Five days aboard a private sailboat, visiting uninhabited Caribbean islands, exploring reefs, relaxing in the tropical sun, enjoying peace and quiet, just we two, the skipper and his wife– those were our expectations. However, the brutal reality of seeing third world slums reflecting the 40% of people living in poverty, rampant rubbish and trash, air and noise pollution, and a rash of peevish details-gone-awry seemed determined to deflate our initial optimism about our week’s vacay in the tropics.
What brought us here initially was a desire to get out to the remote Guna Yala (aka San Blas) islands, located off the northern coast of Panama. This archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands is owned by the native Guna tribes, and harbors some of the remaining healthy, living coral reefs in Central America.
Once I discovered charter sailboats operating in the Guna Yala, it was a matter of delving into the selection of boats to settle on one that we might possibly secure, at the desired time of year (not windy season, not rainy season, not the height of tourist season). I eventually secured a private charter for Robin and myself on the stable, roomy 52 foot Blue Sky ketch for 5 days of island hopping and reef snorkeling.
Podcast: my interview with Chris Christensen of Amateur Traveler podcast about our trip to the Guna Yala islands.
Facing the Challenge
From the outset, I recognized that the most challenging part of the trip was going to be the process of transferring from Panama City to Carti, on the coast. Two plus hours drive from PC through rural countryside and rain forest road would bring us to where we would catch our launcha boat to Blue Sky’s anchorage behind a scenic tropical island.
The common transportation for backpackers and tourists to the Guna Yala from PC is primarily provided by a fleet of SUVs, owned and operated by various individuals and small businesses. Our hosts had made arrangements for our SUV, providing detail about the transfer that mirrored the reviews and trip reports I read on Trip Advisor, repeatedly warning visitors about the nausea-inducing rigors of the hilly, twisting, hour-long passage through the Cordillera Central mountains leading to the coast.
The airline schedules dictated we’d need to spend the night in Panama City (PC) both coming and going, so after much digging and communications on Trip Advisor, I settled on a “4-star” Starwood Hotels property, Le Meridien. We don’t typically opt for expensive hotels but the choices were limited because we needed to stay very near where our driver would pick up the boat provisions after he collected us the next morning between 5-6am. So, it was either a hostel with no hot water, or the Waldorf Astoria, the Intercontinental, or the Le Meridien.
Peevish details-gone-awry started to make themselves known when we arrived at the PC airport, to discover that our ride to the hotel would be late– about an hour and a half late. Should have stuck with my original plan, in which I had emailed our hosts not to worry about having us picked up at the airport, we’d simply cab it to our hotel. However, our hosts asked that we please use their driver. I get it. Always happy to route the money to the families that our hosts depend upon to help their business to run smoothly. But really. We could have been long settled into our room by the time Roger showed up, all smiles and sincerely embarrassed about his having mistakenly set his phone alarm for the wrong time.
Still in the glow of anticipation of the good times to come, we gave up our pique pretty readily and settled in to enjoy the ride in Roger’s air-conditioned van, even if it did completely lack shock absorbers or springs.
We left the airport, suffused in the orange miasma of heavy, oppressive smog that we had seen as we approached PC from the air. The mid-day haze over the ocean and the city seemed to add weight to the fetid, humid air, coated as it was with diesel exhaust pouring in thick black streams from city buses.
Cars zipped willy-nilly across traffic lanes, barely missing fenders and bumpers literally by millimeters. A crazed din of car horns assaulted my ears, and I was reminded of other Central American cities where blowing one’s car horn was apparently the most critical skill for any driver.
Car horns were used totally in lieu of turn signals, to indicate “Hey I just pulled up behind you, get moving!” to warn three lanes of traffic that you were cutting right across them NOW, to encourage people to rabbit-jump a traffic signal turning green, to intimidate drivers to run caution or even red lights, to alert pedestrians that you have no intention whatsoever of giving way, and to say “Hey look at me!” to pretty girls mincing along broken sidewalks.
I had gamely driven my way through such tumult in Cancun Mexico on Christmas Eve, San Jose Costa Rica during rush hour mornings and evenings, L.A. during rush hour in the pouring rain, and Boston during the era of the Big Dig. And of course Atlanta traffic for the past decade. Still. As familiar as the scene may be, each time I experience it, the adrenaline kicks in with a bit of the ol’ pucker factor.
The route that we took into the city generally used high-rise highways and so we didn’t get a good look at the slums (or barrios) that spread out below the highway overpasses, oozing up to the many glittering, modern office buildings, impressive skyscrapers, and high-rise condos of the city central. At first look, Panama was a fairly typical modern, cosmopolitan, crowded, busy, polluted, noisy city wrapped in a veil of smog and haze.
Arriving at our hotel in the neighborhood of El Cangrejo on the Avenida Balboa, the “… biggest upscale area of real estate development in Panama City and the most modern road”, we nearly slid right down the slick tiles covering the steep incline at the portico. We quickly snatched our roll-aboard luggage before it sped down-slope into the alley, where a line of cars coughing gas fumes jostled and honked and inched forward, trying to squeeze between parked cars on either side of the street, while dodging delivery and construction trucks backing blindly into the narrow passage.
The cacophony and diesel and gasoline fumes were simply mind-numbing. The doorman was gesturing to us, Roger was yelling something unintelligible, and the hotel parking guy-in-charge was gesturing frantically for Roger to move the van to make room for one of several cars waiting to perch on the slippery tiles and disgorge their unsuspecting riders. Sure hope those folks had on crepe soles!
In the din, I just plain forgot to pay Roger his fee for the ride, although I did manage to tip him the money I had palmed for the doormen. Nothing for it, Roger was long gone. The best we could manage would be to correct the mistake when we saw Roger next, on our way out of PC.
The expansive, brassy, glittering and cool lobby of the hotel greeted us, and we gratefully hauled up in front of the giant check-in desk. While the process unfolded, I looked around, noting the beckoning restaurant and bar area with its outside seating framed by a massive wall of thick glass, the 20-foot waterfall along the left wall pretentious with its see-through bridge across a little stream with colored up-lights embedded in the stream bed.
The elevators sported an array of LED lights, and both cars actually worked. We took one to the “Preferred Guest” floor, reserved for members of the Starwood Hotels guest program. I had signed up for the awards program when making the reservations, more out of curiosity about what goodies the program might offer a new member. As a cynical marketer, I didn’t expect much more than mints on our pillows.
Of course I had been assured by the scowling gent at the desk that we did indeed have a quiet room at the back of the property, just as I had requested. After all, we would be waking at 4:45 the following morning, in time to check out and be in the lobby for our shared SUV to the coast. We had awakened at 4am this day to head to the Atlanta airport. We needed all the rest we could muster.
Well, of course we got a room overlooking the busy Avienda Balboa below, with a view of the huge parking lot across the avenue and beyond that, the Bay of Panama.
I clawed back the heavy blackout drapes and through the grime on the plate glass, and the haze and thick smog, I could just make out the silhouettes of massive ships queuing up to pass through the Panama Canal.
“Well, how do you like our quiet room at the back of the property?” I ruefully asked Robin. She said “What?” as if the racket from the avenue below was louder than it was. Which was loud enough, believe me.
While I tiredly considered what to do if we came back after dinner and that loud TV blaring next door was still on, Robin checked the in-room safe to ensure it worked. Few seldom do, at least for us in our travels. Sure enough it wouldn’t encode any set of digits. Sighing with the inevitability of the runaround, Robin got on the phone to request a security or maintenance person to come check the safe.
Our plan was to pop out for an early dinner, then swing by the nearby supermercardo for a few personal boat snacks and to pick up the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested at the last minute. But we weren’t going anywhere until we could secure our passports and cash stash. We weren’t about to go strolling on city streets with all our valuables on us.
Two “security” guys showed up to check the safe and of course much mansplaining was launched to show two dumb gringas how to work a safe. Their English was sketch and Robin’s Spanish was stretched but her patience wore them down, as she slowly and repeatedly mimed and explained that A) she knew exactly how the safe worked, B) the digital keypad was broken and not accepting any inputs, C) the safe was not operational and we desired either a different room or a new safe.
It took some 8 minutes for these guys to poke, prod and mumble their way to the conclusion “So sorry, the safe is broken!” Sigh. Well at least they offered to fetch a replacement safe, and Robin’s wide smile and enthusiastic nods sealed the deal. In minutes they were back, unplugged the crap safe, plugged in the new one, and waited outside the room at Robin’s request while she checked that the thing would work. Yay! Success! Final gracias and so forth and we could now prepare to head out.
Considering the tiny fridge in the room wasn’t working so well either, some ice was needed for the complimentary, warm bottled water. I headed off to find the ice machine on the floor, but the thing had apparently been out of service for several months, if not years. Up to the fifth floor- same thing. Back to the room to report to Robin. She trotted down to the 3rd, then 2nd floor, with the same results.
Back in the room I was unpacking and Robin was on the phone to the front desk, again, explaining that no ice machine on any floor was working (we hadn’t checked the 6th floor, but no sane person would believe they’d find a working ice machine there, either). Mr. Scowls at the Front Desk begrudgingly sent someone up with a tiny bucket of ice.
Honestly, we are not the demanding, high-maintenance pain-in-the-butt gringas. We never send meals back, we are always saying thank you and smiling, we tip well. But man I was parched, tired, grimy and not a little put out with the “services” we’d experienced so far as “Preferred Guests” in this supposed “4-star” hotel. I bit down on angry frustration, and settled for a bit of a funk.
Tripping the Streets of El Cangrejo
Off we strolled to find the restaurant and the market near the hotel. I had mapped both, but we found it difficult to traverse the broken sidewalks, smashed curbs and dangerous intersections in the din of the city streets at rush hour. Tripping around in the heat and smog, we practically shouted directions to each other as we walked for dozens of blocks, retracing our steps past a city park, and past a forlorn 19th century hotel apparently converted to low-rent apartments, its once-splendid facade now reduced to cracked plaster, peeling paint, and broken concrete steps flanked by the remains of giant concrete planter pots. The sagging edifice was shaded by a massive ficus tree supporting a leaning, rusted bicycle. A dog tied to the bike casually lifted its leg on one of the numerous roots jutting through large sections of cracked sidewalk.
Our evening stroll continued, past the fancy glass fronted auto dealership flanked by yet another hotel or high-rise condo entry. Just one block off Avienda Balboa, the neighborhood mutated from glass upscale-veneer retail to a jumble of overhead power lines, narrow, crumbling storefronts with bars across the windows, overflowing dumpsters, and numerous empty lots strewn with garbage, plastic, and cast-off appliances rusting in the rubble.
The only eatery open in the area that wasn’t outside food service in the noise, dust and searing sun was a Mexican restaurant. We were greeted by welcoming if anemic air conditioning and the owner, who was perched at a shaky table with his laptop.
Twenty minutes later we paid and left the remains of our unappetizing meals of slightly “off” meat served in oil-soaked tortillas, and headed to the supermercardo. The familiar act of food shopping in a foreign market was somehow reassuring, as we negotiated narrow aisles and the crush of impatient workers on their way home after apparently a grump-inducing day.
I idly realized that so far most of the folks we’d run into, except for poor unpaid Roger, had proven to be ill-tempered and impatient. Ah well, maybe it was the heat, and that unremitting city din getting on everyone’s nerves. We certainly weren’t in Costa Rica, the land of the friendly Ticos, any more, Toto!
We found suitable snacks and drinks to bring aboard Blue Sky (soft drinks and beer offered only at lunch and dinner, water free, all other potables the guest’s responsibility). Paying for them was an adventure, but Robin’s Spanglish prevailed.
I waited outside in a speck of shade, collecting another coat of street dust and grime, while Robin trotted to a small store up the street to purchase the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested.
