|Travelogue: Belize 2004||
Monday February 9, 2004
I flew from Denver to Belize City via Houston on Continental Airlines using American Express Membership Miles. I had been accumulating American Express miles for literally decades. Every time I had tried to use them in the past, I was trying to fly Delta. Delta’s frequent flyer policies were so restrictive that using miles was basically impossible (I don’t know if this is still the case.) The last time I tried to use miles to fly on Delta, the agent actually laughed at me on the phone, informing me that the frequent flyer seats on the trip I wanted were booked up a year in advance. Geeesh. Fortunately, Continental’s policies are much more reasonable. I had to pay a $50 fee to use miles less than 14 days in advance, but that is acceptable. I actually made my plans almost three weeks in advance, but it takes a while for American Express to transfer the miles to Continental, and by the time they were converted over, it was exactly 14 days. Oh well.
I have only flown Continental once in recent memory, but that time was great. My Continental experience on this trip was also excellent. Nice people on the phones, short waits to get through to customer service, no line at all to check in, and I was able to use the “President’s Clubs” in Denver and Houston for free since I have an American Express Platinum card. By contrast, United’s Red Carpet Club costs as much for one year of membership as the American Express Platinum card does. Zowie. If Continental flew to more of the places I want to go, I would drop United like an old fish.
The flight from Houston to Belize City was uneventful. I was seated in the middle of 22 people from Maine who were on their way to Belize to build a church. Go figure.
We arrived at the Belize International Airport in heavy rain. There are no jetways, so you just walk down a movable staircase in the rain, across the tarmac in the rain, and into the terminal. The plane landed a few minutes ahead of schedule, and I had no trouble getting through passport control, so I figured I’d have tons of time to burn before my next flight over to Ambergris Caye, 50 minutes later. However, for some reason it took them almost 30 minutes to get the bags off the plane! We’re talking about a 1-runway airport with two whole baggage carousels located in the same room as immigration and customs. This is a small operation. The plane was parked 20 feet away, clearly visible through the door we had just entered. I have no idea what the holdup was. Maybe they were waiting for the rain to stop.
After I finally got my bags, customs waved me through and I ran over to the Tropic Air counter to check in. I was booked onto the 4:40pm flight, but seeing as I was there at 4:29, they gave me a ticket for the 4:30 flight. As it happened, the 4:30 flight left at 5:00pm, which is pretty much par for the course in the tropics. On the plane I was seated next to Steve, the owner of Tropic Air. He is a very interesting guy and an avid skier, so we had a fun time talking about Colorado skiing and Belizean life.
The 15 minute flight took us out of the weather, so by the time we touched down in San Pedro it was quite beautiful. The San Pedro airport has a new airstrip, making it the second best airport in the country. It is the size of an average Wal-Mart parking lot. After a little while a guy from Ramon’s Village showed up in a golf cart to drive me the 3 minutes to my hotel. I got checked in at the front desk, then we drove around and around doing the “oh, that room isn’t made up yet” tango. Eventually I got situated in a “garden view palapa” with two double beds. It was a good sized room with a funny high cathedral ceiling made of thatch and brightly colored fish pained on the beams.
I quickly decided that the room was much too cold only to discover that the air conditioner controller was broken. Room service sent over new batteries, but that didn’t fix the problem, so now we were into the “get a new controller” cha-cha. I left the service people to sort it out and forgot the whole thing while enjoying a complimentary “blue parrot” at the Blue Parrot bar.
I went out, stuck my feet in the ocean, came back in, had a shower, and relaxed a bit. Rumor had it that the restaurant at Ramon’s wasn’t very good; Steve from Tropic Air had recommended a place called Celi’s, which is a 10 minute walk up the beach from Ramon’s. Around 7:00pm I headed up there, past several other restaurants that looked nice. Celi’s was almost empty; Lonely Planet referred to it as good but expensive, so I suppose the price was the reason for its lack of customers.
I started with a curried conch soup which was very nice, then had grouper sautéed with butter, onions, parsley, lime, salt and pepper. It too was good, though the fish was somewhat overwhelmed by the herbs. Celi’s is a cozy place with sand floors, plastic tables and chairs, and only one fish available per night. It was right on the beach, and there was a pleasant breeze blowing through the screens. However, the food was just good, which at BZ$50 for dinner with no alcohol it is definitely pricey. [Aside: the Belize dollar is fixed at BZ$2.00 = US$1.00]
Back in the room I realized that I was completely beat. While preparing for bed I enjoyed a little magic trick as I tried to pour the provided bottled water into a drinking glass. Somehow the water didn’t go into the glass and poured all over the bathroom counter. I was so toasted that I just poured and poured, mystified by what I was seeing. It turns out that housekeeping covers the glasses with a layer of plastic wrap, in this case stretched so perfectly as to be invisible.
