Belizean Beaches and Caves

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I was scrambling to find a way to get to Belize to meet my dear friend from home Angela, as she had flown down to meet me and my dive course was already running behind. I spent endless hours trying to find the best, quickest and cheapest way to Belize City from Honduras, but let me tell you, it is not an easy trip to map out, unless you leave on a Monday! I was looking at having to take the ferry back to La Ceiba, a shuttle to Livingston Guatemala, another Ferry over into Belize and then another bus up to Belize City – and because of ferry and bus schedules it would take me 3 days!!!! This was just insane. Angela was already waiting for me, and only had a week left, so I had to dig deep in my pockets and book a flight from San Pedro Sula. When I got off the ferry in La Ceiba, I shared a cab with one of the girls from my dive course and her boyfriend to the bus station. We were able to get a local bus that was leaving in a half hour for $5 to take us to San Pedro Sula. From there I needed to grab a taxi to take me to my hostel, as I had to overnight and catch my flight at 8am the next morning.

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Flying high over the Caribbean, our captain relaxes while his co pilot takes over.

I found a cabbie and as we stepped outside to find his car, I laid my eyes on a ravaged little white sedan and prayed that this was not the car I was about to have to get in to. It was. I stood eyeing the car wearily as my driver went to load my heavy bag in the back. He lifted the hatchback and pulled out a small stick from the trunk that he used to keep the hatch back propped open. He had to open my door from the other side to let me in since there was no handle on the inside or outside of the car. The body of the car was covered in scratches and huge dents, the white paint flaking off everywhere. The upholstery was covered in huge gashes and holes as if a jaguar had been left inside the car over night and tried to escape. The front dash was practically non existent- knobs missing, big empty spaces where a radio may have once been. I went to put my seat belt on fearing the car would simply fall apart as soon as it started to move,  but to my dismay (not my surprise) there was no seatbelt. Dear gods, protect me. When he started the engine up, it resisted with a choking growl, but finally took. As we started to drive, something near the back right of the car, where I was sitting, was making an awful grinding noise and I was quite sure the back tire was going to fall off. Thankfully my hostel was a short ride away and I arrived in once piece.

I stayed at Dos Molinos, one of only two hostels on Hostel World, and it was a great little spot. The owner was so kind and he met me at the door with a banana and a glass of cold water.  He spoke only in Spanish but spoke slow enough for me to understand most of it. My Spanish was terribly rusty however as I didn’t get a chance to use it much in the last month- Utila was predominantly English speaking, and it was easy to get by in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua without using it too much. I also always previously had Kajsa with me who spoke much better Spanish than me. The owners young son was rambunctiously running around and excitedly yelling and kept getting a verbal scolding to calm down. I was shown to my room, a shared room with two beds and a bathroom, however I had the place to myself! It was nice to have a room entirely to myself and have complete alone time after spending the last two months attached at the hip with my dear Kajsa. I savoured the isolation and hunkered down to do some laundry, have a nice long shower, repack my bag and do some work on the computer.

In the morning my kind host brought me a delicious cup of cafe con leche and called me a cab. I was one of only two passengers on my flight from San Pedro Sula to Belize City and it felt a little like having my own private jet! The flight was beautiful as we cruised over the ocean, the huge expanse of shifting turquoise below, dotted with occasional islands and reefs. From Belize city I airport took an atrociously expensive cab ride ($25USD) into town to get to the ferry – the rates are always inflated if you’re alone and I couldn’t find anyone else heading my way. This ferry ride was much smoother than the one in Honduras and before I knew it I had arrived at Caye Caulker where I was meeting Angela. I made the terrible and stupid mistake of not writing down the name of the hostel we were staying in and after walking around with my heavy bags for a while, peeking in at two different hostels that sounded familiar, I finally gave in and headed to the internet cafe to look it up.

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It was so great to be reunited with Angela! Seeing a good friend from home was just what I needed after parting ways with Kajsa and being heartsick from saying goodbye to a good friend. We were staying in an adorable cabana called Sandy Lane- we had our own little kitchen, fully equipped with good quality kitchen gear, much of it looking quite new. We were paying $30USD total for the room, so it was a great deal for two people. I needed food before we began our big day (it was only 11:30am!) so we headed to grab some ceviche and catch up. So much had changed in both of our lives in the last couple of months so it was really wonderful to be able to catch up in person. Bellies full, we headed out to find a snorkelling excursion as Angela was dying to get out and see the marine life and test out her new gopro. Unfortunately mine had obtained a nasty little scratch in Utila when it fell without the case on, however I wanted to take it out anyway and see if it was terribly noticeable in the images. We found a great price at one of the companies that would take us out on a boat to the reef to three spots and would supply us with fresh water and a fruit snack. One of the stops was Shark Ray Alley, which was high on our list so we booked it and went to get our swim suits.

