It’s nighttime. We’re paddling a canoe down the middle of the briskly flowing Macal river in the Belize jungle, somewhere very near the Guatemalan border. The handle of the powerful handheld spotlight I’m gripping is warm. Actually, it’s hot. So hot that I shift it from hand to hand as I point it up onto the riverbank and sweep the overhanging branches of the giant rainforest trees that lean out over the river.
A dense cloud of moths forms a ball around the light, covering my face, my head, flying into my ears and eyes, tumbling down the front and back of my shirt. I reach into my décolletage to dig a few out and my fingers encounter a ball of squirming moths, soaked and likely drowning in a pool of sweat.
Ahhhh- vacation! We’re on yet another adventure in the wilds of Central America. This evening, the last of three we’ll spend in the Cayo district of Belize, has so far featured a hair-raising ride in an old and well-worn pick-up truck with two canoes strapped on top and six humans crammed inside a steamy interior, being tossed about like pebbles as the truck bounces and bangs down a deeply rutted, dangerously steep and potholed track through the jungle night.
Once at the river’s edge, we four guests stand behind the truck out of the way while the guides untie the canoes and place them in the shallows. We’re told to watch where we put our feet and to use our headlamps to look for snakes. The jungle growth pushes up right next to the jeep and there’s little cleared space for our feet. Robin and I stand quietly and watch the other two gals, a mom and daughter from Maine, as they mince about and scan the ground nervously. Robin’s more concerned about bug bites than stumbling into a snake, but only harmless moths and gnats flit about. In the light of my headlamp I spot a couple of bats swooping overhead.
The crickets and frogs clamor so loudly that it’s hard to hear the guides as they call for us to climb into the canoes. In the canoe, I step gingerly toward the bow seat, maneuvering around a car battery. The guide hands me a large hand-held spotlight and I watch as he hooks up two somewhat shielded wires from the spotlight to the battery terminals. Interesting. Guess I won’t be letting those wires dip into the river.
Robin settles in the middle seat, the guide shoves us off the gravel bottom, hops in and paddles us efficiently into the brisk flow of the river. While I’m digging moth bodies out of my nether regions, I can hear Robin behind me making disgusting noises and muttering “Oh for heaven’s sake!” and “Ick! Yuk!”. Her brisk motions to wave off the clouds threaten our balance. Atypical for me, I’m feeling exposed up here in the bow, probably because I’m top-heavy holding this big spotlight. (Wry humor.) Besides, my position in a canoe has always been at the stern, since I was 10 years old and learned how to paddle. I simply feel more comfortable being in the rear seat, managing the balance and track of the canoe.
I warn Robin to be still and wait, the moth swarm will go away once we get some breeze.
My guess proves correct– a nice breeze greets us as we move into the center of the river’s width, generally about 200 feet across. Soon the moths thin out and we find ourselves distracted by the strong beam of light, which I aim to light up the massive trees that thickly line the banks of this wild river.
We’re spotting for wildlife that has come out on this starry night to forage for food, mate, meet up with family members, dodge predators, and to pose for us as they’re picked out of the darkness by the unrelenting probing lights from the two canoes.
Our guide uses a powerful green laser pointer to direct my spotlight beam- he knows where to look for what kinds of critters. As we float along with the current, I spot a brown animal up high on a large limb. “It’s a kinkajou!” the guide exclaims. The boats quietly approach the tree and there it is, about 30 feet above us, stretched out on a limb. We sweep our lights about but the kinkajou won’t budge, so we continue downriver, scanning the river banks and trees.
Soon I spot two orange eyes up on a river bank and as we approach the guide tells us it’s a fox! The eyes scoot along the river bank but the spotlight is relentless and soon picks out the little fox. We watch as it darts behind some shrubbery and then the current moves us past our vantage point.
Next up, around a bend, we spot two kinkajou’s in a tree, darting from limb to limb and making their way quickly away from the river. A few minutes later I spot a Wood Rail sitting quietly on a limb overhead, it’s orange and white beak shining in the spotlight.
As we continue down the river, we can hear rapids ahead– nothing huge but definitely enough force to turn the canoe over if mishandled, so I direct the light to help guide our passage. Once past the rapids, I resume sweeping the light through the trees, marveling at their incredible heights, some with massive buttressed trunks and many festooned with creepers, strangler fig vines, and huge air plants.
We spot a Water Possum on the bank- a brief glimpse before it darts behind a large tree. Then a bit later we come across a beautiful Spectacled Owl, small and as brightly marked as a tropical bird, perched just above our heads on a tree branch. And then we spot four or more kinkajous. These are quite close to us and only 15 feet above the river, on a large tree limb. Three of them take off but the last one remains behind, blinking in the spotlight. It stretches out on the limb and then flips to the underside, then flips back up, then hides its large round eyes behind two little forepaws and cowers. We all say “Awwww” and turn the two spotlights away to let it go on about its business. The guide is tickled pink, he seldom sees a kinkajou that close up, much less one that doesn’t dart immediately away.
At one point we turn off our spotlights and headlamps and soon the stars are right down on our heads! One of the highlights of our trips to little-trammeled places is that we get to see the stars as our ancestors might have seen them. No light pollution, no loom from nearby man-made anything, just stars: the Milky Way scattered across the chunk of sky visible above the river, the Big Dipper over There, every star in it etched against that dense blackness, not at all where we’re used to seeing it the few times we might glimpse it on the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
Nearing the end of our journey we come upon a large bend in the river and before us is a limestone bluff, over 300 feet high and disappearing into the gloom. Massive trees grow out and up from the sheer walls, which are densely covered with thick vines, creepers and vegetation. The scene is starkly lit by our lights, the shadows quivering mysteriously in the breeze.
The jungle night sounds wrap around us and as we slowly slip by this towering wall, I’m so absolutely in the moment- the smells, the jungle night sounds, the humidity and the breeze on my skin, the little taps of bugs hitting my exposed face, hands and arms as moths and gnats and who-knows-what bugs collide with my body.
