The City of San Ignacio in Belize

San Ignacio Belize Bridge

Though the ATM Cave tour was the highlight of my trip to Western Belize, I enjoyed my time in San Ignacio.  A small town which gently sprawls along a beautiful, slow moving river a brief 15 minute taxi ride from the Guatemalan border, the city of San Ignacio definitely harbors its own character and charm.

Eva's Bar and Grill in San Ignacio, Belize

The evening before had been enjoyable.  Earlier in the day I’d bumped into a friend i’d made during the Raggamuffin Tour in the local internet cafe.  When I’d last seen him we’d been setting sail and heading south towards Placencia, leaving him marooned on Tobacco Caye for Christmas (upon his request).   After finish up our e-mails home and quick blog posts, we struck out on the town to rustle up some chow. The place we eventually found started out promising but ended up being disappointing.  A small place, upstairs and across from the main tourist hangout in town – Eva’s, pictured above – they offered a menu with several cheap specials.  Upon inquiry as to what  the “pork” plate came with/entailed I got confused shrugs and mixed answers.  Ordering a 2nd Belkin Stout I figured what the hell and ordered it anyway.  The plate ended up coming with a variety of rice, beans, salsa and some sort of pork chop/pork loin that was so over cooked I was tempted to use it as coal. It turns out, the cook was playing computer games behind the bar…which explained a bit about the service, and even more about the over cooked nature of the food.

From there it was down to Eva’s for a drink or two more before turning in.  I ended up crashing at the PACZ Hotel which was very clean, affordable, ideally located, and had a wonderfully warm and friendly owner/manager.  If you find yourself in San Ignacio, definitely stop by and ask for Landy.  He not only was friendly and helpful, but had a wealth of stories and even went so far as to share with me a local DVD of Belize’s marine life and natural wonders.

San Ignacio Outdoor Market

The following morning I set off to find a bit of food, only to discover that the town’s outdoor market was bustling with activity.  As I wandered through the outdoor market, it struck me that the wealth of bananas, colors, and fresh produce made for a beautiful sight. With my mouth watering I paused briefly and picked up a shucked Coconut and fresh Banana before setting off to find lunch.

Belizean Food - Stewed Chicken, Beans and Rice

Just across the street, a few paces down a small side alley I stumbled into an open front restaurant bustling with local activity.   The kitchen was a small open area off in a corner with a small flat space for plate preparation and a blender for fresh horchata and juice drinks.  I sat down at an open table, only to realize that it didn’t offer any leg room.  After a few minutes with my legs sprawled out to either side one of the girls working as part chef/part waitress noticed, chuckled at me and herded me over to a different table, which had just cleared.  In heavily accented English she told me the two plates they were offering and offered a suggestion.  I followed her suggestion and opted for the Belizean specialty; stewed chicken, rice and beans served up with a side of salad and a fried plantain served up with a side of horchata, which i later followed up with a Coca Cola.  It was hands down the best Chicken, Rice and Beans I had in Belize which is saying something.

Chicken Bus in San Ignacio

Stuffed, I continued my exploration of the city.  Wandering down along the river I paused to watch and ponder the strange garb, traditions, and out of place appearance of the local Mennonites in the market place, before poking a hole in the coconut I’d purchased earlier and downing the fresh coconut water.  One of the things I love about traveling in tropical environments is the presence of fresh coconuts.  Coconut water is a great way to re-charge, very healthy, and perfect for re-hydrating.

After exploring the town for a bit, I made my way back past a colorfully painted bus to the hotel where I settled in for a relaxing afternoon.

The following morning a new adventure, and country awaited.

Sailing the Belize Barrier Reef – Day 2 and 3

Giant Fresh Caught Spiny Lobster

The following morning we struck camp; laughing at the slow, stiff movements and pained, hungover looks that plagued our group.  The tents proved every bit as difficult to break down as they had been to put up leading to small frustrated mutterings and no small shortage of lighthearted teasing.

Hermit Crab in Belize

We paused briefly for breakfast, then began transferring bags, sheets, tents and bodies back onto the cramped confines of the Ragga Queen before saying goodbye to the Island and its surprising wealth of local wild life.

A small caye in Belize

As the boat gently drifted away from the Island I was once again taken by its small size, pristine beauty and the unique flavor of the adventure.  As you might imagine, a plethora of movie references and great cinematic moments filtered through my mind – always an entertaining narrative and realization: that epiphany that you’re living the adventure often delivered as fairytale across the world’s silver screens.

Hand and Scarf on Sailboat roof

The day was beautiful with hardly a cloud in the sky.  The sun kept us warm and left us relishing each opportunity that arise to pause and dive into the water to fish, snorkel, hunt for conch, or just generally relax and cool off.

