An Adventure in Belize!
On March 23, 2005 we set out on yet another adventure. After months of planning Jesse McKinney and I were off to Belize in Central America. It was Jesse’s first real international experience and it was going to be an amazing one. Along with in-depth research of this tiny country on the Internet, travel guides and an almost last minute, but dramatic change in travel agents, we had our bases covered and agree that “Awesome!” is really the only way to describe this vacation.
Belize is a small country in Central America on the South side of Mexico. It is bordered on the West and South by Guatemala and on the East is the turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea. The entire country has only about 265,000 people, and the population of the capital, Belize City, is only about 65,000. There are no buildings over 7 stories and many tourists and resources are imported to this city via huge ships that port there.
The weather is awesome in this tropical paradise, and the sun shines almost everyday with temperatures reaching 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit by each afternoon. We visited in the dry season just before the rains came. It hadn’t rained for over a month when we arrived and it was very dry in the forests and fields. There was some evidence of fires, but the damage was not on a large scale. Rivers were low and that makes wildlife easier to see near the water’s edge where there is no vegetation.
I had been to Costa Rica in 2000 and had an idea of what to expect from the area and its people. There is no reason to rush, because it won’t do you any good, and there are constant reminders to “Just relax, you’re in Belize. You’re on vacation”. The “No worries” way of life that I have experienced in my travels is great if you are used to it, but can be very frustrating to many (mostly me) that thrive on the stress and harsh schedules that many of us have in our daily lives. This culture shock can be a difficult concept deal with, or even describe, when waiting endlessly for service or a check at a restaurant or simply trying to make a plan for a tour two days out and the agent says that she’ll work on it, just come back later. “But…I want to take care of this now... I have to know”… Don’t bother, it won’t do any good. ” Relax, you’re on vacation." (Ambergris Palms)
Jesse’s Journal Entry:
Belize, being my first visit to a Central American nation was definitely a culture shock. As we flew over San Pedro, I observed a town, the likes of which l had never seen before. After we landed and loaded up into our taxi to go to the hotel, I began to wonder about what I had gotten myself into (this was not the last time that thought would cross my mind on our adventure!). As we cruised down the road there were people on bicycles, golf carts, and tractors everywhere, and just enough room for two cars to pass each other on the road. Of course seat belts are completely optional (I think we wore ours). When looking at the houses I couldn’t help but think that they looked like something 10 year old kids would have built out of a torn down shed. At the very least, this is not what I had expected and I was beginning to get anxious about the appearance of our hotel. Upon our arrival at the Banana Beach Resort, my apprehensions disappeared like some of the lovely brownies we would encounter later in our journey.
We stayed at the Banana Beach Resort on the beautiful white sand beach of Ambergris Cay, an island about 25 miles from the mainland. Ambergris Cay is a small island, only about 25 miles long and 3 miles wide at its widest point. A cay is a low lying island or reef. In English it is pronounced “key” and that is the source of the name of our Florida Keys.
Ambergris is another subject altogether. Ambergris is the name of the oil that is produced in the massive heads of Sperm Whales. During the 1800’s, and the hay day of whaling, Sperm Whales were slaughtered to the point of being wiped out in the entire Caribbean. The gray oil that floated to the beaches of the island from the dead whales gave it its name and ever since has been known as Ambergris Cay. Brown Pelican
(Magnificant Frigate Bird) Flying to Belize was easy, just a quick jump from Des Moines to Dallas/Fort Worth and then to the Belize International Airport. The last transfer we made was to a smaller 14-passenger plane that took us to Ambergris. There was some confusion about how we were going to fit the 15 passengers on the 14-person plane, but they just kicked the co pilot out and one traveler took his seat. That left the list of passengers to be worked out later. I don’t think they had any real idea who was on that plane. No one asked who we were. Anyway, we arrived on the “tarmac” at the Tropic Air Airport as dogs chased the plane down the runway. It was pretty much what I expected, but I think Jesse was starting to wonder what he was in for. It was late afternoon and we had a great Brazilian BBQ dinner at El Divino restaurant at Banana Beach, and walked the beach after dark to get the feel of the place. It had been a long day and one of us had no sleep the night before. Bedtime came early, as it did for the rest of the trip.
