Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cold! And dry…

We’ve been here four years now, and while we know that’s not enough to make us experts on the annual weather patterns, we’re not alone in noticing that the weather this winter has been much different than the past few years.  In each of the other years we’ve been here, December has been relatively wet, with the rain lasting into January and the beginning of February.  This year, the rain stopped in the end of November, and we had six very dry weeks before we had a few days of showers, but now the rain seems to have stopped again.  Plus, it’s been cold, at least by our standards, with nighttime temperatures in the 50s, and daytime temperatures frequently not getting out of the low 70s.  We’ve had this weather in past years in January and February, but it seemed to arrive at least a month early this year.  The locals say the dry season is starting early, and it certainly seems like that to us as the ground is starting to crack, and the leaves are drying up and falling off the trees, making it feel very much like autumn here.  This has been bad for many of the farmers who planted crops in the end of November and beginning of December, expecting a couple of months of rain, but who are now either working to irrigate their crops or watching everything grow very slowly.  The tourists have loved the daily wall to wall sunshine, and they like using blankets instead of air conditioners, but for those of us living here who rely on the rain not just for crops but in order to keep our water supplies flowing, it’s a little frightening.  We will keep you posted…but in the meantime, feel free to do a raindance.

New neighbors

We spent most of last week listening to bulldozers in the jungle. Our neighbors, Todd and Tatiana from New Mexico, are finally getting ready to make the move to Belize on the 75 acres they own in the jungle behind us.

Todd came to Belize shortly after the New Year to try to get things set up so he could come back in March to get a driveway put into their property, and to talk to the house builders in Spanish Lookout about building their house. Everybody always says that everything takes a long time here, but the stars aligned for Todd, and he not only managed to negotiate a good price for the house they want, but he also managed to get the driveway put into the cleared house site. He had to stay a week longer than planned, but he now doesn’t have to come back in March to do it. We were amazed that he could get it done so quickly, but everything just worked – the excavator was free for the week, the weather cooperated, and Todd was here, so it got done. And, the house site is beautiful, on top of a small hill nestled into the mountains, and the driveway is a pleasant winding road to the house site. Now we just have to wait for him to come back in a few months to see if his luck holds and he can get the next steps done as quickly!

Thanks, Caribbean Tire!

We had another “only in Belize” experience recently with the Caribbean Tire store in Spanish Lookout. A few months ago, we had a lot of work done on Tinkerbell. She needed a new starter, and because the old starter had drained the batteries, Tom had to buy two new batteries. We were very busy with guests over the holidays, so Tinkerbell just sat. Last week, Tom wanted to move something big, so he went out to start her up, and absolutely nothing happened when he turned the key. Tom was kicking himself, thinking the starter was bad again just after we had all that work done, but he decided to check the batteries with our computerized battery charger, just to see if that was the problem. When he tried to charge them, the computerized charger kept giving him an error, saying the batteries were no good.

Tom took the batteries out of the truck and headed for Caribbean Tire, where he’d purchased the batteries. The guy at Caribbean Tire took the batteries to run his own tests on them, and came to the same conclusion as Tom – the batteries were bad, after only about three months of infrequent use. The batteries are warrantied for a year, so he prorated the cost of new batteries with three months removed, and started helping Tom purchase the new batteries. During this procedure, Tom mentioned that they were for a diesel Ford F-250, and the guy stopped and asked Tom why he’d purchased these batteries for that truck. Tom told him that the sales attendant at the store had told him that these were the batteries he needed for that vehicle. The guy working with Tom told him that the batteries he’d purchased were too small, and he should have purchased some bigger – and less expensive – batteries, but at least they now knew why the two batteries had gone bad.

So, they had a meeting of the minds to decide what to do – and the Caribbean Tire guy decided that it wasn’t Tom’s fault he’d purchased the wrong batteries and ruined them. He ended up giving Tom two new proper batteries for $30BZ – or $7.50US per battery! You can’t beat that for customer service, so thanks, Caribbean Tire!

Alex ‘s Return Home

Our friend Alex was just here for his winter break from Julliard in New York City, and he arrived with a huge bag of books and school supplies for the schools in 7 Miles.  He said put the word out among his school friends that the schools here needed books and supplies, and everybody gave him something to bring.  When he delivered the goods, he talked to the officials in the town and at the school to see if he could do anything else to help, and they told them that if he wanted to do some fundraising, they would put any money he collected towards finishing the inside of the library.  Right now, the library is just a shell, and it needs shelves for all the books, as well as furniture and wells to make a study space for the students.  Alex returned to Julliard with a clear goal, and hopes to be back this summer to work on the project.  Thanks, Alex, both for the supplies and for the effort to improve the school and the town!

