Wednesday, May 20, 2015

This place is unbelizable

After donating just a little more blood to the local skeeters in Sarteneja, the next stop in Belize was Hopkins, a small coastal town, with a strong Garifuna culture still present. We felt like we had been transported to an island somewhere between the Caribbean and Africa, very different from the Latin American feel! The Garifuna people are descendants of African slaves who survived a shipwreck almost 400 years ago and eventually found their way to Belize. Some of their culture remains today especially in the forms of music, food, and language. Recently travelers have found their way into Hopkins, but it still very much feels unsaturated by tourism, despite the few backpacker joints on the main drag. Basically, it hasn't lost its rustic small town feel, but has just enough development to make us not stick out like a sore thumb among the locals. This was our kind of place for a few days!

Task #1 find a super budget sleeping arrangement to start making up for our diving costs... So something along the lines of FREE! We attempted 5 different places possible for camping but each one either smelled like a nearby septic leak, just flat out didn't look appealing, or was on the verge of a mosquito D-day invasion. Things were not looking good, and the guys (Leah and Mallary's chafuers for their endless hunt for the perfect place to camp) were getting perturbed with the ladies. "Whats wrong with this place? We can only search for so long! Thats enough, lets just stay here" The girls didn't give up though, and followed their intuition for one last cruise down a beach road, and thats when they spotted a yellow restaurant hanging out over the water, The Swinging Armadillo. Pulling up revealed that it was under construction and we asked the owner, Ted, if we could camp there. Ted apologetically said "There is nowhere to camp here." But after looking around we saw there was open beachfront property on either side, and we unashamedly asked who it belonged to. Ted said that it's public beach and after thinking about our situation he said we could camp for free on the beach if we ordered food at his restaurant tomorrow since it was going to be the grand opening. (Really we just needed a locals blessing to make camp on their public beach). Score!

Our budget balancing campsite. Note the palapa full of locals behind us in the bottom left
We made ourselves at home despite us being a tourist attraction for the locals who had a gathering point directly behind us and seemed to be watching our every move like we were the next blockbuster Hollywood hit. They were curious of our lounging in hammocks, making minor car repairs, and our ability to cook and clean dishes from the back of our cars and soon word spread through town. It wasn't long before folks showed up selling their prized chicken tamales or hand woven baskets which we partook in for a fraction of the cost of in-town prices.

Kids to play with the dog, fresh tamales, hand made baskets, and even a veggie truck in the street, oh my!
We could have lived like kings forever with our freshly delivered food, but we eventually ventured out to find the most genuine Garifuna food in town, Innie's. Innie and her husband served us up their most popular dish, Hudutu, which was whole Snapper in a bowl with coconut broth, mashed plantains, and casava bread on the side. Mmm mmm good! Next on the agenda was to head to the Sew Much Hemp Store for natural bug repellent and some much needed after bite salve. Here we got schooled about the magical hemp plant and all it's uses. Why is such a valuable plant illegal to grow in the US? You'll have to come down and stop by the magical hemp bus to find out! Final stop for the day to satisfy Mallary was Herbal Healer Tea Bar! The lovely folks here gave us a tour of their property explaining the medicinal use of the couple dozen plants they grew. Mallary was in heaven and asked if she could move in with them! They said yes, and Mallary seriously considered it until some fire ants protested by biting our toes... so instead we just enjoyed some lime leaf and almond leaf teas and stocked up on a few dried herbs for the road!
Hemp and tea, lucky me!
That night was finally the opening night for Ted's restaurant! We were just as excited as him, as we had been enthusiastic onlookers to the final preparations for opening night since we arrived! We partook in his delicious BBQ food and danced to some Garifuna drum beats with Belizean rum and music flowing through our bodies.
A taste of Garifuna

