The Cayes of Belize

April 5, 2016, Trip: Belize
View: Belize galleries

April 5th, 2016

drove from Bermudian Landing (where the baboon sanctuary is) to BC – not British Columbia but Belize City. It was only about a half hour on all paved roads with a minimal number of topes – YEAH! On the outskirts of the city, we stopped to top up our gas and get water. We had crossed the border with our three jerry cans full as we knew gas was pricier here than Mexico. The cost per gallon here in BC was $8.77 BZD (4.39USD). Doug put in our fifteen gallons the night before and we wanted to leave BC the following week full, hoping to make it most of the way to the border without having to fill completely again. Gas prices are not fixed here like Mexico and we understood BC was cheapest. We’d seen 8.85 in Orange Walk Town. We’ll probably need a bit more before we cross the border to Guatemala, but we’ll get just enough to do that as it’s cheaper there than here.

Sidebar: Regarding water, we have a good sized fresh water tank which we fill from potable water sources. We do add some chlorine bleach to the mix to help kill bacteria and we have a water filter system for drinking water. So far, no issues.

 The manager at the baboon sanctuary had told us there was secure parking not far from the water taxi terminal at a location called the Downtown Plaza. He thought the price was $10bzd a day which was cheaper that the 25 and 17 we’d been told or read about on iOverlander and closer to the terminal. Downtown BC is small, no tall buildings, lots of one way streets, pretty run down and old looking and rather “sketchy” as our daughter, Serena, would say. We have to admit, we were a little concerned about leaving Tigger there for a week, so 24/7 security in a walled parking lot sound optimal.

After circling the block a couple of times – lots of one way streets – we finally found the right street to access the parking lot and it had a high concrete fence around it with 24 hour security so we felt better. Turned out the price was $20BZD not ten but the proximity to the water taxi meant we didn’t need a cab to get there and come back.

DSCN0735

As it had rained the night before and our awning did not get a chance to dry that morning, we pulled it out to dry and went for a walk for 15 minutes, came back and finished packing up, rolled it back up and made our way to the terminal about two and a half blocks away hitting an ATM at the Scotiabank enroute; hotels, excursions and meals were going to hit our pocket book hard this coming week.

We made the 10:30 am sailing to Caye Caulker by the skin of our teeth (cost $27bzd return with a coupon a guy on the street gave us) and off we went. The sailing was a little rough but not intolerable. The ‘water taxi’ moves pretty darn fast and the crossing took about 40 minutes.

Caye Caulker is the smaller of the two islands we were visiting and there are no cars here. Everyone gets around on the hard packed, pot holed streets on foot, bicycle or golf cart. Our hotel was less than a ten minute walk from the taxi dock and we arrived well before our room/hut was ready but as Doug had some work email to deal with, we sat on some deck chairs and used the Wi-Fi. The sky had been pretty much overcast all day so far and it was a big muggy so the breeze off the ocean was welcome. We had packed some sandwiches as well as apples before leaving Tigger so Fran went to get some cold drinks so we had lunch before getting our cabana. It’s a cute little “hut” on stilts with a queen bed and bathroom in behind the small main hotel building. It has AC, a fan and comes with two bicycles and drinking water. We are paying $55 US a night and that’s a good price for this so called “budget caye”. Barefoot Beach Hotel is not right in town but this is a SMALL island and we are only minutes away. We are disappointed with the beach here; it’s not very wide and this side of the island has docks in front of practically every hotel so it ruins the look of the beach. Also the ocean eats away at the sand so apparently they continually dredge from the bay on the other side of the island and truck in sand. The sea grass is a protected habitat here so it grows just off the shore. If you want to swim and don’t want to walk in it, you go off the end of the many docks/piers – many of which have ladders. After checking in we went for a walk and were back at our hotel before 4. Christine and Mark had already been here a few days and they met us about a half hour later on the dock out front where we were relaxing in hammocks. We strolled down the street to a bar/restaurant our hotel had recommended and enjoyed happy hour drinks and appies for dinner.

