Tikal, Guatemala…a location fit for Star Wars

I just binged watched the Star Wars Trilogy in anticipation of the new movie coming out this week.  In case you were worried, YES I do have tickets and yes I am ridiculously excited about it. That said, I remembered George Lucas used Tikal as a back drop for one of the rebel bases in the first movie (episode IV).  I realized that I never posted about Tikal so here you are…

My huz and I took a trip last year to Belize.  We took a short day trip in to Guatemala to check out Tikal.  It took a little bit of planning to get there since crossing the border from Belize in to Guatemala isn’t quite as easy as crossing the California/Oregon border.  I had read in the guidebooks that you can do all sorts of tricky stuff like pay people, take a cab from one side to another then get separate cab, blah blah.  I didn’t really want to get stuck anywhere doing something shady so we did what I rarely do and booked a tour.

From San Ignacio, Belize we paid somewhere around the equivalent of $75 per person for the tour which physically pained me.  We were picked up at our AirBNB, like we were rock stars, and were shuttled to the border.  A guide helped us through the border crossing where we got a passport stamp.  Another driver and guide picked us up on the other side and drove us about an hour or so to Tikal with a nice coffee stop along the way.  My reluctance for paying money for a guide quickly dwindled away after I realized he was answering my thousands of questions intelligently and with humor and with a keen enjoyment of people.  He shared endless stories about his home village growing up, his desire for his grand children to be raised as he had been, the economy, politics, etc.  (People are no different anywhere, are they?)  He was an archaeologist and was extremely knowledgeable.  (At this point I thought I was getting a great deal for a guide, driver, entrance in to the park, and lunch!)

The driver, whose grand daughter was also names Jenny, was kind enough to give me one Guatemalan Quetzal bill for my foreign money collection. He refused to take my money in exchange for it which I just thought was the sweetest thing ever.  (Nevermind, the bill was worth less than a quarter coin.  I still thought it was incredibly kind.)

I digress from the reason I am writing this post!  Our guide took us on a half-day hike/walk through Tikal National Park pointing out every species of bird and plant along the way.  Bird watching was very fun for me in Belize and Guatemala because we had a birding book at our disposal which made us feel like we knew what we were doing.  (But, we most didn’t and I gained a respect for people who bird watch.  It’s hard!  And even harder to photograph them!)

Tikal is a world UNESCO Heritage site reaching its status in 1979.  Tikal is found in the Peten Basin and is the largest Mayan site with monuments dating back to the 4th century.  The park is covered in thick brush and rain forest.  As you walk through it you would be hardfast to realize that mere feet beyond where you stand are multiple temples hundreds of feet tall.

Highlights at the park are the Great Plaza, the Central and North Acropolis, the Plaza of the Seven Temples, and the plaza ball court.  Lots of Stela are on display many of which can still clearly show the images.

Bring your hiking boots and a bottle of water because if you want to get to the top of all of these structures you are going to have to hike and sweat to get there.  It is hot and muggy and it is a long way up.  The sun is merciless but the views are epic.  The irony is that the best view, in my opinion, is of the temples themselves.  When you are on the top of them you cannot see their grandeur for you are standing atop them.

I could have easily spent multiple days hiking through the park and checking out each and every site in great detail.  Sadly, because we were on a schedule we had to get back home.  I am very glad we did it.  I was able to see another set of ruins I had always dreamed of in a country I had never visited.

Can you think of any other awesome locations used in film that are must sees?  Have you visited any of them?

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We got a kick out of the automotive relics laying around in addition to the Mayan archaeology

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You get your workout climbing up and down

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I admire the perfect angles

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Having fun with a strange selfie

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This stela has seen better days

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The top of one of the temples is towering over the canopy

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Marker stones

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This is one of the less busy sections of the park with fewer crowds so I gravitated towards it

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They are doing a nice job of trying to protect the stela that remain

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Humans aren’t the only ones that climb the temples although our guide said this was highly unusual

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I find these temples stunning. Can you imagine what they looked like when they were only just built?

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If I were George Lucas I would have used these buildings in my movie too!  They are stunning, mysterious, epic, and impressive.

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Very nicely preserved stela.