After two nights in Hopkins we said goodbye to the beach and moved inland to Mayflower National Park. This small park turned out to be a pleasant surprise (for some of us, guess who) as it was littered with unexcuvated ruins, jungle wildlife, and hiking trails. It had been five days since either of us had a shower so upon entering the park Chris asked if there was some water nearby he could jump in to freshen up. The ranger pointed out past the office and said there was a stream just a few paces into the jungle that would be suitable. Without wasting time Chris darted down to the water alone and jumped in. After a minute or two he happened to scan the bank and see something that no swimmer ever wants to see... semi-cloaked by jungle foliage was a crocodile only 15' away! In a moment of shock and fear that nearly made him run on water while craping and peeing himself at the same time, he quickly made it back on land, and started bragging about his close encounter. Mallary then scolded him, felt bad for all the years his mother had to put up with these shenegans, and stayed far far away from that little creek the rest of the day! Back to the matter at hand, hiking, and in this part of the world the first thing to do is DEET UP. Preferably the stuff that melts plastic, top shelf deet is a must. After sufficiently putting on the goods, we set out for a nice day hike, and bam, maybe ten steps along a trail was the most dangerous snake in all of all the America's, the Fer-de-lance!! It didn't seemed bothered by us, and held it's ground forcing us to cautiously go around it. Known for it's bite first, ask questions later attitude, it accounts for more human fatalities in North/South America then any other snake. This place just keeps getting better (for some of us that is). The rest of the hike brought us up steeply alongside a waterfall, with Chris leading the pack we all felt safe from any more creepy crawlers and were rewarded with a refreshing swim at the top of the falls. Back at camp that night Mallary and Leah took refuge in a little screened in room (as usual) while the guys continued their endless hunting for all things that freak the girls out... Just one example being the gerbil sized tarantula that just so happened to be chillin in the girls bathroom... Debilitating the ladies from using the toilet the rest of the night! Doesn't this place just sound wonderful?

Welcome to the jungle. We've got fun and games....and the deadliest snake of the America's.
Mallary of the Jungle

One of us reluctant to leave, and the other ready to get the hell out of the jungle, we said gooddbye to Mayflower and all its critters. We were ready to explore the cave region of Belize. We haphazardly entered some coordinates into the GPS and made our way through dirt roads to a place that no longer existed. Oops, we should have consulted google once we saw the last review was 3 years ago, and noted for the future to pay more attention! Nevertheless, things worked out and we found a nearby eco/adventure lodge at the mouth of Barton Creek Cave. Once the site of Mayan rituals, it now allows for some neat canoe expeditions inside of it. The owner gave us free camping and a killer deal on the cave canoeing that we couldn't refuse, not to mention his place had a honor code self serve bar and satellite tv at our disposal! We can deal with gigantic grasshoppers, hoards of roaches, and ginormous scorpions in exchange for a little beer and TV! Next morning we said hello to some Toucans passing by, donned our life vests, and paddled into the cave. We carefully maneuvered our way around crazy formations that glittered under our spotlights and even at times ducking down in the canoe to pass under low hanging stalactites.

Oregon Trail, Belize edition
Mouth of Barton Creek Cave
Canoe spelunking?
Hungry for more adventure, as usual, we ditched the safety net of beer and tv and drove into the adjoining Pine Mountain Forest Reserve. Getting there was easy, but only because Lola was built to own steep switchbacks and rutted up, rocky mountain roads! Gas stations do not exist outside the confines of paved roads forcing us to buy some sketchy "bush gas" from someone's backyard. Oops, shoulda filled up our 5 gallon spare while at a real gas station. With fingers crossed that the gas wasn't contaminated or old, we pressed on further. The reserve is home to the tallest waterfall in Central America, stunning pools to swim in, and a surprisingly large pine forest, hence the clever name. It was a much needed relief from the heat and bugs of the jungle. After weeks of dreaming of cool mountain air, we took plently of time to soak it in while drinking tea and viewing the 1,600ft falls from afar. Then we hit up one of our most favorite places yet called the Rio On Pools. Here the pure and clear waters form a series of natural pools, made of smooth dark granite, resembling an expensive countertop, which provided us with natural jacuzzis and back massages under waterfalls! We jumped around on the huge boulders, and slid down granite water slides as if we were kids again. We stayed until dusk caught up with us, and then booked it down to the city to meet back up with Leah and Nick for the last couple days with our travel amigos.
Gasoline from old bleach bottles kept the expedition moving
Rio On Pools
Nature's jacuzzis

