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Belize - part II
February 2024

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
    San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
    Hidden Valley Environmental Lodge, Mountain Pine Ridge
    Cockscomb Basin Reserve
    Tropical Education Center and Belize Zoo Lodge


After our stay at Bird's Eye lodge, we returned to the international airport to fly to our next destination:

San Pedro, Ambergris Caye

We were dropped off an hour early at the airport. After passing through security and barely just sitting in the lounge, we were surprised to hear our names paged over the intercom. We rushed up to the Mayan Airlines desk where they told us we were getting on an earlier flight in 15 minutes. We were a bit surprised, but happy to not have to sit in the airport for another hour. We were escorted to the puddle jumper airplane that we had all to ourselves (with one pilot).

The short flight took us over the open crystal blue waters between the series of cayes 15 miles offshore. Looking down, I could see the deep scars of propellers over the coral. It was confusing to try to understand why someone(s) would be so careless. Flying into San Pedro was quite a sight too. A sprawling town covered the key from the western edge to the eastern. At the southern end of Ambergris Caye, there were still mangroves, but they were being destroyed in the same fashion as how the Florida Keys were currently (over)developed with housing projects. Channels were being dredged into rows to make way for waterfront property. A large muddy swath devoid of any life was being worked on as we touched down in the San Pedro airport.

We had originally made plans for a taxi to take us to our Airbnb, but being unexpectedly bumped up I wasn't sure if they got my last minute message that we were landing early. Just as we started to walk to the Airbnb, a taxi driver shouted my name. We were very fortunate that he saw us and we didn't walk through San Pedro. I had a misconception that the town wouldn't be difficult to navigate. But the lack of sidewalks and the busy streets would have made wheeling our luggage through town very harrowing even though the guest house was only a short distance away.

At mid-day, we arrived at the Feathers Guesthouse. Crystal, the housekeeper, welcomed us with cold beverages and gave a brief overview of the island. White-winged and Ruddy Ground Doves feed on the chicken feed in the shade of the tall trees that surrounded the guesthouse. The AirBnb description had me with pictures of trees and mention of birds. Diane, the owner of Feathers Guesthouse, had an appreciation for nature and birds - something sadly seemingly rare on Ambergris Caye. The small patch of trees surrounding the lodge was a haven for the Hooded Orioles and Cinnamon Hummingbirds that would come into the nectar feeder. Olive-throated Parakeets and Pale-vented Pigeons flew into the cecropia across the street. Yellow Warblers with dark red heads (Mangrove race) gleaned in the eyelevel canopy. Black Catbirds and Black-headed Trogon silently stalked within the dark recess of the canopy. After settling into the "penthouse," which was the top room of the guesthouse, we set out to explore the island by foot. The beach wasn't far from the guesthouse, but we had to pass through a dump truck yard. The house/business cleaned and maintained the many dump trucks that were used for developments across the island. Their business straddled the dirt road with large trucks parked on both sides. In the morning, the "yard" would empty of these dump trucks, and in the evening they would return for a hosing down and cleaning up. We had to skirt the perpetual large pool of muddy water to reach the main road.

Along the beaches of San Pedro were expensive resorts with imported white sands, sea walls to fight the erosion of the waves, and large piles of sargassum mixed with trash. The only good thing was that access was open all along the beach. So we could walk past cabanas, beach volleyball games, sunburnt beachgoers laying in hammocks, and abandoned/empty lots all along the beachfront. Access wasn't always easy - some resorts seemed to provide the technical minimum by fencing off "their" beach and only providing a very narrow strip of garbage and seaweed choked beach to walk on. Resort employees labored hard under the heat of the sun to rake and haul away the sargassum and garbage that washed up on the resort's beach (and dumped it onto neighboring empty lots). Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds soared over the island. A flock of Ruddy Turnstones and Least Sandpipers picked in the drying seaweed. Despite having to walk on mats of sargassum festooned with trash, navigating the beach was much more preferable to walking through town. In town, the presence of a 1-foot wide sidewalk was a luxury. Most of the roads lacked sidewalks, and the narrow streets were humming with golf carts, motorbikes, and trucks. We happened to be in town during Carnival, a big celebration where there is painting in the streets along with music and dancing (this was how Crystal explained it). We managed to miss most of the revelry, but we did walk through Front street on opening night of the festivities. The road was closed off to vehicles and people amassed to watch groups of kids dance to music on stage. Street vendors stoked open fires in their bbq grills (there's a big bbq culture in San Pedro) and sold home cooked food from their stands. The large, colorful "San Pedro" sign and every structure in the square was covered in clear plastic in order to protect it from the "painting" that would be coming. During the day, we saw kids covered head to toe in various paints. We didn't witness the paint applications, but from the random splatters that covered everyone, I could surmise no paint brushes were involved. I was reminded of the paint throwing festival in India. Carnival seemed to be less about painting and more about getting paint all over yourself and others. The kids all seemed thrilled. San Pedro was a busy town compared to our usual tourist spots. It was surprisingly busy with both the locals and tourists. Our little guesthouse was an oasis in this bustle, but it wasn't completely immune to it. Being in the top floor "penthouse" meant we could hear a greater distance away. We could hear the daily live music at a bar that was several blocks away. The performances went well into the night.