Getting to sleep was more difficult than I expected. Ramon’s is so close to both the road and the airport that they are both quite audible. Flights continue well into the night. Clearly San Paulo was laid out in a simpler age. Once upon a time (aka just a few years ago), San Paulo had two roads and there were only a couple flights a day. When Ramon decided to build a few huts and call it a “resort”, the logical location was on the road near the airport. Now that the town has grown up a little bit, it might be nicer to be a bit further out. Oh well, it wasn’t really bad, but the noises do detract from the feeling of being in a hut on an island somewhere.
Tuesday February 10, 2004
After a very long night of sleep, I woke to the sound of bird songs, feeling refreshed.
My morning shower was a bit more invigorating than I wanted, as the hot water appears to be shared by the entire resort – or perhaps the entire town. I did the shower dance, leaping in and out of the water as it went from frigid to scalding.
Later, I sat out on the deck at Ramon’s and ordered the special of the day for breakfast – cinnamon waffles with bacon and fruit (US$10). It was truly mediocre. Belize is not known for its food, Ramon’s doubly so… Oh well, the setting was beautiful, watching the sea, boats and palms. More importantly, the coffee was strong. The food became irrelevant.
Afterward I unpacked part of my dive gear and went for a snorkel off the pier in front of Ramon’s. They promote the “artificial reef” under the pier and the quality of the snorkeling, but for someone used to scuba diving, the snorkeling here is nothing less than pathetic. Oh well, it was nice being in the water, and I did get to see a couple stingrays cruise by.
At the dive shack, I noticed that everyone was wearing a really cool “Dive Belize” T-shirt, which they said was available at the gift shop. Sadly, it appears that there was a printing error, and all the shirts at the gift shop were printed with a heinous skull and crossbones motif instead of the nice shark icon. Oh well. Another sale bites the dust.
I walked into town to look around and shop for a t-shirt. Needless to say, no one had anything remotely as nice as the shirts the staff at Ramon’s wears. Oh well. The town is pleasant enough for an hour of browsing and a carne asada burrito at a little snack stand.
I returned to Ramon’s to sit on beach and read, which was nice for a while until the tropical rains resumed, driving me into my palapa. I decided that this was a convenient time for a nap, but such was not to be. The previous evening I had noticed a dog barking nearby for quite a while, but hadn’t thought much of it. Back in my room the barking was loud and unceasing. I called over to the front office to ask what was up, only to learn that my side of Ramon’s village is across the street from the local animal shelter. Oy vey. I put in some earplugs and took a little nap. When I awoke the rain had stopped but the barking was unabated. I walked across the street, and sure enough there was a small back yard with several dogs. One was chained to a post, barking its head off. The unchained ones were silent. Given that there are dogs wandering around all over San Pedro I was surprised that they felt the need for an animal shelter – especially one where the dogs were clearly less happy than the strays on the street. Go figure.
Later, I walked a short way down the beach for dinner at the Blue Water Restaurant (at the SeaBreeze hotel) where they were having “Tuesday Sushi Night”. It looked like a pleasant place, with more patrons than any other restaurant I had seen. I started with the spicy snapper roll, which was good, but not really what I was expecting. It seems that they cook the snapper and mash it into a paste with the consistency of fine tuna salad. I was imagining chunks of raw snapper when I ordered it. For my main I ordered snook crusted in black beans. A snook is a firm white fleshed river fish from inland. Like the sushi roll, it was very good, but not as I imagined it. It was not, in fact, black bean crusted but rather served with a black bean sauce. There was also a banana chutney, though this was presented cold, which was a jarring and unpleasant accompaniment to the hot fish. I am sure it would have been much improved by heating the chutney. I overheard some people at a nearby table talking about the fact that the sushi chef was out of town – perhaps the “sushi chef” was the main chef, which would have accounted for the menu anomalies. The total bill came to a whopping BZ$65 without alcohol.
I wandered around a bit more, finding pretty much nothing. This town is ‘sleepy’ enough that nothing is going on, but developed enough that there is traffic and airplane noise. An unhappy medium.
Eventually I gave up and packed it in, but it was very hard to sleep. The dog continued to bark till almost midnight, despite my repeated calls to the front desk and their assurance that they had called the shelter. Yikes.
Wednesday February 11, 2004
The dog started barking again at 4:45am. Good god.
I wasn’t up for another Ramon’s breakfast, so I headed up the beach and in to town. I was intending to eat at a place called Ruby’s, recommended by Lonely Planet. However, it turns out that Ruby’s is tiny, with only two tables, both of which were taken, and no hot meals. Disappointed, I left and walked back toward the airport where I had a fine breakfast at Café Ole. Plenty of local character, good food and great coffee too.
