Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Autumn in Belize. For photos see Picture Gallery no 48

Autumn in Belize. By Diana.
Travel report nr 48. For corresponding photos see Picture Gallery nr 48

Tapadas and zarpe.
Tuesday, 21th October we were ready to leave Monkey Bay marina. Having had the boat left in the water, there seemed much less to do than usual, get on the sails, check the engines, fill up with drinking water, do some shopping and a few small jobs, and we were ready to go. John and Efrain at the marina were amazingly efficient in moving the boats blocking our exit, so that we were able to get out at 7.20 a.m! We motored slowly down through the large lake, La Golfete and through the breathtaking gorge leading back to the ocean. Our ropes were slimy and green after months partly lying in water, so we scrubbed these and trailed them in the water for a while. By 11 a.m. we were in the coastal town of Livingston, this time we knew exactly what to do, found the agent Raul for clearing us out, paid the fees required, and could collect our important ‘zarpe’ a couple of hours later. This is the document which shows that one is correctly cleared out of a country, which will be demanded by the authorities of the next country. We had the rest of the day to enjoy the town, a charming array of small restaurants, cheap hotels and souvenir shops, which looks much more attractive in the subdued street lights than the harsh light of day! We met up with a young Frenchman Oliver, from the Sorbonne, doing studies on tourism here. He joined us for lunch on board and recommended that we try Tapadas, the local Garifuna speciality of fish and rice in coconut with shell-fish soup, which we had for dinner at the cheap restaurant which he showed us; excellent!

Punta Gorda.
The next day we were off to Belize, not a long trip, just about 10 nautical miles to Punta Gorda where we could check in, but in a northerly fresh breeze it took nearly 3 hours of motor-sailing. We anchored in the rolly sea in front of the town and went ashore to the customs and immigration. Here a laid-back customs official gave us the required papers, took 25 US dollars, told us about the great variety of races in Belize’s population of just 300.000 and assured us that there was no ethnic cleansing here! Then we had a walk around town, including a meeting with a persistent hustler; a Rasta guy whom we had to pay a few dollars to leave us alone. We did some shopping, bought some paraffin, and had to make a quick retreat to the boat when we found the (free) container was sending out little jets of paraffin through a couple of leaks!

Placencia, a pretty village.
We moved on quickly to get to a better anchorage. Studying the charts of the area and the cruising guide, I found that they didn’t correspond completely, so felt a bit anxious about navigation in this area. We later heard from others that the maritime charts are old and many areas are not completely surveyed, so had to rely on the cruising guide being the more correct. By now the wind was lighter and had changed direction, so we had a pleasant sail to our first island in Belize, Frenchman’s Cay. This is one of many mangrove islands near the coast, not so exciting, but a safe, calm place to drop the anchor. Our next port of call, further up the coast was the pleasant beach town of Placencia, a small holiday spot for both Belizeans and foreigners, with colourful beach cabins, bars and restaurants along the shore.

Catamaran country.
We were on our way fairly quickly to Belize City, where Stein’s mother Eli and cousin Stein would be arriving on 29th October. The wind had turned northerly, just what we did not want, so again we motor-sailed most of the way, day-sailing up through the mangrove islands. Belize has the second-longest barrier reef in the world, a long stretch of reef and islands about 10-20 nautical miles off the mainland. The area in-between is shallow, often only 2-3 meters, perfect for a catamaran. The islands near the reef are the prettiest with sandy beaches and palm trees, the ones nearer the mainland more often mangrove-covered, home of the dreaded ‘no-see-ums’, the sand flies which can hardly be seen but leave their mark in the form of very itchy red spots! Our three overnight stops at Colson cays, Bluefield range and Robinson Cays were at this type of island, the highlights of which were cheap lobster tails from fisherman Alfredo, and meeting the French family on board ‘Pnytwenn’, the only yachties we met on this whole trip, a young French couple with daughter Veia aged 7 and son Nyle aged 2. It reminded us of our cruising days with young children, but looked like a lot of work! Father Jean-Marc is a carpenter and could show us a very interesting left hand from which he had managed to cut off three fingers, but which a clever French surgeon had made to function with the help of one of his toes! The low point of these days was discovering that our starboard hull was full of water, and the water tank empty. The pipe into the bathroom sink had loosened, not difficult to fix, but a lot of mopping up to be done!