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This man was in charge of pulling weeds from the temple and was only tied on by a rope.  You cannot really tell from this photo but it was a long way down and it was very steep.

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Mayan Mask that one had to perform a feat of Yoga in order to capture on film

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View from the top

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More masks at the top.  If memory serves this has been restored and was not original.

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View from the very top by a hot and overheated, likely sunburned, and slightly acrophobic photographer.

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For adventures in Belize click here or Uxmal,Mexico click here.

Cee’s Black and White Challenge – Signs – Tapir Crossing and Fox Hunting

Happy Friday everyone,

I see Cee’s weekly black and white challenge is signs.  I seems to recall a few interesting ones in my files…  I hope you enjoy a Tapir Crossing sign from the Belize Zoo and a Fox Hunting sign from France.  Random and funny if you ask me.

So, wherever your travels take you please, whatever you do, be aware of tapirs and hunting dogs as you cross the street.  😉

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http://ceenphotography.com/2015/04/30/cees-black-white-photo-challenge-signs/

Belize Butterfly Breeding Sanctuary

While on a wild ride through the Shipstern Nature Preserve in Belize we decided to head to a little dot on the map called the Belize Butterfly Breeding Sanctuary.  We had spent the morning in Corozal Town even having a coat-imundi sighting in the sugar cane fields of Caledonia.  Shipstern Nature Preserve is 22,000 acres of jungle, savanna, and mangrove swamp just outside of the lovely and small town of Sarteneja.  The butterfly breeding center supplies many other countries with pupae to further growth of its particular type of Butterfly.  The center is difficult to find, approximately an hour or so beyond Orange Walk Town, and requires a four wheel drive journey through dirt roads past Mennonite farms and settlements.  The center is funded on donation but has no official entrance fee.  It boasts a lovely Botanical Trail and small educational museum.  But, please for the sake of all that is important to you, bring loads of mosquito repellent.  (It’s as if this is where the mosquitoes go for vacation and they are hungry!)

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Believe it or not Butterflies are made in red cups

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Beach view in nearby Sarteneja

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Lamanai Archaeological Site – Orange Walk Belize

It’s so much fun to fancy oneself as an archaeologist when traveling the world.  My latest attempt at being an armchair Indiana Jones/Dora the Explorer was at Lamanai near Orange Walk town in Belize.

We took a boat tour down the New River from Orange Walk to Lamanai.  We observed all sorts of gorgeous jungle wildlife on the way.  Birds, monkeys, crocodiles, turtles, flowers, and more.  The boat tour provided a lovely home cooked lunch to power up its guests for the walk to come.

Lamanai, which translates to “submerged crocodile”, is a Mesoamerican archaeological site of the Mayan people.  It is a gorgeous and peaceful location mostly shaded throughout with lovely jungle canopy.  It’s highlights are the High Temple, Mask Temple, Jaguar Temple, and the Ball court.  Much of the area still remains unexcavated.  The masks on the Mask Temple are reproductions protecting the originals beneath.

The howler monkeys who live in the area were active while we were on site.  It is an impressive noise one would more associate with a veloso raptor than a monkey.  However, it is effective in keeping pretty much any other animal or human at a distance.

This site was occupied from the 16th century until Spanish conquest.  The site boasts a small museum and a couple of lovely little souvenir shops whose proceeds go to the upkeep of the site.

Of all the archaeological sites I visited while in Belize this was likely my favorite primarily due to the location’s peaceful environs, the wonderful guides, and the enjoyable boat tour to gain entrance.

Jaguar Temple

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Jaguar

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Mask Temple

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High Temple

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Our Boat Captain motoring off in to the distance.

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Lunch!

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Negative Star Dining

I am going to say something that could seem rather controversial.  (Or, at least it does to me anyway.)  I am not a professional food critic.  Nor am I even a novice food critic.  I am just a lover of food and a lover of travel.  But I have a thought.

I believe local street food or local dining, whatever one wants to call it, can and often does beat a four or five star restaurant in quality and ambiance any day.  What?  Who does she think she is making a statement like that?  I am no Anthony Bordain, Food Chanel critic, or French Michelin star aficionado by any means.