For just a moment, I am suspended. I forget about my aching flat butt, heated hands and sore back. I recognize this all-encompassing feeling; it reminds me of SCUBA diving, that moment when you’re past the awkward and jittery phase of transitioning from a large dive boat plunging in ocean waves to the calm depths below the surface. That moment when your equipment is comfortably settled on your body, when your breathing slows and you relax into the sensation of water buoying you, caressing you, moving you perfectly in tandem with the fish that hover over the reef. That moment when you hold your breath for just a few seconds, so you can hear the pops of shrimp, the myriad of unidentified squeaks and grunts and the crunching of the parrot fish as they bite off chunks of living corals.
It’s the experience of moments like this one that bring me back again and again to nature, the outdoors with few or no people or trashed and trampled environments. Sure the adventures are fun, meeting new people, learning about different cultures, being physically active and challenged by the newness and the unknowns of travel. But for me the magic is truly moments like these. So fleeting, so sublime, so few in a lifetime.
The ATM Cave
The day before our canoe adventure, we headed out in the early morning from the Mariposa Jungle Lodge, our digs for the 3-night “Belize jungle experience”. Our destination was the ATM cave, short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, located in the Tapir Mountain Reserve, just north of the Maya Mountains. Here we’re reminded no cameras, period. No nothing, really. Your guide will pack in anything you need: lunch, water, your specs etc. NO CAMERAS because some idiot tourist a coupla years ago dropped a camera or accessory on an ancient human skull in the cave and broke the skull so, that’s that.
Thus I’m resorting to found pix and this video that documents the entire experience practically- FF to the good spots! http://youtu.be/218n6_d2i_g
After banging down the painfully rough track from the Mariposa out to the main highway for 40 mins and another 30-min trip off the main road and back into the jungle, we arrived at the parking area for the ATM cave tour. Off we trekked down the path, keeping a wary eye out for snakes sunning themselves in the places where the rapidly heating rays of the tropical sun penetrated the jungle canopy.
We crossed the same river three times (knee-deep, rapidly-running cold, clear water and slippery ankle-turning rounded stones) and kept going, spotting a lovely bright green Vine snake (non-venomous) and swatting at gnat-clouds attracted to our sweating bodies.
After 45 mins or so of hiking up and down trails we arrived at a clearing in the jungle featuring a rough-built palapa, an old wooden picnic table, a felled tree used for seating and large trees all around for those who wish to relieve themselves. I trotted off down a path and followed my nose to an old privy– a hole in the ground surrounded by a tumbled down wooden structure, fallen tree limbs, dead palm leaves and a cloud of buzzing insects.
I returned to the mustering area, where our guide Gliss was loading new batteries into headlamps and strapping each onto the damp and slightly smelly plastic helmet we each had been given and brought along. Gliss explained that this area where we were standing was likely an ancient Maya ball court, due to the obvious work that went into leveling a large area of ground where level is simply not typical. He pointed to a massive limestone face that may have served as one wall of the ball court. The towering wall disappeared into the humid gloom, almost completely hidden by vines, trees and vegetation growing up, out and dangling down the face.
As it turned out, within that towering limestone edifice was the cave system we were about to enter.
Gliss led Robin, myself and another Mariposa guest, a small and somewhat timid retired lady school teacher, down a short path that followed the curving wall. The sound of a rapidly flowing river became louder, then the forest canopy opened and before us appeared the huge gaping mouth of the cave.
The photos do this place justice– it was every bit as magnificent and intimidating as it appears. I consider myself pretty fearless, in a calculating way, so I was startled to sense my slight apprehension about entering this unknown, sorta spooky, certainly dark, dank and confining cave, with nothing beyond a helmet and headlamp on my head, a cherry chapstick in one shorts pocket and a pair of old socks in the other.
But, no time to ponder the possibilities as we stepped gingerly down slippery rough-hewn wooden stairs to the water’s edge, slid over slippery rocks into that clear, frigid water up to our waists and next thing you know, we were swimming in 15 foot depths under the cave overhang and beyond, into the gloom of the cavern opening.
The shock of that 70-degree water hitting my tropical-sun-heated body literally took my breath away, but once I got past that I actually enjoyed paddling quietly into the cavern. I noticed swallows darting in the gloom overhead and became aware of every sound that was amplified, reflected off rock walls and the water’s surface. The too-loud splashing and squealing of the larger party ahead of us as they clambered out of the water onto a rocky ledge jarred as we drew closer. I wanted to just be still for a moment and soak up the atmosphere, the silence I knew this place could generate, allowing one to pick out little trickles and drips of water, the ripple of bird and bat wings, the background buzz of the jungle just beyond the cave opening.
But, such moments of solitude and contemplation are anathema to organized “tours”. Rather, we had to hurry up and get going- staying together, carefully in single file as we slapped along in our sandals, careful to watch our step on the uneven and sodden clay of the cave floor, or tromping confidently on gravel through the fast-flowing underground river shallows.
Squeezing through tight spots, we aimed our headlamps to assist with handholds to avoid razor-sharp rock and to aid in penetrating the often shoulder-deep water to help us find ledges or dodge knee-and-shin-knocker boulders. Sometimes we’d be in a skinny crevice that disappeared overhead, our feet feeling along a narrow ledge about 4 feet below the water, sidling sideways as we crept along a wall. More than once I allowed myself to slip off the ledge into the water quietly and swim alongside to encourage the nice schoolteacher lady, who was pretty freaked out by all this, already. And we were only into the first minutes of what would be three hours in that cave.
Can’t remember her name but whatever, she was very nice and I thought very brave in her determination to overcome her fears and to challenge herself to finish this expedition. She was certainly past 60, with a knee that simply would not bend, no upper body strength, and little self-confidence in bouldering and climbing heights in the pitch blackness, swimming in frigid water for unknown distances, balancing on a rusted and creaky 40 foot ladder that led to a slippery 90-degree squeeze around an overhang– yeah, stuff like that.
Clearly the brave lady felt safer right behind Gliss, so I followed and Robin brought up the rear, saying if she fell she would have all us to soften her landing, ha.
Around a bend there appeared a giant sinkhole off to our left in an area that looked like it would take 15 minutes to get to by clambering over boulders, some stacked on one another, all the size of a golf cart. Sunlight speared down into the hole from some 60 feet above us. Vines hung over the crumbled top, trees grew right out of the sides, and more massive trees crowded the margin, as if they too wanted to take the plunge.
That was our last view of sunlight for a couple of hours.