Our final Belize layover was the town of San Ignacio, a small tourist destination that attracts people for its proximity to many different guided trips for every taste. Mallary was craving a stroll through a medicinal trail, Chris said "yea right!" and instead was lured by a tour described as ''for the fit and adventurous'' and also one of National Geographics highest ranked caves, Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM for short). Leah and Mallary enjoyed a day of girl talk and found the Medicine Trail, strolled through the jungle learning about all the trees and how the Mayans used them for every ailment, and wondered why we still don't use these natural remedies widely nowadays. We learned about some crazy interesting research into rainforest medicines, and the fact that diseases that modern medicine can't cure could one day be cured by rainforest plants is just amazing. (Kudos to the miracles of modern medicine that I (Mallary) have been witness to in the hospital, but the prospect of new treatments coming out of the lush, but dwindling, rainforests is so exciting!) Meanwhile, Chris' hike involved a few hours of crossing streams, swimming into the mouth of a cave, wading through cold cave water, scrambling up boulders, and climbing up into a chamber that contained the mostly untouched remains of 14 skeletons, sacrificial tools, and countless pottery. It is one of the few places in the world one can explore an archeological site in this manner, it truly was some Indiana Jones type stuff! Sadly, cameras are no longer allowed since someone had dropped their camera onto a skull, puncturing the 1000 year old remains. Pictures below are pulled from Google. The next morning we said goodbye to Belize, thanked them for having toilet seats (unlike most of Mexico), and headed into Guatemala.

Girl time on the Medicinal Trail
Swimming into ATM!
Many Mayans were sacrificed in this chamber of the ATM.
The 1,200 year old crystal maiden. Her bones sparkle when you shine a flashlight on her.














Thursday, May 14, 2015

Don't stop Belizin'

17*31.53'N 87*53.44'W

Our alarm failed us, or maybe we forgot how to use those darn things, but we jolted awake at 7:15, 15 minutes after we planned to leave for the border! We hustled and booked it out of camp in Bacalar, Mexico toward Belize. We had done our research, and knew what to expect, but even knowing what to look for, the lack of signs for ANYTHING had us turning around to go back to the unlabled "little wooden house" for our car fumigation that is required to enter Belize. Don't ask us what this is all about, but it was some strong smelling chemical that they sprayed our car with (by a gas mask wearing teenager) for $5... :/ We quickly moved through immigration, customs, and headed to the car insurance building, the entire process took 1.5 hours. Not bad!!

Hello Belize! We decided to head straight for a little off the beaten path town in northeastern Belize called Sarteneja. An hour and a half on a dusty dirt road and 2 hand cranked ferries later we arrived in the sleepy little town, grabbed a selection of cold Belizean beers, and headed to a little beach with turqouise waters. After getting sufficiently pruney in the water, we found Backpackers Paradise, an organic fruit farm with camping, and we would soon find out, many other guests in the form of chickens, horses, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, gigantic moths, and hoards of mosquitos! Chris was is his own personal heaven, hunting around each night with his headlamp like he is the next Steve Erwin, and Mallary was in her own personal hell, but this hell fortunately provided a screened in common area with wifi, a kitchen, hammocks, and also all you can eat fresh juicy sweet mangoes and her all time favorite food, banana blossoms!! :)

Chris crankin' some ferries
Sarteneja... Land of the 3 for 50 cent empanadas and crystal clear waters
Backpackers Paradise and some of our roomies!
Foraging for banana blossoms to keep the mosquito magnet happy in the jungle

We are still traveling with our friends Nick and Leah, and we all decided to take a diving "vacation" week to Caye Caulker, a 5 mile long 1/2 mile wide, car and pavement free island, with the motto "GO SLOW". We left our cars at Backpackers Paradise and hopped on a ferry to the island. (This was definitely the more expensive option to get to the islands, but we had been stressing about where to leave our cars in the infamously crime ridden Belize City, and were happy to dish out the extra bucks to keep our home on wheels safe and not have a worry on our minds while on the island)

Upon arriving on the island, their "GO SLOW" motto proved to be serious, as we struggled for hours in the stifling heat trying to work out our loosely prearranged accommodations that Leah found for us. We ended up in basic rooms across the "street" from each other on the main strip in town for the first 3 days, right next door to a little dive shop. All was well on the island. We spent our days roaming around finding good and cheap food, talking to dive shops, sitting on our porch drinking coffee, and getting a feel for the place.

