Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
our backpacks on for the first time. Tom performed with his sister Kira at the Bitter End last night, and we had an 8am flight from Newark, so we haven't had much sleep.
We picked an easy, English-speaking country to start in, so we could get off on the right foot. Customs and immigration were no problem, as they're used to American tourists on dive vacations. We were a day early for our Slickrock adventure trip, so when we reached our hotel we booked a trip to Lamanai for tomorrow. Then we walked downtown as the rain started we happened upon BTL, the telephone company and internet provider. We went in to send a few emails, but they only had IE2, and our webmail wouldn't work. Tom did a bit of emergency surgery and got us limping along, but we didn't have much time before they closed at 6.
We walked to Fort Street for dinner, and got caught in a downpour - good thing we had our umbrella. Everyone is very friendly in Belize - we had a delightful waitress at Fort Street. We dined on delicious grilled lobster and full-on shrimp curry with all the fixins.
The taxi drivers are all gregarious, handing out cards right and left. Of course, with the unemployment so high, everyone is trying to get ahead, and the taxis are competing for your business, but it seems like a pretty friendly competition. Most people we came in contact with were particularly helpful and conversational.
river ride for about 20 miles. Immediately, our guide Mario took us to visit 2 howler monkeys. We fed them bananas from our hands. As we continued down the river, Mario amazed us as he spotted an unbelievable number of birds including great blue herons, egrets, jacanaus, and many, many more. Surprisingly. we enjoyed all of the bird-watching.
The ruins consisted of three main areas displaying buildings from 500 BC to 1120 AD. The entire 850 acre archeological reserve is covered by lush, green rain forest. As we entered the jungle it started to rain, but we didn't get too wet because of the layers of canopy. Suddenly we heard eerie, loud howls through the jungle. We timidly asked the guide, and found that the sounds were from howler monkeys which we later saw in the trees.
We were fascinated to learn about the history and how advanced the Mayan culture was throughout its centuries of existence. Mario delivered an unending amount of information about the Mayans, including a detailed overview of their calendar, which was much more accurate than ours.
The evening included an orientation meeting with Slickrock. a group trip to purchase rum for the week, and dinner at the [pt blzcty Chateau Caribbean] with the other 10 on the trip, including another honeymoon couple. Our sleep was only slightly disturbed by an energetic Christian revival meeting in Spanish approximately 25yds from our first floor window.
We met our Slickrock group again for breakfast at Fort Street, and then loaded the boat for Long Caye. The rain was still falling, so we crowded under the cover a bit. Murphy struck us here: one of the twin 250s broke down 1/2 hour out. Amazingly, cellphones seem to work nearly everywhere in Belize, so they called to book another boat, and we limped back to Belize City. We had a bit of work unloading and reloading, but we were soon back on our way.
We arrived at [pt 335 Long Caye] at about 11:30, and ate a quick lunch. The weather had cleared considerably by the time Rachel, our guide, showed us around the island. They are completely "off the grid", with a solar and propane kitchen, composting toilet, and captured rainwater for drinking. The cabanas are on stilts practically over the ocean, to catch the refreshing breezes blowing through. We claimed the last cabana in the line (a bit more privacy), and set about rearranging it - they all had two rough homemade single beds, and that simply won't do for a honeymoon. We ended up stacking the beds and moving the mattresses on to the porch.
We rented snorkel gear at the dive shop on the island - the only other people there - and Rachel took us all for a shake-down snorkel. All 12 of us waded out to a patch reef about 100yds off shore and headed out. Almost immediately we were surrounded by colorful fish and coral. We did not try to identify most of them, but we saw parrot fish and angels (including one huge queen angel) and zebras and lots more. Like swimming in an aquarium.
After an hour or so Louisa started to get cold (in 80 deg water!), so she headed in with another woman, and the rest followed shortly thereafter. We rinsed off and then regrouped for "cocktail hour" before dinner. The meals are good - plentiful and filling. We all headed to bed early, so we could get up early and take advantage of the sunlight hours.
We started around 7 with a big breakfast and a short post-breakfast nap, and then gathered for kayak lessons. Rachel showed us the basics of paddling, getting into and out of the kayak, and rescues, and we practiced for most of the morning. Our heroes had no trouble getting comfortable with wet and dry exits, entries, and rescues. We then went for a short paddle, out and around a small patch reef, and came back for lunch.