Purchases in hand, we returned to our room and to the neighbor’s TV blaring incessantly. Once again Robin phoned down to the desk, where a more helpful person assured us we could get ice for our small travel cooler in the morning- at 4:30am. We might even get a cup of coffee. We rolled our eyes and hoped for the best.
The gringo couple next door was kind enough to turn down the TV volume upon my respectful request, and after showers and re-packing for our journey to the boat, we turned in for a somewhat restful night’s sleep, the traffic and horns and sirens on the avenue below barely muted by earplugs.
A Panama City Dawning
4:30am Panama was 5:30am Atlanta, so we felt positively refreshed as we blearily dragged our carry-ons and backpacks down to the lobby. Hurrah! Coffee and little slices of breakfast cake were on a sideboard and ice appeared in the small cooler we passed off, ensuring that at least 3 cold beers would make it aboard Blue Sky.
The SUV ride through the barrios of PC was eye-opening, as much as we could see of derelict buildings. The SUV’s headlights swept over old colonial apartments with peeling stucco and bars over every window, litter in the gutters, and scrawny and mangy dogs picking through the garbage in the alleys and empty lots. We picked up a couple of backpackers at a hostel, its narrow facade faint under a wan street light. Police cars with screaming sirens passed in the street below. Everyone aboard was quiet, struggling to wake up in the predawn.
After thirty minutes winding through the narrow streets of the city’s barrios, we collected another young backpacker couple and were brought to a large food market tucked into the ground floor of a high-rise of some sort. Various tricked-out trekker SUVs were parked among the building’s support columns, sporting heavy roof luggage racks, snorkels, and a host of dings and bashed-in fenders and rear hatch doors.
With no explanation, our driver jumped out and joined the other SUV drivers milling about. We all sat quietly in a stew of confusion mixed with a tiny tinge of apprehension. Someone in the rear of the SUV muttered something followed by a nervous laugh.
Our driver’s door was suddenly wrenched open and an in-charge kinda guy leaned in, announcing in a loud voice in Spanish that, well, the gist was “Pay me your $25 per person fee now and soon your driver will return and we’ll all be on our way.”
It’s amazing what you can do with a smattering of a foreign language, talking to someone who has a smattering of yours, followed by gestures and lots of facial expressions to reinforce pleasure, agreement, confusion, and the fact that you do not intend to move until we work this all out. Yeah we didn’t need to go there just now, but the time would come, I could just sense it.
This is where we have learned to trust arrangements made by hosts or whoever our in-country connection may be. I could see that Tito, the guy who managed his little fleet, ran a tight ship, reflected in the deference shown him by several drivers, including ours.
As suggested by our hosts, I pre-paid for our return SUV trip and watched Tito put our names into his phone to hold our seats, exactly as our hosts had said he would. A smile, a nod, a quick handshake and we were assured we’d have a ride back to the city. Not everyone knew to do this, which would catch some folks unprepared.
To the Guna Yala Islands
Tito doled out some cash to his drivers, who all dispersed smartly to their respective SUVs. We were finally headed out to the Caribbean coast of Panama, a line of SUVs in various states of repair, swirling up clouds of dust and street litter, madly accelerating and decelerating, scattering dogs and pedestrians as we muscled our way, horns blaring, through crowded roundabouts and around delivery vans parked with their butts protruding into the street.
We passed the newer Metro city buses plugging along in their reserved lane, coughing clouds of oily black diesel smoke and past gaily painted Diablo Rojos (Red Devils), converted school buses that are owned by individuals and painted with crazy colors and designs, each spewing its own oily diesel clouds.
The poverty and the filth in which many of the poor live was on display right outside our tinted windows. People crouched beside shanties and cobbled-together hovels growing like mushrooms under overpasses, dotting the vista of construction rubble, refuse and garbage.
Faded billboards proclaimed the glitter and glamour of the “Coming Soon” mega-mall and surrounding luxury high-rise condos and hotels. Beyond these, giant beautiful faces and photos of jewelry and well-dressed families mounted on plywood sheets and attached to hurricane fencing marched up and over a steep hill, disappearing in the haze.
Behind the fence stretched an expanse of weed-choked, refuse-strewn dirt and rubble, I could glimpse through the smog tiny figures of people and dogs crossing into the distance toward the line of skyscrapers, giant cranes and highway overpasses.
The entire scene reminded me of the set of a dystopian science fiction movie or otherworld online game, the middle and far distance filled in with clever computer graphics.
Soon we were on the highway out of town. The scenery changed to large tracts of weedy land decorated with windblown plastic bags, litter and refuse, interspersed by large commercial warehouse or transportation facilities, then the airport and its surrounding blight, then on to the countryside of gently rolling hills and scrub, a few ranches and cattle estates beginning to dot the middle ground between the highway and the Cordillera Central mountain range on the horizon.
We were leaving PC just as rush hour was building, as attested to by the miles, and I do mean miles, of traffic gridlock in the opposing lanes. Compact and sub-compact cars, delivery trucks and buses honked and inched their way toward the city receding in our SUV’s side view mirrors.
An hour or so later, we came to the turnoff for the infamous Road to Carti, where we would catch the launcha to Blue Sky. This road was not too long ago a muddy morass or roughly graded road. In spite of being paved, the route is still a nausea-inducing, bat-out-of-hell twisting, turning, roller-coaster ride that had many SUVs in the line of vehicles stopping to regurgitate vomiting passengers.
Luckily nobody in our SUV succumbed to the “scenic” ride through the mountainous rain forest to the “port” where we, and dozens of other green-faced visitors, finally unloaded bags to make our way past the rough-and-ready restaurant, and over muddy gravel to the concrete dock where launchas in various states of repair awaited passengers for islands and charter boats.
Unfortunately, this location on the northern coast of Panama is absolutely downwind from the prevailing winds and currents of the western Guna Yala islands. This means that all manner of plastic and other flotsam and jetsam washes up on these shores. As far as we could see, a virtual wall of garbage washed back and forth in the waves as they lapped ashore, the heaps marching well inland.
Overflowing trash barrels festooned with flies, sodden cardboard boxes, boat parts, rusted equipment, bedsprings, toys, plastic water bottles, plastic ware, clothing, sheets of plastic, torn tarps, ropes and lines and string and god knows how many single flip-flops, crocs and other footwear decorated the ground no matter where you looked.
In the midst of the sea of crap was the crapper, a concrete structure raised some 4 feet above ground, featuring 4 individual stalls for ladies on the left and 4 for gents on the right.
A Guna woman dressed in her typical colorful native attire, slumped in a broken-down chair in a strip of shade, her tiny worn and wrinkled hand extended for the quarter paid by each guest. I was glad I kept tissue in my pocket, although it, like all paper, was deposited in the plastic wastebasket beside the toilet. No running water here, in the Guna Yala (land of the Guna people).
For me, this entire scene was worse than all the garbage, trash, dust, sick and scrawny dogs and urchins we’d seen as we made our way through Panama city to the outer reaches and into the litter-strewn countryside. I was beyond funk and dismayed beyond description. My photo of a Guna woman, sitting dejectedly on the dock, her head covered and her back to the wind, her face to all that garbage, really captures the essence of the refuse heap that is the port of Carti. What Man Hath Wrought.
Blue Sky– and Beyond
The hour-long ride in the launcha, out to Blue Sky’s anchorage, through a heavy wind-driven chop, tested our pain threshold as our butts took a real beating on those hard benches. The launcha slammed down hard in rapid succession the entire way. We deployed our inflatable pads to cushion our backsides and provide some relief to our backs. As luck would have it, we were both in physical therapy for swollen discs– therapy that was interrupted for this trip.
Here’s a quick video capturing our launcha ride! And below, we’re aboard the launcha, with inflatable butt-pads nestled between us and the wet bench seat.
What a welcome sight to pull up beside Blue Sky! It only took a bit of Cirque-du-Soleil twisting to step over bench seats, under the Bimini top, and clamber aboard Blue Sky’s deck some 4 feet above the bow of the launcha. Thank goodness for the help with our bags and backpacks, I was pretty much out of steam, even as I stood in that hot sun on the deck, greeting our hosts with a big grin on my face. I saw Robin visibly sag with relief as she stepped under the wide expanse of blue canvas providing ample shade on the broad after deck of the boat.
A steady breeze wafted faint cinnamon aroma from the tiny island off the bow of the boat. I drank in the scene: the sun glittering off the waves and reflecting the blues and turquoise colors of the sea around us, the bright green of the palm trees waving hello from the island, the bright yellow-white of the sandy beach and tongue of sandbar seeming to anchor the island.
Layer in the waves breaking over the fringing reef to the windward of the island, the salt air, the gentle movement of the boat as it swung on the anchor. Oh my, how many decades had it been since I had experienced these all at the same time?
The blue funk, my painful back, and too many nights of poor sleep all simply fell away. It may have taken real stamina to get to this point, but here we were. I was determined to absorb every morsel out of the experience that I could.
Aboard and Below
Our hosts skipper Breeze and his wife and first mate Debbie knew we were here to snorkel. They had a logical if fixed order of islands to visit each day, an itinerary that found us, on the first two bright, sunny days of our 5 day stay in the Guna Yala, anchored off exotic-appearing tiny islands with glittering sandy beaches, surrounded by rather blah patch reefs with few fish.
I knew that the mid-term NOAA marine forecast for the region predicted the last 3 days of our trip to be beset by rain, wind, and thunderstorms. I was hoping we’d get to snorkel a decent wall, with more soft and hard corals and a lot more fish, while the sunny weather lasted.
Each day we moved to a different tiny, uninhabited island, where a short dingy ride would bring us to a series of patch reefs and, on two occasions, very nice reef walls near two of the uninhabited islands/islets in the western Guna Yala islands.
On the first wall we snorkeled, highlights were spotting three Porcupine fish, one of the talismans we seek on every dive.
These cute, shy members of the puffer, or balloon, or blowfish tribe, typically tuck well back into deep crevices and holes within the living reef, making them difficult to see. We luckily spied two swimming free, which was a treat. The largest fish was playing hide and seek under a pillar coral, but we could easily see it was about the size of a fat adult dachshund, which is large for these guys! And really, who can resist that timid, wide smile?
Sighting the Porcupine fishes pretty much signaled the end of the wonder. On our second day, we slipped off the dingy and into warm, soothing seawater. Almost immediately, I realized we were swimming through a sea of trash, garbage, plastic sheets, torn tarps, pill bottles, shoes, and assorted crap. It was so bad that I had to keep wiping my hairline at my mask skirt, and untangling crap from around my snorkel. There was no way I could realistically collect all the trash I saw floating around and below me, which is what I usually try to do. I couldn’t help but be struck by a deep sense of dismay and foreboding. What are we doing to our planet? The seas? Where are the fish? Where are the living coral reefs? What is this liquid dystopia?
This was positively the worst, a real capper to the godawful scene of the shitshow ashore at Carti. Over three decades, I’ve grown steadily disenchanted while observing the results of the steady, unremitting trashing of our seas, the death of reefs, the depopulation of fisheries, the sorrow of silent, bleached and abandoned reefs waiting forlornly and pointlessly for the fish to return. This time I really did cry behind my mask. As I write, I am filled with loathing, revisiting the scene in all its vivid, revolting detail.
Getting a grip, I realized that pissing and moaning or getting all wound up in a harangue against the gods would make no difference and would certainly rain on everybody’s parade. As it was, we were gonna see plenty of rain.
Tranquilo and Local Color
Our hosts Breeze and Debbie certainly did their best to help make our stay aboard their home Blue Sky a pleasant and safe one. Our water and drinks were kept chilled in a fridge, the meals were terrific, and safety first reigned– even as the music played, all day, every day, until after dinner. I could have used a break in the unremitting tune fest, to listen to the waves slapping Blue Sky’s hull or the waves breaking over the exposed reef just beyond that little island.