Eli and Stein and no-see-ums visiting.
The last leg into Belize City was motoring straight into a stiff 25 knot wind, so it was nice to get into Cucumber Marina, even though the last free berth was where a river came into the excavated basin, and we were tied up in a 4-knot current. It felt quite comfortable on board, but sounded as though we were at sea. Anyway, we were ready for our guests, provisions bought in and new bed-clothes on. Stein went to the airport to meet them, while I did a quick housework job, one of the advantages of living on a boat is that there is less to clean! Eli is nearly 93 years of age, but still going very strong, and had no problems getting up into her bunk or getting in and out of the dinghy, with a little push. The next morning we were off again. It was blowing less, but still northerly. We first anchored in a beautiful cut in the mangroves near Swallow Cay, but made a hasty exit as soon as the no-see-ums began to attack, especially Eli seemed to be allergic to them. As the whole area is shallow, we could anchor out in more open water. This area around Swallow Cay has been converted into a manatee reserve, where there is a colony of about 150 of these big, gentle plant-eating mammals. We paid our few dollars to the ranger, who lives in a little house on stilts, and rowed around in the dinghy looking for them. We did see a few shadows and a couple of snouts, but because of recent heavy rains, the water was murky, and it was no great experience. The next stop at St George’s Cay was more interesting. It is a pretty, coconut covered, historical island where the British finally drove out the Spanish in 1798 at the battle of St George’s, helped by the fact that the reefs were uncharted and the Spanish galleons ran aground! There are a couple of canons to be seen as the only reminder of more violent times. Otherwise it is a peaceful place with summer homes of the rich from Belize City. They all were empty as it was not the week-end or the high season, so we wandered about admiring them. The only family we met was an Austrian who had made a new life here with Belizean wife and 7 year old son. They had a shed full of aquariums with good examples of the local fish and marine creatures, some of which they sold for private aquariums, and the son gave us a guided tour of the place, amazingly knowledgeable for a child of his age.

Caye Caulker; a favourite island.
At last a nice sunny day, although wind still was from the wrong direction. We had to pass a narrow channel to get north, with the intimidating name of Porto Stuck, and we weren’t far off getting stuck ourselves, as it is quite easy to stray from the narrow channel. However we got safely to Caye Caulker, one of the bigger islands with a thriving community of about 700. It is described in the guide as a funky, relaxed, bare-foot kind of place, and so it was. The village has sand streets, colourful shops, restaurants and an abundance of cheap hotels, a back-packers paradise! There are no cars, only electric golf-carts, which run noiselessly. We rented one to drive Eli about the island, and otherwise enjoyed walking on the paths along the coast, and had a couple of meals in the cheap restaurants. Lobster is in season, and is cheaper than anywhere we have seen it; we paid about 75 kroner or 6 pounds for lobster, plantains and rice in coconut, including a rum-punch!
On the 5th November we awoke to the good news that the Democrats were back in power in USA.: Good luck, Barack Obama! From Caye Caulker it is a 2 hour sail/motor-sail to San Pedro on Ambergris, the main island town with a few thousand population. This is also a tourist resort, a bigger, noisier edition of Caye Caulker. We were anchored on the east side, where all the water taxis race back and forth, making the anchorage rolly. However, it is a good place to shop, walk, fill up the tank with diesel, and go golf-cart driving again, although as there are also cars here, it is noisier and less safe. Apart from me, the others went a taxi trip to the lagoon, an inlet of the sea behind the town on the west side, where they could ‘admire’ wild sea crocodiles which come at a certain time to be fed chickens on a rope!

Expensive snorkeling.
The reef near our anchorage is a great place for snorkeling, we had made a stop on the way up at the famous spot of Hol Chan Cut, a deep channel in the reef where there are large numbers of big sting-rays, groupers, barracudas and other fish. It is in a national park area, so we had to pay 10 us dollars each for the half hour snorkel. We stopped on the way south again for another planned half hour, thinking we deserved it for the stiff fee, but were rather indignant when the ranger wanted another 10 dollars each! We dinghied back to White Admiral and had the snorkel just outside the cut instead. Here cousin Stein first spotted the biggest rainbow parrotfish we’ve ever seen; a docile, green and orange monster nearly one meter long. It was as if he and other fish in the area knew they had nothing to fear from us…
San Pedro was the northernmost point of our Belize tour, and now that we were going to go south the wind of course became southerly! We have therefore had to use quite a lot of diesel on this trip.
After another pleasant day in Caye Caulker, we sailed (at last with a breeze in the right to direction) to the next island south, Caye Chapel, cousin Stein baking buns on the way. We anchored on the west side of the island in a choppy sea, but hoped the weather forecast was correct that the wind was turning north-east. So it did and after a few hours the anchorage was perfectly calm. Meanwhile we went ashore to find out what this resort was like. It took our breath away; a long beautiful island with the scrub all cleared away apart from the southern third, which is dominated by an air-strip. The rest has an 18 hole golf course, dispersed with lagoons containing crocodiles. Along the perfect white beach are luxury villas for rental, and now also for sale. Apparently this island is owned by a rich American who has spent a fortune on it, and considers it more of a hobby, so the rental prices are not too unreasonable. We went in and talked to the reception, and were rather surprised at the friendliness, they were happy for us to roam about after having signed a waiver in American style, and it was quite possible to come in for a drink or dinner. (as we discovered later not all other resorts are so friendly to the yachties). Eli had not wanted to come ashore in the rough sea, so we left having dinner there for another time.
Our last day sailing back to Belize City was lovely, a nice north-east breeze for most of the day, and smoked salmon for lunch, the rest of a large amount that cousin Stein had brought from Norway.

