Greetings from Belize!! As I sit here and relax in the hammock on the front porch of a beach cabana, I really appreciate the slow, breezy pace of island life. Katie and I will be spending the next 4 days here on Caye Caulker, soaking up the sun, snorkeling, and enjoying some great siestas. When we arrived into Belize City yesterday however, we wanted to check off a few inland activities that we wouldn’t have an opportunity to do for the rest of the trip, and instead of renting a car, we opted to hire a driver. A cave tubing tour was unfortunately out of the question- you have to hike through the jungle for about 30 mins before reaching the water, which was impossible for me, so we decided to visit the ancient Mayan ruins at Altun Ha and the Howler Monkey Sanctuary. Here’s a list of need-to-know dos and don’ts when hiring a driver in Belize.
First- Don’t rule out the adventure of renting a car! I know I just said we decided against it, but having your own vehicle to drive around can be of great benefit. After driving around for two weeks on the opposite side of the road in South Africa and riding a scooter through the crazy traffic in Thailand, I feel good about driving in other countries, so that was something we did originally look into. Belizian car rentals are actually kind of expensive, and you have to pay a decent amount for the additional insurance, so for one day the total was going to be over $100. I read that you can hire a car for about that amount, so we decided to do that instead, since we would be with someone who knew where they were going. However, my book ended up being inaccurate, and it ended up being more expensive to hire a driver. I’m sure we would have made it on our own (there are only 2-3 main roads and there were plenty of signs pointing the way), so it’s really personal preference.
Do research the area you’re visiting beforehand and be prepared. It was chilly when we left LA on Sunday night before our flight, so when we arrived in Belize, Katie and I were both wearing jeans and sweatshirts. We changed into short sleeves, but ended up still being extremely overdressed. We were sweating throughout our Altun Ha tour, but the jeans ended up being somewhat of a blessing during the howler monkey tour since the bugs started biting in the jungle. We had forgotten to buy water when we left the airport so we had to ask George to stop at a local general store as well as a bank, because surprise! I forgot to get money out of my account. I also forgot to let my bank know about my travel plans, so my card was declined. Luckily Katie brought some cash and was able to cover the taxi for both of us, and once I got a wifi connection, I was able to let the bank know I was in Belize and to allow use of my card.
Don’t forget to ask the driver for the price before you start your ride. Don’t get me wrong, George our driver from the airport was fantastic. He was very friendly and knowledgable with some hilarious stories about all the people he’s driven around. But we started our ride telling him the two spots we wanted to go before coming back to the pier… And then we were off. No mention or discussion of price at all. In the end, he showed us a list of the prices for each destination, which are per person, which seemed extremely steep, it should be per car, and we had to pay it. He knocked off a bit from the price but we each spent $100, plus tip. We were thinking $100 together originally, but at that point there was nothing we could do, he had already driven us around for 5 hours. Just be clear as to how much you are spending on a taxi beforehand, so there are no surprises.
Do remember to tip your guides. At the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha, we got a guide for $10 US per person for our hour long tour of the grounds. He was very knowledgable, answered all of our questions, and we later learned that his grandfather was one of the people hired to help excavate the ruins back in the 1960s and found the infamous Jade Head. After we paid the $20, we noted he looked a little disappointed, and then realized at the monkey sanctuary that we should have tipped him! We felt so bad, so we are going to send some money at some point after we get back to California. I don’t ever want to insult someone or make them feel like we didn’t appreciate their help, so we made sure for the rest of our day that we tipped our guide at the sanctuary and our driver George well.
Don’t feel like you have to take the driver up on their suggestions of other locations to see. We were very clear beforehand what we wanted to visit before catching our ferry to Caye Caulker, and George realized it too when he was talking up the Belize Zoo and how we should “definitely see it,” and both Katie and I sort of stayed silent. I understand that it’s a business and obviously another stop would have been more profitable for him as well as his friends who would guide us to wherever we went, but we had already made our plans and didn’t feel like we had the time or energy to see anything else that day.
Do get to know your driver. Aside from the fact that you should always double check if the car has the airport taxi logo and properly displayed paperwork, you want to get to know your driver as much as possible. George was born and raised in Belize, so he had lots of tips and ideas of where to go and what to see. He stopped at a small stand on the side of the road so we could try some homemade mango wine- I only wish I had bought a bottle! He let us know what to expect for the water taxi ride to Caye Caulker, and he was able to give us some details about the cave tubing trip as I mentioned before, which confirmed that it wasn’t going to be possible for me to do it. Riding around with a stranger all day would be awkward, plus you want to get to know the person who is watching your luggage and purse while you crutch through the jungle looking for howler monkeys.
Do Have Fun! Despite the heat, Katie and I really enjoyed our two mainland Belize stops before coming to Caye Caulker. The Mayan ruins at Altun Ha were amazing, and it was cool to imagine the Mayans living there back in 200 BC, and where their markets, homes, and graves were located. The howler monkey sanctuary was especially interesting because it’s just a community of people who donated the area their homes are located on for these monkeys to live in, and allow people to come visit and do research on the now-thriving population. They aren’t fenced in at all, but the monkeys stay in that area of about 20 square miles and their numbers have reached to over 4,000. While I would have loved to spend more time in the jungles on mainland Belize, I was satisfied with how our one-day adventure turned out, and I’m excited for some island relaxation on Caye Caulker!!