Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Day 74 - Travel day to Belize CityI naturally woke up at 2:00 am just before our alarm. I didn't want to fall back asleep for just 30 minutes and feel druggy as I was wide awake at 200. Kristen popped right out of bed with our 230 wake up call. Long day of traveling ahead of us. We hoped in the cab at 300 and were at the airport within 40 minutes. After some Johnny Rocket breakfast, we boarded our plane. Again today we had the isle and window seat booked and again today we had the entire row to ourselves. This is a must when booking ahead of time. The worse case scenario, you have the middle person take your isle or window seat. I've never had someone deny that. But often times, we get lucky and have the entire row to ourselves!
Our flight to Belize City was less than an hour long. We arrived in Belize, picked up our bag and met the lady with our name on a sign. She signaled for our driver to come over. The look on our face had to be priceless as a late 1980s Oldsmobile with a cassette tape player rolled up: Leather seats torn and a swimsuit calendar stuck to his dash. The part that had me nervous was that I pretty much planned the entire Belize trip and made all of the arrangements, so Kristen was just trusting my work. Our hotel made the travel arrangements for us, so I did not get started on an impressive note. Luckily Kristen is fun spirited and laughed it off. If that wasn't bad enough, ten minutes into the drive, the driver gets a call and he forgot someone else at the airport. So he turned around to pick him up and we got to fit 3 passengers in the back seat of an Oldsmobile. To make matters even worse, the guy was a smoker who smelt like booze from the flight. So here we are back on the road, the driver and lady in the front with Kristen smashed between the two of us in the back seat. Luckily the guy was actually really nice and gave us good advice on Caye Caulker as he comes at least once a year.
We get to the water taxi port and the driver expects us and the guy to both pay $25 USD each. After some negotiation and us both talking to his boss separately, he agreed to take $15. What a scam: $50 for three people to be smashed in the back seat of an old beater car.
The water taxi stand was a bit more chaotic that I imagined but luckily the guy helped ensure us that we weren't getting ripped off by the ticket. The water taxi was nothing luxurious and smelled like all other water taxis, diesel fuel. Once we got moving it was better. We did get a treat with a beautiful sunset as we pulled away from the nasty dirty city of Belize City.
We got to the island in the dark, so we didn't get a good view of Caye Caulker from the water. We took a golf cart taxi to our rental, Oasi. The streets here are all made of sand as there are no motorized vehicles allowed, only golf carts and bicycles.
We made the quick hop to Oasi to meet Luciana, the owner. I was excited to show Kristen Oasi as it was rated number one on trip advisor for B & Bs. Caye Caulker is not commercialized which was very appealing to us, so there were not big resort style hotels. Oasi has four apartments, two big and two smaller. We got the best one, a big one on the second floor. We had a huge balcony to ourselves which had a hammock, two lounge chairs, and a table and chairs for two. The balcony had a huge clothes line for us to dry our wet clothes. Inside, it had a full kitchen with free coffee, so we could ease into our day by making breakfast in our PJs and eat on our balcony, which we did each morning. We now actually check hotel websites for coffee in our room. Not a huge feature but really makes the morning enjoyable to brew your own coffee as you get moving.
Luciana gave us a map of the island which we didn't really need to navigate as there are really three parallel streets on the island. We walked the perimeter before having dinner at Wish Willys, the recommendation from the guy we shared the taxi with. We quickly realized that we were on island time where everything is informal and nothing moves fast. If fact, we saw multiple signs on the walk that said "slow down." Despite a pretty cool island atmosphere, the food was just ok here. We stopped at the grocery store for bread, peanut butter and eggs. The interesting thing about eggs is that every country on our trip keeps them at room temperature. Even in the island heat, they were on the shelf.
The roads were very difficult to walk on as they had a huge storm the previous day, so there were huge pot holes filled with water. It didn't stop us from walking with groceries while eating ice cream!We knew that we were going to be happy on this island. Kristen had already admitted that I did well in picking this island and she loved the apartment rental and she hadn't even got to ride on the bikes that were included!
