Sunday, 12 October 2014

Belize - 20th-30th September 2014

by Victor

Having bid farewell to the rest of the group (who were off home that Saturday evening), I made my way southwards from Playa del Carmen, Mexico to the largely car-free island of Caye Caulker, Belize. Factual stuff for anyone planning a similar journey: this involved a taxi into town from the hotel, a 4.5 hour (294 peso) bus to Chetumal, a shared taxi to the ferry terminal, a wait at the Mexican customs/immigration office (and a 306 peso exit fee), and a 3pm (actually 3.30pm) water taxi to Caye Caulker (612.50 pesos) which stopped at San Pedro for an hour of Belizean customs/immigration business (and a BZ$2.50 admin fee) and which eventually arrived at the island just after 7pm local time. After travelling all day I was glad to be welcomed by Louise at Maxhapan Cabanas (highly recommended), located a few blocks south of the centre of town. The following day involved colourful Belizean Independence Day celebrations, and checking in with Frenchie’s Diving Services to confirm the dives tomorrow were on. They were.

You’ll have seen pictures of the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef, off the coast of Belize. It’s a well-known dive site, very busy during peak season. This was the low season and some dive centres on the island were closed, but Frenchie’s were still running trips every other day (3 dives, includes entry to the marine reserve, breakfast and lunch (no veggy alternative offered), depart 6am, arrive back 4pm-ish, BZ$480). 9 divers and 1 snorkeller boarded Reef Shark III that day (crewed by Carlos, Jose, Joey and Mike) for the bumpy 2 hour ride (top tip: slap on the suncream and sit at the back of the boat unless you want a sore bum for the rest of the week). NB - a recent Tanked Up article stated that whoever you book with, you’ll end up diving with Amigos del Mar or Aqua Scuba – not true! This particular boat has no toilet, but had enough space for us (it’s a 11.5m boat), a dry cupboard, soft drinks, melon, biscuits and an excellent rum punch on the way back. The crew regularly checked if anyone needed a toilet stop (which involved jumping in and relieving oneself in the water, or using the toilets on land between dives 2 and 3). We were the first dive boat at the Blue Hole that day. Divers were split not into buddy pairs but into a more experienced group (with 2 guides, Jose and Joey), and a smaller, less experienced group who had to stay at shallower depths.

Is the Blue Hole spectacular? On the surface, no. We could see the edges of the 300m-wide dark area of water, but really you’d need to fly above to properly appreciate the roundness and size of this natural feature. In the water, however, it made for a good dive, although the stalactites would perhaps be more impressive to divers who hadn’t spent the previous week diving cenotes. Visibility was good at 20m, but you obviously can’t see from one wall of the sinkhole to the other. The thing that made this dive worth doing was the 8 (possibly more) Caribbean grey reef sharks that swam close by throughout the 26-minute dive. They were incredible, up to 2m in length, and a total distraction from the underwater landscape we were there to see. And at 43m, the narcosis was very pleasant (or “irie”, as Joey put it).

Dives 2 (Half Moon Wall) and 3 (The Aquarium) that day were more scenic, and also revealed interesting wildlife (more sharks, an octopus, large stingrays, moray eels, trunk fish etc). These longer dives were more interesting for me than the Blue Hole. Waters were as warm as Mexico (29 degrees), and the surface interval before dive 3 was brilliant – we stopped at Half Moon Caye, a beautiful sandy island with coconut trees, turquoise waters, hermit crabs, iguanas, and a red-footed booby colony.

If you’ve only got one spare day in Belize, this pricey 3-dive daytrip is worth doing (mainly for dives 2 and 3, and the surface interval), but nobody needs to lose any sleep if they don’t manage to tick the Blue Hole off their bucket list. It’s a decent dive, but not the best dive on the planet, and of course sharks can’t be guaranteed on every visit. What would be brilliant, I think, would be a Belize liveaboard, perhaps spending a week diving around the Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe Atoll and other locations along the coast, avoiding the other dive boats and the bumpy ride out from Caye Caulker or San Pedro, and visiting places like the Blue Hole at the crack of dawn. There’s an idea for the 2018 dive calendar.

The next day involved 2 more dives with Frenchie’s, on Esmerelda Reef and the Cypress Tunnel, from the same boat (9am start, BZ$207). These were great dives of 46 and 50 minutes, very scenic, and with plenty of nurse sharks following us around. It was particularly interesting to see how shoals of fish moved into tight balls when a shark was nearby. Our surface interval was spent at San Pedro.

My dive kit needed to dry on the Wednesday, so I joined a 4-hour snorkel trip with Reef Friendly Tours (http://reeffriendlytours.com/ ) to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. I was attracted to Captain Amado’s outfit as he is one of the only skippers who refuses to chum the waters to attract critters, and doesn’t encourage snorkellers to touch sharks. Other outfits proudly display pictures of guides and tourists cradling nurse sharks in their arms (turning these animals upside down immobilises them), which makes for a great holiday snap, but isn’t good for the sharks. This evidence of mishandling of wildlife unfortunately didn’t surprise me – the day before I witnessed a dive guide grabbing a nurse shark by the tail fin, much to its displeasure. Amado’s trip demonstrated that feeding, coercion and physical contact with animals is not necessary – our visit to Shark and Ray Alley in the marine reserve brought the 5 of us close to dozens of the animals. The other 2 sites we visited (“The Channel” and a wreck in shallow waters) revealed a huge spotted eagle ray, a lion fish (an invasive species here), lots of turtles munching on sea grass, and thousands upon thousands of horse eye jacks, sergeant majors and other fish common to the reefs that the other daytrip boats weren’t visiting. Best of all, on the journey back to Caye Caulker, Amado spotted something in the water, suggested we jump in again, and for the next 15 minutes we were snorkelling close to 2 huge manatees, incredibly graceful in the water. Their cow-like manner and old man’s faces make them very endearing. And as if that wasn’t enough, 2 bottlenose dolphins swam alongside the boat not long after we got out of the water. Best snorkel trip ever.

A half hour, BZ$25 water taxi took me to Belize City the next day, and the rest of my time in this country involved exploring that city’s attractions (allow half a day, then move on), a few days in the jungle/mountains (including a worthwhile day trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in Guatemala), and seeing some incredible landscapes and waterfalls, as well as spider monkeys, howler monkeys, tarantulas, agoutis, racoons, butterflies, vultures, hummingbirds and super-rare orange-breasted falcons. The bus from Belize City back to Chetumal took 5 hours (including time at the border where fees of BZ$37.50 were payable, plus an advance payment of the 306 peso Mexican departure tax), departed at 10.13am (NB – bus schedule information can be hard to come by in Belize – I was advised to just turn up at the bus station and wait for the next colourful schoolbus to Chetumal or Corozal) and cost BZ$15. Another bus from Chetumal took 4 hours (170 pesos) to reach Tulum, where I stayed at L’Hotelito (recommended). I was lucky enough to sneak in 3 more cheeky cenote dives (The Pit, which was incredible, and 2 dives at Dream Gate which were stalactastic), saw  a snake and the stunning seafront Mayan ruins, ate very well, sent postcards, and made use of the excellent beaches.

4 weeks well spent. Heartily recommended.

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