We lucked out this year because the kids’ holiday break from school was 2 full weeks. That meant we could squeeze in another adventure style trip. Belize had been on my list for a while and 9 days seemed to be enough time to explore both the interior, rainforest area and one of the islands.

The planning

Similar to last year’s trip to Costa Rica, because we were going to be traveling over the Holiday break, flights were going to be expensive, even with points. Flights from Newark to Belize on AA leaving the day after Christmas were 37,500 miles each, one way. I booked those, spending a total of 150,000 AA miles. Yes that is a lot of miles, but when you want flights to a tropical destination on one of the busiest days of the year, you bite the bullet and spend the points.

After that I was out of miles, however I did have a $750 AA voucher from volunteering to give up my seat and take a later flight on a work trip to DC a few months prior. I used that to book mine and one of my kid’s flights home (plus $98 to make up the difference). I then bought the two other return tickets through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site using about 56,000 Ultimate Rewards Points.

I bought these tickets around February 2019 and a month or so later my husband was chosen to receive free Platinum Pro status from AA for 4 months. They do this about once a year, where they choose some AAdvantage members and give them status temporarily, hoping to entice them to book enough flights to keep their status for the rest of the year. Since I had received this the before, I knew that we could go into our flights online and upgrade our seat assignments to “main cabin extra,” for free because of his status. These are the seats in the front of economy and they come with priority boarding, a designated carry-on spot for your luggage, and free booze on the flight. So we did that and were able to snag those seats for free. Pro tip – if you do this while you have PP status, the seats will stay there even once your status expires.

For the flights home since we were on 2 separate tickets only my husband and son received the premium seating. However this fall my husband upgraded his Hilton Honors card to the Aspire for a 150,000 point bonus. This card comes with a $250 a year airline credit. You choose your preferred airline and then use the credit to pay for things like seat assignments and checked luggage fees. We needed to spend the $250 by the end of the year so I made his preferred airline AA and I purchased seats in main cabin extra for about $80 each for my son and I so we could be closer to the other two. These fees were then reimbursed by Amex for the credit.

For the lodging, I chose a small local hotel in San Ignacio called the Rainforest Haven Inn. Standard rooms were about $60 a night, so I chose a 2 bedroom apartment for $75 a night! That way we would have more space and the boys could have their own room. In my research on this part of Belize it seemed like there were some swank but pricey jungle lodges away from town or these inexpensive, but nice local hotels in town. I liked the idea of staying in town so we could walk to things, so I chose the inexpensive, in-town option.

For Caye Caulker, I chose a 2 bedroom Airbnb cabana that got good reviews that had a small pool shared with a few other cabanas. For more about how to book Airbnbs and not get scammed, check out this article I wrote for FinanceBuzz.

The trip

Our flight left Newark, NJ at 6am, which meant we needed to get to the airport around 4 or earlier. I chose to get there earlier because we couldn’t check in online since we were traveling internationally with kids. I also had a bag to check full of donations for kids in Belize through the Pack for a Purpose program.

We took an Uber from my mom’s house at 3am and got to the airport at 3:45. When we checked in, the AA rep asked for the kids’ birth certificates. Luckily I had them! This is really important to know if you are bringing kids to Belize and something I only knew through the many travel online groups I am in. Each country has different requirements for this and Belize is very strict that you prove your kids are yours, or that they have permission to travel with you, because at one point there were a lot of child abductions from the US to Belize. This is especially important if your kids have a different last name than you. I have heard stories of people being stopped from boarding their flight because they didn’t bring documentation such as birth certificates.

Luckily check in was smooth and with TSA precheck we got through the security line in 5 minutes. Our flight to Miami was on time and we landed early. Our layover was short but fortunately the Centurion Lounge at Miami airport was right across from our gate. Since my husband has cancelled his Amex platinum card and you can only guest 2 people in per card, I took the kids over there for a quick breakfast. It was so ridiculously crowded though! We could barely find a place to sit to eat our food. In fact the table only had one chair and I had to stand and eat. These lounges have becoming more and more crowded over the years as people get more into credit card points and miles. We quickly ate and went back to the gate where we boarded our flight and took off.

My husband still had about $48 to spend for his recently acquired American Express Hilton Honors Aspire Card airline credit after we paid $30 to check the bag with the donations. In order to use up the credit we bought a bunch of snacks on the plane to bring with us to San Ignacio.

We landed in Belize on time and spent about 45 mins going through immigration and customs. I had set up a shuttle service through our hotel in San Ignacio and the driver was a very nice Dutch guy who has lived in Belize for 11 years. It was a 2 hour drive to San Ignacio but we got to see some of the countryside. We got to town around 3:30 and checked into our room/apt. It was nice and spacious.