Our cute rooms on the sandy main street of Caye Caulker
Getting smoked out by the grill and some burning coconuts, Caribbean jerk chicken and fresh snapper are totally worth it
Fry Jacks, the BEST food in Belize. 1.50 usd each! Good for the mouth, good for the wallet

We rented a glass bottom kayak one day and went in search of some saltwater crocodiles on the northern side of the island. We unfortunately made one wrong turn into a spookey looking mangrove that looked promising for a croc sighting, got a little stuck in the shallows, and suddenly got attacked by a gang of mosquitos whilst getting unstuck! At this point Mallary is flailing around smacking the blood sucking little devils, and Chris is manuvering the kayak out of the mangrove and also smacking the crap out of Mallary's already welted up back! Genetic predispositions combined with type O blood really put a damper on so many situations... It's just never ever fun to be the one person covered in bites, when all your friends are untouched by the little bastards!

So much fun... Until it wasn't!!

For the last 3 days we moved to a wonderful house on the south side/locals side of island. Yes, an entire house!! 2 bedrooms, a living room with couches, and a full kitchen!! What a freaking treat that was! Lounging on a couch and cooking in a real kitchen are pastimes we definitely took for granted back in the states... If you happen to be reading this from a soft, clean, comfy couch right now, do us a favor and just enjoy the crap out of it! ;) There was even a resident croc in the backyard named Charlie who was unfortunately very shy during our stay, but Chris and Nick spotted a croc close up when biking home from the store one evening!! Our house was a 15 minute bike ride down a sandy dirt path infested with mosquitos, land crabs the size of footballs, and crocs. We loved it!

Our crib on the southside

Finally the morning had come to do some diving. About damn time! A group of seven of us loaded up into a boat and headed off for a dive site called Esmerelda, known for unusual canyon formations in the reefs and sharks! Sure enough, after rolling off the boat and into the water we could instantly see a couple sharks swimming in the reef about 40 feet below us. As we descended down, a couple more of the sharks came out of the woodwork and greeted us on the reef. We now had half a dozen nurse sharks (normally docile unless provoked) swimming among us sometimes getting within an arms reach away. The curious sharks ranged in size from 4-8 feet and were surprisingly glittery, like in Twilight when the vampire skin is hit by sunlight. As we swam through the canyons and reefs we saw massive Hawksbill sea turtles, many colorful fish, beautiful corals, and were continously joined by the sharks until we finally ascended. It was amazing how the sharks just casually stayed with us throughout the entire 55 minute dive, as if they enjoy being being gawked at by divers!!

Rolling with our shark posse
Pass the mustard, we've got a lot of SARDINES here

We got back to the dock amped about our day and now had to make a big decision about tomorrow, our last full day in Caye Caulker. The dive shop was heading out to the Great Blue Hole in the morning, famous for being first explored by Jacques Cousteau, and considered one of the top ten dive sites in the world. The almost perfectly cylinder shaped hole is surrounded by beautiful atolls and is 1000' feet across and 407' deep, with massive stalactites occuring 135' down. It was formed in a dry cavern above sea level during glacial periods... A true geological wonder. We did't necessarily ever talk about or plan on doing this dive, but here we are, so close to it, practically drooling as the local dive shops describe the day we could have, how could we pass it up?!? The cons: dangerous, people die here sometimes from a multitide of reasons. Panic or equipment malfunction could spell disaster, nitrogen narcosis can set in at 100' impairing judgement, and furthermore the 135' depth was deeper than Chris was certified for. Cost alone was enough to put a dent in the budget and send us back to eating ramen noodles....what to do!? GO OF COURSE!!! :)

