More bits of Belize

Having spent just over seven weeks in Belize it would not do it justice if I didn’t tell you about some of the things we did and saw when Dave and Maggie weren’t with us. They had the joys of Belize City airport [not sure what joys those might have been as we didn’t see it] but we certainly found it quite amusing to see the baggage claim at San Pedro airport [Ambergris Caye]…

and the runway on Caye Caulker…

I remember the days when Chris [sis] and I used to spend a week away in Greece and think it was great if there was a bar outside the airport which we could sit at, after check in, waiting to be called to the gate. Here in Ambergris and Caulker you can have whole islands to choose from as you only have to turn up in your golf cart about five minutes before the small plane goes and, there doesn’t seem to be much of a traffic jam to hold you up on the way….

This is the “main road” from the village of Caye Caulker to the airport – about a ten minute walk if you didn’t have the above mentioned golf cart.

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, life in Belize is certainly taken at a leisurely pace. You can wander for an hour or so around the larger cays [you can also wander around the small ones – as you saw in the previous blog – but this takes about five minutes] and come across really peaceful backwaters….

and around Placencia, on the mainland, there are some very pretty creeks to explore.

The two main creeks near to Placencia are Big Creek – a commercial port and a Port of Entry – which, incidentally, we didn’t use either coming into or leaving Belize and, Mango Creek which we did visit on our journey back from Belize City having said goodbye to Dave and Mag. Instead of the long four and a half hour bus ride I told you about previously, we decided to take a shorter bus ride [still three hours] from Belize to Independence, walk five minutes down the road to Mango Creek and finally catch the “Hokey Pokey” Water Taxi  from there to Placencia [about 20 minutes]. It really is called Hokey Pokey, quite why I’m not sure, but it was a great ride and we shared the taxi with school children and local ladies who had been to Independence for the day.

We had intended to return to Independence to catch a land taxi, or walk, to Big Creek to clear out but as I said above, in the end we didn’t use Big Creek so we missed out on the chance of seeing more of Independence which might have been a fun thing to do for half a day as it seemed like a very friendly local small town.

We didn’t, in fact, see as much local life as we might have liked. That’s not to say that the Cays and Placencia weren’t “local”. It’s just that they were also aimed at tourism. We would have liked to visit more of the small towns and villages inland but we found that transport in Belize is quite an issue in that there isn’t very much of it. Other than the journey we made to Belize City and back just about the only journey we could have made by bus would have been to Punta Gorda in the south. We did consider it because there was a weekend chocolate festival held there about two weeks before we left but, as the tickets for the evening wine, music and chocolate “fest” had sold out, it didn’t seem worthwhile making the journey just for the daytime events as this would have involved the one and a half hour bus up the peninsular to Dangriga and then a further two hours down to Punta Gorda [obviously to be reversed to get back to the boat]. Even though we didn’t have tickets for the festivities we could still have stayed overnight to make it more worthwhile but who wants to visit a small town when everyone else in it is busy having fun in the event you can’t get into?

We did visit Dangriga a couple of times but, on both occasions, went by Siga Siga. That is to say that we sailed up to the Sanctuary Marina in Sapodilla Lagoon and then got a lift to Dandriga from a guy called John who, with his partner Lucy, has been employed by “Sanctuary” to manage the marina. Unfortunately, as yet there isn’t much of a marina to manage. It looks rather more like Stonehenge….

The first time we went we anchored in the actual lagoon which forms the approach to the marina and which has a clearly laid buoyed channel.

This channel is guaranteed at a minimum of 3metres deep. Apparently it was dredged to 4m and is 4m for most of it but some parts have refilled giving various depths along it between 3m and 4m. It was also rather concerning that whilst on our second approach I overheard two other boats on the radio talking to each other about waypoints into the lagoon as they hadn’t been before. So, I called them up and said something along the lines of “It’s OK. You don’t need to worry. As you approach you will see the start of the buoyed channel which will take you into and through the lagoon. It’s all clearly marked”. So, why was this concerning? Well, half an hour later when Mike and I got there and started to follow the buoys in I noticed that an outer green buoy had shifted considerably to starboard making the channel about ten feet wide around a small point bordered by mangroves. We took the route which we had taken previously and had saved as a track on our plotter but I was really worried about what had happened to the two other boats. I guessed that it couldn’t have been too bad as they weren’t there stuck in mud or anything and, in fact found out that they had indeed followed my advice and sailed right up next to the mangroves and had plenty of depth – but it could have been a very different story. We did tell John it had moved so hopefully it is now in the right place again [though I think he did say it was the second time that particular buoy had gone walkabout!].

