by Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon
We began our Belize “immersion” two days after we arrived, and it was very, very different from Mexico.
We immediately found a place with a live band and reasonably priced Belikin beer; Fido’s (pronounced fee-dohs) offers good fare at reasonable prices in a scenic beachfront setting. But our first San Pedro meal was at Elva’s Restaurant, a sand-floored thatch-roofed restaurant with terrific fried chicken and potato salad! Rumor has it that their hamburgers are the best in San Pedro, but several other restaurants make the same boast, so Joe and I decided we had a responsibility to sample as many San Pedro hamburgers as possible.
We went to the fuel dock and got water at an adjacent dock but it was difficult (we ran aground and the dive guys towed us to the water dock and back out again), the water we filled our tank with was well water, which means it was somewhat salty and partially contaminated, and they wouldn't take as trade our empty 5-gallon jugs of Crystal drinking water because our Crystal was Mexican and their Crystal was Belizean. We simply bought their 5-gallon jugs and emptied the water into our 5-gallon jugs. Drinking water was very reasonable, about $3.00 US for a five-gallon jug.
English is the language in Belize, which is very appealing to tourists. I'd rather speak Spanish and pay less for groceries and services, myself. San Pedro is cleaner and offers much more of everything than Isla Mujeres, but it costs more too. We knew it would, but it took us a few days to get over the culture shock. The laundry service was a bit more than what we were paying in Isla Mujeres and cost the same to have it done as it would have been to do it ourselves at the island’s one Laundromat, so I continued to be free of my laundry responsibilities. See: Happy First Mate.
Rose of Sharon’s exterior was looking really beat-up, with our rail stain peeling and just plain old salty dirt everywhere. The gleaming, waxed hull was long gone and in its place was a dulled, lifeless 17-year-old fiberglass that looked like it had never seen a shine. I figured we would be in Guatemala before we had a chance to tackle the bright work. The dinghy was sticky with salt water. That was our justification for an unnecessary luxury: we booked a slip for the last week of March at the tony Belize Yacht Club. We rationalized that we would need to give the boat and dinghy a good fresh water wash, and we could refill our water tank with more potable water. The fact that the Belize Yacht Club has a restaurant that offers good breakfast, lunch and dinner menus at affordable prices, or that the swimming pool was inviting and an outdoor bar was located conveniently adjacent to the pool, or that an on-site dive center could easily and cost-effectively take us to the snorkel sites we wanted to visit . . . Nope, we just did it for the fresh water. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
Hol Chan is the most popular dive/snorkel site and it is a national park. We were told we would not be able to take our boat there without a special permit. Visitors should also be aware that a ticket to Hol Chan is required and should be purchased in advance; they are not sold at the site. There was a snorkel site in San Pedro just a short dinghy ride away called The Coliseum, so we planned to dinghy over there some afternoon or morning.
Other vessels came in and left Ambergris Caye daily, and almost everyone paid close attention to the Northwest Caribbean’s daily weather report on single sideband 8.188. One unfortunate boat left for Key West despite the repeated report of a strong norther in the Gulf of Mexico, and they checked in saying they were having the “worst passage” they’d ever made. The next day, they had been missing for over 12 hours and their last communication indicated the vessel had a broken traveler, was low on fuel, had made only 17 nautical miles during the day and was getting blown toward Cuba. The Northwest Caribbean Net set up a relay from Isla Mujeres and the boat made contact from Hemingway Marina in Cuba. They had docked at the marina, jury-rigged the traveler, gotten more fuel and had changed their destination from Key West to Fort Lauderdale. The captain requested someone email his wife and explain his situation. Another vessel checked in underway from the Dry Tortugas to Isla Mujeres and didn’t know their coordinates. Net Control asked, “Okay, so when did you leave the Dry Tortugas?” Then, “And what’s your anticipated arrival in Isla?” Net Control concluded with, “Well, be sure to check in with us tomorrow morning; we’ll be tracking your progress.”
I think the Northwest Caribbean Net is a critical part of most Caribbean and “points south” cruisers’ itinerary. The weather report and forecast is extremely detailed and many Caribbean cruisers make their passage plans based on that alone. But the most critical service offered by the Net is its tracking of vessels; I told my family members if we are missing in action for too long to find a ham radio operator to contact the Northwest Caribbean Net on 8.188.
According to the Net weather report a new, even stronger norther was anticipated to blow in from the Gulf of Mexico in a few days. “I’m getting tired of these weekly northers,” complained Joe, as he climbed up into the cockpit after a dive to check our two anchors. “They aren’t that bad,” I said. “I mean, a norther in Indiana meant ice, sleet, snow, frozen feet and hands. A norther in Texas meant a cold gulleywasher rain. Down here it just means the wind increases and you can’t move the boat for a few days! It’s still warm and sunny.” He conceded that he might be getting spoiled with the innumerable perfect-weather days we are now seeing.
The anchorage at Ambergris Caye is a bit rolly but anchors set well in the firm, sandy bottom. The real challenge is getting in and out of your dinghy as the water taxis and dive boats zoom past, going as fast as they can! The wake from the heavy and fast-flying boat traffic is unnerving to many cruisers. In fact, the situation is becoming dangerous: we were told that swimmers are hit by water taxis and tour boats more often than tourists know; the stories are suppressed, but one man told us there had been at least three deaths within the past few months and in each case, the victims were in the water and hit by a fast-moving boat. The boats’ bows rise so high out of the water that their drivers’ front-vision is limited. Another man told us that in Ambergris Caye there are designated sites for divers and snorkelers; anyplace else can pose a hazard because of the heavy water traffic. Most cruisers in Ambergris Caye instinctively knew that it would be dangerous to swim or snorkel too far from their boats, but we did see some people snorkeling in an open area where speed boats often traveled.
The Chicken Drop is held every Wednesday and Friday beginning at 6:00 p.m. at The Pier Lounge, on the beach in front of the Spindrift Hotel. I had seen an advertisement for it in the local newspaper. One of the couples we’d met in Isla Mujeres radioed us on VHF to remind us not to miss the Chicken Drop. “We have no idea what that is,” I radioed back.
The Chicken Drop is a premier event at San Pedro and not to be missed! Numbered tickets are sold for $1 BZE (about fifty cents U.S.). When all of the numbers on the 100-squared board have been sold, a beautiful rooster is ceremonially dropped onto the board. Amid shouts of encouragement from spectators, the rooster placidly takes a step or two . . . maybe more, then poops. Whoever holds the ticket with the numbered square on which the rooster pottied gets the honor of cleaning off the square and wins $100 BZE.
It was Friday night, and this was an Ambergris Caye version of dinner and a movie for Joe and me, so after a couple of Chicken Drops, we went to Jambel’s Jerk Pit for dinner. The jerk pork was good, but their jerk chicken captures the spicy heat of the jerk sauce in such a way that makes it not a dish for gentle palates. Another cruiser reported Jambel’s coconut curry chicken was excellent. For children, the menu had two sets of prices: “Good kids” and “Bad kids.” Prices were doubled for unruly offspring.
For dessert, we walked to Manelly’s on Barrier Reef Drive for ice cream cones. Yes, ice cream! A perfect evening in San Pedro, Belize.
The next night we visited Angel Heart, a neighboring catamaran. This was my first time to see the inside of a cat, and its owners, Paul and Mary, had utilized its spacious interior to maximum efficiency. Still, I didn’t like the feel of the cat in the water. It perched, cork-like, on top of the water and bobbed gently, but the waves hit the hull loudly and with a force that made the boat shudder. It made me appreciate the way our sailboat snuggled into the water and rocked gently, side-to-side. But for reef cruisers, the catamaran is the way to go!
We were joined by another couple, Art and Darlene of Wayward Wind, and had a laugh-filled evening. Art is a New Orleans native with the richest drawl I’d heard in quite some time. Paul prepared jambalaya, the first one I’d had without tomatoes, and explained one difference between Creole and Cajun cookery. He said Creoles lived east of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River where tomatoes were abundant, and Cajuns lived west of the river, where tomatoes were scarce, so Cajun jambalaya is white, while Creole jambalaya is red. I don’t know if he was pulling our leg or not (for the jokes were in abundance that night), but his was about the best jambalaya I’ve ever had. The flavors of the sausage, chicken, and spices were standouts, undistracted by the often overpowering tomato.
Rend bacon over medium-high heat. Add garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add green pepper and sauté 4 minutes. Add onions and sauté 4 minutes. Remove vegetables then brown chicken and return vegetables to pot and add sausage. Blend Tony Chachere’s seasoning then stir in uncooked rice and brother or butter-water. Cook until the rice is done. Serves 4.
Paul and Joe are Vietnam vets, so they high-fived and said, “Welcome home!” (something most Vietnam Vets did not hear from their communities when they returned to the U.S. after their tour of duty). Paul’s pre-retirement career was impressive; he was also a pilot and had suffered massive body burns as a result of a plane crash in New Mexico. One night, as we sat on the beach in San Pedro, a beautiful little necklace-selling Belizean girl about 7 years old walked up to Paul and began stroking his scarred arms and even his face. “I got burned real bad, too,” she said. You could still see some of the effect of the burn in her right eye, but her facial skin was clear. “Well, you healed really well, because you are a very beautiful little girl,” Paul said gently. She stood there, silently studying and stroking Paul’s injuries, then walked away.
Monday, March 7, 2005 was an official holiday, “Baron Bliss Day” in San Pedro. We were told that years ago a baron had died and left a large sum of money to the town of San Pedro, so the three banks and post office closed every year to commemorate that event.
We spent another long day in San Pedro, shopping and interneting. Breakfast at the Blue Hole Restaurant on Barrier Reef Drive is excellent! We were greeted by a man with a very proper British accent and seated in a scenic garden area overlooking the Caribbean.
