Hello, my name is Belize!

Traveling through Belize you will see the sign, “No Shirt, No Shoes…No Problem!” nearly everywhere you go. This relaxed approach to life is only part of what is attracting more and more visitors to Belize each year.

Caye Caulker Island, BelizeLocated between Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south and the Caribbean Sea to the east, Belize is a country of contrasts.  Belize may be the only country in Central America where English is the official language, but Belize has a diverse society, composed of many cultures and speaking many languages and, culturally, Belize considers itself to be both Caribbean and Central American.

Geographically Belize has a lot for travelers to take in as well.  The Caribbean coast is lined with a coral reef and some 450 islets and islands known locally as Cayes.  In total they comprise about 270 square miles of land and form the 200 mile long Belize Barrier Reef, the second longest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef.  Three of the four coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere are also located off the coast of Belize.

And, because over 40 of Belize’s mass is a protected national park, wildlife sanctuary or marine reserve, there is no shortage of wildlife.  Sharks, coral fish, dolphins and turtles troll the waters, and over 570 species of birds, including toucans, fly the skies.

Caye Caulker – one of the tiny islands off of the Belize coast – is a great place to observe the culture of Belize, while staying within a budget.  In fact, this island has been a stop for backpackers and college travelers for decades!  Many of the residents of Caye Caulker are fishermen, making the island a great place to get fresh spiny lobster and snapper.  There are no cars on Caye Caulker but there are plenty of beaches, friendly locals and delicious food.

Another must see while in Belize is Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, named after the cashew trees that inhabit the village.  For $8 you get access to the community that is actually home to 900 locals, of Creole descent, who have been farming and fishing the area for generations.  If you make it there in the morning, you’ll also get to see the amazing variety of birds that inhabit the area and make this one of the top birding destinations in the world.

After you’ve conquered Belize by land, venture seaward and see Belize’s Hol Chanand the Great Blue Hole.  Hol Chan, also known as “Shark-Ray Alley,” is an split in the reef where nurse sharks and sting rays among other marine life, make their home.  Besides being a prime destination for dive excursions, Hol Chan is also a marine reserve.

First made famous by Jacques Cousteau, the Great Blue Hole is a large underwater sinkhole that can be seen from space!  The world’s largest feature of its kind, the Hole  attracts divers looking to catch a glimpse of the nurse sharks, Caribbean reef sharks and Blacktip sharks that live in the area.  Dive trips to the Great Blue Hole are usually full-day trips, including a dive in the Blue Hole and two other dives in nearby reefs.

Whatever attracts you to Belize, the warmth of the local culture will make you feel you’ve found a second home.  Actually, many visitors have made it their second home – and when the owners are away, why not take advantage of the great deals to be had by renting a vacation house rather than paying a nightly rate for a hotel?

Galapagos Islands – Spotlight Santa Cruz

The second largest island in the Galapagos archipelago is the island of Santa Cruz, which might be called the focal point of Galapagos’ Tourism. 

Santa Cruz’s popularity among tourists may have to do with the fact that it is very close in proximity to one of the only two airports in the Galapagos or that it is one of only four islands that accommodate overnight guests.

The island of Santa Cruz is also where you can find the famous Charles Darwin Research Station.  Virtually all tours of the area will offer a visit to this branch of the non-profit Charles Darwin foundation where research and scientific investigation is conducted to further preservation efforts on the island.  Visitors can also check out the tortoise breeding and rearing that takes place right in the facility, along with the most famous inhabitant of the islands, Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises.

Lonesome George

Lonesome George

Santa Cruz is probably the most tourist friendly of all the islands, and is where you can find the port city of Puerto Ayora (named for the former Ecuadorian President).  Puerto Ayora is a vivacious sea-side town where vistors will discover many hotels, restaraunts, bars, and shops.  It is the most populated town in the all of the Galapagos with a staggering population of just over 10,000 inhabitants!