Over breakfast I pondered my San Pedro experience. I decided that I would come back to Ramon’s, but only if I had a palapa on the beach. I wouldn’t stay at Ramon’s if I had a “Garden View”. It is just too close to street, airport, resort facilities, and other sources of noise. The palapas have this nice feeling of island seclusion, but it doesn’t work at all with the street noise. Big construction trucks rumble up and down the street, presumably building some new development further down the beach. Speed bumps made them brake and accelerate right behind my palapa. Hi ho. If I was desperate to stay close to town, I might stay at the Sunbreeze, which is almost next door to Ramon’s and probably less expensive. It is directly across the street from the airport, but it is near the airport facilities, not the runway. Hmmm. In the end I would probably want to stay at the north end of town altogether, or at one of the more exclusive “resorts” on secluded beaches well out of town.
I checked out of Ramon’s at noon, then killed an hour at the “airport” waiting for my Tropic Air flight to Belize City.
My arrival gate at Belize City was on the edge of the airport, giving me a tiny bit of trouble finding the guide that was to meet me for the trip to Lamanai Lodge, my next stop in Belize. I wandered around for a while till I finally found the Lamanai Lodge representative in front of the main airport building. Because I was scheduled to fly back from Lamanai on a small plane with little cargo room, I left my bag of dive gear with Marcie of Marcie’s Tours. I’d never hear of Marcie before, but the Lamanai people assured me that they dealt with her all the time.
We drove about 1.5 hours up North Highway, through sparser and sparser habitation, till we turned off onto a dirt road heading to the river. Eventually we reached a dock where three black clad Menonite men were standing, looking like some kind of satanic palace guards. They watched unspeaking and unmoving as we left our van and got into a riverboat. When we were safely on the water I turned and waved. The three Menonites waved back. Weird.
The river portion of the trip was really fun, fast, and interesting. We would zoom up the river, whipping around corners and then suddenly come to a stop so our guide could point out birds or plants along the river banks. It was definitely cool. After about a half an hour we arrived at Lamanai Outpost Lodge, in the Orange Walk area. We were met at the lodge’s dock by a woman who had evidently memorized all of our names (and possibly our passport photos), greeting each person by name without requiring an introduction!
On arriving, one instantly realizes that this is “the place.” Lamanai Outpost is beautifully gardened, peaceful and relaxing. It is laid out as a set of palapas running up the hillside from the lagoon, with a main restaurant/administrative building at the top. My palapa, unit #1, was tiny and rustic, but with electricity, a ceiling fan, and en suite bathroom. The walls were mostly screen with wooden louvers that can be closed to block out light and provide a modicum of privacy. There are many nice details, like a room key attached to a mini-MAGlite flashlight – they explain that there is no path lighting at night to reduce attracting bugs.
After being shown around they gave all the new arrivals an orientation talk and showed us the “activities board.” I had put myself in the hands of Ellen Howells, the American agent who books the lodge. She booked me into a complete package. Apparently my package deal had me signed up for one or two activities each day, all of which sounded very interesting. As we were shown around the place, each employee of the lodge greeted me by name; I wasn’t sure if that was cool or disconcerting.
As evening fell I sat on the dock and watched the sun setting and birds flying around while listing to the splashing of water and cormorants croaking. At 6:00 I headed up to the bar for a beer and happy-hour nachos while awaiting dinner. There were two choices of entrée at dinner. I had “bruchetta rossa” followed by chicken chemole – chicken stewed in a dark broth - and banana cream pie.
I fell asleep with my palapa’s louvers open giving a nice breeze through the screens and the trickling sound of water.
Thursday February 12, 2004
I was awoken briefly early in the morning by howler monkeys bellowing in a nearby tree. The crying dog at Ramon’s was driving me crazy, but here the monkeys just added to the mis en scene. Since there is basically nothing around here except for the lodge, I had all my meals in it’s restaurant. For breakfast they served us scrambled eggs and ham, which were good, but nothing to write home about.
I finished just in time for my morning’s activity: a visit to the Lamanai Mayan ruins. The site is just five minutes up the river by boat, so we were able to get there well before the crowds that arrive from other places. The excavated portion of Lamanai is much smaller than the Copan Ruins that I had visited in Honduras a couple years back. Ruben, our guide from the lodge, gave us an excellent overview of the artifacts that had been excavated, and the various periods of Mayan culture. Lamanai is interesting because it was occupied longer than any other Mayan site yet discovered. The reason it survived so long is that it was located on the spring-fed river. Most of Mayan culture fell apart due to a multi-year drought that hit the region, causing the people to abandon their elaborate cities in search of water-rich places where they could grow their crops. The availability of water at Lamanai allowed the Mayans to remain there until they were ultimately overrun by the Spanish.
While I find Mayan culture and history interesting, I continue to be uninspired by their ruins. Visiting Copan did nothing for me, and Lamanai left me equally bored. I loved the jungle, the birds, the howler monkeys in the trees, and the terrific views from the top of the high temple. The structures themselves I find completely uninteresting. To each ones own.
We walked all over the area, looked at and climbed the mask temple, high temple and jaguar temple, then headed back for a lunch of chicken quesadillas.