The first day in Belize we got up early and set out to get our bearings. We walked up the beach to San Pedro, did some window-shopping and had some Caribbean jerk lunch and a great piece of Key Lime pie for desert (we were on vacation). Later, we returned with our “HOT ROD” golf cart rental and made some souvenir purchases and then planned our week's events. Well, we at least turned in a list of what we wanted to do and then were expected to wait to see what tours we would be taking and when we would be taking them.
On our first day tour we visited the Mayan Ruins at Lamanai (The word Lamanai translates to “submerged crocodile” in English). To reach these ruins on mainland Belize, we traveled by motorboat, leaving at 7:30 am. That portion of the trip takes about a brain-jarring hour, as the boat speeds over waves and crashes down between them. Its fun at first and then just kinda gets to you. After the first leg of our trip we transferred to what Jesse called the “Magic Bus”. It was an old, retired, school bus that was dark green, likely hand painted, and had all the discomforts of any vehicle from the 1970’s that has been crossing the horrendously bumping and ill kept roads of Central America for 35 years. It was a real treat. Did I mention the air conditioning? I didn’t? That’s because there wasn’t any! The “magic bus trip” was another 45 minutes to an hour and then we transferred to yet another boat. This boat took us up the Rio Nuevo (the New River). Sightseeing and wildlife spotting was great for the one and a half hour final leg of the trip to the ruins of Lamanai. (Jaguar Temple).
The site at Lamanai was incredible and consisted of ancient pyramids and other structures that are over 1500 years old. We climbed to the top of the 2nd highest structure in the entire Mayan empire. This structure was about 110 feet high and although there were built in steps, they were very steep and there was a great vertical distance between them( I don’t think they were built to OSHA standards). A rope was required to assist climbers to the top of the structure in the extreme heat and higher humidity. The view from the top was spectacular and the effort was well worth it. (Of course there are no guardrails, lines that you shouldn’t cross for safety purposes, or barriers of any kind to keep you from falling to your certain death, at the top for your protection. It is Central America). You can see at least 15 miles in all directions from the top on a clear day. That’s almost every day in Belize. (Giant head and Jesse. Jesse's on the left)
We got many great photos on this daytrip and the typical rainforest flora is always interesting to see. Black Howler Monkeys relaxed in the trees above and lizards scurried under the forest leaf litter below. Along the path near the Jaguar Temple we got a very nice and up-close view of the beautiful Violaceous Trogon (Trogon violaceous)
We spent several hours with our guide Carlos touring a museum, and four ancient structures, and having a typical BBQ lunch that included chicken, beans and rice, and some kind of salad. Jesse made the most friends at lunch when he commented on the events of the day using a particular word that in one fell swoop offended just about everyone in our group that could hear him. Later we laughed, but that forever unforgettable moment turned everyone instantly silent. Way to go!
Jesse’s Journal Entry: (Jesse Pictured on top of the Mayan world
After our fabulous lunch experience, we decided to check out the Ruin’s Gift shops (everybody’s got an angle), and we made some fine purchases. Unfortunately, one of us, not me, left their newly acquired plunder behind. It seems that this unnamed person (Kevin) was too busy exchanging American money for Belize dollars with one of the few remaining fellow travelers that would still speak to us, and left his souvenirs behind!
They were nice too. I had purchased several Howler Monkey and Iguana carvings in Black Soapstone. Sure wish I had them today!
The trip back took just as long as the trip over did. Go figure. The waves were just as rough and I think I still have bruises from bouncing around. The day had been a great one, but it was also exhausting and after dinner it didn’t take long for these tourists to turn in for the night. Lucky for me, and the consummate John Wayne fan that was with me, there was a marathon of “Duke” films on all week. I had never seen a John Wayne movie, but luckily have now added several including True Grit and The Quiet Man to my movie life-list. As with almost all the other nights on the trip, lights were out and logs were being sawed by 10:00 p.m. We were such party animals!