But, I want you to look at a photo for a moment and bear with me.  The below photo of this little boy was taken outside of Maggie’s on Caye Caulker in Belize.  He was trying to be like his Grandmother who owned the restaurant.  He was trying to clean and BBQ his own fish.  He was very proud and showed off his fish cleaning prowess to all of the guests much to their pleasure and his grandmother’s chagrin.  He even got a curt warning when he tried to BBQ it himself.  Clearly he wasn’t old enough to do so per his family.  This little interaction in front of this beautiful view was one of my favorite and sweetest memories in all of Belize.  Small local places often have ambiance that one would not necessarily expect.

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While in Belize I had glorious street food daily.  (See another post on Street Food.) I had meals that were extremely inexpensive, fresh, and local.  But, what’s more the ambiance of these places added to the food experience.  Eating lobster that was no more than four hours old from the sea at a restaurant where the owner’s children were running around barefoot and free is what eating and traveling is about for me.  Additionally one’s expectations for a knock-out experience are far lower than when that same person makes reservations, valet parks their car, gets all dolled up, and orders four courses off of an expensive menu full of items that are hard to understand.  Now mind you, I have had some delicious and memorable meals at fancy places and I don’t mean to discount them necessarily.   Doing so would probably be silly and against the better judgment of people far more knowledgeable than me.

But eating at a local place feels good for a number of reasons.  I feel like I am giving money to people who truly need it.  I feel like I am getting away with something by paying little to nothing for fresh, local, and interesting cuisine.  I feel like I am learning something about the local people and their food history.  Eating at small places often sparks conversation with other locals or the owners of the establishment.  And, I feel like I often have a memorable experience that oftentimes makes a trip.

I would argue that fresh local “negative star” restaurants outshine any four or five star place any day.    I have experienced this over and over again traveling throughout the world and felt like talking about it on the blogosphere.

Tell me, have you ever had a fresh local eating experience that was memorable that you care to share?  Do you share my regard for street food?

I am being followed by Bette Midler and other 80s Pop Stars in Belize…

At times the sweet sounds of Belize included Toucan tweets, the click of Blue Crabs walking on the dock, the zip of the blender making cocktails, the dinosaur sounding scream of the Howler Monkey warning its peers, Hummingbirds dive bombing each other, ocean waves lapping, the ancient Mayans whispering their secrets at their temples, the sizzling of taco meat, marginally cared for vehicles with numerous creaks and squeaks, the buzzing of the mosquitoes, and…music.

What does one expect to hear in Belize?  Bob Marley is #1.  Drum music on the Southern Coast?  Maybe local music?  Perhaps a little Michael Jackson or Beyonce maybe?

Well, immediately upon renting a car and embarking on our journey, the first radio station we tuned in to was playing The Wind Beneath My Wings by the lovely and talented Bette Midler.  High on the excitement of a new journey and the lack of sleep that accompanies a red-eye flight my husband and I sang this song to each other like the big dorks we are.

During the next ninety minute journey we heard the smooth stylings of Kenny Rogers, Neal Diamond, and Michael Bolton.  This led us to believe that the Belizean people took custody of a 1980’s repossessed radio station without ever updating its playlist. We were really enjoying the music time machine though.

During our first evening meal, on day one, we again heard Bette Midler and had a good laugh about it.  Over the ensuing 12 day trip we heard Bette Midler, and no I am not kidding, a minimum of one time per day if not more.  We started joking that Bette Midler either (a) lived in Belize, (b) owned the radio station(s), or (c) was the head of the Belizean mafia.

Probably about three-quarters of the way through the trip we heard her song one evening at dinner and, as always, had a laugh about it.  As we were riding our bikes home that night we were discussing that they must have 80s American music on some sort of loop in the tourist areas and radios which was the only way to explain it.  Well, that idea was dashed when we rode by a local hut with no front door where a large number of ladies were inside having a party.  What were they blasting loudly and proudly and singing along to?  You guessed…it Bette Midler’s The Wind Beneath My Wings.  My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads.

