Belize Part 3: Islands in the Sun
Out of hundreds of cayes, Ambergris Caye is Belize's largest island and located off the northeast coast of the country. This caye (pronounced key) is known for its proximity to the barrier reef. The world's second largest barrier reef, might I add. Our first impressions of this island were of a mixed bag. The water surrounding the island was the most beautiful azure I've laid eyes on. But after exiting the plane we were thrown into a frenzied, dusty town overrun by golf carts and loud trucks. The noise struck our ears like a jackhammer and we felt uncomfortable and out of place after just spending three days in solitude. We circled the town by foot, lost, and after getting our bearings straight we were finally headed in the direction of Pedro's Inn. For $40 a night you can't ask for much, and like you'd expect, we were underwhelmed with our room. But two twins pushed together makes a king, and the bonus? It had A/C! Boom!
The upside about Pedro's Inn was that all guests had access to their sister resort which was situated on a small but quaint beachfront. We actually felt the most comfortable here with our butts plopped in padded beach chairs and a cold beer in our hands. Remember our friends Amy and Adam that we met up with in San Ignacio? We were planning to meet up with them this evening in Ambergris. We got the text that they had rented a golf cart (the number #1 mode of transpo on the island) and would swing by to pick us up. We poked our heads out from the beach access and they came screaming down the road like a bat out of hell. They fit in just like the locals! We hopped in the back of the golf car and headed to town for an early dinner.
We love eating the local food as often as possible when we travel (while avoiding anything too creepy in hopes that we don't get the craps). Here in San Pedro the rumor was to try the pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran dish, made with handmade corn dough and stuffed with cheese, veggies, or meat or a combo of all. We headed straight for the best Pupuseria in San Pedro and ordered up an assortment of papusas. The traditional Salvadorian woman patted our dough to perfection then stuffed our papusas right on the spot at the front of the restaurant. We devoured them all and with full stomachs we rode off in the sunset and straight to the local bars. After testing out the island's most delicious tropical drinks, we attempted to return Amy and Adam's golf cart which needed to be turned in before 7pm (don't worry, we had a sober driver!). We finally found the correct golf cart lot slightly after the scheduled drop off time, there are several, and then made our way to Pedro's sister hotel for some additional fun on the ocean trampoline. There's nothing like a raucous night with new friends to improve one's perception of a place.
The next morning something seemed off. I know what you're thinking, and no, we weren't hungover. After swiping our card at two different ATMs and being denied, we sensed our bank had locked our funds. From this point on we declared this a lazy day. I sat on the beach, ordering up pancakes for breakfast and reading a book from the hotel's used-book library. Meanwhile Chip attempted to contact our bank (thank you, Viber for allowing us to make free long distance calls). The only problem, it was Sunday. Oh, and not to mention, the following day was Martin Luther King, Jr. day so all the banks were closed. Our only option now was to attempt to eat only at places that accepted credit cards, or pray that Adam and Amy could spare us some cash to get us by. We met up with them one last time over lobster burritos before their plane took off for the US. I remember skirting around the issue "well, we're not sure what we'll do the next couple of days. We kind of...ran out of money," we explained. "What?!" They exclaimed and before we could say anything else they forced a $100 bill in our hands and demanded we take it.
Now on to the last (and best!) full day of our trip...more snorkeling and the island of Caye Caulker! Each region that we have visited in Belize has hosted one of our favorite days of the trip. I think Chip and I would both agree that today was our favorite day while in the northern cayes. It began with us laying in our 'two twins to make a king' bed with only the tiniest sliver of light shining through the curtains. I opened my eyes, peeked at the clock on my phone and saw that it was past 8 am. Ah, sleeping in an extra hour and a half felt liberating. I could tell just then that today was going to be a good day. Does that ever happen to you? Waking up extra refreshed and ready to tackle a new day? As an added bonus Chip brought me hot, homemade donuts in bed. The warm sugar crystals hit my lips and like most days, the simple things like that is when I decide, yep, it's going to be a good day. The next best thing was yet to come though. After throwing on our swim suits we strolled to the beach, our stomachs full of dough-nutty goodness, and signed up for a half day snorkel tour to Hol Chan Marine Reserve with a side trip to Shark/Ray Alley. These two spots are known throughout the diving and snorkeling community as one of the best. Remember, the world's second largest barrier reef is HERE. There's Australia. Then Belize. We couldn't wait to see what all the hype was about.
The company we used for this snorkel trip, Searious Adventures, stood out in contrast to the one we used in Placencia. The office was organized, the boat was pristine, and even the boat driver and guides donned matching company t-shirts. Our boat hit the open water at exactly 9 am and after a briefing from our witty but informative guide, our heads were bobbing in the lukewarm ocean by 9:30. We could see nothing but a bunch of other tour boats moored around us in a circle. No land, we were far from it. But little did we know an alternate universe was swimming around just below our bodies.