We had no idea that the Belizeans celebrate Boxing Day on 12/26, so most shops and restaurants were closed. Belize has an interesting mix of British and American influence. For example they drive on the right, and they use pounds, miles, and Fahrenheit. But then they maintain some British traditions such as this. Luckily there were a couple restaurants open so we got some dinner and headed back to our apt to get to bed early since we had been up since 2:30am.

The next day after breakfast we started our first tour which was a trip to the Belize zoo and then cave tubing. We went to the zoo first. It is very well done and features most of the native animals of Belize in the natural habitat. We got to see spider and howler monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, leopards, pumas, ocelots, margays, pelicans, a scarlet macaw, a toucan, and more. One of the zookeepers hung out with us and brought meat for some of the cats so we could see them up close while he fed him. And we got to hold a boa constrictor at the end!

After this our guide took us to a local restaurant where we had a traditional Belizean lunch of rice and beans, stewed chicken, and potato salad. Plus we got to try soursop juice (a local fruit) and their local beer, Belikin.

Next we headed over to the cave tubing place which is in a national park. We geared up with our life vests, helmets, and tubes and did a 45 minute hike through the jungle while our guide told us about the various fauna.

Pro-tip: our guide told us never to do this activity on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday because that’s when the cruise ships come in and they take people on excursions to go cave tubing. He said it is so busy the river becomes like a freeway of people in tubes. It was already pretty busy given that it was high season so I imagine had there been a cruise excursion it would have really impacted the experience in a negative way.

The river and jungle were beautiful and we splashed around at the mouth of the cave while our guide hooked our tubes together and waited for a time to go in where there were less people. As we floated through the cave he told us about how the Mayans used to use the caves for ceremonies and sacrifices and they would smash their clay pots when they were done as part of the ritual. The stalactites and stalagmites were so cool and you could see lots of shimmering crystals on them.

About halfway through he pulled us over to a spot where we got out of our rafts to go on a little spelunking adventure. We walked in the dark with our headlamps through the cave and walked over to an open ring with stairs. He pointed out some ancient petroglyphs carved into the stalagmites – a spooky face!

He then took us to a spot where the guides had brought over some shards of ancient Mayan pottery and we got to pick them up and look at them closely. The next part was our favorite. We swam back to where the tubes were in the dark river of the cave. He took us to a little semi-enclosed grotto and had us turn our headlamps off for the full experience. It was pretty epic!

We got back to the tubes and floated out of the cave and then down the river through the jungle for a bit, seeing orange iguanas along the way. The kids hopped out of their tubes and swam along side of us. When we were done we got some fresh coconuts from a guy selling them at the entrance and mom got a little rum in hers 😊

We headed back to San Ignacio and had a nice dinner at a really good restaurant in town, Cenaida’s. We were pretty tired after all the day’s adventures so we went back to the room and chilled out.

The next morning we decided to do a cooking class at our hotel. The person leading it took us over to the San Ignacio market. Saturday was their busiest day and it was buzzing with activity. He showed us some of the native fruits, vegetables, and spices and talked about how they use them in their cooking. We also got some freshly made pupusas and soursop ice cream!

Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and started class. We spent the morning learning to make the classic Belizean dishes of stew chicken, rice and beans (cooked in coconut milk), potato salad, fried plantains, fry jacks, and bread pudding. Then we got to eat it all for lunch and try various hot sauces. The company that makes a lot of the hot sauce here is called “Marie Sharp’s” and the hotel sells all of their products. The food was delicious and the kids had a blast learning how to make it. My husband even got to practice his kneading technique from watching the Great British Baking Show on Netflix.

We needed to rest after that huge meal but after that we walked uphill to a fancy hotel that houses the Green Iguana Project – an iguana sanctuary. The guide taught us about their work trying to help the Iguana population that gets hurt when hunters hunt pregnant mothers, and then we got to feed some iguanas in their enclosure.

After this we trekked uphill some more to the Cahal Pech Mayan ruins. The park was very quiet with only a handful of people but the ruins were pretty large and we had fun exploring and climbing all around them, trying to imagine what they used each structure for.

Later that evening my husband and I walked 20 feet across from our room where the hotel does rum tastings. Unfortunately about 10, very inebriated twenty-somethings joined us for the tasting. We still had fun and our host didn’t charge us since he said they usually like to offer a better experience.

The next morning we got up super early to meet our tour group for a day trip into Guatemala to see the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal. We took a 15 minute bus ride to the border where we had to wait in line for about an hour to pay the exit fees to leave Belize and enter Guatemala. After that we took an hour and 45 minute bus ride up to Tikal. It was cool to see the Guatemalan countryside as went. It was very lush and green and we passed by a large, beautiful lake called Peten Itza.