Sidebar:  while walking around town one day we saw a group of very hard working men.  They were hauling cement up a ladder in 5 gallon buckets on their heads!  They had an assembly line going.  They were all wearing rubber boots and the chain of men just get on going: they’d get a bucket load, put it on their heads and begin climbing the ladder – many without holding onto the bucket on their heads; just balancing it.  They’d dump in and come down the other side of the building and start all over again! The security guard watching along with us said “now there are REAL men!”.   

cement workers 2Wednesday, all four of us booked a snorkel excursion on a sail boat with Blackhawk Tours that looked like it might have only six people but by the time it was time to go there were 16 of us; a large group of Italian people joined us. This made the boat a bit crowded but not uncomfortably so. As the wind was not in our favour on the way out, the captain did not use the sail. We headed first to Shark & Ray Alley where the water and marine life was fantastic. There were about a half dozen nurse sharks, lots of large fish, several rays and lots of smaller fish in the crystal clear water including little fish called bally hoo’s that look like mini swordfish.

bally hoo's

Our licensed park guide, Harry, actually held a ray for anyone who wanted to touch it as well as a nurse shark so you could get up close and personal. The four of us were the first ones in the water as the Italian crowd seemed a little “shark shy” at first but eventually they joined us. While Harry had advised there was no touching the reefs or any turtles we may encounter, he unfortunately did not instruct people not to chase the marine life. Many of the other guests on the boat often chased the rays which can be dangerous if you piss one off; touching wildlife on your own is something we really don’t condone ourselves.

Next stop was Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a channel in the reef and this too was quite spectacular. The one down side was we had to follow Harry, and sometimes this got a bit crowded. However, Harry knew where the “good stuff” was and pointed out many types of fish and named the corals. He found us a moray eel to observe and Fran and Christine found a hawk’s bill turtle which was not planned. The reef walls were quite tall in parts and there was even an arch at the bottom to swim through if you could manage to get yourself down there; we couldn’t.

DSCF2148 hawsbill turtle

The last part of this section was the sea grass area where George the sea turtle lives and that was fun; Fran hung back till Harry said let’s return to the boat, and got some great shots without people around George. This, the eel and the sharks were highlights on this excursion.

after he swam away

We had lunch on the boat before heading over to the Coral Gardens where many of the passengers did not even disembark. One guy went spear fishing with no luck and Harry and Steve, the other crew member, let those interested try their hand at line fishing (Christine did try and caught a few small ones which Steve released). We, of course, got off and enjoyed seeking a lot of coral (though not as pristine as at Xcalak) and many small tropical fish.

Harry & Steve then hoisted the sail and we leisurely headed back to Caye Caulker drinking free rum punch which was not very good!! This was about a six hour outing and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

After showering and changing, we met back up with Mark & Christine and went for dinner and a movie at the Bondi Bar where they have an outdoor theatre and serve you drinks and dinner while you watch. Tonight’s flick was Hail Caesar, which we do not recommend. They were showing The Room as the second feature which Fran had already seen so we went back to our hotel.

Thursday, we treated ourselves to an early 35th wedding anniversary gift: a flight over the famous UNESCO World Heritage site: The Blue Hole. This natural wonder is a sinkhole of startling blue water about 400ft/122m deep and 1000ft/305m wide.

another shot

As we are not divers, we did not opt to take a boat tour there and we read it’s not great for snorkeling as the marine life is pretty much sharks. We had looked into flying about a week ago but prices online were $400US+ each which was way out of our league but upon asking here on the island, we found a place that does it for less than half that, Caribe Air, and we are so glad we did it. The only other passenger was a young woman from the UK who is an avid diver. She had already been diving in the Blue Hole three days ago, but felt she did not fully experience it. She told us the dive there was not great and visibility was not good and if we’d gone snorkeling, we would have not seem much even around the hole so we are happy we opted for the flight; she also said the diving was more expensive than this flight!

Our pilot took us out for an hour. First Charles flew us very low over the Belize Barrier Reef right off the coast of Caye Caulker – it’s about ¾ of a mile out. That was way cool to see it from above and see where we’d snorkeled the day before. Then it took about 10 minutes to get over Turneffe Reef and finally another ten to Lighthouse Reef which contains the famous Blue Hole. He took three passes around to the right, three going left, two banked very low and then one directly across in which we were almost eye level with the boats in it! This was fantastic. You could see the drop off of the hole and the waters surrounding it looked pretty shallow in spots and it was crystal clear. We finished off the flight flying by a ship wreck on the far reef that must have been there quite a while. Here Charles flew practically eye level with the wreck as well. Amazing! We flew over three sections of the Belize Barrier Reef in total.

getting almost eye level with boats!