Christmas dinner with a most excellent Running W rib roast

Because we had vegetarian guests here for Christmas Day, we delayed our “Christmas dinner” until January 2, when we had an open night between guest bookings. I knew way in advance of Christmas that we were going to have vegetarians here, so I had sort of decided to skip the rib roast this year. But, I made my weekly stop in Running W one day in the middle of November and ran into Escandar. He asked me if I would be ordering the rib roast this year, and I started to say no and explain, and he looked so disappointed I stopped and asked why he was looking like that was such bad news. He explained that he already had the cow being sacrificed for The Roast picked out, and had scheduled the butchering for Dec. 13. Being a mush, I decided that I would get the rib roast anyway, and told him that I’d want it the week after Christmas rather than for Christmas day.

So, that week I picked up the roast. I put it in the refrigerator and pulled it out to show everybody I knew who gets excited about that sort of thing. We invited a bunch of friends over for Sunday night dinner, and I got the rest of the supplies to make the rest of the dinner, like the all important twice baked potatoes. I remembered how I had cooked the rib roast the year before, and did the same thing that day. It was perfect, again! Everybody loved the dinner and we all ate too much, and it was actually a lot of fun to have Christmas a little over a week after the real day. I can’t say enough about how good the meat is. The grass fed beef here is not as fatty as rib roast in the US, but it is exceedingly tender and tasty. Becky was here, and she’s a Dallas girl, and she declared it the best beef she’s ever had. It was so good that I went back to Running W early that week to see if they still had the matching roast from the other side of the cow. They did, so I asked them to hold it for me to pick up a week later so we could have another beef-o-rama with Julio’s family, which we did. And it was delicious again! Now we just have to decide if we want to wait until next Christmas for another roast, or if we can come up with some excuse to order one (or two!) for some occasion this year…and something tells me we’ll find some reason to do it!

BMA experience

One of the most frequent questions we get about living here is what we think of health care in Belize. Our standard response is that we’re quite happy with it, although we haven’t had to deal with anything extreme. It’s affordable, the doctors are knowledgeable and compassionate, and unless you need some high tech life saving procedure, you will probably be cared for as well here as anywhere in the world.

We recently had to put our money where our mouths are, since I finally got to the point where I needed to have a long-delayed hysterectomy. Tom and I spent a lot of energy deciding whether to do it here, or to go back to the US to do it. We looked into our options, and decided to do it here for a number of reasons. First, we didn’t see any reason why the care wouldn’t be as good or better as what we would get in the US. We researched doctors, and found a surgeon recommended by just about everybody, Belizeans and expats alike, and met him and talked to him before making the decision. We also decided to go to a private hospital, Belize Medical Associates, rather than one of the government hospitals, mostly because this doctor is affiliated with Belize Medical Associates. Second, I didn’t want to travel to have the surgery, and then not be comfortable traveling after the surgery to get home. I wanted to recover at home, since if I’m going to take a trip to the US to visit, I’d rather do it when I feel good and can have fun. Our third reason was not really a decision point, but definitely sealed the deal – it was a lot less expensive to have it done here. We have only catastrophic coverage insurance in the US with a $5000 deductible, and the surgery costs more than $5000 in the US, so it would have cost us at least our $5000 deductible plus travel expenses – probably another $1000-$2000 – to do it in the US, while it was just under $3500 total here.

Not quite two weeks out, we’re quite happy with the decision to do it here. Everything went according to plan, and the care in the hospital was outstanding. Tom was allowed to wait in my room while I had the surgery, and he said that after the surgery the nurse sat in the room with me until I came out of the anesthesia. When I was a little more coherent, the nurse didn’t stay in the room, but came in to check on me at least once an hour, and helped me get a sponge bath and brush my teeth in the late afternoon after the surgery – which did wonders for making me feel human again. The next day, after the IV and catheter were removed, they left me alone except for coming in every four hours to check vitals, but if I needed something – like pain meds – somebody was there within about 30 seconds of me ringing the buzzer. And, best of all, when I was sound asleep for the middle-of-the-night vitals check, the nurse elected not to wake me and just skipped it so I could sleep. The surgeon himself was in three or four times a day for the two days I was there, and was happy to answer my many questions. In the US, I spent a fair amount of time with my mother in hospitals, and I remember wondering if anybody worked there since it seemed that my mom sometimes had trouble getting a nurse into her room, and she was always complaining that they woke her up in the middle of the night, and my experience here was the complete opposite.

There were a few notable differences between surgery here and surgery in the US. Here, I was still completely conscious when I went into the operating theatre, and remember being strapped to the table with my arms out. I had knee surgery 10 years ago, and don’t remember anything like that. And, the day after the surgery, the surgeon showed up in my room with a bucket and showed me what he took out of me. I’m not sure if that’s standard procedure, or if he just decided that with my many questions, it was easier to just show me rather than explain. And, I actually appreciated it, because having him show me what was wrong made it very clear to me that the surgery was the right thing to do – and for the day of the surgery and a few days afterward, I was definitely wondering what I did to myself. I really respected the doctor for this because what he found wasn’t what he (or a few other doctors) had diagnosed, and he admitted that when he explained what he was showing me. I had to do a bit of disassociation as he was palpating my parts (“It’s just plastic, it’s not out of me…”), but, as I said, I now completely understand why I needed the surgery, and I might still be wondering if I hadn’t had the show and tell.