Nevertheless, Puerto Ayora’s spirited environment and assortment of activities and entertainment makes the town deserving of at least a two-night stay.

Like most of the Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz is also home to a wide array of animal life, including a large tortoise population nearby at Black Turtle Cove.  Pelicans, land iguanas, Darwin’s finches, wild tortoises, and other creatures roam free in the area and virtually every bird native to the Galapagos has been seen at one time or another on the island of Santa Cruz. 

Sharks, rays, sea lions and sea turtles are just a few of the aquatic inhabitants visitors will come across during their stay.  You will likely also catch a glimpse of the marine iguanas which swim and slither through the sea – an amazing sight that you may have previously seen in movies like Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander.

There is no shortage of entertainment in Santa Cruz – visitors can go mountain biking, kayaking, scuba diving, horseback riding, surfing, or take a jeep tour on land or a glass bottom boat tour on the ocean.  If you need a break, have a drink at an outdoor bar in Puerto Ayora.

In any event you will never find yourself bored on the dynamic and always active island of Santa Cruz!

The Galapagos Islands – Spotlight: Isabella

First made famous by the great naturalist, Charles Darwin, the diverse assortment of mammals, birds, reptiles and marine life found on the Galapagos Islands make for an unparalleled look at what happens when nature is left unspoiled by the footprint of the modern way of life.

And while the Galapagos Islands have become mystified over the years, visitors shouldn’t expect to encounter freaky hybrid animals.  There are no iguana-mingos or sea-boobies, but there are plenty of marine iguanas, pink flamingos, sea lions and blue-footed boobies, as well as penguins, dolphins, whales, the famed Alcedo tortoises, and many, many other animals including Darwin’s finches.

What is a bit unique (though still far more cool than freaky) is that, besides figuring out some kind of harmonious and symbiotic relationship among themselves, these animals seem to tolerate if not welcome human presence.  There are countless stories of dolphins “dancing” in the water or mimicking tourists as they swim, or finches perching on peoples hands to grab a quick snack of seeds.

New York Times writer, Josephine Humphrey, wrote this of her experience:

“I met up with a blue-footed booby standing smack in the middle of the footpath. It made no offer to step aside and let me pass. Looking into its birdy eye, I saw . . . nothing at all. No fear, but also no aggression. No anxiety, affection, hope, recognition. Its indifference was profound, as if I were invisible, although I’d been told that if I did step too close it might jab at me with its beak. This strange fearlessness can’t be explained by any local history of kindness on the part of man. Even Darwin killed birds and ate tortoises. The blue-footed booby wasn’t afraid of me, but the name for this is not tameness. It’s genetic innocence. Since the animals evolved in the absence of man, their innocence exists at a molecular level. I saw it again in the eye of an albatross just before it turned to begin its mating dance; I saw it in the stare of a sea lion nursing her pup on the beach. The animals felt nothing for people one way or the other, yet all around them were people, including me, in love with the animals.”

Isabella is the largest of the archipelagos that make up the Galapagos Islands, which were formed right smack on the equator over a million years ago when a series of volcanoes merged.  Not many tourists visit this Island, which has the largest colony of Galapagos tortoises and picturesque beaches complete with coconut palms.

Sidenote – because of the flourishing animal life on the Islands, it is the general assumption that the plant life is just as abundant.  The Galapagos is not a lush Gilligan’s Island type place.  The Islands tend to me more barren and rocky and, in some areas, are devoid of vegetation entirely, mostly due to the recent volcanic activity.

Puerto Villamil is the main “hub” of Isabella and thrives mostly on fishing, tourism and agricultural activities.  With its sandy streets it is a welcomed escape from the more touristy Islands of the Galapagos.  There are very few motor vehicles and the whole town seems to adapt to the slow pace of the local tortoises.  Villamil has friendly (mostly Spanish-speaking) locals who are happy to point you in the direction of the nearest great place to find a hammock and relax, swim and snorkel – all within walking distance from the main drag.  The town has a good selection of accommodations and small seafood restaurants.  In Isabella there are no banks, so remember to bring enough cash to last you your entire stay.