Day 75 - Belize. The SplitWe woke up to no alarm this morning, just the sun light! The crazy thing is that we rarely got to do this on our trip. When you have the gift of travel in amazing places, you constantly want to take advantage of the opportunities at the destination. I decided to get up first to make coffee, scrambled eggs, and peanut butter toast. We sat on the balcony in our pjs enjoying the warm air and not having to get dressed and mobilized to start the day. We didn't have anything planned, so I took a load of laundry to be cleaned ($8 USD for one load) while Kristen did a workout with the bands. After I came back we went for a run/walk around the south end of the island.
The island is split into two halves with the "split“ waterway in between. The north island is all preserved and no tourist or local activity takes place there. The smaller third or quarter is where everything is. We are staying on south end of the South Island. There was some nice trails here to do some exploring. Not a ton as the island is maybe 3 miles in circumference. The trails itself were still pretty wet, so we couldn't do the entire loop as it was flooded, but enough to get a sweat going. We are both looking forward to getting back in shape when we return. It has been very difficult to workout on this trip. A million excuses why, but mainly, we just didn't make it a priority. Too many other cool things to do. But this can't last forever, so we will get back in shape when returning. Kristen actually got a jump start and worked out everyday in Caye Caulker. I wanted to enjoy the hammock instead.
Now that the dive was booked, we wanted to book a good snorkel on the local reef. Belize Dive Services told us to find Juni, by the basketball courts. This was the same advice we had gotten in Patagonia. So we were on the mission to find Juni, but he wouldn't be back from the day's snorkel until 5:00.
We put on our swim trucks and packed our beach bag and biked to the split, where everyone hangs out during the day. This place was very unique in that there wasn't really a beach. A third of the people were lounging on a sanded section, a third laying on wooded pier, and a third was hanging at the bar. The crowd was mixed: mid 20s getting some sun, middle aged hippy travelers, and a mix of local rustafarrians. I guess we don't actually fit into any of those categories, but we didn't feel out of place. We ordered a bucket of beers, a burrito, and some nachos and just spent some time people watching and listening to the DJ mix some reggae and pop music.
Kristen rode back to get our googles, so we could swim across the split in hopes of exploring the other part of the island. However, once over there, the sand wasn't really meant for walking barefoot, so we just swam back. The current was pretty strong here, so the visibility was not good either. We didn't last long in the water since it was deep and cloudy. We decided to lounge in the sandy area. After about thirty minutes until a random man shot straight out of the water! One of the coolest things I have seen a wave runner do before!
We hung around the split until we were able to catch Juni after his day of snorkeling. He was full the following day, but could take us on Monday. I told him that I was diving the Blue Hole and he said "Why, you will have way more fun with me, see more, and it will cost a lot less?" Well shoot, when you put it that way, maybe I should reconsider. However, I really wanted to dive, so I kept my Monday Blue Hole and booked us for Tuesday snorkel. Since we were gambling on good weather for Tuesday, Kristen signed up for Monday as well, which turned out to be the best decision in Belize (the weather was fantastic Monday and rainy Tuesday).
We headed back to the apartment to shower for a dinner date at Habaneros. This was one of the only "fancy" restaurants on the island. I quote fancy as it was a typical establishment by normal US standards, but felt fancy compared to the local dinning. We didn't make a reservation, but they had a few tables open so we got right in. The restaurant gets pretty busy as it is popular, so we felt a bit lucky. Once seated though, we were rushed the entire meal. On multiple occassions they informed us that we had to be out by 8:00 as the next set of reservations were for then. Despite the bad service, we did enjoy their food.
We did a lap around the island to take in the salty ocean breeze before graving some ice cream and playing cards in the apartment.
Day 76 - Lounging around BelizeMy main objective today was to find someone to take me diving. I got up early and went to multiple dive shops, but they were all full! I came back to my hammock to read on my ipad while Kristen was out for a walk. When she came back we decided to go snorkeling out on the local reef. As we were trying to finalize the plan, we noticed a huge black horizon, so we decided to wait it out until the afternoon, before trying again. Sure enough, we barely made back to the apartment before it down poured.
