Un-Belize-able! That became the key word to describe last April's excursion to the Caribbean. This would be our second time headed there. Belize is famous for having the second longest barrier reef in the world, perhaps you've heard of the first? I'll give you a hint, it's great.
The reef stretches from just south of the Mexican border almost all the way to the southern tip of Belize. At certain points the reef is visible from land. This is especially true to the north where Ambergris Caye (pronounced key) is less than a mile from the reef. Along with the reef you have 3 coral atolls, small islands surrounded by fringe reefs. Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe Atoll and Glovers Reef. With this geography in mind, there are a few ways to dive Belize. San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is the most popular place to stay. You get convenience being close to the reef but you have options if you don't feel like diving. The next way to dive Belize is to stay out on one of the small resorts on Turneffe or Glovers. You are right on the reef which sees less traffic than the reef off Ambergris. You don't have many options if you don't want to dive. The last option is a live-aboard boat that will take you off the beaten track and allow you to dive a ton. Again, not many options if you don't want to dive.
This trip brought us to Ambergris Caye and Ramon's Village. Ramon's is right on the beach just south of town. It has a dive shop in house and a pool, restaurant and bar on site. The grounds are gorgeous, very tropical with palm trees everywhere. The resort has about 7 buildings scattered about the grounds. The main building held the office, bar and restaurant with smaller buildings on either side that housed the rooms. They were smaller cabanas, complete with thatched roofs. The pool was small and wandered through the palm trees. There was a small, covered deck area between the pool and the beach. The dive shop sat on the pier and had about 6 boats.
We left on a Saturday, connected through Houston to Belize City. From there we hopped on a little puddle jumper for the 20 minute flight to San Pedro. We got there after dark and wondered into town for dinner. We had heard about a little local's place called Waraguma. San Pedro's main streets run parallel to the ocean and as you go farther back it turns from touristy to local. Waraguma was about 3 streets back so it was in the "just starting to get local" zone. They specialized in burritos and papusas. Papusas are basically stuffed tortillas that Grandma was frying up on the street in front of the restaurant. Basically they were our appetizers. They can be filled with meat or veggies. We loved them, in fact we came back twice over the course of the week. I should give the warning that Grandma didn't have the most sanitary work station. I told a customer headed here a few months later about them and he came back worried he was going to catch a disease.
Our diving started the next morning. We boarded our boat and headed out for our first two tanks. Even though the water was warm (78°-ish), I was diving in a 5 mm full suit. I had had an epiphany the year before in Egypt. We had expected water temps in the low 70's and brought the appropriate suit. When we got there, the water was 78* and I was sooo toasty in the 5mm, I finally realized why local divemasters wear heavy suits. Why be even a little cold? So we do our first dive and I begin to realize something is wrong. I should be fine in my suit, maybe even a bit warm. But I'm not. I'm a little chilly. The surface interval doesn't help (and it should -- it's warm and sunny). The second dive, now I'm down right cold. Like shivering cold. Something is definitely wrong. Back on the boat, I can't warm up, even back at the beach I'm wrapped up in my towel. Finally the fever and the shakes show up. Yep, I'm sick on the first day of the trip.
So I take the next day off and Tee takes over as the official Dive Utah guide. Things don't get any better, in fact they get worse. It turns into an ear infection. By the third day, the pain begins. But back to the diving. While I am guarding the beach, the group is still out there enjoying the water. They have done a few of the dives up and down the coast off Ambergris. They are having fun but haven't really seen anything SUPER on the dives. As the week progresses, we make plans for doing the Blue Hole and a day of touring on the mainland.So I take the next day off and Tee takes over as the official Dive Utah guide. Things don't get any better, in fact they get worse. It turns into an ear infection. By the third day, the pain begins. But back to the diving. While I am guarding the beach, the group is still out there enjoying the water. They have done a few of the dives up and down the coast off Ambergris. They are having fun but haven't really seen anything SUPER on the dives. As the week progresses, we make plans for doing the Blue Hole and a day of touring on the mainland.
The Blue Hole is one of the most famous dives in the world. It was first dove by Jacques Costuea back in the 1960's. Ironically enough, there was not a passage way for his boat to enter the Blue Hole so they dynamited one! (I guess he gets a pass once we look at the body of his work!) It is actually a collapsed cave system. At about 30 feet the bottom slopes into a sheer wall and drops. At about 110', the walls slope backwards creating an overhang and you encounter stalactites from the former roof of the cave. Because of the depth, the dive is about 10 minutes long and then you slowly ascend with a long safety stop at 15'. The Blue Hole is located inside Lighthouse Reef and so it is a 3 - 4 hour boat ride to get there. From Ambergris, it is done in conjunction with two other dives and lunch on Half Moon Caye. Half Moon Caye is home to a large frigate bird and red footed boobie bird population (insert joke here). It is interesting to see their nests in the tree tops on the island. The Blue Hole by itself is interesting but a bit anticlimactic. The two extra dives are what make the trip. You see that the fish, corals and sponges are noticeably healthier out here than around Ambergris. The boat ride there and back turn it into an all day affair.