But before you book your flight to Isabella, stay tuned for upcoming articles exploring the other Islands of the Galapagos…

Party with Brazil’s own Morro de Sao Paulo!

Morro de Sao Paulo (St. Paul’s Hill) is just about as good as it gets when it comes to a laid back vacation destination.  And while the island is not far from easy-to-get-to locations like Salvador, the small town has no cars and a much slower-paced lifestyle despite its popular nightlife.

The village of Morro de Sao Paulo is known for its grand festas. Hotels, pousadas, and restaurants that line the sandy path of Rua Caminho das Praias or Beach Road.  Stop in any of the restaurants and try the fresh local cuisine or a raska – Brazil’s favorite cocktail made from local tropical fruits, sugar, crushed ice and a splash of vodka.  Each restaurant will have their own take on the drink so try a few and find your favorite!

The Northeast coast of Brazil is famous for its beaches and Morro de Sao Paulo has arguably the best…so good that the beaches have no names as the natural beauty speaks for itself.  Merely named ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’ and ‘fourth’ each beach has its perks.

Summer homes that have long been located on First Beach now serve as pousadas or “inns” for surfers and other vacationers visiting from all over the globe during Brazil’s winter (America’s summer) months.  This is the best time to visit as the population of the town nearly doubles during the Brazilian summer – North American winter.

First Beach’s offers the most consistent waves to surf on, crystal-clear waters and is also home to most of the seaside restaurants.  Note:  Like everything else, Brazil likes their food spicy!  If you’re not a fan, make sure you order it mild!   This beach is also where you will find the tirolesa, or zipline, that runs from a lighthouse up on one of the morros, or hills, down to the beach – definitely something to try!

If you’re looking for excitement, head down to Second Beach – the party beach!  Bring your camera for a perfect photo op as you wind down Second Beach’s staircase – it offers amazing views of several of the island’s beaches and the sparkling ocean.  Brazilian “Luaus” take place along the beach every Saturday and nightly during the weeks leading up to Brazil’s Carnaval festival.  Since the parties often last into the morning, steer clear of Second Beach if this isn’t your scene. 

However, Second Beach is more than a party – one of Brazil’s most famous cultural arts, Capoeira, is preformed here every evening.  With the setting sun as the backdrop for this acrobatic martial art, you will not want to miss this!  Ask around for performance locations or simply follow the crowd!

Attention divers – on Third Beach you’ll find more pousadas and restaurants and less crowds as the beaches tend to get progressively quieter.  You’ll also find Caita Island, a large barrier reef just off of the shore (with up to 15 meter visibility!).  Rent a a kayak, snorkeling gear or dive gear and head out – the island is right off the beach!

Fourth Beach is the largest of Morro de Sao Paulo’s and is another reef beach.  It is the quietest of the four beaches making it the perfect place to laze under a palm tree, watch for jumping dolphins in the ocean and listen to the sound of the waves while sipping a roska.  Snorkelers and divers will find an assortment of coral and some of the brightest colored fish in all of Brazil. 

With 4 amazing beaches to choose from, a rich marine life, a variety of water and beach sports to partake in and local “must see’s” such as the Old Fort Ruins and Morro Lighthouse, make Morro de Sao Paulo your next south-of-the-boarder vacation!

Isla de Roatan, Honduras – A Divers Dream

Roatan is a scuba diviers paradise.  Located off of the North Coast of Honduras, Roatan is one of the three Bay Islands and is quickly becoming a premier scuba diving destination.  Often called the Caribbean’s best-kept secret, the island boasts diverse and unique reef systems, friendly people, and is a unique culture full of authentic Caribbean charm…after all, it was once inhabited by pirates!