After lunch Tom asked Rachel for a quick refresher in kayak rolling, as it had been 9 years since he'd tried one. They spent half an hour in the water, practicing hip snaps, paddle placement, and finally rolls in both a small river kayak and the larger sea kayak. Tom was able to do them almost immediately, showing that he didn't forget much.
After a short break, we headed over to the dive shop for our afternoon dive. We rode out with Dan & Val, Beth & Brian, & Dan from Texas to dive the Long Caye Wall. We basically saw more of the same amazing fish we saw snorkeling, only a somewhat larger. Diving the wall is a bit unsettling - you know that there's no land underneath you for thousands of feet - and it's easy to get disoriented because it's hard to tell up from down. We swam through some awesome coral tunnels, too. Now we're spoiled - all diving should have colorful fish, huge coral formations, and no more than a 5 minute boat ride.
After another hearty breakfast all of us hopped into our kayaks and paddled north to another patch reef. Again we were amazed at the number of beautiful fish everywhere. The visibility was great in the clear blue water and sunny skies. Tom spotted a southern ray nestled in the sand, but it noticed us, lifted off, and "flew" off into the distance. On the way back, Tom showed off a bit by rolling his sea kayak several times.
Lunch was amazing tuna sandwiches, with all the fixins, on homemade bread. We ate so much we needed a nap in the early afternoon to recover.
In the late afternoon we went for a dive with Divemaster Daniel, chauffeured by Captain Topsy, who would shoot through the reef at mach speeds. Daniel took us to the [pt ABYSS Abyss], just around the corner from the island. It was unbelievable! The schools of fish everywhere made it seem as if we were swimming in clouds of fish. The wall drops off sharply here, going from 40ft deep to thousands right away, so we swam along and saw huge fans and brain coral as well.
Dinner was fresh speared hogfish and grouper, thanks to Elmo. With a mayonnaise sauce and some baked plantains on the side, we ate far too much once again. To top it off, we had chocolate fondue for dessert! Mmmm - fresh banana and pineapple dipped in thick chocolate. And we thought we'd lose weight traveling!
We had some terrific post-dinner entertainment. A Texan named Bill is a wonderful magician. He performed a number of head-scratching illusions for us, including making cards appear in other people's pockets and drawing a string through a solid gold ring. Ashley then attempted to equal Bill's show with her demonstration of the bar game "Mandarin Numbers," and then everyone got into the act. All of this activity kept us up rather late, so we headed off to bed at 9:30.
The day started with a long (5 mile round trip) tandem kayak to Middle Caye, a neighboring island in the atoll with a marine biology laboratory. On the way back we snorkled at a patch key where, yet again, we saw many great fish including a giant, colorful angel fish. The kayak back to Long Caye was into a strong headwind - which is a great time to be in a tandem! A large ray glided under our kayak at one point. As we entered the bay Elmo challenged us to a race back to the beach, even though he was handicapped by Nolan (an energetic 6-year-old) and a double kayak. It was a photo-finish with Elmo, the one-man-wonder pulling out a victory. We were exhausted, but laughing.
After lunch we joined Elmo on his daily fishing trip. We snorkled behind and watched as he speared lobster and found conch. Tom joined in by picking up a large conch during the snorkel. We also saw a spotted moray eel (very cool!), a three-foot nurse shark, and many starfish.
The afternoon ended with a hysterical volleyball match between the visitors and the islanders. More hot air was flying between the two sides than volleyballs, with Elmo and Tom the ringleaders. After a blowout by the islanders in the first game, the visitors tied it up, and took the trophy with a win in the third game 18-16.
Dan and Val had requested a demo of the cool lightweight tent that we were toting, so we set it up for them before dinner. Everyone was appropriately impressed.
Dinner was fresh-caught lobster! Leticia (the cook) outdid herself, grilling up 30 spiny lobster tails, fresh garlic butter, and homemade bread. We gorged ourselves, and still couldn't eat them all.
Some folks had missed Bill's magic show of the previous night, so he did a reprise, with mostly new tricks. We were exhausted, but the show was worth staying up for.
Our last morning on the island we took one more dive to The Garden, another spot off the wall a few hundred feet from our cabana. On this dive, we saw a huge eagle ray and a sea turtle! The 6ft eagle ray flapped serenely toward us, but turned around about 20 feet away. A little later, Daniel spotted a turtle and motioned us to stay put, while he swam around and chased it toward us. We were delighted when it swam slowly under us an arm's length away.
