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Back to Belize, 20 or so years later.

When we began discussing our travel plans, Belize was always in my mind as a destination I would like to go back to. Typically, I am not the type that likes to go back to the same place as there is so much to see in this massive world, but Belize was different. I had gone 20 years ago with my family and remember it as the best snorkeling I have ever seen in my life.  This was not just my memory, but one I also shared with my brother (right Chris?). We both talked years after about the amazing colors, abundant coral, clear water, and plentiful fish.  We would try to describe it to our significant others (Cindy and Jeff) about just how amazing it was.  When the opportunity presented itself, I knew I had to get back to see if really was how I remembered and share the experience with Jeff.

We’ve arrived to Caye Caulker!

On my first trip we stayed on Ambergris Caye which is an hour and a half ferry boat ride from Belize City. Ambergris Caye is home to San Pedro, the biggest city on the cayes and today very touristy. After reading several travel blogs and Lonely Planet, it was apparent that Ambergris Caye is NOT what it was 20 years ago and most people preferred the other cayes. I kept reading Caye Caulker as the place to be- it was the closest thing to what Ambergris Caye use to be. To be fair, there is a lot of other things to see and do in Belize besides the cayes such as famous Mayan Ruins and awesome wildlife in the jungle. The Lonely Planet book is a great guide for this and has several interesting itineraries if you want to spend one week, two weeks, etc.

When we booked our one way into Belize we didn’t  know how long we were going to stay and Jeff was leaving most of the planning up to me. I decided to take us to Caye Caulker, 45 minute boat ride from Belize City and a small island with no cars (just golf carts). Caye Caulker is not too crowded (plus it was low season) and has good access to the snorkel and dive sites, plus is known to be budget friendly compared to Ambergis. We spent the entire time (just 4 days) on Caye Caulker.  This was the right amount of time for the island. There is not a ton of beach access which can make swimming a bit more challenging as you have to enter the water from a pier and most of the businesses mark them as private.  The nicer hotels (just a handful) have pools and places to relax for the day, but more common is the typical backpacker hostels (basic bed, some with a/c, no pool)  With flights being a bit pricey from Costa Rica and the budget top of mind, we had challenged ourselves to find a place for $50 per night. (We applied a lesson learned in the Galapagos that it was low season, there are more places than appear online, and we can negotiate on arrival to find the best place) It worked pretty well, we spent a solid hour and a half checking out almost eery place on the island. We ended up at the Chinatown Hotel. Funny name, right? Here you are on this Caribbean island and there is a mini China section of town. I don’t really get it but anyway the hotel was in the budget, had AC, king bed and a pool (which was pretty gross so we didn’t go in).

Enjoying an iced coffee before a big day of snorkeling.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the room because we were busy diving and snorkeling. We did the snorkel day trip first which included stops at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, and Coral Gardens.  For $60 per person, this was an awesome day and great deal. We had 5 others in our group, plus the captain and his two boys. We departed at 10 am on a little panga boat that takes you out to the reef. (note: to access the reefs in Belize you must go with a guide or tour operator as they are protected- same policy we experienced in Galapagos) Fun Fact: Belize is home to the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world. The first place we stopped was not planned but our captain, named Ninja, saw a fish boat near the reef and knew that it attracted some big turtles. We pulled up, jumped in the water, and enjoyed a 20 minute swim with two or three massive sea turtles and lots of stingrays. It was amazing. Here are some fun pictures of these big boys.

Swimming with the turtles!

These things always make me laugh. Nice bod Jeff.

The next stop was Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Tons of fish, coral and the reef is shallow so you are literally swimming right over it with great visibility. You have to be careful though as the waves can push you into the coral and that could really really cut you up. Jeff and I played it safe and were free of any injuries.  Our captain and his boys jumped in with us on this stop to take us around and make sure we didn’t get caught up in the current or get too shallow. Our captains bathing suit was an interesting choice and I will let you take a look for yourself in the pictures below. Caught me off guard at first glance in the water 🙂 So we are swimming around and enjoying the scenery and all the sudden our captain dives down about 20 feet like a fricken mermaid, grabs a nurse shark and brings him to the surface for us to pet his belly. Yeah, haha pretty random, but pretty awesome. Those sharks aren’t slow either but he managed to grab it by the tail first time. Maybe it was his bathing suit skimpies that allowed him such fluid movement in the water.

Captain Ninja and his swimsuit bottoms. Oh and the nurse shark he just decided to bring up with him.

Ok next stop was Shark Ray Alley. This is a place where the fisherman would come to clean the days catches and the sharks and rays caught on quickly.  Each time a boat shows up, so do the big sharks and rays.  Today, some boats bring minnows to feed the sharks and keep them around so the groups can snorkel with them. Jeff jumped in first right when we arrived. I immediately notice about 10 sharks around the boat that were 6 or 8 feet. Um, no I am not jumping in on one of those guys right now. I don’t think Jeff noticed until he was already in so he got to experience seeing them swim up to the boat up close and personal :). 3 minutes later I jumped in when I saw the sharks head over to the other boat where they were feeding them. It was definitely a feeding frenzy- 20 or so sharks all swimming around, 10 or so massive rays and then about 15 people. Chaos. But awesome chaos. It was really cool to be so close to them, and know that you are pretty safe as well. They aren’t the sharks that bite- they are mostly all nurse sharks and they suck their food in as opposed to bite it like a great white.