My opinion: The eggs in Belize taste better than the eggs in Mexico. I was so put off by the strong flavor of the Mexican eggs that I’d stopped buying them. In Belize, I was in egg heaven. Shoppers may want to bring their own containers; some places only sell them in quantities of 24 and the containers are open-sided cardboard.
There are several internet cafes in San Pedro, but we preferred Coconuts for high-speed connectivity. A very friendly dog, Coco, will greet visitors and sometimes nuzzle your arm while typing, asking for a bit of a scratch behind the ears. Coco is satisfied with a smile and a pat and then returns to his spot by the door. He barked once when a patron entered, and when I glanced up and saw the appearance of the man that had walked in the front door, I knew right away that Coco was a good judge of character.
Joe had signed up for an internet telephone service that allows laptop users to make phone calls using their laptops and headsets. The connection is not the best and we had to speak loudly - very loudly - to be heard. This is not a socially acceptable situation in an internet café, but we needed to hear our parents’ and children’s’ voices, so we made the calls and the people in the internet café were understanding.
For lighting our gas stove we prefer the long-tipped lighters used for lighting candles and fireplaces, and after a few stops, found them at the Carumba Hardware store. While Joe examined shiny appliances (“Hey! A new stove for $400!”), I searched and found an old-fashioned potato smasher. My mixer is stored someplace deep in the v-berth, requires electricity, and we love mashed cauliflower and yams.
Just as I remembered there is a manual way to mash potatoes, cruisers have to get back to basics and I often wonder about the younger people who probably have never seen an appliance like the potato smasher. But to tell the truth, I haven’t seen many “younger” cruisers. As we meet and exchange stories with other cruisers, we are finding the demographics are consistent: most cruisers are retired or semi-retired from one, two or even three careers and are “of a certain age.” However, when it comes to traveling and living on a boat, cruising brings out the creativity in people of all ages: I use a toilet brush to clean the small spaces behind the stove in the galley and a baby bottle brush to clean my head! Living aboard and cruising force you to be inventive.
Nancy’s Market downtown is well-stocked and has good prices; the smaller San Pedro Supermarket is a bit more economical, and the upscale Island Supermarket has many hard-to-find items (like cheese crackers and Dinty Moore Beef Stew), but is pricey, too. The fruits and veggies at San Pedro’s numerous Greenhouse Vegetables shops are fresh and affordably priced. We were visiting another boat that evening and I found the pita bread I wanted for appetizers at the Panderia Dulce Bakery.
The San Pedro anchorage is a busy, rolly anchorage and we decided to move to Caye Caulker for two back-to-back northers. Leaving San Pedro, I put the boat on a heading of 200°, then after passing the northern tip of the island, turned to 210°. After securing the anchor, Joe took the helm. Motoring just over 4 knots, the trip from San Pedro to Caye Caulker takes just under 3 hours. About ¼ mile past the southern tip of Caye Caulker, randomly placed sticks in the water pose a navigational challenge. These are strong tree branches that are stuck into the water to mark crab pots, we were told. We weaved in and out of the sticks as we approached the anchorage and set our anchor in a sandy spot near the shore.
Once secure, I snorkeled the anchor while Joe watched from the bow of the boat. “How’s it look?” asked Joe. “I really don’t know,” I replied. “I followed the chain to where I saw a piece of the anchor sticking out of the sand. Is that good?” Joe wanted to know what the “piece of anchor” looked like, then pronounced that it sounded like a good set.
About 30 minutes later, Driftwood pulled in! Several years ago, Eric and Carol had lived aboard the sturdy motor-sailer in Kemah, Texas. Eric is a retired Navy man and Carol works part-time as a mortgage auditor, returning to the states a few months at a time to rejoin her project team at various locations in the U.S. Joe and I dinghied over for a visit; our plan was to catch up on news of friends and places with which we had a common interest, then go into town. This was Eric and Carol’s third visit to Caye Caulker; indeed, they had been cruising for several years and were a wealth of “Mayan Riviera” knowledge. At one point, he was encouraging us to continue south from Guatemala to Panama and I asked, “Why should we go to Panama?” I expected him to name a couple of tourist sites or extol the beauty of the area, but he said, “Have you ever been there?” and I said no. He replied, “Then you should go because you’ve never been there and you CAN.” Amen.
As we sat inside their boat, I noticed that the air blowing in from the north had a decided “pre-rain” smell. I glanced outside and saw ominous clouds approaching. “Maybe we’d better not go to town,” I commented. “Looks like some weather is heading this way.” Everyone agreed, Carol brought out some appetizers, and our animated conversations continued for another hour until I saw a jagged bolt of lightning dart from the black clouds above to the water below. Joe and I decided to dinghy back to our boat before the storm hit.
We had barely made it back to our boat and tied up the dinghy when the storm blew in. “Don’t you want to put the dinghy on the davits?” I asked Joe. “Eric puts his up every night, and Wayward Wind puts theirs up every night . . .”
“Not tonight,” said Joe as we hurried down below.
We were secure at a Kemah Boardwalk Marina floating dock during a named tropical storm, Frances, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast in the late ’90s. Winds gusted to 70 knots and the storm raged all night. I swore I’d never choose to sit out a tropical storm-slash-might-become-a-hurricane again!
But what do you do when you are at anchor off the coast of Belize and a tropical storm hits you like a sledgehammer? Within minutes, we were knocked sideways and spun crazily around in the anchorage. Joe and I were stunned, and then swung into action. Joe grabbed the GPS so he could track our position and turned on the engine in the event we had to motor into the wind. I bungeed the cabinets, quickly stowed anything that had projectile potential, and grabbed my offshore lifejacket. I was terrified and Joe looked scared, too. “Are you scared?” I asked him. “No,” he replied.
“Are we moving?” I asked. “No,” he replied. As it turns out, he was lying on both counts. Yes, he was scared, and at the time I asked, he did think we were moving! Angel Heart was anchored east of our boat; Wayward Wind and Driftwood were anchored north of our boat, and Joe said that it appeared we were dragging toward Angel Heart. He hung outside the companionway hatch into the cockpit, struggling in the darkness to see the GPS and the shore. The wind and the seas were violent and confused, and all the boats in the anchorage had become whirling dervishes. Inside each boat, couples hung on to something (or each other) and prayed that their anchors would hold. I turned on the instruments and Joe made me crazy by giving me a tense blow-by-blow account of the wind velocity. “Forty knots!” he would shout. “Fifty knots!” The boat spun wildly then heeled in the opposite direction.
Wayward Wind broke loose and began its journey toward shore, weaving perilously close to other boats in the anchorage. Art was struggling to keep the vessel away from the shoreline and off other boats; he and Darlene worked feverishly to remove the large sunshade that was flapping enthusiastically above their boat’s foredeck. I could see their silhouettes as the lightning shattered the night and prayed, “Please don’t let them get hurt out there.” And at the same time, “Thank goodness it’s them and not us.” The rain pounded Joe’s face as he kept a close watch on the anchorage situation because it changed with each new twist of wind direction.
When the wind dropped to thirty knots, I heard Eric’s voice on the VHF. “Rose of Sharon, how’re you holding up?”
I grabbed the microphone and violated the no-bad-language when transmitting rule. “Eric, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “This is a first for me; I’ve never seen anything like it.” It was not reassuring to hear “this is a first for me” from a seasoned cruiser like Eric. “I think the worst is over,” he added.
Meanwhile, the aptly named Wayward Wind was about 20 feet north of our starboard bow and Art’s exhausted voice came over the radio: “I’m going to try to anchor here.” Joe returned with, “Hey, we can raft up if you need to.” Later, Art thanked us for that generous offer and we said, “Not generous at all! We wanted to tie you to us so we would know where you were at all times! We couldn’t handle the suspense of wondering where your boat would go next!” Art is a retired fireman, and that particular anchor-drag was a first for him, but he has a sense of humor that matches his emergency expertise, and he laughed hardest of all when we reviewed the night’s frenzy.
Driftwood came on the radio and said he would be standing by all night to assist any vessels. Wayward Wind hailed Joe on the radio and said, “Joe, I just looked over and saw your dinghy flying!” I looked at the GPS and the tracking lines were zigzagged all over the screen. “My gosh, the GPS looks like an Etch-A-Sketch!” I exclaimed. Joe reported this to the other vessels and Wayward Wind, which had tap-danced all over the anchorage, tried to take a photograph of their GPS screen. When the winds dropped into the twenties, we resumed normal breathing and went to bed. Joe slept solidly throughout the night, but I found myself in the cockpit at 2:00 a.m., gauging the shoreline and our proximity to the eleven boats anchored off Caye Caulker.
The next morning, another front blew in, and we were holding fast against 20-30-knot winds. “Can you imagine what this would have been like in the San Pedro anchorage?” Joe laughed. “I don’t even want to imagine what that would have been like,” I replied. At the bouncy San Pedro anchorage, we had trouble walking from one end of the boat to the other without falling into a wall, grabbing an overhead hand rail, or rolling into a doorway. And that was due to the wave action. I could not guess what that combined with winds at 53 knots would have been like. We later met another vessel that had been anchored at San Pedro, and the only word they could use to describe the event was “brutal.”
I think the rule of thumb for most cruisers is when the wind’s over 20 knots, you stay with your anchored boat. Confined to our boat for Day 2 at Caye Caulker, Joe focused on a woodwork project and I catnapped. But the weather quieted, so we dinghied ashore late that afternoon and met with some of the other cruisers.
Over sundowners, we each recapped the excitement of the night before, but I had created special awards for each boat, according to performance. I thought the storm was a “rite of passage” for those of us new to cruising (Eric assured me the storm’s force was a first for veteran cruisers too; he clocked gusts to 70).
