1. Do I need bug repellant?
Whether you need it or not is up to you. Sometimes we use it, and sometimes we don’t, depending on what we’re doing and how bad the bugs are, which varies with the time of year and the weather, not to mention person to person. What we use has DEET, which we’re told is the right stuff to use, but that’s about all we know.
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2. Do I need malaria pills?
Again, that’s up to you and your doctor. However, we don’t take them, and don’t know of anybody around here who does, and we don’t know anybody who has had malaria recently. We took them the first time we vacationed in Belize, and the first couple made me not feel too well, which is why I stopped. Tom stopped because he figured if I wasn’t getting malaria, he wouldn’t either, and so far neither of us has. To get the most up to date information on malaria pills and other immunizations you may need to travel to Belize, check the Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
3. What clothes should I pack?
That depends on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing, as well as the time of the year and the weather. For the jungle, definitely bring clothes that dry quickly. Shorts and summer shirts are good, but you should probably also pack a pair or two of light long pants and a couple of long sleeved sweatshirts or lightweight fleece shirts, not only because it can get chilly in the evenings and mornings, but you might want sleeves and pants if you’re hiking, biking, or riding in the jungle. For shoes, bring something that you don’t mind getting wet. We’ve always found that we mostly wear Teva-type sandals, but we also use our hiking boots and sneakers. And don’t forget a bathing suit! And leave your sports jackets and dress clothes at home; nobody wears them here in the jungle, even at weddings and other formal events.
4. What’s the food like in Belize?
This is a very common question, and everyone you ask will give you a different answer depending on what kind of food they like and where they’ve been in Belize. If you want fast food or steakhouses, forget about it. Fast food in this country is chicken, rice, and beans, and guaranteed you’re never too far from a pot of it – a good thing if you like chicken, rice, and beans. It’s also easy to get barbequed chicken in almost any town, served with rice & beans or a tortilla. If you’re a big meat eater, you may not be so happy because Belizeans don’t seem to be big meat eaters and while it is possible to get good meat, not a lot of restaurants serve it. If you like lots of fresh fruits and vegetables served lots of different ways, you’ve come to the right place. Something good is always in season.
5. Do I need a guide for everything?
The only things I know of that require that you accompany a guide in this area are the ATM cave and Barton Creek Cave. For ATM, you must go with a guide just to get into the park. For Barton Creek, you can usually get a guide at the cave, although not always. However, we think it’s a good idea to get a guide for most of the tours. The guides are very knowledgeable, and are required to take a course on all aspects of life in Belize and pass numerous written and practical tests before being granted certification to guide. In this area, they also do continuing in-service training through the Guide Association and meet monthly to share information. Certified guides – and it’s okay to ask to see their certification cards if they’re not displayed – are also required to take first aid courses, and for tours such as ATM, they must also be certified in cave and water rescue. Also, most guides will transport you to the attractions, so it will save you gas money and significant wear and tear on your nerves driving the sometimes rugged back roads around here, and possibly even eliminate the need to rent a car. While I don’t think it’s required, you should definitely get a guide if you’re planning on doing any hiking in the jungle, since a guide will keep you from getting lost, alert you to any danger in the jungle, and point out lots of things that you wouldn't see otherwise.
When we bought our farm in NY we had these animals:
· One rogue racehorse who was going to be dog food if we didn’t buy him; we ended up selling him as a children’s jumper after working with him for seven years.
· One Canadian thoroughbred who had sent his rider off in a helicopter ambulance five years before we bought him, hadn’t been ridden since, and was going to be dog food if we didn’t buy him; Tom rode him for four or five years, and then gave him to a young girl who needed a horse.
· One American Saddlebred whose breeder had bred him for her son, and found out they had a major personality conflict when it came time for her to break the horse so her son could ride him. We had this horse for 16 years, and when we moved to Belize sold him to a gentleman who is now using him to give carriage rides at a carriage museum.
· A borzoi who became very ill when he was five days old and had to be hand fed and treated, who was rejected by his mother when he got better. This is Mel, the borzoi who moved with us to Belize.
· A Jack Russell who was orphaned at four days old when her mother was hit by a car. This is Nock, who still makes us laugh at least a couple of times a day.
· Another Jack Russell whom we adopted through Russell Rescue because he was a chicken serial killer. And this is Louie. Who would believe this little mama’s boy is a murderer???