The three Islas de la Bahia – Roatan, Utila and Guanaja – lie along the southern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-longest coral reef in the world.  Beneath the clear turquoise waters is a trove of unbelievable riches: vibrant coral formations, enormous sponges, a wide variety of colorful fish as well as manta rays, sea turtles and whale sharks.  Yet prices remain remarkably low, (the Bay Islands are said to be the cheapest place in the world to get your PADI dive certificate!) making the Bay Islands a great place to learn scuba diving – and if you learn here, chances are, you’ll be hooked for life!  And don’t worry – if you’re like myself, who gets claustrophobic at the thought of being at the bottom of the ocean with only an air tank to keep you alive, the snorkeling in Roatan is pretty amazing too!

If you’ve never been to Roatan, you can plan on using your US dollars rather than the local lempiras as US currency is accapted, even welcomed, nearly everywhere.  Do keep an eye out for favorable conversion rates and cash in if and when it makes sense.  Also, expect to see a heavy military presence.  There is almost guaranteed to be an AK-47 wielding guard at the enterence to most establsihments – they keep a low profile and it is the general consensus that Honduras is safer for locals and tourists alike since the new government has implemented this military presence.

Regardless of your skill – or lack of – Roatan has everything for your diving vacation:  wreck diving, wall diving, scuba lessons, certification courses, and fun day or night dives.  The island has a wide variety of diving resorts, in addition to small hotels and independent diving operators offering outstanding diving opportunities at varying and competitive prices.

“Mary’s Place” is perhaps one of the most popular dive sites off of Roatan – the dive starts at a permanent mooring buoy on the reef shelf, along a vertical crevice that drops from 40′, with a huge section of the wall broken away from the main section to form a wide slit.  Smaller crevices invite exploration among bouquets of Rope and Tube Sponges, deepwater seafans and Black Coral.  A sand shelf drops from 140′ to 200′, offering a magnificent underwater view.

If you’ve never been wreck diving, “El Aguila” is an amazing sight – a 210′ cargo boat perfectly sunk in 100 feet of water on a sandy bottom full of Deep Garden Eels.  Divers can descend onto open large compartments where you can surprise a number of fish in their homes!  The wreck runs alongside a wall where many choose to finish off their dive among the shallow water tropical fish.

If you’re not into diving, Roatan is big enough to keep you busy, with botanical gardens, butterfly and iguana farms, canopy tours, and winding dirt roads leading to small villages and isolated bays.  And if you just want to relax, head to Roatan’s West End and West Bay,- the beaches there look like they could be right off of a brochure.  Picture clear turquoise water, powdery white sand and coconut palms.

5 of the World’s Most Amazing & Adventurous Accommodations

Giraffe Manor

Giraffe Manor

Giraffe Manor:
For the animal lover it doesn’t get much better than Giraffe Manor in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.  The luxury boutique hotel is surrounded by 140 acres of land where the  ”resident herd” of giraffes call home.  These friendly giants feel so welcome at the Manor that they routinely peek their heads through windows and the front door to get fed, pose for pictures and say hi to guests and staff. Giraffe Manor also has well appointed rooms, a friendly staff and a renowned kitchen.

Exploranter Overland Hotel

Exploranter Overland Hotel

Explorer Overland Hotel:
If you are the kind of traveler that enjoys being on-the-go, the Exploranter Overland Hotel is the perfect hotel for you.  This hotel on wheels, a converted 25-ton truck  that pulls behind it a trailer that can sleep 24 guests comfortably, while it tours the back country of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, stopping at pre-arranged or customized locations.  The hotel has everything you could possibly need to accommodate you and your travel companions…including bringing on chefs from different stops along your journey to prepare local specialties .  And if there is something you want that can’t fit on the truck – er hotel – the Overland Hotel staff can help make it happen for you.  Everything from spelunking and horseback riding, to winery tours and hot air balloon rides and more can be arranged.