After about two hours, the skies cleared up, but the temperature never really recovered. It was stil a bit windy, so we cancelled the snorkeling excursion and decided to walk to get something for lunch. We walked to the sports bar where we watched the second half of the 49ers game when they beat the Panthers. It was an interesting bar as there were two tables of texas holdem and there were folks in their respective team's gear. I guess Belize isn't that far from the US, so it makes sense. We just were not used to seeing American sport fans over the past 2.5 months.
We decided not to watch the Broncos game as the sun was back out. We wanted to spend more time exploring the island since we were going to be on the water the next two days. We have taken full advantage of our free bikes at Oasi.
We decided to try the mediterranean restuarant on the island as it has sand floors and we have both missed falafel/hummus. When we showed up, we should have stuck to our insticts: If there is no one else in the restaurant, don't stop. We over rode our instict and the food was less than mediocare. We ended the evening with some Belizean ice cream. I am going to miss my daily ritual of beer and ice cream! Early to bed as I have a 430 wake up for the Great Blue Hole.
Day 77 - The Great Blue HoleI anxiously woke up at 430 just ahead of my alarm this morning raring to get on a boat to check out the great hole. I made some toast and coffee while trying not to wake Kristen. I biked half way down the island, about 0.5 mile, to +Belize Diving Services. I was the second one there and helped myself to a glass of coffee and some eggs as they had breakfast for everyone. The rest of the customers rolled in, but it wasn't a lively crowd at 530. We all got on the boat just prior to 6 to check all of our gear. We were off land just prior to sunrise.
The ride away from the island was calm as we watched sunset rise. I took a spot on the open top deck of the very nice dive boat. This company is known for its investment into its equipment and it was evident by the equipment I saw all day. Very high class dive shop. I took a random seat next to two guys who quit their jobs to travel for nine months around central and South America. They were on day 15 and just arrived from Mexico. They were awesome to talk to: their travels thus far, their plans, and how they arranged for nine months of travel.
The dive master warned that the waters might be rough when we crossed over the reef and that we may get wet on the top. They were spot on. I got drenched a few times, but luckily it was warm enough that it didn't matter. The swells in the water at times were probably six to eight feet spraying water to the top deck. I'm definitely glad Kristen did not come as she would have been sea sick. I continue to be thankful that I can handle fairly high waves.
We couldn't exactly tell when we entered the hole as there was no sign nor could you see the entire circle of reef. We crossed multiple reefs to get out here (2 hr boat ride), so we didn't exactly know until we slowed down. We started to get our wetsuits and gear on as a huge storm approached and the wind picked up. I put on my now wet wetsuit (my gear was second from the back of the boat) and instantly became very chilly and nervous all at once. It had only been less than two months since my last dive, but I haven't dove without Kristen nor with 16 other people (we split into three groups). I was actually shaking a bit and I couldn't seem to stop. I tried to take deep breaths, but I never actually got better until I was in the water and took a fewer deep breaths from my tank.
The first dive was called the Great Blue HoleTour description: The first stop is The Great Blue Hole, a remarkable sink measuring nearly 1,000 feet across and 400 feet deep. It’s a Belize National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, experienced divers can venture to the limits of recreational scuba diving to see Costeau’s giant and ancient crooked stalactites at 130ft/40M. This profile is for experienced divers only—divers with 25 or more dives. For those not qualified for this depth or who simply want a longer dive profile, we offer a second dive profile to 80ft/24M. On this profile, you cannot swim through the stalactites, however, you will still experience the drop-off and likely see some sharks.