We woke up the next day before the sun, hopped on our bikes and rode down the sandy beach path during sunrise. The 2 hour boatride destined for the Blue Hole began with a huge pod of dolphins frolicking and jumping in unison in the wake of our boat! This day is already the best day ever!!! A few minutes later, we came across a family of Sperm whales, and our captain slowly stalked them one by one, giving us an up close real life national geographic experience of them blowing water in the air and occasionally giving a coveted tail wave! The day just keeps getting better! Then, we arrived at the Blue Hole, suited up, and jumped in. We quickly left the safety of the reef and swam down to a barren shelf at the edge of the enormous hole. Even with the clear visibilty, looking out into it was a dark and amazing abyss. Then came the plunge over the shelf and began the weightless feeling of sinking down along the wall, 60' below quickly became 80', then 100' down and soon we could see the massive stalactites hanging from a cave in the wall. At 135' down we zig zagged in and out of the mouth of the cave and its tooth-like structures, estatic feeling due to the sheer beauty and also a bit of nitrogen narcosis (excess of nitrogen in your blood that gives you a loopy, almost tipsy feeling that goes away after ascending). Due to excessive air usage at that depth we had to start ascending after about 8 mins of being down. On the way up we passed a reef shark hunting in the darkness and eventually surfaced all of us screaming about how amazing of an experience it was! We could not be happier that we choose to do this dive!!

The perfect start to the perfect day
The Great Blue Hole
Narcosis selfies in the Blue Hole

The trip also included lunch on Half Moon Caye, a pristine island with one of the few accessible Red-footed Booby colonies in the world. The tiny island has some of the most pristine waters and beaches in the Carribbean is protected against any development or fishing. We explored the beaches and forest of this Lost lookalike and found the squawking colony of Boobies. We snapped off a few pictures while hoping we were not on the receiving end of bird crap. It would have been amazing to just camp here but alas, we still had two dives off the island that are also ranked as a premiere dive locations in the world. The first dive brought us to a 2,000 foot reef wall with an explosion of color, fish, sharks, and rays. The next site was properly named "Aquarium", the fish were so abundant they were at times bumping into your body. Reef sharks occasionally cruised by probably wondering what we tasted like, even a couple large green moray eels came out to swim freely along the wall. Simply UNBELIZABLE!!

Half Moon Caye
4,000 Booby birds nesting beside their pirating neighbors the Magnificent Frigatebird
Feeling like a fish in a huge aquarium

Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to island life, we celebrated our last night with a fresh caught crab dinner, compliments to the talented broom stick and garbage can armed hunters Chris and Nick!! Mmmmm. We still have the rest of Belize to explore, and we weirdly missed our little 4Runner home... So back to the mainland for these gringos...

Dinner time on the island!
A bunch of really hot and tired gringos on the long journey back to our cars






















Mexico budget and other random stuff...

We spent a total of 32 days in the wonderful country of Mexico. It was a completely positive experience, leaving us with nothing but great memories from an underdog of a country! This post is just a little conglomeration of some notable, useful, or funny factoids from our time in Mexico.

  • Total money spent in US dollars: $2,130 = $33/person/day
(gas $579 ~ food $441 ~ camping $290 ~ scuba diving $228 ~ hotel/cabana $162 ~ alcohol $109 ~ tolls $92 ~ park fees $55 ~ auto $34 ~ misc (extending car insurance, mountain biking guide, ect) $140)

  • Average cost of campsite was $7 per person. Average budget meal from a street vendor or locals restaurant $3. Average local light beer $1.25. Gas $3.80/gallon (fixed price all over Mexico at this time).
  • We love the challenge of finding a sweet place to make camp for the night. It has been fun to sometimes plan this out and enter coordinates into the GPS, sometimes using the very handy ipad app iOverlander, and sometimes finding our own place by stumbling upon it or asking around. And hey, when all else fails, we are incognito, and can sleep pretty much anywhere we can park!

  • 23 nights slept in the 4Runner, 7 nights slept in a hotel or cabana, 2 nights spent in a tent. We prefer Lola, but situations like being in a big city, extreme heat, or not feeling well sometimes call for a room.
Home sweet home away from home & the comfiest bed we've slept in in Mexico

  • Favorite meals: Chris- aside from Mallary's cooking at camp... tacos pastor & anything with chorizo and cheese. Mallary- street tacos and chips with the many varieties of salsas, especially spicy ones!
Dutch oven meals are the best
  • Miles driven in Mexico- 3,187