Anyway, on our second visit we tied alongside what will eventually be the fuel dock. This was quite an interesting way to tie up but fortunately we have anti-chafe guards for our warps.

The marina is part of what is being billed as a residential and commercial complex. People are beginning to buy lots and build properties, but it is a vast undertaking and could so easily go wrong. If it works it will probably be a lovely place. Whilst staying at the partly built marina we were told we were free to go to use the pool at what will be the beach bar. Quite why they have filled and maintain the pool already wasn’t clear – maybe it is so construction staff can have a dip at the end of the day, though Mike cynically prefers the idea that it will encourage folk to buy a “lot”?

Anyway, we took a dingy ride down to it and had a nice laze around before chatting to the guys who are constructing the Palappa buildings which, we were told, can withstand a Category 2 hurricane!

The wood is “Logwood” and is very hard. It used to be used on British sailing vessels and then, along with Mahogany, was exported from this part of Belize by the British. The leaves to “thatch” Palappa buildings can be harvested twice every year but they only take leaves as they need them. The plant therefore survives and it creates a very environmentally friendly roofing material. It takes 5,000 leaves to cover the large hut and about 3 days to do the work and it was fascinating to hear about it and to watch the guys at work.

Later that evening we joined John and Lucy and some other cruisers for a “Pot Luck”.

This is something which we hadn’t previously done but it is a favourite “cruisers” get-together. OK – we have had friends aboard and joined them on their boats or at a small BBQ – but we haven’t before just turned up not knowing who will be there and not necessarily knowing anyone else. It is probably something we will have to get used to if we want to be sociable in the Rio Dulce this hurricane season as it is the kind of event which occurs approximately once a week in one marina or another. But that is for us to find out more about later and therefore for a future blog.

You may, or may not, be wondering why we twice went to an unfinished marina inside a windless, hot lagoon. Well, it’s all to do with weather and the good old law of Sod. As we approach hurricane season, on this side of the Caribbean at least, the weather has started to become changeable – the changes not necessarily being pleasant. It is already very hot [averaging 30-35 decrees C] which is actually OK if the humidity is low and/or there is a reasonable breeze to go with it. However, we have had increasing humidity which has caused considerable thunderstorm activity on a regular basis.

Whilst the thunderstorms were mainly over Honduras and Guatamala to the south, the gentler breezes from the NE were insufficient to hold off squalls attached to these storms which resulted in significant changes of wind speed and direction at almost no notice. Whilst sitting quietly in the cockpit anchored off Placencia one evening at around 10pm we suddenly found ourselves in 45k winds with the anchor dragging having been pulled out by the suddenness of wind [and therefore boat] direction change and the force of wind and wave. Along with this wind comes driving rain so you then can’t see the other boats around you to avoid them or to know whether they are on the move too. The amazing lightening is the only light but comes in blinding flashes which then leave you even more “blind”. A friend suggested that to help with seeing through the rain, quickly donning a snorkelling mask can help – but that wouldn’t really do much to help the eye adjust after being subjected to a searing white light.

We survived that event without hitting anyone or taking out any other boats anchor by catching their chain and on subsequent nights we watched other boats undergo the same procedure whilst, this time we held fast – though we needed to keep an eye on them in case they came our way.

A period of settled weather was then forecast so we decided to have a few days out at the Cays for snorkelling etc. It was so calm that we had to motor out to South Long Cocoa Cay and then, having decided to take a half hour between lunch and going snorkelling we watched as the wind rose a little ruffling the surface to the extent that we no longer fancied snorkelling as the water was more murky. We weren’t overly concerned because it was actually only 10-15k winds and from the NE. That is until about 6pm when the lightening started to the south and got closer and closer until Wham – the squall hit again. This time it was only 30-35k winds but still with driving rain and lots of lightening. Fortunately we held fast again – especially as this time we were almost surrounded by coral. To drag an anchor in a mud bottomed wide anchorage is one thing…to start dragging in a small coral anchorage is something else entirely. Anyway, the storm didn’t abate until after 2pm and we sat watch until then finally retiring for a restless night as lightening could still be seen and occasionally the wind rose a bit so I kept getting up to check the anchor alarm and just make sure all was well.