At Tikal we met our local guide who took us through the site and taught us about the ruins. Tikal is pretty extensive. They started uncovering in about 1955 and they believe it was built around 300 BC. It is currently a UNESCO world heritage site.

I liked that for some of the structures you could climb they put up wooden stairs so you didn’t have to try to climb the original Mayan stone steps. It seems like that will preserve them more and also the guide said too many people were falling off the steps. It was fairly crowded, probably because it was the holiday week. However they also really limited the vending, unlike the large site, Chichen Itza, which is overrun with hawkers.

We spent about 3 hours exploring the ruins and then on the way back stopped for lunch in a small town nearby. We were starving after all that walking and climbing! We headed back to Belize and getting through the border took another hour.

After buying our hot sauce souvenirs from the hotel we decided to do a street food dinner. We got tacos, salbutes, tamales, and stuffed jacks for four people, all for $7 USD! Plus they were delicious!

Caye Caulker

The next morning we got up early for our 8am ride back to Belize City to catch the 10:30am water taxi. The taxi took off on time and we were all excited for the island part of our trip. When we landed in Caye Caulker we were hungry and tired, and the sun was very hot. We walked with our luggage in the heat about 15 minutes to our Airbnb. When we arrived, there was a large family there with about 4 kids, drinking and partying around the pool. The Airbnb was made up of 4 cabanas around a shared pool and patio area. The housekeepers were getting our cabana ready and told us it would be about 2-3 hours before it was ready. We decided to go for some lunch while we waited and we asked them where we could drop off our laundry. The housekeeper then told us there was no water but it would be back on around 5 or 6. We figured this may have been a routine thing, and didn’t think too much of it. After all, the water main by our house breaks about once every year in the summer, and we are used to being without water for 3-4 hours while they fix it.

We dropped off our laundry at a local woman’s house who also told us to check back around 5 or 6 when the water would come back on. We walked back to the middle of town and found a restaurant to eat lunch. It took forever to get our food but we tried to stay in a good mood. After lunch we walked up to the area called “The Split,” where I had heard most people go swimming and snorkeling. At this point I was starting to sour a little on Caye Caulker. The split was not what I had imagined. It was mostly taken over by a beach bar with a loud DJ and it seemed like in order to hang out there you had to order food and drinks from them. Plus it wasn’t really a beach, just a concrete area with sand on it with no shade, and you had to climb down a ladder, like into a pool, to go into the water. We walked around a little more and didn’t see any other promising areas for beach swimming.

Back at our Airbnb the cleaners were almost done and we talked to them a bit more. They told us the kids of the other family were really loud and that they were also staying through the end of the week. Great. They had left for the afternoon though, so we got on our bathing suits and took a dip in the pool. A little while later the cleaners told us that they had heard that the water pump for the entire island’s water supply was broken, and they needed a part from the States, which would not arrive until at least the end of the week. “So we may not have water for a week?” I asked the cleaning lady. She nodded. At this point I started to freak out. No water at all on an island for a week did not seem like a good idea. At the same time the owner of the Airbnb, who was off site, sent us a copy of the notification that the Belize Water Service had sent him, confirming that they were waiting for a part from the U.S. that wouldn’t come until the end of the week but they would try to fill the tank with some emergency water in the meantime.

I started panicking and thinking about how we could leave but my husband tried to keep me calm and that maybe we could wait it out. We went to the store and bought some extra water. The cleaning people gave us buckets to fill with the pool water to flush the toilet. I started to think about what the pool would be like after a few days with all these people who can’t shower using it and no fresh water to replenish it. I also read in the host’s guidebook that the only beach-like areas, were the Split, which we had seen, and another place north of the Split called Koko King, which was another beach club that you could use if you purchased food and drink. It said they had a sort of manufactured beach and they would ferry you across the split in their boat. At this point I was not thrilled that our only options for swimming were spending money at a beach club (likely lots of money as they are always over-priced), or crammed in a small pool with our boisterous neighbors. I looked up one way flights on AA (the airline we were using to fly home), and they were over $1000 each. This situation was bad but there was no way we were going to spend over $4000 to get home. It seemed like our best option was to wait it out and hope for the best.

We decided to head out for dinner and I tried to calm my anxiety and not think of all the Mad Max scenarios playing in my head about what this place would be like after 3 days with no water. We walked around the town a bit more. It was crowded and I didn’t feel the “laid back vibe” I had read about this place. Also I had heard Belize didn’t really have beaches but I figured they would at least have somewhere nice to swim. It wasn’t looking that way.

We made our way back to our Airbnb and found our neighbors on the patio in full-on party mode. This was not exactly the relaxing vacation we had hoped for. Inside the house I texted my friend who has traveled extensively to tell him about the water situation and ask his advice. He was pretty clear: “Get out. These things never go well. If you can leave do it.”