When we got to the dock we were introduced to our captain, whose name was Ninja. Ninja was a caramel kissed Belizean man in his mid 60’s. He wore a white do-rag atop his head and from beneath it flowed shoulder length ombre braids that started black and faded into sunkissed (okay maybe bleached) blonde. He was completely ripped. I mean he had a better body than all the men I know. Sure, his skin was slightly saggy, but this man was in incredible shape, with a 6 pack of abs, and bulging defined arms and pecs. He was missing a few teeth and had the remaining ones capped in gold. He was a man of few words, that Ninja, but I liked him!

We took off into the ocean to head to our first stop. We followed Ninja in the water and enjoyed the flourishing marine life on the coral beds. The water was a little more clear here than in Honduras and I was in awe as always at how life thrived under the ocean. Our next stop was Shark Ray Alley. As soon as the boat pulled up we could see the clear outline of a nurse shark nearing the boat! Moments later I could see a huge ray swim under us, and two more followed suit. Holy shit, this is crazy already! I thought. Ninja put small pieces of fish inside a conch shell and threw it in the water. He said we could all hop in and of course I was the first to jump in, I was so eager! As soon as I put my mask and face in the water I started yelling through my snorkel garbled exclamations of wonderment. There were so many!

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Several huge rays swooped in towards the conch and began trying to extract the meat from it. I floated on the surface, face down in the water, wide eyes in amazement. I couldn’t believe I could be so close to these exquisite creatures. The nurse sharks began to make their way towards the excitement. First just one or two and then suddenly there must have been close to ten. They would dive underneath the sting rays and plunge their heads inside the conch shell to try to get at the easy meal, their heads wagging violently back and forth to try and shake it out, their tails straight up in the water.

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As I lay their floating in complete awe, more huge rays would swim just beneath me to join in the feeding frenzy. Schools of fish, several different kinds were drawn to the excitement, hoping to catch some of the leftovers. It was such a surreal feeling, to be floating in the ocean while and endless stream of nurse sharks and sting rays swam only a few feet beneath me and fed. We were so shallow I could have stood up and touched bottom without my head going under. The skin of the sting rays was so vibrant, it looked the colour of a stormy ocean. The most remarkable feature of the rays and the sharks were the eyes. It was incredible to see their eyes up close and so clearly. They were so intense and intelligent. I of course, was of no matter to them, and they paid me absolutely no attention. At one point a shark was swimming directly for me and I had a moment of “holy fucking shit” when I made eye contact with it’s intense glare, but it merely veered off and went under me to join the frenzy behind me.

As one particularly large sting ray swam beneath me I could see the serrated teeth like bones in it’s tail clearly along it’s spine! I learned later at the sacraficial caves that the ancient Mayan’s would use sting ray tail bones to puncture through their tongues to give offerings of blood to their rain God. Needless to say, the prickling sharp bones looked dangerous- I hadn’t even know they had those spikes before seeing them this up close and personal.

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After an hour of swimming with the sharks and rays it was time to move on and I reluctantly got out of the water. Ninja cut up a couple of pineapples for us and we gorged ourselves on their tangy sweetness.  We moved to an area close by to view the coral gardens as they call them- huge round chunks of coral that look a bit like bushes where fish thrive. We snorkelled around a while and I had found a huge fish hiding in one of the corals, so I called Angela over. I watched as she dog paddled in a strangely discombobulated fashion towards me. I laughed and thought there was no way this is how she swims… is it?! No, of course not, I saw her swimming earlier and she was fine. She was slashing wildly with her arms and had a look of panic on her face as she neared me. I asked her what was wrong between my laughter and she treaded water like a dog who is half drowning and told me she was scared of the coral and started gasping. I grabbed her shoulders and told her to relax and that she could stop swimming and just touch the bottom – we were in a nice sandy clearing. She stood up and couldn’t seem to catch her breath so I told her to take three deep breaths with me. She then inserted her snorkel back in her mouth and began to take the deep breaths. I burst out laughing and told her to take the snorkel out. We had been swimming in between the coral bushes and Angela was worried that the paths were getting awful narrow and that she was going to impale herself on a piece of coral and that it would “rip her open from the throat to gut” – her words.  I tried to bite down the laughter and gave her a little pep talk to help calm her down and assure her it would be okay that she was fine. “But how will we get out of here?!?!! We’re TRAPPED!!!” she nearly screamed in hysterics. I assured her she was fine and all she had to do was follow me and that I would slowly lead the way. We easily made our way back to the boat and she clambered up the ladder, thankful to be away from the scary coral. I found it delightfully amusing and adorable that an hour ago she was swimming with nurse sharks and sting rays and had no qualms, but get the girl near some coral and she has a panic attack! One of the many reasons I love this girl 🙂

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What an amazing first day on the island! Caye Caulker is a small island that doesn’t have a lot to do, but it’s a beautiful little paradise to relax and just catch some sunshine. We spent most of our time eating, because, well we just love to eat! We were in bed usually by 10pm after a huge dinner and dessert where we ate ourselves into oblivion. We rented bikes the next day and cruised the island. The little streets were all fine white compacted sand and made the whole island seem to glow with the brightness of the reflection of the sun.  Most of the buildings were painted in bright pastel colours and palm trees lined the streets. It was a colourful, happy little island. If I thought Utila was a slow pace island, then Caye Caulker must be in super slow motion. There were no vehicles here, most everyone drove golf carts and there was the occasional scooter or motorcycle. Everyone walked and drove slowly- the motto of the island after all was “Go Slow”.

