On Tuesday we left Tulum and headed for the Mexico/Belize border. We caught a local bus from Tulum to Chetumal. This took about 4 hours but luckily we had a stop where there were local ladies selling tacos. Not too bad for a bus snack! We had all opted to cross the border on the island of San Pedro then on the mainland. This option gave us a little bit of free time on the island and also what is suppose to be a much easier border to cross.
Once we arrived in Chetumal we had some spare time so grabbed some lunch, tacos of course, before catching taxis to the port. At the port we exited from Mexico and boarded our boat to San Pedro. The boat wasn't very big but the ride was only about 1.5 hours.
San Pedro is the island that Madonna wrote La Isla Bonita aka "last night I dreamt of San Pedro", so we all had high expectation for a beautiful Caribbean island. We arrived in the port and went through immigration to enter Belize. We had about an hours spare time so wandered the very short distance into town. Unfortunately the town was really nothing fantastic. It was filled with golf carts and shops and wasn't the tropical island we had all dreamt of. Apparently other parts of the island are a lot nicer but we didn't have time to explore them. After a coffee it was time to get back on the boat to Caye Caulker. It was only about a 45 minute ride before we arrived but we had a beautiful sunset as we traveled along.
Caye Caulker is a tiny island situated next to the second largest reef in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It is only a small island and very laid back. We walked to our hotel which was on the waterfront. There are no cars allowed on the island so we only had to watch out for the odd golf cart zooming around. We dropped off our bags and then headed out for a walk around. For dinner we went to Roses Grill. Out the front before we sat down we selected our dinner from the stack of seafood next to the grill. I had a delicious fish kebab and Alex had a huge lobster. It was so tasty and fresh out of the sea only a few hours earlier.
On Wednesday all of our group had decided to do a sailing and snorkeling tour. After a good breakfast we met our captain, Papa Joe and headed to the dock to find our beautiful sailboat. We had to wait a bit for everything to be ready so we sat on the pier dangling our feet in the warm water. There were so many fish in the crystal water it was great to watch and made us all excited about what else we were going to see that day. We then noticed what we thought was a rock moving on the bottom. On closer inspection we could see the rock appeared to have little flipper feet and was walking along. It was a really strange looking creature with no visible head slowing crawling along the bottom. We asked Papa Joe what it was called and he told us it was a highly poisonous fish call the Bat Fish but we all decided Bad Fish was a much better name. It was definitely a very unusual and ugly looking creature.
We soon set off on our boat using the motor as there was not much wind at that time. We sailed through the beautiful aqua water until we reached the reef and our first stop of the day. This was our practice snorkel to get use to the currents and equipment before we headed to more dangerous spots. We all got kitted out and jumped into the water. I was last off the boat and was just about to follow the rest of the group when I saw something like a plastic bag float right past me. Turns out it was a Portuguese Man Of War jellyfish so I was really lucky to narrowly avoid it. The current was super strong in this spot so we had to constantly keep swimming to stop drifting back and onto the coral reef. The coral was beautiful but there weren't too many fish around.
After about 1/2 an hour we headed to our next stop, Shark and Ray Alley. When we arrived there though there were half a dozen other boats so we decided to head to our 3rd stop and stop back here on the way back. We were able to see some huge sharks in the water as we sailed along though which got some of us a bit nervous.
At our second spot we got ready and hopped in the water. The first few people got a huge fright though after hopping in and finding a massive grouper under the boat which slowly came out and swam around us. We then headed off with the guide for him to show us around and give us a tour. Firstly he lead us over to where a Sea Turtle was munching on some plants on the sea floor. He was just walking around having some lunch and it was so great to be able to watch him for a bit before he swam off. We then got to see a huge array of different fish including a green moray eel, barracuda, parrot fish, snooks, snapper, jacks and many more species. It was amazing to get so close to so many amazing fish swimming amongst stunning coral. We swam for about 45 minutes before returning to the boat for lunch. We had delicious fish burgers with fresh fruit while we watched the fish swim around the boat.
It was then time for Shark and Ray Alley. It doesn't take a genius to work out what this entails but it is a huge gathering spot for reef sharks and sting rays. When we arrived most of the other boats had left so we had the place to ourselves. Nervously we hopped in and it wasn't long before there were some small reef sharks and rays swimming around us. Our guide caught a sting ray and allowed us all to touch it and see it up close. We were all very careful though to avoid the stinger. He even caught a small reef shark after which when turned upside town was very motionless. The grey nurse shark was quite rough to touch but as he was small it wasn't too bad and surprisingly not very scary.
David our tour leader then thought it would be funny to start feeding some of the other fish and he soon learned that if he threw the food near us it would cause schools of fish to ram into you. So we all got up close and personal with some of the other fish in the area. We then noticed under the boat a massive Sting Ray that must of been close to 2m in diameter. Luckily it stayed on the bottom but it was amazing to see. I would have loved to take more photos but not having an underwater camera really restricted us. It is really something I would love to get for future trips so it is already on my Christmas list :-)
After swimming for a while amongst such amazing sea creatures it was time to head back to shore. I thought it would be really scary swimming in the open water with potentially dangerous creatures but it was really fun and exhilarating. On the way back the sails were put up and rum punch was served which made for a very relaxing and fun trip back. Some of the boat hands were fishing off the back of the boat and Sergio a guy in our group went to fish as well. Just as we were coming through the split in Caye Caulker he landed a big Barracuda. It was quite a big one and you don't want to get too close to the sharp teeth on them but it was cool to see one up close.