Raggamuffin Tour - Everyone relaxing on the Sailboat

As we neared our first snorkeling stop I was relieved. The weather was fantastic, the group with the exception of one bratty girl, was an absolute delight and the adventure was unfolding nicely.  I’m always wary of any sort of extended duration tour.  While something like the Raggamuffin tour tends to only attracting the more laid back, younger and heartier traveler – all it takes is one or two people to really turn what should be a 3-9 day adventure with new found friends into an absolute nightmare.   As you can tell from the photo above things were rather tight and personal space was at a premium.  That said, everyone took it in stride and worked to chip in.

Belize's stunning waters

Our first stop was along a steep wall along the reef.  As I first jumped in and looked down, I felt my stomach surge towards my throat. The water below me was some 20-30 feet deep on a steep incline, drifting quickly into a dark blue abyss.  The seafloor was covered in coral, fans and schools of fish and I couldn’t help but think I stood a good chance of seeing an open water shark.

Allowing my nerves to settle, I began to explore the area. The sea wall offered a great opportunity to see a different type of reef life.  Some of the fish were different, the corals were slightly different and the general feel of the place had its own unique flavor.  As we snorkeled around the area I made my way along the wall watching rays and schools of fish go about their daily business.  Eventually, I made a wide loop that took me into the shallow water – that which was 4-10 feet deep – and towards the areas where the reef broke free from the sea.  There, in the shallower water I was greeted by large spiny sea urchins, vibrantly colored, albeit smaller, coral dwelling species of fish and even a lazy sea turtle enjoying the open sea grass.  The video I’ve included above is shown in near chronological order, and while you may recognize it from my previous post – it covers all 3 days.

Tired and hungry I made my way back to the boat for lunch.  After a quick meal, it was time to set off again.  Sail up, bodies sprawled across the decks, the subtle sight of soft white lines decorating our bodies where we’d missed a spot of sunscreen.

Alex Berger while Sailing in Belize

Our next stop was similar.  This time, however, it was a series of small sea mounts that rose from the ocean floor (about 30-40 feet) to a depth of some 10 feet below the surface.  The mounts were small but packed with coral and sea life.

Once again we struggled into our fins, held our breaths and jumped over the side before fanning out in all directions to explore.  Some were armed with spear guns, others with cameras. As we slowly explored, we found ourselves pointing off into the blue, motioning, and trying to speak through snorkel filled mouths.  All the while sharing little discoveries – a large school of 5 or 6 barracuda, a lazy sea turtle taking a nap on the ocean floor or a particularly beautiful fish.

It was during a foray in towards one of the larger mounts – one with significantly shallower water – that I came across the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen.  You’ll notice him in the video I posted above, though the size doesn’t really come across.  Easily four feet in length the monster oozed predatory confidence as it slowly, ever so slowly drifted through the shallow water.

Eager to get video and see it up close, I followed.  All the while wondering….was it truly a good idea?  After all, the plastic housing for my camera reflected the glint of sunlight and was lined in bright dive orange rubber, looking more like a giant fishing lure than anything else.   Luckily, neither I nor the Barracuda listened to the nagging voice in the back of my head – leaving us both to watch each other warily, enjoying the moment.

Marching Lobster and Feet while Sailing in Belize

From there it was back onto the boat for more fishing, sunbathing and drifting.  Pausing periodically to hunt for Conch, Lobster and to give the captain an opportunity to put his spear-gun to work.  We feasted on fresh lobster, conch and fish ceviche, fresh fruit and cup after cup of fruit punch before eventually arriving at our second destination: Tobacco Caye.

Tobacco Caye

The small (albeit significantly larger than our last) island was home to a series of docks, a small forest of large coconut trees, small restaurant, series of cabanas and small circular beach bar.

Sunset at Tobacco Caye

We quickly set to setting up our tents in a small clear space in the middle of the island, before grabbing a Belkin – Belize’s delicious local beer – and setting off to explore the island.  Some 5 minutes later we found ourselves back at the dock eager to snorkel off the dock.

The area surrounding the island itself was sheltered by the reef behind it and offered a large expanse of smooth shallow water sea grass which stretched out and away from the island on the remaining 3 sides.  The grass itself attracted large schools of fish and a large number of rays and the incredible looking eagle rays which are black with white spots, a long streaming tail and in many ways look like a manta ray.  The eagle rays are an absolute delight to watch – not only are they graceful and beautiful, but they periodically leap free of the water, throwing themselves several feet into the air.