Afterwards we tried surf kayaking, which Tom mastered quite quickly while Louisa mastered finding the largest rocks on the bottom of the ocean (ouch!). The time for our departure arrived quickly, so we took a round of group photos with the entire gang and said our good-byes.
The ride to Dangriga with Bill and Dan was just under 2 hours in a small open boat - the sun was fierce. In Dangriga we met up with our two guides, Darren and John, our fearless driver, Tomas, and picked up Cindy, the new arrival from NYC. We drove inland to the Caves Branch river where we stayed at Ian Anderson's Jungle Camp. During the drive a coatimundi sauntered across the road, for our first sighting of a jungle animal. The tropical jungle is an indescribable green, very lush and beautiful. Ian's showers are reminiscent of Gilligan's Island architecture. Each one has thatched sides and roof with the water pumped up into a metal pail with hoes punched into the bottom. The camp has had one jaguar incident. but we didn't see any. The howler monkeys barked and moaned during the dusk hours which created a complete jungle ambiance (think Halloween sounds).
After a healthy breakfast, we headed off on "roads" through orange orchards to the put-in at the Blue Hole (not the famous one in the middle of the Belizean Cayes, but a tributary river of the Caves Branch). This river is not often run - Slickrock is the only operator - so the caves aren't even named. At the end of the day, after referring to them as caves 1 through 4, we decided Slickrock needed a little marketing help, and came up with the names that we use here. Who knows, they might even stick!
The put-in is a small pool - puddle almost - in the middle of the forest between orchards. We inflated the raft and "duck" (an inflatable kayak) and launched without really seeing any exit. Hidden behind a rock, however, was a low entrance to a cave - the raft just barely fit as we dragged it through. When we turned on our headlamps for our first view of Tommyknocker Cave, we were treated to intricate and fragile cave formations all around us. We also saw lots of bats, tiny ones, fluttering around and sleeping in the folds of the "curtains".
All four caves shared many of the same formations, created as calcium carbonate precipitates out of water moving across the surface. Stalagmites and stalactites are the most common, forming from dripping water, and when they collide they form a column that is usually somewhat hourglass shaped. On relatively rare occasions, when water drips just the right way, it forms a soda straw - just like one from McDonald's but made of stone. We saw several of these, some almost a foot long.
Water flowing smoothly and slowly over stone can create flowstone that looks like a petrified river. If the water bubbles or is rapid, it can create an almost woven look called travertine. And if the water runs slowly down the wall, it can create an amazing rippled effect that often resembles curtains.
We floated and paddled our way through Tommyknocker Cave, occasionally getting out and pushing or carrying the raft over sandbars. The water rarely got fast, giving us plenty of time to admire the formations. There were occasional windows to let daylight in, but we were glad to have our headlamps. As the cave opened to the jungle again, we paddled to avoid the vines that gave the cave its name - the deadly tommyknocker snake has been seen in these vines, and we didn't want to be anywhere near them.
After a short sunlit paddle through the jungle, we entered Confluence cave, so named because it contains the confluence of the tributary we were on and the main Caves Branch river. This one had more moving water, and required a bit more attention to our paddling.
Because these caves have a river running through them, they are particularly damp, and formations grow quickly. However, the rivers also flood occasionally, so the formations are often washed away. We were able to see a lot from the raft, but we also got out and took a short hike in Confluence Cave to get closer to some of the more beautiful ones.
After Confluence Cave the river goes into a sump, so we had to portage about 1/4 mile through the jungle. Tom carried the duck, while the others helped to deflate the raft and carry gear. Most of the gear was moved in one trip, so the portage did not take long. Legend has it that jaguar tracks are often found along this trail, but the only tracks we saw were from a large dog. We did get to see a colony of leaf-cutter ants clearing a section of the jungle, which was almost as good.
We then put in and immediately headed into Jaguar Walk Cave. This one was much larger, and required even more attention to our paddling. Some of the rooms were quite large, and our headlamps created huge gloomy shadows on the ceiling. We were a little ahead of schedule, so we made a small detour into a side cave, traveling through a low passage that required us all to lie down on the bottom of the raft. Once inside, the room opened up, and we floated in a tranquil pool with tiny worms hanging from the roof. We all turned out our lights, and in the intense darkness that resulted, Tom startled everyone with evil, maniacal laughter. With complete absence of light, your eyes start playing tricks on you, and you start "seeing" flashes here and there.
