Sunday, August 22, 2010

Karen & Helena

Karen and Helena, mother and daughter from Sayre, Pennsylvania, were at the other end of the spectrum from Dan, Megan, and Jackie as far as planning goes. Karen had booked with us way back in January, and wanted to plan ahead for all of their tours to make sure they got to do everything they wanted to do.

Coming from northern Pennsylvania, which isn’t close to anything (except where Tom and I used to live!), it took them two days to get here with an overnight in Miami. The upside of that is that they arrived in Belize shortly after 10AM, so they were able to stop at the Zoo on their way to Moonracer Farm, as well as being able to take the time for a relaxed lunch at Cheers. However, probably the only disappointment in their trip was that they wanted to meet Sharon at the Zoo and have her sign Helena’s Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, since Helena’s dad is a good friend of Tom Pascarello, who is a friend of Sharon and the Zoo. Tom said they asked at the desk and looked for Sharon, but couldn’t find her – not a big surprise when she’s at the Zoo and doing the jobs of two (or maybe ten) people.

Knowing they were going to be traveling for two days, Helena and Karen didn’t book any tours for their first day here. That gave them time to sleep in – very welcome after only 3 hours of sleep in Miami – have a relaxed morning, and head up to Rio On Pools in the afternoon.

The next day they toured Ka’ax Tun in the morning, and had lunch with Julio’s family. It was too wet to do much climbing on the rocks, but the sun was out, which made the site especially beautiful. That afternoon they went into San Ignacio, hoping to go to Xunantunich. Unfortunately, with all the rain, the river was too high for the ferry so Xunantunich was closed. But, in Belize – no problem! Cahal Pech, a small but still impressive archeological site, is set high on a hill right in the town of San Ignacio, so they toured that site and enjoyed browsing in the outdoor gift shop which had temporarily moved from the road by the Xunantunich ferry to Cahal Pech. And, to further satisfy the shopping craving, they stopped at Sak Tunich on the way back to the farm, and were delighted with the crafts available there.

The following day they toured ATM with Gonzo and, predictably, really enjoyed the tour. Although it can be strenuous, they’re both in good shape and didn’t have any problems – their morning runs together, even while on vacation, definitely paid off! On the way home they asked if they could stop at Sak Tunich again to pick up a few things they wished they’d purchased the day before. Even though it was getting dark, Jose was happy to open the shop, and Helena and Karen were happy to be able to get the additional gifts.

Then next day we unfortunately had to take them to the water taxi terminal to get a water taxi to San Pedro and the Maya Princess Hotel. We had hoped to catch Sharon at the Zoo, but she was off the property that day. So, we have Helena’s book, and next time we see Sharon we’ll have her sign it and send it back north to Helena!

Dan, Megan, and Jackie

Dan, Megan, and Jackie proved that you can have a successful Belize vacation with very little planning. Megan and Jackie are med students, and they had scheduled to do a two-week volunteer program in Antigua, Guatemala. Shortly before they were due to arrive in Guatemala, they decided that they’d like to squeeze in a few days in Belize with Megan’s husband Dan. So, they booked with us on Sunday, with plans for Dan and Megan to arrive on Wednesday, and Jackie to get in on Thursday. They were doing the trip on a budget – they were actually paying to volunteer in Guatemala – so they elected to get a bus from Belize City after they flew in, and then get a cab from San Ignacio to here.

When they got here, they had no idea what they wanted to do for the next three days. Actually, they weren’t even sure how Megan and Jackie were going to get from Belize to Guatemala on Saturday. They thought they wanted to see a Maya archeological site, and they knew they wanted to meet Jackie in San Ignacio on Thursday evening, but beyond that the details were a little fuzzy. So, Tom and I put on our thinking caps and sat down and talked to them, told them what some of the options were around here, and came up with a plan.

Tom ended up taking them to tour Ka’ax Tun and have lunch at Julio’s on Thursday morning. On Thursday afternoon, we took them into San Ignacio to meet Jackie, and they rented a car for $65US day from Flame’s Auto Rental, and arranged to bring the car back on Saturday when Dan would take Megan and Jackie to the Guatemala border to catch a bus to Flores for the night, and then another bus to Antigua the next day. Tom and I then left them in San Ignacio to get Jackie off the bus and go out to dinner at one of San Ignacio’s many restaurants.

Then next day, I packed them a lunch and they headed south on our road to Caracol for the day. They could have spent $80US each and had a tour guide take them, so $65US for the car for the day turned out to be a really good money-saving deal for them. They were able to stay at Rio On Pools after the tour groups left, and made it back here right around dusk.