Sailboat at Sunset in Belize on the Barrier Reef

As with the day before, the sunset on Tobacco Caye was every bit as incredible.  This time framed by sailboats, a small panga, and picturesque palm trees.  We ate a delicious meal with fish and shrimp before settling in for another night of stories, drinks and jokes before crawling into bed.  Stiff and exhausted from a long day swimming and relaxing in the sun.

Tobacco Caye in Belize

The following morning greeted us with more blue skies and warm weather. After breaking down our tents and re-packing the boat we set off once more.  This time on the final leg of our trip to Placencia.

Lobster Sunbathing in Belize

The trip itself was fairly lazy. We paused several more times for seafood and caught a few fish by line.  With each stop the number of us that jumped overboard to explore diminished until there were only 3 or 4 of us left that dove in at every opportunity. We swam, laughed and relaxed for the remainder of the day before arriving in Placencia about 3 or 4PM.  We disembarked and set to the task of finding accommodation.

It was Christmas eve and the town was quiet, although not completely shuttered.  Before long I found a small budget hotel with a room for $40 BZD ($20USD) a night.  To my delight the room had 3 beds, and a private bathroom.  The shower didn’t offer warm water (not unusual in Belize), and consisted of a PVC pipe with a small turn nozzle. It was more than I needed.

I settled in, read my book, grabbed an evening meal and then dozed contentedly.  Life was good.

Sailing the Belize Barrier Reef

Sail Boat

The morning was damp.  The occasional sprinkle fell to challenge our merry mood. Despite the weather’s best efforts we could sense that the storm had blown itself out and was able to but threaten more rain, clouds and wind.  The cold front had claimed its three windswept days and now the cycle began anew with sun breaking through the clouds on the horizon with rays of golden light.

The trip I’d booked was the three-day two night Raggamuffin Sailing trip from Caye Caulker, down through the Cayes and along the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world to the small peninsula town of Placencia.  We left on Tuesday and would arrive on the 24th – Christmas eve.   The all-inclusive trip cost $350 – which included a $50 premium for travel over the holidays/Christmas.

Sailboat Prow in Belize

We loaded our bags then slowly piled onto the small motorboat that would shuttle us out to the still small, albeit slightly larger sailboat which would be our home for the next 3 days – the Ragga Queen.

Pirate Flag

With an old battered pirate flag flying, we set sail and with our backs to Caye Caulker began a new adventure.  As we sailed south the sun slowly began to break through the clouds.  Bringing with it a warmth that left us all pinching ourselves – trying to remember that it was currently late December. With a grin and a shrug we stripped down to swimsuits and lathered on sunscreen.

Fishing Hut

The sailing was easy and the three-man crew took care of most of the work.  We’d help periodically as they raised sail or made small adjustments, but beyond that we were mostly left to our own devices.  We mixed, mingled and got acquainted with each other.  Told stories, played card games, napped, read and fished from the stern of the ship.  Before long we noticed an odd structure – seemingly rising out of the water.  The fishing shack which during low tide sat on an exposed sandbar rested on pillars: sandbar completely submerged.  The small structure was fascinating.  Not because of its complexity, but rather the fact someone had not only managed, but also decided, to build a structure literally in the middle of the ocean.  In many ways it reminded me of the structures built for the movie Waterworld, only far less complex and obviously still anchored in sand.  The building itself though was an odd reminder that we were sailing in shallow water – a poignant reality I had learned several nights previous when the ferry I was riding on ran aground multiple times.

Fishing in Belize

The fishing was decent, though slow going.  The first day we caught two – a decent sized barracuda and what I believe was a Spanish Mackerel – both served as the foundation for a delicious dinner later that evening.  Unfortunately, despite no small amount of time spent manning one of the two lines – I ended up skunked. Still the fishing itself was plenty rewarding, as I watched the barrier reef and various islands slowly slip by.

Open Water in Belize

We paused several times during the first day – dropping anchor seemingly at random just off the reef.  The water was typically between 8-25 feet deep and crystal clear. Eager to explore we pulled on our fins and snorkels, paused briefly at the side of the boat and then jumped.  The water’s embrace was warm – a delightful contrast from what you’d expect which made the transition far easier than I’ve grown accustomed to in the Pacific, Atlantic and even northern Sea of Cortez.

It never ceases to amaze me how big a difference fins make when snorkeling. Truly, they’re more a necessity than anything.  Recalling my childhood dreams of being a Marine Biographer I double checked my Flip Ultra Video camera and marveled once again at how well the $35 underwater case was working out.  Then without thinking, snorkel in mouth, I turned my sights to the seafloor, only to quickly get a mouth full of water and a quick reminder: snorkels and ear to ear grins seldom make good bedfellows.