Since I don't have 25 dives in, I was in one of the two 24 meter groups. I had been to this depth on most of my previous dives so that wasn't an issue. I felt the group descended a bit faster than me, but I took my time. The very eery feeling of this dive is something I won't forget. You are on this huge straight vertical wall and when you turn around, it is pitch blue and you can't see anything. You can see the wall just fine but behind you and below you is just dark blue. Not black, but blue. If you don't find something to focus on the wall, you can easily become overwhelmed. After just a few minutes under the water, I became calm as previous dives and got into my groove. We explored the wall which had very unique grassy like coral on it. We eventually saw a sea turtle which I spotted at the end of our group. We also saw a few sting rays, a barracuda, and Caribbean wrasse which were a bold blue colored fish that had what looked like wings. The visibility was actually poor on this a dive since the current and storm had worked up the sandy bottom at the shelf of the wall. This dive only last 30 minutes as we went down to 31 meters for some time.
The second dive was absolutely amazing. The coral on this reef is so mature and huge. The huge trees and coral bowls were sometimes five or six feet. I have not see coral this mature in the Maldives or Bali. Besides the amazing colors and various coral formations, we quickly saw two huge reef sharks. Two of the our five ran out of air fairly quickly, so our instructor worked with them to go up. I turned off the Go Pro to save battery while waiting when instantly a six foot shark came from behind the coral and swam two feet over my left shoulder. That 15 seconds took about 100 PSI of oxygen out of my tank. On this dive we also saw a couple sea turtles, sting rays, barracuda, and a few tuna.
Tour description:After the Great Blue Hole dive, it’s a 25-minute boat ride to Half Moon Caye Wall for the second dive of the day. Along the walls, which drop beyond 1,000 feet, you’ll see colorful sea fans, giant barrel sponges, turtles, eagle rays, eels, octopi, reef sharks and sting rays hiding in the sand flats. Half Moon Caye is a picturesque Caribbean island with a bird sanctuary observation deck that overlooks a Red-Footed Booby Colony. We have lunch on the Caye and explore the island before heading out for our third and final dive of the day, Long Caye Aquarium.
We took an hour lunch break on Half Moon Caye where I got to continue to visit with the couple from Germany, a guy from Austria, and a girl from San Francisco. Kristen always said that you actually meet more people when traveling alone and this dive trip highlighted that. I got to know so many people. We also got to see male Frigate birds with their red sacs blown up making mating calls similar to the Galapagos.
After lunch, we had our third dive which again had amazing and huge mature coral. On this dive we got to see four eagle rays swimming together, a sea turtle, two sharks, barracuda, and various other fish. The visibility was great on this and the second dive. I'm excited to watch the go pro video footage to see if it portrays the amazing coral I got to see today. (It doesn't as I have to get a filter for the Go Pro in order for the colors to be there. Here is what I need to get: http://www.backscatter.com/sku/bs-gp-mf.lasso
After returning to the boat we started to sail away. About two minutes into the sail, the captain did a 360 and went to pick up what looked like trash in the ocean. As we got closer, it was a huge taped up rectangle that looked like what they transport drugs in the movies. The crew pulled it on board and one of the divers had a knife and cut it open. Sure enough, full of blocks of further taped material. The captain ordered them to put it under the boat and we moved on. No true clarification, but probably cocaine or marijuana. What a crazy experience!
On the way home, we got to see a dolphin jump alongside the boat which was a first for me. What amazing animals.
After arriving back to the dock, I rode back to get Kristen and met the Australian guys at the Split for some drinks and a fabulous, clear, and colorful sunset. We spent about an hour there talking to them and a few others from the dive that day. After getting bit by Mosquitos, we all said goodbye and we rode to dinner. Kristen's snorkeling guide, Juni, recommended Syds, so we went there. Upon pulling up, the Australians were eating there too. We got a table with them and the four others from their hostel. The island is really starting to feel small as we recognize people from various events, dinners, etc.. That feeling is part of the charm in Caye Caulker.
What an amazing day of diving. I am eagerly excited for tomorrow as we are going snorkeling with Juni, whom Krisen went with today and claims that she had the "best outdoor experience of her life!"