The highlight of the trip (at least for me) was our day spent on the mainland. Belize offers a number of day trips to ruins, animal encounters and good old fashioned adventure. One of our guests, Brian, is a bit of a wheeler/dealer. We could arrange excursions through the dive shop and he started talking to the boss to see what deal he could get us. In the end, he parlayed a day of diving into a ruins tour, lunch and cave tubing through 2 caves. We started with a 45 minute boat ride from Ambergris back to Belize City. This was actually a neat ride as we wove through some smaller islands and across the flats where fisherman like to play. We tied up to a jetty across from the Raddison hotel and after a quick potty stop we jumped on a little mini bus for a drive across Belize. We literally drove across the entire country. Keep in mind Belize isn't the biggest country on the globe but our ruins were located on the border of Guatemala. As we were getting closer, we turned off the main road and started up the smaller road that lead to the ruins. First we had to cross a river without a bridge. That's ok, you see there was a ferry without a motor. But of course it was the rope that ran through the hand crank that allowed us to cross. I am always amazed by things we take for granted in the states and the ingenuity of people who have to make do.
After we crossed the river, we arrived at the ruins of Zunantunich. A short walk up a hill and the ruins lay before us. It was pretty interesting except for the fact that my ear was ready to explode. As I mentioned before, my ear had an infection and by this time it is throbbing with pain. Crazy pain. Like "my head is about to explode with pain" pain. After walking about for a few minutes, I head back to the bus to lie down. Everyone else enjoyed the ruins for about an hour. Third world ruins are great because you can climb up everything. The view from the top was the best as you looked across the jungle into Guatemala. The view from the bus, not as great. Eventually everyone made it back to the bus, across the river and headed down the road to the next adventure. Lunch and cave tubing.
We had lunch at this resort in the jungle that doubled as the jumping off spot for cave tubing. Now when we were bargaining for our trip, the guy at the dive shop made a big deal that we would get to go through 2 caves during our cave tubing trip. Apparently just 1 cave is for saps! Plus one of our other guests, Bret, had been told not to miss this. He was on the phone with a customer service person the week before we left and when he mentioned he was headed to Belize, this lady just goes off about how great cave tubing is!! She makes Bret promise he will go. No pressure but we are ready for some epic cave tubing! So now we are at the base camp for our adventure. We get outfitted with life jackets, helmets and of course, tubes. We have to walk about 20 minutes through the jungle to our launch point. This was cool. There was definitely an Indiana Jones feel to walking through the jungle. Or at least how Indy would feel if he had on a life jacket, helmet and was carrying an inflatable tube. Still very beautiful and pretty cool. I actually start to forget a little about my ear. We get to the river outside the entrance to the caves. It is pretty big and wide. We start getting ready. Our guides, yes we have 2 guides, start giving us instructions. I'm going to call them both Sallah. You know, like Indy's guide. Sallah tells us we need to hook our arms over the legs of the people behind us. So we stay together. Are you kidding me? That's not very adventurous. Indy wouldn't stand for this. Of course I'm not Indy and rules are rules. Actually I get it. They want the group to stay together. The usual clientele are drunk American tourists and we all know what they are capable of. But the river is not a raging death trap. In fact in some places the water is only about calf deep and the guides have to pull us along. To add to the excitement, a few times they start splashing the water to make it sound like rapids. Ok, so maybe the adventure is not so adventurous. But it was still really cool. Sallah points out the stalactites on the ceiling, some bats hanging around, a few other cool features. About half way through, there is an opening with a little mini-jungle in this small light patch. It was really quite amazing. Only too soon, we emerge from the cave and are told to exit the water. Wait...that wasn't 2 caves. Do we look like saps? Sallah tells us that is all we get. It is too late in the day to do anymore caves. Sure enough as we walk back through the resort, we see that we are the only people left in the place.
And thus the legend of cave tubing was born. Depending on who you talked to, the adventure of cave tubing was either a fun diversion or completely lame. I thought it was pretty cool. As we talked about it, we realized perhaps it is a running inside joke in Belize. Tell all the tourists to go cave tubing! It's un-Belize-able! We are now in on it. Sure enough, fast forward to the airport on our way home. Bret is chatting with some other passengers and cave tubing comes up. The inevitable question arises, how was it? Bret looks at us, gives a small smirk and says, "It was..(wait for it)...awesome!" And proceeds to pay it forward.
A final note about my ear. The pressure continued to build all that day. We had a doctor in our group and he gave me some pain pills that I popped as the boat got back to San Pedro. We also went to the local pharmacia and got some Belizean antibiotics. I went into a weird half sleep/awake/still in pain but not as bad as before state of consciousness. At some point my ear drum ruptured and I felt sweet relief as the pain went away. My ear kept draining some nasty stuff for the next few days until I got home. Two nights later I awoke to the same pain again. Apparently the meds from third world countries are not as good as the ones here. I visited the ER that night, stopped by a 24 hour Walgrens for a new prescription as I drove up the hill to my house, it popped again. This time the meds kicked in a few weeks later I was good as new.
So this trip was a bit of a bust for me. The other folks in our group enjoyed it but I did hear from a few that the diving was only so-so. Now we had always noticed how good the diving was at the other sites out by the Blue Hole. A few months later, Tee and I had the chance to take a fam trip on the Sun Dancer. Fam trips are special trips for dive shop owners to see first hand what a resort or dive boat is like. The Dancer and Aggressor fleets are 2 fleets of liveaboards that have boats throughout the world. They had been 2 separate companies but had merged together a few years ago. The Sun Dancer and the Belize Aggressor are both docked at the same pier in front of the Raddison in Belize City where we landed for our cave tubing adventure. The Dancer left Saturday afternoon and headed straight out to Lighthouse Reef. We spent most of the week diving sites off Half Moon Caye and Long Caye. We made the obligatory dive at the Blue Hole and enjoyed the boobie birds. We spent the last day diving around Turneffe Atoll. Sure enough, the diving was much better overall. I won't go into too much detail but the next time we do Belize, we will be doing it on the Dancer.
Let's go diving!