Once our masks hit the water and we began making our way to the reef, the ocean came to life. Think Finding Nemo, when Dory hits the ocean for the first time. It was madness. Straight below there were massive schools of fish of all colors on a mission to who knows where. There were jacks, parrot fish, barracuda, and trumpet fish. The coral was vividly colorful and alive. We saw an eel, a shark, manta rays, jellyfish, and turtles. I'm trying to think if there was something we missed. We had seen dolphins from the boat earlier that morning, check. I suppose the only thing left was a whale or manatee. But it doesn't stop there. After an hour exploring this fascinating reef we are back in the boat, shivering and sopping wet. Everyone is instructed to keep their snorkel gear handy. A ten minute ride to where a lobster boat used to reside, this over time is how the name Shark/Ray Alley originated.
Our experience at Shark/Ray Alley was a bit more manipulated though. There is no genuine lobster boat anymore like at Silk Caye but rather several tour boats filled with folks wanting to see the sharks and rays up close and personal. Our driver gets his chum ready and explains that the sharks are trained now to come to the motoring boat and wait for the chum to be thrown in the water. Several of us splash into the crystal clear ocean and as the chum starts flying, the sharks begin to dart towards our boat. I stayed above for a bird's eye view and to capture photos (since we couldn't get any in Placencia), and Chip marveled at the sharks from in the water, only a few feet of space separating them. While I preferred experiencing the sharks and rays in their usual habitat in Placencia, this was also very unique and quite thrilling. There must have been ten sharks swarming our boat, their only interest was to dine. No more than five minutes passed and we were out of chum. The sharks took off to the next approaching boat before we could even say hasta la vista.
The latter half of the day was spent at the neighboring island called Caye Caulker. This place had the ultimate chill factor, where the aptly coined motto is "Go Slow." We both took in this new scene before our eyes for a few minutes and almost simultaneously said "I wish we would have stayed here [versus Ambergris]." If you choose to travel to Belize, you will find hundreds of forums debating which Caye is better, Ambergris or Caulker. We read through a lot of them. People genuinely love San Pedro (this is the main city on Ambergris) and while we have enjoyed our time in San Pedro, we might have chosen differently after visiting both. San Pedro has some charm, and hidden gems, there are heaps of tasty restaurants to eat at, and as you saw earlier, it has fun places to imbibe but it wasn't as perfect as one might think. When we stepped foot on Caye Caulker it was exactly what we were seeking. It was, well, love at first sight.
We took the one and only dirt road which was sprinkled with inviting food vendors and restaurants and headed towards the most well-known spot on the island, the Split. This is the area that divides the small island of only five miles in two. An inviting restaurant, The Lazy Lizard, was waiting to greet us at the end of the short road. This spot was ridiculously fun. There were people on SUPs and kayaks, dare devils climbing up tall trees and jumping off into the water, and tourists playing rounds of bean bags. We ordered wings, drinks, and like a bunch of sunning iguanas in the morning light, Chip and I lounged on the dock, worshiping the sun with the rest of the lazy tourists. Now you can see where the restaurant's name came from.
We took a quick walking tour of the island and as I was gazing out towards the sea, my eyes honed in on the most perfect seagull poop-laden dock. "Can we please jump off this?!" I screeched with excitement, praying Chip would agree. "Come on, come on. Please! You go first!" And he did. Then it was my turn. We flung our bodies off the dock with as much gusto as a skydiver leaping out of an airplane. This moment was pure fun, and had us laughing until our stomachs hurt. It's times like these when I am truly grateful to have Chip by my side. To be silly with and let loose. To forget about the world around us, the worries, or concerns back home and just let the moment we are in take front and center. We make a pretty great match and I'm always reminded of that when we travel. It was the perfect ending to our day. Heck, it was the perfect ending to our vacation.
As we explored the many facets Belize had to offer, we realized it will always hold a little chunk of our heart. What a beautiful country with diverse landscapes, friendly people, and stunning marine life. It was the country that reunited Chip and I with our love for travel. Our need to travel. Where we began to dream again about where we want to go and what we want to show our kids. It was always there in our hearts but gets buried with the day to day routine of managing kids, working, and paying the mortgage. We had to dig deep on this trip, ask each other the tough questions and think about what it is we want to accomplish with our time on this earth as a family. We know our adventures don't stop here. And that they happen every day, even in our own backyard. But hardly a day has gone by since our trip that we haven't dreamed about where we might travel to next. What adventure is in store for us? What will we discover? Learn? How will we be changed? How will we be inspired? Who will we meet along the way? How will it change our lives? I can hardly wait to see what is in store for our family next!
If we haven't convinced you to head straight to expedia and buy tickets to Belize yet, just know...it's only a two hour flight from Dallas or Houston!! Do it!