Dining was one of the highlights of San Pedro. We tried several restaurants of different calibers and all of them were very good. We dined on conch fritters and seafood creole at the fancy (and expensive) Elvi's Kitchen known for their indoor earth-packed floors and the large tree (which unsurprisingly died) that the restaurant was built around. Along the beach are open air bars aimed at attracting the expat and tourist crowds. They provided decent bar food and cocktails. There are also restaurants aimed at the locals that offer more traditional and cheaper fare, but delicious nonetheless. We had the misfortune of being in San Pedro during Superbowl. Restaurants and bars were streaming the game on large screens so all the seats were taken early. Getting dinner at those venues was impossible. That night we ended up eating at a cheap, but good taco restaurant that was little more than a small shack with 4 women cooking and preparing the food inside. Ironically, we ate at the bar/restaurant that we could hear from our top floor room. We had delicious bbq served with rice, beans, and slaw in the open air restaurant. Dogs slept on the earth-packed floor and the band on stage belted out Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley songs. After walking past numerous bars with live music, I had to wonder what the ratio of band members to tourists was on this island.

The main attraction of San Pedro lies only 4 miles off the coast. The barrier reef is world renown. Most tourists coming to Belize go to San Pedro for snorkeling or diving. We booked 2 private day boat tours to view the island and the reef. I had pondered taking one of the many boat tours that could have up to 20 people on the boat, but decided the extra money to not have to worry about having someone else's fins in my face would be worth it. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't cooperative for our first tour. I had booked a tour up to Bacalar Chico - the canal dug by the Mayans to make travel through the island a lot faster and safer. It sounded interesting because it's an area less traveled by tourists and because it also was less developed with only a ranger station in the area. The reports of snorkeling in more pristine reefs also sounded promising. The weather, however, was not agreeable to these plans. We booked the tour with New Day Adventure, a small family run business that had long operated in San Pedro. It was started by Laji Sr, who was our guide for the day. We were also accompanied by his grandson, who was in training for the family business. With the winds blowing, we motored up the western side of the island. It was simply too choppy for outer oceanside travel. Even on the calmer side of the island, small white caps dotted the water as we bumped and bounced our way up north. Along the island we watched as seawalls, fancy villas and resorts soon gave way to dense mangrove. We passed Secret Beach, which just seemed like a miniature or condensed version of San Pedro. It didn't seem like any beach existed there, so I wasn't sure why it would be named so or what was the big draw to that area. Soon it was back to mangrove thickets, palms and sometimes natural narrow strips of white sand. Royal Terns and Great Frigatebirds sailed against the cloudy sky. A Roseated Spoonbill flew overhead. We stopped at the Bacalar Chico ranger station, where the ranger gave a good and informative tour of the museum and of the accommodations at the ranger station, which was available to students wanting to immerse themselves in the ecology of the area. The accommodations were basic, but the views were fantastic. From the lookout, we could see the lagoons inland and vast stretches of coastline north and south. If the wind weren't blowing so hard, it was possible to see dolphins and manatees in the waters. At the end of our tour, the ranger mentioned that the government wanted to tear down the ranger station to "develop" it and add a seawall. I'm guessing with the intention of attracting more tourist dollars. The thought that the government valued tourist dollars at the expense of the environment made me very sad. We continued our boat tour through the narrow manmade canal that wound through the dense mangrove with Belize to the south and Mexico to the north. Even though it seemed like a short ride, the amount of work to dig the canal must have been monumental. Tall white caps greeted us as we left the safety of the lagoon and headed into open ocean water off the eastern coast. We bumped along the waves heading south toward Rocky Point as the winds howled in our ears. In front of the single resort on this side of the island, the waters were completely silted over with churned up sand. Snorkeling was not possible here. Laji took us back to another patch of coral, where the water was choppy, but at least there was still some visibility. Though I've been snorkeling many times before, each time it takes me a couple of minutes to relax enough to feel at ease with it. It's very difficult to get comfortable snorkeling when waves are crashing overhead and there is so much sediment in the water you can only see 10 ft or less in front of you. After swimming a few yards away from the boat, I saw a few colorful fishes and corals before realizing Tor had headed back to the boat and was getting out. I guess it was a bit too much for him as well. We clamored back on the boat, sad that the day's conditions were not conducive for snorkeling. Laji Sr took us back to the ranger station where he set out a wonderful Belizean meal of chicken, rice and beans, slaw, pico-de-gio, and fresh pineapple. After having our fill, we wandered around the grounds a little and settled up on the lookout to watch the pelicans and frigatebirds blown around in the winds. The nice thing about the wind was it kept the mosquitoes at bay. If it weren't for the wind, I'm pretty sure we would have been bled dry within minutes. I'm glad we got to see the beautiful area of Ambergris Caye, of course it would have been better to have been able to snorkel. The area was a reminder of what the island once was.