Water

The reef was rich with life – while not as tame and prolifically populated as the Hol Chan marine reserve, the reef was still awash in life and color.  With vibrant coral, giant sea fans and sprawling beds of light green sea grass the reef was an absolute delight. Make sure to take a few minutes and watch the video at the start of this post. I’m afraid that all I have is underwater video, no photos.

As I made my way carefully into the shallower water, I paid special attention to the currents and my fins.  Careful, ever so careful, not to make any contact with the reef or plant life. It sounds easy enough, but given the ebb and pull of waves, long sweep of fins and 5-7 feet of water it quickly became a challenge.  We took great care to stay horizontal in the shallower water – keeping our feet, and fins well away from the seafloor where they might potentially do damage that would take years – if not decades to heal.

We snorkeled for half an hour – or was it an hour? – before making our way back to the boat and relaxing as we quenched our hunger with ham sandwiches and fresh conch ceviche.  Then, settled in for another brief sail before a series of quick pauses, this time in much deeper water, where those willing set out in search of conch for dinner. Unfortunately, most of us found the water too deep and the conch too hard to spot – still we searched, swam, and enjoyed as the captain and crew who had more free diving experience made to 20+ foot journey to the sea floor and back easily.  Later, the captain an ex-fisherman mentioned that during his fishing days he would regularly make 90+ foot free dives.

Island along the Belize Barrier Reef

As the sun began to race towards the horizon we reached our destination for the evening.  A delightful, tiny speck of sand with a deep water dock for the sailboat, 7 palm trees, and a small one room hut for the island’s steward.  With 15 passengers and 3 crew, our little boat was overloaded. There was ample sitting room during the day, if you didn’t mind getting a bit cozy, but not even the faintest chance of fitting us all at night.

Tents on our small Island

Luckily the island had room (if just barely) for 7 tents.  We paired up, unloaded the tents, gear and sleeping pads, then set to assembling our tents.  Some teams did better than others, leaving a few to grumble, huff, and curse gently under their breath as we all struggled to figure out just how the slightly off-center, somewhat worn tents had been designed.

Belize Barrier Islands at Sunset

Hartmut – a gentleman from Germany, my tent-mate and a friend I’d bump into during later travels – and I quickly got our tent assembled and began to wander the island.  Despite its small stature the island was absolutely gorgeous.

Sailboat during Sunset

The island’s white sands were soft, warm in the afternoon’s fading sunlight, and a beautiful white that picked up the hues of the sunset and seemed to blend seamlessly with the lapping waves.

Pelican flying around island

The locals themselves – mostly seagulls and pelicans – were also quite hospitable.  Lazily sharing the island with us, and periodically taking flight to feed or just circle the island in an incredible show of grace.

Pelican in Flight

The pelicans themselves, while wary, seemed comfortable with visitors. More than that though, they seemed almost eager to show off their natural agility and skills.

Sunset over  Conch and Coral

Antsy, I wandered a bit more – pausing at an old tree stump that now held a dried coral fan and several conch.  As the sun set behind it – I held my breath in anticipation.

As we paused, enjoying our dinner of fresh seafood and garlic bread the sun continued to set. As each minute passed it revealed new beauty, new colors and my smile grew.

Sunset in Belize

Words cannot describe the incredible beauty of the sunset as it set the sky afire. The leftover clouds – those straggling behind the cold front – picked up the sun’s evening song and magnified it ten fold.  The waves of the ocean gently moaned as they slowly tickled the white sandy beaches – turned golden by the sunset.

Sailboat at Sunset in Belize on the Barrier Reef

It had been a good day.  An incredible one, that I’ll remember for the rest of my life – but as the sun set and we settled in around a campfire I quickly realized that the day held one last surprise. As complete darkness settled over our small island, with the fire slowly burning down – I sprawled lazily across the sand and looked up.

The stars were incredible – so vivid, so densely packed and so bright that I could hardly contain a soft sigh.  Living in the city, the stars are always dim and far away.  On the rare occasions I escape into the countryside camping or return back to my parent’s home in Prescott I can always count on vivid stars but even those barely compared to the sight that greeted me.

It was as though the galaxy itself sat just out of reach. The depth and richness of the stars something beyond the norm, something special, something incredible. Then breathing slowly, eyes roaming the sky I saw the first shooting star. Then another.  Then a third, a fourth, a fifth…they blazed across the sky in incredible arks.  As luck would have it – I was witnessing what I believe was the Ursid meteor shower.  The view that night alone made the trip well worth it.