Similar to another rite of passage - high school graduation - I had made predictions for each boat. The award for “Vessel Most Likely to Establish the First Dial-A-Prayer Network on a VHF Radio Frequency” went to Angel Heart. The award for “Vessel Most Likely to Organize the first Caye Caulker Civil Defense Team” was presented to Driftwood. I gave Joe Rose of Sharon’s certificate for “Vessel Most Likely to Launch the first Unmanned Dinghy into Outer Space.” Last, but certainly not least, I presented Wayward Wind their award with a flourish: “Vessel Most Likely to Contract a Social Disease From Intimate Contact with Multiple Boats.”
Real Meat dinner (with Chardonnay wine) at the Sand Box Restaurant and ice cream cones for dessert! The village of Caye Caulker offered everything we needed for the good life! I was excited to see a large bottled water and Coca Cola plant near the dinghy dock, but went into rapture when I saw two Laundromats on the small road leading to the town’s one main street. Caye Caulker was already starting to prove more appealing to me than San Pedro. As it turns out, the Laundromat with the best prices is Jasmine’s, a few blocks off the main street; their current fee was $5 per wash load and free dryer service, half the price of the other laundries.
There are three or 4 high-speed internet connection businesses in Caye Caulker, but cruisers, be forewarned: there is no ATM in the village of Caye Caulker. The one bank requires visitors to present a passport (not a copy of a passport) to receive money against a credit card. It may be different for debit card users. The bank’s hours are 8:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. Monday-Friday and they are open ’til noon on Saturdays. There is a tiny library and even tinier post office on the island, and several very good art galleries! What else do you need? We visited the bottling plant and purchased two essentials - a case of Cokes and a case of Belikin beer - saving the bottled water purchase for another day.
Rasta Pasta restaurant is a must-visit. I don’t think that many people order pasta at Rasta Pasta, but everyone, at some point, orders the one-of-a-kind burrito or their one-of-a-kind breakfast jack. Joe and I split one jerk chicken burrito and could barely breathe by the time we finished it. Delicious! The breakfast jack is deep-fried bread dough filled with cheese and ham. For a healthier meal, Coco Plum Gardens offers multi-grain breads and interesting crepes in a one-acre tropical jungle/garden setting. The restaurant specializes in vegetarian dishes and the chef prepares everything from fresh ingredients. He came to our table and said, “I’m sorry it took so long, but we don’t use a microwave!”
“Do you think we’re gaining weight?” I asked Joe as I examined one of my chins in the mirror. “No,” he replied. “We have to walk everywhere; it’s the only thing keeping us from getting any fatter than we already are.” It’s true: sometimes by the time we returned to the boat after a day of walking, shopping, dining, or doing laundry, I would crawl into my bunk, moaning and groaning about this or that ache.
Almost every day in Caye Caulker, I snorkeled or swam near the boat. “This is why I wanted to do this,” I reminded Joe as I splashed around one afternoon. “All I ever wanted was to be able to jump off my boat into the water.” And now I could.
One day I snorkeled the anchor again and to my surprise, the anchor chain was completely wrapped around a tin roof and part of a large gate, resting in the sand about 9 feet underwater! When I told Joe, he said we probably caught it during the storm; it certainly wasn’t there when we anchored. This new development yielded some good things, however: a family of angelfish, a live conch and one lobster made their communal home in the housing remnants, providing us with fascinating scenery when snorkeling the area.
One day, the waters were unbelievable smooth and clear. “Dead calm,” said Joe as he watched me floating around the boat. I laughed. “No, I mean it - it’s the calm before the storm. We’re getting another front tonight.”
In 45 minutes, my ripple-less floating became a bit of a struggle, so I swam back to the boat in small but angry waves that were churning in a wind-whipped sea. I climbed into the boat and at the same time, Joe’s purple bucket blew out of the dinghy and into the water. Joe’s purple bucket was a special project; he had carved a hole in the bottom of the bucket and replaced it with a Plexiglas bottom so he could view the ocean floor - and the anchor - from the dinghy. He wasn’t going to give up his purple bucket without a fight, so he jumped into the dinghy and took off after it!
Mary Margaret on Angel Heart said she looked out the window and saw something bobbing in the water and then saw Joe racing toward it in the dinghy. “We knew you’d been swimming just a few minutes before and we thought you were in trouble and Joe was coming to get you.” She said they watched as Joe motored quickly toward the object, then ran over it with the dinghy! “Scared me to death!” she laughed. They were relieved to see Joe pull a purple bucket - not my head - out of the water and return to the boat.
The norther blew in, and Joe and I were comfortable in the knowledge that we were more secure than ever; our anchor chain was wrapped around somebody’s dearly departed roof and fence posts and holding fast. The boat next to us dragged a small distance then stopped; its owners stood on the bow and studied the situation for quite some time before nervously returning to their cockpit. And poor Wayward Wind quickly dragged dangerously close to shore! They finally up-anchored then tried another spot. Then another. Art later said he dropped anchor 4 times before he set.
Joe and I sat in the cockpit, eating cheese and crackers and watching our fellow cruisers wrestling with their vessels. We knew better than to feel smug; it hadn’t been that long ago that we had spent a night bouncing off a patch reef in Mexico, so we know there is a very tenuous line between “secure” and “in trouble.” Once again, Joe slept like a baby and I went outside in the middle of the night to check the dinghy, check the lines, and check the ever-changing situation in the Caye Caulker, Belize anchorage.
DMA (Defense Mapping Agency) Charts 28167 and 28168 -with- Portions of 28168 based on British Admiralty Chart 522 -and Sketch Charts in - Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast, Including Guatemala's Rio Dulce.
The week before we continued our journey south, friends and family in one couple joined us: Georgia and Warren from Houston flew into San Pedro, Belize for a 4-day visit. Joe and I docked Rose of Sharon at the Belize Yacht Club so we could wash our boat and dinghy in fresh water and provide air conditioning for our guests. The approach to the Belize Yacht Club in San Pedro is difficult. There is a white pole about 60 yards east of the marina’s dock, and at the time we came in, a rectangular plastic float north of the pole marked the “entrance” to the tiny channel leading to the Belize Yacht Club. We ran aground twice before we figured it out: you have to be well north of the pole but as close to in-between the pole and the float as possible. Joe lined up with the red-tile roofed white building at the end of the dock and when our starboard side eased just past it, turned right into the slip. The water at the Belize Yacht Club is fresh but not potable; the electricity is good and the cable television gets Showtime, HBO and Cinemax, but I immediately tuned into Judge Larry Joe of “Texas Justice.”
While we cleaned and reorganized the boat, we kept the news networks on, hoping to hear more information about an explosion in Texas City, Texas but every station was covering the dramatic deathwatch of Terry Schiavo. Once again, I didn’t get it. Fifteen people were killed in Texas City in one day, but the media was frantically covering a story about a girl who was about to die.
We’d had a bit of confusion on which airline Georgia and Warren would be coming in (Taca or Maya or Tropic Air), but I finally emailed Georgia, “It really doesn’t matter. Any plane that lands at the San Pedro airport is the only plane landing in San Pedro, and the waiting area is two benches, outside and next to the airstrip. We won’t miss you.”
As it turns out, we nearly did miss them. The Tropic Air schedule is pretty loosey-goosey, and as their arrival time came and went, I consulted with airline staff and was told the flight was delayed for “an hour or so.” Joe and I wandered down the street and ate a slice of pizza, and by the time we returned to the airport, Georgia and Warren had arrived and were considering a taxi. Georgia was clutching her Fodor’s Guide and had brought four large bottles of Fetzer’s Chardonnay. Let the games begin!
Their first night in San Pedro, we went to The Chicken Drop, a renowned source of entertainment in Ambergris Caye; numbered tickets are sold for $1 BZE (about fifty cents U.S.), and when all of the numbers on the board have been sold, a rooster is dropped onto the board, where he soon drops a bit of . . . poop. The holder of the “winning” number wins all the ticket money. Then we went to Fido’s for live music, then to Elva’s (listed in Fodor’s) for a wonderful supper. Exhausted, we caught a taxi back to the Belize Yacht Club and climbed on the boat for a good night’s rest.
The next day we booked our snorkel trip to Hol Chan and SharkRay Alley. The Belize Yacht Club dock hosts ProTech Dive Center, and the price for a 3+-hour snorkel trip was $25 plus $10 for the ticket into Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We walked down the dock toward the dive boat and as we dragged our fins and masks, somebody dropped their sunglasses and one person forgot her towel, and three of us decided not to wear any shoes. When we approached the slicked-up tourists who would also be on our boat, Joe said, “Well, here we are. The Clampetts go snorkeling.”
Joe and I are PADI-certified divers, and we recognize (and used to take pride in) the snobbery that divers often demonstrate. Divers scorn snorkelers and even each other. One diver wore a shirt that said “Dive deep or go home.” So we felt twinges of slight discomfiture at our lowered social status, but for the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, my honest opinion is that diving isn’t worth the trouble of wetsuits, BCs, tanks . . . the depth averages 40 feet and the visibility is perfect and I was glad I didn’t have to waste time strapping on the gear and a 20-pound weight belt, then trying to retain my hard-fought-for neutral buoyancy and not damage any corals (or my own skin) by bouncing off the bottom. We were snorkeling and it was marvelously simple: jump overboard and go! It was also nice being with a group. Our guide, Bundy, was knowledgeable and like a mother hen, herded us from site to site without losing any of us, for which we were grateful.
The quantity and variety of fish at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is enough to make you dizzy with visual overload. We snorkelers flipped our fins and bumped into each other, pointing and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the panorama of this beautiful underwater world that was teeming with life. Brain corals, fan corals, French Angelfish, Blue Angelfish, Blue Tangs, Parrotfish, Snapper, Trumpetfish, and one large, Green Moray captured our attention. When I raised my head out of the water to shout, “Hey, Joe! Did you see that big-o Moray?” a snorkeler who was still observing the large green fish said the eel was inches from my butt. “I thought you were going to see that eel BIG time!” he laughed later.