Good ol’ Bob Marley is also pervasive in Belize even more so in the coastal regions and out on the Cayes.  I love me some Bob Marley.  I mean what’s not to like, right?  Something dawned on me one night at a local restaurant with a famous Bob Marley concert video played on a loop.  The poor wait staff must listen to this over and over again.  I wondered if this bothered them?  I mean Bob Marley is a God-like figure in areas like this.  I asked a sweet young waitress if Bob’s video playing relentlessly bothered her relaying that as a young person working retail in America we revolted to our managers against certain music being overplayed.  Her response, “Bob’s music is like piss in my ear.”  Tourism has ruined an icon for the tourist wait staff.  I am sorry wait staff.  I truly am.  It’s not Bob’s fault.

While the older 80s Pop music is obviously pervasive in Belize it is impossible not to notice that current music transcends many cultures and countries.  I heard Beyonce, Rhiana, Katie Perry, and other popular songs while there as well.  Many young people play it on their cell phones, on speaker no less, for everyone to hear.  I wonder if these artists have any idea that their music is being played in every corner of the world?  I wonder if they have any idea that music can be one thing that connects us all together even if we don’t speak the same language?  I wonder if Bette Midler has any idea how popular and loved she is in Belize?  I hope she does.

Belize Botanical Garden – San Ignacio Belize

I am no gardener.  In fact, I sit here staring at my fingers on the keyboard searching for any green hue on my thumbs and there is none.  However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy other people’s gardens!  It is easy to understand why Monet found inspiration as an artist at Giverny.  While I am no Monet, I am a photographer, and I often find inspiration in gardens while traveling.

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I visited Belize Botanical Garden as an afterthought when our visits to a few local San Ignacio area archaeological sites were shorter than we originally planned.  I had spied a tiny little sign on the side of the road that said “Botanical garden” with an arrow.  I was secretly hoping we would be able to make time to go.  So we set out.  This garden makes you work to get there driving approximately four miles on a terrible unpaved road uphill.  When we got there the relief was palpable seeing such a well maintained and peaceful property.

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The garden boasts 45 acres of native plants and native wildlife.  The garden is adjacent to DuPlooys Jungle Cabins which has a restaurant/bar and jungle cabins for rent.   It is very classy and seems like a wonderful and relaxing place to stay as an alternative to San Ignacio.  http://www.duplooys.com/belize-botanic-gardens.php

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After checking in and receiving a lovely little garden map we set out.  Before I even had a chance to remove my camera from its bag we were greeted by Collared Aracari Toucans eating star fruit for dinner in the orchards.  I would have been happy if this was all I had seen!  We sat and enjoyed them for several minutes before we reluctantly left them.  We were anxious to see what we could of the grounds before sunset.

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Various tropical plants, trees, bushes, flowers, have been lovingly planted beginning more than 27 years ago when the ex-pat owners originally purchased the property.  I would have thought this was all wild plants and trees judging by how mature everything was.  Only, the park-like setting gave it away.

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A duck blind has been established for birders to sit and observe a small pond located on site.  No birds presented themselves for us in this part of the garden however we did enjoy small pond turtles.  A native orchid house exists paying respect to various seasonal orchids.  A replica Mayan hut made of local materials is on display for those interested in how thatched roofs are designed.  An area dedicated to palms was enjoyable.  And a professional gardener’s area has lovely flowers on display. A 25 foot tall homemade fire tower exists on one end of the property giving the intrepid climber a lovely canopy view of the area.

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We were the only visitors to the gardens that afternoon making it feel like we had it all to ourselves.  We finished our walk on a river trail that culminated at the bar where we finished our lovely afternoon off with a Rum Punch and a Belikin before bouncing our way back down the dirt road to San Ignacio.

http://www.belizebotanic.org/

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Belize Zoo

If you haven’t figured out yet from some of my previous posts I love visiting Zoos.

Phoenix Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Alas, I especially love a beautiful Zoo where I feel the animals are well cared for and have a lot of room to roam and be, well, animals.  The Belize Zoo is a wonderful example.  This Zoo was started in response to a documentary made on Belizean animals some time ago.  After the documentary was filmed many of the animals used in filming the movie had become socialized to humans and could therefore not be released back to the wild.  The documentarian decided to start the Belize Zoo to care for these animals.  The Zoo staff now specializes in caring for animals that have been abused and injured.  The Zoo doubles as a botanical garden with fine examples of local plants and plenty of shade on a hot day.  The Zoo also boasts a lovely gift shop whose proceeds go to the care of the animals in the Zoo.

