Thursday, 3 July 2014

'You better Belize it'


We rose early for a 5am bus bound for Belize City. After a few hours we were at the Guatemala-Belize border. As we walked the few paces over to this new country, instantly we felt a change... At Belize immigration there was a rather permanent looking sign reading; 'Welcome Prince Harry.’ Huh??! Is Prince Harry here? We found out that he had visited 2 years ago as part of the Diamond Jubilee tour. We were welcomed into the country by smartly dressed staff giving tourist information and handing out free maps. When we got back on the bus and continued our journey, looking out at our first bit of Belize, the signs; 'bump', 'slow down', 'car wash'... English... We had arrived in the first English speaking country in 8 months. What a comfort! It would take some getting used to though, not saying hola and gracias on autopilot.
Up until very recently, Belize was a British crown colony. The country's name was officially changed in June 1974, from British Honduras to Belize. Independence, as the new nation of Belize was achieved on September 21st, 1981 and a new independence constitution was introduced.
Nevertheless Belize has kept its strong British influence in many ways, none more prominent than our Queen appearing on their money; on every single note and coin.
Home from home then right…?!
Not quite…
We boarded the 10.30am boat to Caye Caulker Island and found ourselves amongst the locals; born and bred Caribbean locals; big mommas, sexy ladies looking like they are fresh from a n RnB music video, very cool looking guys with gold chains around their necks and seriously cute kids. Gorgeous syrupy voices were passing through our ears. It certainly felt like we had left Central America behind.

When arriving on the island, the first thing we saw was the sign 'Go Slow'- the motto of Caye Caulker. We were in fact told to go slow a few times during our short time here- apparently we still need to work on being more laid back! We thought we were pretty good…

A local toothless old Rasta called Gilbert escorted us to a hostel. We checked into 'Dirty McNasty's' - yep that was the name! - and it was in fact a bit Dirty McNasty...! Like England, Belize isn’t cheap therefore Dirty McNastys had to do. £21 plus tax per night for a private room. This is the max we try to spend per night in our budget.
Arriving post Semana Santa, it was very quiet. It reminded us of Utila, only calmer, cleaner and with an older community of people. Caye Caulker is a sand bar over a limestone shelf, measuring 5 miles long by less than 1 mile wide. Hurricane Hattie in the 60’s caused the island to split up. 'The Split' is in fact now a trendy place to hang out with a bar and is popular for swimming. There is a 'road' on the island but you only see a few golf carts running up and down, there isn’t 1 car. 


The colour of the water surrounding the island is unreal... We were so excited to get diving; our main purpose of coming here.

After doing our research and after some deliberation we decided to go the whole way, spend a bit more money and dive the famous Blue Hole. We were here in Belize, with our Advanced PADI under our weight belts, it would be rude not to!!
 We got picked up on the dock at 6.30am and began the 2 hour and 10 minute boat ride out to the Blue Hole. If you have seen any adverts for Belize, you have likely seen a stunning aerial view shot of a turquoise ocean with a perfect circle of midnight blue. It's their poster image. And quite rightly. A deep sink hole; 1000 feet wide by 460 feet deep. The circle is the coral reef. It was formed in the ice age; when it was originally land and when the ice melted, the sea level rose. The pressure of the water caused a collapse of this hole. A natural phenomenon. And we were diving it!

The boat was a mixture of snorkelers and divers. There were about 8 divers which was good; anymore and it can get crowded. About 10 minutes away we geared up and checked our equipment. After giving the dive shop our measurements over the phone the day before and telling them that we had the same size fins, we discovered that Kyle's were too large a size. When asking the rather macho Belizian dive masters for a smaller size, they simply said 'but men have bigger feet than women'... As if Kyle must be mistaken!! 'Yes, but that's generally speaking, there are exceptions' I piped up... He got his head around this shocking fact finding some more suitable fins and we were soon in the water!
It was going to be a short dive; with a maximum depth of 45 metres(!) - before this, the deepest we had been was 30m...we were going to the limit for recreational diving- going deeper means you use up air faster. We descended fast, I was a little nervous that I wouldn't have enough time to equalise my ears properly. The dive masters had strictly said in our briefing that we should surface if the descent is not going well.. However, down and down we went without troubles. We were descending down 'the drop off' as Finding Nemo would say. 

There wasn’t much sign of marine life. We were very alone as it got considerably colder and darker... I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit scared. Once we had hit 40m it was quite gloomy, particularly looking out towards the centre of the hole. In this deep blue nothingness what appeared was the unmistakable silhouette of a Black Tip Shark!! 

It was hard to believe our eyes; our first ever shark sighting! 

We made our way under an over hang of the wall and swam among vast stalagmites and stalactites. Our total dive time was just 25 minutes. Once back in the boat and discussing the size of the shark, I was shocked to discover that it was actually a lot bigger than I thought. Because there was nothing else down there it was difficult to get a sense of distance. I put my arms out to Kyle ‘It was about this big right?!’ No, no, it was a good few metres. Oh.

We made our way across the hole, trying to get the perspective standing on the bow. At this point, it would have been awesome to fly up into the air and look down on where we were and see that famous aerial viewpoint.