Day 78 - Snorkeling with JuniWe were both eager to get up this morning to snorkel with Juni. Juni is a ~70 year old Belizean man who has been snorkeling the local reef for 31 years. We first heard about him from the Swiss couple in Patagonia and then again from the dive shop that I went to yesterday. When you meet Juni you understand exactly why you want to snorkel with Juni. He is a very wise and calm man who you just sense that he has some connection with the local reef. He charges $35 USD for six hours of snorkeling, better than any price on the island. He could be charging double the highest snorkeling trip and he would still sell out every day. He only takes a max of seven people so he can keep his group small. If you plan on going to Caye Caulker, I would highly recommend that you book with Juni and that you skip over the next few paragraphs so you will have the experience of surprise when joining him.
We got on board at 945 with three Americans and two Canadians. Juni has a very quant little sail boat that makes you feel like he has been using it for the same 30 years. Even though it is probably 30 years old, you know that he cleans it everyday and keeps up the maintenance on it regularly. He asked Drew (Farmer from North Dakota) and myself to sit at the front of the sailboat to keep the nose from bobbing too much. I enjoyed chatting with him during our 1.25 hr sail. He is from Wilson, ND where there is a huge oil boom right now. He described the expanding community and life now that he moved back to take over the family farm.
The sail was nice until about 30 minutes remaining where it started to sprinkle before down pouring. There was a front moving through and we were hoping that it would move through like the previous days. It never really did, but at least it stopped raining. We were pretty cold from the rain and were excited to first jump in the water. Maybe I was also more excited to jump in since there were reef sharks circling the boat. Only four today compared to the 13 Kristen had yesterday.
We jumped in the water and tested our masks while a few sting rays and sharks swam through. And by through, I mean in ten feet of water, so it wasn't like they were thirty feet below us. Juni finally got in and immediately started making vibration noises with his hands. Juni does not feed the animals like almost all of the other snorkel guides. He doesn't need to. He is friends with these fish. The entire time he was in the water he had one fish (about two feet long) that swam with him. He took us through the beautiful coral reefs as we saw many different types of fish. The highlight was at the end of the hour snorkel, he somehow called over this massive sting ray and he was able to hold it and place it on top of each of us. You could see that the two of them had a bond. It was an experience to meet such a fish whisperer. After twenty minutes of playing with the four foot wide sting ray, we got back in the boat.
Our second stop was at a place where his friend clean conch shells. His friend has been doing this for thirty years also so there is an amazingly huge collection of huge sea shells at this spot. Kristen was cold so she stayed in the boat for the 15 minute snorkel. The shells were so high that you couldn't jump in, but had to slide into the water to avoid the shells and one of the three dozen sting rays. Wholly sting ray! They were massive and every where. There were also small nurse sharks and a huge beautiful turtle. They were all swimming within a few feet of me. It made spotting sting rays and turtles a joke yesterday compared to the marine life today. This stop was unlike any experience ever before. The shear number of sting rays and sharks was amazing. With the clouds out and the seas a bit rougher, the number was significantly down from what Kristen experienced the day previously. I can't even imagine more fish in this spot as there were soo many today.
Our third stop was further up the reef where we immediately saw a six foot grouper under the neighboring boat. It was the biggest fish I have ever seen. I'm not even sure I got it on video as I was so ah struck. Kristen later said that the previous day they swam through a school that size! Wow. Juni took us through more amazing coral: some you could barely float over as it was so tall. The purples really stood out despite the sun, but it wasn't as vibrant today without the sun. Along the way, Juni was able to attract a moral eel out of the coral and he held it. What! Exactly, these fish just know him. Once again he had the same fish follow him for the entire hour snorkeling. The nurse sharks were not as abundant here either. I guess yesterday, Kristen got to hold the baby sharks and she had one swim with her for the hour! Juni continued to vibrate his fingers and hands attracting fish and stingrays. We also saw some beautiful eagle rays, one almost five feet wide. We also saw the biggest puffer fish which had to have been four feet long with a head the size of a basketball. We have seen our fair share of puffer fish on this trip, but this male was at least five times bigger than the biggest we had seen previous. Juni said sometimes the female is also there. On this snorkel we also saw the biggest barracuda that I have ever seen.