So far, so good with the recovery. I’m still a little sore…but I have a six inch incision in my lower abdomen, so I guess I can’t expect to be instantly back to normal. The doctor used to live up here and he knows the road, so he waived my two week checkup, figuring (correctly) that I wouldn’t feel like bouncing myself down the nine miles of bad road it takes to get to the Western Highway. He gave me his cell phone and his email so I can reach him at any time if I have any concerns, which I haven’t had so far.

Do I have any regrets about doing this in Belize? Definitely, no. Would I do it here again? Definitely, yes. And, we feel much more comfortable about some of the what-ifs we think about, knowing that we’ll probably need more medical care as we age.

Love the new kitchen

Have I mentioned that I love my new kitchen?  We’ve now been in it about a month, and the novelty of having a large well-lit space has still not diminished.  We had a few guests who rented the whole cabin so I was feeding a lot of people for every meal, and we also had a lot of extras over the holidays with our guide friends stopping by or doing drop-offs or pick-ups and deciding to stay for a meal – which is the way we like it!  I share the space with a few birds who seem to like to stop by to see what I’m doing; it has become routine for me to look up and see a hooded warbler or a wood thrush perched on the rail around the dining room, or to look at my feet and see an ovenbird or a water thrush hopping through the kitchen, or, once, to stand at the stove stirring something, hear a buzzing near my ear, and turn and see a hummingbird hovering right next to my head looking to see what I’m doing.  And, we get WiFi in the dining room, so the dining room table has become our new office – and we couldn’t ask for better working conditions!

Steve & Karen

The day Valerie and Jack left, Steve and Karen from the UK came in to stay with us for a few days. Tom picked them up at the International Airport, and their flight was early enough that they had time for a stop for cave tubing. Although they were married a few months ago, this was their honeymoon trip because with their jobs, this was the best time for them to travel.

They spent their first full day here horseback riding with Joe. They toured Joe’s caves, and then made the trek to Big Rock, which they really enjoyed. The horses were good, the weather was good, and they had a great day. They came back here to a party, because Gonzo had taken Lauren and two other guests from San Ignacio to Offering Cave, so there were nine of us for dinner. This gave us time to plan the next day for Steve and Karen, when they were scheduled for kayaking.

But things never seem to work quite according to plan, although everything always works out. Steve and Karen had asked for details on what they were doing that day, and we’d said we couldn’t really say, because things don’t always happen according to schedule. And, because Gonzo had arrived back in San Ignacio so late after having dinner here, he didn’t know until the next morning that the kayaking plans had changed, and what was going to be a kayak trip in the Mopan with Link turned into a full day canoe trip in the Macal with Tony, with a stop at the Chaa Creek Butterfly Farm. That, however, was fine with Steve and Karen, and they got to see a few things they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Steve also took an unexpected swim as he leaned out of the canoe for a look at some wildlife, but nothing that could be ruined by water got wet, so all was well. Tom had to work in Belize City that day so he took Becky to the airport, and that evening Gonzo and Lenny brought Steve and Karen back to the farm and stayed for dinner again. Our guests this week found that although we only have two rooms and you might expect small, intimate dinners under the palapa, it’s not unusual for people to show up around dinner time, and mixing with the locals and finding out what it’s like to grow up in Belize isn’t difficult to do here!

For their final full day, Karen and Steve went on a hike with Melvin to the base of an 800 foot waterfall. They had the same tour of the farms behind 7 Miles as Al and Kathleen, and they made it all the way to the waterfall. They also made really good time on the hike, and were back here by mid-afternoon, in time to have a beer with Melvin.

The next day I dropped them at the Guatemala border so they could spend a few days in Tikal before heading to the cayes to snorkel and dive. I had arranged for them to be transferred to Tikal by Hugo, with a stop along the way at the Yax Ha archeological site. Hugo met us on the Belize side of the border, grabbed Karen’s bag, and took them off to get through immigration and customs between Belize and Guatemala.