Saturday morning they slept in, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and in the late morning headed for San Ignacio, where they intended to maybe go to Cahal Pech or Xunantunich, or just hang out, with the dropoff plan in place for the women and the car.

Tina & Anna Leah

Tina and Anna Leah, aunt and niece from Los Angeles, spent their first couple of days in Belize at the Belize Zoo, touring the Zoo in both the night and the day, ziplining, and doing other activities on the Sibun River. They then used their transfer day to do the ATM tour, taking the bus from the Zoo to the ATM turnoff in Teakettle, and meeting their guide there. They caught the bus outside the Zoo right around 8AM, and arrived in Teakettle right around 9:30 – so now we know the timing when our next guests want to do their schedule this way. They said the transportation and the meeting worked out great, and after a day of touring the cave, Tom met them in San Ignacio and brought them back here where they joined Ron and Phil, the two of us, and a surprise guest in the form of Alex, who delighted us by spending the last few days of his 2-month backpacking trip through Latin America with us, for dinner.

The next day they went to Caracol with Ron and Phil, with Selmo as their guide.

In addition to enjoying the site, they were quite taken with Selmo’s five-year old son (whose name I’m not even going to try to spell), and said he was quite the tour guide in training.

The following day they toured Ka’ax Tun, and were joined by Alex, and Chuck and Marjie.

While Tina and Anna Leah elected not to scale the rock wall, they enjoyed watching Alex and Chuck, as well as Julio and his boys, climb up the vines and pop out of small caves near the top of the wall.

After the tour, Anna Leah and Tina had lunch with Julio’s family, while Marjie and Chuck spirited Alex off to have lunch with them, see their land, and visit with their animals. Dinner that night was a grand affair, with Marjie and Chuck bringing Alex back right around cocktail hour. We found that we all had quite a lot to talk about, so they ended up staying for dinner and we made a party of it. Tina and Anna Leah had quite the taste of the Moonracer Farm social life!

The next day, which just happened to be Anna Leah’s birthday, was spent on horseback as Anna Leah and Tina went with Joe and one of his assistants to Sapodilla Falls. Both Tina and Anna Leah have spent some time on horseback, and Joe was quite impressed with what good time they were able to make as they trotted and cantered the jungle trails – and they loved Joe’s horses.

They got caught in the rain, but they made the best of that and just used their already wet clothes as an excuse not to change into bathing suits to swim at the Falls – they just took off their boots and swam in their riding clothes! But, with the weather being how it is around here this time of year, by they time they got home that afternoon, they were dry! I had taken Alex to catch a bus on the Western Highway in that same rainstorm in the morning, sending him on his way to Cancun where he caught a plane back to Florida. I waited with him in the truck until the bus came, but it was raining so hard that our goodbye was very rushed and Alex still got wet running from the truck to the bus. That night we had a very quiet dinner with just the four of us, and we all commented on how quiet it was after Tina and Anna Leah’s first few dinners here.

Anna Leah and Tina had purposely scheduled a free day so they’d have time to relax. But, my and Tom’s need to be constantly active seems to rub off on our guests, and they spent the next day being very busy. They started off for the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, and got there just as a downpour hit.

The guide there suggested that they do something else for an hour or so and come back, so Tom took them off to go gift shopping at Sak Tunich, where they not only toured the site and got to buy gifts, but also got to try their hands at slate carving.

By the time they finished there, it had cleared up enough to tour the Butterfly Ranch.

After lunch, Anna Leah decided she wanted to try chopping – after all, she’d been following guides with machetes around the whole time they’d been in Belize – so Tom took her out and let her try her hand chopping down a medium-sized tree, with success.

Tina then actually got to get a few hours of relaxation while Anna Leah and I took off on the horses for a two-hour trail ride through the jungle, although we spent so much time yakking that we didn’t get to see any wildlife.

The next day they were off to Placencia, so we took them to Georgeville after breakfast to meet Gonzo and Becky, who provided a transfer to Robert’s Grove where they spent the rest of their Belize vacation.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ron & Phil

This past week Ron and his son Phil came to visit from Michigan. Most of our guests are tourists looking to explore the Maya Ruins, learn about the Maya culture, ride horses through the jungles and Pine Ridge, explore caves, learn some about the flora and fauna in the area, and visit the picturesque rivers and waterfalls. Ron and Phil were on a different mission though; theirs was to search for a vacation/retirement location with the opportunity for Phil to keep working since he is too young to retire at this point.