Joe and I usually hold hands when we snorkel or dive. Holding hands, we swam around the area near the reef and I was almost overcome with the magic of the moment. Then I reached out and took Georgia’s hand too. Georgia and I met in 1958 as six-year-olds and over the years have held each other’s hands in fear, sorrow, joy and triumph. We have been there for one another when our children were going through difficult times and when our children walked across commencement stages or down church aisles. Once again, Georgia and I were together and experiencing a spectacular underwater Caribbean exhibition. What a great day!
The biggest thrill of the day was swimming with Stingrays and Nurse Sharks. Our dive boat and another boat lowered weighted feeding tubes to the bottom of the ocean. At this site, the water depth was between 9-12 feet. Bundy was feeding a Stingray by hand and I gently stroked the ’ray’s soft skin. I think Stingrays like to be petted. I think they do, anyway. It’s difficult not to assign human emotions to animals.
Suddenly, those of us near the feeding tube were surrounded by a frenzy of Jacks and Nurse Sharks. I glanced up and saw that Joe and Georgia were well away from the excited fish, but Warren had ventured in for a close-up. A shark was inches from my face and I reached up to touch him, then hesitated. Another shark flipped past me and again, I reached out my hand then balled it into a fist. What if my fingers looked like food? The sharks’ mean, catfishy faces were scary!
The large Jacks were jumping and splashing on top of me, underneath me, beside me, banging into me and I finally did it: I reached out my hand and stroked the skin of a nearby shark. It was like soft sandpaper, bumpy with tiny dimples. I was so overcome that I grabbed the arm of the man next to me and shook it, saying, “Oh, my gosh! I touched a shark!” Clearly not as excited as I was, he nodded appreciatively and put his face back in the water.
I turned and shouted to Joe and Georgia to “come touch the sharks” and they shook their heads no. Georgia claims a shark swam up to her, eyeballed her hungrily, then swam away. She had no intention of giving him a second opportunity for Georgia-on-the-half-shell. Joe later said he has an unnatural fondness for his arms and legs and would like to keep them as long as possible, thank you. Every now and then I would bump into Warren, who gamely stayed in the middle of the feeding frenzy. The water was frothing with Jacks, Nurse Sharks, and snorkelers, then it was over. Just like that, the food was gone and the fish left town. We swam back to our respective boats, all of us chattering animatedly. “Did you see that HUGE one on the bottom? It was about 9 feet long!” “Did you see the ’ray Bundy was wearing on his shoulders like a cape?”
Joe and I, Georgia and Warren returned to Rose of Sharon agreeing it was the best snorkeling experience to date.
This is why I love traveling with Georgia: if we leave the restaurant choices to her, we have an epicurean experience every time. The Blue Water Grill was starred in Fodor’s, so that was on our agenda for that night’s supper. The meals we enjoyed there were above-average, the service was superior and the prices were great. A book, The Perfect Cocktail for Every Occasion says to avoid people who order drinks with names like “Sex on the Beach.” At the Blue Water Grill, I ordered a “Panty Ripper” and Georgia and Warren ordered “Horny Monkeys.”
We heard Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt were guests at Ramon’s, a nearby resort with a picturesque lagoon pool. A security man checked out diners and visitors who approached the resort from the beach. As we sipped our cocktails, we discussed some of the 4-figure-per-night prices of various vacation resorts, including a $600/night hotel in Disneyworld that we wanted - but couldn’t afford - to visit. “Well,” I said languidly, they have to price them high enough to keep the riff-raff out.” Georgia took another drink of her Horny Monkey and said, “And it’s working! We aren’t going there!”
Still not purists about when to sail, motor, or motorsail, we simply do what feels right for the boat and for ourselves, based on wind and water conditions. The next day we motored to Caye Caulker with the jib out. As soon as the anchor was down, Georgia and I jumped overboard. Naked. The current was strong and the water was just cloudy enough to disguise our upper and nether regions. My mother-in-law, Georgia’s mother, set the skinny-dipping tradition for the women in our family a long time ago. We love to swim and we prefer swimming nude. “I hate having to get into a bathing suit, don’t you?” asked Georgia as we bobbled merrily in the Caribbean. “For sure,” I replied. Georgia gasped and covered her eyes and I looked up just in time to see Joe leap into the air buck naked and splash into the water beside us. I was shocked; this was totally out of character for Joe! “Give us some warning next time,” said Georgia as she tread water. “I don’t want to have to go into therapy because I saw my brother naked.”
Supper at Caye Caulker’s Hacienda Restaurant was a bit pricey but well worth the visit. The banana crème pie there is like nothing you’ve ever tasted or will taste again. The next morning, Georgia and I were back in the water wearing our birthday suits, then we went ashore to Rasta Pasta for their one-of-a-kind stuffed jacks. After breakfast, it was time to return to San Pedro and time for the Kings to return to Houston. “Too soon! Not enough time!” I complained, but Warren is an attorney and involved in two – and soon to be three – business ventures. With one son in Samoa and another about to be married, Georgia and Warren have busy personal and professional lives. We were happy they took the time to visit us.
The winds picked up to 25-30 knots and the seas inside the reef became quite turbulent, making for a rocky ride back to San Pedro. This time, Joe decided I would drive the boat in and he and Warren would secure her at the dock. When Joe handed off the wheel to me he said, “Just keep her straight and aim for the building at the end of the dock; ease her to the left so you won’t hit the building, then turn right when I tell you to.”/p>
“No problem,” I replied, then took the wheel. It was a problem. I felt like I was driving a bumper car, jerking the wheel right and left quickly and trying to maintain a straight approach. When Joe shouted, “Start turning the wheel!” I cut sharply to the right and the wind took the boat and slammed her portside into the dock, which was what we had in mind. Unfortunately, none of our fenders negotiated the crunch and our rub rail scraped mercilessly against the pier. People stood on the main dock and watched with interest as Joe, Georgia and Warren pushed and pulled at the boat, trying to put enough space between the boat and the dock so they could get the fenders in place while the wind whipped around them. I pulled the kill switch and, relieved that it hadn’t been a bad docking, congratulated everyone on our successful effort. I was feeling pretty self-satisfied with myself too. And that’s about the time we dropped the electrical Y adaptor into the water.
Georgia and I promptly volunteered to snorkel for it. As we struggled into our wet bathing suits, we muttered about how we’d prefer to do the search sans suits. “It would certainly scare the people on the dock!” we laughed. We jumped into the rough waves and I was immediately in trouble because my snorkel kept filling up with water. Every time I lowered my head to look, I’d resurface sputtering and spewing water. Joe and Warren watched us carefully from above and finally Joe said, “Just hold your breath and forget trying to snorkel!” so I did. Georgia was doing the most effective search in the sand-stirred murky water, while I splashed and sputtered around the boat, hanging on to a line so I wouldn’t get tossed too far away. But at last, I saw something bright yellow on the floor of the ocean and called Georgia over. She saw it too; it was the electrical 50-amp Y adaptor. She began diving for it but couldn’t get down deep enough.
Now, Georgia and I have “matronly” bodies; that is to say, we are quite buoyant. “Push my butt down!” Georgia shouted over the wind, and I’m sure we made quite a show for the gathering crowd on the dock: Georgia would dive down and her legs would stick up out of the water while I pushed her rear end toward the ocean floor. Someone must have found it more alarming than funny, though, because soon a dive instructor appeared on the dock. “Take three deep breaths,” he told Georgia, “Then after the third exhale, go down. Don’t inhale before you dive down. It fills your lungs with air and makes it more difficult to sink.” She followed his instructions but still couldn’t get a grip on the plastic cord. “I’m so close!” she wailed.
Joe handed down the boat hook. “Try to catch it with this and see if you can bring it up,” he said. Georgia splashed back under the water and I pushed on her butt and tried to avoid getting hit in the head by the boat hook. After several attempts, she hooked it and flipped it out of the water into the air, where Warren, Joe and I all grabbed for it. “You’re a hero!” I laughed as Georgia and I high-fived in the water. “Well, you were the one to spot it!” she returned.
We happily congratulated ourselves all the way back into the boat, where Joe fetched our towels and poured us glasses of wine. “I’m really proud of you two,” he said, and Georgia and I laughed again.
“What Warren and Joe don’t know,” we crowed, “Is that we’ll do anything for a chance to go swimming!”
The wind continued to scream, the boat thrashed wildly in the slip, but we were snug in the cockpit, sipping wine and watching Joe put WD40 inside the electrical Y adaptor. Georgia and Warren left the next day, and I felt a sense of loss. Georgia often says she and I are so scatterbrained that it takes the two of us to make a whole person. I felt as if part of me had returned to Texas.
It was time to continue our adventure to “points south,” and Joe began plotting our course for Guatemala. There are many cayes and interesting sites along the way from the Belizean coast to Guatemala, and I told Joe to plot day trips any way he wanted with one request: I wanted to see the manatees at Swallow Caye’s Wildlife Preserve.
Each morning, we tuned into the Northwest Caribbean Net on Single Sideband (SSB) 8188. I don’t know how any cruiser in the area survives without it. If you are new to SSB broadcasting or a cruisers’ net in general, here’s the general itinerary: /p>
The Net is conducted by another cruiser, called “Net Control.” Net Control announces the opening of the Northwest Caribbean Net and briefly explains the purpose of the Net, then asks for emergency, medical or priority traffic. Hopefully there will be “Nothing heard.” Next, a request for vessels underway to check-in is broadcast and cruisers on the move are questioned about their location and anticipated arrival time in addition to their current wind/sea conditions. The most important information is the weather: current, predicted, and long-term outlook based on what’s in the Gulf of Mexico and what direction it’s heading. Cruisers live and breathe by the weather forecasts, so this daily update is critical to most of us. After the weather, information or items offered or needed is requested.