With Jim to Caye Chapel.
Back at Cucumber marina, this time we got a berth away from the river, which made it a pleasanter place. From here we visited the Old Belize museum in the grounds, quite an impressive collection of sets depicting rain forest, street scene, homes and industry from the old times when Belize was British Honduras.
Having waived off Eli and Stein at the security entrance, we could just walk across the airport and meet the next crew, my brother Jim from Toronto. He came in on the same plane from Miami that the others were going out on, most convenient. Jim never outstays a welcome and was with us for 6 days, the first four with good weather, the last two with rain, clouds and gusty winds. We visited the same islands where we had been with the others, except for the most northerly Ambergris, now feeling like old hands in the area. This time we did have dinner on the luxurious Caye Chapel, the four course meal costing 45 US dollars each, plus wine. This is much more than any other meal we have had in this part of the world, but since it included a wine cruise before dinner, and a film at the pool afterwards, it wasn’t bad value. The other guests were ordinary, friendly Americans and the next morning they were keen to show us their villas and tell us about the good deals they had got. So we are tempted to try to persuade some of the family to rent a house here for a holiday while we have White Admiral tied up in their private marina. After a morning walk through the golf course, we drove up to Caye Caulker in a dead calm, a really hot day. The same evening we could celebrate the news of Jim’s fourth grandchild, now both his sons have a girl and boy each. But now came a change of weather, we woke up to find the wind gusting up to 30 knots, and the anchorage exposed and choppy. We realized that the east side of the island would be much more sheltered, so got the anchor up and drove round the shallows south of the island and found a calmer spot, just behind the French family on ‘Pnytwenn’ with whom we had a new get-together the next evening.

To the atolls: Turneffe first; a mixed experience.
Jim left on the 18th November, on the morning water-taxi to Belize City, a cheap and fast way of travelling between the capital and the islands. Now our crew was back to just Diana and Stein, with nearly 3 weeks to explore more of Belize. We decided to visit the outer atolls. Outside the barrier reef there are three large atolls, each with several islands, supposedly with lots of wild-life and excellent diving. Some parts of these are national parks, but there are also some private resorts, which cater mainly for divers. Off we went to Turneffe atoll on the 19th, in a blustery northerner which gave us a fast sail. We found out that neither the maritime charts or the cruising guide are accurate, so had a hair-raising exit through the barrier reef, the passage was narrower than on the guide’s chart, and another scary passage through the atoll’s reef. In fact, we hadn’t gone through the passage at all, but meandered through coral heads! We had been warned about this, both from other sailors and the guide that these waters are not fully charted, and one should always enter and exit anchorages in high sun to see the reefs clearly. This anchorage was with a mangrove island to our lee, so we left the day after for the shelter of the south of the atoll, another fast sail down the west side, having found the passage out without trouble after studying where the local boats came in and out. The southerly anchorage was easy to find, entering through a passage in the mangroves into a large, calm lagoon with scattered islands. We anchored off a beautiful island with a diving resort, Turneffe Island Lodge, but found a rather snotty place that only wants its own, paying guests and has no facilities for yachties. The guests were all out diving when we went ashore, and a young South African who works there showed us around the lovely place, and seemed a little embarrassed that he had to tell us we could not even buy a drink at the bar! So no diving for Stein there, instead we went our own snorkeling trip on the nearby reef, which was full of fish, but the water was a bit cold, thanks to the passing cold front. Here we met a lobster fisherman, Mike, from whom we bought 6 small lobsters for dinner, for the modest sum of 15 Belizean dollars, about 45 kroner or 4 pounds. Later in the day Mike appeared at White Admiral and asked if he could clean his lobsters on the back of our boat, as they would otherwise start to go bad. To our amazement we saw that his small canoe was filled with about 80 lobsters, which he had picked up off the reef since early morning. We found out that his fishing camp was about ten nautical miles up the east side of the atoll where there was a good anchorage and a resort which was known to be yacht friendly, so with his local knowledge, we decided to drag his canoe, saving him the long paddle home, and we drove through the inside of the atoll, anchoring just before dark. His local knowledge took us there safely, but didn’t extend to safe anchoring. We woke up in the middle of the night to the slight bumping of the hull on sand, the current having swung the boat round onto a shallower area. Stein had to row out a stern anchor, which took three attempts, and pull us back into deeper water. Fortunately no damage done! Mike came for breakfast the next day, and helped us find a safer place to anchor. The resort here, Blackbird Island Resort was not so up-market as the last, but much friendlier, and Stein arranged for a memorable dive with Kelly and Chris from USA and dive master James the next day.