Lauren from Colorado was our only single traveler of the holiday season, and she came here after spending time in Punta Gorda. She took an express bus from Punta Gorda to Belmopan, and then got a bus from Belmopan into San Ignacio. Neither she nor we had any idea how long it would take to get from PG to SI by bus, so we had made plans to meet at Mr. Greedy’s Pizza at 3PM. The buses were actually much quicker than any of us had anticipated, and she had arrived in San Ignacio before noon, so she checked out the market, went to an internet cafĂ©, and went back to Mr. Greedy’s shortly before 3, and was there only long enough to be mildly harassed by the hangers out who think any woman there alone needs to be kept company. Immediately upon my arrival, Lauren started to get a good idea of how things work in Belize. As I was talking to her, one of the bartenders who lives in 7 Miles told me he was getting off work at 3, and asked if I could give him a ride home. It wasn’t quite 3, so I told him that Lauren and I would go to the market and then come back to pick him up. So, we went to the market, where Lauren got to hear all the local gossip I traded with Gloria as I picked up a few things that are better fresh. We then went back for JJ, who was almost ready, and when he got in the truck he asked if we could go up the hill to pick up his 18-month old son. Of course we could, so we did. We then headed out of town, with just a few more quick stops for this and that. Coming up the Georgeville Road, we picked up a few more people, and I explained to Lauren that the buses don’t run out here, and most people don’t have cars, and you get to know the “commuters” sooner or later, so it’s not really like even picking up hitchhikers. We took JJ and his son into 7 Miles, so she got to see Cayo’s version of the rural Belizean village, and then headed back to the farm.

Because she was traveling alone and [understandably] didn’t want to pay the single traveler premium for tours, we had agreed that we would just see what fell into place when she got here. Valerie and Jack being here and planning to go to Caracol on their own was perfect, and Tom and checked with them before Lauren and I even arrived home to make sure they didn’t mind a third person for their trip. They didn’t, so we spent some time that evening making plans for Caracol the next day.

While the three of them were at Caracol, I was in touch with Gonzo, who had found some people who wanted to go to the Offering Cave. Since we’re so close, he could pick Lauren up and take her for the normal tour charge, so as soon as Lauren, Valerie, and Jack arrived home, I posed the question to Lauren. She had been thinking about doing the ATM tour, but when I explained that the Offering Cave has a lot of the same features as ATM, minus the river, and that it’s a much less traveled cave, she was quite excited to make the substitution.

So, the next morning, Gonzo arrived with his other two guests, and Becky who stayed here to hang out and visit with me and Tom for the day. They did almost exactly what Gonzo had done with Cheryl, Liz, and Tom and few days before, although since the road was already clear, they had enough time after touring the cave to take the hike to Sapodilla Falls. They said the hike is less than a half hour each way from where they have to leave the vehicle, and Sapodilla Falls is definitely worth an hour’s hiking. And Lauren suddenly had the condition of the Rio Frio Cave road put into perspective when she saw what real Belizean off-roading is like! The whole group of them stayed for dinner that night, so we all stayed up too late – again – talking and laughing with our other two guests, Steve and Karen, who had arrived the day before.

The next day, Thursday, Lauren decided to just hang out here around the farm and actually take one day to relax on her vacation. It was a good plan, but it didn’t work out that way. The morning and the early afternoon were fine. Lauren set herself up in the sun in the yard with a book, and managed to get some reading done as well as seeing a wide variety of birds and a few small animals. Then, later in the afternoon, she decided that she should confirm her Maya Island Air flight from the International Airport in Belize City to Cancun for Saturday, since she planned to take her time getting from Cayo to Belize City, and was going to stay at D’Nest Inn before flying out on Saturday morning. The good thing was she decided to confirm the flight Thursday evening; the bad thing was she found out the flight had been canceled and nobody told her, despite the fact that Saturday flights from PGIA to Cancun had been canceled well before she left home for her vacation. We don’t get phone service here, which limited her contact options, but she emailed a friend in the US and asked him to get on the phone and find out what was happening. He confirmed that the flight had been canceled, so Lauren slipped into replan mode. It was a major PITA, but she finally figured out that she could bus from Cayo to Playa/Cancun on Friday, so she would be there for her flight to Colorado early Saturday afternoon. That’s what she did, and it worked out, although she has yet to get her Maya Island Air fare refunded, and she also lost her deposit on her D’Nest room, which she had to cancel last minute because she could no longer spend her last night in Belize City – not to mention it became a somewhat stressful journey rather than a relaxed day of seeing a few more sights. So, we are definitely discouraging people from booking with Maya Island Air and steering them towards Tropic Air if they want to use either of Belize’s domestic airlines.

Despite the stressful ending, we had a really good time during Lauren’s stay here. We used to worry when we booked single travelers because we were never sure how high maintenance they’d be, but since this situation ended up with us making a new friend despite adverse conditions, we’re now sold on single travelers!

Valerie & Jack

Our next guests were Valerie and Jack from Alabama, who had rented a car and were driving around Belize with the long-term goal of moving here. They’ve been to Belize before, but had never managed to get to the Mountain Pine Ridge. They had wanted to stay here for more than one night, but we were booked solid so they took the one night they could get. Fortunately, they were very easy going, since when they arrived Tom was out trying to resolve our internet problems, and I was picking up Lauren in San Ignacio. They let themselves in the gate and made themselves at home in the dining room to wait for Tom’s return – exactly what we would have told them to do!

Tom got home and got them settled in their room, and then when Lauren and I arrived I finished making dinner. We had a great dinner conversation, since all of us come from very diverse backgrounds and have lots of stories to share. We got the plans set for the next day, when they were planning to drive to Caracol and take Lauren with them.