Early the next morning we found ourselves standing on the Banana Beach Pier waiting for another boat transport to the mainland. This time we were headed for a day of Cave Tubing. You can’t really beat that. (Cave tubing at Nohoch Che'en) We got to see a little of Belize City and even pulled off to the side of the Pan-American Highway to let the National Bike Race go past us. Then we headed to the somewhat mountainous areas outside the city to float down a slow flowing river that meanders through several caves. Armed with headlamps to allow us to see in the pitch-dark caves, we slowly paddled our feet and made our way downstream on inner tubes in the cool crystal clear water. Several lizards, birds and even vampire bats were seen on this trip. We agreed that it was one experience we would recommend to all that have the means. (Inside the caves)
Jesse’s Journal Entry:
Once we returned to our “base of operations”, my thoughts turned to dinner. After cleaning up and consulting our various tour guidebooks, we decided on a couple of places that looked appealing and set off into the night. To our dismay, tonight’s walk seemed like a nature hike (without the nature-but maybe that’s just me?), until we reached a place of fine Belizean cuisine known as Pauly’s New York Style Pizza. Pauly makes pretty damn good pizza and having a beer (Belkin) made me feel like I was at home there…(Pauly's New York Pizza)
On Easter Sunday we went on a much bigger boat out to snorkel with sharks at an area called the “Blue Hole”. The Blue Hole is a perfectly round hole in the second largest barrier reef in the world (second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia). It is 1000 feet across and 400 feet deep. This portion of the trip was about 65 miles from Ambergris, and was estimated to take about 3 hours. Now, I will tell you that I am not much of a sailor. I get seasick quite easily and have fed my share of fish in the open ocean (actually several large bodies of water), if you know what I mean. If there was ever a time for me to be sick on a boat it was that morning! The waves were very rough and frequently crashed over the top of the boat, which we estimated safely at 25 feet above the normal the water level. I wondered if the castaways of Gilligan’s Island had endured such a beating before being stranded. People were flung to the floor off their seats and the waves crashed in on us for some time. I did not however throw up once!!! A triumph! I will admit, I thought about it though.
Upon arriving at the calm waters of the Blue Hole, our dive master had Jesse and I wait while the others, about 14 or so SCUBA divers, got their gear on and headed for the deep. I asked the pilot of the boat sarcastically if the trip was always so rough. I say sarcastically, because, well A) that’s just how I am, and B) these guys have made the trip literally thousands of times and I was sure that the trip in any conditions was pretty much old hat to them. Well, I actually felt the blood rush from my face when the boat’s pilot shook his head and said; “I’ve never seen it that bad. Man, that was scary. We will be taking a different route back that will hopefully be smoother…”. What?! (Blue Tangs)
Anyway, since McKinney isn’t a SCUBA diver, I opted to stay on the surface with him and snorkel through the coral and colorful tropical fish of the reef. The divers disappeared into the crystal clear water and then it was our turn.
We had read about the abundance of Caribbean Reef Sharks at the Blue Hole and when our guide told us that when we jumped in the water, we should stay to the right, because typically the sharks were to the left, we weren’t shocked. We knew they should be there somewhere. The most amazing part of the dive was just after we hit the water and surfaced for a breath and to adjust our masks. I looked up and caught the glimpse of something flying through the air. I was stunned when I recognized it as a dead and fairly bloody fish. That was followed by what looked like a scoop full of bloody water. This guy was chumming (feeding) the sharks next to the boat and we were in the water very close to the feeding frenzy! All shark books, the Discovery Channel and every expert on “Shark Week” will tell you this isn’t smart, and we knew that for sure. In seconds we were surrounded by large Caribbean Reef Sharks, silently gliding past us to get a feed. The impressive thing about sharks is that you have no idea that there is one until you see it up close. They make no sounds, and are in your line of vision for a split second and then they are gone into the depths the next second. I had trouble getting a good picture of them. They were just so fast! Luckily we viewed them without incident, and it was a definite adrenaline rush!
