Caye Caulker, Belize
By Kristin Piljay
Finally we were flying over Belize, gazing at the tropical landscape, which bore a remarkable similarity to the savannas of Africa. For one month, Alex and I had anxiously awaited our trip to Belize and were excited to finally arrive. The waters were azure blue, promising clear and beautiful scuba diving, which was going to be our main activity in Belize. The trip was for two weeks and our itinerary was rather casual, kind of ‘make it up as you go,’ but we had planned to head to Caye Caulker first to do some diving right away.
Our plane landed in Belize City and we took a taxi to the city center, sharing it with two other travelers that we met from San Francisco. Two hours later, we left on a water taxi bound for Caye Caulker. After stopping at various cayes along the way, we finally arrived at Caye Caulker. My first impression was that it was just adorable – with brightly-painted clapboard houses, streets of sand, with walking, bicycles or golf carts as the most common forms of transportation.
We had contacted Belize Diving Services by email beforehand, and had arranged for them to pick us up at the dock with their golf cart. They drove us to the Sandy Lane Hotel where we found a cabin to rent for $20/night. The cabin was rather cute, but we soon discovered that we had to share it with a few giant roaches. Additionally, the first night as we lay down to sleep, the person in neighboring cabin decided to blast their television, and throughout the night we listened to people yelling in the street, dogs barking, roosters crowing, resulting in a cacophony of animal and human noises which echoed in the darkness. At dawn, the neighbor’s alarm rang and after hitting the snooze twice, he turned the television on once more at full blast – maybe he was hard of hearing. Needless to say, it was rather difficult to sleep, so after two nights there, we decided to leave and look for a better place.
After walking down the beach in the southern part of the island, we found the Seaview Hotel, a lovely house right on the beach that was renting out four rooms downstairs and a cottage behind the house. We took one of the rooms, which was $32/night and it had nice but simple dÃ©cor and was a very clean. There was a pier in front of the hotel with a hut at the end of it. It was very pleasant to sit in the hut by the water in the chairs or hammocks. Unfortunately, it was a rather windy for a few days, so it made for a bit of a wind tunnel. We stayed there quite pleasurably for three days and then something bad happened. Apparently the owner didn’t have his septic tank cleaned out recently and it became full, causing our toilet to overflow in our room. Some of the water seeped out into the main room from the bathroom and we were literally sitting on the bed, an island amongst the putrid waters. We were able to move to the cottage for two nights, which was just fine, except for the small, biting insects, which seemed to inhabit the bed. So we moved one more time. This time, we went to the northern part of the island, ocean front – De Real McCaw. We were able to stay in three very different parts of the island – the back streets where local life abounded, in the south right on the beach and in the north, along the main street.
As for the diving, our first full day there the high winds began, which prevented the dive boats from going out past the reef. The first day we did an afternoon dive just inside the reef to begin our advanced open water certification. The following two days, the wind picked up even more and we were not able to dive. It was rather disappointing since we had looked forward to diving so much and the small dive we did was just a taste of what diving in Belize can be. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world and contains three atolls: Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glover’s Reef. The diving in the atolls is supposed to be the best diving in Belize and we hoped to make it out to two of them at least.
Finally on Saturday, we went out on our first “real dive”, although the wind was still strong and the seas extremely choppy. We did a deep dive down to 106 feet and swam along the canyons of coral, stopping by a wreck at 70 feet. The first dive went well, but upon surfacing in the rough seas, I ended up swallowing a big mouthful of sea water. When I returned to the rocking boat, I discovered I felt quite nauseous. They had warned us about possibly getting seasick, but I hadn’t worried about it, never having had a problem with motion sickness before. Well, I believe swallowing that sea water kind of set it off and I just couldn’t stop from feeling sick. I eventually did get sick during our break and later felt a little better, so I went on the second dive. It’s worse when you’re in the boat, but once you submerge yourself it’s calm, so the seasickness will often go away during the dive.