The boaters’ general check-ins follow; check-ins by cruisers in Mexico, Cuba and points north is first; boaters in Belize; then Guatemala, Honduras and points south are last. Panama cruisers have their own net on 8107.00, so check-ins from Panama are rare. If a cruiser would like to speak with another vessel, he announces he would like “traffic with >Vessel Name<” and is put on a list for conversation between individual boaters. A typical check-in goes like this: “This is Rose of Sharon in Caye Caulker. We have winds out of the southeast at 10 knots, no traffic.” The Net Controller will continue to seek check-ins by saying, “Additional check-ins, come now.” Finally, Net Control says, “Nothing heard,” and announces the requested “traffic” vessels. When that is concluded, Net Control officially ends the Northwest Caribbean Net. It sounds lengthy, but the average broadcast is about 30 minutes. Other important SSB stations include the 24-hour emergency maritime station at 14.300, the Hurricane Net at 14.325, and the Weather fax station at 12.788.
Once again, we went to Caye Caulker to sit out a weather system and the day after our arrival, I looked at the digital calendar on the nav station and said, “It’s March 31st. Wow, March came and went fast.” Joe blinked. “March thirty-first?” He opened his wallet and a pained expression crossed his face. “Our visas expire today.”
Our choices were to take the water taxi to Belize City or San Pedro to get a 30-day extension. Belize City’s Customs and Immigration offices are not close geographically and are naturally much busier than San Pedro’s. We bundled ship’s papers, personal documents, passports and visa documentation into our backpacks and dinghied in to Caye Caulker’s water taxi dock.
On a serious note, pregnant women should not take any Belizean water taxi. That warning is not posted anywhere, so you heard it here first: I can’t think of anything more dangerous for a pregnancy than a ride in one of those super-power boats./p>
On a lighter note, if you want to see what whiplash feels like, if you are interested in disconnecting anything anywhere on your body, or if you are a woman and are curious as to what it’s like to have your bosoms bang into your eyebrows, this ride is for you. NASA’s “vomit comet” has nothing on a Belizean water taxi. The half-hour ride took place in a small and overcrowded boat propelled by two or three 300 hp outboards. Joe and I sat on a center console during our ride to San Pedro and the first time the boat leapt into the air and crashed back onto the water’s surface, eliciting screams and moans from many passengers, I turned to Joe and said, “My gosh, what can I hold on to?” Joe looked past me at two boxed washing machines on the boat’s floor. “Hang onto the packing strip wrapped around that washing machine box,” he advised.
We hurried to the San Pedro Customs and Immigration offices and the wait was so long we nearly missed the last water taxi from San Pedro to Caye Caulker. The one person who knew how to operate the Immigration office computer wasn’t there, so several officers were playing hunt-and-peck with the computer system. I got tired of standing in line, so I wandered into the Customs office, where the official was asleep and “The Drew Carey Show” was on television. A tiny iguana and I watched TV for 45 minutes, then Joe and I were able to process our papers. The cost for both of us was $50 U.S. for a 30-day visa extension.
We boarded the water taxi from San Pedro back to Caye Caulker with trepidation. Joe assessed the situation and said, “The port stern side’s going to get a lot of water; we’ll sit near the front.” He was so right! The people sitting in the back, on the port side of the boat were drenched from the powerful sprays of water washing into the boat. When we arrived at Caye Caulker, I turned to the man next to me and said, “Do you get off here or continue on to Belize City?” He said he would be continuing on to Belize City and I asked him how long the ride would take. “Thirty minutes,” he responded. “Thirty minutes of hell.”
Our last night in Caye Caulker, we were cognizant of the fact that our travels south would take us away from much of the security we had enjoyed so far. Joe discovered the inflatable dinghy did not fit properly on the dinghy davits and had to work on a solution to making the dinghy less accessible at night; he decided to hook it on the halyard, hoisting it partially out of the water then cabling it to the boat. Then we tested one of our audio alarms. We have two audio alarms but with my hearing loss, I can’t hear one of them and I’m the lightest sleeper of the two of us. So we bought a Radio Shack motion detector alarm and it is actually the sound you hear when you enter many stores. It has a computerized “ding dong” sound. But it also has an alarm sound, a loud, “whoop! whoop! whoop!” that is, well, alarming. We placed the motion detector in what we thought was a good place and went to bed. About midnight, we heard the alarm and I woke Joe. “Good grief, it went off! Go see what it is!” Joe rolled out of the bunk and sleepily went to the main salon and looked in the cockpit. “Nothing,” he said as he stumbled back to bed.
We didn’t get much sleep that night, because the motion detector detects any motion. It went off three times. I’m pretty sure some people on the island of Caye Caulker didn’t get much sleep either, because each time the alarm sounded, every dog on the island began barking. The next night we relocated the motion detector and I nearly had a heart attack when I got up to use the bathroom because it began shrieking when it detected me. I glared at it on my way back to bed, and if it could talk, I know it would have said, “Just doing my job, m’am.”
RRose of Sharon departed Caye Caulker and began a southbound day-trip to St. George’s Caye. We passed Chapel Caye, Long Caye, saw Hick’s Caye in the distance, then entered the small cut between Hick’s Caye and Montejo Caye. It’s called “Porto Stuck” and we know why: with our five-foot draft, we were micro-inches from the bottom. A 15-knot wind out of the east gave the boat a good heel, and Joe and I kept our weight on the leeward side as we slowly – very slowly – negotiated the channel, hoping to keep the keel off the bottom. A barge passed us; there is not much in the way of working vessel traffic in this area (compared to the Intracoastal Waterway, of course) but this is one of the busiest areas for them. “We turn left when we see the two windmills,” Joe advised, but we never saw them.
Joe followed his GPS coordinates into the small caye and we dropped anchor about ½ mile west of the island. In 1798, the British won control of St. George’s Caye, ousting the Spanish. September 10, “National Day” is a holiday celebrated in Belize to commemorate The Battle of St. George’s Caye.
I was reviewing a map in a Guatemalan publication and noticed Guatemala was directly adjacent to Mexico. Where’s Belize? I wondered. Historically, Spain and Guatemala fought for and lost the area we now know as Belize and many Guatemalan maps don’t recognize Belize.
The next morning, we dinghied ashore to explore the small island. There are a few private homes, one hotel, and a small British military base. As we approached the shoreline, we were passed by military divers who had completed their morning exercises. “Are those the British version of Navy SEALS?” I asked Joe. “Maybe,” he replied. There are areas on the nearby mainland of Belize used for jungle combat training, too. We found what was once a small dinghy cut available to boaters who want to snorkel the reef on the opposite side of the island, but it has been filled in. Seashell hunters, St. George’s Caye is the place for you! This island is loaded with seashells of all sizes and varieties, and we pocketed two of the most attractive small ones we found. We ventured into St. George’s Lodge, a very comfortable hotel with a small bar. The modest exterior belies the lodge’s impressive interior, which is designed using various woods indigenous to Belize, including some rainforest woods. To dine at the lodge, you must make reservations and there is no menu; you eat what the cook has prepared for the evening. The meal for that day (stuffed chicken breast, curry bread, corn and spaghetti) sounded tasty, but at $30 U.S. per person, we decided to pass on it. The lodge also has a small gift shop where souvenirs were reasonably priced in U.S. dollars.
We took the dinghy into a small mangrove-lined canal just to see what we could see. I love those little jungle-like waterways! We followed it around to its end, spotting nothing more interesting than a large underwater coral. Then we tossed our snorkel gear, anchor, and ladder into the dinghy and motored almost a half-hour toward the reef, hoping to find a good snorkel spot. We cruised up and down the reef, looking for a likely place, but it was too rough and the breakwaters often broke over exposed land masses. We stopped on a small area of sand and got out of the dinghy and walked around. I made the mistake of lying down in the sand and when I got back in the dinghy, felt like I was sitting on tacks. My swimsuit was full of sand! When we ran aground in the dinghy, we decided to give up snorkeling and return to the boat./p>
It was hot and I was eager for a swim. As we neared Rose of Sharon, I asked Joe, “If I jumped in from here, do you think I could swim back to the boat?” Joe squinted at the boat in the distance. “No,” he replied. I jumped in and he was right! The strong current that I thought would gently push me toward the boat seemed to drag me backwards. Unwilling to give up the chance to play in the water longer, I said, “I know, throw me my snorkel mask and tow me!” Joe was skeptical, but it worked fine because he motored in reverse and towed me off the front of the dinghy. I loved the gentle ride through the water with my face completely submerged, but I did worry a bit about looking like shark bait! “Can we do the tow thing again sometime?” I asked, as I paddled around near the dinghy while Joe tossed our gear into the boat. “Maybe,” he said, without conviction.
While I prepared supper, Joe worked on a broken padlock. “I told you to buy a new one when we were in Mexico,” I fussed. Joe smiled. “Sharon, if I did everything you told me, I’d be doing two-to-four by now.” He’s right.
Mapps Caye is one of the Drowned Cayes just a bit south of St. George’s Caye. I wondered, as we motored along slowly, if anyone ever gets bored with the beauty of the blue water. A tow with two barges (hadn’t seen a double-wide since . . . when?) passed us and as we eased a little bit off course we found ourselves in 6 feet of water. We slowed and made the adjustment, trying to find the middle of Ship’s Bogue. When we did, the water depth quickly jumped to 25 feet. The first channel we came to on Mapps Caye was the one we entered; we dropped anchor just before the channel forks into two smaller canals.
Joe and I finally saw the illusive No-see-ums, an insect that is a bane to cruisers with its elusiveness and annoying bite. The first time we’d heard of No-see-ums, we were at a table with several cruisers and Joe asked, “What do they look like?” The entire crowd chimed in, “No one knows! No SEE ’em!”
On the fiberglass and treadmaster rear of the boat and in the dinghy were the dead bodies of hundreds of tiny insects, smaller than gnats. A light we have mounted on the back of the boat had drawn them the night before, and they evidently met their doom before morning. So there you have it: No-see-ums can be seen and I can assure you that typical mosquito netting will not keep the tiny critters out, if they’ve a mind to join you inside the boat.
