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.

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!