After our awesome day out we headed back for showers before heading to the split to watch the sunset with some drinks. After the sunset we noticed some of the tables for the bar were in the sea so you could sit in the ocean at a table to enjoy your drinks. Despite none of us having swimwear with us we tried out the seats, trying to be careful not to get too wet. We then headed to a beach side restaurant for some dinner and drinks. Alex and I shared an absolutely delicious whole snapper.
After dinner everyone was in high spirits so we headed to the islands karaoke bar. It was basically empty when we arrived so our group took over the mic with fantastic renditions of Copacabana, Roxanne, Ice Ice Baby and of course La Isla Bonita. It was a really fun night and topped off a perfect day.
Unfortunately on Thursday we had to leave Caye Caulker. After breakfast we caught a ferry to Belize City. It only took 1.5 hours to reach Belize City where we grabbed our luggage and headed straight to the bus station. The city didn't really impress me to much from the small amount I saw and I was glad not to be hanging around there too long.
As soon as we got to the bus station we jumped on the next bus heading to San Ignacio. This bus was an old converted USA school bus so we piled our bags at the back and got some seats. We were initially worried about the heat but as soon as we started driving and got some airflow through the bus it was fine. The bus ride took about 4 hours to reach San Ignacio. Luckily we had a quick stop in the capital of Belize, Belmopan which allowed us a toilet break and a chance to buy some lunch.
We arrived in San Ignacio in the late afternoon and checked into our hotel on the main tourist street. We had a bit of free time so Alex and went for a walk to get some money out and for a coffee frappe. We met up with the rest of the group and were briefed on the activities for the next day available to us. We then went for a walk around town, which isn't that big so didn't take too long. We crossed the river to Santa Elena the town on the other side of the bridge for dinner. They are famous for their barrel grills here so we had a great meal of BBQ chicken, coleslaw, rice and beans.
On Friday all our group had decided to visit the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) caves. The caves haves been listed as #1 in the Top 10 Sacred Caves to visit category by National Geographic (http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/top-10/sacred-caves/). So after breakfast we met Gonzo our guide. We drove through some extremely bumpy roads for over an hour to reach the carpark of the caves. Here we got kitted out with helmets and head lamps. As we would be going through caves and water we had to leave everything in the jeeps. As some of the artifacts have been damaged in the past from incidents with cameras we were also all banned from taking cameras into the cave. We then headed to the entrance of the cave about 1/2 an hour walk through the jungle with a few river crossings. After a bit of pineapple we were ready to head into the cave. Luckily for us the head archeologist Jaime Awe who studied the cave was there and gave his group and our group a bit of a briefing about his involvement and the protection of the cave and the decision to leave all the artifacts in place in the cave rather then remove them. He was filmed back in 1992 for the National Geographic documentary, "Journey Through the Underworld" so was a pretty interesting guy to listen to and learn from.
We reached the entrance of the cave where we had to dive into a pool of water and swim across 10m to the side of the cave. The water was quite cold so it was a shock at first. For the next 5 hours we explored the caves wading through water which ranged from ankle depth to chin depth. I was actually pretty happy for my height as if I was much shorter there would have been more parts I would have needed to swim through. After about 3 hours we reached the main cavern which involved climbing up a large rock into the cavern above. Up here we needed to remove our shoes and just wear socks in to protect the artifacts. We entered through a small opening to discover a huge cavern. All over the floor was pottery and bones. We were literally walking right next to these artifacts in the original place and location they were left and later discovered by archeologists. We were shown where a river use to flow through the cave and this was where Mayans performed religious ceremonies to please their gods. They use to also sacrifice people in this cave so after a while we climbed up a ladder in the back of the cavern to a higher platform. Here we were able to see 3 skeletons. The first one had a deformed skull which was common practice during Mayan times. The last skeleton was the most impressive as it had crystallised over time through the minerals in the cave and caused it look like a crystal skeleton. This has become quite famously known as the "Crystal Maiden" although know it is known to actually be the skeleton of a young boy. It was amazing to see and a bit disappointing that we couldn't take photos to show other people but if you are interested there are plenty online.
The cave itself was pretty impressive with a huge roof and stalactites and stalagmites. Before heading back we explored one last area which involved squeezing through a small hole on our stomachs. In here we were able to see a babies skeleton. After this we were all pretty exhausted after being in the cave for so long without food, a bathroom and being wet for so long. We headed out of the cave through a different path where the water was a bit deeper in sections. It was really hard to believe that the Mayans would have entered the cave thousands of years ago with nothing but torches to perform ceremonies. It was a really interesting insight into their life and also of the archeologists that discovered it, studied it and decided to leave everything in place for people to experience it in its original environment rather then behind glass in a museum.
We left the cave and had a well deserved lunch before heading back to town. After showers and a change of clothes we all headed out to a local restaurant for dinner. Both Alex and I got pork ribs which were pretty tasty.
Belize was an interesting country to visit and learn about. As a member of the commonwealth it has the queen on their money and strong ties to the UK. While it is a small country (approx population 350,000), it is very multicultural and has a lot of immigration so you have indigenous people, Caribbean people, Chinese people, African people, British expats, Amish and Mennonites all living together. It creates a weird melting pot but it works. It is a very beautiful country with lots of rural influences. For such a small country it provides lots of contrasts but I'm very glad we got to visit it.
Next stop Flores, Guatemala for the archeological site of Tikal!