You better Belize it! and on to the Rio Dulce of Guatemala…..

March 4th – March 17th, 2015 (-6 on UTC)

Dear Friends and Family,

We negotiated the somewhat tricky entrance at San Pedro, Belize and as we’d been just on the move, decided to take the afternoon off. Dennis and Lisette on “Windward” had checked in that morning and said it was a breeze. We went to check in the next day and got a pretty shocking experience when we were told to see the Port Captain (Dennis and Lisette were not told to do this).

Just after entering the outer reef at San Pedro, Belize. You can see the waves breaking on the shallow water on the far left of the photo.

First, the customs officer told us the “customs fee” was 50.00 Belizian dollars (25.00 USD). He immediately took the bill and put it in his wallet. We’ve all been to this movie before and as such, we just smile and realize it’s part of “doing business” in the 3rd world. We took the taxi ride to the Port Captain’s office where we told that the fee for 18 days in the country was 90.00 USD. They had a chart for vessels under 40 gross tons and if we’d spent a month, it would have gotten even more expensive. We’d heard that the fees in Belize were high and the rumors were correct. We additionally had fees for Health, Immigration and Agriculture. The official offices were at the airport which had a runway not seemingly long enough to have some of the 12 seaters that fly in there – get off the ground!

San Pedro, Belize anchorage with the reef in the background.
Dennis, Scott and Lisette at \”The Treasure Chest\”. A little beach shack restaurant on the main drag of San Pedro. It\’s basically one street which parallels the beach.
Street scenes of San Pedro. Note the most popular mode of transportation – The Golf Cart!

We had a look around San Pedro and it was a mostly one long street, very busy, tourist spot with lots of day dive boats and the beaches clogged with the now ever present Saragasso Weed. It was hot and a bit buggy, so we’d be glad to move on the next day. We departed for Cay Caulker on what we all thought would be about an hour and a half trip. The guidebook was a bit sketchy of how exactly to get by the shallows en route, but with \”Beach House\” in the lead, we thought we’d be able to spot the “sand dunes” on the bottom for “Windward” who drew almost 2 more feet than “Beach House”.

We got about 30 minutes south of San Pedro off the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and “Windward” got stuck on a sand bar. Dennis tried to motor off forward, but couldn’t budge. We circled back and we then too were in very shallow water – about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 feet deep. We got a line on “Windward” and with both boats engines started to power up. No luck! Dennis dove below and found that the front of his keel is what was stuck in the sand. As such, we put the line on his stern and after two attempts pulling “Windward” backwards, we were able to get him off the sand bar. We carefully picked our way through the weeds so to speak (going more inshore) and soon found a route around the sand. The tide here is only about 1 foot and it was rising, which may or may not have been some help?
Wish I’d taken some photos, but we were a bit busy while being a tow boat!…:-)

Good thing this was a “sand bar” and not reef! Not only would there then have been damage to “Windward”, but we later heard that the nation of Belize has a US 100,000.00 fine for hitting a reef!
In fact, their law apparently states that if you hit a reef, you’re not to try and get off till their Coast Guard assess the damages and that anyone assisting them is then subject to a fine as well if they don’t have permission. Well…Good Luck with that! And you thought your country had silly bureaucratic rules?!

There were a few more shallows we called out on our way to Cay Caulker, but the rest of the trip (which took almost 3 1/2 hours), was uneventful. We anchored in the lovely shallow bay in the lee of Cay Caulker, which is supposed to be one of the nicest Cays inside the reefs of Belize.

The inner reef system of Belize is very long, in fact the entire length of the country (about 100 miles or so). Essentially from a boating perspective, you can think of the country as the inner and outer reefs. Belize in known for it’s three main atolls of Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glover Reefs. These, with the exception of Chinchorro Bank in Mexico, are the only other true atolls in the Caribbean.

Cay Caulker would more or less be the test of how the inner reef islets would be. There are literally hundreds of them. Many uninhabited, many touristy and many with just one or two high end resorts that tend to be exclusive and are either ambivalent or not welcoming of cruisers. As we would only be in Belize a few weeks, we’d see how the inner reef compared to the reputation of the outer reefs which have the famous “Blue Hole” and world class diving. The other difficulty is that sailing within the inner reef can be a bit daunting. The charts are substantially inaccurate, lots of uncharted reefs and shallows as well as much of the entire reef system is less than 10 feet deep; often 5 feet or less! Given “Windward’s” experience, they were justifiably gun shy about the prospect of navigating 100 miles of inshore reef.

\”Beach House\” in the lee of Cay Caulker, Belize.

