Cockscomb Wild Life Refuge

I don’t know why the notion of booking my upcoming lodging check-in on the actually day I’m checking-out of another place is such a difficult concept for me to master. I made this mistake twice on my trip to Puerto Rico, and had promised myself to be more careful to avoid repeating the same careless error on this trip.

I woke up pondering how to spend my last day in Hopkins. I had yet to visit the Cockscomb Wild Life Refuge, which was on my list of places I wanted to explore—but, if I was leaving the following day, wouldn’t it be better to spend the day enjoying the beach, since the sun was shining, replacing what’s been overcast skies for these last couple of days? Would I get back to the States and be disappointed I hadn’t made it to a stop that was on my list?

I wasn’t going to come up with a decision, or get back to sleep, so I decided to start things off by going to the gym instead.

I was squatting on the bosu ball, trying to keep my balance and perfect form when I began to run through the days. What is today? My flight is on the 6th, my booking in Belize City is for the 5th. Today is the 3rd.  Dang it, I lost my balance and stepped off the bosu ball. I was missing a day—again!

Just to be safe, I confirmed on the Booking.com app, my reservation was for the 5th, next I checked the AirBnB app, and yep, my check-out date was the 4th.  Plus side of my mistake, it resolved how I would spend my day, but first I had to finish my workout, and find out if I could extend my stay by a day.

After making arrangements for an extra night, refilling my water, packing some food, sun tan lotion, and bug spray—I drove the short distance to Cockscomb. I read about paying the entrance fee to the Mayan women in the building at the entrance of the road leading up to the park so I purchased my ticket, $10 BZE ($5 US), and drove the six miles on the dirt road to the parking lot and visitor center, where I met Fred, one of the park rangers. I told him I wanted to do the longest hike they had. He recommended the Tiger Fern trail that led to dual waterfalls. It was about a four mile hike round trip, and while it got a little steep in some parts, he said, it was well worth it.

It sounded good to me. As I put on my hiking boots, I asked him more about the snakes and wildlife in the park, such as the jaguars. He reassured me the odds of encountering either, were slim to none. But if bit by a snake, the proper course of action was to keep calm and walk back. No trying to suck out the venom, or applying any type of tourniquets.

I acknowledged his advice and headed out. As I hit the trail, my heart raced a little. Hiking in the jungle did present threats I never worried about in the Alps. My thoughts wondered to a conversation I had with my dad on the way to the airport about my summer plans of driving, camping, and hiking across the western portion of Canada. It will be a new challenge for me, where once again, the biggest threat to my life will likely come from nature. I’ve never done anything like that before, so I’ll be learning as I go. Of course the irony is, I’m more likely to contract lime disease than end up face to face with a bear.

I kept a good pace, looking out for moving roots, aka snakes. Eventually the terrain got steep. I saw a bench with a sign that read “Bench available every 10 minutes.” It made me wonder what kind of people might need to use it. Certainly not someone like me.

I only eased my pace to take a few slugs of water, but before I knew it, I had drank half my water. At this point, I’d passed a few benches, determined each time to keep up my pace and not take any rest. I was drenched in sweat and burning up. The canopy of the jungle offered shade from the sun, but also blocked out the breeze, and locked in the humidity.

Jungle Hiking Belize

Why had I done a leg workout before this hike? I spent the morning sweating on the gym floor. As my body heat continued to raise, it hit me—the real threat to my health was me. I was much more likely to drop from heat exhaustion or suffer a heat cramp—the way I was pushing myself, than end up getting bit by a snake.

But the things was, I was so happy to be out hiking. The trail was well cleared, challenging, and allowed me to bask in the immense size of the lush green vegetation. Plus, Fred mentioned when he recommended the route that I would first reach a peak before making my way down to the waterfalls. I’m all about racing to the top.

I made it to Victoria Peak, where the vegetation was more barren and the sun bared down on me, but the cool breeze hitting my sweaty body, offered some relief.

Victoria Peak Cockscomb Belize

Much more barren at the top
Much more barren at the top

After snapping a few pictures, I made the last 500m trek to the waterfall. The descent got tricky, but I could also hear the running water, which hurried me along. Five hundred meter never felt so long. I couldn’t wait to dip into the cool water that awaited.