Stay tuned for part II of this post covering days 2 and 3.  Can’t wait?  Check out my Belize photo stream on flickr. Q9VRSZ4BCZXJ

Caye Caulker – Pictures, Video and Local Cuisine!

Caye Caulker Beach

Having already mentioned my delightful case of food poisoning in my previous post, I’ll refrain from re-telling the story and instead focus on a few snapshots I took around Caye Caulker during my remaining two days on the island.  You’ll note that the photos are often a bit dark and gray.   This is due to the large cold front which was rolling through the region.

Caye Caulker Waterfront

Despite the gray clouds, slightly cooler weather and rain it was still enjoyable – though it was cool enough to merit a light jacket from time to time.

Bird on Dock in Caye Caulker Belize

With a water bottle in hand and slightly pale tint to my complexion I meandered through the city pausing to take in the town’s small quirks and subtle beauty.

Cat on Lounge Chair in Belize

The good news was, though, that despite the weather – at least a few of the locals decided to hit the beach for a bit of sunbathing.

Boat with Signs

From there it was on towards the gap in the island where one of the most flavorful boats I’ve seen in a long time was tied up.  After all, what boat is complete without “No War” painted on the side, a reclined, palm frond sun shade, and live baby palm trees growing along the deck?

Seagulls and Pelicans relaxing

From there it was down a small dock – where the local birds seemed to be relaxing watching their own version of island TV.

Caye Caulker, Belize

As the day wound to a close (and my appetite finally returned) I found the “World Famous Jolly Roger’s Grill” – only open in the evenings, Jolly Roger’s was set up in a roadside stand along the main drag.  It consisted of a few beat up pick-nick tables, a small table for preparing food and the long grill pictured above.

Jolly Roger

My host – Roger – promised the best fresh grilled lobster in town at a great price.  A bear of a man, he had a a friendly smile and boisterous voice as he called to passing travelers and locals alike – wishing them well and inviting them to pause for a meal.

Grilled Lobster in Caye Caulker Belize

As I sat, watching Roger and his wife prepare the meal, I enjoyed the soft sound of rain drops hitting the hut’s tin roof.  The fresh smell of cooking food, fresh sea air and rain heavy in my nostrils I felt both refreshed and invigorated.

 

Curious about the meal?  I’ll yield the floor to Jolly Roger himself and let him introduce dinner!  Just click play and enjoy the video.

Jolly Rogers in Caye Caulker

As I chatted and slowly worked my way through my dinner, rum punch and desert I was quickly joined by a gaggle of travelers as Roger’s quickly filled up.  Several of which I knew – some of the girls from the night before, who were also booked on the Raggamuffin Sailing trip we’d be leaving on in the morning – while others were new friends, like a family who had met up with their daughter and were exploring Belize.  We mixed, mingled and socialized for a a stretch before I found my way back to the hostel, pulled out one of C. Descry’s books and turned in for the evening.

Tomorrow promised to be a big day.

Dos Ojos, Tulum and Akumal – the Video

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read my post on my day long adventure exploring the cenote at Dos Ojos, ruins and city of Tulum and snorkeling at Akumal in Mexico.  For those who haven’t make sure to view the post and photos [here].

As promised here’s a video compilation of footage filmed throughout the day/during the adventure.  As always I value your comments and would appreciate it if you take an extra second to rate the video.  Enjoy!

 

Caye Caulker – Belize’s Hidden Gem

Caye Caulker photo from an Airplane

When I talk about Belize – Caye Caulker (pronounced Key-Caulker) – is the place that quickly comes to mind as my favorite.  The somewhat sleepy island village is a backpacker’s dream.  Beautiful water, exciting day trips, two delightful hostels, dirt roads, golf cart transportation, cheap prices and delightful people leave just about everyone who visits smiling.

Unloading Luggage at Caye Caulker

As I understand it the Islands itself was carved in two back in 1961 by a major hurricane which created the channel on the right hand side of the photo above. The island has two main streets and the town itself sits mostly on the narrow northern part of the island. View an aerial of the map on Google Maps [here] and the official Caye Caulker website [here].

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. My Caye Caulker adventure begins in San Pedro where I left you last.  After a delightful day spent on the reef and enjoyable night relaxing I strapped on my backpack and wandered my way to the local airport.  The airports on the smaller islands are serviced by two main airlines.  Mayan Airlines and Tropic Airlines.  Both offer an affordable and enjoyable alternative to the water taxis for a small premium.