It was manatee safari time! We jumped into the dinghy and motored to the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, home to a protected manatee reserve. We dinghied slowly through a channel marked with numerous signs: “Go Slow,” “Respect Our Manatee,” and my favorite: “Not Just Another Pretty Face.” The channel led to the ranger station, where we paid the $10 BZE per person fee. The ranger told us approximately where to go and instructed us to cut our motor and row or pole through the sanctuary. He eyed me and my snorkel gear. “No swimming with the manatee,” he said. I nodded as if the idea had never crossed my mind. He told us the strong current would carry our dinghy out of the wildlife refuge area and we could restart our engine once clear of the sanctuary.
We motored, then rowed to a spot near a sign and tied off the dinghy. Then we sat quietly and waited. Joe saw one. He saw another one. I was getting a bit frustrated when I finally saw one too! The manatee floated or swam to the surface, where his big brown body was barely underwater. Then he stuck his large nose out of the water and went, “Snuff!” and lowered himself back down. I was ecstatic. After 20 minutes or so, the ranger poled out toward us in his boat, and we began to see manatee regularly; they recognized his boat and ventured closer. “Do you feed them?” Joe asked the ranger. “No,” he replied. “They know I protect them.”/p> p>WWe spotted several orange starfish in the clear ocean water as we returned to Rose of Sharon. Joe had barely cut the engine when I jumped out of the dinghy for my daily swim and “bath.” I fell thankfully into the cool water and when I surfaced, I was a good 15 feet from the boat and drifting fast! I swam back to the boat against the strongest current I’ve encountered in a long time, and tied myself to the dinghy before shampooing. With a rope knotted around my waist, it reminded me of the dinghy tow-ride I’d had the day before; the rope stretched taut as the salt water rushed vigorously past me.
The next day, we decided to go “in” to a Belize City marina. We’d been on the anchor over 10 days and I knew our tank water was getting low. We were also down to 5 gallons of bottled drinking water. We contacted the Cucumber Beach Marina and they said they could accommodate our boat for two days. Cucumber Beach Marina is a very popular dockage for transient cruisers and almost half the marina is home to Belizean powerboats and tour boats. As we lifted our anchor to leave Mapps Caye, two dolphins swam up and did their dolphin dance for us. I was perched on the deck, camera in hand, taking photos of the dolphins when a working speed boat came by, returning from Belize City. I was wearing my bra and underwear and nothing else. Quick! Do I dash down below and get into some clothes or do I continue taking pictures of these joyous dolphins? Now, what do you think I did?
The easy passage from Mapps Caye to Cucumber Beach Marina was almost 3 hours. As you approach the marina, you’ll see a breakwater channel. We entered the channel head-on and the water depth was fine. We had winds at 15-20 knots, so it was a bouncy approach, but easily navigable. A marina employee stood on the dock and waved us in. I took the helm while Joe readied the lines and it was a perfect docking, if I do say so myself. “Good job,” the staff person said to me, as I hit the kill switch. “Thank you!” I enthused, “I just love it when I don’t hit anything!” He smiled widely, “I too am happy you didn’t hit anything!”
Cucumber Beach Marina, located in Sibun, was the best marina we’d visited so far. The rate was approximately $26 per day, U.S. We averaged $15 U.S. per day for electricity, but we shamelessly watched television every available minute and ran both air conditioners full blast, so you can do better. We were docked on the office-side of the marina, where the showers and laundry room were located, but at this time if you would like to have wireless internet on your boat, you need to tie up to the bulkhead on the Sibun Restaurant-side of the marina. Their wireless internet connectivity is fast but small-reaching, so if you can’t pick it up from your boat, there is an area near the restaurant’s bar where you can take your laptop and hook up to the internet. For free. FREE. We’d paid everything from $5 U.S. for 60 minutes to $10 U.S. for 15 minutes in Mexico and Belize, so you can imagine how the words “free internet access” sounded to me and Joe. But here were some equally exciting words for me: fried chicken.
We stayed at Cucumber Beach Marina for five days, not 2 (every day, we’d return to the office and say, “We need one more day . . .”), and for 3 of those five days, I ate fried chicken. Belizeans know the proper way to cook chicken: with lots of garlic. I didn’t cook for five whole days!/p> p>We had not intended to visit Belize City, but because we were so near (and it was the only place we could access an ATM), we called for a taxi and went to town. Belize City is about 10 minutes northeast of Cucumber Beach Marina and a taxi is $15-$20 U.S. I immediately asked the cab driver how much he would charge to take us to several locations: St. John’s Cathedral, BTL (Belize Telephone Ltd.), the Belize Bank, and a grocery store. He could tell he was going to be saddled with us much of the day, so he suggested a price that included a city tour, every stop we wanted to make, and then offered to take us to a cave float site almost two hours southwest of Belize City to complete our day. We bartered a bit, and finally agreed upon a price that I thought was too high and our taxi driver (Stafford), thought was too low, so we were both happy.
Belize City is a poor but proud community, where the people either work very hard or don't work at all. In the 1700s, British settlers brought slaves from Jamaica to harvest logwood and mahogany, and soon, the slaves outnumbered the slave owners. The blend of African/Jamaican/British cultures gave birth to a strong Creole population. English is the primary language of Belize, but there are two versions of English spoken there: Tourist English and Belizean English. I’ve always wanted to understand Jamaican – and now Belizean – English, but it’s too fast for me and my tongue trips over the words. Say this as rapidly as you can: “Gatti, gatti no wanti, an wanti, anti no gatti.” It means, “He who has it doesn’t want it and he who wants it hasn’t got it.” When it comes to the language, I haven’t got it!
St. John’s Cathedral on Albert Street is the oldest remaining Anglican church in Central America and the only one outside England where kings were crowned. The beautiful external mahogany doors open to reveal a sanctuary that is complete with its original 1812 benches and stained glass windows. 19th century religious wall art remains and modern improvements are apparent. /p>
An interesting landmark is the Swing Bridge on Queen Street. It was built in 1923 and opens regularly to allow masted boats to travel up and down Haulover Creek. It is heavily trafficked by vehicles and pedestrians and said to be the only manually operated bridge in Central America. It is cranked opened by men who “winch” the bridge using long poles.
We crossed a tiny wooden bridge to Birds Isle for lunch, where Joe had his usual hamburger and watermelon juice (“How many watermelons did you have to squeeze to get this glass of juice?” Joe always asked the waitresses, and they always smiled politely, but they probably hear that same question several times a day.). I had fried chicken.
We’d been told by other cruisers that “Mexico is easy with telephones, difficult with mail; Belize is easy with mail and difficult with telephones.” True! Mail from Mexico to the States generally took 30 days to deliver; mail from Belize to the States averaged 3-10 days. But telephoning from Mexico to the States is cheap and easy. Telephoning from Belize is difficult and expensive. We went to Belize Telephone Ltd. (BTL) twice. The first time, all lines to the U.S. were “down.”
On our second visit, Joe purchased a $20 BZE phone card and made the necessary call to Southwest Airlines. When you book travel on Southwest Airlines using a Rapid Reward (their version of frequent flyer miles), the Rapid Reward owner must make the reservation(s) personally. Rapid Rewards are transferable. We wanted to book travel for our daughter and granddaughter but Southwest was firm that Joe had to book the travel himself. We went to the best place from which to place the call: the Belize telephone company in Belize City. That’s as good as it gets!
During Joe’s first phone call, the Southwest representative said the connection was bad. “I’m in Belize,” Joe said. “ALL the connections are bad.” The second phone call, he managed to book the round-trip reservation using one Rapid Reward for our daughter, Joni. “You forgot Hannah!” I said, and the minutes on his phone card ran out and the connection was broken. He purchased another $20 BZE phone card. The third phone call to Southwest Airlines, Joe managed to book our daughter Joni and our granddaughter Hannah on a one-way flight from Indianapolis to Houston Hobby. We decided to book their return flights when we got to Guatemala.
The booking of those two one-way flights took almost 2½ hours to complete. Our taxi driver, Stafford, waited patiently in the BTL waiting room while we made the flight reservations.
All the cruisers I met in Belize talked about “the cave float;” either they had done it or they wanted to. The going price in San Pedro, Belize for the cave float trip at Jaguar Paws was $150 U.S. per person, which included transportation, but at that price Joe and I hadn’t even considered it. Stafford took us back to our boat and helped us unload groceries and waited while we changed into our bathing suits.
The Maya called the Underworld “Xibalba,” which meant “place of fright.” Just as their ability to get to heaven had several layers, Xibalba had layers too; overcoming challenges was how souls in the afterlife avoided “hell” and attained “heaven.” Mayan people believed caves were the entrance to the Underworld’s hell.
Stafford stopped by his home to pick up his oldest and his youngest daughters, 13 and 2 respectively, and we made the almost 2-hour drive to Jaguar Paws Archeological Reserve. The baby was a cutie and the oldest girl was a runner, so she and Joe discussed long-distance running. /p>
Now, I’ve floated the Guadalupe River in Texas several times and I thought I knew the river-float drill: you put your inner tube in the water, float to the final destination while someone on the float maintains control of a inner-tube-mounted cooler full of Lone Star beer, and after a relaxing, beer-hydrating float down the river, a bus or Jeep drives you back to the “starting point” of the float.
I assumed this was how this particular cave float was arranged. Wrong.
At the Jaguar Paws cave float site, you grab your inner tube, a head-strap waterproof flashlight, a guide, and then you hike through the jungle to the “starting point” for the float. The hike is somewhere between a half-mile and 5 miles, depending upon the number of caves you want to float. I wanted to float a bunch of caves, but I only wanted to hike through a tropical rainforest/jungle about 2 miles. Wait – I would have loved to have been able to hike lots of miles, many miles, but my body couldn’t handle more than a mile or so uphill through the jungle.