I made it to the first waterfall, where I wasted little time to strip down to my bathing suit and jump in. I submerged my head under, then floated for a while before swimming to the reach the rocks by the waterfall. The water felt even better than I’d imagined, it easily washed over the burning heat that had gotten a hold of me.

Cockscomb Wild Life Refuge Smaller Waterfall
Cockscomb Wild Life Refuge Smaller Waterfall

The only other people at the site was a couple who I later chatted with and discovered they were in Belize celebrating their 30th Wedding Anniversary. They left shortly after my arrival. I asked them about the second waterfall but they answered they hadn’t wondered from this spot. After their departure, I went exploring. Just a hop skip away was another and larger waterfall.

This time I was all alone, standing in awe of my good fortune and blessing. I was in the jungle, by a beautiful waterfall, in complete peace and solitude serenaded by the birds and the sound of waterfalls. I once again jumped in the water and swam around for a spell.

Admittedly, my mind played some tricks on me and I imagined a strange water monster coming from the depth of the pool to drag me under. I reasoned with myself and returned my thoughts to how incredibly special being here was. I prayed, gave thanks to the Lord, and relaxed.

Cockscomb Wild Life Refuge Larger Waterfall
Cockscomb Wild Life Refuge Larger Waterfall

As much as I wish I could have stayed there forever, I had to make my way back. I soaked by t-top in the water to help keep me cool on my return trip, wrapped-in around my neck and began my hike back. Being wet really helped, I didn’t get as hot on the way down.

I’m so grateful I had this experience—it’s one I’ll surely never forget!

Ever had a similar experience? Or what’s an experience you’ll never forger. Would love to hear it!

Driving in Belize

While in Puerto Rico, I appreciated the freedom and opportunities having a rental vehicle afforded me. It was a costly “luxury” that was worth it, so when I looked at where to go next, one thing I researched were locations that held the possibility of me being able to rent and drive a vehicle on my own to make my around. Belize held that potential.

I found a few blogs written by people who drove around Belize on their journey, and the common theme mentioned were: bad roads, expensive gas, and the rarity of gas stations. The recommendation was to rent a truck or SUV, and preferably one that was 4×4. One post also mentioned not to expect anything fancy or new, when picking-up my rental. It’s with those things in mind, I returned to the mainland from my first seven days on Caye Caulker to pick-up my rental vehicle.

I had booked a small size SUV through Expedia with Budget.

“You’ll need to get full insurance on the vehicle if you pay with a VISA.” The woman working the desk at the tiny Budget rental office commented when she saw my card. “It’s $22 a day. Do you have another credit card?”

I never know if I’m being duped or if these type of glitches in my travel are legit. I know tourists are targets for scams, which is called paying a tourist tax. These tourist taxes, are particularly popular in Italy. “All my credit cards are VISAs.” I replied.

She offered to refer me to one of the other rental companies, who would accept my VISA without requiring the purchase of the full daily insurance. Meanwhile, I was deciding the price of peace of mind. Even before she mentioned requiring insurance if paying with a VISA, I’d been pondering getting full insurance.

“I can roll the vehicle down a cliff or blow it up…and I’ll be covered.” I asked. She responded with a “Yes,” so I handed her my card. I keep spending too much money on everything, why stop now?

My rental for 18 days
My rental for 18 days

Before heading out the door, I asked her for a map and direction to San Ignacio, she handed me a map that looked like a page out of a coloring book, and explained there are only four main roads (highways) in Belize. One that ran East to West, called George Price Hwy or the Western hwy, another that runs South to North (North of Belize City) called Philip Goldson Hwy or Northern Highway, followed by the one South of Belize city, that runs North to South called Southern Hwy, and one that connects the West and South Hwys called Hummingbird Highway. She followed her instructions with how to leave the airport and get on the Western Highway.

In all my travels, I’ve been spoiled and have heavily relied on Google Maps to get me to where I needed to go. Now, without cellular service, Google Maps couldn’t help me. Well, not exactly—I came to realize Google Maps could still show me where I was, although it couldn’t give me direction to where I was going, which proved to be very helpful. Without Google Maps, there’s no way I would have made it to my hotel in Belize City, on my last night in Belize.