I was eager to see the islands from above and had discovered the day before that inter-island flights were surprisingly cheap. Instead of the $80-$150 USD ticket I was expecting to fly from San Pedro to Caye Caulker a one-way ticket was $56 BZD or $28 USD.   Sure, it was more than triple the price for a water taxi – but it also came with a aerial view of the islands.  Eager to enjoy my latest adventure I asked when the next plane was – learned the 10 o’clock plane was full, but that if interested they’d call up another plane for a 10:30 flight. I agreed.  The operator made a quick phone call, and before long had me penciled in for 10:30.  The planes were small, the airport more or less a dirt strip.  It was refreshing.  No security lines, no metal detectors.  Just a patch of dirt with a raised metal table to leave your bag on.

Mayan Air Water Stained Boarding Pass

As I sat, relaxing and waiting I couldn’t help but chuckle.  My boarding pass/ticket was a laminated piece of color paper with a map highlighting where Mayan air flew.  The lamination itself had begun to peel back allowing water into the ticket, as you’ve no doubt noticed in the image above.   A few minutes later the plane arrived and with a little disappointment the pilot informed me I was too large to sit shotgun.  Not to be dissuaded I squeezed into the chair immediately behind and had a nearly identical view.

San Pedro from Above

The take off was fast, the view during the flight incredible.  The water is so shallow and clear that you can see the reef and sand formations clearly, even on a cloudy day.  The clouds are shaped heavily by the presence of the islands often mirroring the islands’ jagged outline. Some 9-10 minutes later we lined up on the Caye Caulker airport. The pilot dropped our speed suddenly leaving me with that Wile E. Coyote sensation, before suddenly gunning the plane at the ground.  With the polished precession of someone who makes the trip several times a day he dropped us onto the short runway, before hitting the breaks and taxiing to the small building that served as the main airport.

Flower on Caye Caulker in Belize

There a Brit – Rob – and I disembarked and took the airport attendant up on an offer for a cab.  A few minutes later a golf cart with “TAXI” painted across the windshield arrived and spirited us off to town. The 5 minute drive was a kick.  The roads in Caye Caulker are all hard packed sand.  Unfortunately, they’re also very susceptible to rainstorms and ruts.  The result is a very bumpy golf cart ride and somewhat treacherous late night walking – at least for those returning from the bars.

Bellas Hostel in Caye Caulker

Before long we’d reached Bella’s hostel only to discover from a group of local’s sitting across the street smoking and socializing that Bella was out and about.  Rob and I took the opportunity to get acquainted. As it turned out he was visiting the Islands as part of his Dive Master certification – fun stuff!  Some 15-20 minutes later Bella returned from her errand – and to my delight informed me that she had space in the group dorm room.  The hostel was nice and clean.  An odd building with more nooks and crannies scattered throughout it than you can image.  Lofts, side rooms – you name it.  The common area itself was basically an open air room.  With solid walls on two sides and mesh/wire net walls on the remaining two.  The price per night?  $20 BZD or $10 USD.

Fresh Snapper in Belize

Settled in Rob and I struck out to find lunch – both starving.  Eventually we found a restaurant that had a few people already seated and a decent looking menu.   Itching for seafood we both ordered the fish of the day.  I opted for the whole fish pictured above served with coleslaw and french fries, while Rob went with the fillet and a Salad.  The meal also came with a complimentary ceviche appetizer.  I opted to wash it down with a Belkin Stout.  One of the local beers brewed in Belize.  The Belkin Stout is both surprisingly light, has a slightly honey brown taste and is curiously strong at 6.5% given its taste.

Fresh Snapper in Belize

When the fish arrived I was pleasantly surprised by how well it was cooked.  Pulled off the grill just at the right moment the meat was moist, flaky and full of flavor.  It was the type of fresh seafood i’d been itching for – but having trouble finding (or affording) previously.   To make matters even better – the price was decent at about 20 BZD or $10 for the meal.

Carved Face on Caye Caulker Belize

With a full stomach we set off to explore the city of Caye Caulker. The town itself was simple, straight forward, and of a size where you might walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes or less.  The main road traces along the beach with a thin layer of bars, homes, hotels and dive shops periodically squeezed into the space left.

Caye Caulker Animal Shelter

In the North West part of the town there’s a large open lot with a half completed foundation.  The lot seems to serve as the towns local animal shelter – home to at least 10 cats and a similar number of dogs, all of whom live in harmony.   As most cats seem to do, these had set themselves up at the entrance, keeping a watchful eye on everyone passing by on the street, lazily purring when someone pause to take a photo or scratch them.  The walls themselves were unpainted and undecorated, except for large bold biblical quotes and religious statements.