After exiting Jaguar Walk Cave we stopped on a rocky "beach" for lunch. Of course, just as we were making the tuna salad, the heavens opened and it poured rain. We ran for a nearby overhang, and watched the rain as we filled our bellies.
The best was saved for last. Travertine Cave contains an amazing waterfall inside the cave, where another tributary joins the Caves Branch. The rushing water has created an entire waterfall of stone, in the intricate travertine pattern. Amazingly cool - worth the entire trip.
We finally pulled up to the take out, deflated the boats, and changed into dry clothing for a trip to the zoo. The zoo has a funny story: in the 70's someone came to Belize to do an animal documentary, and purchased (and partially tamed) over 20 funky animals. Funding dried up before shooting, however, so they decided to start a zoo instead. We saw some cool cats: jags, pumas, and ocelots. We also saw sleepy crocs, a very active otter, an ugly tapir, a huge 5ft tall stork, and a colorful toucan.
After the zoo we headed up to Chaa Creek Jungle Camp for the night, with a short stop at Caesar's Place. At the store, we coveted a huge mahogany bowl that the proprietor said was not available at any price, and also considered buying some of the comfortable wooden chairs, but shipping was outrageously expensive.
Chaa Creek was fantastic! Comfortable cabins with twin beds designed to be pushed together. High pressure showers with amazing individual butane hot water heaters - very hot! And in the middle of the jungle, so there were lots of interesting sounds. Chaa Creek is definitely a return location!
After a hearty breakfast in the jungle at Chaa Creek, we met Neri, our local guide, and visited the ruins at Xunantunich. This was a wealthy Mayan city. Many archaeologists have studied and uncovered the amazing Mayan buildings. Our guide was excellent and even shared about an ancient ball game. While smaller than Lamanai in sheer size, Xunantunich conveys more about the Mayan culture since one entire square has been excavated to give a strong sense of the center of the city.
The Mopan river must be forded to get to or from the ruins. The ferry consists of a rather decrepit looking wood platform onto which you walk. or drive (one van). A man than cranks a wheel that works a pulley to cross the river. The entire process lasts about 8 minutes and you are safely delivered to the other bank of the river about 20 feet away.
We put the canoes in the Mopan river near the ferry for our paddle. The Mopan is relatively calm with a dozen rapids to maneuver. The weather cooperated with a sunny but not overly hot day. Inbetween rapids and the mad paddling, we observed humongous iguanas, birds and other animals. The hardestt rapids of the day werre at the lunch stop, the steep Clarissa Falls, we almost flipped on the final drop but stayed upight and took on LOTS of water. In essence we were sinking, but lucked out that it was the lunch stop so we pulled out of the river. The Clarissa Falls restaurant served up some good grub, and housed some amazing, tame parrots and a Toucan named Juliet.
We continued to paddle down the Mopan after lunch. Along the way we stopped to talk with some of the women and childdren washing clothes or playong along the banks of the river. At one point Dan was taking a picture of a huge iguana basking in the sun but neglected to steer his canoe. A yell from Cindy in the front alerted him that they were heading straiht for a patch of spiny bamboo. Survival instinct took over and they jumped ship.
On the return to Belze CIty we stopped at a Butterfly farm where they house 100's of butterflies of about 20 varieties. They explained the whole process from eggs to larvae to butterfly. At the larvae/caterpillar station, the owner pulled out a container with the larvae and a giant tarantula flew across the deck!
The day ended with dinner at JB's along the road to Belize City. British and US military troops hang out at JBs during their tours in Belize. The walls are adorned with signs painted by the troops.
recommends visiting the ruins at Caracol as well. :They are very remote, but worth the trip.
Our goodbye to Darren, Bill and Dan was a farewell breakfast. Bill graciously took our film and disk with digital pictures back to the states to mail to Louisa's Mom and brother. (They were received promptly. Thanks, Bill!)
On Darren's recommendation we tried out Belizean BBQ for lunch. Saturday seems to be BBQ day in Belize City. We picked a stand that was busy and fairly fly-free. It was delicious!
Flying to Antigua via Guatemala took the entire afternoon and evening. Our flight was late, so we ate dinner at the Guatemala City airport, while waiting for two Germans who were sharing the bus to school with us. We stayed at the Hotel Aurora which is charming. The architecture is very European with a beautiful courtyard surrounded by the rooms. We managed to communicate well enough in Spanish to get a room with one bed (cama matrimonial). However our initial interchanges in Spanish confirmed our need for Spanish school.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:54 2008 on