San Ignacio, Belize, was shall we say, underwhelming. It was more like the Central American towns we had expected to encounter. It was a working town, a little run down and sorry looking. It had plenty of small shops and business that didn’t seem to sell or do a lot. The people were on the whole very friendly and seemed to be out to please. We were approached by a handful of people as we wandered the town who would ask for money, but there was never any nastiness with it. We have been in places which have a far bigger problem in that department. The town and the country are pretty poor. Some people just accept that, and some don’t and try to do something about it. We met people from both camps.
There are a few things to do around San Igancio, mainly based around the caves and the river in the area. We realised a long time ago that as much as we would like we can’t do everything, both from a financial and energy point of view as we don’t have an endless supply of either. So having had cave and river based activity experience in the past we decided to use our time to find a good cafe, settle in and catch up on a backlog of admin that was ever growing. Unfortunately we couldn’t find a good cafe so we settled for a mediocre one instead!
In the evening we met up with a new tour leader who the company had dispatched from the other side of the country. Marlon was a Belize national and seemed like a pretty good guy. He had arranged for us to visit a village a few miles outside of San Ignacio, where the women had set up a cooperative making embroidered products and pottery, using some of the traditional methods, which they then sold in the local area. The project was becoming a success and starting to appear on the edge of the tourist radar. They had opened a small gift shop which also served coffee, and when the demand was there they would open the kitchen and serve meals (one choice only).
We were treated to a pottery making display which included how it used to be done before demand for the products forced them into utilising a potter’s wheel.
Steve and a couple of his new Swiss friends, Aurora and Melanie, volunteered to have a go and somehow, with a bit of encouragement and corrective measures from the professional, they managed to produce three pots of varying shape.
The evening was finished off with a tasty meal and, for us, the visit was the highlight of San Ignacio.
The next day was a travel day across the width of the country. Luckily Belize is not very big so the journey was only about three hours. We passed through Bemlopan which, with a population of around 12,000, is the smallest Capital city in Central America. Belize City used to be the Capital but was apparently constantly being flooded causing chaos in making national decisions in a country where chaos seems the day to day norm.
We only drove through Belize City and from our perspective it looked just like a bigger San Ignacio so not too much to write home about. We arrived at the city dock and boarded a small passenger ferry for the one hour trip to Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker is a small island in the Caribbean Sea off mainland Belize. It is only a handful of kilometres long and a couple of hundred metres wide. There are no paved roads, no cars and the main form of transport are golf buggies and even they are not necessary as it only takes 10 minutes to walk the length of the main road (track).
We have visited quite a few Caribbean islands over the years and Caye Caulker has the reggae, pastel coloured buildings, beach shacks, turquoise waters and overall laid back atmosphere to rival the best of them. It would probably not suit most people to stay for long periods of time because it is so small. But you can see why it is popular for a week or so holiday.
We spent the afternoon on the beach, watching pelicans fish and the stingrays gather in numbers for what is apparently a daily 4pm feed. The sun slowly disappeared and within just a few hours of being on the island we were already back in the beach way of life.
Belize, and in particular Caye Caulker, is one of the best places in the World for diving and snorkeling. Our entire group was up for sampling some of it. So the following morning we strolled together down the sand of Main Street to our boat for the day. Pretty soon though it was clear something wasn’t quite right. Marlon was in serious conversation with the boat owner, then he was on his phone, then his conversation with the boat owner turned heated. Although English is the national language in Belize, the dialect and accent sometimes make it difficult to understand. This is always exaggerated when things heat up.
Eventually Marlon rounded us up and with a face like thunder marched us back down Main Street to another company. Apparently the first guy was trying to squeeze us on to an already full boat and had effectively double booked trying to cash in.
The new guy quickly sorted us out with fins, mask and snorkel, then walked us to our boat, a lovely new catamaran. As we sailed out of the dock we passed our original boat which was still frantically trying to load up and looking a bit tired. “Great call Marlon”, was the general feeling.
Initially though we did feel a little bad as the only other people on the boat were an American couple on holiday from Michigan, who would have effectively had a private charter but for our invasion. However, as the day and evening wore on, it became apparent we enhanced their day rather than ruined it.
The trip was essentially designed for three snorkeling stops, each one slightly different, with lunch in the middle, and a couple of drinks on the way home.
We sailed out into the Caribbean, spreading ourselves out on the deck of the catamaran. You could tell the atmosphere was good and people’s expectations were high. We effectively had a great boat to ourselves. Those poor Americans!
After about an hour we made our first stop. We have been lucky enough in the past to do a bit of diving and a fair bit of snorkeling in some pretty amazing places and seen some pretty amazing things. On most snorkeling trips the good old turtle is the one most people want to see. We spent four days diving on the Great Barrier Reef seven years ago and, believe it or not, only saw one turtle. (We saw plenty of other things though). Here we had been in the water five minutes and seen two of them.
The water was clear, warm and there were lots of fish and corals to see. Two big stingrays came swimming past, then an eagle ray. They are the ones that fly out of the water every so often. When a big one does it they are quite impressive.
After about 40 minutes in the water we were back in the boat and off to another site, ‘Shark Alley’, as it is known. Umm … I wonder what we will find there? The boat stopped, we dropped anchor and immediately were surrounded by about a dozen sharks, some at least 10 feet long.