The Caracol day went almost as planned. They left here in the morning, with their lunch packed, and met the convoy at Augustine. They went to Caracol without a guide, and had no problems touring the site based on the informational brochure. They had left here too late in the morning to go to Rio Frio before the convoy left, so they decided to do that on their way back. It was a good plan, but that road – the same one where the Kia van had slipped off and had to be engineered out – must be in really bad shape because even with 4WD and Valerie’s expert driving, the small Suzuki SUV was not able to make it back to the cave. After doing what Jack described as a 36-point turn, they made it back to the main road, skipped Rio On Pools, and returned here shortly before dark with a very dirty car.

We had time for a quick Belikin before they headed off into San Ignacio, where they planned to spend the night before heading back towards the coast the next day. While they were out, I had made plans for Lauren to go to the Offering Cave the next day, so they promised to return when they have more time so they can do some of the other adventures that are so easily done when using Moonracer Farm as your base camp.

Cheryl, Liz, Tom

Tom picked our next guests up at the Radisson in Belize City. Mother Cheryl was traveling with her 18-year old twins, Liz and Tom. Liz is studying to be a zookeeper, and she had scored an internship at the Belize Zoo, so Cheryl brought Liz down, with her brother, to make sure she wasn’t flying into a situation that was completely uncivilized. Sharon doesn’t indiscriminately hand out internships at the Zoo, so the first question Tom asked when he picked them up was how Liz managed to do it, and that was the first question I asked when they arrived here. By that time they had already been at the Radisson for a few days and had already been asked the same question more than a few times, so they all realized that Liz was about to embark on an experience that is much coveted.

On the way from the Radisson to here, they had time to stop at Jaguar Paw to go cave tubing after lunch at Cheers. Tom learned something on this trip – you can rent watershoes for $3US at Jaguar Paw, so no worries if you want to do that and you don’t have watershoes and don’t want to get your own shoes wet. Cheryl, Liz, and Tom had gone snorkeling and had visited Lamanai while staying at the Radisson, so they managed to continue their string of adventures on their transfer day.

The next day they set out for the Offering Cave. Cheryl and I had emailed prior to their arrival about what tours they could do during the one full day they were here, and we decided that since Liz would be spending more time in the country, staying here was a good opportunity for them to do something that is off the standard tourist track, but still a real adventure. Gonzo showed up at 8AM with Adrian, a gentleman from London vacationing in Belize. We were just finishing a batch of banana pancakes when they arrived, and they hadn’t eaten breakfast, so their departure was delayed while Adrian and Gonzo had the full-on Moonracer Farm breakfast. They then loaded into the Montero, picked up Don Antonio in San Antonio, and headed for the cave. The road hadn’t been cleared much since the hurricane, so Don Antonio packed a chainsaw, which apparently came in very handy. Gonzo let both Liz and Tom drive the vehicle and use it to pull trees out of the road, so half the adventure from their point of view was just getting to the cave – although that was fun too. They returned here with enough daylight left for a trip up to Big Rock. Gonzo drove them there on the fire road, so that was yet another 4-wheeling adventure, and I have no doubt Cheryl returned home thinking that we don’t have any real roads here in Belize! Gonzo and Adrian stayed for dinner that night, so the fun that began at 8AM didn’t wind down until well into the evening.

The next day Cheryl, Tom, and Liz had to leave to get Liz to the Zoo, but since she didn’t need to be there until the afternoon, they had time to go to the Butterfly Ranch on their own in the morning. Then, after the very long day the day before, Liz and Tom decided they needed naps (and I do remember that college holiday feeling of exhaustion after a whole semester and getting through finals), so Cheryl, Tom, and I hung out in the kitchen palapa. For Tom and me, this was the best part of the visit, since they are from a small town south of Syracuse, NY, and Cheryl grew up in Rochester. We remembered all of the same natural disasters (blizzards and snowstorms up there!), knew all of the places each other talked about right down to the road names and landmarks, and generally bonded based on our wealth of shared experiences. Apparently you can take the people out of Upstate, but you can’t get Upstate out of the people! They didn’t have to leave until mid-afternoon, when they all got in the little blue truck with lots of hugs to head for the Tropical Education Center and Liz’s internship – which, last we heard from Sharon, was going quite well!

Voltec, June, Ilsa, Sean, Ruth

For June and Voltec and their adult children Ilsa, Sean, and Ruth, the Hopkins schedule shuffle was just one more glitch in carefully made plans that just didn’t quite go the way that was expected. June and Voltec live in Poland, Ilsa lives in Poland, and Sean and Ruth live in the US in New York and Florida. June had tried to carefully orchestrate everybody’s flight plans so they’d all end up in Belize for the holidays, but from the beginning the plans had to be adjusted. This is a hazard of travel any time, and especially during the busy holiday season, but everybody was willing to go with the flow and replan as necessary, and nobody let the minor schedule adjustments get in the way of having a good time.

