Peter Lyons

Feb 25, 2010

Belize

I took Michale on a vacation to Belize! Belize was on my list of places to go for good scuba diving, and Michale wanted to go some place warm. It's a very easy trip: 6 hours of plane rides, English speaking, US Dollars accepted. We arrived Wednesday late afternoon in the Belize City international airport, and took a tiny Cessna puddle jumper to Ambergris Caye, the island where San Pedro is. It was the smallest plane (maybe 12 passengers max) either of us had taken. We stopped briefly on Caye Caulker to drop off one passenger and the rest of us stayed on for Ambergris. We got the island flavor right away with the baggage claim being a small section of grass delimited with wooden posts and a chain painted white. One of the handful of airport staff asked us where we were going and called them to arrange our taxi to our condo development. Lelo our taxi driver took us there, narrowly missing people, dogs, and structures the whole way, with that frightening but amazing precision that taxi drivers always have. He was the first to introduce us to the island slogan "No shoes. No shirt. No problem", which he repeated numerous times.

Arriving on Ambergris Caye

Wednesday night we just got settled in, strolled through the tiny downtown, and ate mixed seafood pasta at Elvi's. There was shrimp, lobster, scallops, conch, and calamari in it. Michale started reading up in the guidebooks and guest register we found in the condo that night. "A bit loud at night" is what Michale wrote in her journal. What this means is our condo was just off the street where loud golf carts and cars go past. The old lady occupying the private home next to our condo blares her TV for many hours each day and evening. Drunk people walk by and talk loudly. One day they chainsawed a coconut tree into pieces for several hours just outside the condo. Another day was the hardware store across the streeet's tenth anniversary and they rented a huge set of speakers and played music all day. It was not the calm tropical oasis I was hoping for.

Thursday was our unscripted exploring day. We wandered out of the condo development out through the streets toward the western shore of the island. We didn't get far before two young men in a golf cart approached us and pitched us some freebies if we went and looked at time shares at a new resort on the northern side of the island. We hemmed and hawed a bit, but eventually decided to go with them because it seemed like fun and would make a good story and we would get a free day golf cart rental out of it. They were very excited because the prize we had selected out of their manila envelope of prize tickets was a free week's stay at the resort, which they claimed meant $100 US for them. For all we knew, half of the tickets in the envelope said that.

They drove us up to the resort and chatted away. They explained the new movie theater just over the bridge to the northern section which had recently been built and is planning to open for business in a few weeks. The drove us up into the complex, which was mostly up and running except for the last few units under construction, and otherwise mostly deserted. There was one other couple getting a time share pitch and maybe one or two guests. We were introduced to our salesperson, Karia, a slim freckled blonde woman, wearing, get this, a thigh-length down jacket and wool turtle neck sweater. Now, it was surely cool that day, probably in the mid sixties, but the full on winter garb was quite surprising and amusing. Michale and I set across from her in our shorts and flip flops. The deal was we had to sit through a 90 minute presentation, then we'd get our golf cart rental. So we did and we chatted with Karia about our vacation habits (oh yeah, we told them we had been married for two years, although Michale hadn't yet begun wearing the fake wedding ring she brought on the trip). Karia explained how she and her daughter ended up leaving Canada to travel and eventually landing in Belize. She showed us a model unit and then finally released us after we declined to buy a time share on the spot, despite her lovely financial models and diagrams she drew on her trusty yellow legal pad. According to Karia, aggressive time share marketing got to be such a problem in Belize that the regulated it such that these places could approach someone only once, give them one pitch, and then the "mark" would have to buy in on the spot, and if not the developer is forbidden from interacting with them further.

So we got a lift back all the way to the southern end of town from another young man in a golf cart with our golf cart rental voucher and 7-day stay voucher in tow. We explored the far south end of town (although the island extends quite a bit further south) a bit before stopping in Ali Babba's for rotisserie chicken, which was quite tasty. The rest of the afternoon we relaxed, napped, dipped toes in the water, and bought some groceries. San Pedro has a small grocery store every hundred yards, but presumably due to the realities of island sundries, they each seem to carry virtually identical goods. We got the necessary items: coffee, creamer, peanut butter, and some fruit. We ate a yummy meal at Mickey's featuring salty Belizean style grouper followed by frozen custard and strolling on the beach.