We went ashore at Cay Caulker and I know I’m jaded, but it was mostly disappointing. It reminded me of \”Gili Air” island in Indonesia (except Cay Caulker was cleaner). Something about when you go into a restaurant and it smells like an open sewer, doesn’t work for me. We found a nice Italian restaurant (sans smell) and had a nice meal. We explored the usual “Chacki” shops and investigated the diving and kite boarding options. All in all, it did not capture our imaginations. We did have an interesting meal the next evening at the “Bondi Bar and Restaurant”. It was owned by a local and his Aussie wife. They were trying to sell it and move to Australia. The setting was nice, the food good but it was so hot and buggy I just couldn’t see who exactly would want to buy it for the asking price of 95,000 USD.

Given this was supposed to be one of the best islets on the inner reef, we decided on seeing the outer atolls which Belize is famous for and avoid the navigation hazards. We first set off for Turneffe Reef about 20 miles offshore and about a 35 mile sail to it’s southern entry from Cay Caulker. It was a pretty light air day but we were able to sail a bit. The big deal for us was, that after almost 50,000 ocean miles, we were finally in a position to be with a buddy boat who could take pictures of “Beach House” under sail!!! Dennis took lots and we finally have some here to show you!

\”Beach House\” sailing to Turnerife Reef, Belize.

\”Beach House\” with the big reacher off Turneffe Reef, Belize.

Of course, we had to take some of “Windward” as well!

In all the excitement, we’d turned our radios on single channel so we could talk and we missed a “sail by” of sister ship “Zia” (Switch #6). Peter Verallis is the 3rd owner of “Zia” (originally owned by Scott and Stacy Molitor of Anacortes, Washington). Peter sent us an email that night saying he’d seen us sail by him while he was heading north and tried to hail us on the radio. Ah, so close!

Aside: When we got to Guatemala, we stayed in Peter’s slip at RAM Marina in the Rio Dulce.

Turneffe has the most dry land of the outer atolls, but it’s substantially uncharted and very shallow. This meant that we couldn’t get very far inside the entrance channel and the reef was only of limited protection. We were anchored off the Turneffe Island Resort, but as nice as they were, we were not allowed to use the resort restaurant or any of it’s facilities. We stayed the night and decided to move on to Lighthouse Reef, perhaps the pinnacle dive and nature site of offshore Belize.

Scott (with Nikki) on a \”recky\” at Turneffe Reef, Belize.
Departing Turneffe Reef for Lighthouse Reef. We had quite the rain squall!

We anchored at Long Cay which was an easy entry and a very well protected anchorage from the prevailing easterly winds. We were joined by two other catamarans coming up from the Rio Dulce of Guatemala and quickly realized there were about 10 buoys just outside the reef on the edge of the drop off where the “Belize Agressor III” live aboard dive boat was. The guide book said we could pick up any unused mooring and shortly, we would. There is also, Half Moon Cays with a Boobie and Frigate Bird Sanctuary on the eastern side of the reef. Unfortunately, in our several days here, the anchorage was not calm enough to move the big boats over to it and the dinghy ride would have been too long and rough. We did however take a day to wend our way through the reefs to the center of the atoll to visit the famous “Blue Hole” of Belize.

Frigate Bird – Long Cay, Lighthouse Reef.

It was still pretty windy, but the outer reef to our east gave us enough protection for the two hour trip from Long Cay anchorage. The guide book was of some help, but eyeball navigation was the order of the day. The “Blue Hole” is a giant limestone sink hole that goes over 400 feet deep and is almost perfectly round. To learn about the “Blue Hole”, click on the following links:

Below is a Youtube Video of inside the Blue Hole of Belize:

\"The The Blue Hole of Belize from the top of \”Beach House\’s\” mast. This site was made famous by Jacques Cousteau abroad m/v \”Calypso\” in the 1960\’s and 70\’s.

From the top of the mast – \”Beach House\” at the Blue Hole.
The old men in the sea – Blue
Hole, Lighthouse Reef – Belize. \”Beach House\” with the edge of the Blue Hole in the foreground.

We had a pretty easy trip up to the “Blue Hole” and after lunch went for a dinghy ride and snorkel. I had dove the Blue Hole in 1996 with Cindy and as beautiful a site as it is from “above”, it’s pretty much one of the more boring dives imaginable. For the most part, it’s like diving in a giant limestone lined swimming pool. At 140 feet, there are a few stalactites which (back then) had some cute Drum Fish, but other than that it was a nice dive for the guides to get the rest of the day off as all of us had to have extended surface intervals due to nitrogen loading.