The Zoo houses creatures native only to Belize.  The Tapir, one of Belize’s national animals is proudly on display.  The Tapir along with various monkeys, big cats, deer, birds (Toucans being my favorite), turtles, crocodiles,  and more.  The Harpy Eagle was of particular interest to me looking part Eagle and part Owl. Mother Nature’s great sense of humor is on display in grand style at the Belize Zoo.

For a $2.50 donation, the Zoo allows visitors to feed one of their Toucans.  This was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  Little Runty the Toucan was a joyous and excitable bird who enjoyed eating raisins right out of my hand.  His beak is light as a feather, thank goodness, since he has to fly with that enormous thing on the front of his colorful head.

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The Zoo also allows for visitors to get in a cage and have one of the big cats roam around and climb on top of them.  I hesitated to have a gorgeous and enormous cat do tricks for me so I passed on this opportunity much to my husband’s chagrin.

Wild birds, Jungle Bunnies, and Lizards roam the Zoo in complete freedom.  They are as entertaining as the animals kept in captivity.  In fact, one can do a fair amount of bird watching at this Zoo both inside and outside of the cages.

I would highly recommend a visit to this Zoo for anyone visiting Belize.  It is one of the gems of Belize and is a very good way to spend a nice morning or afternoon.  My only criticism of the Zoo would be with its Cafe.  (It only boasted American standards like chicken fingers and hamburgers when I was looking for street tacos, chicken with rice, panades, salbutes, tostadas, garnaches, etc.

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Belize Street and Local Food

I was fortunate enough to visit the lovely country of Belize a few weeks back.  Suffice it to say there will be a multiple of blog posts to follow on the subject.  However, I need to start where my heart was on this trip…my stomach.

I was planning on having my socks knocked off by the wildlife and the snorkeling and the Mayan ruins.  But, what really surprised me in this little gem of a country is the inexpensive and delicious street and local food.

Immediately upon arriving to our very fist destination, Orange Walk Town, we set out to find something to eat.  We were trying to get a feel for things so we hit a local restaurant called Nahil Mayab.  We had Arrichero tacos and empanandas accompanied by the local and tasty Belizean beer called Belekin.  I thought surely the trip was ruined because nothing could top this meal.  Boy was I wrong.

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The food got cheaper and better as the trip went on.  We got more courageous and excited to pay very little for quality food.  Orange Walk is apparently known for its street tacos so we tried a few while we were there.  Tacos were the equivalent of three for fifty cents!  Yes, I said three for fifty cents.  And they were sublime.  The only thing I didn’t have the guts to try, and I regret it now, was the mystery beverage out of a plastic bag tied with a straw sticking out.  That went one step over the edge of my comfort zone.

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Next we ate local baked sweet breads.  We had a splendid time with all of the local people and felt very safe the entire trip. But, funny enough a local person asked my husband for money only once.  Eric gave him some money and asked him what was good at the bakery.  The guy pointed out his favorite baked goods and they turned out to be a delicious and again ridiculously cheap breakfast.

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Nearby the Belize Zoo, on the main highway, is a road food shack called G&J.  It was here Eric had the best Chicken curry he will ever have in his life.  (I had stewed chicken that was seriously perfect.)  Here, he proclaimed he may never try curry chicken again because he has had the best and nothing could outdo it.  It was also here that I was handed a strangers baby.  I stepped up on to the deck and two ladies were lounging eating their lunch.  I smiled and said hello and before I could even make eye contact one of them asked if I wanted to hold their tiny infant and she was trust in my direction.  I politely said no thinking I might make her uncomfortable being a stranger and all.  (I was wrong.)  She was proud to show off their daughter trusting the fact I was a fellow woman and all would be ok.