We snorkeled the reef and took lots of amazing pictures of coral and fish. The water was a perfect temperature and the sun was turning us a bit pink. It’s all good. Once we were called back to the boat and got settled we headed to (Lighthouse Atoll) for more snorkeling near the beach and a good BBQ lunch. It was a great way to spend Easter Day.
Jesse’s Journal Entry:
Once we were done snorkeling on Lighthouse Atoll, there was some time to kill before lunch. We decided to sit on the beach, soak up some rays with our feet in the water, just relax and be bums for a while. It tuned out far more exciting than we expected. As we were sitting there, enjoying the scene, there came a large school of very small fish down the beach in the light surf. They were fast and really got our attention. They surrounded our feet and were practically touching us. We soon found out why they were in such shallow water near the beach. A school of larger fish was right on their tails gobbling them up inches from our feet as if we weren’t even there. This happened several times as the schools of fish passed up and down the beach and was a great source of entertainment for the afternoon.
(Lighthouse Atoll Easter Sunday) On Lighthouse Atoll and saw Magnificent Frigate Birds and more sharks and stingrays from the beach. An area of the atoll is cordoned off as important breeding grounds for the frigates and the interesting Red Footed Boobies. I was devastated that I had used all my digital battery power before I got a chance to photograph the breeding colony. It was awesome as frigates displayed their huge bright red, balloon-like throat pouches to impress the girls and “so ugly they are cute” booby chicks were fuzzy and sitting above us in sparsely constructed nests in what seemed like almost every tree. And I didn’t get a single picture of any of it. I could have just died. Still might.
Jesse’s Journal Entry:
The last snorkeling spot of the day was MAGNIFICANT! It was called “The Aquarium”, and did it ever live up to its name. Thousands of fish were just hanging out everywhere. As was the case at all of our snorkeling stops, the water was calm and beautiful. Before we set out to get into the water, our guides once again took the liberty to feed the fish some left over watermelon and pineapple from lunch. This feeding brought the fish right up to the boat and as we prepared to jump into the water, I could not help thinking about the shark experience a few hours before at the Blue Hole and the fact that I would likely hit at least a half a dozen fish as I took the plunge. (Coral at Lighthouse Atoll)
Upon entering the water, not hitting anything (how??), I found a true underwater wonderland. We could easily see the sea bed about 30 feet below us and in the clear water, it felt as if it were only an arm’s length away. There were more different types of fish and coral than you can imagine, and many were different than we had seen that day.
As we swam around, Kevin made an interesting discovery. As it is, The Aquarium is located on an underwater shelf and if you swim over the edge of the shelf and look down, all you can see is the darkness of the deep, deep water. It’s black. There was no way to determine how deep the water was right there and you really would need to be there and experience it for yourself to appreciate how awesome it was. (Coral and Spiney Sea Urchin) This experience consummated the end of the snorkeling for the day. On the return trip to Ambergris, as with almost all of our daytrips, we picked up locals that needed a ride. This is very common in Belize.
Rum Punch is the unofficial National Drink of Belize. After a dehydrating day of snorkeling and baking in the tropical sun, I have to admit it tastes pretty refreshing. I know the ONE I had tasted pretty good. Jesse REALLY liked it and consumed a bit more than even his body could handle under those conditions. He slept most of the way back to Ambergris and wasn’t feeling so good when we arrived back at Banana Beach.
That night we went to el Divino to have dinner and ran into “Miss Belize” having dinner and being photographed by tourists. She had be the tallest person in the country!
The next morning, Jesse wasn’t quite his chipper self as we set out to see Manatees. It was threatening rain, much like it had every other morning. The difference was that it did rain that morning and the cold droplets hit our exposed skin like sharp rocks as we sped across the ocean to the manatee sanctuary. The ride was worth the suffering, Jesse did survive, and we did see quite few manatees, at least a dozen! Manatees are very rare and protected around an island covered by Mangrove trees. The group of manatees mainly consisted of a huge female being pursued by several amorous males with one thing on their minds. Tails and flippers slapped the surface of the water as they battled for the rights to mate. Our guides that day were more people oriented than interested much in manatees and sang songs of “Gringos in Belize” and then went through a top 10 selection of Hip Hop.