I headed out the rental car parking and tried to remember the directions. It didn’t take long for me to be unsure of where I was. The roads lack markings and signs, and my coloring book map, lacked details to be of any help. Thankfully, there are various stands on the road, locals either selling fruits and vegetables or some other native foods, so I stopped to verify I was in fact going the right way.

The highway is more like a road you’d find passing through a small village back in the United States versus the image a highway probably conjures up in your mind. The condition of the road however, weren’t bad at all. What you do have to watch out for are the speed bumps and pedestrian crossings.

Highway Belize

You definitely don’t want to encounter either of those going too fast. I did a few times, and hoped each time I hadn’t caused damage to my ride. I’ve driven in many foreign lands and it really doesn’t matter what place, conditions, or madness you put me in—I adapt and quickly drive like the locals. I learned watching others on my drive from Belize City to San Ignacio how to take advantage of the speed bumps, to pass slower vehicles.

I only encountered a police checkpoint once, where they asked me for my driver’s license. The purpose of the checkpoint is mostly to validate people have valid driver’s license and for locals, appropriate vehicle registration and insurance. It’s apparently common for Belizean to drive without one or both.

While staying in San Ignacio, and partaking in a few weekend BBQs, I also realized, it’s not uncommon for Belizean to drive while intoxicated or with open containers.  I didn’t drive after dark, but understood, if I did, it was something to be cautious about.

A couple of the places where I stayed were off dirt roads, to include my trip to the Cockscomb Wild Refuge, but except for being a little bumpy, the roads weren’t bad and didn’t require a 4×4. During rainy season, I can see where a 4×4 would probably be worth it, but under regular conditions, it’s not a requirement.

Dirt Road in Hopkins Belize

I think too many Americans are used to nicely paved roads and underestimate what a regular vehicle can do.

The first time I gassed up, I once again pondered if I was being required to pay a tourist tax. I had half a tank left, but recalled what I’d read about gassing up, even when having half a tank since you never know when you’ll come across a gas station again. The gas stations are full service, and the one where I made my first stop, the pump was a little dilapidated, so I couldn’t see the total cost on the screen. The total was $50 BZE (Belizean dollars – $25 American). I handed him the money, thinking this was in fact expensive gas. I would gas up again, where this time I could see the pump screen, and received confirmation half a tank of gas cost $50 BZE.

I never asked any of the gas stations if they took credit cards. I always paid in cash. Plenty of places took credit cards, but most of my trip, I paid everything in cash.

I found nothing scary or worrisome about driving around Belize, and I did so on my own. Take heed to the advice about renting a SUV or truck, when to gas up, and watching out for the speed bumps and pedestrian crossings, otherwise, enjoy your time in Belize. Hummingbird Highway is a pretty drive (even thought it was rainy and cloudy both times I drove it) and if you have time, make a stop at the Blue Hole National Park for a nice cooling swim.

Do You See What I See

One of my favorite thing to do now on Instagram while I’m traveling somewhere is to click on the location tag I used on my pictures and check-out who else is posting/using the same tag. We all see the world differently, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so just because we’ve been to the same place, doesn’t mean we saw the same things.

Instagram is filled with photographers of all levels, using cameras as varied as the experience of those clicking the shutter. The time of day, the weather, the angle they shot from, the filter they picked, and editing technics they used make it so that very rarely do the same locations yield the same pictures. I just love seeing what other people chose to share, and how they chose to share it with the world. It also lets me know if I’ve noticed what they noticed, and whether or not I might have missed something. Creativity runs the gamut and so do the selfies. I never look at the tags before going because I don’t want to influence my perspective.

It’s a great way to discover new Instagram users and fellow travelers. If someone posted something I considered posting, I further explore their other pictures to find out what else we might have in common. More often than not, we’ve been to other similar locations.

How do you use and leverage Instagram tags?

Day 6 Last Day: Cesky Krumlov

The drive from Bratislava to Cesky Krumlov was quite scenic…and by that I mean, small country roads!

I was fortunate to have another driver flash his high beams to warn me about cops down the road. I expect presents from Austria and Hungary in the form of speeding tickets from the many cameras I passed on this trip, but getting pulled over would have really sucked.