Because this family arrived early in the day and because they had to cancel some of their Hopkins plans for their early departure, we helped them turn the travel day into a tour day by letting them take our little pickup into the Mountain Pine Ridge. The original plan was to go for a swim at Big Rock, but they took a left instead of a right at the Hidden Valley turnoff and ended up visiting 1000 Foot Falls first – a bonus! They talked to Pedro at 1000 Foot Falls and he told them how to get to Big Rock from there, so after viewing the highest waterfall in Central America, they made their way to Big Rock where they had plenty of time to go for a swim before heading back to the farm for dinner.

The next day they went kayaking and toured Xunantunich. This day also ended up requiring some scheduling flexibility, because we had all planned on having them go to Xunantunich in the morning while it was cool, and then kayak in the afternoon. However, Link, the kayak guide, had scheduled another group that wanted to do a full day of kayaking, and the morning portion of that trip was more what our family wanted to do. So, when they got to town, they discovered that they were going kayaking first, and then touring Xunantunich in the afternoon. This worked out fine, and they returned here in the afternoon, pleasantly tired after a full day.

We had a somewhat heated discussion over dinner because the “face” June had seen for their transfers and excursions had been Becky, Gonzo’s girlfriend. Becky was here on vacation for the holidays, and because Gonzo ended up guiding every day, Becky ended up taking care of a lot of the River Rat business issues. This was fine with us, and Becky didn’t really mind spending part of her vacation keeping business going, but June, who is a consultant who helps get small businesses running in developing countries, wanted to know why we were doing business with a US company rather than a Belizean company. At first we weren’t really sure what she was asking, and her kids were trying to sidetrack her to avoid a discussion, but when we realized that her very valid perception of River Rat was the very white Becky, we were glad she asked the question and allowed us to answer rather than just thinking that we were avoiding doing business with Belizeans. When we assured her that River Rat Expeditions is in fact 100% Belizean owned, and that all the guides are 100% Belizean, she felt better. And, the discussion energized all of us so that we ended up staying up talking and laughing until after 2AM. So much for being tired after returning from a tour!

The next day everybody transferred to Belize City, with Selmo driving again. He knew June wasn’t too happy when he had dropped her off the day before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect, so he was pleased that we’d worked out the misunderstanding and everybody was happy again. They were off for a brief stay in Caye Caulker before everybody had to head back to their far flung homes.

Tom, Sally, Bridget, Tommy, Patrick

As Tom was dropping off our Christmas guests in Hopkins, Selmo was picking up our next guests, a family of five from Chicago consisting of parents Tom and Sally and their adult children Bridget, Tommy, and Patrick, in Belize City. Our little blue truck only holds four passengers comfortably, so when we have a party of five adults coming in, we need to call in the reinforcements with bigger vehicles. They had a late flight, so it was just about dark by the time they arrived here, but we had plenty of time for Belikins all around in the brand new kitchen before dinner.

On their first day here, Selmo picked them up bright and early and took them to tour the Chechem Ha Cave, which everybody enjoyed. After the cave tour, they were treated to a real Belizean meal with Gonzo’s mom, Lea, at her house overlooking the mountains that border Belize and Guatemala. They spent the afternoon floating down the Mopan in tubes, seeing the wildlife and Bullet Tree village life, with Tommy being the only one to capsize – but no harm done, although it gave everybody a reason to tease him at dinner.

The next day they took a full day horseback ride with Joe. Everybody always loves Joe’s rides, and this family was no exception. They enjoyed not only seeing the caves and swimming at Big Rock, but also getting a chance to talk to Joe, whose family is Maya and who has lived in San Antonio for his whole life. From what he said, Tom managed to squeeze a good number of the stories we’ve heard from Joe out of him, and Joe even told him a few things we hadn’t heard before about life in this area in the past. When we heard about their day, the thing that amazed me most was that even though it was just a few days after Christmas, in a very busy holiday week, they had Big Rock Falls all to themselves for most of the time they were there. “Busy” has a whole different definition in Belize!

They had to leave the next day on a Tropic Air flight out of the Municipal Airport in Belize City. Their flight wasn’t until 2PM, and you don’t have to show up too much ahead of time for the domestic flights in Belize, so they had time to take a quick visit to the Butterfly Ranch in the morning. That their schedule was so flexible turned out to be a good thing because Gonzo, along with some of the other transfer companies in San Ignacio, was having car problems. This 5-member family was leaving and another 5-member family was coming in from Hopkins, and with only one large vehicle to work with instead of two, the transfer schedule had to be shuffled. The family coming in from Hopkins was scheduled at the last minute for an 8AM pickup, with plans to arrive here, pick up Tom and Sally’s family, and get back on the road heading to Belize City by 11AM or so. It didn’t work out quite that way since Selmo started having trouble with the vehicle on the way to Hopkins, so that pickup didn’t happen until almost 9AM, and it was after 11AM when he arrived here. In the meantime, Becky had commandeered another van in San Ignacio, and she had driven here to meet Selmo to swap vehicles so he had a dependable vehicle for the Belize City transfer. We had the replacement van loaded and ready to go when Selmo arrived, so we loaded up Tom and Sally’s family, Selmo switched vehicles, and they headed for Belize City – and arrived at the Tropic Air terminal with 10 minutes to spare! We always tell people not to worry, things always work out in Belize even when it seems that all of the carefully made plans are crashing, and now we have one more situation to prove that it’s true!