We passed beautiful mahogany trees and had to stop sometimes to admire them. We saw numerous animated birds, mostly Cliff Swallows and staggeringly lovely blue butterflies, then once in the cave, shined our flashlights on the bats nestled above us in small recesses in-between stalagmites. But the cave – and the float – well, there are no words to describe the dark beauty of a cave float. We drifted in darkness part of the time, then our guide would shine his flashlight on a sparkly crystal ceiling above us and I would be filled with the amazing splendor of God’s underground jewelry. We floated through nooks and crannies and from time to time drifted close to the “outside,” where people from above might be viewing a cenote, but we were viewing the Upperworld.
When the water ran shallow, the guide would drag us along, because we were hooked foot-to-tube. Sometimes he would say, “Butts up!” and we would lift our hind ends up and barely float above the rocky watery bottom. And sometimes we had to scramble out of our floats and stumble along the path through the cave to deeper water, our sandals and flip-flops twisting the wrong way and threatening to crash sideways and crush our ankles at any minute.
At then end of the cave float, we hiked a short distance back to Jaguar Paws parking lot, where our taxi driver Stafford and his children waited. “How was it?” he asked. “It was great,” we replied. We lied. It was once-in-a-lifetime and one-of-a-kind. The cost of the cave float for both of us was $50 BZE, payable to our guide.
The Old Belize Museum is conveniently located adjacent to Sibun Restaurant and Cucumber Beach Marina. Quite frankly, it’s overpriced at $15 U.S. per person, but offers representative information about the Mayan culture and Belize’s history. From the harvesting of wood to the development of the sugar industry, visitors to this museum will get a glimpse of how the country evolved and continues to evolve economically. Mayan lifestyle and Maya influence in Belizean culture is also explored.
There are samples available of chicle, the sap of the sapodilla tree, which the ancient Mayans chewed and which led to an American fad in the late 1800s – chewing gum. Thomas Adams, an inventor, had tried to make tires, rain boots and toys out of Mexico’s sapodilla trees’ chicle, but nothing really worked until one day in 1869 when he popped a piece into his mouth and liked the taste. Chewing gum went on sale in New York City in 1871. Today, chewing gum is made from synthetic products, but at one time Belize was shipping as much as three million pounds of “chiclero” to the United States.
Visitors to Belize City are warned to stay off the streets after dark, and even though the proud Belizeans say, “Teef nevah prosPAH,” (thieves never prosper), where there is poverty, there is crime and stark poverty is very apparent in Belize City. At the Cucumber Beach Marina, we felt very secure but the presence of guards with shotguns patrolling the docks at night indicated the extra security measure was a necessity.
We left Cucumber Beach Marina to continue our southern travels, but hope to return there. It is a progressive facility effecting daily improvements; while we were there, a large area near the water’s edge was being excavated and a cement launch was being poured. A new large-vessel travel lift was ready to go. I would anticipate haul-outs and repairs/maintenance will be offered to boaters soon.
Bluefield Range is about 20 miles southwest of Belize City, inside the Barrier Reef and adjacent to Grennel Channel. Our passage plan had 6 waypoints and we motored quietly in-between tiny islands, easing around the Robinson Cayes and past the Triangles. It was a smooth and uneventful daytrip. I was down below when Joe called, “Hey! Here’s something you might want to see up here,” and I climbed into the cockpit just in time to see that we were crossing directly in front of a huge tanker ship! My eyes widened. I’m not a fast processor of information, so I had to study the scene quickly: no big-o anchor was visibly down, but there was also no sign the vessel was moving. Joe laughed. “I think it would have been more exciting if I’d waited until we were closer,” he said.
“Definitely!” I replied. “I would have climbed over the helm, climbed over you, put the autopilot on standby and done a 180 without even thinking about it!” The tanker was a large sugar storage facility and it’s shown on some maps.
There are two shoal areas north of the Bluefield Range anchorage, but in-between the water averages 12 feet. Once past those two shoals, which were visible as brown splotches against the blue water, we eased to the east side of another shoal and dropped anchor. I immediately stripped and jumped in the water for my swim and shampoo. I’d purchased some British soap in Belize City and was eager to try it: it promised to be truly antibacterial soap. It smelled like pine cleaner. “There’s a fishing camp over there,” Joe warned. “Maybe you should get your swimsuit on.” But he agreed the camp looked deserted.
I snorkeled the anchor but lost sight of it in the grassy bottom. During my swim, I encountered a lot of tiny little brown jellyfish-like creatures. They were cylindrical, about the size of a gumdrop, and brown with a lot of white-tipped tentacles. I loved the way they moved past me in the water and tried to catch one before deciding that if they looked a little bit like jellyfish, maybe they would sting a little bit. Like jellyfish. They were really fun to watch.
That night, an anticipated norther blew in and made for very comfortable sleeping. By the next morning, winds were averaging 25 knots with gusts to 30, and we had an R&R day: reading and relaxing.
During the day we listened to our solar-powered, crankable radio, which was something we never used until we began cruising and then it became something we used daily. We discovered there was political unrest in Belize. We had visited the Belize Telephone Ltd. main office twice, and thought the phone service was bad at its best. Well, apparently somebody sabotaged the entire Belizean telephone service to protest some kind of political action on the part of the prime minister, the Belizean finance minister’s wife was intercepted but released in Miami en route to the Cayman Islands with a million-or-so dollars in her purse, there was some problem with a corrupt government official being in cahoots with a U.S. congressman, and it got ugly in Belize City that night. Joe and I listened to a Belizean radio station, and a reporter at the scene of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest said, “All hell is breaking loose here.” The next thing we knew, the radio program switched to “The Mandingo Show,” with no more news, just reggae music and advertisements for Mother's Day.
The next morning we heard a knock on the side of the boat and it was a cruising couple in a dinghy with a Rottweiler. Brief introductions were made (Their boat was a catamaran, Polecat from North Carolina.), and they finally said, “We thought this might be your dog. He swam to your boat first, tried to get in, then swam to our boat so we let him climb up.” /p>
We decided he might be a dog that had fallen off an underway vessel, maybe during the night. Already, both the woman and I wanted to keep the dog. Already, Joe and the other man did not want to keep the dog. The couple dinghied over to the nearby fishing camp, which was habitated, and discovered that not only was the fishing camp the dog’s home, long-distance swimming was his hobby! Apparently the dog swam from island to island almost daily, and if a boat was anchored along his route, he’d stop and say howdy.
When they returned to give us the dog update, I told the woman, “I’m getting concerned about security, and there’s no better security than a dog like a Rottweiler.” She replied, “Only if the bad guys don’t find out this particular dog could only lick you to death! He even tried to get me to stay with him by putting my entire hand in his mouth and tugging!” I think she and I were almost sorry the dog had a home, but Joe and the captain of Polecat were very clearly relieved. “Dogs are a problem,” Joe reminded me as the couple returned to their boat. “A stolen dinghy and having your boat ransacked is a problem too,” I retorted./p>
It turned out those tiny little jellyfish I swam with are called "thimbles," because they look like sewing thimbles, and I was one of the few people who had been swimming with them that hadn't been stung by one. They can leave tiny little red marks or interesting welts, depending on each person’s resistance. As we left Bluefield Range southbound for Sapodilla Lagoon, the boat was surrounded by them, and as we sailed, sometimes we would see brown patches in the water – which is usually an indicator of shallow water – so I ran up to the bow to see what was ahead, and it was like nests, or hives of those little brown jellyfish underwater!
Joe was antsy to make our passage completely under sail, so we put out the mainsail and jib but even with the wind behind us, couldn’t make good enough time. It was nice, sitting in the cockpit and hearing nothing but the swish of the water and the occasional snap of a luffing sail. I continued to be enraptured by the blue water and we could see hazy Belizean mountain ranges in the far distance. Joe re-started the engine and we continued on our way.
Captain Freya Rauscher’s chart depicting Sapodilla Lagoon and Sittee River gives excellent entry and anchorage information. We passed several vessels anchored at nearby Sittee Point, and I could not imagine why they would choose to anchor there when the beautiful Sapodilla Lagoon anchorage was so close. We were nestled in the lagoon and surrounded by land masses; the Maya Mountains were visible and we could see Victoria’s Peak, Belize’s highest point.
The water in the lagoon was a bit murky and when I jumped in for my daily swim, it was cold! “I think I read there’s a fresh water feed, a river, into this lagoon,” said Joe, as I splashed around the boat, trying to become accustomed to the lower temperature. I simply could not drag myself out of the water that afternoon! A brown jellyfish, about 4 inches in diameter, brushed against me. “Ouch!” I exclaimed, and Joe said, “It’s right there, on your left, swim over to the ladder!” He grabbed the boat hook and began beating back the thimble jellyfish, which was in hot pursuit. I scrambled up the ladder and we surveyed the red marks on my arm and decided vinegar was what was needed. So, I sat in the cockpit, pouring vinegar on my jellyfish sting, and we remembered the time in Galveston Bay when a cabbage head jellyfish chased me all around the boat. “I don’t get it,” I said. “If the bottom of the intelligence chain is an earthworm, and jellyfish are right next door, how can they be so aggressive?” That was the one and only jellyfish we saw, and when he moved on, I jumped back in the water until after dark. After the second swim, Joe said, “Do you realize you were swimming out there for over an hour?”
Once again, I repeated what had become my mantra: “This was all I ever wanted.”
Joe’s route from Sapodilla Lagoon to Placencia was 18.7 miles with seven waypoints. I now had a showy jellyfish welt on my left arm, but we were heading for civilization, with visions of fresh meat and cold beer dancing in our heads. For the first time in our sailing careers, with what little wind there was behind us, the wind meter registered 0.0. Upon our Wednesday arrival in Placencia, we dinghied ashore and hoofed it to the Pickled Parrot restaurant, listed in Fodor's. There, we were joined by Art and Darlene of Wayward Wind and Paul and Mary of Angel Heart, and we shared stories of our various cruising stops since we’d last met. Joe and I were interested to hear about their snorkeling at Lighthouse Reef, which sounded good.