The airplane’s windows are Plexiglas so not perfect conditions for photos but they were clean but often with reflections but we managed to get some nice shots. The thrill of flying over it, kind of dive bombing it and the ups and downs and banking from one side to the other was so much fun; an experience of a lifetime for sure.

Today was quite sunny and hot and we spent the afternoon cooling in our room or on the beach in the shade out front of the hotel reading under the palm trees on loungers.   Christine and Mark came over around four and we joined them at their homestay (they are volunteering at a dog shelter) for a pasta dinner and beer.

Friday, we checked out of our hotel at Caye Caulker and caught the 11:15 water taxi north to Ambergris Caye to spend three nights in San Pedro. This is the more upscale and larger island, nicknamed La Isla Bonita and it is not the same type of town/island as Caye Caulker. It has brick paved streets, not dirt, many streets actually have sidewalks and there are golf carts going by constantly. There are also taxi vans and bikes; the feeling is not so laid back here. It feels like Cancun……without the nice beach. Again, like Caye Caulker, the east side of the island near the town of San Pedro is full of docks and not much beach. There is no surf on either of these islands as the barrier reef stops waves from coming over here. We hear the beaches up north are better but we take that with a grain of salt.

We checked into the cheapest hotel we could find that offered air conditioning and we are paying slightly more than at Barefoot Beach Hotel but it’s not as nice, Wi-Fi does not reach the room and it’s not on the beach. There are many resorts here and lots and lots of restaurants/shops/etc. Our hotel has a “sister” hotel about five minutes away on the beach which we plan to spend Sunday at.

We walked around in the afternoon, checking out town, looking for a tour company to take us out to Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and getting some food/drinks for our room. This reserve is at the north end of Ambergris Caye, right on the border of Mexico – if you recall, we went to Xcalak which was 4 miles north of the border with Belize. This is supposed to be THE pristine area of the Belize Barrier Reef. Now as this is further from San Pedro the tours cost more and it seems they don’t go as often. We arrived here on a Friday and unfortunately a tour went out that day by the company our hotel referred us to so we went for a walk asking at different tour operators and ended up booking a private tour for Saturday which cost more but we both wanted to do this.

We set out on Saturday morning with our guide, Fish, and rearranged the itinerary to get more time in the water than in the boat. Usually the tours go up the west side of the island, through the channel and back down the east but there is no snorkeling on that side just a stop at a bird island. So Fish took us north to the top of the island but about ¾ of the way there, the engine began to act up and we had just set out on open sea beyond the reef.

This reef (2nd largest in the world) stretches over 200 miles north south from southern Mexico down to Honduras. The majority of it is in Belize and there are many atolls, islands and the like off shore here. At the north end of Ambergris Caye there is a channel called Bacalar Chico channel which was built by the Mayans. It’s about a mile long and is the border between Mexico and Belize. This was our destination as the ranger station for the park is up here and we were to have three snorkels during the day and a fish luncheon.

Fish reached out to the tour operator and they said they’d send us a new boat so we enjoyed our first snorkel waiting for the boat. We were in the area of Tranquility Bay and the snorkeling was not bad. We saw a good number of fish and coral.

Once the new boat arrived, we stopped at the bar on the dock at Tranquility Bay for a beer and were underway again.

SAM_2081 beach bar for a quick beer to be on our wySAM_2083 cheers to our new boat

 

This boat had nicer for seating for us; it had two actual seats with armrests that were quite comfy and forward facing rather than benches down the sides. Next stop was at Rocky Point at Franco’s Cut – this is a cut in the reef that the boat can pass through to get from open sea back towards shore. We snorkeled here while Fish fished for our lunch. The reef here was in pretty good shape, visibility was good for the most part and we saw lots of fish, many schools of them and Doug saw a shark and some barracuda.

Fish caught us some lunch and we headed for the channel to the park office. Here they have a small sad visitor’s centre and a really nice tall observation tower to view the area from. There were fish off the dock included a large school of small needle fish and a caged area where a wounded loggerhead turtle was being nursed back to health. We enjoyed fresh fish and potatoes for lunch.