The second private tour we booked was to the more popular snorkeling areas - Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. This would be followed by some time on Caulker Caye, the smaller, more laid back key compared to Ambergris. It is also considered the backpacker's choice since it's slightly cheaper. The day started off promising with calmer winds and less white caps on the horizon. Hol Chan was just a few miles off the eastern coast of the island, so there was no hiding from the wind today. Under da Sea Adventures was our tour company for the day. They were more than 15 minutes late in picking us up. But what was surprising was when the two tour guides showed up with a young woman riding in the boat. At first I didn't think it was our boat because I booked a private tour. Then when the guides confirmed that it was our boat, I began to doubt myself that I actually booked a private tour. I honestly didn't know what to think at first, but then it became apparent that the woman was a (girl)friend of the captain. Despite her entitled, look-at-me-aren't-I-cute-and-pretty-attitude, I tried to ignore our uninvited guest. We were in an amazing area and we were about to finally go snorkeling.

Our first stop was Hol Chan Marine Reserve. There were several natural openings in the continuous barrier reef; these openings allow larger fish to enter, feed, and have access to calmer waters. Hol Chan was at one of these openings. After moored to a buoy, we followed Louis (aka Wicked) our snorkeling guide around the area. Although still windy, the waters were calmer than the day before and the visibility was also better (although not great). We had snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef the fall before so it was interesting comparing it to Hol Chan. At Hol Chan, we saw large schools of fish, moray eel, groupers, a sleeping nurse shark, a young mola mola, and lots of colorful fish that I've already forgotten the names of. It lacked the giant clams, coral and sponge diversity of the Great Barrier Reef, but the fish variety was impressive. By the time we left the waters of Hol Chan, the number of tour boats tripled and the number of people in the water even more so. I was thankful for our (semi-)private tour. I was also thankful for taking dramamine before the tour when I saw a deathly pale woman clinging helplessly in the bow of a boat. She looked like she was about to chum the waters. Speaking of chumming waters, our next stop was Shark Ray Alley. The other guides were chumming as many nurse sharks roiled below the surface. We snorkeled around the area for a short while, watching the nurse sharks and other fish swim by. An eagle ray was also in the area, but I missed it after it took off. Our third stop of the morning was in an unprotected area. It was my least favorite stop and one I didn't care for, but on the other hand I'm glad to have the contrasting experience. Being unprotected meant it was open to harvesting, which is what our guides and uninvited guest tried to do with spears. Tor and I fought the steady strong current around the reef. Without making any headway (the flippers we were given weren't very good), we were just trying to maintain our positions. The reef here looked dead - mostly brown and covered in algae. A few schools of small colorful fish darted here and there amongst the lifeless and broken coral and shells. But compared to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve there wasn't much out here. We were tiring ourselves out for no reason, so we headed back to the boat.