Belizean Grouper at Mickey's

Friday I did my first scuba dive out to a hand-shaped coral formation in open water. As soon as I started to descend, a big three foot ugly looking fish with a prominent lower jaw came up from the bottom to examine me, which was a fun feeling. We saw a nurse shark swimming around and lots of cool fish. Right at the end of the dive some of the others saw a mother and baby dolphin. I missed it since I was the first one out of air and was already on my way up. It's tough to inhale slowly after twenty years of split-second inhales playing woodwind instruments. As I feared, I got seasick after getting back in the boat despite the drammamine I had taken both the night before and shortly before the dive. I wasn't feeling very well so I bailed from the second tank dive. It was nice since they go back to the dock and dive shop between dives since the dive sites are mostly very nearby, so I had a chance to bail for dry land instead of bouncing around in the boat while everyone did another dive. The drammamine messed me up so I went and slept in the hammock on our balcony for a good long while.

During this Michale was wondering around exploring on her own. She eventually wondered onto the wrong side of the airport and was a bit frightened by some kids that approached her asking what she was doing there. Thankfully they left her alone though and she came back. Then Michale went for a swim in the sea, but it was still quite cool so I quickly got shivers and got out to spectate. We ate some yummy sushi at the Hummingbird Cafe and then took a long walk up to the northern section of the island. We eventually encountered Legends Burgers and went in for a "dinner 2" burger with swiss and mushrooms. We chatted with the owner Tyler a bit then hitched a ride back home on a passing golf cart.

Saturday we lounged around the pool. I did some yoga while Michale did her pool exercises while we waited for the last morning water taxi to Caye Caulker, a smaller island about 45 minutes south of Ambergris Caye by boat. Our sea band pressure point motion sickness bracelets worked great for that trip. The water taxi captain wore a CU Buffs hat. We became quite concerned when the water taxi stopped in open water about a quarter mile from Caye Caulker. Another, smaller boat pulled up along side. Without any official explaination or clarity about what was happening, many of the passengers and luggage were transferred to the other boat, which was apparently the one making a Caye Caulker stop, while the main boat continued on to Belize City, or so we figured. We hopped over to the small boat and they took us to the island. Here a local explained that Caye Caulker is "go slow island". Upon landing, we walked down the dock past the "Sexy-Chicken" boat and the tile placard on the dock reading "Caye Caulker. Go slow.". Immediately, it was clear that Caye Caulker was what we were looking for and Ambergris not so much. Caulker was mellow, quiet, and mostly free of golf carts.

Arriving on Caye Caulker

We wandered down to "the split", a small gap in the island created by a violent hurricane in the 1960s that boasts fantastic snorkeling right next to the Lazy Lizard bar and grill - "A sunny place for shady people". This spot has a great vibe. Folks lounged around, snorkeled, ordered drinks, and smiled broadly. A funny group of middle aged men, possibly Australian, sat and drank beer in their black speedo bathing suits on a wooden picnic table half submerged in the sea. Two buxom women and a small boy hung out wearing hats made from palm leaves. We ordered creole shrimp and a chicken burrito, which were Michale's favorite food of the trip. Then we found a spot of beach with sun for Michale next to shade for me and napped for a while. Then we were ready to do our snorkeling in the split. We saw lots of big schools of tropical fish that hang out in the ruins of old boats and docks in the split. The water is shallow - never more than about fifteen feet, so the snorkeling is great. A funny man in a speedo showed me a somewhat big shark hiding under a piece of wood about ten feet down. We swam over to the other side and saw lots of Trumpet Fish, then stepped out onto the land and walked around the marshy squishy sand on the north side of the split, seeing two big iguanas. As we headed back to the south side, snorkeling back to the beach in about eighteen inches of water, I turned my head and almost bumped into a football-side red octopus right in front of me. I picked my head up and yelled "octopus!" to Michale and we watched him do a funny frightened sideways shuffle away from us.

Michale at the Lazy Lizard

Feet on Caye Caulker

Saturday night we made a menu error and ordered ceviche at Wild Mango, the best reputed restaurant in San Pedro, only to realize we had no idea what it was and that neither of us liked it since it was so limey and salty. Oh well. We compensated with a banana chimichanga for dessert. Michale was sun burned and spend a good long while applying cucumber to her skin. We relaxed at home and watched "The Abyss" on TV. Probably not the wisest choice ten hours before a scuba dive.