The water was warmer than the air temp (at least it felt that way), so it was cold when we got out of the water. Drew and I continued our role of keeping the front of the boat down as we started our cruise back to Caye Caulker. About half way there, I noticed some fins sticking out of the water, so Juni steered that way. Five dolphins came and swam right beside our boat! They were jumping out of the water and one was even throwing a fish out of its mouth and then catching it! He asked if we wanted to try and swim with them, which was a no brainer. Kristen, I and a girl from San Diego jumped right in. The water wasn't the clearest so we couldn't always see them, but we could hear them chirping at each other. It sounded just like you hear in the movies. We never got close enough to touch them, but what a great end to an awesome snorkel.
After resting for a few hours, Kristen was up for trying to walk to get some food. After a long wait at Bar Easy for some lobster, we left uneaten. The service and the environment stunk and I didn't want to wait there anymore. We went a few blocks down to Frans who is a lady who has three picnic tables on the sand with a guy grilling fish, chicken, and lobster. We sat at the only spot open and had an amazing conversation with a couple from London. We chatted for over an hour drinking our included rum punch. We eventually got our lobster, grilled vegetables, rice, baked potato, and a slice of strawberry cake. The more we stay on the island, the more we are enjoying it. The small island starts to feel small as we continue to recognize other tourists and continue to meet other amazing people from around the world.
We couldn't leave the island without another stop for some Belizean Ice Cream, so we enjoyed it on our walk home for the evening. We decided not to pack tonight as it was too sad to think about leaving tomorrow!
Day 79 - fly to Cleveland via AtlantaWe woke up at 630 this morning, made some coffee and packed our bags. Kind of sad to get our warm clothes back out! We packed early as we wanted to have breakfast out at Glenda's. Luciana, the owner of our apartment, said it was the best on the island and she was right! We each had an omelet, beans, a cinnamon role, and coffee and we split a fry jack and OJ, all for $13! More than the bargain, it was absolutely delicious. I had never had beans for breakfast and Kristen just raved about hers. She now wants to make it in Portland. A Fry Jack is a fried bread sliced in half and stuffed with cheese, eggs, and beans! Best breakfast sandwich you can eat! What a great last meal on the island. We were going to be flying over lunch and didn't expect a US flight to include a meal. We were right! More on that in a second.
After breakfast we said our goodbyes and had a golf cart taxi take us to the water taxi. Here we chatted with the New Zealand couple who I dove with on Monday. They had another 10 days left on their 90 day vacation, so we enjoyed chatting with them on their explorations. Our flight left about 30 minutes late, but we have a three hour layover in Atlanta.
Being on an American owned plane again highlights how poor our airline service really is. I cannot comment on the safety rating of the US carriers vs the world, which is obviously the most important aspect of flying. However, I can only remember one flight being delayed on take off thus far until today. Sure enough +Delta was 30 minutes late leaving Atlanta. Furthermore, we have had meals on almost every domestic and international flight on this trip, no matter the time of day. All international flights have had free alcoholic beverages too. Delta must not count this international flight as being long enough. All we got was a choice of biscotti, peanuts, or pretzels. I have mentioned in the past the great service we had with +LAN en Argentina when we had bad weather, which would never happen in the US. Additionally, we changed a few flights along the way for under $50. No way we get that on the major US airlines. I am very happy to be coming back to what is the best country in the world. However, we are not the best at many things and airline service is one of them.
Landing in Atlanta was bitter sweet for us both. It was sad to stop exploring the amazing places we had visited, but it was also nice to turn on our cell phones and call home. We had the most amazing paninis and a quinoa salad in the Atlanta airport. I think we both are looking forward to more consistent quality food. We had amazing food on our journey, but I am not sure the average is better than our average meal in the US.
For photos click hereWe didn't take too many photos here since we videoed most of the underwater activity.