The further we penetrated into the cave, the more dense the humid atmosphere became. Our headlamps illuminated the condensation of our breath, adding to the suspended water molecules hanging in the air around us. We were soaked, cold from water immersion, and sweaty from exertion. The sounds of other groups receded into the vastness around us, and often the noise from the rushing river over shallow gravel beds, and us splashing doggedly against the current, drowned out any other sounds.
By the time we got to the first of many skulls, human bones, large and small smashed pots strewn about on various ledges and natural platforms, my feet were tired, my shoulders and neck sore, my lower back complaining, and my knees were inflamed. So far this had proven to be more Cirque du Soleil than a jaunt into the distant past. Between the climbing, clambering, balancing, tripping, mincing, squeezing, shin-cracking and neck-craning, my poor bod was a bit tired. But, we still had to get to the place where we were to take off our shoes, don socks, and stomp around for an hour or so over rocky, crumbly, slippery, ever more painfully rough cave surfaces, avoiding harming the mud while working our way to the very rear of the cave to see the really cool stuff.
Cool stuff: Amazing crystal formations, much as you will see in many a cave around the world. Lovely but really, how many stupidly named formations can you gawp at? However, there was an awesome and inspiring ceremonial stone plinth way up and over on a wide ledge, supporting two heavy angled stones about 3 feet tall, carved to look like the gaping maw of a crocodile. Well, at least the shadow cast on the massive cavern wall behind it sure looked like a crocodile. The question is- if the ancients didn’t have LED flashlights, would that have cast the same shadow when lit by a torch or a dozen? Good question. Gliss was full of many question like this, which caused us to scratch our chins and ponder. Or at least gave us an excuse to perch on a nearby rock and, for just one second, rest. But then- “Let’s move on!”
On to more slippery cave footing and more climbing to yet more ledges with pots and small fire pits and human bones and a skull or two and then, on our way to the pièce de résistance, we came upon the climbing challenge that I thought was going to cause a mission abort. Our intrepid nice retired school teacher positively balked, and even Robin turned quite pale in the lamplight when faced with this last bit.
First: place your left foot here, about two feet above the cave floor, flat against the wall. Now use your hands, reach across to this edge, get your right foot into place across this gap, over to this little ledge here, just wide enough for your foot. Now lever yourself up, using your thighs and quads and any muscle you may have down there — out and over the gap while reaching up to this handhold, right here, all lit up in the little circle from my headlamp. Then your other hand goes here- nope not there, here!
This was a challenge for folks with little or no climbing skills, but with coaching form Gliss above and myself below, they made it. Thank goodness Gliss had done this many times and had this traverse, and others like it, down pat.
No break in sight, though, as we arrived some 20 feet higher along this crevice. I found myself balanced with one foot on a small rounded, slippery and shiny limestone cap on top of a stalagmite. My other foot dangled in mid-air. I looked down and my headlamp revealed my perch– a large mushroom head, beyond which was a two foot wide chasm that dropped straight down to five foot tall jagged rock teeth below, the teeth seeming to twitch malevolently in the shadows from my light.
No time to study my predicament, as Gliss steadied my elbow and motioned for me to spin in place- yes spin in place, lean forward across that gap and sit right down there on that ledge. Quickly, now. Don’t think, just do it, then scramble away from that gap, stand up and go over there to take off your shoes. Time for the socks drill.
Holy cow. We all made it and, socks donned, we formed up into our single file again. Robin muttered “Did you see that gap? What the hell did we just do?” I replied “Shhhh,” and she understood it wasn’t a good idea to let on to the retired teacher what we had spotted. She had obviously been smart enough to follow Gliss’s instruction to not look down during that passage.
The full skeleton splayed out on the cave floor, carefully roped off with engineer’s tape, was worth the effort to achieve the viewing. Of course Gliss took the opportunity to fill us in on a bit of fact and a lot of educated guesswork about what, who, why this obvious display of a human corpse, way back in the day, way back at the rear of this cave.
The thing sure looked spooky there in the harsh shadows of our lights, the bones (or whatever they had turned into by now from leaching of limestone) appearing as fragile as piles of dust.
As we stood close together, a few feet from the skeleton, my claustrophobia crept in. The still and musty air, the closeness of our bodies squeezed in a narrow opening between walls, the deep pitch around us only barely penetrated by our weakening headlamps, the knowledge that we were heaven-knew-how deep under tons of rock — all combined to make me want to get the heck gone.
I was quiet most of the way back, as we retraced our steps back down the rusty ladder, across the cave floor that further bruised my tender soles. Back to the shoes (ahhh), back across that dang gap passage, down and down and swim and squeeze and swim some more and balance on tired legs, my back telling me it had had it.
Soon enough we were back in the twilight of the cavern entry, lowering ourselves one last time into now bitterly cold water, swimming out of the cave, out from under that huge overhang, slipping on rocks and soggy wooden steps, and back to the ancient ball court area, where a light lunch of fruit, a few strips of cheese and swarms of flies awaited us.
I could have eaten one of those Tapirs. Instead, we guzzled water, gnawed cheese, gulped fruit, swatted at flies, then started our 4 kilometer trek back up and down the jungle trail, re-crossing the river three times in the full heat of the equatorial afternoon. Steam rose from our clothes and heads, my sunglasses fogged, gnats and biting flies swarmed, sweat dripped into my eyes and the fine sand collected between my Teva outdoor sandal straps at every point they touched my skin raising painful blisters.
Hey, this is what it’s all about. Eco-adventure! Jungle trekking! Caving! Thirst, hunger, full bladder, aching body, and beat up feet combined to make me feel every single year of my, er, age.
We survived, and it’s in the re-telling that I appreciate fully the effort, commitment, tenacity, determination and sometimes just plain blissful ignorance that drives me to take such a “vacation”. Luckily Robin and I are both adventurous enough to want to experience such things and are physically able to endure them. All in all, a tale worth telling but you know, I’ve done my caving thing now and, like climbing pyramids, I’ll move on to something different for the next adventure.
Coda: the two things our adventures typically have in common is History and Nature. Tubing through a cave or down a river with a bunch of screaming people, or zip-lining, or riding in a 4-wheeler tearing up the landscape or blowing through water hyacinths in an ear-splitting airboat, for instance, simply isn’t it. Just sayin’.
