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 …

Lyon: An unexpected experience

After bidding farewell to Dayton (the dog) in Rauzan, we left on our longest drive of the trip – a five hour drive to Lyon. We always planned Lyon as a stopover rather than a destination, but with the double whammy weekend of Bastille Day and the World Cup Final with France playing we knew it’ll be fun. We checked into our Airbnb and were quite disappointed since it was small, the washer didn’t work and most importantly it wasn’t safe for the kids with a spiral staircase and a loft. Since it was a holiday weekend we decided to drive around Lyon which worked out great since parking was free everywhere. That evening we walked along the Rhone river, across the walking bridge, and spent some time in the slides and water park along the river. Lyon was beautiful with two rivers, several bridges and a mix of historic and modern architecture. Also more chill than Paris with friendlier people more tolerant of children which was a great change after the Bordeaux wine region. Our favorite part of the evening was sitting on one of the boat rooftops overlooking the city while drinking some cider. One month into our trip we were craving some non-European food and we came across an amazing Sichuan restaurant called Bon Voyage, that compared well with our favorite Z&Y in SF. We slept that night with the sounds of fireworks celebrating Bastille day.

Next morning we decided to check out a day early out of our Airbnb and move into the Marriott close by. Anjali has exceptional benefits at Marriott and SPG that have significantly helped with the rates, upgrades and free breakfast! Our second day in Lyon was incredible. We started off by grabbing breakfast at a local coffee shop and their cinnamon brioche, soft boiled eggs and flat white was just what you would expect in Lyon. We then drove to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere, a Sacre Coure like cathedral on top of the hill overlooking Lyon and it’s two rivers. We went for the view but the cathedral was a piece of art with paintings and sculptures to match the best of what we’ve seen – by far the best cathedral so far on our trip.

Next we went to the local park – Parc de la Tete d’Or to see the botanical gardens. This park was a complete surprise. In addition to the indoor and outdoor sprawling botanical gardens, it had some amazing kids activities. It was a free zoo with giraffes, zebras, bears, crocodiles, flamingos and other animals enclosed right the in the middle of the park – something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. In addition they had a children’s area where Ayaan enjoyed earning his first reward by “fishing” for 9 ducks. Ayaan is so caring that he gave one of his three airplanes he won to Ariana. Ayaan also enjoyed sitting on a baby “horse carriage” with me pulling the horse carriage for 10 mins through the track and tunnels (tiring!). Ariana enjoyed going to the carousel all by herself for the first time! She’s a little bold monsta (as she says).

I was particularly excited about the evening – it was the world cup soccer final and France was playing Croatia – and we were in Lyon, what luck! We drove from the Marriott and found parking very close to the main square where 20,000 fans were gathered to watch the game. It starts pouring in Lyon around 430pm everyday so by the time we walked around the square we were completely drenched. But the atmosphere was amazing. We got lucky to get into a bar with screens everywhere and French fans in full spirit. Ayaan slept through the game but Ariana was participating in the cheering and dancing as France beat Croatia 4-2 to win the World Cup. It was an incredible scene on the streets and we were so fortunate to have witnessed it! On our drive back to the hotel we accidentally joined the motorcade of cars with fans screaming, sitting on top of cars and honking loudly. Anjali of course joined the action by sitting on the window. Overall Lyon was a special experience and we are sure to be back!