Here I will digress just a smidgen to point out that, for me, quietude and tranquility are THE primary reason I seek the great outdoors. Whether on vacation or after a hectic week of work, trading human-made racket for the sounds of nature is a critical component of getting away from it all. Check out this article, by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, which makes my point more eloquently than I can do here.
Robin enjoyed tranquility on several occasions when she kayaked around an island where we were anchored, or way off to the south, toward the coastal mountains. She was careful to remain within sight of the boat, and the sure knowledge of chitras (sand flies) that inhabit every island kept her aboard her little craft. A newly-developed case of persistent bursitis in my right shoulder meant I couldn’t join her in the second kayak. Too bad, because I would have greatly enjoyed just sitting and floating upwind of Blue Sky and in the lee of the reef, listening to the waves crashing over the reef top, the wind in the palm trees, and the call of frigate birds when they cruised overhead.
Not all was doom and gloom. We enjoyed spotting a turtle on the surface, and Robin enjoyed watching a spotted eagle ray cruise by the reef on two occasions.
We also had a visit from the fruit boat and a lovely Guna couple, friends of our hosts who were happy to show us the wife’s stunning Molas. These well-known and collected examples of traditional Guna skills are each hand-stitched, using the technique of reverse applique. This process requires patience, time, imagination, and extraordinary stitching skills.
Our third day aboard, we dared darkly threatening skies to jump into the dingy with Breeze to motor over to a shallow anchorage near the reef off yet another pretty little island. Robin and I slipped into the water and we all made our way against the moderate current over a (thankfully) lovely wall that started some 4 feet below the rain-patterned surface and disappeared into the limited visibility some 40 feet below.
The light was gloomy, making it difficult to see much of the reef’s denizens. Still, it was heartening to be surrounded by more fish here than we’d seen at any patch reef the previous two days. I could hear the typical snap, crackle, pop of a healthy reef populated by parrotfish that crunched coral, unseen shrimps that popped and snapped, and the odd grunts and groans from the many types of fish that produce sound.
Those sounds were soon overshadowed by the rumbling from nasty thunderheads to the east– and west, and south, and north. Thick curtains of rain headed our way, which was fine, except lightning was in those clouds. Drat. We turned around and finned directly back to the dingy, the wind slapping waves against our ears. I tugged on the anchor line and fed it to Breeze as he quickly drove up on the line, took in the slack and anchor, and off we buzzed back to Blue Sky.
The rain and wind steadily increased, and the lightning in the area encouraged us to do the quickie rinse-off on the swim platform and hustle up the ladder to the after deck, where Debbie was just putting the finishing touches on battening down and zipping up for the oncoming deluge.
The master stateroom, with its king mattress, was the most comfy furniture to stretch out on as we wiled away the day reading, listening to the rain slam against the hatch and closed portholes.
Just forward of our stateroom, the salon area featured two ramrod-back wicker chairs and a short, somewhat padded settee where Breeze tended to spend his time on the iffy internet, attempting emails and downloads pertaining to boat parts, provisioning and arrangements for the next guests to arrive the same day we departed.
I’m glad we paid the extra for the master suite. It had a hatch overhead for better air flow, and two busy little fans over the bed. It was comfy enough that each night we were gently rocked to sleep in a different, quiet anchorage, the boat swinging placidly on anchor, the stars (when we could see them) brightly crowding the sky, the tiny sliver of the moon floating above looking all the world like the Cheshire Cat grin.
I found myself grasping at those mental images of the stars, the moon, the mist-shrouded coastal rain forest mountain range towering just to the south, the silvery light bathing the skies, clouds and surface of the seas after a squall. I needed those mental, and photographic, images to tamp down the creepy, dreadful images of a planet choked with human detritus, trash, and garbage. I needed images of wonder and hope, not despair.
And so it rained. And thundered. And squalled. When not slaving away in her galley below and forward of the salon, Debbie would perch on one of the chairs in the salon and read on her Kindle. With the hatches and portholes dogged down, the boat tended to get rather airless, the diesel fumes from the small generator on the forward deck mixing with the bilges and the used TP cooking in the waste basket next to the toilet in the master stateroom head providing a noxious perfume that threatened to send me off into waves of nausea. The only way to avoid the miasma was to sit up on the after deck under vast, if dripping, canvas, in plastic garden chairs that our backs simply wouldn’t tolerate for long.
Up anchor in the rain – brief video clip.
While snorkeling was relatively easy if I didn’t push the leg cramps, the climbing up and down the ladder to the swim platform, the clambering in and out of the dingy, and negotiating the up and down sets of steps in the boat was a bit tiring. And this after two flights in commuter-sized aircraft to get to Panama City, walking the streets for way too long, a lurching ride in a top-heavy SUV, and a butt-sore transfer to Blue Sky aboard the launcha. No doubt, our backs were definitely funky.
Back to Panama City
After our 5 nights aboard the Blue Sky, we awoke again at 4-something AM for the transfers back to PC. Debbie prepared another lovely breakfast, and fortified by coffee and gritty determination, we said Ta to our hosts, and performed our Cirque-du-Soleil twists to clamber aboard the launcha for the hour long ride back to the trashy Carti docks, to await the SUV from PC.
But first, we found we were aboard the “local bus” launcha, which stopped at several islands and boats to gain and lose various passengers. The final stop before scenic Carti was a larger, heavily populated Guna island, apparently built on a giant heap of garbage, flotsam and jetsam, the makeshift hovels crowding each other to the water’s edge.
The photos capture what appears to be a third-world island scene in Malaysia or Thailand. As we approached a rickety dock, an elderly gent was picking through the garbage at the water’s edge. Two neatly attired nuns in pristine, starched, full-length habits complete with wimples waited serenely at the end of the dock, apparently unaffected by the morning’s heat and humidity. With dignity, they quickly climbed aboard with an ease borne of practice, and quietly chatted as we pulled away from the dock.
Why was I surprised that this scene of overcrowding and floating garbage surrounded by clouds of flies and the reek of fish should disgorge two tidy, together women of faith? Surely their work was most direly needed and deeply appreciated, in spite of the mean surroundings– or because of them.
Once back at Carti, we hefted our backpacks and lifted our heavy roll-aboards to hump across acres of mud and gravel to the restaurant where we awaited our SUV for the ride back to PC.
There were few amusing moments in our entire trip but the one that stands out was provided by the two obviously French women approaching their 30s, possibly sisters, standing with stringy arms akimbo outside the restaurant, looking wind-blown, beyond trendy thin, in matching well-washed tight black short sleeves. One sported ragged short-shorts and the other dark leggings. Long, frizzed, and massively tangled manes of indeterminate washed-out color blew across their pinched faces as they gazed about them with noses high. I pegged them for upper-tier backpackers, some might label Eurotrash. They were wearing little flat slippers instead of the ubiquitous crocs, and dragging rolling carry-ons through the muddy gravel, vs hefting large backpacks.
Those two were right out of Central Casting: disdainful, and impatient with me when I didn’t take the photo of them with their camera quite as quickly as I should have, then rapidly switching on smiles when they saw the shot I finally did take after I waited for a couple of ogling young boys to get out of the picture frame. The men all hanging about waiting for launchas or new tourists to arrive in SUVs were chatting and rolling their eyes and gesturing at the two women, who studiously ignored the stir. I desperately wanted to capture the essence of these two, their attitudes, and their impact on the immediate surrounds, but there was no easy and discrete way I could get the shot I wanted, so I took mental pictures for this blog post description.
Our SUV soon showed up. We were joined by two young German women who seemed somewhat confused and out of place, glancing nervously about them and carefully watching the drivers in a group, chatting among themselves while passengers settled into their vehicles.
Our SUV had no bench seats, just individual seats like those in a converted van, thus, one butt for every seat. This came into play when, a short drive from the port, we pulled off the Carti road and followed a rutted dirt track down to the edge of a river. Several launchas were pulled up on the shore and a group of around 30 backpackers were milling around in the shade of an open pavilion, applying bug spray with gusto.
Our driver seemed resigned as he dismounted and slowly made his way over to a guy-in-charge-of-drivers. In the next few minutes, several SUVs pulled into the area, the drivers joining their fellows.
Much gesturing, scowls, shaking of heads, pointing to the parked line of SUVs and back to the backpackers in the shade of the pavilion ensued. It was clear that there were far more passengers for PC than there were SUVs and things were in a state of flux.
I muttered “Oh yeah, here comes our driver and the news isn’t good.” Behind me, Robin muttered “Oh. Swell.” The German girls’ eyes got bigger as our unhappy driver opened the door and, in a mixture of Spanish and English, communicated that this SUV needed to take two additional passengers aboard.
I laughed and gestured to the seats, saying “Oh? And where will they sit? (Gesturing)– on the roof luggage rack?” He just shook his head and closed the door.
The German girls, who had been mute until now, both started speaking in German, clearly quite concerned. I waved a “stay cool” signal and watched as Mr. Guy-in-Charge-of-Drivers opened the driver’s door and said, in clear English, “We need to put two people in here. One or two of you may need to jump out and change to a different SUV or wait for…” I cut him off, my voice ice cold and Army tough. “Oh no you don’t. We (gesturing to myself and Robin) paid Tito for this return trip, in advance. We are NOT giving up our seats. Call Tito if you like, but we are not moving. No way.”
His eyes locked with mine and we had an instant understanding. The German girls piped up and, together, made it quite clear that they, too, refused to leave their seats. He shrugged, snapped the door closed, and within a couple of minutes here came a young couple over to the SUV. With muttered apologies and a surprising lack of fuss, they squeezed themselves somewhere into the back of the SUV. I’m not sure where they both ended up. I sat in the front passenger seat, looking out the windshield, my jaw set in the universal don’t-mess-with-me signal.
Robin may have thought me a bit rigid when it came to nailing our butts to our paid seats in the SUV and even the launcha, but the truth is, people who don’t pay for tickets always hitch rides of convenience when they can. People who just don’t plan ahead or who aren’t capable of adjusting to conditions on the fly can easily be intimidated to give up their seat, their money, and information. You simply must look out for yourself when you travel, because nobody else is going to. End of lesson.
Hey, like I said, this trip wasn’t totally a bummer. I’m sure if we’d spent a lot more time in country, and a lot more money, we would have experienced many more of the delights of Panama and the Guna Yala. Still, in my attempt to provide a clear-eyed report and to help travelers understand conditions as we find them when we travel, I believe that any description of Panama City that describes the upbeat vibe and majestic skyscrapers and high rises should rightfully include the fact that those soaring buildings, expansive highways and broad avenues are surrounded by barrios and slums, harboring abject, third-world poverty that no “cosmopolitan” veneer can possibly begin to cover up.
Like a tart, Panama City aims to impress, but the lightest scratch reveals the crushing poverty underneath the surface, and the massive divide between the rich and everyone else. All the hoopla about the new, improved Panama Canal can’t whitewash the fact that, as a 2016 CIA analysis notes, “…Panama has the second-worst income distribution in Latin America”. Check out this brief article from David Brancaccio, NPR’s MarketPlace host.
Here’s another article that will lend perspective about how Panama’s canal divides the country into haves-and-have-nots.