Fish and lunch!:

DSCF2253 Fish caught our lunch

After lunch we boated out to our third snorkel spot, Mexico Rocks and by this time it was around five o’clock. The tour should have ended by 3:30 ish but due to the boat issue it was extended; fine with us, we had nowhere to be J.

Mexico Rocks was a good snorkeling spot; lots of variety of fish, some we’d never seen, some schools, two sharks and two rays. This was an awesome day: out on the water all day, three good snorkeling spots, fresh fish for lunch and one of the best parts, a tour all to ourselves AND when we were out there, no one out there with us.

DSCF2257 mass of fish

As we headed back to the dock, the sun was setting and that was a lovely ending to a wonderful day (other than the sunburns we got despite sunscreen). It was after 6:30 by the time we got back to our room.

Sunday morning we walked out to the ferry dock and met Christine and Mark who were once again meeting up with us for out last night here. They will be here for a week housesitting and we are heading back to the mainland in the morning. Turned out there was one room left at our hotel/hostel and so we spent the day with them. There are two pools here so we spent a few hours on the deck, swimming, using the Wi-Fi and reading. We walked over to the sister hotel on the beach for a couple more hours. They have two pools as well, nice beach sand, lounge chairs (all in the sun though) and a dock with a HUGE slide called El Diablo on the end. Doug and Mark felt that they had to try this so out they went only to be told it was closed! You could walk up and it looked open but there was no water coming down it. They begged the attendant there telling them “we came here especially for this from Canada” so he relented and turned on the water to let them each have one slide. It’s a very steep ride but they enjoyed themselves and got cooled off.

El Diablo:

IMG_1176 El Diablo slide

Doug flying off the El Diablo:

Doug flying off El Diablo

After they took a fresh water shower by the pool, we decided to split the cost of a golf cart and go see some of the island in the late afternoon hoping to catch the sunset at Secret Beach.

We had a four hour rental and we had fun; we drove about 5 miles north of town and the roads were not bad; mostly brick paved or concrete. Then we headed inland to the west to find what was touted as the best beach on the island. The beaches on the sea side are not really bad but as sea grass is protected they are like on Caye Caulker, not so pleasant to walk into the water; best to jump off a dock/pier further out. Well, after the next three miles of bumpy, potholed dirt road, we made it to the water again; but it was disappointing; there was only a tiny sandy beach albeit it had no sea grass but the rest of the shore line was large rocks or mangroves. We had hoped to enjoy a couple of beers watching the sunset but the only little snack bar set up there wanted $6BZD a beer which was ridiculous but they have a captive audience. We drove back through a proposed subdivision and then back into town watching along the way for a spot to catch the sunset. Fran found a little spot on maps.me that looked promising so we stopped at a small shop and bought a few beers and asked the cashier. He told us “yes head all the way to the end and they’ll be a good spot” (an empty villa we thought he said). So off we went, and what did we find but an unfinished house that was not secured in any way. We parked the golf cart, walked down the dock and climbed to the third floor of the house and enjoyed a cold one each. It was still a little early for the sun, so we drove back towards town in search of a bar on the water; couldn’t find one open as it was Sunday. We did find some docks on the water and parked to walk out on one to watch it set before returning the cart to our hotel and going for dinner at the bar, a quick swim before bed and said “until we meet again” to Christine and Mark.

We preferred Caye Caulker to Ambergris as it was way more laid back and not nearly so busy; slower pace of life and enough restaurants/shops to explore without being monotonous.  The people were friendlier, more likely to say hello and ask how you were enjoying yourself, reminding you to slow down and take it easy, too.

Monday morning, we were awake early so we packed up and headed to catch the 7:30 water taxi back to Belize City.   There is no direct water taxi so you stop at Caye Caulker on the way.  We got back to Tigger before ten and he was safe and sound – phew.

After getting some groceries and some items from a hardware store, we and drove a few miles south of the city to the Old Belize Marina where they allow RV’s to park and hook up to power. The plan was to get laundry done at the marina and spend some time planning out next leg.  This marina was bigger than we expected and pretty active during the day but very quiet at night.  They had Wi-Fi but it was spotty and worked best right under the marina office.  There was a little water park there called Kukumber Beach. a museum and a restaurant as well.

All in all it was a great week on the islands off the coast of Belize with some great snorkeling and flight memories!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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