We spent three nights at our “jungle lodge”, which was situated on a ridge in the piney highlands of the Belize Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. This reserve is located within a large alluvial river valley that serves as the key area of the country for vegetable and fruit farms, cattle ranches and dairy farms, and has been supporting agriculture and human habitation for thousands of years.
All of which meant, if you want to experience anything jungle-like, you need to travel in a vehicle with shot suspension along the washboard, dusty limestone track for almost an hour to get down to one of the many rivers and creeks and that form a network within the Cayo district of Belize. There, you can escape the heavy layer of slash-and-burn smoke and the ubiquitous fine dust from limestone roadways that criss-cross this heavily farmed area of western Belize.
A feature of our getaways is the opportunity to exchange the pollen and other delightful particulate inhalations of Atlanta for the fresh air of the tropics. We deliberately planned our trip to Belize during the dry season, when the winds are calm and the waters warm for snorkeling. Also, travel to the Caribbean at this time of year typically offers off-season rates and fewer visitors, while avoiding the bug swarms and other drawbacks associated by the rainy season.
Not for the first time, we had deplaned in Central America at the Belize airport to a heavy pall of smoke. From the time we walked off the aircraft until left the coast in the wake of the dive boat transferring us to Turneffe Atoll, we coughed and choked on the heavy smoke, dust and the fumes of the petroleum-and-water mix infrequently sprayed by trucks over the more heavily traveled limestone tracks.
So, on Saturday we were quite ready to bid Goodbye to the wonderful staff at Mariposa. Safely ensconced in a newish van with AC and shock absorbers, we rode a couple of hours back down the Western Highway to Belize City on the coast. The pall of smoke had been dispersed somewhat by rising winds the past day, which meant we were anticipating a rough 90-minute boat ride out to Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Atoll, some 25 miles or so off the Belize coast.
The resort’s 50-foot dive boat Big Bird handled the sizeable seas just fine as we and the other dozen or so guests aboard jammed ourselves into the driest places we could find, bracing ourselves, our water bottles and any miscellaneous handhelds into positions that might spare us injury from the heaving of the boat as it crashed headlong into seas that were 5-footers or more.
We enjoyed a short respite from the gyrations as our passage took us through an area of pristine mangroves, where we could easily see the sandy bottom some 15 feet beneath the hull through clear water.
Finally, after what seemed hours of noisy and uncomfortable running, we approached Blackbird Caye and the deep channel that cut through the fringing reef to the protected waters inside, and the resort dock. I could see we were going to turn 90 degrees or more to line up for that channel, so I scooted over to Robin and yelled above the noise of the twin diesels, the wind and the waves slamming the boat to hold on, we were going to virtually come about and we were gonna take those seas full abeam. She nodded and we both found something to grip as, indeed, that big boat gave a mighty heave, crawled up the face of a wave I didn’t even want to look over at, and, with dexterity that told me our skipper was indeed a skilled pilot, we executed that turn and surfaced right on through that channel and into the relatively calm waters of the inside of the reef.
Good thing everyone on that boat was an experienced diver and big seas boat passenger. Nobody got tossed, no gear went rolling over the deck, and calm expressions prevailed as we approached the dock and all began to gather their gear.
A significant tailwind gave us a couple of shoves as we stumbled along the dock boards. Once on land, I silently gave thanks to being on solid ground, even if my lower legs were getting sand-blasted.
This was our introduction to a wind-blown week on Blackbird Caye. We were here to snorkel every morning and afternoon, and to experience some of the most pristine coral reefs remaining in the Atlantic Ocean. But these high winds were weird– uncharacteristic for this time of year, these winds were more like what you’d see in the winter months, not in early May. My quick video panorama of conditions here: http://youtu.be/J8wffvrZwGY
Well, we were here, our room beckoned, we had a group orientation to attend in the palapa bar and then dinner, sleep, and we’d see what the morning conditions would be.
No other way to describe it, this was indeed awesome snorkeling, leaving nothing to disappoint.
While the morning seas were choppy inside the protection of the reef, and we had to do some energetic finning ever so often, we still had incredible visibility for most of the week, aided by the bright sunshine that lit up the corals and the amazing variety of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, rays and anything that caught our attention.
Our guide Chris was terrific- he was patient and relaxed snorkeler, allowing us ample time to hang in spots to simply watch fish doing their thing, or to enjoy the view of soft corals swaying in the surge or a fish cleaning station take on another customer. His knowledge of this environment was encyclopedic and he would point out critters in places I wouldn’t have known to look. Obviously he was well acquainted with the hidey-holes that certain critters or fish called home. You don’t become that acquainted with the locals without diving those areas a lot, and often.
I was delighted when he dove down to the sandy bottom to show us an electric ray. I have a trained eye to spot fish and critters, especially rays, but these electric rays totally had me baffled!
When Chris would spot an electric ray, he would take off a fin and, slowly sinking down to the bright white sandy bottom, he would gently slip the tip of the fin just under the nose of the ray. The ray then would raise itself from the bottom, none too fast, swim calmly a few feet away and settle down in another patch of sand. Then it would flip its wings a few times to cover itself with sand, and once again it was perfectly hidden in plain sight. Well, in plain sight for Chris, but not for me. I never did learn how to spot them accurately. Too many worm holes in the sand look just like the ray’s slightly oval, dark eyes.
Once however Chris pointed out across the sand and I looked and motioned “what?” and we floated briefly to chat. “Big ray over there,” he said. “Really?” I wondered. “Yes,” I remember him smiling impishly. “Really big ray.”
Oh, so I was looking for a Really big ray, and I sure spotted it. The animal was the biggest southern stingray I have ever seen, including the monsters that used to show up at Stingray City off Grand Cayman back in the early 1990s. Forget spotting the eyes, the bulges below the eyes were poking up at least 4 inches above the sand and the gap between them was easily 16-18 inches. When we approached (her, likely) she raised calmly up and, shedding sand in a big cloud, she moved off and soon swam out of sight. Holy cow, that was one monster stingray, easily the size of a dining room table seating 6. I looked around for Robin and she was right there just off my shoulder, nodding emphatically and arching her brows.
Subsequent dives brought new and fabulous sightings and experiences. Clouds of fish of almost every variety common in the Caribbean, including millions of tiny Sharp-nosed Puffer fish, breeding and dying.
