger than a handful of cotton balls and the adorable little things look just about as soft.


Lamanai Outpost Lodge, right on the banks of the lagoon, has an impressive location and an even more impressive roster of excursions for guests. All of the usual suspects are on offer (jungle medicine walks, bird-watching excursions, even a sunset cocktail cruise on their pontoon boat) but they also organize innovative tours like visits to members of a nearby Mennonite community, learning to cook like a Mayan with women in a nearby village, night time spear fishing or helping visiting researchers tag baby crocodiles. Really.

Darkness brings out a whole different side of the plants that thrive in Belize’s Crab-Catcher Lagoon.

 Crab-Catcher Lagoon at night

Night time is just as busy out on Crab-Catcher Lagoon with boat safaris using high-powered lights to spot the flashing eyes of crocodiles and the dozing outlines of birds.  It’s an odd sensation (a little creepy, like peeping) to watch birds which are usually flurries of activity during the day as they snooze like babies on tree limbs at night.

Strangely, at night the birds seemed to think they were invisible in the dark and they just sat there as we floated far closer to them than we could have during daylight.

And why don’t they fall off those limbs when they sleep?


The High Temple, built in 100 BC, at the Lamanai Mayan Ruins.

 Beating the crowds at Lamanai archaeological site

Anyway, another great reason to stay at Lamanai Outpost Lodge is the opportunity to start your tour of the neighboring Lamanai Mayan Ruins (allow three hours at least) early in the morning so you can beat the heat and the boat loads of day trippers from cruise ships which start arriving and clogging up the place by mid day.

Karen celebrating at the top of the massive High Temple at the Lamanai Mayan Ruins.


The Mayan city of Lamanai (which means submerged crocodile) is believed to have been settled as far back as the 16th century BC, yet most of it remained unexcavated until the 1970s. Now four distinct areas have at least been cleared and the massive temples, ball courts and other structures are fascinating and huge–large enough to actually give the feeling of distinct neighborhoods.

Karen checking out a recently placed reconstruction of one of the intricately carved faces which give the Mask Temple at the Lamanai Mayan Ruins its name.

This original mask at the Mask Temple at Belize’s Lamanai Mayan Ruins is about to be covered (for conservation reason) by a replica currently being constructed on site (see the image below).

Artists at work on a replica of a carved face that decorates the Mask Temple at Belize’s Lamanai Mayan Ruins. When they’re done, they will cover the original face with their copy in order to protect the Mayan’s work.

The Jaguar Temple at Belize’s Lamanai Mayan Ruins.



The Jaguar Temple at Belize’s Lamanai Mayan Ruins. Note the distinct remains of a jaguar mask in the lower left-hand corner.



SureFire flashlights which helped us spot and approach dozens of birds in the Crab-Catcher Lagoon during our night safari.

Costa del Mar sunglasses which cut the glare and let us see more during hours of touring on Crab-Catcher Lagoon.

Canon 50mm f1.4 Lens which is tough enough to take out on a boat or canoe and fast enough to shoot the smallest and darkest subjects even at night.

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Jungle Surprises – Northern Belize

We were in a hurry. The border crossing from Chetumal, Mexico to Corozal, Belize was painless, however, it still took longer than we anticipated  to get to the border and then get across it. With dusk approaching we drove through Orange Walk Town, made our turn toward a village called Yo Creek then high-tailed it north toward Chan Chich Lodge in northern Belize, jouncing over increasingly pot-holed dirt roads interspersed with even more brutal sections of eroded-pavement (there’s a reason most lodge guests fly in).

About an hour later we miraculously hit smooth pavement: we’d reached the Blue Creek area which was settled by members of a  Mennonite community who live and farm in this part of Belize. The Mennonites, apparently, hate pot holes as much as we do.

Too soon, we left the Mennonites and their lovely smooth road and continued on through larger and larger stretches of thick jungle and deeper and deeper pot holes.

Chan Chich Lodge in northern Belize delivers luxury bungalows and gourmet food set amongst the unexcavated mounds of ancient Mayan ruins. This shot was taken from the top of one such mound looking down on our bungalow.