Amazing Half Moon Caye, Lighthouse Reef.
Lighthouse reef, the next atoll lies a few miles farther east, an hour’s fast sail in the fresh NE breeze. We made sure to enter in the middle of the day, and could easily see the corals. We anchored beside Half Moon Caye, another nature reserve (a World Heritage Site), famous for its colony of red-footed boobies. These nest along with a large colony of frigate birds in the tops of the Ziricote trees. A pretty nature trail leads to an observation tower where one can look over the tree-tops at the bird colonies, a magnificent sight with thousands of white, blue-beaked , red-footed boobies and frigate birds with the males puffing out their red throats pouches.
We were treated to another live-show on our way back to the boat, the local fishermen were filleting their snappers on the beach, and when one of them threw the bones into the water, five nurse sharks fought for the scraps, and dozens of frigate birds came diving over them to pick up any small morsel they left behind.

Glover Reef.
Weather continued to be grey and windy, but it gave us a fast sail to the last atoll, Glover atoll. Here we anchored off a pretty sandy island with another resort, the Marisol Resort, a friendly one where we had dinner, sat in their bar chatting to Liz and Jon, a sporting , English couple living in Houston. Stein went with them and dive master Kitty on another excellent SCUBA dive the next morning.
Now we were getting tired of grey, drizzly weather, but as we sailed back west to the barrier reef, the skies cleared and it was good to see sunshine again. We picked what sounded like a beautiful island for our first stop, Rendezvous Caye, but it had just fallen into the hands of developers, and was being torn apart by bulldozers and a team of workers digging and laying down earth. The pelicans and ospreys will not be pleased when they are finished - a good example of human interference with nature! Anyway, we enjoyed the sunshine, calm weather and good snorkeling.
Norwegians in Placencia.
By now we hadn’t seen a shop for 11 days, so next we headed back to Placencia, for fresh provisions, a laundry and Internet cafes, and anchored off the north beach in a flat calm. Suddenly I heard Stein chatting in Norwegian on the front deck, and looked out to see a Norwegian couple in a kayak, Tone and Ørjan, who are backpacking around Latin-America for a few weeks. They came aboard for a drink, and we found out that he is a full-time football player for Kongsvinger, and she a child social worker in Oslo. The next morning we awoke to another change of weather, northerly wind, the anchorage had become choppy and we made a quick change to the south anchorage where it was fairly calm. Tone and Ørjan were leaving that day for Mexico, but had time to have lunch with us before getting their water taxi to the bus in Independence. We felt a bit disconsolate at yet another cold front passing, and the forecast was poor for the next few days. We decided not to do any more island hopping, but get back to Rio Dulce and relax for a few days before going home. Checking out was a full morning expedition, a 15 minute water-taxi ride, 45 minutes walking each way, and three offices to visit in Big Creek and Independence. The third office was Immigration Police, but they had heard we were coming and drove to meet us, the only time we have had our passports stamped at the side of the road!

Back ‘home’ to Guatemala.
We motor-sailed the whole 45 miles back to Guatemala in a very light headwind and drizzle, leaving at 6 a.m. and arriving in time to be cleared in to the country in the afternoon. A whole army of officials came to the boat, but they only took the papers, chatted for a few minutes, and left. Our passports were ready to be collected half an hour later at Raul’s office. After another Garifuna meal of Tapadas and a calm night in front of the town, we drove up the gorge and through the lake to Rio Dulce, where we are again tied up at Monkey Bay Marina, which now feels a bit like a second home! Our Belize cruise has given us a good impression of a beautiful, sparsely populated country, but this time weather spoiled things a bit. Hopefully this will be better in March when we plan to be back.
But now our thoughts are on the journey home, to work a little and celebrate Christmas with the family, this time including all three children and all three grand-children!
And Merry Christmas 2008 and a Happy New Year 2009 to you, too!

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