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Before I go any further I need to talk about the Belizean onion habanero sauce.  Virtually every place we visited had their own home-made brand of this standard sauce.  The sauce essentially consists of a variation on the following ingredients; finely chopped white onion, cilantro, habanero, lime juice, sometimes tomato, sometimes carrot, and sometimes vinegar.  Eric and I fell in love with this sauce.  In fact it was the first thing we made when we got home.  Behold the glory of the onion sauce housed in an old jar with a communal spoon.

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Talking about onion habanero sauce is making me thirsty which brings me to Rum Punches.  This is clearly the drink of the islands one that you never get tired of and one that is not made with any consistency anywhere in the country.  All I can tell you is it generally included some sort of delightful local juice and rum.  Panty Ripper is another version that is basically rum and pineapple juice.  It embarrassed me every time I ordered one but I ordered them nonetheless.  In a quest to eat cheaply on this trip we of course bought our own rum and juice and made our own the entire trip and I must say the bartender did a top rate job!

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Our next stop was San Ignacio where the locals are known for their Panades, Salbuntes, fried tacos and chicken tostadas.  We ate at Minchos which was supposed to be a local favorite.  But, our favorite in this town was a small local food vendor near the river called Pasadito.  She made the most perfect chicken tostadas with homemade tostadas, a bit of black bean, cabbage, and onion habanero sauce.  (Hers was the best but it was also the spiciest!)

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Another of my favorite bites of “street food” in San Ignacio was a Pork Pie from two local girls walking down the street selling them.  It was ironic because we were sitting on a stool waiting for the food we ordered from Tattas Fast food when they came by to see if we wanted one.  (It was only fifty cents so we couldn’t resist and it was delightful.) IMG_1258

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We moved on towards the coast where the seafood became the star.  In Placencia, grilled snapper was on the menu at Mango’s and was as fresh as fresh can be.  While this wasn’t street food per se it was very reasonable and was worth a stop.

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Fried snapper and stewed chicken was on the menu at Vern’s kitchen in Siene Bight not far from Placencia.  Again, it was ridiculously inexpensive and fresh with a lot of local flavor.

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Heading back towards Belize City we stopped for another local dish called Garnaches.  They are essentially a tostada with bean and cabbage and no meat.  This particular rendition has ketchup on it!  I assumed this was only a “garnish” and boy was I wrong.  Three for fifty cents again made us so excited we felt like we were getting away with something.

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After taking the water taxi to Caye Caulker from Belize City we asked the owner of our place where the locals ate.  She told us to go by Terry’s place for dinner where Eric ate the freshest and most delightful lobster he has ever encountered.  I asked Terry how often his fisherman went out.  He told me his fisherman was his father-in-law and he delivered lobster and other fish to Terry twice per day because he didn’t have or need a freezer.  Eric’s lobster, which was no less than two hours old from the sea, was BBQ’s in front of us and only cost a mere twelve dollars.  I enjoyed Jerk Chicken at Terry’s that was also out of this world.

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It was in Caye Caulker that I had my first decent cup of coffee.  It turns out that most people in Belize don’t know what “bean” coffee is.  They rely on instant coffee or none at all.  I found this strange considering their proximity to Guatemala. Regardless, I had a splendid iced coffee at Amor y Café where the ice cubes were actually frozen coffee.

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The second local recommendation that was made to us on Caye Caulker was Maggie’s.  I had curry vegetable and Eric had Curry Lobster for dinner.  The curry was delicious and Eric had another divine lobster dinner for approximately ten dollars.

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On our last day in Caye Caulker we experienced the fried goodness that was a Fry Jack.  The bread in a Fry Jack reminds me of a sourdough pancake although to be honest I am not exactly sure what it really is.  I didn’t ask because I didn’t want the magic to be spoiled.  We had a multitude of options on what to put inside of our Fry Jack.  I had egg and bean and Eric had Egg, cheese, and ham.  I would never eat anything else for breakfast every again if I lived there.  Period.

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In case your mouth is still watering below are some additional food porn shots free of charge…

Conch Fritters in Corozal Town.

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Fresh Rock Crab in Caye Caulker

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Picnic Stewed Chicken and Rice provided on a River tour of Lamanai

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Pork Tacos in San Ignacio

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BBQ Chicken on the main road to Placencia

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Home made alcohol.

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