· A Doberman we inherited when her very elderly owner was dying in the hospital and told his wife to give us the dog because he was afraid the dog would hurt his also elderly wife. We had Midge for five years before we had to put her down after she tore her ACL and was not a good candidate for the repair surgery.
· A couple of shepherd crosses, one of which was tied to a cinderblock in the yard and deserted when his owner moved, and the other was dumped at our house in the middle of the night. We had Bud and Weiser for thirteen years, and they both were great with adults and kids.
In other words, we had a farm full of misfits who just needed someone to love them. In the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Christmas story, Rudolph and his buddies visit the Island of Misfit Toys, which is ruled by the flying lion King Moonracer. Since our farm was essentially an Island of Misfit Toys, all of whom, like the toys, finally ended up being much loved, we decided to name the farm after the lion. And, at the time, the name also fit because we were both working full time, and it seemed like we were always racing the moon to get home and get our chores done, and maybe even enjoy the animals a little bit before night fell.
7. What do you do for TV?
This is frequently the first question people ask when they find out we’re off the grid and don’t get electricity from the utility company. It blows us away because we have a whole list of things we would use electricity for if it ever came here, and TV isn’t even on the list since we haven’t watched TV in 20 years, even when living in NY. The difference between here and NY is that in NY, we always felt a little culturally handicapped because we didn’t know what was going on in the current reality show and we wouldn’t know Tony Soprano if we ran him over with a grocery cart. Here, most people don’t have TV, and it’s rarely even a topic of conversation.
Television aside, what we do for electricity here (which I think is the question people are really asking) is run a generator when we need it to either charge up all of our batteries, or run big appliances like the washer and dryer, the water pump, or the table saw. We charge a couple of deep cycle marine batteries so we can then run things like the satellite and small lights from an inverter, and we charge our computer, camera , and MP3 player batteries, as well as the 18v batteries for Tom’s tools, which include a few good flashlights.
To reduce our need for electricity, we have a butane refrigerator/freezer, butane stove, butane water heaters, and a butane clothes dryer. We gravity feed our water, and light with kerosene lamps and candles, and the 18v flashlights, and believe it or not, I sometimes use a good headlamp in the kitchen when I’m cooking so I don’t chop off a finger. And, we’ve just learned to live with things being a little dimmer after dark, and if we need to do something requiring a lot of light, we do it during the day.
The other electricity related question is what type of electricity is common in the country. As far as we know, the entire country runs with US-style 110 plugs. That’s also what we use here with the inverter.
And no, we don’t have a television.
8. Is the water safe to drink?
The water is probably safe to drink, although we generally drink bottled or filtered water. It comes from a river high in the mountains near Hidden Valley, and is piped into the village of 7 Miles, and then runs through a pipe to here and on to San Antonio. When we worry about the water being polluted, we’re actually more worried that it becomes polluted somewhere in its route through the pipe, rather than being polluted when it comes out of the stream. We use it for cooking, and for all the other household uses, and even brush our teeth with it, and it hasn’t made us sick yet.
The other place where the water could potentially become contaminated is in our system after it’s on our property. From the pipe, it dumps into a 1000 gallon tank with a float valve. This tank is also set up to catch rainwater from the shop roof, so the water we pump up the hill behind our house into another 1000 tank and a couple of 200 gallon tanks is part pipe water and part rainwater. From there, it gravity feeds to the cabins. The water in the tanks looks pretty clear and the tanks are closed, but they’re not air tight, so we don’t completely trust them.
9. How many chickens do you have?
You sort of have to visit here to understand this question, which is asked by almost everyone who steps on the property. Chickens are everywhere, grazing with the horses, pecking in the compost pile, running through the bushes, and roosting on the slab for the tack shed. However, the answer to the question is that we don’t have any chickens. We had three, but Louie killed the two hens and then the rooster was hit in the road, so now we have none. All of the chickens on the property belong to our neighbors, who understand that it’s not our problem if Louie has a homicidal fit some day and wipes out the flock.
As of February 2012 we now have 40 chickens - we will see how long they last, watch our blog for updates.
10. What can I bring as gifts for the local children?
The kids around here are great, and while they don’t expect anything, it’s fun to bring them little gifts because they’re generally thrilled with whatever you give them. The girls like hair thingies or little dolls, and the boys like anything to do with vehicles. All the kids love books of all sorts – coloring books, books of word games, text books, skill books, story books, and even magazines with content and reading level suitable for kids. They also like stationery and school supplies, as well as craft kits. The kids right around here don’t need game cartridges or DVDs because they don’t have the electricity to power the players, but we’ve heard that kids in more developed areas of Belize do appreciate more technical things. And don’t worry about ages – we have kids of all ages around here, from one to eighteen, and they all love everything they get.