Reaching Chan Chich Lodge as dusk fell was, however, worth every bump. Chan Chich opened in 1988 at the pointy end of the nature resort trend and continues to get rave reviews more than 20 years later.

The thing at Chan Chich isn’t the luxury, though there’s plenty of that. The lodge’s 12 bungalows (plus one full house) are atmospheric and absolutely comfortably appointed with ample porches and yummy beds.  The service is great. The pool is inviting. The food is superb. For more, read our full profile of Chan Chich Lodge for iTraveliShop.

The real clincher at Chan Chich is the setting. Not just deep in the jungle (it is), Chan Chich was literally built amongst unexcavated Mayan ruins. Believed to have been inhabited as far back as 770 BC, the complex includes two large plazas, numerous courtyards and other structures including a ballcourt.

Chan Chich Lodge occupies what was one of the plazas and the mounds of the other structures and sites dot the surrounding acres–many linked via well-maintained jungle trails so you can explore them whenever you feel like unleashing your inner Indy.

Morning light. Time for the night creatures to give way to the day creatures, a jungle shift change that is usually accompanied by the unearthly screaming of howler monkeys.

The lodge provides plenty of other reasons to hit the trails too and we took advantage of morning and evening walks during which we spotted (with a lot of help from the experienced lodge guides) more than 20 species of birds that we’d never seen before including a stately white hawk and the impossible-looking keel-billed toucan. While the big prize, the jaguar, eluded us other guests did see a puma the night before we arrived.

Your most common companions at Chan Chich will also be your wake up calls.  As the sun rises, howler monkey family groups begin to stir in the canopy surrounding the lodge and as they do they begin to howl. True to their name, these small black monkeys really let loose with a roar that sounds like pure evil, even thought the monkeys themselves are harmless their brief, daily racket sounds like a bunch of crazed serial killers with heat stroke. You’ll get used to it.

Sleep through the howlers and you’ll be roused by the ocellated turkeys. Once common throughout the region but now considered threatened, these delicious birds (that’s the problem) are more peacock than turkey with iridescent feathers, glow-in-the-dark head warts and a distinctive call that includes a bit of gobbling plus a series of thumps that builds into a noise that sounds like someone trying to start a stubborn motorcycle  or an uncooperative lawn mower. Really, you won’t think it’s a bird at all (get the full effect in our video a bit later in this post).

Karen following a guide during a morning bird watching walk along jungle trails on the Chan Chich Lodge property.

Chan Chich is owned by the Bowen family which also owns Belikin Beer, the only beer made in Belize. The family also owns nearby Gallon Jug which  is part working cattle ranch, part coffee plantation, part self-contained town and part privately owned conservation area. They’re doing a good job at all four endeavors–their beef and their coffee are both excellent and the thousands of acres the Bowen family currently owns and protects (things are that big out here) form part of a vital wildlife habitat and migration corridor.

This is the post office at Gallon Jug homestead. The “mail boxes” inside are actually old wooden Coca Cola crates nailed to the wall–fitting since the Bowen family, which owns this working cattle ranch and coffee plantation as well as Chan Chich Lodge, made their considerable fortune as Coke distributors.

This magnificent creature is an ocellated turkey–part peacock, part butterball.

Check out our video, below, to see and hear ocellated turkeys in all their unique glory.


We were encouraged by the fact that there’s a jaguar right on the sign for La Milpa Field Station in the massive Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area in northern Belize.

In the 1980s the Bowen family sold off more than 100,000 acres of their land to help create the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. At 260,000 acres, the RBCMA is the second largest single protected area in Belize encompassing 4% of the country’s land mass. The RBCMA is home to 200 species of trees, 390 species of birds, 70 species of mammals and—most importantly—all of the big cats that are native to Central America, including what some consider to be the healthiest population of jaguars in the region.

Programme for Belize runs the RBCMA including its two field stations (La Milpa and Hill Bank) which each offer dorms, bungalows and a restaurant for visiting researchers and travelers.