Sunday I went to the dive shop to do the other tank of the 2-tank dive I had bailed on Friday. It was a busy day with lots of divers. The captain said we were going to Hol Chan, which is a fantastic spot for both scuba and snorkeling in a marine reserve. I asked if Michale could come snorkel, ran back to the condo to get her, and we both got on the boat. At Hol Chan the water is very shallow. Two dive teams went in and did our exploring while Michale got to snorkel with a private guide. There were lots of cool fish on this dive as well, including big schools of large shiny Tarpon. Michale also hung out with a sea turtle for a while. After that we zoomed over to "Shark Ray Alley" where nurse sharks and eagle rays hang out waiting for dive boats to feed them. Here we just snorkeled around the boat a bit. It was just us and one other couple and the vibe was very relaxed. The were TONS of eagle rays and it was really cool. They are so graceful and spiritual and other-worldly. It's really cool to watch them soar under you and snorkel down right above them. We also had some nurse sharks come hang out right next to the boat.

We ate some chicken and ribs at Wet Willy's on a dock then went and picked up our free golf cart. We drove up as far north as you can go on the cart and then walked beyond that past some of the newer big developments. We found a suitable beach and I napped extensively and pleasantly while Michale splashed around in the water. We ate in that night - egg scrambles on our little kitchenette gas stove. The condo maintenance guy showed me the trick to lighting it: pull it out away from the wall then bang on the gas pipe. Works every time.

Monday we were picked up at our dock bright and early by a speedboat full of tourists headed for the mainland under the guidance of Gus and Juni, our tour guides. The boat ride was really fun. The boat is fast and Gus was funny. The entire area between the reef and the island is very shallow water, so you can almost always see the bottom as the speed boat zips along. We stopped when we saw a bottle nosed dolphin popping up out of the water, then zipped along, narrowly zooming through the frighteningly shallow water between two small land masses topped with mangrove trees, the branches extending out to the boat such that we nearly had to duck under them. After about an hour we were at the mainland and we went up the Belize Old River, eating delicious Johnny Cake chicken sandwiches and eyeing wildlife Gus and Juni pointed out, including egrets, crocodiles, and iguanas.

The group split here with most folks getting on a big green bus to the Lamanai Mayan ruin site, and just two couples headed to the cave tubing site. Michale and I went to the Belize Zoo with Juni while another couple from Scranton PA went zip lining in the jungle. The zoo was really fun. Juni was our private guide, describing each of the animals and usually commenting on whether or not they are commonly eaten by locals and how tasty they are. We saw lots of cool animals up close including Tapir, the national animal of Belize, which are really funny to look at, and Howler Monkeys, which make a super loud scream to mark their territory. They also had some really cool owls and eagles.

After the zoo we joined up with the other couple for lunch at the Jungle Paw resort and then we headed up to the cave tubing site. We walked behind our guide along a path through the jungle, in our life vests and helmets with our tubes overhead. The cave tubing was nice, but not quite as exciting as it would seem. The water is still and shallow and you just paddle your way through some caves and then you are done. Then it was time for another fun boat ride back to Ambergris. We ate a fancy meal of meat and fish at the Sunset Grill on the west side of the island. A big group of Tarpon fish hang out in the water right next to the restaurant (it's on a dock) and wait for scraps like hungry dogs. You can swarm them by making a throwing gesture. They are pretty creepy.

Tarpon swarming near the Sunset Grill

Tuesday was our last day and travel day back to the states. We got up early to watch the sun rise from the dock. I went for a run while Michale relaxed by the pool with a papaya and a book. We had a nice breakfast at Lily's Treasure Chest before our trip home via golf cart, water taxi (driven primarily by the Captain's knee), taxi, airplane, airplane, and car.

Overall the trip worked out really well. We were a bit disappointed with Ambergris Caye. Too loud and bustly. If we were to do it again we'd probably opt for Caye Caulker, which has fewer amenities but is more tranquil. I was a bit bummed Friday afternoon because the diving was problematic with motion sickness, the air and water were pretty cold, and the salt water was starting to irritate my skin, plus my normal sensitivity to sun exposure. So I was starting to feel like the Carribbean was a poor choice. However, once I switched to the pressure point bands for motion sickness, everything was cool. Those things work great! The sun came out, it got hot, and Caye Caulker was fun. I chatted with Michale and then felt really good from then on. Michale and I made pretty good travel companions since we're both pretty flexible and laid back while traveling.

But there was no time to rest because we got back late Tuesday night and Wednesday morning the Skarecki family showed up for our ski adventure!

The rest of the Belize Trip Photos are here.