Danielle & Mariah

We had some unscheduled visitors during the Christmas week as well. Just as we were sitting down to eat one night, we saw lights at the gate. Tom went down to see who it was, and found two women looking for a place to stay. They had planned to camp at Augustine, but got a little nervous when they realized that they were the only ones there, and that they were the only women surrounded by an army camp of men. I’m sure they would have been absolutely fine and safe at Augustine, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to get much sleep. Our cabin was full, but since they had planned to camp anyway and had all of their camping gear with them, Tom took them to our palapa area, and they set up their tent under the palapa – very cool since they could leave the fly off since the palapa protected them from moisture, and bug free since the tent was screened. They then joined us for dinner, and were a welcome addition to the party.

The next day they decided to leave their stuff here while they took their vehicle to explore around San Ignacio. They ended up going to Barton Creek Cave, and then going into town and taking a trip to Xunantunich. When they returned that night, they found some lost people, with a baby, at the Junction, looking for Mystic River and unable to get their car started. They came and got Tom, who helped them start their car and gave them directions to Mystic River. They wanted him to go with them, but he declined, more afraid of the wrath of his wife if he ruined dinner than of upsetting people who were okay anyway!

They told us at dinner that night that they would be leaving the next morning and had scheduled a trip to ATM for the next day before heading to Monkey Bay and the Baboon Sanctuary. In the morning, they showed up, grabbed a quick banana muffin and headed out. We later heard from Gonzo, who ended up being their ATM tour guide, that they had a good time and continued on to Monkey Bay after the tour.

Ranjani, Praveen, Vishnu, Leela

Our Christmas guests were a family of four from Washington state, mom Ranjani, dad Praveen, 12-year old son Vishnu, and 10-year old daughter Leela. The entire family has traveled extensively around the world, and we were delighted that they decided to spend part of their Belize vacation with us. Ranjani and I had corresponded extensively via email prior to their trip to help them make the most of both their time and their money. Ranjani had told me that they were also spending time on Caye Caulker and in Hopkins, and they wanted to go to Tikal while they were here. They ended up beginning their trip on Caye Caulker, and they then took the water taxi to Belize City where they were able to get a Linea Dorada bus to Tikal. I had suggested this plan of action because the Linea Dorada bus is relatively inexpensive and travels direct from Belize City to Tikal, and although it is not able to stop anywhere in Belize, it was an ideal way for the family to avoid our expensive transfer, get to Tikal for a few days, and end up in the western part of Belize where it’s much easier and less expensive to get here. Hugo transferred them from the Jaguar Inn at Tikal to the border, and Tom picked them up there. They arrived here early enough to walk around the property and see some of our jungle before dark.

On the first day they were here, they went canoeing with Selmo and Becky. They started in San Ignacio and canoed up the Macal River. Ranjani had expected more of a jungle canoeing trip, but in addition to iguanas and other wildlife along the river, they also got to see life along the river – people washing their cars, women washing clothes, and children playing in the river. After their canoe trip, they visited the San Ignacio market and had lunch at Hode’s before returning to the farm.

Then they went to ATM with Gonzo. Being Christmas week, a very busy week for tourists, the cave was busy but the tour guides were able to spread out the groups enough that it didn’t feel like a Disney World attractiogpn line moving through the cave. They were impressed not only with the cave, but also with Gonzo’s knowledge.

On their final full day here, they took a full day hike to the base of a waterfall. Melvin wasn’t able to guide them that day because he had just been called as a fulltime horse guide at Blancaneaux, but he contacted his cousin as a substitute so there was no problem with hiking through his family’s private land behind the Village of 7 Miles. Everybody enjoyed the hike, although they said it was too chilly to swim in the pools at the bottom of the waterfall. And, they made good time – they were back and waiting for Tom to pick them up a half hour before the scheduled pickup time, despite the fact that they guide wasn’t sure how quickly they would move with the 10- and 12-year olds. Next time Boris will worry about keeping up with the kids, not with the kids keeping up with him!

The family had originally planned to return to Caye Caulker for a few days, but because they felt that they’d seen most of the caye during their stay there, they decided instead to go to Hopkins so they could mix some more jungle adventures with the seaside activities in Hopkins. So, on their departure day, Tom took them to Hopkins so they could mix some snorkeling with some more hiking in the Cockscomb Basin Park. They had considered getting a taxi from Belmopan to Hopkins, but since it was the day after Christmas, which is Boxing Day and is a holiday here, no taxis were available in Belmopan, so Tom got to get a quick glimpse of the sea as well.

