The Cayes to Belize

Thursday, November 12, 2009

We were out of Orange Walk and on a bus headed south. Although this town had been a shaky introduction to Belize, we were feeling a bit better about things in the morning. For one, the town was alive and friendly in the morning. Secondly, the weather was actually pretty nice, with scattered clouds and even sunshine. Finally, we were moving on and as a backpacker that’s always an exciting thing. You never know what the next place will hold. First we headed south to Belize City, a city of notorious crime and danger. But we needed to go there to get to Caye Caulker, a small island off the coast of Belize that hasn’t really developed into a resort haven and thus is the perfect place to enjoy the island life without paying the costs for it. Belize City, at least by day, was vibrant and interesting, and I had a feeling I could spend a day or two exploring. Even after a man rather randomly came up proclaiming angrily that he was not our enemy, I still thought that the city was nowhere near so bad as we’d expected. We strolled through, picking up some fruit to snack on for the 1 k walk to the ferry terminal, and very soon we were on a boat for Caye Caulker. The weather hadn’t held out, but it wasn’t raining anymore. And as the boat docked at the Caye, I realized we were about to experience a totally different side of Belize.

Caye Caulker was about the closest thing to Asia I’ve seen in this hemisphere. Little wooden huts, restaurants and budget snack shacks, barbecues, fresh seafood, and there we were at the end of the dock, me, Phil, and Amy, a Californian girl we’d met on the ferry over. The three of us walked down the pier and soon enough someone was offering to help us find a guesthouse. “Nah, we’ll be fine, thanks” I told him and then it was time for the one-local-per-locale to get angry with me. “The service is free” he repeated, and I likewise said again, “I know and thank you but we’d rather find a place on our own” and then I got told that I “need to relax man, it’s an island here, you have to chill.” So he walked us to the far south end of the island for a pretty sketchy place that was definitely overpriced for what it was. And then back some more, which for me is a very frustrating process. I don’t like being led by the nose to the places he picks out, and I’m quite capable of reading signs and communicating on my own besides. Eventually we were getting nowhere and I decided to just fade to the back of our walking group and check out this one place, “The Tropics Hotel”. He spotted me and ran in, interrupting, saying, “You don’t have a room with three beds do you?” as she was explaining to me what they did have (which did include a room with three beds). He probably got his commission and we managed to get a nice room right on the beach with private bathroom and two fans for three nights. Cost? $20 US each or $6.33/night.

So the three of us, now that Amy was officially stuck with us for at least four days settled into our very nice new room and agreed... we liked it here already. We wandered down the beach to the Split, the north end of the island which was physically split from the other more northern half by the last hurricane to hit Belize. At the Split now is a small beach bar with music pumping (yup, reggae) and we sat, had a few drinks and ate some fish for lunch. While wandering around we’d bumped into some people Amy knew and agreed to meet up with them for dinner with them and their friends. We were originally going to go see Jolly Roger (AKA The Fat Man) and share a $20 Belize lobster meal but then we happened on his sister, Fran, who was eager to cut us a deal. I wound up negotiating on behalf of the group and we ended up with a free lobster meal for bringing in a large group as well as three rum punch drinks instead of the two. So the total meal, for $8 USD was two lobster tails, potato, rice, veggies, and three glasses of rum and punch. And we all had a great time with Fran, who was quite a character and seemed to have taken a liking to me.

It had been a long day for us all, and more importantly I had an important appointment at 5:30 AM the next morning, so we said goodbye to our dinner company and went to sleep. My appointment? I had to be at Frenchie’s Dive Shop by 5:30 AM to get on the dive boat heading to Belize’s famed Blue Hole. This was another deal I’d managed to finagle, though more through good timing than excellent haggling, getting the dive for $175 instead of the standard $190. These aren’t the cheapest diving prices in the world, but it did give us three dives and the Blue Hole is 2 hours away so I wasn’t complaining. Plus, after Australia, Belize has the second largest reef in the world so it was a must on the dive list. Now what is this Blue Hole? Well, back in the ice age when there was a lot less water in the oceans, it had been an underground cave chamber. Over millions of years, water dripping into this chamber formed stalactites and cave formations while the earth warmed. Eventually the land on top of the cave was submerged and filled with reef when the top of the cave collapsed under the water’s weight, plummeting some 150 metres to the ocean floor. The result is a circular opening into deep ocean, entirely surrounded by reef. You can dive in and see the cave formations, to a depth of 120 ft (40m) below the surface and, because you are at that depth, often sharks are in the area too.