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Cruising the island with some local little ones

We spent one afternoon down at a place called The Split, a bar and restaurant on the waters edge at the end of the island. It’s a massively popular spot where everyone goes to sunbathe and have a few drinks. There aren’t really any proper beaches on Caye Caulker, so this serves as the best place to go for a swim and lounge on their deck. We each ordered a fancy slush drink that was melting before we even got in our hands, but we savoured every sip. We caught sunrays and went for dips, read books, and slathered on the sunscreen. When our tummies let us know it was time, we left and sought out fresh cold coconuts to drink and pineapple jerk chicken salads for lunch.

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Caye Caulker was one of those idyllic spots you see on post cards – but with not much else to do other than snorkel and eat, we left the lovely little island and headed for the mainland. We were off to see what San Ignacio had to offer. We took the ferry, then a cab to the main bus station in downtown Belize City, which was a run down little spot. We had an hour wait and Angela was getting her first taste of Central America transportation! The people of Belize so far had been really friendly and helpful when they noticed us looking lost or confused, and the driver of a bus came to ask us where we were heading and let us know the bus would be coming at 3:45 and would be white. We piled on to a chicken bus and luckily got a seat. Slowly the driver picked up and more and more people until the whole bus was crammed – every seat and every inch of floor with people standing. It only cost us $4 each to make the 3 hour journey, so it was a good deal! We arrived in San Ignacio at night and with the help of the friendly locals again we were able to find our way to our hostel just a few blocks away from the bus station.

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The main reason we came to San Ignacio was to see the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves- a cave system that had been rediscovered by modern archeologists and is listed as #1 in National Geographic’s top 10 sacred caves. The caves were an ancient mayan sacrificial chamber. Mayans would bring sacrifices – from wine and food, to blood and bodies – to appease the angry gods. Unfortunately, you are no longer able to bring cameras in the cave for a matter of safety and due to one tourist dropping their camera on and breaking a thousand year old skull back in 2012. It’s pitch black in most areas of the cave, with only head lamps to light your way, so it’s dangerous to not always be watching where you are putting your feet. Not only that, but there are some challenging tight squeezes in the cave that require all of your attention and courage to get through! Caving was such an adventure, something I had never done before and absolutely loved! Our guide was brilliant- he was knowledgeable, had a great grasp of the english language, and was funny to boot. He could tell us exactly where to put which foot and hand to ensure we were able to make it safely through the cave. For three hours we splashed and swam our way through this stunning cave system. We looked on in awe at the towering roofs drooping with stalactites, and the ground stalagmites. We carefully maneuvered around massive columns, where a stalactite and stalagmite had joined together, their limestone construction looking like a slimy mess of plaster rolled together by the hands of giants.

Right at the start of the cave you plunge into icy cool waters full of small nibbling fish and swim to cross the river into the cave to begin your adventure. Equipped with headlamps, we followed our guide dutifully through the tight spaces, slippery surfaces and cramped crevices. It took nearly 3 hours to journey into the cave about a mile and a half back. The whole time our guide carefully led us step by step and filled us in on the incredible knowledge of the ancient Mayan history that sits untouched inside the cave. We saw thousands of clay pots that were brought in and left as sacrifices for the Gods. We saw a sacrificial ledge where they had carved the formations in the cave to look like sting ray spines and obsidian blades – instruments which they used to draw blood as a sacrifice. And as we ventured deeper and deeper, we began to see the human remains. They mayans would go to war at times on the basis of needing human sacrifices, of course, not wanting to sacrifice their own, they would go to war and take prisoners, and sacrifice them as a blood offering to their Gods to bring the rains. Seeing skeletons that dated back as far as 700 AD was such a surreal experience. Especially knowing how they came to their grisly end. But the very end of the cave was the real coup de force- the crystal maiden, a very well known and preserved, nearly completely intact, full skeleton of what they once believed was about a 14 year old girl, but as our guide advised us, is actually a boy.

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Unfortunately, as I mentioned, we were not allowed to take cameras in, so I was unable to get any pictures, the above was taken from http://www.discovermagazine.com. I’m attaching the webpage of the company that we took our tour with- they had promised to email us some pictures, but never did, so here is the link to their website which has a couple of shots of the cave- check them out here!

Belize was a quick trip, one I hadn’t originally planned on, but was so happy that I ended up getting to see a bit of the country, especially with Angela by my side to share in the adventures.

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One thought on “Belizean Beaches and Caves

  1. Pingback: Salar Uyuni: The Bolivian Salt Flats | BorealBlonde

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