Shark feeding frenzy!

The last two stops were Coral Gardens and another unplanned stop because a manatee was in the area. Coral gardens I was super excited for as I was hoping to see some of the amazing colors I had so vividly remembered.  Not so much. It’s not the same. I don’t know if it’s deterioration of the reef over 20 years, or just that I may be remembering it a bit better than it actually was. Who knows, but I can say that it is still some of the best snorkeling I have experienced.  The manatee spotting made up for the slight disappointment in Coral Gardens. We all jumped in and were swimming with this sea cow for nearly 30 minutes. What a unique experience to swim with this big guy. I had seen manatees before in Florida in the water from the boat or in the canal, but never been in the water with them, right next to them. They are so calm, gentle and just chilled out in the water. He also had a two inch layer of crust on him which could be from him constantly in slow motion. So yeah, snorkeling was really really fun. Jeff and I had a blast and were so glad we decided to go to Belize.

The sea cow himself…or herself. Either way pretty cool.

The next big activity was diving. I was also really excited for this because 20 years prior I couldn’t dive, whereas my dad and brother did. This time, I had my certification and 11 dives under my belt. When you think about Belize, you probably also think of the Great Blue Hole. This is a massive sink hole 2 hours away from Caye Caulker that is a world famous dive site. If you dive in Belize, you almost have to dive the Blue Hole because everyone will ask you if you did and of course you want to say yes. Jeff and I shopped around to the 3-4 dive shops on the Island and ended up booking with BDS (Belize Diving Services) Not the cheapest, but the best and when safety matters. It was clear when they were the only ones that asked us about our experience.  The Great Blue Hole is a deep dive and most divers will go down to 140ft to see the famous staciclians. In order to go this deep and swim underneath and around the formations, they want you to have at least 35 dives. Well, we were a bit short and even though we have our advanced certification as well, they wanted to see the experience with # of dives. It turned out that us, and the rest of the boat full of divers had less than the required # so we all did a shallower version in the Great Blue Hole. We dove to 90 feet. While you can’t really see any of the unique formations at this depth, it is pretty crazy to think you are in this massive hole in the ocean and when you look beneath you all you see if deep deep blue. As for sea life, there isn’t much. It’s more about the depth and the place you are at than anything else. As a result of the deep depth, your dive time is shorter so it was only about 30 minutes total. This was the first of three dives that day and while the second and third were by far the best, it’s cool to say we dove the blue hole. (We hope to make a video soon to share more footage of the dives but to be honest it’s hard to see a lot because it’s all very blue. We really need to buy a red filter for the GoPro)

early morning departure for a big day of diving.

Time for the dive briefing. We are somewhat nervous here 🙂

The last two dives were at depths of 60 feet deep and were 50 or 60 minutes in total dive time. Much longer and more enjoyable with lots to see. Jeff and I always have a fun game of who has more air left at the end of each dive- and of course the more air you have the longer you can dive. I am winning. I guess I have a slight advantage being a bit smaller than him 😉  The second dive site was Half Moon Caye. We saw quite a few reef sharks (8 ft) swimming along us. They are super curious, but a bit more intimidating than the nurse sharks. Still very cool. We also saw an spotted eagle ray and moorea eal. After this dive, we enjoyed lunch on Half Moon Caye which is home to a protected bird area for the frigates and red footed boobies.

Half Moon Caye – looks like it’s from a magazine. A beautiful secluded spot for lunch.

The last dive site was the Aquarium at Lighthouse Caye. This was Jeff’s favorite dive. I think I preferred the second one better. Lots of neat coral formations and this time we saw a morey eel swimming around. It’s like a big green ribbon in the sea.  Jeff also spotted the biggest lobster he’s seen in his life. I didn’t see it so I can’t confirm but he did get a picture of it’s antennas and they were huge… On the last dive our dive master took us through a swim through tunnel. It’s basically a mini cave or coral formation you swim under and through to the other side. I was super nervous and a bit claustrophobic but I did it and so glad I did. It’s pretty exhiliarinting to swim through and once it opens up again, a huge sigh of relief. So that wraps up our full day of diving. We began at 5 am and got back to the dock around 6. It was not a cheap day- cost us just under $350 per person, but totally worth it.

A couple of cool divers, right? We had an awesome time.

I am so glad we went back to Belize. For a short stay, it was everything I could have asked for.  The motto on Caye Caulker is “Go Slow”, which was a perfect way to end our stint in South and Central America. Relax. Soak it all in and reflect on all the wonderful places we have been over the last 6 months. We are so very fortunate and I am thankful for that.

Enjoying another beautiful sunset. It wasn’t easy to leave this place.

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