Large predatory fish, from groupers to hog snappers to tarpon and barracuda were spotted. Turtles and spotted eagle rays swam in and out of the visibility curtain. Mature soft corals undulated in the currents. Unbleached corals reflected their true, healthy colors. Large hard corals, from brain coral to staghorn to elkhorn, were abundant. We even saw some sharks (although their numbers are very, very depressed.)
And–lobsters! Amazing. When we spotted a clump of 5 lobsters all crowded into a large hole in the reef, I got kinda teary-eyed because I realized, horrifyingly, that many years ago I had stopped looking for the signature antennae of these crayfish, once so common on the reefs of my native Florida. Heck, in the early 1970s I used to catch my limit of lobsters right off the coast of Dania beach in Ft. Lauderdale, within hearing distance from the tide line! I realized I had simply not seen lobsters anywhere in the Caribbean for many, many years. Not to say they aren’t out there but I had seen damn few, if any, in my travels criss-crossing the Caribbean basin.
If I was gratified by this experience, I was equally, and familiarly, dismayed when comparing notes with the highly experienced, knowledgeable and trained fish-spotters we shared the resort with that week.
Reef.org www.reef.org is the web site for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, described as “… a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists.” Every one of these folks is self-funded, and this group were fully outfitted with underwater still and video cameras and laptops and editing software. Everyone did 2-3 dives a day with their slates, ticking off the fish they spotted. Each day the group would meet in the palapa bar at 5pm to review what they’d seen, count fish, review fish images to freshen memories, and share videos.
What an amazing group of dedicated divers. I was overwhelmed and humble in the face of their knowledge and dedication. I thought I knew my Florida and Caribbean fish species, including juvenile phases of many, but whew, these folks are da bomb! Several are easily classified as true EXPERTS. It’s so cool that many of these folks have dived together in different seas around Planet Ocean. They give of their time, money, energy and enthusiasm to add to the international database of knowledge which is completely open to the public.
Too, these folks’ personal, hard-won experiences completely validate global climate change– not the cause(s), but most assuredly the impact on reef ecosystems. They remember all manner of locations back in the day and compare conditions, fish life, reef health, etc to today. Not a pretty picture- period.
Two of the member ladies were well into their 60s and were diving daily– and remember, the seas were massive, especially where they were, out in the open ocean, with no protective barrier reef. And that boat was a dangerous platform to get on or off, with all that gear and weight, even with the superior assist of the dive masters. It’s just plain dangerous to dive in 4-6 foot seas, under any circumstance. I surely enjoyed the confabs with these and others of the group over meals, and was delighted to share in their experiences.
The Great Blue Hole
This trip was simply amazing. A full day and a full contingent of divers aboard Big Bird, all of us off for a 90 minute drive out to the blue hole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Blue_Hole where divers plumbed the depths and we snorkelers tooled around the reef on top. A highlight was being buzzed by two Cessna planes that would have made an interesting shot from the perspective of a snorkeler, but no camera in hand!
Then it was off to Half Moon Caye for more snorkeling, diving, viewing the Red Footed booby colony, and of course a yummy island BBQ meal. Then back aboard for an amazing dive/snorkel at Lighthouse Reef. By the time we got back to the dock, we were all tuckered out. Fish class was held, as usual, and after dinner folks drifted away to their cabanas to rest up for the following day’s dives.
Lionfish and the Green Moray
Many readers may know about the problem that lionfish pose in the Atlantic. The population of these non-indigenous predator have simply exploded across the Atlantic, impacting fish and reef systems in ways we’re only beginning to understand. They have few predators. Divers spear them whenever they can. Lionfish rodeos spring up all over and dive clubs and other groups are pitching in to attempt to undo what aquarists have done, but the genie is out of the bottle and who knows what’s in store for many fish species.
In any event, one day the group came back with an amazing video clip. The dive master had speared a lionfish and tucked the dead fish into a nearby hole in the reef. Along came a large green moray eel, swimming out in the open over the reef- a rare sight. The eel disappeared into a hole in the reef and soon reappeared, the dead lionfish now a large lump in the eel’s throat. The eel writhed and gyrated, using its body muscles much like a snake, to crush the lionfish. Then the eel opened its mouth wide and out floated one, two then more of the venomous lionfish spines. Scratch one lionfish. That was an amazing video.
Our last day the gale-force winds finally subsided, making for calmer conditions and better visibility underwater. Quick video pan:
A group of us went snorkeling that afternoon on the outside of the reef. Suddenly someone yelled “Shark! Shark!” Rather than heading for the boat in a panic, this wise group all headed as quickly as their legs could propel them toward the person yelling! I laughed into my snorkel as I joined the clutch of folks and, sure enough, below us in about 25 feet of water, lying quietly on the bottom was a large nurse shark– all 7 feet of it. Nice to see a shark– any kind, these days. The finning of sharks for shark soup and other uses has truly taken a toll in the world’s oceans. It’s quite a statement to have people swim toward a sighting rather than away. That could have been a black tip or a Caribbean reef shark or a bull shark or any shark, but the mere fact of spotting a shark is perhaps becoming a rarity, especially in some oceans. That’s a hell of a situation.
I’ve waxed philosophic and perhaps sophomoric in this posting, but I guess like our trips, my musings must come to a close. I don’t claim to have any real insights, just observations about our travels. More and more, these trips into the Caribbean are becoming bitter sweet, less fun adventure and more frequent and alarming exposure to What Man Hath Wrought.
I can say I’m not at all proud of the legacy my generation and the ones before us have left the planet. I can say that this trip has given me hope– hope that governments like that of Belize, in partnership with NGOs and just plain ol’ folks, are trying to save something for the future, even as we all grapple with the consequences of too many people, too little space, greed, overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, greed, ignorance, and more greed.
I reference a heroine of mine, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed oceanographer, explorer, environmentalist and National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. Here’s her famous, award-winning TED talk in which she speaks of what she calls Hope Spots on the planet, marine protected areas critical to the health of the ocean: www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans
Trip photos w/ captions here:
B-B-B-brrr! Belize was a bit chilly on the Saturday of our arrival. It was early November, 2010- an overcast, windy day. But hey, it was better than the chill and the rain we’d left back home in Atlanta. And when the sun came out, things tended to warm up quickly!