By the same token, any description of the Guna Yala islands must scratch beneath the surface of scenic islets gently washed by a virgin sea, surrounded by healthy and productive seas and reefs. These islands are no longer peopled by an ancient tribe of natives living life as they have for centuries, paddling or sailing in their hand-crafted canoes, producing their unique crafts for trade, enjoying the benevolence of the tourists who visit private cruise boats and the islands. Instead, the Guna people have adapted to 21st century technology, and embraced mobile phones and gas-powered engines. The indiscriminate netting of fish has rapidly replaced the age-old selective spear fishing these gentle people practiced in the past, and the Guna now find their archipelago over-fished, even as they sell out-of-season and undersized lobsters by the ton to cruisers and island guests who either don’t know or don’t give a damn about how they are contributing to the inevitable degradation of a people, their culture and the very islands they call home.
You may wish to read this eye-opening report on the state of the Guna Yala and its people.
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 rain forest 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 river 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.
Sure enough, 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 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 fore paws 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, with 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 a 3-night “Belize jungle experience” that I’d cobbled together by spending hours on the Internet during months of planning for this vacation.
My usual approach for building a vacation plan had given us a running start. Beginning with a geographic area, I craft an itinerary based on the various things we want to see and do, then I really dig into the details, from finding a place to stay near our planned outdoor excursions and figuring out in-country transport options, to immersive time on TripAdvisor forums.
I keep a running spreadsheet of costs, set up online travel bots, sign up for numerous email and Twitter alerts (airlines/airfares) and correspond with local experts and property owners to glean the “inside” info. Often, I negotiate discounts based on pre-paying and between such negotiations, keeping copious notes, checking costs and adjusting itineraries, we save a LOT of money, avoid not a few unpleasant surprises, and are better prepared for the vagaries of a given locale while leaving a great deal of room for serendipity and last-minute adjustments due to weather, illness or just plain “I don’t wanna do anything today but relax”!
This day, 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 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 open-source pix taken inside the cave before the camera ban.
Check out more trip pix here.
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. 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 petite 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 hiking sandals, 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 from 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 air boat, for instance, simply isn’t it. Just sayin’.
Next Stop: Turneffe Atoll
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 caused by the relentless slash-and-burn agricultural practices that prevail in this area of the developing world. 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 big 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 gear 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 surfed 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 a 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 taking 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, 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 six. 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. We spotted 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, 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 five 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 for over a decade.
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 was 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 diving, 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 hazardous 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 BBQ in the shade of a palm tree grove with Frigate birds soaring high overhead.
Back aboard, we headed off to Lighthouse Reef for an amazing dive/snorkel on a world-class, virtually pristine 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 predators 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: http://youtu.be/morXnFycNR4
A group of us went snorkeling that afternoon on the outside of the nearby 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 like Reef.org and just plain 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
The direct flight from Atlanta to Turks & Caicos Islands steadily approached Providenciales, the largest island in the group. As the plane began its approach, we looked up from our paperback books to catch glimpses of the collection of islands below, stretching roughly east to west, surrounded by the purple-black of the “deep”, over 7,000 feet worth. The colors of the sea surrounding the islands reflected changes in the water’s depth – first royal blue, then cobalt blue, then robin’s-egg blue, and finally a brilliant turquoise over bright, shallow sandy bottom.
Viewing the familiar yet consistently stunning colors of the Caribbean Sea jump-started our excitement and anticipation of a long-awaited and hard-won week’s holiday. By the time we clanked our way down the metal steps from the plane to the tarmac and hiked the quarter mile or so to the terminal, we were hot, sweaty and grinning from ear-to-ear. We had arrived! Vacation could officially begin.
Clearing Customs and Immigration and securing our rental car was relatively painless and soon I was sitting on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road and hesitating at each of several roundabouts while my brain processed new rules of the road in Real Time. Robin, erstwhile Navigator, refrained politely from snickering as I repeatedly flipped on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator.
“Yield” yielded to “Give Way”. Posted speeds were in Kilometers, not Miles per Hour- as was the speedometer- a happy coincidence. Soon enough we arrived, unscathed, at the IGA Supermarket on Leeward highway, purchased necessaries for the first few days in our rental condo and tooled down the road to Turquoise Ridge, our home-away for the next 7 nights.
After checking out our spacious, new and completely comfy (privately owned- found on VRBO.com) digs and the view of Juba Point (a bright turquoise colored bay) from the screen porch overlooking the pool, we whipped up a favorite adult beverage to fortify us as we unpacked our carry-ons and backpacks. Then, off to one of our rare visits to one of many resorts lining Grace Bay, where perfectly white sands kissed by crystal turquoise waters greet tourists (mostly American, Canadian, British) and the prices are, well, quite beyond what we routinely want to pay. But hey, it’s our first evening and we have a terrific view of the large patch reef right in front of our perch on the wind-blown upper deck of the restaurant at Coral Gardens resort.
Our drinks appear, soon accompanied by tasty meals and we’re just happy to be here, enjoying the fantastic view, the cool wind and the shade of the table umbrella. This is a treat, as we’ve agreed to go it “on the cheap” on this vacation, re-heating lunches for dinner or buying a half chicken with a side or two at the IGA and stretching it to 2 or more meals. Each day we prepare a light breakfast in the condo kitchen, pack our travel cooler with drinks and ice, tuck snacks we brought from home into our beach bags, grab the snorkel gear and off we go.
Next morning we were up bright and early, making our way to the north side of the island and Smith’s Reef, a lovely spot just off the beach, arrived at once one has made their way from the road and stomped along a hot, unmarked sand track through the scrub to the wind-swept beach.
We donned snorkel gear and were soon finning against a wicked current, past a few isolated coral heads and finally over Smith’s Reef, approximately the distance of a football field from the rocky shore. Here, the water depths ranged from 5 feet on the lee side of the patch reef to over 20 feet at the northwestern-most point.
A school of juvenile barracuda hung over the reef, facing into the current. The usual fishy reef denizens patrolled, like trumpet fish, damsels, groupers, snappers, grunts and Parrot fish, busily snapping off bites of coral and pushing that lovely white beach sand out the other end in never-ending streams.
I floated above the deep, watching the curious behavior of a young Nassau grouper, which was pointing like a dog at a spot in the reef. The grouper would move a little, roll its eyes, turn this way and that and point. I decided to free dive down to see what had its undivided attention. At my approach an octopus with a head the size of a soccer ball suddenly darted out of its hole and danced across the sand, its mantle stretched out and tentacles flailing as it tried to find another hidey-hole while the grouper gamely pursued. In a blink, the octopus tucked its body into a handy crevice of the reef and, Poof, it changed its color and mottled pattern to perfectly mimic its surroundings. Even though I knew exactly where it was, I was hard-pressed to pick out its shape before I had to head for the surface. I watched for a few more moments, but clearly the grouper was as baffled as I was, and we each went our separate ways.
We visited Smith Reef again later in the week, early in the morning when the wind was quiet. The visibility was low due to so much suspended sand in the water caused by several days of high winds, but we spotted the same grouper, the same squad of barracudas, and had the added pleasure of watching a slipper lobster bumping its ungainly way across the reef.
While hanging over the deep part of the reef, I kept looking out over the surrounding sand and turtle grass, hoping to spot a passing turtle like we had on our first visit. Suddenly, out of the gloom, a large spotted eagle ray appeared, swimming right toward us. I alerted Robin, who watched, google-eyed, while the ray came within 4 feet of us then gracefully turned and glided away on a 5-foot wing span. I followed, swimming alongside it (but keeping a safe distance from that 7 foot long tail!). A magical moment that ended as the ray quickly out-distanced me and disappeared at the edge of the visibility curtain.
The next day was still windy but we had reservations with Deep Blue to spend the day aboard their boat, snorkeling at various locations on the fringing reef around Provo and West Caicos, a relatively undeveloped outer island known for amazing corals and healthy fish populations on the nearby reef system.
A note about the reefs of T&C: The barrier reef system is the third largest in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef and the system that runs down the western side of Mexico and Belize, extending into the Bay Islands of Honduras. Since the 1980s I’ve visited numerous locations in these areas, and have witnessed the steady degradation of reefs from Florida and the Bahamas to Ambergis Caye, the reefs off the coast of Tulum and Akumal Mexico, and Roatan. My “bucket list” consists of the search for pristine-as-possible, healthy coral structures in the Caribbean with lots of healthy reef fish.
Here, off the coast of West Caicos, I finally got to see large collections of amazingly colorful Elkhorn corals the likes of which I haven’t seen since my SCUBA check-out dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida in 1972. What a breathtaking sight, to snorkel in clear water, the late morning rays penetrating the shallows to light up a scene perfectly sublime: a massive, rust-red Elkhorn coral in the center of a gracefully curving reef face festooned with large sea fans and other soft corals and gorgonians waving in the currents, many adorned with one or more cowrie shells. Each little cowrie shell appeared to be hand-painted a unique pattern of bright colors, and the play of light and shadow of the waves above gave the impression of the cowries dancing merrily as their hosts waved back and forth, back and forth with the current.
At one snorkel stop, the boat anchored in 50 feet of water right at the edge of the abyss. We jumped in the water and spotted a large school of horse-eyed jacks circled in a protective ball, enjoying the welcome shade beneath the boat. The dive master beckoned us to follow her over toward the edge of the drop-off and, as she had promised, we spotted 2 reef sharks, mom and youngster, slowly circling the top of the reef 50 feet below. At the edge of the “wall”, the water turned from a royal blue to almost purple, the visibility curtain closing down rapidly across such depths.
The day’s travels took us around the greater part of Provo and West Caicos, where we observed several resorts in various stages of development, apparently abandoned to the elements. Unpainted concrete buildings stood forlorn on the rocky shore, their window openings bruised eyes staring bleakly out to sea. Barren of any decorative trees or shrubs and surrounded by streets carved from the rock, the resorts were quiet testaments to the effects of the Great Recession, the closing of banks and the withdrawal of development funds. Combined with Britain’s 2009 suspension of Ts & Cs government over allegations of corruption, (the Premier and his fellow government ministers apparently sold off Crown land to property developers for their own personal gain), the effects of this Perfect Storm are still very much in evidence.
One day we caught an early morning ferry to explore the outer island of North Caicos, where we planned to secure a rental car for a day’s exploration of North Caicos and its rather more remote neighbor Middle Caicos.
Once on the island, we drove our rental car along the main highway toward the settlement of Whitby on the windward cost of “North” and weren’t surprised to run out of asphalt when we turned off to head toward the “Three Mary Cays”, our morning snorkel destination.
Getting to these scenic cays situated just offshore in a pristine setting required concentration and a tight grip on the steering wheel as we bumped slowly along narrow and exceedingly potholed limestone tracks festooned with sharp rocks just waiting to puncture the little tires on the poor tired rental car. At one point the track apparently disappeared in a wash-out caused from a hurricane in 2010, but we persevered and eventually ended up at our destination, on a wind-blown and rocky shore.
The cays were exceedingly scenic and beckoned, so we donned snorkel gear and, in spite of the high currents and heavy seas, we snorkeled out to the cays, which offered little in the way of reef structure or fish life around their undercut bases. A dangerous rip current threatened to sweep us out to sea, so we quickly returned to the relative safety of the razor-sharp ironstone shore, where we minced around, observing the beauty of this remote location. The bow of a large freighter poked up from just inside the barrier reef, approximately a mile from shore, serving as a reminder of treacherous potential awaiting the unwary.
Making our way gingerly along yet another track, we arrived at the highway again and headed toward the settlement of Kew and the nearby ruins of Wade’s Plantation, a Loyalist era cotton plantation founded in 1789. After an arduous drive and a great deal of dead-reckoning navigation, we arrived at a small parking area carved out of the surrounding scrub. We walked a quarter mile along a rough footpath between low stone walls to arrive at a padlocked hurricane fence. The guide books and web pages we had read described the ruins as open daily. We were disappointed but dang it, we came all this way to see the ruins!
