Central America – part 1, Belize

After a long, long flight from Mumbai to Houston via Toronto, we spent a week getting over jet lag and spending time with Anjali’s sister Dhara. They were great hosts and it worked out well as we got to acclimatize back to America and celebrate the holidays together including New Years, Dhara’s Birthday and a quick trip to Austin to visit the Art of Ice Cream Experience. Reenergized we took off for our last international trip as part of our sabbatical – to Central America for 10 days. Belize was a short 2 hour flight from Houston and it was great to get back to warm tropical weather. We rented an SUV for the first 6 days as we discovered the rainforest, ruins and Tikal in Guatemala. As we drove to the Cahal Pech Resort in San Ignacio, a 1.5 hour drive, we knew we were in for an adventure with bumpy roads and horses “parked” on the side of the road instead of cars.

The resort was rustic and local right by the Cahal Pech ruins and perched on a hill overlooking the city and the rainforests. We got a nice little hut to ourselves with a view and a hammock, that the kids loved. Belize was surprisingly not super kid friendly as the resort didn’t have a kids menu or a crib. It’s a relatively new country and is still building the tourism infrastructure. Our adventure began the next morning as we drove to Mountain Pine Ridge forest reserve. I was glad we rented an SUV as the road was non-existent for a majority of the drive and not for the faint hearted. 1.5 hours later we made it to Rio on Pools, a collection of pools formed from the waterfall and rivers. We had the entire place to ourselves which was amazing (and a pattern for this trip) and Ayaan and I enjoyed wading through the pools and to the waterfall. Our next stop was the Rio Frio Cave a short drive away that was a unique experience with a river and beach within a cave that also featured stalactites. We were pretty tired and had lunch at the Gaia resort which had a stunning view over the river and waterfalls. Our last stop for the day after lunch was the Big Rock waterfall, which were nice but honestly too steep a climb with kids. Exhausted from the hikes and the drive, we chilled at the pool and hot tub with an early dinner and bedtime.

Next day, not deterred by the roads, we set off in the same direction again to visit the famous Caracol Mayan ruins. A very bumpy 2.5 hour drive later we got to the ruins and were delighted to only see a couple more cars. We were told that we’d need a military escort on the drive since it’s on the border, but it works out just fine without one. Caracol was luscious green and the ruins were there for us to explore on our own – pretty incredible for the fact it’s Belize’s most famous site. The kids really enjoyed running from temple to temple hearing Tucans and howler monkeys and occasionally climbing the almost 1500 year old “pyramids”. Definitely worth the drive. On our drive back, after the kids napped, we stopped at the Green Hills Butterfly farm. This was a wonderful experience as the kids got to see different butterflies, and learn about its journey from egg to caterpillar to pupa to a beautiful butterfly. The evening again was uneventful as we relaxed in the pool and had an early local dinner comprising of fish and chicken curry.

On our 3rd full day we decided to take the kids to the Belize zoo an hour away. It was an awesome morning as the kids got to watch animals and birds they’ve never seems before such as the tapir, tucan, jaguars, macaws, coatemundis, howler monkeys and several other. Ayaan’s favorite part though was pushing the baby cart we had rented. That afternoon the kids didn’t nap much so we visited an iguana hatchery at the San Ignacio Hotel. Ironically on our way to the hatchery, we saw a hug iguana trying to breakdown the bathroom window in the hut next door! The hatchery was an incredible experience as we got to hold the huge male iguanas and the kids got to pet and feed them. We all had a great time being one with the animals and birds all day.

Our last day in the area began with a quick visit to the Cahal Pech ruins next door. It was a pleasant surprise since it was compact but really nice and once again deserted. The kids were able to climb up the temples on their own and we got some great pictures. After a busy 4 days in Sa Ignacio, we set off for the drive across the border to Guatemala …

First stop: Porto

Portugal is our first stop on our journey! It’s Ayaan’s 14th country and Ariana’s 10th; it’s also the first time for us. We made it here via EWR and two tiring flights and as expected it was where we got over our jet lag – luckily no more of that for 2.5 months. No better way to spend Father’s Day but to kick of our trip with the two little wanderers.

After checking in to the Sheraton Porto and a nice long siesta, we spent the evening on the Port wine side of the Duoro river. Nothing better than some Tawny and Ruby with some grilled octopus and spaghetti carbonara after a long day. A further treat was watching Brazil play in the square (The Portuguese are big fans since Brazil was a colony).

Our 2nd day started at 2pm (thank you jet lag) with a walk in the art district and the historical part of town including many churches and Ayaan’s favorite spot – the train station that has amazing tile murals. In fact the architecture is stunning in Porto with tile covered edifices and the 6 bridges across the river. Our favorite stop of the day was a truffle and port cave experience that we stumbled upon in a little alley in the historic district called Chocolataria Equador .

We spent the evening taking a boat ride, hanging out in the square watching musicians, walking over the famous bridge and drinking some port wine while the kids had a late nap. We met a lovely couple from the States who’d now made Burma their home and enjoyed sharing our life and travel experiences. Our last stop for the night was a children’s park with the most fantastic view that was extremely crowded for 10pm!

On Tuesday, June 18th we leased a white Peugeot 308 – the leasing experience was fantastic and I drove away with a brand new car with all coverage for the next 55 days. Our first trip in the car was a day trip to Duoro Valley – our first wine region of this trip. We visited one winery called Quinto do Vallado and it included a short tour of the Portuguese barrels where Port wine is stored and an elaborate tasting in a cave including white, red and port wines. Our final stop was at the stunning Six Senses where we enjoyed a lunch of Portuguese rice with chicken while appreciating the magnificent view. We finished our Porto experience with a stroll on the beach and grilled octopus and prawns with rice paired with a Tawny port at 5 Oceanos. Onto Lisbon tomorrow and looking forward to reuniting with Anjali’s family! – Gaurav