The folks here at Lamanai Lodge do a really great job of pacing the activities - intermixing meals, events, and downtime. At 4:00pm it was time for my next event – the lagoon bird watching tour. Several of the guests here are major “birders” and were excited to add new species to their “life list.” I just like looking at birds and watching what they do. There were a lot of ‘em… various egrets and herons, flycatchers, king birds, snail kites (which are endangered in the USA), humming birds, and on and on. We zoomed around our part of the 23 mile long lagoon, then went up Irish Creek, coming back out in time to watch a smashing sunset from the middle of the lagoon.
Dinner was soup and a non-descript shrimp with rice dish. Whatever.
Friday February 13, 2004
I got up at 5:00am for the 5:45 dawn canoe trip. A couple blueberry muffins, some coffee, and we were off. There were just three of us plus Ruben, our guide, in two canoes. We crossed the river and proceeded up Danson’s Creek, an irrigation canal that was dug by the Mayans in about 700 AD. Sunrise, 6:27am this morning, was spectacular, and the bird watching was exceptional. All told we were out for about two hours - paddling, watching birds, and looking at bromeliads in bloom in the trees. We even found a tiny baby crocodile resting on a branch. Very cool. [Side note: apparently the peak for orchid and bromeliad blooms here is April – which is also the hottest month.]
Breakfast this morning was pancakes with eggs any style and frybread.
After breakfast I read, wrote and went for a swim. A little after 11:00am a torrential rainfall came down. This was supposed to be the dry season already, but evidently it’s been a very wet year.
I had a fair amount of downtime so I decided to take advantage of the massage service that was available. My shoulders were a bit tight from the paddling. I also discovered that my right leg was screaming from climbing the monuments the day before. It seems that climbing down the steep staircases I was always leading with my right leg; gotta remember to even out the load next time. The massage was very good.
Lunch today was beef empanadas, which were nice, after which I passed out cold for a few hours.
This afternoon’s activity was a walk though the nearby village, followed by a walk down some jungle paths looking at medicinal plants, the ruins of an old Spanish church, and the English sugar factory – now reduced to piles of bricks and rusted steel. We got a really good look at howler monkeys in the trees, smelled and ate various plants and munched on a few mushroom-flavored termites.
After the medicinal plant walk we came back for a dinner of shrimp ceviche and fish ceere (deep fried grouper in a coconut milk, banana stew.) It was excellent.
Saturday February 14, 2004
I slept and slept and slept, waking occasionally to the sounds of birds calling, then sleeping some more. I finally woke up feeling terrific at the unbelievable hour of 8:00am. Tucked away in the trees, cabin #1 is very dimly lit in the morning, making it easy to sleep in.
Breakfast this morning was a nice omelet, tired sausages, and peculiar mashed potato patties.
I spent a quiet morning sitting on the dock reading and watching birds, though after a while the day started getting hotter and hotter. By the time lunch rolled around it was amazingly hot and humid. Apparently the spell of pleasant weather was breaking.
I had a final lunch at the lodge, checked out, and was brought to the tiny airstrip in the village for the 15 minute Tropic Air flight to Belize City.
The final leg of my Belize tour was to be seven days on a live-aboard dive boat, the Belize Aggressor III. I was supposed to be met at the Belize City airport by someone from the Aggressor. However, apparently some wires got crossed, so they thought I was coming in from Ambergris Caye, and were waiting at the wrong terminal for me. Considering how small this airport is, it is astonishing that I had trouble meeting people there not once, but twice. After about 30 minutes of stumbling around I found an Aggressor rep accidentally while trying to call them on the phone, so it all worked out in the end. Chris, the Aggressor’s videographer, drove me the 30 minutes in to the city and to the dock where the Belize Aggressor III was waiting. I had hoped to use my extra time today to visit the zoo; however, it turns out that the zoo is half an hour outside the city, and by the time I was settled into the boat it was almost 4:00pm. Oh well… I decided I would simply head to the zoo after my return the following Saturday.
The Aggressor boat is quite large – 110 feet long – and there were only 11 guests out of a possible 18, so there was tons of room. The Belize Aggressor III is beautifully laid out, with the best dive deck I’ve ever seen. There are acres of space for gear, clever storage lockers inside of benches, and no problem stumbling over people getting geared up. They are also very relaxed about when you start your dive – there are no big group entries. After the dive briefing the captain says “the pool is open.” When you and your buddy are ready, in you go. This is great, since 90% of the divers one the boat were very experienced and independent. I like this a lot better than other trips I have been on where there are 10-15 divers all bunched together, jockeying to get into the water, banging into each other during the dive, etc.