Robin and I had planned this trip over a year ago and by the time it arrived, we were both more than ready to chill on a beach somewhere. I had been home for three days from a week-long business trip to San Diego. The days at this major annual conference and trade show (where my employer featured prominently) were lengthy, fun, and energizing, but I was plumb wore out by the time I got back home. Plus, the 3 days at work in-between trips proved to be lengthy and chock-full of meetings. My battery was running seriously low.
On a Saturday, we made our way to the Atlanta airport for the direct flight to Belize City. From there, we caught a quick 20-minute flight in a small plane to the island of Ambergris Caye, “la Isla Bonita”. I was looking forward to my third trip to Ambergis Caye and Robin was looking forward to her first exposure to the Belizian culture and to experiencing another tropic vacation in the Caribbean.
The interested reader can find, elsewhere in this blog, tales of two previous visits to the island, and the adventures therein. This visit was slated to be laid-back, with emphasis on much-needed rest and taking advantage of the opportunity to snorkel the fabulous reef just offshore of the island, when weather permitted.
Kenny, the erstwhile, if practically useless, property manager of the condo we rented met us at the San Pedro airstrip. We quickly piled luggage and ourselves into the golf cart we had rented for the week and headed up-island. Threading our way along the crowded, dusty streets of the town of San Pedro, we made a quick stop at the market for snacks and drinks, and within minutes we were over the bridge that spans the “cut”, a narrow inlet that separates the north end of the island from the south end. Shortly afterward we pulled into Bermuda Beach, the beachside condo complex that was to be home for the next week.
After a perfunctory review of the obvious by Kenny (“Here’s your balcony, this is the living room, there are the two bedrooms, each has a bath, this is the kitchen, here is the washer and dryer”), we kindly demurred over his offer of “making arrangements” for our reef trips (he wanted cash, up front—not the typical arrangement on Ambergris Caye. Or anywhere else in the Caribbean, for that matter. I sniffed a hustler). We shuffled Kenny off to Buffalo, unpacked, and had a drink on the balcony. The view from our second storey balcony was lovely- looking over the pool surrounded by tropical plantings and out to the nearby reef.
It was time for a mid-afternoon lunch back in town, so we jumped in the golf cart, tooled over the bridge and ended up at Fido’s (Fee’-do’s), a fixture of San Pedro eateries on the beach, its high and massive thatched roof towering over the town. I had been looking forward to reacquainting myself with Fido’s signature Kalua Colada drink, the Purple Parrot, and was not disappointed when it quickly showed up at our table. Yummy! Unfortunately, the food wasn’t terrific, and in fact by that evening I was sick. What a drag, to spend the first night and next day feeling sick. Same thing happened when we vacationed on the island of Anguilla in the spring. I wondered if this was becoming a habit.
Anyway, Sunday was windy, cloudy, and cool, with intermittent light rain, so we passed on the snorkeling in rough seas and instead found Ak’ Bol, a cute, scenic and low-key beach-side bar/eatery near our digs, just a few minutes of B-B-B-banging in the golf cart down the rutted, deeply and amply potholed sandy track that serves as the “road” for the northern portion of Ambergris Caye.
At Ak’ Bol we discovered terrific food, great drinks, and good prices. This yoga-retreat featured several low, thatched-roof cottages snuggled among lush, tropical trees and shrubs. A long dock with a large, thatched-roof open pavillion on the end extended into the quiet water in the lee of the fringing reef. The beach bicycle path ran through the property near the water, framed by large sea grape trees and gracefully curving coconut palms. There was nobody on the path, no nearby buildings, little golf-cart traffic out on the road at the back of the property, and only two people sitting on the high stools at the bar. Perfect! Just our kind of place.
The owner, a somewhat dyspeptic aged hippie ex-pat Gringo, compete with lengthy, dusty grey dreadlocks and a leathery tan, turned out to be a kind and handy source for expeditions to the nearby reef. We easily made arrangements with one of his employees to take us out on the reef, and availed ourselves of the inexpensive, private trips on several subsequent days.
The reef just offshore of Ambergris Caye is part of the fringing reef that runs down the coast of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size, this magnificent coral garden has been (mostly) protected by the government and the citizens of Belize for decades. As a result, the coral is in terrific shape, with a healthy population of tropical fish and visits from large schools of ocean fish and predators. It is not unusual to spot turtles, sharks, large sting rays, spotted eagle rays, and even green moray eels as one tours popular snorkel spots like Mexico Rocks, Tres Cocos, the” cut” and of course the marine park Hol Chan. We drank it all in during the week, and with the exception of one day when the wind was too high, we managed to snorkel on four different days.
At Hol Chan, Robin got to see a giant grouper and many of its smaller cousins, clouds of snappers, a 6-foot, free-swimming moray eel, magnificent spotted eagle rays, sting rays, and nurse sharks in the depths of the shipping channel that cuts through the reef, allowing large boats access to the insland. We swam within touching distance of numerous turtles that were feeding in the shallows on the back side of the reef. I was heartened to hear our vigilant guides warn neophyte snorkelers to avoid chasing the turtles, as doing so would stress the animals and keep them from breathing when they needed to the most.
This time of year the water was cool, so we wore our skins and rented shorty wet suits to allow us to stay a few more minutes in the water on each dive. Our captains and guides eyed our warmies with envy- poor guys, they had to snorkel in swim trunks and t-shirts, quickly bundling up in hooded jackets after each dive. While we were warm in the water, we got more than our share of goose bumps during the boat rides back to the dock. We often donned our windbreakers, but still, B-B-B-brrrrr! We’d sit in the sun out of the wind when we got back to warm up, just like the rock iguanas that hung out around the condo sea wall.
Evenings we would drive over the bridge and into town to grab a bite, which was more often than not street food, which was plentiful, fresh, yummy and inexpensive. BBQ chicken, rice, beans, and some plantains were the mainstays and suited us just fine. Sometimes we ate fish and we enjoyed the papusas made famous by the fabulous ladies at Waraguma, a hole-in-the-wall eatery on the main drag in town. Passing golf carts stirred the dust that wafted in the window openings of Waraguma’s. As indeed the dust wafted everywhere in the town, settling thick on countertops, chairs, tables and on the collection of paperbacks at the tiny used book store we frequented. All part of the atmosphere. When inclined, we would escape the noise and bustle of the narrow town streets by hanging out at the bar of any of the restaurants that line the narrow beach of the town.