All went well for about 35 minutes, and then I started to feel sick again. I remembered my scuba instructor telling us that you should never take your regulator out of your mouth, that you can cough in it and you can even throw up in it – we all laughed about that, and I wondered why you’d ever need to throw up in your regulator. Well, I got to test this myself – I threw up in my regulator, hit the purge button and then suffered a series of dry heaves, which drew the attention of Alex to inquire in hand signals if I was OK. Well, how could I say I was OK, when I clearly wasn’t? But then I wasn’t having a major problem really and I didn’t have a hand signal for “I’m OK, but I’m throwing up.” (I developed one later, just in case.) After I was sick, then I felt fine the rest of the dive (which ended shortly thereafter anyway) until we got back on the boat and it started all over again. Even on land, the sickness hung on, not leaving me until a few hours later. Luckily the dive shop had some Dramamine that they gave me to take for the next three days of diving and all was well.
The following day we went again to a local reef and dove in some canyons. On Monday, we finally were able to visit one of the atolls: the northern part of Turneffe. There was a large abundance of marine life and the visibility was a little better (around 60 or 70 feet). But by far our best diving day was the next day when we went with Frenchie’s Diving Service for a 3-tank dive in the Lighthouse Atoll. Our first dive was the infamous Blue Hole, which is a sinkhole (used to be a cave), that is 400 feet deep and 1,000 feet in diameter. When we entered the water, there was a school of reef sharks swimming near the boat. I didn’t feel afraid of them, but I did make sure there were some other divers between the sharks and me! They were quite interesting to watch as they swim very differently from other fish, in a very quick turning, predatory way. We also saw some groupers and silvery jacks. We dropped down beneath an overhang with stalactites to about 140 feet for eight minutes. The effect of the dive was quite amazing, making me feel like I was floating in outer space. Because the blue hole is enclosed on the sides, the center of the hole is very dark, midnight blue, almost black, and it gave it a rather other-worldly effect, with the fish and sharks glowing eerily in the darkness, being lit from above. It was really a wild experience – I enjoyed it immensely and it was my favorite dive experience. I’m curious to know what is at the bottom of the Blue Hole, 400 feet down.
There was one unfortunate incident during the dive. One of the divers experienced nitrogen narcosis (at deep depths, some divers will experience light-headedness, lack of coordination and/or panic), and pulled his regulator out of his mouth, inhaling sea water. He panicked and shot towards the surface, hitting the overhang at 50 feet. The dive master raced after him, shoving the regulator back into his mouth, but he ripped out the regulator and pulled off his mask, and went on fighting his way to the surface, the dive master following him. He did not do a safety stop and had ascended way too fast, risking the bends. He seemed okay afterward and did not go on the second dive. But he did go on the third dive and also was drinking later on the boat, which isn’t a good idea really, as the symptoms of the bends can sometimes be delayed up to 12 hours. But lucky for him, he seemed to be OK and was diving the next day.
After the blue hole dive, we went to Half Moon Caye, which was fantastic. It was swarming with marine life and we had a close-up encounter with a spotted eagle ray (the creature I had most wanted to see). At lunch we went onto the Half Moon Caye itself and were able to hike and observe the red-footed booby birds that live on the island. The third dive, the aquarium (aptly named), was even better, with amazing marine life, including two sea turtles that swam very close to us.
So after a week on Caye Caulker, we decided to move on. We had thought of going south to Tobacco Caye so we could dive down there and in Glover’s Reef, but after five days of diving, we were kind of tired and thought we’d go inland to experience something different. We took the water taxi back to Belize City, dropped off our scuba gear at a guesthouse where we would stay the night before our departure and took a bus to San Ignacio in the Cayo, which is in western Belize. This town is a good base for the various adventurous type trips offered by many operators in the area, which include inter-tubing down rivers in caves, horseback riding, canoeing, cave exploring, and trips to Mayan ruins. We decided to go on a cave exploration trip with International Archaeological Tours to Actun Tunichil Muknal. On this trip, we rode in a 4×4 vehicle for 1.5 hours, followed by a 45-mintue hike through the jungle (crossing several streams) to get to the cave site. There was a group of four of us plus the guide and they gave us each a hard hat with a miner’s light on the front.
The entrance to the cave was amazingly beautiful and a river flows through it, so you need to swim through the entrance and climb onto some rocks. The rest of the way we waded through water, sometimes ankle-deep, knee-deep or even chest deep, and climbed on rocks. After about 45 minutes we reached the dry chamber where there were Mayan ruins of pottery vessels, beautiful formations of stalactites and stalagmites, and remains of Mayan skulls, bones and even a full skeleton. It was very spectacular and was an awesome experience. We went out the same way we came in and swam out of the cave entrance. Luckily, we were able to bring cameras with us because the guide had a dry pack that he took with him.