My cabin was bigger than any I have ever had on a dive ship, complete with ensuite bathroom. Nice. It was set up with an odd bunk bed configuration with a double bed on the bottom and a single on top. Since I was alone, I slept on the double and used the single for storage.The weather was shifting during the evening so the captain decided to delay departing the dock until morning to see which way the wind was going to be blowing. Since the reef is so close to shore in Belize, this is not a problem. This is very unusual for me – every other live-aboard I have been on has steamed out in the evening, spending the better part of the night getting to the locale of the dive site(s).
Sunday February 15, 2004
The captain started up the engines at around 5am, starting us off across rather rough seas towards the Turneffe Islands. We got to the islands about 7am, just about the time that breakfast was being served. We cruised around for a while looking for a well protected dive site. We finally started our first dive at about 8:30am at a site called Lefty’s Ledge off the south end of Turneffe.
Lefty’s Ledge was not very interesting, but OK for a warm-up dive. I started with a slightly short tank fill, and finished quite short. This was my first dive with my brand new SeaQuest “Pro QD+” BCD. I really like it; it is comfy, easy to use, and well laid out.
Since it was such a cloudy day there was not much light under water, making the colors very muted. There were lots of big barrel sponges, damaged coral, various fish and one large green moray eel.
After a pretty brief surface interval we proceeded to a second dive at the same site. This time I had a proper full air fill, but my Nitrox mix was only 30%. Saw more of the same big barrel sponges, a small lobster, some free swimming moray eels and a beautiful spotted eagle ray.
An uninspiring lunch was served at about 12:30. The captain moved the boat to a site called Grande Bouge, on the opposite side of Turneffe Island from Lefty’s. This was a more interesting site, but the visibility was worse. Here we saw a turtle, a moray, two lobsters, a slipper lobster, some barracuda, nice schools of fish, and two spectacular drum fish. I heard my first toad fish, but though we searched and searched we couldn’t find it! I have never been taunted by a fish before.
The fourth dive was also at Grand Bouge, and since I was feeling tired out from the long dives and short surface intervals, I decided to skip it.
Dinner was as unimpressive as lunch, but certainly edible. All the other guests were ooh-ing and aah-ing about the food. I wondered if they were just being polite.
After dinner we went in for what turned out to be a great night dive, still at Grand Bouge. Again we heard Toad Fish over and over, but couldn’t fine them. Finally I saw one mostly in his hole – this really is a very cool fish. Once I learned how to find them, I saw another spotted toad fish almost totally exposed. A really neat looking fish that makes noise too – bonus. After finally finding the elusive Toad Fish, the dive really took off. We saw free-swimming spotted moray eels, and a beautiful spotted sharptail eel, 1" diameter and 3' long. Beautiful! There were many cleaner shrimp of two different types, several "flamingo tongue" snails (really stunning), and several huge “channel clinging” crabs.
After everyone was out of the water they moved the boat from Turneffe Islands to Lighthouse Reef. It was an incredibly choppy 2 hour crossing in high seas. Sadly, I got seasick for the first time ever. I’ve been on boats where people were pushing each other out of the way to get to the railing but I was OK. Something about this time pushed me over the edge. It was a very uncomfortable time. Fortunately it was a relatively short crossing – not the multi-hour trips one makes in Thailand and Australia. Still, I didn’t get to bed till nearly midnight. I was not a happy camper.
Monday February 16, 2004
I got up feeling sick, tired and headachy. I decided it would be best to skip the first dive. Instead I had a light breakfast, some Dramamine, Advil, and more sleep. By the time people were ready for the second dive, I was feeling a lot better.
This dive was the first on Lighthouse Reef at a spot called “South East Cut”. The site has a very nice wall. There was nothing standout, but a good variety of hard and soft coral, different kinds of sponges, and one tiny blue Pearson’s cleaner shrimp. After exploring the wall we ascended a bit to investigate the top of the site. There was a nice cleaner station, beautiful black and yellow "rock beauty" angels and a dead lobster shell.
The third dive (which was my second dive) was at Half Moon Caye Wall. This dive site had a great wall with lots of variety of hard and soft coral, sponges, etc. We saw two arrow crabs, more Pearson’s cleaner shrimp, one of them cleaning a parrot fish. In the distance we could just make out an eagle ray that swam by. Up on top there were interesting sand channels running through the coral. We swam up a channel and out to an open sandy area with fields of sea grass. Dozens of huge conch's roamed around – it was very interesting watching them move. There were also lots of garden eels and some nice sting rays. Finally, a school of four gigantic tarpon swam by. Wow. They are truly impressive fish.
Unfortunately, my strength still wasn’t 100%, so I skipped the fourth dive, preferring to save myself for the night dive.
The night dive, still at Half Moon Caye Wall, was insanely great. Certainly one of the best night dives I have ever had. There were huge tarpon swimming around really close. It is amazing to have such big fish coming in so close, seemingly of nowhere in the dark. We found stingrays, many different kinds of beautiful lobsters, shrimp everywhere, conches, banana nudibranches, some other kinds of nudibranches, and an amazing giant basket startfish - wow. I heard more toad fish, didn’t see them.
