Belize: No Wonder Madonna Likes It So Much

Our second journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic went a lot faster than the first one. We woke up at 3:00 AM (yes, really) in order to catch the 6:30 flight to El Salvador. There we left at 8:15 for Belize City, where at 10:00 we switched to a domestic airline for the final leg of our morning odyssey.

Although all three flights were about the same length, the first two planes had been Airbus jets, whereas the third was the smallest commercial aircraft I'd ever seen — smaller than the van that had taken us to the airport that morning. The only other people on board were the (sole) pilot and another airline employee who got dropped off at another island along the way. Hil and I nearly got off with him, since nobody had mentioned anything about an interim stop, but the pilot noticed he was being left with an empty plane and called us back.

Note: (1) size of plane (2) baggage claim (3) hole in fence

At 10:58 AM, our fourth landing of the day put us in the town of San Pedro on beautiful Ambergris Caye. You may be more familiar with its other name, La Isla Bonita. We had some time to kill before our room would be ready, so we went to The Lime, a bar and restaurant just off the beach, and discovered two pleasant surprises:

  1. Belikin, the beer of Belize, is pretty good. It comes in nice heavy bottles with the name printed right on the glass — no soggy labels.
  2. The Lime in San Pedro has the best fish tacos this side of La Jolla.

Full-page map
About the country

Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, borders Guatemala to the west and south, Mexico to the north, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. It was originally part of Spain's massive colonial claims, but the British seized it in the late 1700s, gambling that the Spanish Armada couldn't effectively defend the entire Atlantic coastline from Florida to Argentina. It was the longest-standing British colony on the American mainland until becoming an independent country in 1968.

The British influence is evident everywhere: distances are measured in miles, the official language is English, and it mostly feels like a Caribbean country rather than a Central American one. But there are still plenty of Spanish speakers around, both immigrants from neighboring countries and descendants of the native Mayan people. The waters around Belize are clear and beautiful and an impossible shade of blue. This, combined with the world's second-largest barrier reef, makes it a world-renowned scuba destination.

Under water

That first night in Ambergris Caye (pronounced "key"), it started to rain. Hard. The weather forecast said it would continue for five days, our entire time in Belize. We checked in with the dive shop the next morning, and the captain told us that the channel through the reef was closed. No boats would be going out at all until the weather improved.

We returned every two hours or so, since there's not much else to do on Ambergris Caye when it's raining, but the situation never changed. This was a bitter pill to swallow after dragging 40 pounds of dive gear ten thousand miles (literally).


The next morning, the rain had stopped. (And, despite the forecast, it never came back.) The storm had left behind some seriously rough seas that slapped around our tiny boat. Fortunately, the dive sites were only five minutes away, so there was no time to get seasick.

Once we reached our site, we immediately jumped out of the boat and went under, escaping the brutal waves and entering the calm and peaceful world beneath the surface. The coral reefs seemed absolutely endless. We didn't see many fish that day, possibly an aftereffect of the weather, but we did see a few lobsters and an enormous sea tortoise. Divemaster Russell even caught a nurse shark with his bare hands and passed it around! As an encore, he blew air rings.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle...

The next day, we took a break from diving and went inland, to a remote adventure resort called Jaguar Paw. They own a section of rainforest with a river running through it. The main attraction? Grab an inner tube, throw it in the water, climb aboard, and let the current carry you through the forest — and into a system of caves!

In addition to seeing our third kind of rainforest (subtropical), there were cliffs and long hanging vines and stalactites and bats — lots of bats, flying around us and making lots of noise. Sure beats the tube ride at Six Flags.

The only scary part, by the way, was the mosquitoes. The water washes off your repellent, you're not wearing much, and the bugs are relentless. They even tried to pull blood from my inner tube.

The tubing was part of a package deal that also included a bit of ziplining. Compared to SkyTrek, this was the bunny slope: not so high, not so long, no terrifying crosswinds. We still had a good time, but the employees seemed a bit disappointed that we weren't scared. Jaguar Paw did have SkyTrek beat in one regard: after the final ride, we didn't climb a ladder to get back to the ground. No, we rappelled. Well more accurately, they clipped us to a rope, dangled us over the edge, and released the clamp. The rope whizzes, you plummet, and they let it re-engage at the last second. Now that's the kind of fun insurance companies won't let you have back in the States.

It wasn't just the two of us, by the way. We met a chap from Leeds named John who was wearing the uniform of the seasoned British traveler: khakis and a mustache. He had been stationed here in his youth and was making his first trip back, taking three weeks to tour the country under more pleasant circumstances. We enjoyed talking about our respective travels, and he took some great pictures of us on the ziplines. (We'll post them here if he sends us a copy.)

Also, we saw a monkey.

Back to the water

Our last day in Belize we tried to make up for earlier bad weather by booking three dives and a snorkel trip. In the morning we went to Hol Chan, an underwater national park, complete with a ranger in a boat who motored over to collect our entrance fees.

The bottom was covered in sea grass like a great underwater lawn. Due to the area's protected status, there were fish everywhere, often in large schools. The water was shallow, which was great for our photos, but it didn't give us much room to swim. This, combined with a strong current, made Hol Chan the most difficult dive we did in Belize.

The scenery, however, was spectacular. I know we always suggest you check out the Flickr album, but we especially mean it this time. It was really hard to pick just a few pictures:

The current was moving the plant and us at the same rate, but the seafloor is blurry because it was standing still.

We then motored over to another part of Hol Chan known as Shark Ray Alley, and boy was it ever — we were completely surrounded by nurse sharks and four-foot stingrays, especially after our guide started doling out the raw fish. The water was only about 12 feet deep, so we just snorkeled around as he fearlessly grabbed the rays by their noses and held them still for us to pet.

In the afternoon we went on two more dives on the reef, and finally conditions were perfect. The water was clear, and sun and fish were out in abundance. At a site named "The Statue" (after a sunken crucifix), we swam into 80 foot coral canyons and drifted past schools of tropical fish.

Hey, didn't you dive Belize's famous Blue Hole?

Nope. For those of you who don't know, the Blue Hole is a flooded cave 60 miles off the shores of Belize. You enter through the collapsed ceiling, a dark blue hole in the middle of a turquoise sea. If all goes well, you get to see amazing stalactite formations far below the surface of the water.

Photo credit: USGS

However, Mike and I both feel that the worst part of diving is the boat ride to and from the site, and the Blue Hole is a whopping three hours from San Pedro. It's also a deep dive — you have to get down to 135 feet to see the formations, which is 40 feet deeper than we've ever been. At depths like that, your air disappears in a flash and your risk of decompression illness ("the bends") is high, so it's a very brief dive. You drop straight down, spend a few minutes looking around, and then come right back up. If you have buoyancy problems, or can't get your ears to equalize, or any other delay of more than a minute or so, you don't get to see the stalactites. Six hours in a boat and $185 per person down the drain.

We'll give it a shot one day when we're more experienced.

After Belize, we boarded an overnight flight to Buenos Aires and fell asleep. In the morning, it would be summer.

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