So, after all that, a hot, sticky, buggy lagoon feels to be the sensible rather than stupid option!

One good thing to come from all of this is that I rediscovered Irish Coffee…. well, not exactly Irish, but at 1.30am as the storm when we were on the reef quieted we decided a nightcap to rest the nerves might be a good thing and I opted to put my tot of rum into a cappuccino – so it was really a Belizean coffee – warm, soothing and very welcome.

Before scurrying off to Sanctuary it was quite calm enough again the following morning for a snorkel and we spent a pleasant half hour or so watching cuttlefish – which we haven’t seen before and which are quite funny as its difficult to tell whether they are swimming backwards or forwards and we were also hoping to swim with the manatee which had been around the anchorage the previous day. No manatee, so this remains on our wish list for another day.

A new animal which we did see in Belize was the Coati…

It took us a while to work out it was a Coati because a sign depicting “Animals/Reptiles you might see here” had a picture of an animal like the above but called it a Tapir. Something in my memory banks told me that Tapirs had more of a round pig-snout like nose, but I wasn’t sure and Mike was very clear about what the sign had said and we supposed that maybe Tapirs could have different types of snout. However, more research revealed another distinctive aspect of the Tapir is that they have a cloven hoof….hhhmmmm Sherlock, guess we don’t have a Tapir then. So, once again Google proved to be a wonderful thing and, eventually, we came across the Coati.

Perhaps one of the strangest things we saw on Cay Caulker was this phone….

It might not look like it but it is wired up and just sitting in the middle of the path?

But for strange occurrences then I must just tell you about an event we got caught up in about three hours before Dave and Mag arrived. As we approached the dinghy dock at around 9.30am laden with laundry and rubbish and a shopping list – to finish off our preparations a woman Police Officer approached. At first we thought she wanted to check our papers or something so were getting prepared to return to the boat for them when she asked if Mike could help by taking her, and a Social Worker, in our dinghy to this….

The wreck of a tug, lying rusting and bent apparently housed a family and Social Services were coming to take the four children into care. I just can’t image a family of six living here as the only reasonably intact bit is the small cabin area – but Mike went out to it and said that that is where they somehow “lived”. One of the two Social Workers stayed ashore and I engaged in conversation, eager to learn about the Belize system which, perhaps unsurprisingly is actually exactly the same as the British one. Well, if all else fails, I have found a job out here I am qualified to do….

Maybe it is because of Social Services, or maybe it is a cultural thing, but in actual fact there isn’t much evidence of abuse or violence or crime in Belize. I am sure that just as everywhere else there are pockets of it [Belize City perhaps being just that] but most families seem to be closely knit and enjoy each other’s company….

And there is a general sense of well-being in the places we have visited.

A final strange occurrence for this blog – at least I hope it is a strange rather than oft occurring event – is that over the radio one morning we heard our friend Stuart asking “anyone in Placencia who can hear this and knows about snakes please come in” followed by another radio call asking us if we had any idea about the snakes in Belize. I quickly accessed the Lonely Planet as that tells about “Dangers and Annoyances” and read that there are 60 types of snake in Belize of which 6 are poisonous but only 3 in a way to cause major concern [and even then there is antidote and, apparently a fairly lengthy amount of time to seek medical help]. Anyway I also switched the computer on as we had internet access on the boat at the time and typed in the names of the three snakes listed. One – apparently the most dangerous, the coral snake, was immediately discounted as the description Stuart had given was of a brown snake with hexagons and the coral snake is very brightly striped. The other two looked similar to each other except one had a rattle. We discounted that by speaking to Steph who, although petrified of snakes, had remained aboard to make sure she knew where it was whilst Stuart had gone ashore to get local help if possible. Although she didn’t want to look too closely or disturb it she was fairly sure there was no rattle [therefore not a Tropical Rattlesnake] and, as it didn’t appear to have a bright yellow “throat” either, that discounted the “Fer de Lance”.