In early 2010 the La Milpa Field Station in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area unveiled eight new cabins, making it even more pleasant to spend a night or two here in the jungle.

In January of 2010 the La Milpa Field Station unveiled eight new bungalows and a refurbished dorm building and all of the accommodations are sparkling clean and more than comfortable with plenty of space and private bathrooms (in the bungalows) or giant inviting shared bathrooms in the dorm (which is usually booked by visiting research and university groups).

There’s even a kitchen which turns out simple but tasty meals all day. Even better, every single tourism dollar gathered at La Milpa Field Station and Hill Bank Field Station (which offers similar accommodations) goes to support the non-profit Programme For Belize.

Karen scanning the skies at La Milpa Field Station in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area where nearly 400 species of birds live or migrate through.

Another great reason to visit the La Milpa field station is manager Vladimir Rodriguez, aka The Bird Ninja. With more than 10 years of experience in and around La Milpa, Vladimir literally knows this jungle like the back of his had. More importantly, he knows the hundreds of species of birds that live in or migrate through this area. He knows them by sight. He knows them by habit. He knows them by call.

He knows them so well that one minute he can be pointing out an unsettlingly tiny green-breasted mango hummingbird in its delicate nest, then hear a call behind him and whip around to precisely point to a red-throated ant tanager on a branch behind us. That’s why we call him The Bird Ninja. His skills helped us spot more than 50 species of birds in just two days at La Milpa Field Station.

Yeah, we sound like a couple of nutty birders now but that’s what a few days in the jungle with Vladimir will do to you. You have been warned.

A keel-billed toucan.

This tiny black orchid is the national flower of Belize.

Darkness doesn’t bring an end to the wildlife spotting in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, it just means there are different creatures to look for. Armed with a range of high-powered flashlights (including our beloved SureFire flashlights), we hopped into the bed of a truck and headed out on a night safari along a dirt road.

New and different birds presented themselves, including an owl-like thing called a northern potoo. We also got the chance to see a gray-tailed fox which, we were told, can climb trees, and the Ninja spotted a tiny Yucatan banded gecko. Don’s ask us how.

La Milpa Field Station manager Vladimir Rodriquez spotted this tiny Yucatan striped gecko in the dark during a night safari. True story.

Many of the massive trees in the jungles of Belize are kept upright by equally impressive buttress roots.

As if all that wildlife wasn’t enough, La Milpa Filed Station also has its own ancient Mayan ruins. The La Milpa site, about three miles from the Field Station, is largely unexcavated but has been researched and explored for years–currently by profs, students and researchers from the University of  Texas.

Incredibly, this stele, at the largely unexcavated La Milpa ruins, is actually in its original position.

The La Milpa site hasn’t been all dug up and reconstructed like other Mayan archaeological sites in the region (Lamanai, Altun Ha). This means a lot is left to your imagination and that makes it really engaging and fun to wander around the mounds and just picture what the city might have been like.

La Milpa is also very lightly visited so you and Vladimir (as a guide) are likely to have the place to yourself except for the resident spider monkeys and other creatures. Not far from the La Milpa site we actually saw claw marks and a scent patch in the ground from a cat who’d passed through earlier in the day.

A curious spider monkey.

The hatchet marks on the trunk of this chicle tree were made by chicleros who tramped the jungles of Belize tapping these trees for their sap which was turned into chewing gum until synthetic ingredients took over and killed the natural chicle industry in the 1950s. The scars remain on trunks throughout the jungle.

Glad We Had:

Bilstein monotube gas-pressure shock absorbers which evened out the miles and miles of pot holes we faced between Orange Walk Town and the remote Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area.

Our BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO tires which never sucummed to the jagged rocks along the way.

SureFire M6 Guardian flashlights which kicked out more than enough light to illuminate large sections of canopy and jungle floor, helping us spot wildlife (including a gray-tailed fox) during night safaris.

Point6 wool socks, which kept our feet dry and cool no matter how much jungle tramping we did.

Read more about travel in Belize


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