One subject we discussed was Belize’s ongoing plan for development, or “management” of the Barrier Reef and coastal waters. It will be good for Belize’s economy, but what this will mean to cruisers is newly established fees for visiting what had previously been public and free resources. Some cruisers had already been approached at various sites by officers, informing them there was now a charge for anchorage. The Belize Tourism Industry Association initiated a Barrier Reef Management concept in 2004, which is currently under implementation. One of its proposals requested implementation of user fees for Belize’s South Water Caye Marine Reserve, and a Multilateral Investment Fund for cruise ship tourism development. Another plan is to increase the number of “tour operators,” to guarantee income from visitors to Belizean coastal areas. The fees I heard about – usually about $10 U.S. – are not enough to break a cruiser’s budget, but in Belize, the times they are a-changin’. In fact, a new tourism site opened for visitors in March 2005: the second-largest waterfall in Belize. Davis Falls drops 500 feet to a large pool and is located near Alta Vista Village.
The next day, Thursday, Joe and I found out just how fast the times were changing. We had a lazy morning, then dinghied into Placencia for lunch only to discover a national strike had shut down the telephones, impacting the ATMs and the banks and most businesses. It was 2:30 p.m., and the ATMs had been down almost 24 hours. The last chance we’d had to get cash on our Visa card was at noon – 2 ½ hours ago; we’d just missed the cut-off. And just like that, we were in a money crunch. As we toured Placencia, every shop we entered we immediately asked, “Do you still take Visa?” By Friday, only a few restaurants were still accepting credit cards and the banks were not guaranteeing an opening but did open from 8:30-noon. Joe’s loan against a credit card was rejected at the Scotia Bank, so we walked down the street to the Atlantic Bank and tried a different tack. “Have I told you that you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen?” Joe asked the teller. She smiled sadly and shook her head. “No credit card money, I’m so sorry.” Joe nodded slowly then said, “How about a 90-day note?” She shook her head again.
In desperation, Joe said, “How about a personal LOAN? Can you loan me a few dollars?” She laughed and said, “It is affecting us all, sir. I'm really sorry.” We sat under the cool palapa shade of De Tatch restaurant (which takes credit cards), enjoying our bountiful breakfast jacks with other cruisers, one of whom offered us a loan. “No, thanks, but we’re going to leave Belize tomorrow and boot scoot to Guatemala,” we replied.
Joe and the others took the main road toward the dock, but I walked on Placenia’s renowned sidewalk, which took something like 30 years to construct. I passed a couple of tourists banging frantically on the locked Western Union door. Other vacationers were concerned about travel into Belize City, where some looting and civil unrest was taking place.
That night, we went back into town to the Pickled Parrot for a fabulous meal, and as we were eating, I said to Joe, “I hope you like pasta and tomatoes.”
“Why?” he asked, picking up the menu again to see if he’d made a mistake in ordering. “Because that's all we have left onboard,” I laughed. “But I can make a mean spaghetti sauce with the right seasonings,” I added.
“Sounds great to me,” Joe smiled. He told me he’d heard another cruiser’s wife complaining that she’d had about enough of this “anchoring thing,” and he said, “You're a real trooper, you know that?”
The town of Placencia offers many amenities and it really is a toss-up which is a better stay-awhile port for cruisers to Belize – Caye Caulker or Placencia. See them both if possible, but if you can visit only one, I think Placencia gets my vote because the prices were lower, the people were very friendly and the water was better. For the first time in a long time I drank tap water and it tasted like fresh spring water. I was keeping my fingers crossed that it was as sterile as the locals claimed. The Fishermen’s Cooperative near the dinghy dock offers chipped ice by the shovelful and you have to bring your own bucket or bag. Now, I watched the man shovel the ice for our cooler off the floor of the icehouse and decided it was good only for the cooler – not for drinks. But at several restaurants, I asked where their ice came from and they always said, “The Fishermen’s Co-op.” Finally, I said to one waitress, “But I was there and they scoop the ice off the floor!” She nodded and said, “Yes, they do that, but we make sure we get our ice off the top.” So I continued to drink my drinks and crunch my ice with my teeth and hope some weird stomach amoeba wasn't lying in wait for me, two weeks down the road.
Placencia is very tourism-minded and the small town is busy with fun and games for visitors and local residents alike. Weekly events in Placencia include Natural History Night at the Rum Point Inn on Tuesdays, a Beach BBQ and coconut bowling at the Nautical Inn on Wednesdays, Maya culture, reef and rainforest talks at Robert’s Grove on Wednesdays, Karaoke Night at J-Byrds and horseshoe games at the Sugar Reef on Saturdays, and backgammon tournaments at De Tatch restaurant and a public pool party at the “Light Chop to Choppy” on Sundays.
The local dive center offers whale shark snorkels and dives. Paul Fitch of Angelheart purchased a local snorkel package for the whale shark tour and said it was well worth it. The cost to snorkel was $175 BZE per person and diving was almost double in price; Paul’s opinion was that it would be better to dive than snorkel. The tour offered a two-tank dive and the first in-the-water experience revealed no whale sharks but thousands of red snappers feeding on the spawn about 90 feet below surface – which only the divers could see. As the boat made its way to the second dive/snorkel site, Paul and Art of Wayward Wind joked that they were glad they hadn’t paid twice as much NOT to see a whale shark, as the divers had! However, they struck pay-dirt on the second snorkel. The mammoth fish graced the snorkelers and divers with an appearance and I wish I had been there!
Paul said the whale sharks looked like submarines painted to look like fish. They were very fortunate to have been able to see those beautiful creatures; some people were on their fourth or fifth whale shark tour and had not seen even one until this particular day. “The bottom line is, go for it,” said Paul. “If you lose, it was still a day in the crystal clear waters, and if you win . . . a lifetime memory!”
16°15.38N, 88°35.40W - New Haven Bight
Once again, the waters were smooth and there was only a whisper of wind behind us as we made our way from Placencia to New Haven Bight. It was Saturday, so we planned to spend two nights there before moving on to Punta Gorda for check-out from Belize, then on the same day to Livingston for check-in to Guatemala.
There was nothing unusual about the passage except that there was little wind and no waves. We anchored and I went for a swim. As darkness approached, on a whim, I jumped overboard for another quick swim and was immediately surrounded by a school of dolphins! There were approximately 7 dolphins and four of them swam close to me. There was none of the usual dolphin antics or horseplay; these fish were going about their business of an evening swim, just as I was. Joe took photos and you can imagine my excitement during the moment. /p>
The next morning, we were approached by a vessel with the words “Port Honduras Authority” on its side. Joe was chatting with the two officers as I joined him in the cockpit and when I heard they wanted $20 BZE per person for our stay in New Haven Bight, I began babbling, telling them what Joe had already told them: “We have no money! The banks would not give us money against our credit card and the ATMs didn’t work and Punta Gorda is where we hope to be able to get at least enough cash to check out but we’d heard Customs and Immigrations have been closed too and I contacted our attorney, so he could contact the Guatemalan embassy or Guatemalan Customs and Immigration to let them know of our problem checking out of Belize if we got into trouble Monday and –” Joe looked at me as if I'd gone mad. “I already told them we didn't have any money,” he sighed.
I gave the two young men Saint Catherine medals and they said they would look for us in Punta Gorda Monday morning, but we could tell they would most likely “overlook” our presence in the reserve. Later, Joe said, “I only used a couple of words, ‘We don't have any money,’ and that was really all they needed to know.” I know that.
The next morning we made the quick passage to Punta Gorda, Belize for check-out and were relieved to find all the government offices were open and the total cost of check-out was $25 BZE ($7.50 BZE per person for a Conservation Fee and $10 for paperwork). A Tropic Air office is immediately on the right as you leave the dinghy dock, and the Customs office is very close by on the left. If you pass through a large chain link fence, you’ve gone too far. Immigration is right across the hall from Customs and air conditioned. While Joe made copies, the Immigration officer and I discussed Belize’s current political unrest. “I’ll just be glad when it’s over,” he sighed.
Joe and I had enough money to cover the check-out (Okay, I lied. We had a few Belize dollars, but not many). We did go to the bank to try to get more cash, but the ATM would not accept “international transactions,” and the line at the bank was too long. There were six tellers chatting among themselves with only one window open for business, and each transaction per person was handled with a complete lack of urgency, time-wise. It would have taken at least an hour in line, and we were not guaranteed they would give us cash against our credit card anyway./p>
We had just enough Belizean money for one more cheeseburger in paradise, so we visited the Mira Mar Restaurant for lunch. The owner, Alex Chee, greeted us cordially and explained that he was “native Belizean,” and even though his mother was Chinese, he and his siblings were born in Belize. In the early ’60s, many of his family members immigrated to the U.S. “You think they go Big Apple or L.A.?” he asked me. Before I could respond, he said, “No! They go to Kansas! My family first Belizeans to settle in Topeka, Kansas!” Alex was full of stories about his business and his family and the restaurant was decorated in a style that can only be called Oriental-Catholic. A beautiful print of Hong Kong harbor circa 1950 hung behind the bar. Tiny Buddhas and raised-trunk elephants were on many shelves, adjacent to worship candles depicting familiar saints. A print of The Last Supper was hung on another wall and underneath was a framed certificate signed by the pope, blessing Alex and his wife’s 50th anniversary. The Mira Mar Restaurant is a landmark in Punta Gorda, Belize and Alex Chee, who vacations in Kansas, was a hoot.
We and our vessel were officially checked out, so we left. We had spent almost two months in Belize and appreciated the beauty of its coastline and admired the pride of its people. S/V Rose of Sharon arrived in Livingston, Guatemala just before sundown.