Tank number 2 was our best dive to date...'Half Moon Caye'- never to be forgotten. We were so excited to have seen one shark in the Blue Hole, we were not prepared for this... We found ourselves swimming with 5 or 6 sharks! They were pretty friendly, getting nice and close to us! By the end it was 'oh there's another shark..!' Surprisingly the fear factor of the sharks was nothing compared to the fear that the huge barracudas generated; they got me breathing very fast! They have very menacing faces with rather sharp pointy teeth and they keep themselves very still in the way that they swim. At one point Kyle spotted a barracuda that was swimming directly towards me, I was looking down, oblivious to the fact I was going to crash head first into it. He caught my attention at the last minute and I had the shock of my life!! For the whole dive I wasn't able to take my hands off my heart.

Another highlight was when we heard the dive master frantically banging his tank to get our attention, we swam quickly through a tight valley of coral and popped out on the other side to find a big beautiful spotted eagle ray, a few sharks and a barracuda all swimming right in front of us! If this wasn't enough, we watched some stingrays taking off from the sand bed, a great big lobster mmmmm... some black durgeons and a lone turtle leisurely floating around! You can't help but put the Finding Nemo characters onto them; 'righteous dude!'
It was mind blowing!! We definitely went through our air a little quicker than normal!

After an excitable morning it was time for a slap up lunch on a deserted paradise island... Need I say more... Belize certainly has a lot going for it!

We had tank number 3 after this in a dive site they call 'The Aquarium'. In the superb viability there were loads of tropical fish to feast our eyes on and I was very chuffed to spot a hawksbill turtle. Hooray!

The boat back was very enjoyable. We were supplied with unlimited rum punch whilst basking in the sunshine. Excellent! We arrived back at the dock around 4pm very over excited and a little tipsy!

On our first two nights, we met up with Andi and Katarina whom we had met in Finca Tatin in Guatemala, along with Carol and her little dog Bella Ray. They were staying on the island in Carol's house. Carol was away in the States and after getting in contact with her, invited us to stay after Andi and Katarina were to leave. We caught up over beers watching the sunset and enjoyed some tasty Belizian meals, devouring tasty jerk chicken from the BBQ and we drank lots of rums (I found myself quite partial to the ‘panty ripper’; a rum and pineapple concoction).

After two days of hostel living we moved into Carol's sweet little colourful bungalow.

We really took advantage of having our own space, cooking one night which was so novel and spending one afternoon blogging on the porch.

During our time on the little island we befriended a gorgeous little puppy. Flee ridden and with no collar, we assumed he was a stray. We decided to take him to the animal rescue centre and pay for him to be sprayed. Unfortunately when we turned up, the guy in charge, Kenny, told us that the puppy did actually belong to a lady. She breeds lots of dogs, doesn't care for them at all and trys to sell them to the tourists.


This place was no different to almost every other country we had visited in terms of the abundance of stray animals. We ended up reluctantly letting our dear pooch go and going into the animal home to have a look around. It looked a bit like a building site; very run down, with just one inside room where Kenny lived; consisting of a bed and ‘kitchen’ area. There were many cats and dogs running about and we were introduced to some of them including a tiny dog called Godzilla. Kenny then showed us a couple of very fresh 20 day old kittens. We were in love!


He was keeping this place running by donations alone; caring for so many animals and giving them away for adoption to suitable homes. A very tough job. We gave him a small contribution and left, feeling frustrated at how far away home was from here for bringing those little kittens back with us. Impossible…

We spent our last day enjoying the island's quirks and soaking it all in.

One of the island's many Chinese supermarkets!

Simple things!

In true Hannah and Kyle fashion, our travel day to the border was a slightly stressful one…After delays with the ferry back to Belize City and then further waiting for our bags to come which were on a different boat, we got a taxi to the bus station. We weren’t entirely clear on the buses we were getting, in fact, we had no clue. We found ourselves waiting with a large crowd of locals, the only travelers again, ‘cuing’ behind a gate waiting for a bus to arrive. When it did, the gates opened and it was a mad scrum, children almost being trampled, old ladies nearly toppling over. We joined the rest of them, sticking our elbows out and making it our mission to get on that chicken bus. These buses didn’t come often and we had quite some distance to cover that day; we couldn’t afford to miss this bus. Some of the guys were trying to convince us to put our backpacks in the storage underneath…we are not that stupid…
Thanks to Kyle’s determination we managed to bag 2 back seats, putting our precious bags behind us. Phew! Belize had recently passed a law that you cannot stand in the isle of a bus; when all the seats are taken, no more are allowed on. This is to prevent overcrowding. By the sounds of things, buses might have reached dangerous levels in the past. This law was loosely paid attention to in that if they pass a police check point, the bus conductor tells everyone who is standing to get down…?!
During this 4 hour bus, the conductor came round to us for payment and she very kindly informed us (in case we didn’t know – we didn’t), that at the border there was an exit taxi of $37.50BZ each. Ah…we didn’t have enough money…
First question – can we pay by card? No. Second question – is there a cash point at the border? No. Third question – what shall we do?
The plan was made. In the next hour and a half we were to pass through a town with a cash point. Kyle is to run out whilst leaving me with the bags and try and get money out. If he is takes too long the bus will not wait for him and it will leave and he is to get a taxi (it’s not a busy town – taxi’s are hard to come by) and race to the bus station where the bus is taking a longer stop of about 5 minutes…If he doesn’t make it I have to somehow stall the bus and failing that, get off the bus with the bags and be…well..stuck…
The hour and a half to that town was pretty nervous!! But, thank goodness, the cash machine behaved and Kyle was as quick as a flash. He gave the conductor a tip to say thanks for waiting…
The rest of our drive to the Mexican border went without a hiccup. Back we were going to the Spanish speaking world…MEXICO!!! Bye bye Belize; thanks for topping up our tans!

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