After glancing around guiltily and reassuring each other that we might be able to talk the authorities into viewing our trespass as a minor offense if we were to be apprehended, we clambered over a broken section of wall and proceeded on a self-guided tour of the ruins. Our risky gambit paid off, as we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the main house, overseer’s house, kitchen building, a garden and the original well site, all situated on the top of a hill that, back In the Day, must have provided excellent breezes and a breathtaking 360 degree view. Although our view consisted of twisted, bulldozed trees and ruins of the plantation walls that disappeared into the overgrowth, it was not hard to imagine how busy and possibly scenic this now desolate setting must have appeared when the estate was in full swing.
After a lovely lunch at the quaint cottage housing the Silver Palm restaurant and bar (delicious pina colada!), we drove our rental car along the paved road that connects North Caicos and Middle Caicos, hardly surprised when we were faced with large sections that were washed out by the hurricane.
These outer islands are characterized by stretches of scrub and salt ponds dotted with flocks of Flamingoes in the distance. Small settlements came and went and we met few vehicles on the roads.
We enjoyed a visit to a limestone cave, part of the largest cave network in the northern Caribbean.
We stopped off at Bamberra Beach, where a large cavern carved by huge waves over millennia overlooked a beautiful little bay protected by a high ironshore wall.
Soon it was time to return to the ferry dock, leave the keys in the rental car and catch the 30 minute ferry back to Provo which, after our day on North and Middle Cays, seemed terribly cosmopolitan and teeming with auto traffic.
Highlights of snorkel trips to the barrier reef just off Grace Bay included exploring the fairly robust and healthy reef, where some places were fishier than others.
On two different stops we spotted a large puffer fish, each over 3 feet long. I always look for these comical and shy fish and consider them a talisman. During the day they seldom come out of their holes in the reef, so I was surprised and delighted to spot each one swimming out in the open—even if they were frantic to find another place to hide.
In another spot that featured deeply undercut ledges at 20 foot depths, I spotted the distinctive outline of a nurse shark’s tail in the gloom of a large overhang. I dove down and, sure enough, there it was, all 7 or more feet of it, resting comfortably on the almost-smooth ledge, hidden from casual view by the deep overhang. Robin managed to dive down to spot the critter and returned to the surface, grinning.
One place we visited on Provo was a history buff’s delight- “Pirate carvings”, reached after best-guess driving/navigation and carefully picking one’s way up an almost vertical, rocky and slippery goat-path to the top of wind-swept Sapodilla Hill, which overlooks the commercial port and the sea.
Here carved into the bedrock and several large stones were dozens of rock carvings that featured dates and names of sailors who stopped by the island in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Some names appeared more than once, with almost a decade between dates, testifying to a steady commerce in sisal (rope for sailing vessels) and cotton during those periods.
Between balancing on boats, snorkeling in heavy surge and strong currents and hiking up and down precarious hills and goat-paths, we slept well each night and found ourselves thoroughly relaxed, if a bit worn out, after our week’s stay in TCI. Typically, we avoided the resorts and shopping and the high-end tourist scene, with the exception of Robin’s parasailing adventure over the reefs fringing the popular tourist destination of Grace Bay. So OK we did indulge, just a bit. After all, vacation should be about experiencing the new and different and the Ts and Cs did not disappoint!
Video panorama of one lovely, isolated snorkel spot.
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. 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 Belize, 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 story 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 pavilion 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.
I almost missed Anguilla when planning for our 2010 Caribbean vacation. The scale of the online map of the Caribbean I first pulled up to peruse the Eastern Caribbean had reduced this petite island to a spot, barely noticeable next to the overly large text proclaiming the location of Anguilla’s “back yard” neighbor ST. MARTIN/SINT MAARTEN, nearby SAN JUAN and Antigua and Barbuda islands.
A recessionary budget and our desire to avoid overly-trammeled and expensive islands left St. Martin and Antigua off our list. Puerto Rico was similarly out of the question. I found myself looking at Barbuda as a possible destination- but pretty soon came away disappointed, because even at the height of the Big Recession, accommodation prices on Barbuda were just a bit pricey for our humble pocketbook.
Once I started exploring the possibilities that Anguilla offered, I was hopeful that I’d found an out-of-the-way, overlooked island destination that was scenic, safe, with friendly people, great snorkeling, clean and plentiful windward and leeward beaches, and decent grocery stores. Of course flight and accommodation costs needed to fall within our Reality Check realm.
If at all possible, it would be terrific if the island was not too big (no cruise ship terminals but big enough to have at least 1 airport and to explore with a rental car) and not too small (pinched resources, limited infrastructure and too few Places to Go and Things to See), yet with a unique Caribbean character– a little “something” that would make it stand out in our memories. Too much to ask, right? Not for tiny, terrific Anguilla!
What’s so special about an island 16 miles long, 3 wide, with 13,000 human inhabitants, floating way out in the easternmost reaches of the Leeward Islands? Well, for starters, this is an island that sports a coat of arms with 3 orange dolphins against a simple white background, cavorting above a blue ribbon of representative Caribbean Sea.
No fluff, no heavy-handed laurel wreaths, raging lions, menacing raptors, crossed swords, no curlicues and embellishments against busy, pretentious backgrounds. Just simple, clean design. I liked it. Looked good on a t-shirt, so I got one.
By the time we arrived at Ku’, our needs-a-bit-of-a-facelift resort accommodations situated on a wide stretch of white, firm, pristine windward Shoal Bay West beach, we were hot, hungry and just plain tuckered out from an 11 hour travel day. Our hegira took us from car to long-term parking near the Atlanta airport to a lengthy layover in a cramped, airless Ft. Lauderdale terminal to the airport on St. Martin, and thru interminable Customs and Immigration lines.
We caught a van to drive us a few blocks to the ferry dock (still on St. Martin), where we eventually caught a shuttle boat to take us the 20 minute ride over to Anguilla—after a pause at the waterfront Police station so that our passports could be collected and scanned in to some massive database.
Arriving at the ferry landing in Blowing Hole on Anguilla, we found our rental car guy (arrangements having been made via email some weeks in advance), checked the “Little Car That Could” for dings, grabbed the keys, loaded in our carry-on bags, drove half the length of the island, took a wrong turn, found a grocery, and grabbed some goodies.
Somehow we made our way to Reception at Ku’- it was all a bit of a blur. Robin reported that I managed to keep enough presence of mind to drive on the left and dodge giant potholes, and the odd goat or ground dove that would suddenly materialize in front of us.
Dinner that evening was at a neighboring restaurant, Zara’s, where we had a delicious grouper meal. Unfortunately, the fish was a bit “off”, which put a real damper on our first full day. But of course we weren’t aware of the eventual effects of dinner when we later busied ourselves pulling the cushions off the couch in the living room of our smallish suite at Ku’ to add a measure of padding to the otherwise park bench-like “comfort” of our beds. But hey, we had central AC (!) fresh water in the full kitchen and the bathroom (even if the shower water pressure was barely a steady trickle), and a nice 2nd floor balcony with comfy chairs with a partial view of the beach.
Our room selection somewhat away from the beach was at the heart of how we got such a great deal on the accommodations for the week. A helpful Anguilla resident who frequented the Aguilla Guide Forum also produced a hand-drawn layout of the resort, which helped me choose a specific room number to request, to ensure we were at least on the top floor and on a corner position! You just gotta luv the Internet and especially local forums populated with helpful island residents and frequent visitors. Simply treasure troves of info.
Rain, giant ocean rollers, windy conditions and our iffy tummys led us to spend most of the first day languishing around Ku’s lovely pool. We did drive into Sandy Ground, the main commercial center on the island to grocery shop and we also drove further down-island to find a couple of sandwich shops and beaches I’d read about on the forum. However, a mostly “down” day was a Best Bet, considering the iffy fish and still being worn out from the effort to get to our lovely corner of the British West Indies.
The following day (Monday) featured persistent heavy seas and high winds. We planned to snorkel offshore and were aware of several possible locations on the leeward side of the island. When I checked with the dive master at Ku’s dive shop, he kindly directed us to a place we weren’t familiar with–nearby Sandy Hill Bay where a lovely strip of reef, situated at the mouth of the bay, offered consistently good snorkeling in somewhat protected water.
We wandered around a bit on the narrow roads but eventually found the narrow, rocky, rough path that led off the paved road and down toward the water at Sandy Hill Bay. I gently coaxed Little Car That Could over the sharp pinnacles of ancient reef that constituted the track, trying to avoid puncturing the three matched tires and the fourth, under-sized tire that kept making a thunking sound as we slowly bumped along in 2nd gear. Once at the bottom of the track, I was thankful to be able to turn the car around in a small area of firm beach sand and point it back up the hill. Backing up that steep track may have proven to be a bit more excitement than I had bargained for.
Having the car so close meant we didn’t need to do our usual trekking down a lengthy beach to reach a convenient place to enter the water near a promising point of the iron-shore, where snorkeling is typically the best. In fact, the reef was less than 100 feet away from the car.
We stood on the beach gripping our snorkel gear to keep the wind from snatching it away and squinted at the sight of giant waves breaking on the outer part of the reef, which jutted off the beach and ran straight out into the bay for well over 400 feet. A good two or more feet of reef showed above the water, and as the waves slammed into the side of the reef facing the ocean, curtains of spume fanned up and out, creating a heavy mist that hung above the reef like a fog bank. Above the bay, low clouds scudded along, bringing relief from the mid-morning glare on the water while threatening certain rain.
We waded into the bay and donned our gear in shallow water. When I rolled over on my stomach and saw the sandy bay bottom slowly sinking away to deeper water, I sighed and grinned around my snorkel mouthpiece. It felt like coming home, being embraced in warm ocean waters, bobbing up and down on the waves, my body unconsciously orienting itself to the surge and slight onshore current. For someone raised on and near the ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, it’s hard to go a year or more in-between tropical snorkeling excursions. I guess missing such experiences ensures that I do my best to try to save up every memory I build.
On the way to the deeper section of the fringing reef we paused to float above two isolated coral “heads” (really chunks of the nearby reef) sitting on a bed of sand in about 20 feet of turbid water. We cruised around the heads, checking out the tropical fish and corals, then we headed over to the back side of the reef. We slowly made our way into deeper water, swimming against the moderate current as the waves pounded the opposite reef face less than 10 feet away. The force of the wave action coming across the top of the reef toward us was a bit scary, as was the sight of the thick cloud of bubbles and the booming sound created by every wave crash. We were careful to stay several feet away to avoid being pulled and then pushed into the coral wall.
As we finned along, the sand dropped away to 40 feet, and the reef started looking less beat-up. More live coral appeared, and the fish population grew in numbers and variety. Gazing down the length of the reef, I noticed that although the visibility was less than 70 feet, we could easily see the denizens of the reef nearby. I spotted three trumpet fish moving slowly along with the current, trying their best to look like benign floating objects rather than the opportunistic, rapid-attack predators they are. As I let myself drift closer, one of the three must have spotted me because it snuggled up close to a sea fan that was waving in the current and surge. I watched to see if the trumpet fish would shift colors to blend in a bit better with the sea fan’s color but the fish must have decided my level of threat wasn’t high enough to make it worthwhile to expend the energy to crank up the chromatophores.
Before long we started to get chilled. We’d been in the 80-degree water for 30 minutes or so, and it was time to turn around and catch the free ride down current, back to where we’d approached the main reef. We passed now-familiar landmarks, including a large pile of bleached out and broken coral that had tumbled down the reef face. There was the section where dozens of dinner plate sized spiny sea urchins had been uprooted from their anchor points, and were now lying upside down, scattered along the base of the reef like so many discarded toys. I knew that most would right themselves and eventually find a new home on the reef, but I thought that they might want to wait a day or so until the big seas dropped.