11. How’s the local transportation?
Good, if you’re not in a hurry. The only public transportation that goes by here is a bus at 6AM, but if you get into San Antonio there are, I think, two morning buses and two afternoon buses that do the round trip from San Ignacio. Once you’re in San Ignacio, you can get buses to anywhere in the country, or to Guatemala or Mexico, and there are plenty of cabs to run you around locally.
If you don’t want to rent a car, most of the lodges offer transfer services. The fees for these services may seem steep, but remember that fuel is very expensive here, the rough roads put a lot of wear and tear on lodge vehicles, and nobody goes anywhere fast so the drivers need to be compensated for their time.
If you book tours with a guide, many of the guides have transportation which is included in the cost of the tour, and you only have to get to the tour meeting place.
Depending on what you’re doing, you may want to rent a car, but they’re very expensive. The last time we did it, in the summer of 2006, it was about $1000US for a week with a mini-SUV 4WD. On top of that, driving can be very nerve wracking because the roads in remote places can be pretty bad, and roads in the well traveled spots are filled with pedestrians, bikers, horses, stroller pushers, and kids darting into the road for no apparent reason. If you rent a car, make sure it’s insured for where ever you’re going, because some rental agencies don’t insure vehicles in certain parts or on certain roads in Belize, and many rental agencies do not allow cars to be driven into Guatemala which you may want to do to visit Tikal. We had a visitor whose rental car was not insured in the Mountain Pine Ridge, and we’ve heard that some ban travel on the Manatee (Coastal) Highway. It may not matter to you if you don’t mind picking up any repair costs for damage in these areas, but it may be more stressful than it’s worth. Also, remember that you will probably only need the rental car for the inland portion of your trip. You can’t take a car to the cayes, and if you rent a car for your entire vacation, you’ll be paying big bucks to have it parked by the water taxi or one of the airports while you’re out on the cayes. If you choose to rent a car, we know that US drivers' licenses are acceptable so you don't need an international driving license. We don't know about licenses from other countries.
That said, rental cars are great for getting you into more remote areas to see things off the beaten track, and since time and schedules aren’t big worries for most Belizeans, they’re also great for allowing you to be in control of when you get somewhere. It all depends on what you want to do and how bold you are – and whether your boldness manifests itself in driving in difficult conditions, or if it shows because you don’t mind standing on the edge of the road with all your luggage and hailing a bus!
12. What’s this about an exit fee to leave Belize?
To leave Belize, tourists are required to pay an exit fee. If you drive out of Belize into Guatemala or Mexico, you will pay the fee at the border. If you fly out, the exit fee may be included in your airline ticket, or it may not. Unfortunately, we’ve flown on a few different airlines, and when we ask that question of the booking agents, we’ve received a few different answers which usually aren’t correct because I’m not sure the booking agents are even aware of the fees. I’m also not sure how much they are right now, although the last time we flew it was $35US to get out of Belize. I think it is less if you drive over the border, somewhere around $20US. Basically, I don’t know the details, but hopefully this answer gives you enough information to ask the question of someone who does know!
13. Will my cell phone work in Belize?
Check with your cell phone carrier. Some (Verizon maybe?) have international plans, although you may be required to get a different chip. Or, you can rent a phone here. However, we don’t get reception on the farm, which is probably a good thing because if I saw someone swinging in one of my hammocks with a cell phone plastered to his or her ear doing business while they’re on vacation, I’d probably snatch the cell phone, stomp it into the ground, and give my standard “So you think you’re too important to even go on vacation for a week?” lecture.
14. Do I need to bring my laptop in order to get email?
No, you can find an internet café in almost every town. Here, we have wireless, and you’re welcome to use one of our computers or your own to check email.
15. How much Belizean currency do I need?
You don’t need much, but American cash is good. Most places here accept American cash, and the exchange rate is always $2BZ=$1US. Only US paper money is accepted; leave the extra change at home. If you want to use your credit cards, you may need to call your credit card company and have the card authorized for use in Belize. We learned the hard way that you have to do this! However, use caution using your credit cards, even debit cards. Most credit card companies tack a foreign transaction fee onto every purchase, and the exchange rate is usually less than the 2:1 cash rate. We figured out one trip that it cost us 8% to 10% more to use our credit cards here rather than cash, although that was a few years ago and I’m not sure if it’s the same for all credit card companies. Travelers’ checks are worthless; many places won’t take them, and banks charge to change them.