Several times we B-B-B-banged the golf cart from pothole to pothole, threading among palms, scrub and construction that, these days, makes up the northern end of the island. Three years ago I observed the beginnings of many construction projects, private homes, condos and resorts. The development is marching inexorably north of San Pedro, with a temporary slow-down caused by the Great Recession. But the signs are there, and I saw more new construction on the northern part of the island during our stay than what I’ve seen in the communities around our home in suburban Atlanta in the past 3 years. Unfortunately, Ambergis Caye is faced with the same dilemma that bedevils most Caribbean tourist destinations; rapid overdevelopment, precariously perched on inadequate and poorly-funded infrastructure. Fresh water, sewage, solid waste disposal and the taxed and aged electrical grid all vie for attention and go unheeded as more ex-pats pour into the country, looking to “live the dream” with their vacation home or retirement condo. Magazines, online articles, blogs and travel forums trumpet Paradise! Those who get the real story from the locals or ex-pats apparently haven’t paid a lot of attention to the many vacancies, unfinished and abandoned construction projects, and foreclosed and sadly untended properties that are now on the market for dimes on the dollar and remain unsold. Meanwhile, AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other tropical delights confound the poor, (and I haven’t even broached the topic of abandoned and stray former pets) who make up the vast majority of islanders who live in the hot, airless lee of the island, their tiny, tilting wooden homes perched on rotting stilts over brackish and sluggish water. Healthcare is hardly universal. Education is improving, but statistics like high infant mortality, unemployment, children borne out of wedlock, alcoholism and an average annual income of $1200.00 US (not a typo- that’s twelve hundred dollars) tell the real story of this former “banana republic”.
Anyway. There we were, spending our hard-won dollars, doing our best to support some economy, somewhere. We could sink into despair over the plight of a third-world country, or revel in the “great deals” we secured for a just-off-season vacation. But we did neither. We mostly lived in the moment, taking and giving and enjoying what, for us, was a much-needed break from work and a wintery Atlanta.
All in all we had a fine time, even though we had to deal with Kenny-the-wanna-be-grifter. The story of Kenny would be fun to tell if it wasn’t such a sad reflection of a person who (sometimes?) works hard for very little, and who clearly saw us as easy targets for his sad but rather lame schemes. Suffice to say we dealt with him firmly, and without rancor.
The sun broke out hot and welcoming, promising a fine, flat day on the reef. But of course it was Saturday, time for us to head home. Oh well. We did enjoy our rest, the atmosphere of the island, the quiet and bucolic surrounds of the as-yet-untrammeled areas north of the cut, the warm and friendly people of San Pedro and of course the snorkeling.
The relatively quick trip from San Pedro to Atlanta (about 7 hours total travel time) had us home on Saturday evening in time for me to unpack my dusty carry-on, repack it with business attire, pack the laptop and Blackberry, catch a few hours of sleep, then head back to the airport for a week of business meetings in Las Vegas.
As much as I enjoyed meeting with and getting to know co-workers, the rapid change of pace, time zone and atmosphere resulted in jarring, noisy, and smoky culture shock. Under other circumstances I might have enjoyed the trip, but the contrast between what I had just left to long hours in recirculated hotel air and the man-made, manufactured, heavily populated, noisy casino bustle was, at best, off-putting. In any event, the days and nights I spent in meetings with (delightful) co-workers were lengthy and tiring. Late at night, when I laid awake, still on Belize time, I found myself drifting back to Ambergris Caye, to a quiet afternoon spent soaking up the sun at the Palapa Bar, sipping a cold concoction, eating fish tacos and listening to the sound of the ocean breaking on the reef, while waiting for the perfect moment to click a photo of that stunning sunset over la Isla Bonita.
Belize City airport (BZE) is hot at 11am on a Saturday morning in May. After a direct flight on the big Delta bird from Atlanta, we get in line to catch the 30 minute Tropic Air flight over to Ambergris Caye. Some 25 miles long, Ambergris Caye is the largest and most developed of about 200 small islands off the coastline of Belize. Most of the island’s 7,000 inhabitants live in the town of San Pedro, located in the southern part of the caye. San Pedro has the cosy, laid-back atmosphere of a small village with its wooden houses and sand streets.
We buzz over to Ambergris Caye, enjoying the views of the shallows between the reef and the mainland. Spotted a group of 3 sharks swimming in the shallows off an islet and a Mayan Air flight headed back to BZE.
We find ourselves standing out in the hot sun at Ambergris Caye airport, getting windblown and dust-coated and grinning stupidly while waiting for luggage to be brought out of the plane’s belly. Grab a cab and off we go to the Super Mart to get water and beer and other goodies. Back in the cab for a very short ride to entry of Xanadu, our home for the next week. We’re here! Alex meets us, grabs our luggage and, after we check in at the desk and chat with Susan, we chill at the pool for a bit while our room is prepped. Soon we’re unpacked and organized in our lovely, comfy and cool digs. Let’s go make arrangements to get on a boat for snorkeling tomorrow!
The week flies by, each day taken up with activities. We snorkel Hol Chan preserve, visit sharks & rays at Shark Ray Alley, snorkel Mexico Rocks (our fav spot), where we swim with spotted eagle rays and a couple of large, curious barracuda. We spot a sleeping nurse shark and get eyeballed by a passing loggerhead turtle.
One day we trip over to Lamani ruins on the mainland, a highlight. We’re accompanied by a group of middle-school age kids, who are on a romp. One poor soul, Carlos, gets motion sickness at the drop of a hat and between the fast boat from AC to the village of Bomba in the jungle, he’s pretty green with the twists and turns as we zip along up-river in that fast craft, banking crazily around tight turns in the mangroves, throwing up a 10 foot wall of rooster tail off the lee chine.
We get to Bomba mid-morning, where it is hot, still, dusty. Some avail themselves of the “one star” el banyo while others poke their heads into dim, hot huts sporting local crafts that are, IHMO, overly priced and not particularly unique. A local boy is walking around with two orphaned baby parrots on his shoulders. People take pix and chat with the young man, who explains he found the birds in the nearby jungle and is taking care of them. They seem perfectly content to be perched where they are.