Bellas Hostel - Group Dorm

From there it was off to a small internet cafe to write home – and then back to the hostel to relax for a few hours.  Once there I met one of the other guys staying in the group dorm, as well as learned that 3 girls – 2 sisters and their friend – who I’d gotten to know in San Pedro and shared the Ferry/Run Aground adventure with were also in one of the hostel’s private rooms. We caught up and lamented the light rain and poor weather while exchanging tidbits we’d picked up from the locals.  The rain and cloudy weather was the vanguard of a cold front that would be passing through the area.  The locals shrugged, expecting it to last 3 days and break on Tuesday but had little confidence in official weather predictions.  Apparently the islands have their own micro-climate which results in unique, quickly changing weather.

Storm Rolls in on Caye Caulker in Belize

Ready to explore once again I set off, hardly noticing the periodic light drizzle that brought a heavy freshness to the air.  It was refreshing and the electricity in the air invigorating.

Fresh Grilled Lobster on Caye Caulker

After a walk up and down the main drag, I noticed a sign set out in front of one of the local restaurants advertising fresh grilled lobster at an unbeatable price – $20 BZD or $10 USD.   The lobster was delicious, but the highlight was the young kid and his dog who decided I was his new best friend.  Shortly after placing my order, the young boy – who was just learning to count looked my way, smiled and waved.  His mother was distracted by her nursing babe, and he was bored.  He took my smile as an invitation to join me, making his way over and asking me what my name was.  Bored as I waited for my food, and entertained by his sincere curiosity I answered his questions (including what my name was some 5-10 times).

Eventually he decided to raid the salt shaker.  Unfortunately for him, the second sprinkling of salt – actually ended up being pepper.    Chuckling, I began to teach him how to look at the holes in order to best identify which shaker was salt and which was pepper.  Which quickly turned into helping him practice counting to 10.  All the while his dog would wander into the restaurant, hide curled beneath my feet for a minute or two, and then get chased out by the waitress.  Eventually, my food arrived and his mother collected him, leaving me to subtly trade the saliva covered salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce to another table before diving into my meal.

Bar on Caye Caulker - Meeting New Friends

From there it was back to the streets and into a light rain.  Eager to stay somewhat dry I ducked into an open air bar near the restaurant.  As my eyes adjusted and I took in the lay of the venue two girls sitting at the table with a 3rd and another guy got my attention and encouraged me to pull up a spot along the bench.  Happy to connect with other travelers I obliged and was quickly introduced.  The three girls were from the West Coast of the US, the guy from German but working in NYC.  Shortly there after “Smiley” the DJ appeared and joined the table.

New Friends in Caye Caulker

In typical backpacker form we all set to drinking, exchanging entertaining – and often inappropriate – travel stories, and generally enjoying ourselves.  As the night progressed we quickly accumulated other travelers.  Rob re-appeared and joined us, as did one of my roommates from the hostel.  Other random travelers made brief cameos – the most noteworthy of which was a tall, bull-necked Texan who did the region’s reputation proud.  While discussing tattoos he informed us that at 17 he had gotten a rather unique one: A winking smiley face on the head of his shlong.  Not in the least bit put off by the girls disbelief he collected their digital cameras, and disappeared briefly before returning with photo evidence.  Even now, over a month later – I still find myself laughing at the absolute insanity of it.

As the night progressed I learned that the girls were also signed up to do the Raggamuffin Sailing tour which I had signed up for on the following Tuesday – 2 days away (more on that soon).  Hartmut, the German gentleman, was also considering it – and eventually opted to join us.  Rob opted to sign up for the same tour, but the one departing the following Friday.

It was then that I made a mistake.  A bit tipsy after several shots of local rum, several Belkins and a short or two of Tequila I bought a bread pudding from a boy selling them out of a bucket.  Needless to say, purchasing bread pudding from a bucket vendor at 8PM isn’t the best of decisions.   It’s one that I paid for with a light case of food poisoning which left me retching my guts out from around 3AM-11AM the following day.

As you can imagine I spent most of the following day re-hydrating, trying to get my stomach settled and hiding out, which – given the bad weather and near constant rain worked out relatively well.

On that chipper note – stay tuned for my next post exploring the wonders of the Belize Barrier Reef as I spend 2 days and 3 nights sailing, snorkeling, and camping along it!

The Packing Video – Belize and Mexico in December

 

***Update as of 1/13/09 I have returned to the states and will be doing a re-cap. The above list needs significant commentary as I overpacked/packed for a climate that was far colder than what I encountered. Things like the polos and wool socks should be avoided***

My anticipation is palpable.  It’s been slowly building since September when I found a cheap ticket price, decided to leap at the opportunity and selected my destination. I’ve sent the past months fighting the urge to wander, dreaming of far off places and sorting through old travel photos from trips past.  Now I can finally embrace the energy and anticipation!  The raw nerves of a new experience in a new place, embraced on my own, in new territory and with new wonders yet undiscovered.  Each trip pushes me outside my comfort zone, each trip helps me learn more about who I am and who I may yet become. This trip is another large step forward.  I’m traveling solo for 20 days in a part of the world I’ve never experienced before.  I’m excited, i’m nervous…i’m anxious.