16. What’s the nightlife like in Belize?
That depends on where you are, and we’re really not the right people to ask. We know there are bars in San Ignacio, but we don’t get out much at night. A wild night for us is two games of cribbage instead of one, or a game of cribbage and a game of dominoes on the same night! Part of the reason we don’t get out is because we’re so busy during the day that we’re tired at night, but part of it is that we don’t like to drive at night. Nothing is lighted, and it would be way too easy to hit one of the many people, horses, bicycles, or other cars on the road, none of which are especially visible. If you want a nightlife, visit the cayes or stay in town!
17. Is it dangerous to be in the jungle?
Well, is it dangerous to be in New York City? Is it dangerous to live? The answer all three questions is probably yes, and despite the many differences in the dangers, the way to remain safe is identical – know the risks, and be prepared to deal with them. You COULD encounter a poisonous snake or step on a scorpion at night as you walk to your cabin, but if you wear shoes, use a flashlight, and watch where you’re going, you’ll see the critters and they’ll see you with plenty of time to get out of your way. Don’t reach your hands into dark places, don’t touch unfamiliar trees and plants, don’t try to touch the wildlife, shake your towels and your shoes, and you’ll be fine. They don’t want any more to do with you than you do to do with them.
As far as being in danger from other people, I can only speak of our experience in this area of Belize, but I’d say it’s about like everywhere else in the world – not 100% safe, but not unsafe either. If you take the normal precautions, you shouldn’t have any trouble: lock your vehicles, keep track of your expensive electronics, don’t carry an excessive amount of cash in one place, leave the expensive jewelry at home. In other words, don’t make yourself a target.
18. What if I need medical attention?
Not having a phone, you couldn’t call 911 from here even if it was available, and it is a long and bumpy ride to a hospital, however you choose to get there. However, it’s been a little bit of a surprise to us how many people around here have some sort of emergency medical training and how capable they are of getting sick or injured people out of remote places. We’ve also been surprised at the high level of care you can get once you get to a hospital, and while it might not be a bad idea to get some sort of insurance that would get you a medical flight out of Belize, the good news is Belize could probably keep you alive long enough to use the insurance. For the standard things that might ruin a vacation – stomach upset, wounds and infections, broken or sprained limbs – you can go to almost any hospital and get good care at a reasonable price, probably less than your insurance deductibles.
19. Can I bring my dog on vacation with me?
If you stay here, you certainly can! It’s actually surprisingly easy and inexpensive to bring a dog to Belize. Dogs must be immunized against rabies within a year, they must have an international vet certificate no older than 14 days (your home vet will do this for you), and you must get a BAHA permit prior to showing up at the airport or the border, which, when we did it in January 2007, was only $40US and one permit was good for all three dogs. The permit application can be obtained on-line, and you can fax it to BAHA, which will return fax you the import permit.
That said, you may want to think about bringing Fido to Belize. Most dogs are not pampered pets here, and don’t receive any vaccinations or much vet care in general. We try to keep our dogs away from the local dogs so they don’t catch anything. We also keep them on a heartworm preventative and do flea drops faithfully every month, which you should also do even if you just bring your dog to Belize for vacation.
Also, most hotels and lodges do not accept pets. We do, but only because we’re dog lovers, and because our property has a number of cages which used to hold wild cats, and they now make great kennels. Our Jack Russells can’t dig out, and nothing larger than a small ‘possum can get in to the cages. But, if you’re traveling anywhere other than here, you may have difficulties, and there’s no way you can just leave a dog in a car in the heat here, even for an hour while you explore an archeological site – although you could leave the dog kenneled here while you explored other parts of Belize.
And ditch the fantasy of hiking through the jungle with your faithful canine companion. Not only do many of the parks and preserves prohibit dogs, but we’ve decided that it’s just not worth the risk to the dog. Two of our neighbors have had dogs killed by fer-de-lance snakes, we know numerous people who tell tales of their dogs being carried off screaming in a jaguar’s jaws, lots of Belizean pot lickers just disappear into the bush, and almost all of them have beefworms and skin infections. These risks are minimized if you keep your dogs contained in a well-used area, but they’re pretty big risks when your dog is loose out in the bush.