We stayed in San Ignacio for three nights, also hiking up to the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech, which is a short walk from the town center. We then decided to go to Guatemala, the border being just 15 km from San Ignacio. We went directly on a mini-bus to Flores, a beautiful little town on an island on Lago de Peten Itza. The town has narrow, cobblestone streets and brightly-colored houses and doors. We decided to base ourselves here and take a day trip to Tikal the following morning – very early in the morning, at 5am. So we arrived at Tikal around 6:45am and wow, the jungle was alive with noise! So many hooting, screeching, chortling animals. Unfortunately, we heard many of them but only saw a few. Some of the creatures we did see included toucans, parrots, coatimundi, ocellated turkeys and many other birds. We climbed among the ruins, going to the top of Temple II, Temple IV and El Mundo Perdido (which had the best view), and other smaller, lesser ruins. It was spectacular, hiking through the jungle, with the temples piercing through the foliage. It became quite hot in the afternoon, so we took an early shuttle at 2pm back to Flores.
The previous day, we had met an American couple in a restaurant in Flores who were living in San Benito (a nearby town) working for an NGO for the past two years. They told us that if we wanted to see “the real Guatemala” that we should visit the fair in San Benito and ride the rickety ferris wheel. We kept this in mind, and that evening we met a couple also from San Francisco, staying at our hotel, who decided to accompany us on a field trip over to the fair. When we asked in our hotel lobby for a taxi to the San Benito fair, a woman who overheard us exclaimed that we should not go there – she said , “it’s dangerous and there are bandits with guns.” When she left, she wished us “Good Luck.” We kept that in mind but on the advice of the couple the previous day, we decided to go anyway. When we arrived, there were families, young people, old people having fun at a carnival. I have no idea why that woman said it was dangerous there, as it didn’t appear to be so. Indeed, we certainly were the only “gringos” there, but we experienced no trouble whatsoever. It was definately an interesting experience and a peek into normal Guatemalan life. We did ride the rickety ferris wheel and survived the experience – it was a lot of fun. We spent the following day relaxing in Flores, swimming and kayaking in the lake.
We decided to fly back to Belize City, which we did in a very small plane with about five seats. There were just three passengers and we flew at around 3500 feet, so we had some good views of the landscape. After checking into our guesthouse in Belize City, we took a bus to the Belize Zoo, which was touted to be a rather unique zoo with only Belizean animals in their natural habitats. Well, the zoo was very interesting and we did see a lot of animals, but to be honest their natural habitats seemed rather small. I would think that these poor creatures need a little more room to move around. Most of the animals there had been wounded at some point or for some reason or another cannot live in the wild. At the end of the day, we ran into a zookeeper and started asking him questions about the black jaguar that they had there. Jokingly, I asked if he ever pet it, and he responded that he did! He called the jaguar over to him (her name was Ellen) and she came just like a puppy over to him and he pet her forehead and nose through the barricade. It was quite amazing and the animal seemed so tame, until she opened her mouth a little and you could see the huge fangs peeking out! Then we went over to the ocelot’s area. An ocelot is a small spotted jungle cat; jut a little bigger than a house cat. The zookeeper called her over and started petting her – she made strange noises while he pet her, sounding like a cross between a growl and a purr. It sounded rather aggressive. But while he was stroking her neck, he allowed Alex and I to pet her head. So there, I can say I pet an ocelot. Quite a beautiful animal.
So we spent a pleasant evening at our guesthouse and prepared to return the next afternoon to San Francisco. We had a few hours to kill and it was hot, so we went across the street to the Radisson and indulged ourselves in their swimming pool. While there, we met a visiting group of people who worked on a cruise ship. They had the afternoon off and were quite funny as they were mostly working as entertainers on the ship.
We actually met quite a few interesting people on this trip, including an ex-cop with a passion for archaeology, a German who moved to Belize 20 years ago to start a dairy farm, a New Yorker who fled the US in fear of terrorist attacks to wander about in Belize, signing up tourists on tours in San Ignacio, and a British traveler who made the comment that “I always meet the most interesting people from a certain country when they’re not in their country.” Hmm, I think that’s because they’re travelers, and travelers are a bit of a different breed aren’t they?