We hop aboard the dust express, where, after about 10 mins of roaring down a dusty track, zigzagging potholes, we screech to a halt to let Carlos rush down the steps and outside to lose his breakfast. The other kids peer curiously out the widows at Carlos then, all together, go “ughhh! Argh!!” and make faces. The adults roll their eyes and speculate on what can help settle his stomach. He will keep this up all day, on the bus, on the boat, back on the bus, back on the other boat… it will be a long day for poor Carlos.
The bus arrives at our mid-way point, where we break for the “two star” el banyos, baking in the heat. A large, open pavilion next to the New River gives some shade and catches fitful breezes as we await the signal to hop aboard the next boat and another fast, windy, twisting and high-banking ride 25 miles up river to where Lamani ruins perch on a high hill overlooking a large lagoon.
Gee, we’re here just at noon, when the equatorial sun is at its zenith. We wilt in the heat under a pavilion, eating a nice, hot meal (!) of BBQ chicken and rice and plantains and oh-my-God I just want a frozen drink. Water and soft drinks are disappearing fast from the cooler. We soon make our way up to the airless museum, where we politely swelter and drip while our extraordinarily knowledgeable guide and boat captain attempts to hold the kids’ attention while pointing out certain artifacts in the glass cases. Most folks wander outside to catch a breeze.
Off down the canopied trails to the ruins. This is the fun part, stomping along these high mounds made centuries ago by these ancient peoples, surrounded by jungle growth, bird calls and howler monkey grunts, groans and growls that echo through the trees. We trip over roots as we crane our necks- look, there’s a toucan! Very cool to spot one in the wild. Our guide knows all the critters by their calls and keeps us fully informed about all things Mayan, including trees and shrubs like the “stink toe” root, which, when cut, smells just as you might imagine—really yuk! Soon we approach the first of 4 excavated temples, one of which is a tomb.
Soon we are looking up at the steep stairs of the largest temple, and of course I break my promise to myself that I’ll not clamber up another danged pyramid again, not after doing my share in Mexico but no, it’s mid-day and the sun is baking me while I start up, up those steep and eroded steps to the top, where I doubt there is a stick of shade but where I know I can count on a breeze and a hellofa view across the jungle canopy to the lagoon below. Yep, there’s a view after all, and I perch on about 9 square inches of crumbling limestone, with a sheer drop all the way to the jungle floor at least 8 stories below, where I know there’s shade, if only I can get down these dang steps without falling headlong as my head swims from vertigo. Those dang teenagers are frolicking like mountain goats and I feel every bit of my middle age years. Ouch, that stone is Hot!
Safely back on terra firma, sucking on the warm water bottle like a mother’s teat. We catch our collective breath, round up the stray kids and stumble off to the other temples that have been torn from the jungle overgrowth. We know we are faced with at least 4 more hours of back-tracking, including the flying boat ride down the New River to the bus to the other boat. We run out of water, soft drinks, fruit, food and energy and poor Carlos never gets to keep anything in his stomach, all day. We finally approach the dock at Xanadu just as the sun is sinking rapidly into the sea, tired but happy travelers.
I seem to recall walking up the beach to, I think it was Blue Water Grill, where I intended to slowly sip a frozen Kalua Colada, but which I gulped greedily to “drop my core temperature”. This is critical therapy after a long, hot day’s trek into the jungle, be sure to make a note.
A wonderful meal (vaguely recalled), followed by a leisurely stroll (and a bit wobbly from the boat movement still going on in my head) under the full moon back to Xanadu and oblivion. We enjoyed our nightly walks along the beach under that full moon, in a brisk onshore breeze as we went to and from different restaurants.
The sun comes up and the birds start squawking about 5:30 am, so we were up too, getting an early (and s l o w) breakfast at Coconut’s up the beach. Later, we caught a boat to Hol Chan and snorkeled with the crowds – heaven knows what the place is like on season. It reminded me of cattle boats dumping crowds off at any number of sites in John Pennekamp State Park off Key Largo in Florida, my home. Oh well, it was cool and wet and plenty of fish to see and hear.
Next stop was Shark Ray Alley. If one hasn’t been close to somewhat tame southern sting rays and nurse sharks, it’s a fun stop—perhaps. Personally, I’ve been there, done that after 30 years of diving and I truly don’t approve of grabbing sting rays or any other animal and forcefully holding it and stopping it from locomoting as it will. Much less do I approve of grabbing rays by their sensitive noses, where there are literally thousands of minute sensing cells that they use and need to help them feed. One large female had her tail bobbed off at the root and nobody can convince me that wasn’t done by a human hand—I was appalled to see her mutilation and she was particularly shy of being handled. Good for her!
Subsequent snorkel trips were private charters or nearly so, as we were visiting on off-season. We took a day trip over to Caye Caulker and snorkeled a half day there on broken, beat up, bleached-out reefs lacking the fish life we had seen off AC. Operators on AC told us the business is unregulated on CC and the folks there simply don’t care for their reef as do the operators on AC—I believe it. I’ve seen some pristine reefs in my time and I’ve watched the Florida keys decline from the late 1960s through the late 1990s, when some areas have begun to recover, but slowly. The shape of things to come off CC is not a pretty story- the reef will take decades to recover, if it gets the chance, between storms and being loved to death.
We spent a day sailing and snorkeling up the coast with Steve Rubio, owner of Unity Tours and captain of the No Rush catamaran. Steve is a friendly, knowledgeable and delightful host for an all day excursion snorkeling, fishing and beach BBQ-ing or an evening sunset sail or a ½ day snorkel trip.
Xanadu was our wonderful, relaxing, quiet home, not too far, not too close to the bustle of San Pedro town, which was as close as a walk or a bike ride.
All too soon it was time to retrace our steps, back to Tropic Air at the airport then to Belize City and the shock of arriving back in Atlanta to a cold, dreary, rainy Memorial Day weekend. We couldn’t even show off our tans, hidden as they were under long sleeves and jeans! Wahhh- take me back to Ambergris Caye, “la isla bonita”!
Post Script: We returned for a rainy Xmas week in 2006, where the highlight of the trip was snorkeling Bacalar Chico, a magnificently untouched marine environment up on the north (currently undeveloped) end of the island. If you want pristine snorkeling, get there quick, before the developers do!