I’ll begin by confessing that I don’t know much about my destination.  I prefer it that way. In fact, though it embarrasses me to admit it – when I booked my ticket to Cancun, Mexico with the intent of then spending the lions share of my time in Belize I was under the impression that the natives spoke Spanish.  It was only in exploring the Wikipedia profile for Belize that I realized the country – formerly British Honduras – actually spoke English. You should have seen my face!  In the months since my original booking, I’ve done some minor research.  I’ve reached out to my friends and contacts for advice on what to see, and explored the country briefly via google maps.   That said, I’ve largely avoided organized guides. As I prepare to fly out tomorrow you’ll notice one rather obvious item missing from my packing list: A travel guide. Frankly, I don’t especially care for them.  Even those geared towards my travel style (like Lonely Planet) seem too polished…too – dare I say pigeonholed? I’ll travel based on word of mouth, booking my hostels a day or two ahead of time as I go. Over the years this approach has made for some interesting situations, especially since I refuse to travel with a cell phone – but all in all they’ve been well worth it!

The Packing List

I’ll let those of you curious about my itinerary and general trip information read my previous post on the subject [here].  For the rest of you – here’s a quick break down of what i’ll be taking – if you’re interested in more in depth explanations of the items, please check out my packing list site – The Ultimate Packing List.

Despite it being December temperatures are expected to be in the mid-high 70s and low 80s.  Water temperature should be about the same.  Despite that, I’ve made the decision to over pack slightly – just in case it gets colder.  I’ve also added several more shirts than I ordinarily would, and an extra pair of shoes to accommodate my Salsa dancing/night clubs.

What I’ve packed:

-1 Cheap Walmart school/sport backpack to serve as my daypack

-1 Cheap Walmart full sized backpack with hip and chest straps

-1 Dopkit bag

-1 Water proof rain jacket

-1 North Face wind blocking fleece vest

-1 Warm scarf (actually an old airline blanket)

-2 Polo t-shirts

-2 Graphic t-shirts (one from a Scottish tour company to serve as a conversation piece)

-2 Button up evening shirts (one of which will double as swimwear for snorkeling)

-5 Pair of cheap Walmart athletic hiking socks

-1 Pair of standard ankle high, light weight socks

-1 Swimsuit

-1 Pair of Shorts

-1 Pair of dark jeans

-1 Belt

-3 Pair of Ex-Officio Travel Boxers

-1 Black English Driving Cap

-1 Passport and Passport Carrier

-1 Inflatable neck pillow

-1 Sleeping mask

-1 3.75 inch collapsible tripod

-2 8 GB high performance memory cards

-1 Canon G11 Digital Camera and battery recharge station

-2 Lithium Ion batteries for Canon G11 Digital Cameras

-1 Old Nikon 6 MP point and shoot w/ 1gb card

-1 Flip Ultra HD 120 minute video camera

-1 Underwater housing for Flip Ultra HD model video cameras

-1 Mini USB cord to transfer files and recharge my mp3 player

-1 Converter plug for British Colonies

-1 4GB Sansa mp3 player with earbuds

-7 weeks of Malaria medication

-30 probiotic pills to improve digestion

-10+ sports powder packets high in B vitamins, C Vitamins, Potassium and Electrolytes

-1 Old pair of glasses

-2 Books to read

-1 Old pair of Skechers that I use as dance shoes

-1 Pair of Keen Targhee IIs

-1 Pair of Sandals

-1 Lock and key to be used to secure hostel lockers

Curious about what/why I packed one of these items?  Feel free to ask about it in the comment section below this post.  All of these items will be split between my two bags based on use/security/regularity of use. You’ll notice a guide book and pocket knife are missing from the list.   Most people will opt to add a guide book – I suggest going with Lonely Planet or a similar publication. For those checking their bag, I highly suggest a pocket knife.   I hate not having one on the road, but prefer the carry on approach which mandates that I leave mine behind.  I also suggesting putting the shoes you won’t be wearing in a plastic trash bag to keep things clean.  Also, consider taking a handful of plastic ziploc bags and a garbage bag if flying into a rainy destination.

Depending on what time permits, I hope to blog periodically from the road and will be providing a break down of how this packing list worked for Belize/Mexico upon my return.  Stay tuned!