I was in Prague over Memorial Weekend last year, and I didn’t think I would find myself back in the Czech Republic, but as I planned my trip, Cesky Krumlov seemed like a worthwhile stop on my way back – and it was. Cesky Krumlov is a small city. Old Cesky Krumlov is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was given this status along with the historic Prague castle district.

I don’t have much to say about Cesky Krumlov, other than it’s a beautiful place to spend a day and I enjoyed just walking around taking pictures. I was blessed with perfect weather.

My visit…through pictures

Cesky Krumlov Town

Cesky Krumlov Castle Tower

Cesky Krumlov Castle Side

Cesky Krumlov Church from River

Cesky Krumlov Town Square

Colorful Cesky Krumlov Castle

Frame View Cesky Krumlov

Frame Street View Cesky Krumlov

Town and Vlata River

Cesky Krumlov Castle at night

 

How About You?

Have you ever visited the  Budapest: Castle District and Cruise?  Feel free to comment below or contact Ann’s Adventure Writer and Blogger here.

Day 5 Bratislava

The second country (Hungary was the first) that I visited for the first time on this road trip was Slovakia.

I made an overnight stop to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia after departing Budapest.

Slovakia was another key player in the Hapsburg monarchy. Bratislava was actually designated the new capital of Hungary in 1536, upon becoming part of the Austrian Habsburg monarchy. The city became a coronation town and the seat of kings, archbishops (1543), the nobility and all major organizations and offices. Between 1536 and 1830, eleven Hungarian kings and queens were crowned at St. Martin’s Cathedral.

The 17th century was marked by anti-Habsburg uprisings, fighting with the Turks, floods, plagues and other disasters. Bratislava was replaced by Buda as the capital of Hungary, and much like Budapest, in 1918, its history changed, as it was broken away from its Hungarian-Austrian ties, and became part of Czechoslovakia. Finally, on 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia was dissolved into was is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

I arrived to Bratislava around lunch time, the sky was overcast, and I wasn’t exactly sure what sights to see. Like most places, Bratislava has a castle (hrad), so that seems like as good as any place to kick things off. The woman at the front desk offered me a map, and I started making my way towards the castle.

Bratislava Castle

I ended up stopping at the Old Town Hall and St. Michael’s Gate before making it to the hrad.

The Old Town Hall as a tower, which offers a nice view over the old town. The streets in the old town are filled with cafés with plenty of outdoor sitting, restaurants and a few shops. It’s a quaint and picturesque center.

St. Micheal's gate and street
St. Micheal’s gate and street

I toured the castle, which to be honest was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping to get more of the history of Bratislava, but instead, what was offered was a series of different exhibitions. One such exhibition, which had really nothing to do with Bratislava, was a WWI exhibition. Admittedly, one of the largest WWI exhibitions I’ve seen. Since all the countries I’d just visited were drastically changed because of WWI, I spent a bit of time reading and learning more about it.

After leaving the castle, I made my way back into the old town and kept exploring.

I ended up in the Jewish neighborhood; I wish I’d known about it prior to my trip. I would have stopped in to the Bratislava Jewish Community Museum.

Bratislava Jewish Neighborhood

I walked on over to St. Martin’s Cathedral, but unfortunately for me, there was a wedding taking place so I wasn’t able to go inside. I did however; go around the church, where I found the most amazing wall with windows filled with VanGogh’s work.

VanGogh Wall 2

At this point, I was hungry and getting tired so I grabbed some dinner and then headed back to the hotel. I took at bath in the whirlpool in my room, and called it an early night. I had a five and half hour drive the next day.

There was one sight I had yet to see, Elizabeth Church.

The Elizabeth Church, aka the blue church, which is considered one of the most beautiful pieces of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.

As it turned out, the following morning, when I took Little Man for a walk, I came across it a block from my hotel…completely unexpected. Definitely one of the most unique churches I’ve photographed.

St. Elizabeth rock sign

St. Elizabeth Church Bratislava
St. Elizabeth Church Bratislava

How About You?

Have you ever visited Bratislava? What was your favorite part?  Feel free to comment below or contact Ann’s Adventure Writer and Blogger here.

Day 3 Budapest: Castle District and Cruise

I woke up on Day 3 in Vienna to an overcast sky and rain. I wanted to go take a picture of the famous status of Johann Strauss in Stadtpark, but didn’t feel like getting wet, so I had breakfast and departed for Budapest.