I had lately been having troubles equalizing my sinuses, causing serious pressure on the eyeballs and sometimes even my teeth as I get deeper, so I was worried about this dive. You immediately descend to 40m to see the cave and after no more than 8 minutes at that depth begin making your way back to the surface. So there’s not a lot of time to get down. But it went fine and I pretty much freefell to about 90 ft at which point I had to slow down to let my sinuses adjust. The dive itself is not for amazing reef, sea life, or much of anything else. Because it’s so deep, you may see some sharks (we did) but they weren’t the highlight. What was the highlight was how entirely surreal the place feels. First of all, at that depth, you can no longer see the surface. You know which way is up because the bubbles float that way and buoyancy acts like reverse gravity in pulling you upwards, so you get a bit of sensation out of that as well. Above, blue. Below dark blue fading to black. Only a section of wall and stalagmites to orient yourself. The blue hole below looked very tempting, as though it was an unventured path that could be explored. I mean, we were already this deep, what was a few more feet (well, say a hundred) down to at least see the bottom. I felt the vague excitement of the unexplored there and that feeling, though it may have been nitrogen narcosis, was what made this a special dive.

We did two more dives on the reefs and they were both great. Belize really does have some incredible coral in great condition and it rivalled anything I’d seen in Australia. I don’t have the name of the second dive, but the third was called The Aquarium and that was very fitting. We saw turtles, rays, a couple sharks, and any number of other fish. We also stopped for lunch at a little island off the reef where I finally found one of ‘those’ palms that jut out horizontally over the water. You know them, you’ve definitely seen them on postcards. And now I’ve finally seen one in real life. I set my camera on a coconut and put it into a timer mode, getting any number of ridiculous shots before retiring. By 3:30 we were back on solid ground. Meanwhile, Phil and Amy had taken a snorkelling trip with Ragamuffin that they loved. They had met a nice and very fun German couple on the boat so the five of us got together for dinner that night at the fat man. We got the same deal (minus the free meal because we didn’t have enough people) but not quite the same meal. The sides were different, and better, but the lobster was not as good as Fran’s. Nor was the dessert and nor was the service. As a matter of fact, I had to get up to serve drinks to our group (we were later joined by the Norwegian girls). Still a nice dinner, just not quite as nice. It had been a long day, and we went to bed early.

The next morning was, at last, an absolutely gorgeous day. We had been waiting basically since Phil arrived, over a week, and here was a clear sky and a beaming sun. And the best part was, we had no plans. We got up, had a snack for breakfast, and headed to “The Split” where a small section of sand awaited (and a round of rum and pineapple). We laid on the ‘beach’ which I should clarify is not a really great reason to come here, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. The Germans joined us again, we went for a swim, and we read, chatted, and had another round of drinks until we’d had enough sun and really loud reggae. It’s hard to put a day like this into words and it’s harder to make it into an interesting story, but we had a great time doing little and, well, life was good. We weren’t going to go for lobster again that night, but walking around looking for a restaurant, the fat man propositioned us with a deal we couldn’t refuse. For $6, the same deal we had last time. Needless to say, we had lobster for the third night in a row and this time may well have been the best lobster we had yet. A day on the beach in the sun, lobster tails for dinner, all that was needed to cap it? Karaoke. And it was a great time. Amy did an amazing rendition of Bobby McGee (seriously, incredible), than I tried my hand at “Coward of the County”, and finally Phil cracked us up with “Baby Got Back”. Great day. Great time. Caye Caulker was definitely the highlight so far. Tomorrow morning we’re headed east, with Amy in tow, to San Ignacio, our last stop in Belize.

Caye Caulker Photos


Deanna said...

Sounds like you are having an amazing time.Diving into the cave seems very dangerous.Were you with someone? I am very glad i read about it after you have done it.Ok i will keep reading.Love you and be CAREFUL.MOM

Dean said...

So far so good, mom... it wasn't really dangerous at all, just a little scary. Thanks for reading and I'll call home soon (leaving this little village tomorrow morning). Always careful and love you too. :)