By Robyn Bushong
Eager for a getaway to a destination that would seem to be a “world away” – yet only a 2-4 hour flight from many major U.S. airports? In the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to spend several delightful days on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and to also visit Belize for the first time.
First, Belize… Dorothy Trevino (my dear friend, neighbor and travel buddy – aka DT) and I decided to visit the small Central American country of Belize – both of us as first-time visitors this past January. Contributing factors to choosing this delightful Central American country was that it was an easy two-hour flight on Southwest Airlines from Houston’s Hobby Airport and we were eager to spend a few days at a new, tropical” and enticing destination.
Belize is best described as a “small country packed with endless vacation opportunities” certain to appeal to almost everyone – ranging from high-energy adventurers, honeymooners, to diving enthusiasts and sun-seekers… the choice is yours! Belize is a “tropical destination” with its culture defined by both the Caribbean Sea and Central America – i.e. “reef and rain forest, ancient and new, adventurous and relaxing, exotic and friendly. And that’s just the beginning!
Since Dorothy and I have friends in Galveston who enjoyed a “fabulous experience” at Hamanasi – Adventure & Dive Resort – located near Hopkins, we decided to check it out. Working with our travel advisor, Debbie Parker, at Fox Travel in The Woodlands, Texas – we learned a lot about the resort and decided this was the place for us.
When we first landed in Belize City, we were surprised to find that ALL directional signs, billboards, etc were printed in English. Quickly, we learned why: Belize had been known as British Honduras until 1973; and was granted independence September 21, 1981. Although many languages are spoken – including Spanish, Garifuna and Maya – English is the official language. This small country (slightly smaller than Massachusetts) is bordered by Guatemala and Mexico and shares maritime borders with Honduras.
We arrived in Belize City on a Sunday afternoon and spent the first night in the country at a Radisson property near the beachfront. Monday morning, we did some sightseeing – on foot – in Belize City and then took a taxi to the airport for our short 20-minute flight/transfer from Belize City to Dangriga Airport. (We flew aboard a small 12-seat single engine prop plane.) At the airport, we were met by hotel staff for our short drive to our resort – arriving late afternoon.
First of all, it’s important to note that Hamanasi is situated in a lovely – but remote location. Hopkins – the closest town – is a small, residential village about 15 minutes away. There are only 21 accommodations – spread throughout the property – including Tree House, Deluxe Tree House and Ocean-Front accommodations. The accommodations at the resort are not furnished with televisions, internet, or Wi-Fi ( although TV is available in the library and complimentary Wi-Fi is available inside the Great House (i.e. lobby, dining/bar area, front desk/reception.) The Great House overlooks the beautiful pool and Caribbean Sea. The resort’s goal (and ours, too) : “Get away from it all!”
The resort is very casual. The food is fresh, beautifully-prepared and quite delicious. Service was not only exceptionally good, it was friendly and fun!
Our tree-house was a large two-double bed accommodation, with a sitting area, large bathroom and an especially lovely balcony – furnished with a hammock and relaxing chairs – perfect to enjoy your first cup of coffee each morning and listen to the creatures in the trees. Truly a “tree house” as you were level with the tree tops when sitting on the balcony. And, it was always very quiet and peaceful throughout the resort grounds.
We had signed up for two tours – including a “Specialty Adventure” scheduled for our first evening: “Night Hike in Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve.” Dorothy and I were the only guests on this tour that evening and together with our excellent guide we walked/hiked throughout the natural habitat of nocturnal animals in the “world’s only jaguar preserve.” Creatures (albeit very elusive) that live in this preserve include – besides jaguar – puma, jaguarundi (small cat that is closely related to the puma), foxes and other nocturnal creatures. We hiked for a couple of hours throughout the preserve before returning after dark to our resort (about a 45-minute drive.) We didn’t see any jaguar, but we’re quite confident: They saw us!
To say that there were a plethora of activities in which to partake was an understatement. An incredible resort for diving and snorkeling, plus such active adventures as their “Mayflower Jungle and Waterfall Hike” and “Cave and Jungle Adventure” – both described as: “VERY Challenging (all caps on VERY.) Other options included a Cave Tour, Cave Tubing, Ziplining, Horseback Riding, Monkey River Tour, Waterfall Rapelling, Garifuna Cooking Class, Che’il Chocolate Tour and the very popular “Magical Mayan History Tour” – which we took.