Kakslauttanen Glass Igloo

Kakslauttanen Glass Igloo

The hotel is located near the Urho Kekkonen National Park in Lapland, the most northern part of Scandinavia spreading to the area of the four different countries: Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden.  Lapland’s extreme climate is what makes a stay at the Kakslauttanen so unique…that and the opportunity to stay in a snow or glass igloo!  The snow igloos have lights inside ice that, when illuminated, create a quiet, serene setting for a cozy night tucked warm into a down sleeping bag.  The glass igloos stay as warm as a regular room, yet give guests the unique opportunity to look up at the Aurora Borealis (August – April) or stay warm inside while watching a romantic snowstorm fall around you.  After staying in either of the igloos, guests are welcome to enjoy the sauna in the morning, followed by a dip in a hole in the ice covering a nearby river – talk about a jump-start to your day!

Huilo Huilo Magic Mountain Lodge:
Nestled in the Huilo Huilo Nature Reserve in Southern Chile, the Magic Mountain Lodge was designed to exist harmoniously in the Patagonian Andes mountain setting and constructed using indigenous materials and other items made by local artisans.  The lodges unique architecture is set around 55 rooms located on 7 floors, each of which has a window that peeks out of the “mountain” lodge and overlooks the forested surroundings.  Nature enthusiasts will enjoy the valleys and mountain ranges covered by the Temperate Rainforest that are a part of an ecosystem that conservationists are trying to preserve.  A variety of outdoor activities and excursions are available, including a hikes to a local volcano, waterfall or through the rainforest where you can observe wildlife.

Kolarbyn Eco-Lodge

Kolarbyn Eco-Lodge

Kolarbyn Eco-Lodge:
Looking for an overnight experience that falls somewhere between camping and staying in a hostel?   The Kolarbyn Eco-Lodge, billed as Sweden’s most primitive hotel, has forest huts and advertises such swanky acommodations as, “two hard beds,” “cosy sheep-skin rugs,” “primitive kitchen facilities,” and “firewood for self-cutting” that you can then use in the hut’s “wood heater.”  If you can get past the fact that you’ll be paying to fetch your own water from a nearby spring, the Kolarbyn does have some cool wildlife safari’s; sign up for the Wolf Howling Tour, Wolf Safari by Horse, Moose Safari, Lynx Adventure, or the Beaver Watching Tour.

Offbeat Vacation Spot: Huacachina, Peru

Huacachina is a small village located in the Ica Region, in southwestern Peru with a population of only 115.  It’s built around a small isolated lake in the desert called the “Oasis of America,” and has long served as a resort for local families from the nearby city of Ica and a stomping-ground for Peruvian elite.  Those familiar with Peru’s currency may recocnize Huacachina fromt he back of the S/50 note.

Increasingly though, Huacachina has become a popular destination for offbeat thrill-seekers and backpackers who come to shread the hundred foot+ sand dunes that surround the oasis villiage.  These sandboarding tourists have somewhat come to run the show.  What was once towering palm trees, lush foliage and buildings from days gone by has been virtually transformed as a majority of the hotels, restaurants and businesses are now catering to these new tourists that are known for their all night parties.

Not that the Peruvians are unacustomed to some wild nights.  Back when the Spanish ruled Peru and grew tired of waiting for their beloved wine to be shipped to them every 6 months, they planted their own grapevines and began making, what turned out to be, quite the tasty vino.  The Peruvians, however liked their spirits a little stronger, which resulted in some of the wines being distilled and turned into waht is now their national drink of choice – pisco (named after the important nearby port of the same name).  The pisco sour, a delicious drink made from pisco, whisked egg white, lemon juice, syrup or sugar, crushed ice and a little bitters, is delicious and refreshing.

If you’re interested in visiting Huacachina, there are a grip of hostels and inexpensive accomodations to be discovered (try El Huacachinero) that make Huacachina a perfect stop for those traveling throughout Peru, perhaps on their way to Cusco and the Incan Trail.