Budapest Castle District

I spoiled myself in Budapest, starting with staying at the InterContinental Hotel right on the Danube River, and with a private guided tour of the Castle District. The Budapest Castle District is not what it seems, I absolutely advise against seeing it without a guide. My private guide, Andi, was knowledgeable, spoke good English and ensured I learned a lot.

Back of Buda Castle and ruins of former castle
Back of Buda Castle and ruins of former castle

We started the tour from my hotel, as we made our way to the UNESCO World Heritage Budapest Castle District by public transportation; she began my education about the Hungarian people. Hungarians are not European, but nomadic people from Asia who migrated and conquered their way to Central Europe. They were a successful people for centuries and fought many wars to expand their territory but eventually, they began to lose the wars and became the conquered. The Castle District holds all the stories of their history, especially the more recent history for the last 100 years. Hungary has been conquered in the last 200 years by the Turks, and occupied by the Austrians and Russians. Their independence is rather recent.

Front of Buda Castle
Front of Buda Castle

We started the tour with the 13th-century Matthias Church and the turrets of the Fishermen’s Bastion. Matthias is the last of the Hungarian Kings still beloved by his people today. Matthias Church, under the rule of the Turks was a mosque, so it is different compared to other churches across Europe. The inside is much more colorful, it’s also the only church I know which has a severed human foot displayed in a case.

Mathias Church
Mathias Church
Fisherman's Bastion
Fisherman’s Bastion

The view over the Danube, across to Pest from the Fisherman’s Bastion is beautiful. From there we walked over to the President’s house and the castle next to it. Andi had a lot to say about the Prime Minister, the current state of affair in Hungary and the role of the President. She’s not happy with the way things are and concerned with where they’re heading.

View of Parliament Day time

The castle, like much of the entire Castle District has been rebuilt over the last 70 years since much of it was destroyed during WWII.

Some of the reconstruction took place when Hungary was under Russian rule, so the Russian block building concept can be found across Budapest and a little bit in the Castle District. The Hungarian, to protect their history and architectural past, made it mandatory to use whatever former structure was still standing when rebuilding and that’s how you end up with the ugliest Hilton hotel ever. Built during Communist rule, the Hilton hotel is a mixture of 13th, 17th and 21th century architecture. Andi asked how I thought it was possible for Conrad Hilton to build one of his hotels under Russian rule…I guessed money, to which she agreed but it wasn’t just money. She reminded me of his famous, beautiful Hungarian wife: Zsa Zsa Gabour.

Hilton Hotel Budapest Castle District
Hilton Hotel Budapest Castle District

We stopped for coffee and cake and talked some more. Andi spoke highly of Sissi, and how important she was for the Hungarian people. One of the bridges is dedicated to her, and you can find status of her across the city. She said, Sissi fought for the Hungarian people while they were under Austrian rule, and spent a lot of time in Buda. Sissi was the reason Pest was able to get an Opera House. Sissi’s best friend was from Hungary.

View of Key Birdge and Pest

We headed back to the hotel shortly after that; I was quite satisfied with my tour. I highly recommended it and can be booked through Absolute Walking Tours.

Evening Cruise

I didn’t have any plans for my first evening in Budapest, but after my walking tour I felt energized, and interested in learning and seeing more so I inquired about the evening cruise on the Danube. I booked a ticket on the Duna Bella 9pm cruise from the hotel concierge and then headed out to dinner.

Buda and Pest river banks at night
Key Bridge linking Buda and Pest

I have not seen any other city look the way Budapest does at night. Paris might be the city of lights, but it pales in comparison to Budapest due to its location on the Danube River, the many bridges, the Castle District and Parliament. You must take the night river cruise to get the full sense of what Budapest looks like at night.

Key Bridge and Caslte at night

As I walked back to the hotel after my evening river cruise, I felt extremely satisfied with my first day in Budapest. I had seen a lot and learned so much. There’s no way for me to cover everything from that day in a blog post…you must go out and experience it yourself!

How About You?

Have you ever visited the  Budapest: Castle District and Cruise?  Feel free to comment below or contact Ann’s Adventure Writer and Blogger here.