Passing back by the two isolated coral heads, I pointed out a squad of seven cuttlefish to Robin. We hovered just up current of the cuttlefish, watching to see what aquabatics they might perform. I recalled a larger “squadron” of cuttlefish we had watched while snorkeling off the island of Roatan in Honduras, as mentioned in my Roatan post.
Before us, this group appeared to be content to hang in the current between the two coral heads, all at the same depth, spaced apart like a squad of soldiers at inspection. They didn’t twirl or dance or change colors like the formation had off Roatan, but every once in awhile one did extend its tentacles and snatch some unseen tidbit from the water column. We floated, shivering; finally gave up and swam in, ready to sit in the sun to warm up.
The next morning we returned to the same reef, found two of the trumpet fish where we’d last seen them and waved hello to the cuttlefish, who were in the same spot, doing the same thing and thoroughly ignoring our attention.
By Wednesday the seas had settled and the weather had turned from cloudy to sunny and hot. Early that morning we joined eight other vacationers aboard Chocolat, a 35-foot catamaran. We were headed six miles north of Anguilla to Prickly Pear cays for some snorkeling, chilling on the beach and lunch at the little bar and restaurant.
The ride over was breezy and pleasant, made all the more cheerful by lively conversation with our fellow passengers. We dropped anchor at Prickly Pear, joining four or five other large catamarans in the shallow, protected bay in front of the tiny beach Tiki bar tucked under the shade of sea grapes. The aquamarine color of the water beckoned, and as we dingied in to shore we counted 40 or more people snorkeling along the lengthy fringing reef.
Stepping out of the warm water and onto the beach was like standing in front of a giant oven door- the heat on this lee side was beyond stifling, with barely a breeze stirring. A handful of people wilted and sheltered under the few rental chairs and umbrellas perched on the broiling sand. We set our snorkel gear down on our chairs, stood in line at the Tiki bar for a drink and returned to our little patch of super-heated shade to sweat and gulp greedily at our now not-so-frozen drinks. Lunch was to be served in 45 minutes, so we quickly finished off our drinks, grabbed our snorkel gear and got in the water to cool off.
I swear I could hear my skin sizzle as I lowered my body gratefully into the cool water.
From shore it was a bit of a swim out to the reef, and the further we swam the stronger the current against us became. Pretty soon I was quartering the oncoming current, trying to discover a route to the deeper water where I suspected the current wouldn’t be as strong.
Turns out we were in Olympic Snorkeling mode, much as we had been last year off the island Anagada in the BVI. All the hard swimming really didn’t bring the reward of enjoying a pristine reef and lots of critters. Most of the reef was broken off and a lot was bleached and dead. Obviously big storms had wrecked damage. Fish were scattered and not very plentiful. We soon tired and headed in to shore.
I gave up on the patch of umbrella-heated shade and instead stood in the natural, and much cooler, shade of a large sea grape and chatted up fellow Chocolat passengers, a married couple who were from New England. Although they had bought a condo on Anguilla several years ago, they still seemed to be figuring out their home-away-from-home. The wife, in particular, was startled by the friendly and downright fearless behavior of the Banana Quits, tiny birds also called Sugar Birds, common throughout the eastern Caribbean. A quit flittered around my head, chirping and bugging me for a snack, then sat on a branch of the sea grape. I reached out slowly to see if I could entice it to alight on my hand when I spotted the quick darting movement of a small native Ameiva (lizard).
“Eck! A lizard!” the wife exclaimed in horror before I could point out the harmless little critter. As I herded the reptile with my hand around to the side of the branch where hubby could see it, the wife waxed about her abject fear of “all these lizards” found in the islands. I nodded in sympathy then grinned as I caught sight of a rather large green iguana that was shuffling along the hot white beach sand behind her, apparently headed for welcome shade—right under the picnic table bench where she held forth.
“Um, I’m glad you mentioned that you’re afraid of lizards”, I ventured, trying to figure out how to gently inform her about the approach of her nemesis. It was seconds away from contact. Before she could interject, I added “You may want to lift your feet up… ” and I pointed behind her. Hubby leaned down from his bench seat to see where I pointed. Looking surprised and not a little frightened, the wife nearly tumbled off her seat as she tried to lift her feet and spin around to look in the direction of the approaching danger.
I chuckled as the iguana scooted just past where the wife’s feet had been seconds ago and darted into the scrub. “That was a big one,” the husband said gravely, as he gave me a small wink.
Soon our group was invited to approach the restaurant and enjoy a hot (!) meal of BBQ chicken, plantains, and veggies under the partial shade on the wooden deck outside the building. The lack of breeze, the heat bouncing off the rough wooden decking and the sun beating on the shoulders of those unfortunate enough to arrive too late to secure the little shade made available under the tattered thatching overhead, and the heat radiating from our hearty, hot meal ensured that everyone ate rapidly, all too eager to return to the relative cool of the water or a piece of sea grape shade.
This wasn’t the first time I ran into the peculiar penchant of Caribbean hosts to “treat” visitors, especially those held captive on an organized trip, to a hot, steamy, heavy, meaty mid-day meal in a typically windless and shade-deprived setting! The few times I’ve been offered cool, refreshing fruit, light salads and ample cool water were on chartered sailboats during a day-sail excursion. Not a biggie but I wonder if the tendency is a cultural thing or an attempt to provide added value when a meal is included in the trip price.
Soon it was time to get back aboard Chocolat and make our breezy way back to Anguilla. The return trip was a bit more rough than the outgoing leg on our tired bodies. Once again, we day-trippers perched or leaned as best we could on the sides of the vessel in the shade of the main sail. While roomy, Chocolat’s design did not afford the comfort of a large cockpit ringed by seat cushions. The softest seating was in the (airless, hot) cabin or in the direct sun shining on the trampolines. Our group looked a bit like worn-out birds on a tree limb, crouching down into bits of shade, shifting position as the sun crept up already bright red feet, legs, and arms. After a hot day in the sun, a few drinks, a hearty meal and the constant bracing against the movement of the boat, everyone appeared tired, hot and ready to call it a day. Conversation was, understandably, minimal.
Our last two full days on the island were likely the best of our trip. Because the seas had settled, in the morning we were able to secure a lift in a small boat from Crocus Bay to nearby Little Bay (just up the shoreline) to enjoy what I had read in the Anguilla forum was the best snorkeling from shore. Calvin, the boat owner, was a taciturn but not unfriendly boat captain, who pointed out the best area to snorkel- as we passed it. And kept going. I thought he was challenging us when he said we “looked fit” enough to swim all the way back to the spot from Little Bay, where he would drop us off.
We putted along, not 30 feet from the iron shore, which presented a 50-foot high steep, rough, barren, blackened and threatening façade. Over the eons the wave action had carved narrow canyons and valleys between what appeared to be finger-like extensions of ancient coral. We passed one small valley some 30 feet wide at the base, where a narrow, coarse shell-and sand mix of steeply sloping “beach” looked like it was loose enough to swallow a person up to their thighs. Little did I know then that the shallows mere feet from the sand would soon produce a delightful surprise.
A bit further along, we entered the mouth of Little Bay, which proved to be as scenic and secluded as we had expected. Calvin turned his boat around and held the stern off the sandy beach as we clambered over the transom with our snorkel gear, beach bags and cooler. He asked what time we wanted him to return, we said in 2 hours, and with a nod, he climbed aboard, cranked his outboard, and putted away, the sound of the boat engine dwindling as he rounded the corner and slowly made his way back toward Crocus Bay.
The engine sounds were soon replaced by the calls of gulls and terns swooping around the cliffs that towered overhead and the splashes of pelicans as they dove into the clear waters to catch a mid-day snack. The beach was as broad as the opening to the bay, some 300 feet, with waves gently lapping on hard-packed sand that gave way above the high tide line to boulders and large rocks lying half-buried in loose, fine sand that squeaked underfoot.
Tucking our gear in the shade afforded by the surrounding wall, we sipped drinks from the cooler and looked around, enjoying the scenery and the quiet.
Robin spotted a rope trailing down from high above, draped over the edge of the razor-sharp coral wall and dangling down to the sand some 40 feet below. “Must be the rope we were told about that the locals use to get down here,” she said. I walked over and, in my bare feet, gingerly stepped over the rock to grab the rope. I craned my neck to gaze up the incline, which was almost vertical, and shook my head, imagining the ruined vacation that would result from one small slip on that literal razor-edged “trail”. We decided it was well worth the $15.00 per person we had paid Calvin to deliver us safely to Little Bay!
The water was deliciously cool and clear as we finned our way around the southern point of Little Bay and slowly made our way back toward the “best snorkel spot”, the first of what turned out to be seven “fingers” that we would pass. The wall to our left sloped down to sand some 20 to 30 feet below us. The angle of the sun at mid-day lit up the bright sandy bottom apparently devoid of life. I studied the variety of small tropical fish and soft corals that decorated the wall, then turned my attention to the sandy bottom, noticing a rather large patch of the signature holes of garden eels, which I pointed out to Robin. The eels were, not unexpectedly, avoiding feeding in the light of the mid-day sun. If we were snorkeling earlier, or later in the day, we would likely have witnessed hundreds of them, their bodies extended from their holes, waving in the currents as they fed on passing tidbits.
As we crossed the mouth of each bay, the water got deeper where the currents had dug out a channel in the center. There, we saw a few small schools of fish and a couple of isolated coral heads topped by sea fans and decorated with the usual juvenile tropical fish found in the shallows. So far I wasn’t bowled over by the scenery, but the swim was effortless and the water, unusually warm for this latitude this time of year, was a comfortable temperature.
As we approached the southern point of the “best spot” snorkeling bay with the tiny beach, I noticed a large coral head near the base of the wall. Both the head and the wall were covered by soft corals and large sea fans, and many more tropical fish than I had seen yet snorkeling the waters in and around Anguilla. Things were looking up!
Suddenly, at the edge of the visibility curtain, between us and the wall appeared a large school of silversides, or “bait fish”. The closer we got to the fish, the more I began to realize that this was no mere school- it was a huge shoal of thousands of shiny fish, ranging from a few inches to just under a foot in length. And it was thick- so thick that I couldn’t see through the bodies to the wall just beyond. The shoal stretched from the water’s surface down more than 30 feet to the sand, and wound its way along the shoreline as far as I could see.
Robin floated nearby and we both looked on, entranced, as the fish darted, shifted and swirled as one mass. They seemed to generally be winding their way along the shore, hugging the wall and staying as closely packed as they could for protection. Pelicans dived into the densely-packed fish bodies from above as predators below waited for their chance to make a snack of any fish that fell away from the formation.
Knowing that predators would be lurking around such a large gathering of “bait” fish, I suggested to Robin that we avoid getting between the shoal and the wall, to reduce the chance of any part of our anatomy being mistaken for a yummy morsel. As we slowly swam next to the shoal, I looked down and out into the gloom to see if I could spot any predators. Ah, there was a small group of jacks with toothy grins, swimming parallel to the shoal in the opposite direction of the shoal’s general line of travel. And there was a barracuda- and another one, smaller. And, yep, there were the inevitable snappers, looking to snatch up any pieces that might be left by a larger predator.
Suddenly I spotted a tarpon. Then another. Then another. Before long I counted six, ranging from 3 feet to almost 5 feet in length. I pointed them out to Robin, who nodded, her brows raised inside her mask. Suddenly, at the edge of the visibility screen, a really large tarpon emerged. Longer than I am tall, and thicker around the middle than my thigh, it had a large scar around the right side of its mouth, clearly from damage done by a hook. I know because I got a good look at the damage as the silver torpedo came within 6 feet of where I floated, my body (and breath!) suspended.