Tom, Kate, Cara, Dustin

Our next guests were two couples, Tom & Kate and Dustin & Cara, from San Francisco and Oregon. They had all lived in San Francisco until fairly recently, and all four have been friends for a long time. They had originally inquired about staying for a longer period of time, but since we were already booked and only had two nights available, we worked with them to pick tours so that they could make the most of their time here.

The first day they were here Jake picked them up at 8AM to go to Caracol. Tom and Dustin are both engineers, so seeing the Maya’s engineering marvel of Caracol was high on their list of what they wanted to see while in Belize. They liked Caracol, but the gods’ payback for them being engineers viewing the Maya’s handiwork was that they then had to use their engineering knowledge, not to mention their muscles, to get the Kia van back on the road after it slipped off the muddy road and into a ditch on the way to Rio Frio Cave. Jake was a little frazzled with this turn of events, but the four guests just considered it part of the adventure, and it gave them a good story for the dinner table that night. Even with the mishap, they had time to stop and see the Rio On Pools, so Tom, Kate, Cara, and Dustin felt that they got more than their money’s worth on the trip.

The next day we said an early goodbye to them as Tom took them to Georgeville to meet Gonzo for their ATM tour. Because we couldn’t accommodate them for another night, we had arranged with Gonzo to deliver them to Crystal Paradise Resort after the tour, where they were spending the rest of their time in Cayo, while Tom delivered their luggage to Crystal Paradise on his way to Benque to pick up our next guests. We heard from them when they returned home, and were happy to hear that this plan worked flawlessly.

This group was the first to enjoy our new kitchen and dining room, and, as we’ve found with everybody who has since seen it, they were happy not only with the food, but with the ambiance. They appreciated things like being able to use our WiFi to surf the internet by kerosene lamp, checking in with family and friends in more civilized parts of the world who probably weren’t running off of batteries and lighting with kerosene.

Al & Kathleen

Tom started December with a last minute, 2-week trip to visit his parents in Florida, which was a great Christmas gift for both Tom and his parents. Upon his return, however, it was right back to work since our first guests of the holiday season, Kathleen and Al from Oregon, arrived two days after Tom’s return. It wasn’t much like work, however, since we had a great visit with them and really enjoyed helping them get to know this area.

They arrived here slightly frazzled because they didn’t realize how far out we are – not necessarily mileage-wise, but because of road conditions. They got a bus into San Ignacio, and figured it would be easy to get a taxi here. They found a taxi driver who said he was willing to take them from San Ignacio to Moonracer Farm for $8BZ, so they loaded their luggage and jumped in the car. Unfortunately, because they didn’t speak much Spanish and the taxi driver didn’t speak much English, they didn’t realize until they were well on the way here that the taxi driver had no idea where he was going, and didn’t realize how far out we were on bad roads. He kept trying to drop them at every resort they passed all the way through Cristo Rey. Fortunately Al had looked at the maps on our website and had a general idea where they were going, so he was able to tell the driver to just keep driving. They finally got here, and the taxi driver had to not only tell them it was going to cost more than $8, but also admit that he was worried that his car was going to have problems navigating the 12 miles of bad road back to town. Fortunately for Al and Kathleen, it only cost $50BZ, which is the standard rate, so they didn’t end up paying any more than they should have – although $8BZ would have been nice!

For their first full day here they toured ATM with Gonzo, who had also recently returned from a trip to the US. As everybody is, they were quite impressed, not only with the cave, but with the tour. Gonzo and Carlos had combined their groups, so all the guests had the benefit of the expertise of both guides, which is interesting because both, being Maya themselves, feel a personal connection to the cave and share that connection with their guests. Because the connection is personal, it’s different for them, and all of the guests appreciated getting this difference in perspective.

On their second day they took a hike with Melvin. They didn’t really have a destination, but parked at Ka’ax Tun and hiked through the farms and into the jungle behind the Village of 7 Miles. They had originally requested a jungle hike, and they found the information that Melvin shared about the flora and fauna of the jungle fascinating, but they said they were somewhat surprised at how interesting they found the wealth of information that Melvin shared about the plantations, as he calls them, in the farm fields, from what was planted and why, to how it had to be cultivated, to what would happen to the produce when it is harvested, to generally how people manage to make a living farming on what looks like a pile of rocks. Melvin also took them back to his home for a Coke after the hike, and they found his stories of life in a very small village in rural Belize as interesting as the farm and jungle lore. Al and Kathleen had brought a package of school supplies to distribute to children in this country, and after their day with Melvin they ended up delivering the package into his safekeeping so he could distribute it to the schoolchildren of 7 Miles.

The next day Kathleen and Al were heading to Tikal for two nights, so we delivered them to the border with instructions about how to get a guide for the Temple IV Sunrise tour, and advice on getting back into Belize so they could finish their Belize vacation on Glover’s Atoll.