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.
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.
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.
View of San Ignacio from our hotel
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.