We spent 10 minutes with two Caribbean squid. One was eating a shrimp. It was an amazing interaction. One swam right up and pressed itself against my light. Insane. I passed a long time at the end of the dive right under the boat with a swarm of tarpon and horse-eyed jacks. It was truly hallucinogenic. One actually touched me. Wow!
After the dive I sat in the hot tub under the stars. Yes, this boat has a hot tub. An odd thing to do in the Caribbean after a dive, but very pleasant.
Tuesday February 17, 2004
Well, today was supposed to be the day to dive the famous Blue Hole. The night before it was clear and calm with a sky filled with stars, but some time during the night the wind came up, the temperature dropped and it became choppy and overcast. Unfortunately, conditions have to be clear to be able to navigate through the reef to the Blue Hole, and it’s not worth doing if you don’t have good sunlight, so the Blue Hole dive is canceled. The captain said he would try to reschedule it for later in the week. Now the problem was to find any dive site that would be accessible and worth doing in these conditions.
We did our first dive at Inspiration Point, and it was really quite nice though rather other-worldly due to the dim light conditions. It was more pleasant underwater than on top. There were ocean triggerfish, barracuda, and a golden tail moray on top of a nice coral head. There were also really cool pillar corals. When we got back up there was a strong surface current, some sizeable waves, and it was starting to rain. No sunbathing today!
The weather continued cloudy, and our second dive at Inspiration Point was very uninspiring. It was the very definition of a “boring dive.” I skipped the third dive and watched a movie instead.
The weather got worse and worse, but in the end I was convinced to do the 4th dive, which was at a site called Elkhorn Forest. It was absolutely epic; a top-10 dive experience! We started by spending about 20 minutes watching Blue Tangs mating - the water so thick with eggs you could see them with the naked eye. I swam through a thick bunch of eggs. Then we saw a hogfish eating a tiny sea urchin, swam up a neat sand channel, and looked inside a tiny blue cone sponge - inside there were 5 tiny crabs, 1 dead shrimp, and several tiny fish - a whole community in one sponge. There were flamingo tongues, a nice bluestripe grunt and a huge "rough fileclam" inside a hole; its mouth was wide open and I could see gills and other structures inside. I chased a trumpet fish for a while, then at the end, swam with amber jacks, becoming one of the school. This was definitely a top-10 dive experience.
By the time we got up the weather was really bad, so the night dive was cancelled and we motored in to a more protected spot to spend the night.
Wednesday February 18, 2004
The weather got worse during the night with the wind picking up. Unfortunately, that meant that it just isn’t safe to dive – primarily because of potential problems exiting the water. It was also unlikely that the visibility would be good. So, we spent the morning sitting at the night mooring waiting for a possible weather improvement, though the forecast was not good. Sigh.
Well, the weather stayed bad. It started to improve a little bit, and the captain gave us the option of trying to find a good dive site, but we all opted in favor of safety – the level of wind and waves out there didn’t pose an issue for the dive, but could become a real problem when trying to get back to the boat and up the dive ladders. Just not worth it.
As it turned out the weather just got worse and worse, and we all spent the day reading, writing, watching TV and doing crossword puzzles. Hi ho.
Thursday February 19, 2004
I’d never really given much thought to the question of steel hulled boats vs. wooden boats, but this trip has brought it very much to mind. As the waves slap the sides of the boat, it rings through the whole hull in an unpleasant metallic way. Very “bang… bang… bang…” Perhaps I wouldn’t noticed in other conditions, but since we spent so much time on the boat – inside the boat – and the waves were so big, the banging ringing really got on my nerves. I was also totally sick of the 24/7 sound of generators which are quite loud down in the cabins. I imagine that if I had been spending most of my time in the water or up top sunning, I wouldn’t really notice any of that. As it was, I found myself pining for the tiny, crappy old wooden M/V Scuba Adventure that I regularly dive in Thailand.
The weather improved slightly, so we headed off to Tarpon Caves for a dive. This looks like a very cool dive site, but the silt was so stirred up that visibility was horrendous and all the corals, sponges, etc were covered with silt. In addition, the sky was overcast, so there was very little light underwater. Overall, the visibility was simply lousy. I did manage to find a humongous lobster - the biggest I've ever seen by a healthy margin. There was an octopus hiding in a coral stack, but he wasn’t hiding very well; his home was surrounded by empty conch shells, and there were no live conches anywhere around his coral head. Kind of a “dead” giveaway. We also found a stingray, lots of conches, schools of Tarpon, a beautiful indigo hamlet, an interesting huge sponge that had consumed a staghorn coral, a huge queen anglefish, and the biggest gray angel I've ever seen.