Traveling with six other guests, we left the resort mid-morning on Wednesday and arrived back to Hamanasi around 5pm for this all-day tour. The drive itself was very interesting and provided insight into the culture and life-style of the local – and diverse – populations. Our guide was of Mayan ancestry and showed us first-hand examples of how leaves on different trees were used as medicines for generations of his Mayan ancestors. This tour truly provides an intimate glimpse into Belize’s history. We saw two of the world’s most incredible Mayan ruin sites. Located near the Guatemalan border is the ruin of Xunantunich (where you can climb to the top of ruins over five centuries old!) that also provides a panoramic view of the entire Cayo District. The Barton Creek Caves are found in the Cayo District and this cave system – which has been carved out with the help of a navigable river – was once a Mayan burial and ritual site. The highlight of this day was climbing to the top of this ruin – as the view was spectacular. However – at least for me – the climb was very challenging, especially carrying a backpack and my camera equipment. Carved out of stone, the height of each step ranged from 6″ to over 12″. And, there are no railings. I made it to the top… albeit very slowly.
On the two days we didn’t have scheduled tours, Dorothy spent one morning touring the nearby village of Hopkins on a bicycle. (The resort has bicycles available for guests who want to venture out and explore.) DT was far more adventuresome than I that morning as I chose to read and nap alongside the pool, shaded by palm trees and over looking the stunningly beautiful turquoise Caribbean Sea.
On our last night at the resort, a group of local young people performed their native songs and danced out on the veranda. The troupe was comprised of excellent musicians and performers and provided a very interesting and lively program for guests to enjoy. This evening of entertainment was a great way to conclude our five-day getaway to Belize and the lovely and peaceful Hamanasi Resort.
Late the next morning we were driven back to the Dangriga airport and took the short shuttle flight back to the airport in Belize City where we boarded our Southwest flight for another easy 2-hour flight back to Houston. Indeed… a great and fun getaway!
(NOTE: This was a vacation we both enjoyed and there were enough different activities and levels of intensity that would appeal to almost everyone. Several families were traveling together as it was winter break for many schools and universities (especially on the East Coast) at this time in early/mid January. Multi-generational families traveling together, honeymooners, as well as couples, and a few singles – were among the guests. The quality of the services, accommodations, food/beverage, bar service, tours, entertainment by local, native groups – everything was excellent. With the exception of alcoholic beverages, the tariff was all-inclusive.) Highly recommended!)
Now for my other Central American adventure to Costa Rica. A few months prior to the Belize getaway… Ed Hill (my companion/partner/boyfriend) and I flew into the capital of San Jose. We flew Southwest Airlines from Houston Hobby and took private ground transportation to Puntarenas (approximately two hours from San Jose) for his son’s destination wedding on the 4th of July. We stayed – up in the hills -at a secluded, five-star, tree-shrouded resort – Villa Caletas.
Our secluded accommodations literally were eye-level with the trees and the beautiful birds and other creatures that resided in the foliage. To reach the beach ( as we were close proximity to the Pacific Ocean), we had to take a hotel shuttle down the hillside to the beach area. We enjoyed the beach – with its rocky shoreline – that included numerous cabanas, lounge chairs and beach towels. The hotel staff provided excellent service – highlighted with an exceptional food and beverage menu. We both enjoyed a delightful outing on the beach!
Of course, our main purpose for being at this beautiful resort was the wedding. As father of the groom, Ed participated in the rehearsal on July 3rd, followed by a fun and lively rehearsal dinner that evening… served – al fresco. Altogether, there were about 40 guests – including family and friends – attending this happy and wonderful occasion!
The wedding, reception and dinner was held at Zephyr Palace. The palace – located on the same property with Villa Caletas – is a luxurious mansion named after the “mythological Greek god of the west and warm wind.” Showcasing stunning 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean, the wedding ceremony took place outdoors at the Palace at 5pm, on the Fourth of July. The vows were exchanged with the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean and sun just beginning to set. After the beautiful and intimate ceremony, we enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, followed by a superb seated dinner and great evening of dancing. (The next morning, however… came very early as we departed at 4am for our transport back to the San Jose airport and our easy 4-hour Southwest flight back into Houston Hobby. )
It’s important to note… the Palace itself offers seven luxury suites – each with a different and unique theme. Both properties – Villa Caletas and Zephyr Palace – enjoy an enviable reputation of being a preferred site and venue for destination weddings and for providing exceptionally-fine service.
And, it’s also important to note …that the closest town to the resort was Jaco. (Jaco is located just about 15 minutes from the resort and is an approximate two-hour drive from San Jose.) Known as a “beautiful, energetic beach town – highlighted with exceptional aquatic activities, and a care-free party atmosphere,” Jaco bustles with “animated nightlife and friendly locals.” In fact, this town proved to be quite the popular hangout for many of the bride and groom’s friends who had traveled from the Houston area for the wedding.)
What a wonderful, happy and fun four days! We definitely want to return this resort. Highly recommended!