I went back on google flights to see what we could get to fly home. United had a one-way, nonstop flight back to Newark the next day for about $400. That wasn’t too bad. I checked what they were charging in miles. It was only 20k miles per ticket plus about $65 in taxes and fees. That was a really good deal. I looked at flights for the 1st and 2nd of January and they were over 40k miles each and had connections. If we were going to get out it had to be the next day. I only had about 2,000 United miles in my account, but Chase Ultimate Rewards will transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio and will post instantly. I had plenty of these points to transfer over to United to buy the tickets with miles.

I called my husband in from hanging out with the neighbors and we discussed our options. I even called my friend to talk it though. In the end we decided flushing the toilet with pool water, sharing this space with very nice but very loud neighbors, with a pool that was bound to get disgusting and no good beach to swim in, was just not worth it. We pulled the trigger and booked the flights for the next day.

The kids were very upset and we tried to explain that it wasn’t safe to be in a place without water for that long. We explained that at the restaurants they would not be able to wash dishes and food properly and there was a good chance we could get sick.

I also let our Airbnb host know we were leaving and I cancelled the one snorkeling excursion we had planned. Luckily that company refunded me because I canceled before 24 hours. I was pretty bummed to miss this because it seemed amazing and honestly the only reason to visit this area, but at this point it seemed like the right call.

I had difficulty sleeping because of the noisy neighbors and my nerves, and at one point in the middle of the night I got up to go to the bathroom and tried the faucet and some water came out. Now I was extra upset. Had they fixed it already? I just spent 80k miles on our plane tickets that could have been used for something else! I woke up my husband and showed him but he convinced me we should still leave. He said this was likely the emergency water they brought over to fill the reserve tank a little, but that would likely run out again soon as well.

The next morning we packed everything up and it started pouring rain, making the sandy roads filled with big grey puddles. We caught a golf cart taxi to the center of town and had breakfast a famous “stuffed jack” place. It was pretty good. We took some pictures of the island and then boarded the water taxi back to Belize City. Once there we took a cab for the airport and had a relatively easy time getting on our flight to Newark. We had a lot of Belizean dollars left but we spent a lot of them on the cab ride, lunch at the airport, some drinks, and some more hot sauce to take home.

Our impressions of Belize

We loved our time in San Ignacio. There were so many fun, adventure activities to do there, including exploring caves and ancient ruins. We also thought the people were nice, the food was good, and the town was very affordable.

We did not like Caye Caulker much at all. There is no beach for swimming or snorkeling and to hang out at the two beach-like areas you would have to spend money at the beach clubs. The food was also over-priced in much of the island. We had heard this was one of the nicest Cayes in Belize because of the “laid back vibe” with golf-carts and bicycles instead of cars. Well we didn’t think the vibe was laid back at all! Granted this was the busiest tourist week of the year so our impression could be skewed. But we also kept comparing it to another small, golf-cart island that we have been to several times –  Isla Mujeres, in Mexico. Isla  has gotten more crowded in recent years, but is still much nicer with a gorgeous beach and great, affordable food and lodging. In our opinion, they are similar locations, but Caye Caulker can’t hold a candle to Isla. It seems like Caye Caulker is best as a jumping off point for snorkeling and diving excursions out to the reef, rather than a tropical island destination in its own right. After doing some more reading, I found out that Caye Caulker, like so many places these days, has fallen prey to over-tourism. Apparently the Split used to be nicer until the bar took it over and started over-charging people for food and drinks.

Looking back, even if the water main break hadn’t happened, we would have liked to stay longer in the interior of the country. We probably would have done 4 days in San Ignacio and maybe 3 days in Guatemala near Tikal so we could do more than just a day trip there. Than we could have stayed 2 nights in Caye Caulker, just enough to have one full day for a boat trip snorkeling excursion before leaving the island. Hindsight is 20/20 but hopefully we can help someone else out who might be reading this when planning their trip to Belize.

We were definitely bummed that our trip took a turn for the worse at the end, but we had a great 4 days in San Ignacio and given that this was our 7th family trip of 2019 and the only one where something negative happened, we figured we had a good run! We feel lucky that we had the points to cover our trip home and that we didn’t have to stay and spend more money in a situation where we would have been miserable. It took a little leg work, but in the end we were able to get all of our money refunded for the cancelled Airbnb and cancelled flights home. Our Airbnb host refunded us for all the nights we didn’t use and 50% back for the first night since we didn’t have water. For our cancelled flights, I called and then sent a very nice letter to American Airlines, explaining the situation, and given that there was a disruption of an essential service they were super helpful and refunded both the voucher that I used and the points used through Chase. So in the end, we didn’t lose any money at all. My advice for trying to re-coup  from these situations is to be as nice as possible with the companies you are working with. It doesn’t always work out in your favor, but I have good luck being super nice and patient.