Now we know the crew are not going to throw us in with a bunch of man eating sharks and we knew the sharks were nursery sharks and completely safe, but when you jump off the boat and are completely surrounded by a bunch of sharks, most of which are bigger than you, it does cause a few seconds of apprehension. Once those few seconds have past and they haven’t ripped you apart it does become a fabulous experience. After a while you can almost forget that they are there as you go in search of other sea creatures. Then one swims past or underneath you and you quickly remember where you are.
Steve in particular could have stayed in there for hours. Once he gets in and gets immersed underwater it’s hard to get him back on the boat.
After ‘Shark Alley’ it was back on board for lunch and everyone was sharing their personal encounters and swapping footage from GoPros and cameras and before long we were at the next site, ‘Coral Garden’. Not everyone ventured back in at this site. Possibly a little tired after an hour and half of snorkeling already or too much chicken and rice, prompted some to enjoy the afternoon sun and lay on the deck instead. Steve was back in though along with Christos and Geraldine, who were both on their first snorkeling trip. ‘Coral Garden’ was beautiful and the area was much deeper. We saw more rays, another turtle and countless species of fish. Because it was deeper it allowed Steve to dive down and explore a few holes and crevices. He quickly backed off though when a conger eel stuck his head out and gave Steve a close up of his shiny teeth!
With everyone back onboard it was time to head home. Everyone was in a great mood after such a brilliant day and when a huge barrel of rum punch was brought out the good mood quickly improved even more. It was being drunk at a swift rate and soon the singing started.
We have had a couple of singing stints already as we have travelled along on the bus. “Shotgun”, by GeorgeEzra, introduced by Sarah is a particular favourite. To be fair there aren’t many great singers onboard, with the exception of Amanda who is quite frankly brilliant. I know she reads the blog and she will hate us for saying it as she keeps her talent pretty much to herself, but she has an amazing voice. However, the rest of us with varying degree of talent enjoy a good screech!
The rum punch flowed faster, the rum bottle was being passed around neat and the singing got louder. Then, when Bohemian Raphsody came out of the speakers, we hit our peak. We have had a couple of previous attempts at this one and it’s amazing how people all over the World know all the words. Suddenly the boat was full of Freddy Mercurys, even the Americans were going for it. Somehow, without any organising, we had even split into groups to sing the operatic section. I think they could have heard us on the beach in Miami. Then Sarah took control of the wheel without the Captain knowing and suddenly we were heading for Miami!!
Eventually, with an empty barrel of rum punch, we pulled up back at the dock and wandered back through the sand of Main Street for showers before heading to dinner.
About ten of us had dinner at a shack on the beach with sand as the floor. We love those places. The sound of the waves rolling in and the warm evening air makes us realise even more how lucky we are. Most of the time it doesn’t matter what the food is like, it’s just the atmosphere and the location.
As we were finishing dinner the two Americans from the boat wandered in and sat at the bar. “Oh no, we ruined their private charter and now they can’t get rid of us”, Sarah said. They saw us and came over and asked if they could join us. It turns out they had a great day and were fascinated as we all told stories of this trip and previous ones we had done. They bought us cocktails and the stories kept on coming.
On a day to day basis we never see ourselves as doing anything out of the ordinary. We had a plan, we worked to make it happen and now we are living it. It’s what most people do, make a plan, work at it and live it. Our’s is just a different plan to what most people set out to achieve. However, because of what we do and where we go, we meet loads of people with the same or similar plan to ourselves. So it is not until we sit down and chat to people outside of “our world” and hear and see their reaction that we are reminded that in the grand scheme of things what we are doing is well and truly out of the ordinary and we are so very lucky to be doing it.
Today we were snorkeling with Sharks in Belize. Last week we were walking around Mayan ruins in Guatemala. Next week we will be sitting on a beach in Mexico and who knows where we will be the week after that. Like we said, very, very lucky.
The following day was a huge travel day all the way from Caye Caulker back to where the trip started in Playa del Carmen. We started before sunrise with breakfast on the beach before catching the ferry back to the mainland. Then we were back on the bus North through Belize to the Mexican border. Another border, another fiasco! We arrived at the Belize Border control and filled out the necessary paperwork, paid our exit fee and made our way through, one by one. Marlon was last to go. Or at least he thought he was! To summarise the conversation went something like this:
Border Official: “Where do you think you are going?” Marlon: “Mexico” Border Official: “Sorry mate you are a Belize National. Only foreigners are allowed to leave the country by land whilst this new Omicron variant is on the loose”
Once again we were on our own carrying our bags across ‘No man’s land’, with Marlon shouting after us that the company would organise someone to meet us in Playa!
The whole thing was now comical and most of us found the whole thing funny. We breezed through Mexican immigration and continued on our long day. We stopped for lunch in the small town of Bacalar which is set on a spectacular lagoon. It had been a place we had considered stopping at later down the line, so when three of the group decided to get off the bus and stay there we were very tempted to join them. After some serious thought we decided to continue on as we had accommodation booked in Playa in two days time and felt we might need more time than that to explore Bacalar.
This would turn out to be the wrong decision. But yet again, as we thought, we have waffled on too long about our time in Belize. So we will explain why next time. For now we will say we arrived in Playa after dark and 12 hours of travel, tired and ready for food and bed!