It was only 11AM by the time we reached "the Split" of Caulker Caye. The split in the key was caused by a massive hurricane, which sank a building and cut a channel across the island. The split was dredged so boats could pass through and as we did, moor at the pier next to the bar. At 11AM, people were drinking cocktails, jumping into the cut, and lounging in the sun while loud 90s rock and pop music blared from the speakers. Our guides pulled out some mangrove groupers that they caught that morning. They began cleaning and filleting them on the dock for the bar to cook for us. I'm usually not much for lounging, but reclining with a (virgin) pina colada in front of the sparkling aqua-green waters with Michael Jackson singing in the background wasn't bad at the moment. We ordered a few sides to go with our fresh fish and by the time the fish was cooked I was pretty hungry. The bar battered and fried fish strips, grilled fillets, and grilled whole fish for us. We chowed down on the fresh fish and enjoyed the coconut rice and plantains that accompanied it. We were given the afternoon to wander the island. Before heading off our captain told us 3:30PM back at the boat. Caulker Caye is much smaller than San Pedro. Even midday, only a few golf carts were traveling up and down the main dirt road. Shops, hostels, and restaurants lined the street. We wandered through the town's hot dusty road stopping to look through the gift shops. Along the beachfront, we paused under the shade to watch boats motor by. It was definitely a slower pace on this island. We wandered by a bar where our captain happened to pop out with Girlfriend. After declining the offered joint, we continued our roaming. We returned to the boat 10 minutes before 3:30. Louis was waiting on the boat, but there was no sign of the Captain and Girlfriend. Louis made repeated attempts to call Captain. 3:30 came and went, when finally they showed up.

The final part of our tour was just around the corner from the split. We found one bright orange sea star in the shallow water before going to feed the tarpon. Louis bought a bag of bait fish at the tarpon feeding hunt and showed us how to safely hold it over the water. It was quite amazing and thrilling watching the large fish jump out of the water directly to your hand. We also feed the frigatebirds that were trained to swoop down to take the small fish from your hands. This happens a lot faster so it's more difficult to appreciate or comprehend what is happening. After the bag of fish ran out, we headed over to a beach in front of a resort with a seahorse sanctuary. A net was naturally populated with sargassum hung in the shallows. Amongst the dense sargassum, the seahorses were difficult to spot, but we did see a female (mostly the color of the sargassum) and a bright orange male. On the other side of the same beach, a dozen stingrays of a couple of different species patrolled the sandy bottom. Tourists allowed the rays to brush their feet as they sat on the beach. One woman exclaimed "what is that woman doing swimming with the stingrays?!" I didn't have to look to know who that woman was. We spent all day with her and as much as I wanted to continue to ignore her "quirks," she wasn't hard to predict. If I hadn't paid a handsome price for the private tour, I could have easily laughed it off and added it to my list of "remember that crazy day" stories. After I returned home and gave it much thought, I contacted the company and told them what happened. I don't know if it happened, but they supposedly suspended Captain for a week without pay and asked how to rectify the experience. They honored my request for a partial refund, which I thought was appropriate, since I didn't get what I paid for. This experience still does end up on my "remember that crazy day" list, but the sting is considerably less and we did have a good experience snorkeling and touring overall.

Our flight back to the Belize mainland was similar to our arrival. The airline bumped us (and others who arrived early) to an earlier flight. However, this time the plane was much smaller. We were lined up on the tarmac next to the plane and the desk agent assigned everyone seats to balance out the plane (heavier/bigger people in front, smaller/lighter people in back near the luggage). Tor and I weren't sitting together, and I got a view of everyone from the back seat. Once one of the passengers saw how small the plane was, the big guy in front began to ask about taking the next flight. He even asked the pilot "when that plane <pointing to a slightly bigger plane> was leaving." He really did not want to be on the tiny 8-seater plane and looked about ready to jump off and make a run for it. Nonetheless, we were soon taxiing down the airstrip. I noticed the white knuckle grips of my fellow passengers, but soon we were airborne and leaving the sprawl of San Pedro behind. I fear the island of Ambergris Caye is headed toward environmental disaster. It's the clash of wanting tourist dollars while trying to sell themselves as an environmental wonder. Yet the locals and the government treat the island as a commodity and don't protect it as a whole (protecting a patch of reef is not enough). However, this sad story isn't unique to Ambergris Caye or Belize. It's a global problem. With a heavy heart, I watched the crystalline blue waters, mangroves, and scars on the coral pass below. A few gray bean shaped lumps floated in the waters - the manatees were nice to see even at such a high distance.

back to part I or continue to part III



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