They followed up their singing by taking us to a small island for snorkeling and lunch. The island we went to was pretty small and had only a few trees. The sky was still dark, the wind was blowing and it was kind cool to be running around in wet trunks, but we did it. Snorkeling around the island, we ran into more spectacular coral and lots of small fish. (Hermit Crab) Lunch was the usual BBQ chicken, beans and rice, but the desert was one that we won’t forget any time soon. It was delicious caramel fudge brownies made from scratch. They were moist, and hands down the best single item we ate in Belize., and likely the best brownies we have EVER had.
When we were getting ready to leave the island there was a little concern when the boat’s motor wouldn’t start and it had to be beaten (literally) into submission and forced to start. That was less than comforting considering we were out to sea, well, without a paddle if it quit on us in route. Never the less, we stopped and snorkeled on another part of the reef and then headed to Cay Caulker. This sparsely inhabited island was a nice spot to stop and stretch our legs and get something to drink. At this point, one of the women on the tour with us commandeered a bicycle from a bake goods salesman and road around laughing trying to sell his wares. She was having too much fun, and had no idea what she was even trying to sell. We then actually struck up a conversation with a group of four from London. They had traveled the world and called Jesse “mate”. I think that may have been the high light of the trip for him.
We then met the boat on the northern tip of the island, and peered into the water to spot a seahorse in among the mangrove roots. They are increasingly rare there due to illegal collection for the aquarium trade and for dried souvenirs. It was a rare treat to see one, and of course, I spotted it first! And then back to Ambergris.
Our time in Belize ended with a morning of driving our Golf cart around the island and touring the areas that we hadn’t been yet. Spiny Tailed Iguanas are common throughout Ambergris and I had made it my personal mission to capture one. Well, its what I do. Jesse wasn’t so sure about this part of the adventure, but was willing to do the driving and helped spot lizards all over the place. Spiny Tailed Iguanas have sharp claws, sharp teeth and strong jaws. Oh, and they are FAST! They commonly inhabit scrub brush and very rocky places that make it difficult for predators, namely me, to catch them. I attempted to catch several lizards, but didn’t have much success. They must not have understood that all I wanted was a picture with them.
Long story short, I finally grabbed one. I struggled to hang onto him as he scrambled down into his burrow. I held on tight and he braced his legs against the sides of the hole. I had him by the tail. That’s really not the best place to grab an iguana. Their perfect defense to that, is to allow the tail to snap off. It did and I was left standing with a chunk of iguana tail in my hand and a red face. Well, I mostly caught one. He’ll be okay, and his tail will grow back. No real foul, but nothing I can really count either.
After we returned the golf cart and vacated our room, we still had a couple of hours before our plane left so we wandered back out to the beach and chilled for a while. Jesse took advantage of the last few rays of the Belizean sun and I took a few last pictures of the frigate birds diving at the fisherman near the pier. It came time to load our gear into the taxi/van and head for the Tropic Air Airport for our return home.
The path home was the same as it was on the way down, except for an overnight layover in Dallas. While we waited at the baggage claim in Dallas I could smell beer. Hum? We went through customs and Immigration and then headed out. After a gut-wrenching ride in a hotel shuttle for our overnight stay, we arrived at the hotel in time to grab a much need cheeseburger and a chocolate shake. I felt better. American food is good. We checked into our final room and Jesse opened his luggage to investigate the lingering beer smell. Unfortunately the 2 bottles of Belizean beer he had planned on giving away as souvenirs has been broken in transit and now not only were the beers lost, but his other souvenirs and clothes were soaked in beer and broken glass. He cleaned up what he could and we watched a boxing match on HBO.
Another early morning came and we were on our way home. It had been an amazing trip and there really wasn’t anything we would have changed. Now that’s success!
Plans are being made for us to visit Peru in the fall of 2006.
Kevin and Jesse
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