Although I know the fish posed no threat to us, I was still startled and not a little discomfited by the sheer size of it. The last time I swam this close to anything that big was just last year, but that was a nurse shark headed away from us after being disturbed from a nap on the bottom of a bay. This fish wasn’t going anywhere except around and under the shoal of silversides, apparently completely ignoring our presence. I decided it was up to us to steer clear of any interference, so we allowed ourselves to drift past the busy point of land and into the shallows of the small bay nearby.
Here the water quickly went from over 30 feet in depth to less than 2 feet close to the beach. Peering through the constantly shifting wave of silversides curving around the inside of the bay, I was delighted to discover a thriving reef, chock-full of soft and hard corals of every color, and small and large sea fans, each with its attendant snail, waving briskly in the current. Purple, green, red and orange sea anemones trembled in the wave action from the surface and the currents below. The sun glinted brightly off the sand in the channels between coral heads and lit the top of the reef like a stage light.
Entranced, I tried to drink in the visual overload all at once, while carefully avoiding being shoved into the sharp coral by wave action. I moved my flippers just enough to keep them near the water’s surface and to maintain steerage way as I floated in the shallow water covering this amazing underwater oasis, my belly within inches of contact with razor-sharp coral, some of it tipped by fire coral.
Suddenly I spotted a young Hawksbill turtle floating in the small grotto carved between coral heads. My approach startled the youngster and as it darted away I saw its companion, who was floating in another canyon a bit farther on, take off. Both turtles sported a bright red metal tag on the leading edge of each flipper. I figured they were both about 3 years old, based on what we’d learned during our visit to the turtle sanctuary on the island of Bequia three years ago. There, we spent a morning learning everything you wanted to know about turtles, and especially Hawksbill turtles, and we became pretty adept at estimating this species’ age based on its size. Jacques Cousteau would be proud of us!
We’d been in the water for over an hour and were getting chilled, but it was still hard to say goodbye (for now) to this amazing little corner of the shoreline and head back down the coast to Little Bay. But leave we did, passing the now-familiar pack of predators lurking around the seemingly never ending flow of silversides.
We were so captivated by our experience that we told Calvin we’d like to do it again the next day. He asked skeptically if we’d made it all the way back to the snorkel spot he’d pointed out to us. When we said we did, and went on to describe what we’d seen, he actually seemed to warm to us a bit. Guess we might LOOK like two middle-aged-pampered-white-American-tourist-gals but hey, don’t judge a book by its cover!
That afternoon we found our way back to Gwen’s Reggae Bar, our favorite place to chill on the beach, which was conveniently a couple of miles away from Ku’.
Tap, the cook, had the yummy BBQ chicken and ribs on the grill as we climbed the two wooden steps from the sand to the welcome shade of the open “beach shack” restaurant and bar. After a couple of frozen Pina Coladas and a delicious BBQ chicken and pasta salad lunch, we walked in the soft sand to the large and shady coconut grove situated next to Gwen’s. There we wiled away the afternoon in lounge chairs or a hammock strung between two tree trunks. We chatted and read books and dozed, the beach virtually to ourselves except for a few people strolling by on the beach below or the pelicans diving into the shallows. As beautiful as the water was, we didn’t swim because the breeze was brisk enough that we didn’t need to cool off. What a perfect place to hang- absolute bliss, and one of the most relaxing places I’ve found on any beach in my years of Caribbean travel.
Our last full day, Friday, mirrored the previous day. Little Bay was hosting two other couples when we arrived, but we didn’t stay to visit as we were anxious to get back to that magic little snorkel spot. Along the way there, I picked up a tiny, bright yellow Damsel fish-like attendant. It swam furiously right next to my jaw, apparently attracted by the bright yellow shirt I was wearing to protect my back and shoulders from the sun. When I would stop swimming and just float, it would dart in front of my face as if to say “Come on, let’s go!” I felt somewhat like a shark with its remora. Robin shook her head, giggling at the antics of my little pal.
As we arrived at the point of the pretty little bay, I was surprised to discover that the shoal was still there, accompanied by the same predators, including the tarpon gang featuring Big Daddy (or Momma). Amazing! We spent more time swimming around the bay, studying the reef and the critters and hanging just off the shimmering shoal of fish, watching the ballet created by the flashing patterns of the ever-shifting mass.
Later, sitting in Calvin’s boat as we put-putted our way back to Crocus Bay, I felt a twinge of sadness as I mentally waved goodbye to the fish beneath us. This being our last full day on the island, I knew that snorkeling for this trip was over. We would go on to enjoy a delightful lunch at the Ferryboat Inn near the (duh!) ferry landing, and spend our last quiet, breezy afternoon lazing about in the shade of the coconut palms next to Gwen’s. But as the evening came on and it was time to shower and pack our stuff for tomorrow’s lengthy travel day, we were both dragging around, not chatting much, the anticipation of the week’s vacation now replaced by lassitude and a touch of melancholy.
However. The excitement wasn’t quite over. We ended up spending over 2 hours in the nearby hospital emergency room because I managed to drive a large plug of earwax up into my Eustachian canal (while trying to REMOVE the annoying thing). After Robin went so far as to use two small straws from the bar to blow water jets into my (by now) painful ear to try to dislodge the plug, with no results, we realized it was either call the Doctor on call to Ku’ ($$$$$$) or go to the nearby hospital for proper lavage treatment.
The 1.5 hour wait seemed interminable. I was the only patient, so after I completed some initial paperwork, we sat in plastic chairs in the breezeway created by the wide open doors of the rustic hospital entryway, anticipating a short wait. The waiting area was peopled by two policemen, obviously there to provide security, who looked bored and hot, leaning against the makeshift registration counter. They were joined by a comatose male “receptionist”. The three were watching a soccer match blasting from a TV hung high in a corner of the waiting room. My plugged ear didn’t help reduce the cacophony of the noise, which soon ratcheted up beyond comprehension as a large family blew in with a cloud of dust from the parking lot. Grand kids, mom, dad, sisters, brothers, uncles and aunties of a very pregnant girl soon chased the policemen off and put the receptionist to work, shuffling papers, and irritated by the need to speak with all of the adult family members at once.
A woman sporting surgical scrub shoe covers bustled into the waiting area from behind a set of swinging doors to our left, passed through the area without a glance at the mayhem, and disappeared behind a different set of swinging doors at the entry to the opposite hall. This happened several times. Once she stopped for a second to get a paper cup of water from a standing water cooler under the blaring TV. Then she disappeared. It reminded me of a play in which various actors pop in and out of doors on the set, coming and going across the stage, maybe pausing to do a bit of business apropos of nothing, then scurrying away again.
Soon the woman-of-the-shoe-covers led the pregnant girl away through one of the sets of swinging doors. The noisy children went outside to play in the dust of the parking area. A couple of men settled in behind us to watch the soccer match. The women drifted outside to watch the children. We sat and waited.
Eventually I was seen by the doctor on call, a stern woman who was apparently disappointed that I wasn’t in need of her level of skills. Frowning, she motioned for me to sit in a chair and, wordlessly, she motioned to an assistant (nurse? hard to tell- no uniforms, no name badges), who was soon admonishing me, with humor, about causing my own problem. “Didn’t your mother tell you to never put anything in your ear?” she teased, in her soft island accent. In between squirting units of saline solution into my ear, my medical person told Robin “Next time you see her put something in her ear, you beat her!” While we laughed, I fleetingly noticed Robin wearing an appraising expression. Just for a minute.
Several units of saline solution and $58.00 later, my throbbing ear unplugged, I was happy to be driving the few miles back to Ku’ and grateful that the hospital was as close and as well stocked and staffed as it was! I could think of several islands I’ve stayed where the outcome would have been neither as quick nor as relatively painless.
The next morning we said goodbye to the friendly staffers at Ku’. Like everyone we had met on the island, they asked us if we had enjoyed our stay and to come back. We knew we’d heartily recommend Anguilla and the people who live there to anyone who desires a delightful, refreshing, relaxing, scenic, friendly, out-of-the way vacation spot.
We departed Anguilla with a sense of faint foreboding for its fate. Like other places we’ve discovered, we suspected our visit was barely in advance of the inevitable Tide of Progress crouching just over the horizon, waiting for the global economy to recover from the Great Recession before overwhelming these unique, but fragile, specs of land floating in a blue-green sea.
Roatan. Sounds so picturesque, rolling off the tongue even with an awkward American accent. A former Banana Republic, Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, which are a part of Honduras, lying about 50 miles from the northern coast of the Honduran mainland. Trace your fingertip on a large-scale map; down the east coast of Mexico, below Cancun. Continue down the coast of Belize and, as you reach the country of Honduras, where Central America has a big “hump” or shoulder, let your finger drift out to sea, and you will run right into the Bay Islands.
Descriptions of the Bay Islands typically run something like: “… a vacation paradise, home to pristine white sandy beaches, amazing tropical jungle-covered hills, a diverse and unique reef system, heartwarming people, unique cultures and authentic Caribbean charm.” For a Caribbean getaway often referred to in this Internet age as a “best-kept secret”, the island has been known to SCUBA divers at least since the 1970s, when diving and air travel both became somewhat more affordable to a broader American public.
I first heard of Roatan in the mid-1970s. I was a neophyte diver living in my home state of Florida, listening to friends as they described the arduous and often dangerous trip to and from what was then an incredibly remote diver’s paradise. At the time I remember thinking they were nuts, spending all that money to travel somewhere when I was enjoying some pretty incredible diving right off the coast of Florida. Of course, time went by, and development in Florida, global warming, storms and pollution have since taken their toll on not only Florida’s reefs but many reefs that struggle for survival in the increasingly more-heavily traveled, trampled and developed eastern Caribbean.
My own experiences traveling throughout the Caribbean in search of stellar diving and snorkeling have been challenged in the past few years. I did find one section of the reef off the northern coast of Ambergris Caye in Belize in 2006, in the national park, that is about as pristine as possible, but that has been the exception. Still, I search for islands I can get to fairly quickly and relatively inexpensively, where I can stay in affordable, relatively comfortable and safe digs while I explore for a week. Overbuilt islands, resorts, all-inclusive anything are not my bag but I do want a place where I can eat the food (if not drink the water) without having to report to the CDC when I return to the U.S. But I digress.
In my annual vacation destination quest Roatan didn’t make my consideration list until the spring of 2007, when I was gazing at an online map of the Caribbean, trying to figure out where Robin and I were going for our 2008 vacation. I performed much the same finger trailing described above, although my search area encompassed the eastern and western Caribbean basins. I kept looking at Belize, thinking “Dare I go for a third time? Haven’t I Been There, Seen That?” Roatan somehow jumped out at me, got me thinking, and after a few hours (days, truth be told) of Googling and reading info ranging from tourist sites to Travel Advisor forums, I decided I’d found the right spot, at the right time. I say the right time because I got a very clear image of an island sinking from too much love, too many cruise ship passengers leaving tons of trash behind, and too many ex-pats spurring a building boom that has left vast, untended infrastructure problems for an island ill prepared to meet the 21st century. And that was before we learned of the lawlessness, which we didn’t become aware of until mere weeks away from packing for the trip. But I digress.
From a tourist perspective, Roatan is indeed a lovely corner of the Caribbean. During our week’s stay, Roatan shared her many faces, from the sunsets every night to views from an afternoon drive to more rural areas of the island.
Our focus was snorkeling, and here we were able to do so every day. Our favorite spot was the west end of West Bay Beach, up the sandy channel from the water taxi dock. One early morning we spotted a young Hawksbill turtle. The sun was angling down through absolutely cobalt blue water and the turtle was just hanging there, snoozing, at about 40 feet of depth. We could see the sand and the bottom of the reef at about 60 feet below us, where the light from the early morning sun was just starting to penetrate. We were floating over the top of the reef, which at that place was about 20 feet below us. The reef fell away to the sand and we could hear little pops and squeaks and crackles of fish eating and shrimps snapping– it was a busy reef.