Later we did a second Tarpon Caves dive. I found the octopus again, and spent much of the dive trying to coax him out into the open without any luck. There was another gigantic lobster, arrow crabs, schools of tarpon, and two huge jacks. While playing with octopus, a very cheeky grouper kept on checking us out. In addition to conches, on this dive I found a shell called a flame helmet buried in the sand. Nice.
The captain moved the boat to a new site named East Long Caye Wall. This site has no large sandy areas like Tarpon Caves, so the silt was not a problem and the visibility was much better than the earlier dives of the day. I chased a beautiful honeycomb cowfish and saw my first peacock flounder. We spent quite a while with two Caribbean reef squid, then watched some beautiful yellowtail damselfish with stars on their heads. I found a bearded fireworm; fortunately I followed the rule of “never touch anything”, as I didn’t realize that touching them causes a painful rash. Finally there was a very large and attractive scorpionfish hanging on the wall.
I skipped the fourth dive, then went in for the night dive after dinner. As usual, the night dive was at the same place as our final day dive – in this case East Long Caye Wall. It was a very nice night dive. We saw tiny little mushroom scorpionfish, a cute greenish pufferfish, a small cowfish, and various crabs. At end of dive we hung under boat. There was tons of stuff in water column: embrionic crabs and shrimp, a miniature eel, super-poisonous box jellyfish (yum), tiny pipefish, and a huge school of small squid (very cool). It was truly mesmerizing, and the most exceptional part of the dive.
After we were all back on board, the captain made the crossing back to the Turneffe Islands.
Friday February 20, 2004
Since this was the last day on the boat, there were only two dives scheduled before heading back to dock. The first was at Grand Bogue 2, a mildly interesting dive. There was not much noteworthy but one sting ray and a semi-playful lobster. The second dive, Amberhead, had amazing visibility. A pleasant final dive. Of note were a black spotted nudibranch, black spotted moray eel, and a gigantic stingray.
We got back to the dock at about 1pm. The Aggressor people plan it this way so that divers will have at least 12 hours (and preferably 24 hours) to off-gas before flying. There are three different tours offered for Friday afternoon (at extra cost.) I, and three others, chose to go cave tubing. The other tours were a trip to the Altun Ha Mayan ruins and a visit to the Belize Zoo.
A guide and van was waiting for us at the dock when we disembarked. We drove a little over an hour to a jungle resort named Jaguar Paw. From there we picked up inner tubes and headband mounted lights and did an easy ½ hour walk, stopping occasionally so the guide could point out various interesting plants and birds. Of course we had the obligatory opportunity to eat termites; these were said to be minty tasting, but to me they seemed like the same mushroomy flavor as the termites I ate at Lamanai.
We arrived at an entry point in the river and jumped onto our inner tubes. The water was colder than I expected. In the first few minutes of the float downstream, I realized that I was actually very tired of being wet. Nonetheless, it was interesting and occasionally exciting as the river flowed into a series of tunnels through the adjacent mountains. The rock formations were nice, the river was pleasant, and the “rapids” were fun without being too challenging. The float took about a half an hour, returning us to the Jaguar Paw resort. By that point I was happy that we didn’t have to walk back.
That night dinner was not offered on the boat. The captain made reservations for the guests (not the crew) at Chef Bob’s Restaurant in Belize City. I had the Jerk Pork Chops which were so hot I could only manage to choke down one. Chef Bob came out occasionally to walk around the dining room; most people seemed to find this charming, but his chef’s jacket was so dirty that I would rather he’d stayed in the kitchen. One of the things they taught me in culinary arts school was not to go into the dining room in a dirty chef’s jacket.
Saturday February 21, 2004
The Aggressor folks require you to be off the boat at 8am, regardless of what time you fly. Since my flight was at 4:30pm, that was a bit inconvenient. Hi ho. I got up early so I could get a bit of the continental breakfast and pack. When I had booked my trip I planned to have a lot of time so that I could go to the zoo and wander around Belize City. What I didn’t realize, and the guidebooks didn’t really make clear, is that the zoo is 45 minutes outside the city and there is no way to get there except by taxi or organized tour. Ugh. The captain on the Aggressor checked out what it would cost for one of their “trustworthy” taxi drivers to take me out to the zoo and then to the airport. The best price I could get was US$75, which is more than I was willing to spend to go to the zoo. That meant that I pretty much had all day to look around Belize City, but by all accounts Belize City is basically ignorable.
The dock is right behind the Radisson hotel. Since the Aggressor pays port fees to the Radisson, Aggressor guests are able to use the Radisson’s pool and other facilities. I left my luggage with the Aggressor folks and walked to the Radisson. I checked with the tour office there to see if there was any good way to get to the zoo or any other tours of interest, but no joy. They needed the same US$75 to get me to the zoo. All the other tours were full-day tours of things I had already done: Lamanai, scuba diving, cave tubing, etc. In the end I sat by the Radisson’s pool and read until about 11:00am, when I decided to walk into town for lunch.