  • Bad or scary experiences- only 1... The toll booth protesters which turned out to only be scary for a minute or 2. This bullet is most notable though because of all of the warnings and "oh not Mexico!" comments we received before leaving. As a whole, everywhere we went in Mexico felt safe, the people were insanely kind and helpful, and nothing remotely bad happened. Occassionaly there was a good amount of police or military presence, reminding us that there is a pretty active war happening between Mexico and the cartels, but its clear that they are not intersted in tourists and what we are up to. Overall, it is an exceptional place to travel!
  • Mexican people are the best! One fond example of some local love was when six of us rolled up to a stall style eatery 10 mins after they closed and had started packing up their food and equipment. Instead of the old ladies telling us adios, they quickly busted out their food, lit some fresh coals for the grill, and cooked us up some custom plates. The senoritas were even kind of enough to pass around a bottle of mezcal on the house for our pleasure. It seemed like quite the acheivement scoring all this while dishing out some of the worst gringo Spanish ever heard by these ladies. Yes, we realize that this is their livlihood and they are happy for business, but it was the way they went above and beyond with putting up with our questions, explaining what various things were, and all the while laughing and teaching us a little espanol. This was not an isolated incident, it was more like the norm... Mexicans going above and beyond to help us out, even when our language skills were lacking! We will be sure to pay this forward, and be more accommodating to non-english speaking visitors when back in the US!
  • We miss toilet seats and sanitary bathrooms and throwing toilet paper down the toilet, come down and see what we mean.
  • Leftover American change goes a long way when child banditos block the road with clothes lines demanding money or for you to buy their corn before letting you pass. A couple US pennies are enough to dazzle even the toughest of these child road warriors, or at least shock them enough for them to drop their line.
  • Corrupt police is an issue, we heard stories of other travels being hassled for a while with an attemped bribe, paying expensive bribes to get out of tickets, or paying expensive tickets. However, we had no such issue. In all we were stopped and questioned at a couple dozen police or army checkpoints. Usually these involved just showing our documents, but were searched a couple times and had an army K-9 unit sniff around the inside of the vehicle.
  • When language fails us, charades always helps us get our point across! It's funny the hand motions we make up for certain things and fine acting skills we can whip out when in need to communicate something.
  • The driving in Mexico is a controlled and systematic chaos. The biggest challenges are dodging potholes, topes, children, multitudes of different animals on the roads, and defunct vehicles.
  • Mexico is land of one million topes! Topes are speedbumps, and Mexico freaking loves their speedbumps... big wide pedestrian walk speedbumps 2 or 3 in a row of course, the high and skinny type, the home made dirt ones, the big metal turtle shell ones, the lots of little bumps in a row causing the car to vibrate kind, some hiding in the shadows, and the ones covered with vendors or beggers, and the best of all are the unmarked ones in the middle of nowhere for no reason on a perfectly good highway or better yet a pothole ridden street! These "Sleeping Policemen" are the worst enemy to our poor bikes bobbing up and down on the back of Lola everyday, slowly grinding away at the tow hitch. Topes are the bain of any drivers existence, enough to make any driver curse out of frustration from speeding up and slowing down for yet another tope just to repeat the process a few hundred more times a day. Come on clutch, hang in there!


  • Although much of our time over the past month was spent having fun, exploring, and finding new adventures, food, and friends... We also spent a good deal of time doing the normal day to day life stuff. For example, every time we get in the car to go somewhere new, we have likely spent a while doing some internet research, looking at paper maps, programming the GPS and checking its route, and usually planning a place to stay for the night. Daily tasks like having clean drinking water, food, somewhere safe to sleep, showers, and doing laundry are more of an intentional effort, and each of those things can come with some degree of difficulty at times.
  • For us, Mexico was 32 days of new experiences, people, and places everyday. Days of wandering around new cities and towns, days of biking, hiking, camping, hammocking, diving, snorkling, and swimming. 32 days of immersion into a new culture, new language, and new lifestyle. Our days in Mexico transformed us into the overlanders we are, and even though it seems like the day we crossed the border was ages ago and this past month was packed with endless amazing memories, we still have a long road in front of us. We are so thankful for the road we have traveled so far, and the prospect of what is to come on the road in front of us these next 11 months!