As we followed the sand channel that paralleled the iron shore, a large Queen parrot fish spotted us and she rose about 20 feet from her grazing spot on the reef to approach me face-on, apparently hoping for a hand-out! Talk about tame fish. I waved hello and when she figured out we didn’t arrive with any Cheez-Whiz or other foodstuffs, she dropped back down to the reef and resumed munching on the coral. I determined that all that bright orange offal streaming out of the many parrotfish all around us was hardly the normal, fine sand by-product from a strictly coral diet. Something tells me that Cheez-Whiz and parrotfish innards may not mix well. Next thing “they’ll” be advertising the orange sand beaches on West Bay beach! I say leave the junk food at home.
We likely swam over a nautical mile in an hour and a half, slowly cruising up and down the shallow part of the reef offshore and then moving out to the deeper reef, which is where we spotted the sleeping turtle. I kept a sharp eye out for fish cleaning stations and, after I pointed several out to Robin, she became expert at spotting this common fishy behavior. Like many things in nature, if you take the time to be still, quiet, and observe, you’ll often be rewarded with remarkable sights.
One day we were snorkeling the reef approx. 500 yards offshore from Villa Joya when we were visited by the squid equivalent of the Blue Angels. The underwater precision maneuvers of these 7 critters was as intriguing as it was spectacular. They basically ignored us as they formed up in varying formations in mid-water, first sculling this way then quickly darting to realign on a different diagonal, followed by a languid pivot. They reminded me of when I was in marching band, carefully monitoring and correcting to hold the exact distance between myself and marchers around me as we executed intricate formations on a football field. But here, the precision took on a whole new dimension – the Third Dimension. Imagine keeping track of your position in a formation in 3-D! To make matters more interesting, the squid would sometimes individually shift translucence and/or colors, either over one or the other lateral face of their body or radiating up or down the length of their sleek form– rather like a psychedelic Circque du Soleil. We were fascinated for probably 10 minutes or more until the formation slowly moved off over the reef.
I always look for large, spotted puffer fish when we snorkel, but it wasn’t until our last day on the water that we found one. We had joined our friend Linda Kay at her home in Palmetto Bay Plantation, somewhat up-island from Villa Joya, situated in absolutely beautiful, lush foliage and right on a lengthy, untouched sandy stretch of sugar-sand beach tucked into a protected bay. Linda Kay arranged for us to join her aboard the dive shop’s boat for a mid-day quick trip just offshore to “The Wreck,” remains of a steam boiler and other ships’ parts on a shallow reef. Toward the end of a very fishy swim around the wreck and surrounding shallow reef system, we spotted a really large puffer, its broad head barely noticeable under a reef ledge in about 15 feet of water. I dove down and swam around the backside of the little coral haven where it was cringing (they are very shy and easily frightened). The fish responded to my presence by slowly poking its head out, long enough for Robin to get a really good look at it from her surface position. We then backed away so as not to scare the poor thing. They always look so downcast and plum terrified, with those big, brown cow eyes and wide, slightly down-turned mouth.
Another day we joined friends Pat and his wife Carol, whom we’d met on a Travel Advisor Roatan forum, for a day-sail aboard a 39-foot catamaran. It was a breezy day to sail up-island, and the 6-foot seas made for fun trampoline riding for Robin. The bow horsed through the waves, drenching Robin each time the bow dropped into the oncoming waves while she clung to the tramp ropes and grinned like a fool. After a couple of hours of riding the wind, we arrived at a snorkel stop, where I watched the depth-finder rise from over 100 feet to less than 15 in less than 3 boat lengths– time to drop that anchor! The wave heights were running 3 feet or more in the lee of the reef but we still enjoyed floating along, looking off into the void where the reef dropped away to the sand. I dove down 20 feet or more to check out a large crab that I had spotted from the surface as it slowly crept out from under the reef. The crab’s body was as large as a serving platter. As soon as the crab spotted me, it slowly pulled back into its gloomy hole.
Beyond snorkeling, our accommodations, carefully researched and selected, was the 2 bedroom, 2 bath Villa Joya, located on the beach at “Bayside”, a small community of 6 condos on the east end of West Bay Beach, just east of Las Rocas dive resort and busy bar.
This was a very quiet location, perfect for us. The shared pool provided us with a refreshing setting one starlit night when a meteorite streaked down the sky right in front of us, sizzling green and blue and yellow, before fizzling out within 20 feet of the sea. Other highlights include walking to the condo from a beachfront restaurant after dinner on West Bay Beach under a full moon, the warm breezes on our skin, the water gently lapping at our bare feet. And of course snorkeling every day.
Adventures included rental car SNAFUs in which “The Little Car That Could” (dubbed by Robin) had 2 flats, one of which was the morning we were to catch the catamaran for a day-sail. Pat-from-Canada changed the tire lickity-split while we girls stood around sipping early morning coffees. Turned out the spare went flat overnight, and after waiting 3 hours for the rental car folks to go back and forth from the town center of Coxen Hole to get proper tires and tools, we headed out for what was originally scheduled to be a day-long tour of the island. We were approximately 15 minutes into our drive, headed to Coxen Hole, when the car let out a big BANG. I managed to steer it over to the side of the road in Flowers Bay, before the car arrived at its final resting place.
Robin, ever the optimist, had the cell phone ready and, in a flash, connected with the rental car agency. They didn’t seem surprised to learn we had been stranded by LCTC. After another 45 minutes of standing in the shade, enjoying the breeze off the ocean while providing idle amusement for locals killing time at a tiny veggie stand perched on rickety stilts over the iron shore, we greeted the rental car guy as he showed up in a new car. We didn’t wait around for him to tinker with poor, dead Little Car That Could. I signed the paperwork and we were off, headed up-island.
Highlights of our afternoon drive through the countryside were the vistas of wind-swept, grassy hills and the stop for a bite at The View restaurant atop one of the highest ridges of a once-active volcanic island. We made it as far east as Oak Ridge, a scenic fishing village built on stilts out over the protected bay waters. All too soon, it was time to head down island, (West) to arrive back at Villa Joya in time for a dip in the pool, a sunset libation next door at Las Rocas and a pleasant stroll down the beach to another dinner spot in West Bay Beach.
The beachfront towns of West Bay Beach and West End, while similarly named, couldn’t be more different. By water taxi, they are separated less than 10 minutes. Driving the precipitously steep, twisting roads between them is a mere 20-minute trek, even in the dark. However, the character of the settings, and the common denizens, are in my mind quite dissimilar. I would describe West End as a funky village, more hippy enclave than beachside, Third World Caribbean resort-ish. West End is dressed for, and welcomes, the hard-core, younger, serious drinking, and SCUBA set.
The narrow, sand “street” running along the beach is squeezed in between rough-hewn buildings on either side, the road a stitched-together, potholed ride for anyone daring enough to creep along its jaw-grinding potholes. We soon learned to park up at the “top” of the town, near the little roundabout, in the shade, and walk the hot, dusty street to restaurants and hot, dusty shops. Did I mention it was dusty?
Restaurants abound in West End, and the two we tried on separate occasions were each perched over Half Moon Bay, where we could catch the few fitful breezes available at that time of year. Our island friends Linda Kay and Scott introduced us to one of their favorite restaurants on the bay, Mavis and Dixie’s, run by a mom and sister act that featured excellent food, attentive service, good prices and a view of the scattered night lights reflecting on the calm waters around the town dock.
In contrast, West Bay Beach is more touristy, up-scale, noisy, with bars and restaurants and condos beginning to crowd each other well above the high-water mark. The beach itself is lengthy and gently curving, with iron shore at either end, with narrow sand paths demarking the safer places to walk bare-footed. Our plans had led us to select digs well away from the noise and activity of this popular beach. As it was, we were easily within walking distance of world-class snorkeling, excellent restaurants and even our favorite coffee shop located in a small strip center with a small deli that featured good breakfasts and a nice selection of food stuffs and drinks. Plus, Linda Kay and Scott’s condo was located on West Bay beach, so we were able to visit with them and enjoy the ambiance of the resort they called home.
Here, I will digress briefly to explain how we came to know Linda Kay (LK) and Scott. As property manager for Villa Joya, LK was our point person for all things Roatan, and as the months of vacation planning unfolded, we became friends via email and postings on the Trip Advisor Roatan forum. By the time we met LK in person I felt like we’d known each other for years. She and Scott were a delight to hang with, and their sense of dry humor played well, as they shared their knowledge and insight to Honduras and the experience of living as an ex-pat in a not-so-paradisiacal island paradise—one which Scott referred to as rather like a beautiful daughter who has been prostituted by her parents.
LK and Scott’s assessment is based on having spent six years living on the island, and can be somewhat summed up by snippets cut from the virtual front pages of the island’s police report: “Roatan has tourist police specifically to watch for the safety of tourists. Areas with high foot traffic of tourists tend to be safe, even at after dark. Coxen Hole is not safe for foot traffic after dark. In spite of stepped up police presence, most of the police force is on foot. Violent crime and robberies have been increasing. Theft is common on the island, especially with the drug problems that persist. Remote homes have been the sites of home invasions, with armed intruders tying victims and robbing the homes. Vehicles have been stopped at night occasionally in remote areas with road blocks for robberies. Taxi drivers have been killed occasionally. Guards were reportedly killed at Anthoney’s Key resort, April 2008. April 15, 2008: Three security personnel were reportedly killed in Coxen Hole during a bank money transport robbery.”
Tourists are warned: “Some Honduran police have beaten people severely. These incidents usually involve natives that argue with the police. Do not ever offer a police officer a bribe.” And this insightful tidbit: “Highway robbers may obstruct the roadway with a vehicle or a log. If they stop you, give them your money without hesitation. They may kill you if you resist a robbery.”
Scott and LK filled us in on other incidents, accidents, and the never-ending issues with lack of clean water, sewage and garbage disposal, and electrical problems. Not that we didn’t experience sewer smells from the shower taps or electricity shutdowns, sometimes for hours at a time. One does expect some inconveniences when traveling to a country emerging from Third World status. However, the more knowledgeable, and the more observant, we became, the more cautious we grew as we drove around the island, or walked the beaches after dark. I wasn’t sure if I was heartened or frightened by spotting the guards lurking in the darkness along beach property boundaries, riot guns slung over their shoulders. By the time we’d heard the stories and lamented over the conditions, we were more inclined to spend evenings in our little condo. Which was fine, as we were tuckered out by snorkeling all day anyway. But it’s one thing to stay indoors because you’re tired and want to go to bed early, and quite another to remain indoors to feel secure. I have to admit that in all my Caribbean treks, I have never before felt like I had a target on my back. Well, maybe in Santo Domingo, when I was there in the early 80s.
Ultimately, we enjoyed ourselves, enjoyed spending time with newfound friends, enjoyed seeing the beauty of the island and, to some extent, enjoyed the craziness of just learning how to get around in a very different culture. I believe that Roatan’s fate is much the same as many “discovered” Caribbean destinations, so I’m glad we chose to go now, before the new multi-million dollar cruise ship terminal is completed, before more homes and resorts crowd each other along the beautiful island beaches and bays, before the landfills become full and incinerators spew particulate matter into the wind and before the fragile reefs positioned so close to shore around this island jewel become bleached-out, damaged and barren of the shoals of fish that now swim in a virtually Cheez-Whiz free Caribbean ocean realm.
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 the 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 2 hour long 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, banking crazily around tight turns in the mangroves, throwing up a 10 foot wall of rooster tail.
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 (toilets) 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.
The day drew to a close with a wonderful meal (vaguely recalled), followed by a leisurely stroll (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, with 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!