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

Oktoberfest Day 3

After pushing hard the previous two days we took it easy Sunday morning. We slept in until about ten and then kicked around the hostel until about twelve when we went for a bite to eat. After washing up we decided to stop by Oktoberfest and pick up some pictures. From there we planned to head to the old town and explore it in a bit greater depth before booking our train tickets for later that day.

We made the 15 minute walk to the fairgrounds where we took a number of photos, each bought a few souvenir t-shirts and casually wandered about. Eventually we worked up a bit of a thirst and couldn’t resist the urge to pop into one of the tents and poke around. We had heard fantastic things about the Augustiner tent and beer and so chose it. Luckily it was still early enough that the majority of the tents still had openings. We found the Augustiner tent and quickly located a small spot at the end of a bench next to two men and a woman dressed in traditional garb. In usual fashion we started talking to them and in no time had made friends. They helped us flag down our forgetful waitress and even shared a bit of their beer with us while we waited for our own steins when it became necessary to toast to a song.

As we sat and chatted we learned that they had been there since 9 in the morning and were already starting to hurt. One of the guys (the woman’s husband or fiance) went from drunk to partially passed out in the 2 or so hours we sat there with them. The three were incredibly friendly, sharing stories, food, history, harassing each other and all around including us in the fun. When anyone ordered food, it got passed around and shared and as the two foreigners we had to try everything. This ranged from a red cabbage/beet thing, to gravy-covered meat, pretzels, and a herring and onion sandwich. While I didn’t notice a huge difference between the beer in the Augustiner tent and the beer in the Pauliner tents we’d previously visited it was definitely fantastic beer.

The tent itself was incredible, see my photos (facebook – message me if you need the link) for an idea on how big it was and the atmosphere. The barmaids and men were fantastic, no idea how they did it but they would carry 5 or 6 steins at once, sometimes stacking an additional one in the middle on the handles of the others. The whole place smelled of rich food, beer, and people. The energy in the air was ecstatic as everyone was happy and as friendly and hospitable as could be. At one point there was a family who was sitting on the other side of our 3 German friends. I presume they were German and one of their kids – he had to have been 16 maybe 17 had a stein for himself. As we pounded on the table with our elbows, lifted our steins in the air to “prost!” and shouted along he kept pace with his own stein…which was about as big as he was. The funniest part was when it came time for him to leave, we all toasted him and he scuttled the last bit of beer he had to cheers from all of the surrounding tables.

Later, an older German man easily in his late 70s who was sitting behind me leaned back and challenged me to a toast. Though his english was very limited, I was able to talk to him for a bit which was really neat. Then, he would periodically lean back into our table and cheer or toast with us. He’d also sing along with one of the three (the guy who was still going strong) and they would collectively sing old drinking songs and bellow them out. Later we also picked up a German doctor who sat sandwiched in with us and reminded me of Mr. Bean…the similarity was uncanny….and he had a french-style pan haircut which made it that much better. The guy was nice, and merrily drank along with us. Another family also ended up sliding in later and though their two young girls were way too young to drink (even by Oktoberfest standards) the parents joined our merriment.

Around 3 we finally succeeded in finishing our drinks and avoiding having more bought for us. We dragged ourselves away from the tent. It was hard, the people were all so warm and the atmosphere so incredible – it almost hurt to leave. Once outside we wandered around a bit, picked up a few more items and some photos then made our way to the rail station. The unfortunate news was that our train options were pretty limited and as always expensive. The good news was after dealing with a complete ass of a rail attendant when I first tried to book my ticket, I talked to a nice lady at another window and got a sleeper compartment for the trip to Prague. Amber found a train back to Cologne later that night that left about the same time as mine. With time to kill we walked into the city center as night fell, ate and explored.

The inner city was beautiful, especially at night with the buildings and cathedrals lit up. We stopped for gelato and then found a 3-person classical street group playing in an alcove (cello, violin, flute). There we paused for a good 20-30 minutes and listened. As with so many other things on the trip it seemed straight out of a movie. Eventually we got back to the train station and hunkered down to wait for our trains. While we waited in the small coffee shop we started talking to a few of the others. The first couple ended up being Americans traveling – we exchanged stories and tips. Then I noticed that the two somewhat rugged travelers (with huge packs) had what I immediately recognized as a fly fishing pole holder. I engaged them in conversation and it turned out they were from Kansas over in Europe backpacking and fishing. Though their fly fishing luck had been really poor we chatted about fishing stories until it was time for my train to leave. They were interesting chaps, each about the size of a mountain . When we all stood up (cafe had closed) they dwarfed me…weird the people you meet, such contrast on the road!

I got lucky for my sleeper car – it was 6 beds, 3 stacked on each side of the cabin and reminded me of what I’d imagined the bunks on a submarine must look like. 4 of the other bunks were filled by a group of Asian American girls who were my age and had just finished some program or another. We got acquainted then settled in. It was somewhat comical as I warned them that I might snore and invited them to nudge me if it was disturbing them. Well at two points during the night I must have been snoring because as I was in a half sleep I remember a pillow from above flying down (I was in the middle bunk) and thwomping me on the head. It was hard to keep from laughing. By a stroke of luck, I just barely fit (and by that i mean my feet only kinda dangled) and I was able to get a good night sleep.

The next morning I awoke in Prague. I’ll continue that story soon.