They found us online and decided that since just a few years ago we had accomplished what they were looking to do, we would be a good resource for information about moving to Belize. In our emails back and forth we learned a little about what they were looking for and agreed to help them gather more information about our area.

Their plane landed at the international airport and they decided to cross the country the least expensive way possible.

They took a cab from the airport for US$25 (standard fare) to the middle of Belize City (approximately ½ hour) where they caught a local bus for US$3.50 each to San Ignacio (approximately 3 hours). They then found a cab that would bring them to our farm (approximately 45 minutes) for US$25, exactly what we charge for the trip as well. Since we don’t have phone service at our farm we recommend that if you need a ride from San Ignacio and are not certain of your arrival time in town, it is best to just take a cab or you can email us and wait for us to come pick you up, in which case you need to wait in town until we get your email and then drive in to pick you up.

Upon arrival and during the first part of their journey across the country, Ron and Phil were not very impressed with Belize. The international airport is located in Ladyville, north of Belize City.

The ride south from the airport to the bus terminal takes you through some of the city’s commercial districts, run-down neighborhoods, and through the middle of some busy shopping areas. The sights are in stark contrast to the scenic jungle or peaceful beach pictures that are typically used for advertising Belize as an eco-friendly, tranquil vacation spot.

After starting out of Belize City on the bus, they were quickly out of the city limits and into what is known as the low-lying pine savanna.

This area reminds me of parts of southern Florida, very flat, buggy and marshy during the rainy season and scrubby grassy areas during the dry season. To me, the first 20 miles or so on the Western Highway is pretty sparse and unimpressive.

Once you get to around mile 25 though, there are more pines, some small hills, and you can see the sleeping giant that lays guard to the foothills of the Cockscomb Mountains. After passing through Belmopan though, Ron and Phil started to see what others see in the beauty of the country because they started to climb slowly into the rolling hills and lush jungle vegetation. After catching their cab in San Ignacio and starting up the Pine Ridge Road, they were immediately taken with the surrounding jungle but were not anticipating the road being in such poor condition. Their cab driver had a Ford Escort, which by definition (Escorts have not been manufactured since 2002) is not a very new vehicle, and with very little ground clearance, the trip was very slow and bumpy – this is why we drive a small 4x4 truck which sits up higher and if guests are looking to rent a vehicle, we recommend a 4x4.

Based on their first impressions of Belize, they opted not to contact a real estate agent to go around looking at property. However, they did go down the road to take a quick look at one piece of property just to get an idea of what the prices and house conditions were. After looking, they had a better concept of what the real costs of property are here.

Some things to keep in mind about purchasing property here:
1. Determine who legally owns the land and also what the ownership status is, either titled or leased. While you can purchase leased land, the process to get a title can be very lengthy (as we have heard from others and seen others experience, usually over one year).
2. Look at other similar land in the area. Land and property prices vary drastically and you should do research to find out if you are getting a fair deal.
3. Examine the buildings, and the conditions of the buildings. Unmaintained structures tend to deteriorate quickly in the conditions here.
4. Evaluate the available utilities. Are you able to get on the grid for water, electric, and get cell phone reception? If not, what do you need to spend to get these services or what do you need to do to provide them for yourself?
5. Determine what you need to do to keep your property safe if you leave for any length of time, especially if you plan to spend part of the year here and part of the year somewhere else.
6. Plan on what you would like to bring to Belize and then work with the import duties to see if transporting goods to Belize is better than purchasing like goods when you get here. Import duties are high, but the quality of goods found here is questionable, brand names are copied onto goods (our “Whirlpool” stove we bought here is really not a Whirlpool, it just has the brand name on it) and appliances are expensive here.
7. And you need to remember, this is not your home country. If you don’t like the people, climate, government, infrastructure, etc., you need to work with what is all ready here instead of trying to change everything to what you may be familiar with from your home country.

Ron and Phil decided to go to Ka’ax Tun on their second day with us to learn a bit about the jungle and some Maya history as well as experience some of the small caves and rock formations found here in Belize. On their third day they went up to the Caracol archeological site in the Pine Ridge to see the Maya structures and stopped at Rio Frio Cave and Rio On Pools on the way back.

Since they were flying out the next day, they had Selmo, their guide for the day take them back into San Ignacio for the evening so that they could catch a cab to the airport first thing in the morning.