So, we next looked at Constrictors and many of these were brown with hexagons so it looked like we had at least determined the type of beastie we were dealing with. [Note, I say “we” from the safe distance of several boat lengths!] Actually, I did offer to dinghy over to take Steph off her boat if she wanted and Mike quite likes snakes so was happy to go across but, by this time local help had arrived in the shape of a thirteen year old boy with an interest in nature and particularly reptiles who picked it up and took it away to live with one he already has to make a mating pair! It wasn’t quite that simple, as Stuart reported later that there was definitely a technique employed in picking it up and a warning that if not done correctly it could give a nasty bite and possibly “stick” due to the backwards facing teeth. It also transpired that the most likely appearance of the snake on board meant that it had been swimming along and come across the anchor chain and climbed it as it would a tree root and found a cleat to curl around and make itself at home.

You can imagine that talk around the beer bottles that night was about ideas for greasing anchor chains and/or having some contraption at the top snakes can’t get round. As regular readers will know, Stuart is quite good at inventing and making things so maybe we will let him come up with the anti-snake solution.

Hopefully, most cruisers will never come across anchor climbing snakes in Belize, but what they will all come across is shallow waters and, therefore, possibly some difficulties in accessing fuel and water. In actual fact, access to fuel and water hasn’t been easy for us and we have a draft which has allowed us to go to places which some of our friends haven’t been able to go, including some of the Cays and reefs. Anyway, even if a boat can get to Cay Caulker or Ambergris there is no accessible fuel dock, the fuel dock at Cucumber Marina in Belize is limited to boats 6ft draft and under, Dandriga only has fuel for carrying in jerry cans from the petrol station, as does Placencia at the moment as the original fuel dock is under reconstruction and, as far as I know there is no access at Punta Gorda either. We are not sure of the depth of the water around the new dock at Placencia – it is likely to be around 8-9ft we think. In the meantime, we decided that rather than make about five journeys by dinghy to the petrol station that we would try to motor about 5 miles up the lagoon behind Placencia to a new purpose built marina at the Robert Groves Resort [next door to where Moorings now have their base].

First of all we had to negotiate our way into the channel which took us over depths as little as five feet. We finally found the channel and maintained depths of around 8-10ft all the way up so were looking forward to telling Matador we had found somewhere they could also get fuel when we came to the final approach to the marina only to find a kind of “bar” at the entrance of about 7ft. They could probably have squeezed in [or perhaps squelched would be a better term over mud] but they might equally have stuck!

It is a very pretty new development, much smaller than the one planned at Sanctuary,

but there were only a couple of boats docked – perhaps hardly surprising at around £55 per night excluding electricity. The fuel dock wasn’t the easiest access we have come across and we were rather glad there were only light winds which were also blowing us off the quay when it came time to leave. The interesting large white pillar set up gave a nice cushion to the dock but as an alternative to cleats left a lot to be desired in the tying up operation.

It is perhaps beginning to sound a bit like a blog post of warnings and disasters what with dragging anchors and thunderstorms and snakes and the like…. but our memories of Belize will also be of beautiful anchorages like this one in San Pedro [Ambergris]…

and Placencia…

We will also remember those times when we did visit the Cays such as the two nights we spent at Lagoon Cay where we found excellent, sheltered holding, where there was really good snorkelling to enjoy all around the Cay and where Mike took lessons in fishing from the boat on the first evening…

…. though all they caught were small “Grunt”, so named because that’s exactly the noise they make, and from the dinghy the following night.

On this occasion Mike did catch a fish but even he said it was so ugly that it just had to be put back. He said it was more like a half lizard/half fish and we now believe it was something called a “Sand Diver” [ photo courtesy of google images]

And so, that is just about it for Belize. After a final beer run!………

…..we left Placencia on 7th May to spend a couple of nights in lagoon type anchorages as we made our way towards Guatamala. Whilst the second night spent at “New Haven” was secure and uneventful, we preferred “No name” lagoon for its peace and tranquillity

and perhaps, from the photo, you can see what I mean about the changing weather.

On 9th May, as well as it being our wedding anniversary, we celebrated sailing 10,000 miles since leaving Liverpool 2 years ago. It has been a fabulous two years and we have been to places we had never really heard about, never mind dreamt of, and we are sure that new adventures, sights and memories await us as we make our way to the Rio Dulce…..

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