I walked around for a while, checked out the Belize Artists Shop where I picked up several bottles of Marie Sharp’s Habanera Sauce, then wandered across the Swing Bridge to find Big Daddie’s [sic] cafe for lunch. As I was crossing the bridge I met “Frank.” Frank was clearly a beggar and a vagrant, but he latched on to me in a way that I found too intriguing to ignore. Most beggars just ask for money, some hit me with a hard luck story and then ask for money. Frank used what I call the “instant friend” approach. Since I had nothing but time to kill, I decided to go along with it. Frank insisted on taking me on a walking tour of Belize City while telling me about the box of 10,000 letters that he had at home from his friends around the world, his 11 children, the current political battle between the People’s United Party (PUP) and United Democratic Party (UDP), and where the best places were to stay, eat, and explore. It was entertaining, god knows what parts of it may have been true. It turns out that Frank’s destination for us was St. John’s Cathedral, the oldest Anglican church in central America, which Frank claimed was the oldest building in Belize. I can hardly describe how uninteresting St. John’s Cathedral was. I think it holds the position of the second least interesting thing I have ever seen, right after Janet Jackson’s nipple.
After the church I told Frank it was time for me to go to lunch, and headed us back towards the Swing Bridge. Frank finally gave me his sob story, including a reprise of the 11 kids, and hit me up for money. I gave him a few dollars and then headed into an internet café to check on my email.
Frank had told me that Big Daddie’s cafe was “no damned good,” because “they cook every damned thing in too damned much lard.” Instead he recommended Nernie’s, a place where, he assured me, he had taken some English friends who liked the food so much that they “finished one plate and then went right on and ordered another!” Well, given that I took everything Frank said with far more than a grain of salt, I walked back to Big Daddie’s anyway. It turns out that Big Daddie’s is a cafeteria style restaurant, and honestly, everything looked just terrible. So, I went to Nernies. The special of the day was “Boil Up”, which turned out to be a plate of various boiled tubers (which the waiter referred to as “earth food”), pigs tails (yes, the tails of pigs), and a few bits of mackerel. It was served in a mild, non-descript sauce. I had the Boil Up and a glass of papaya juice for a scant BZ$11. Flavor-wise it was pretty ignorable, but now I can check pigs tails off my “been there-ate that” list.
As the day progressed it got hotter and hotter. By the time I finished lunch it was insanely hot. I’m not sure why we couldn’t have gotten some of this weather when we were out on the boat. Hi ho. I walked back to the hotel, arriving covered in sweat. I sponged myself off a bit in their restroom, then sat inside at the air-conditioned bar eating fruit and drinking sodas. This second lunch was surprisingly cheap for a Radisson at only BZ$15.
At the appointed time I went back to the boat to catch their shuttle to airport, which got me there 2 hours early. There is nothing to do at the Belize Airport, but I’ve seen worse. However, it seemed to be “bring your toddler to the airport day”. I’ve never heard such a loud airport. The chairs there are monstrously uncomfortable. Not a place you want to hang out for a couple hours. I suspect that the chairs might have been designed for maximum discomfort to drive customers to the conveniently located chair-massage people.
The flight from Belize City to Houston was fine and uneventful, as was the subsequent flight back to Denver.
All in all this was a really fun three-in-one vacation; beach, jungle, and diving. It’s a shame that the weather was so uncooperative during the dive portion of the trip. It’s really very difficult to find out the true scoop on weather in different parts of the world. For example, I was able to learn that February is a relatively dry yet not too hot time of the year in Belize. However, I didn’t learn until I got there that it is also the windiest, and among the least predictable months. Hi ho.
If I were doing this trip a second time, I would skip Ambergris Kaye. There isn’t much point if one is then getting on a dive boat, though it would be fine for a land-based dive vacation. The water was colder than I expected. The Aggressor web site says to bring a 3mil wetsuit, but I had a 5mil full length suit and wished that I had brought my hood. As for the Aggressor boat, it has a very noisy steel hull. Perhaps if the waves had been smaller, it might not have been as significant a factor. On the other hand, the fast tank fill technology is very cool, and the boat has a great dive deck layout. It makes me wonder if I would have felt differently overall if the weather had been better? Had it been spectacular weather, would I be raving about Belize diving and the Aggressor fleet?
I have to wonder about the cost/benefit of the Caribbean vs. Asia-Pacific diving. So far, both times I’ve gone to dive in the Caribbean (Honduras and Belize) I have hit terrible weather that has caused the cancellation of dives and reduced the quality of the dives that I did. When I have gone diving in Australia and Thailand I have always had a fantastic time. However, getting to either Asia or Australia takes a long time, is expensive, and causes me terrible jet lag. So, I have to ask myself; is a lower cost/lower stress trip to the Caribbean with less good results better or worse than a higher cost/higher effort trip to Asia-Pacific with better results. Hard to say…
© 2004, Andrew Sigal
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