The “Blue Hole” today is perhaps Belize’s most famous tourist site, but it has an interesting story to go with it! Back in the late 1960’s, Jacques Cousteau aboard his diving/research vessel “Calypso”, entered Lighthouse Reef to explore the “Blue Hole”. Upon reaching it, “Messieur Dive” (as he was known in France), realized what a good overview shot it would make with “Calypso” inside the Blue Hole. The problem was, there was no entrance wide enough for “Calypso” to enter. As such, with no ones consent, Cousteau dynamited a hole wide enough for “Calypso” to enter, took the overview shot and eventually created the television show (1970’s), “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”. I know this as my Father did all the business work on the show for Metro-media Producers Corporation working under it’s head, web follower – Chuck Fries.

Complete 45 minute video of \”The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau\” at the Blue Hole of Belize.

Click on the link here: (LINK COMING SOON – I HOPE?)…:-)

The Belizian Government was as you might imagine, apoplectic about Cousteau\’s cavalier actions and banned him and “Calypso” from the country forever! The irony of course is that it brought great attention to the site and made it a major dive/tourist destination which has made Belize millions of dollars. In 2010, when Cindy and I flew from Tahiti to Easter Island, we did a dive with a local French outfitter with our met up with our friends Bill and Johanna Strassberg and their son Gram Schweikert whom we met on “Visions of Johanna”. Aside: Nikki and I met up with Bill and Jo this past Winter in Ft. Lauderdale. I got into a discussion with our Dive operator about Cousteau’s trip to Belize who then sheepishly confessed to me that he was the actual person who did the dynamiting “back in the day”.

And now you know……the rest of the story!

The \”Belize Agressor III\” – a
liveaboard dive boat at Lighthouse Reef, Belize . Scott getting ready to go for a dive off Long Cay\’s drop off.

After our return to Long Cay anchorage, we spent a few more days there and did indeed do some diving at the drop offs just to the west of the anchorage. They were lovely Caribbean dives, with nice walls, good visibility and nice “stuff” as I like to say. We saw several turtles, large schools of various reef fish, barracuda and some really big Tarpons. Our friends on catamaran, “Like Dolphins” saw a few reef sharks on one dive as well. Lighthouse Reef was the real highlight of Belize and if you get the chance, go…..

Our next stop would be Glover’s Reef about 35 miles to the south. We had yet again a lovely day sail where Dennis took some nice photos of “Beach House”.

\”Beach House\” under sail!
\”Beach House\” en route to Glovers Reef, Belize.

The entry again was easy and there was a nice shallow sandy anchorage. The next day the winds were predicted to come up, so Dennis and I thought we’d get in a dive before the winds with the local operator at Isla Marisol Resort. The “resort” here is a bit of a rustic charmer and there is a backpackers “resort” next door. The dive was just okay, partly because the visibility was starting to go down due to the big swells that were now kicking up. We moved the boats to a somewhat better protected part of the anchorage for the second night and that was the smart thing to do. Glover was nice, but not as nice as Lighthouse and again….time was moving on and so did we. You could spend a few weeks each exploring the inside of all three of these atolls in calm weather. If we’d had the time, it would have been fun.

The next day we sailed to what would be our last stop in Belize, the town of Placencia. After a nice 1 1/2 hour sail to the entry at Gladden Spit, (where we were told Whale Sharks come during the full moon), we had to carefully negotiate our way back through the inner reef which was again…poorly charted. In fact in one instance, we had to pick our way through a reef series that was not on the charts and had an opening about 150 feet wide. This is something we are used to doing, so as long as conditions and light are good…no worries.

We arrived at the lovely anchorage at Placencia in the late afternoon where there were about 20 cruising boats and plenty of room. Placencia is either the first or last anchorage for most of boats coming from or going to Guatemala. Friends Peter and Mary of “Neko” told us not to miss the \”Tranquilo Bar and Restaurant\”. This Bar is on the small Placencia Cay on the outside of the anchorage and is only reachable by boat! It was nicely done and except for a bit too much spice in my chicken, it was a lovely experience. Owned by an American ex pat from Georgia and managed by another, we had quite the good time here with Dennis and Lisette which included the complimentary “sunset shot” done by all in attendance….:-)

Dennis and Scott – with a lovely local – at the \”Tranquilo Bar and Restaurant\”. Placencia, Belize.
The Tranquilo Bar is only accessible by boat.
Scott, Dennis, Lisette and Nikki with the anchorage at Placencia in the background – \”Tranquilo Bar and Restaurant\” – Placencia, Belize.

We had a walkabout town that afternoon and early the next morning, we caught the ferry over to “Big Creek” where Customs, Immigration and the Port Captain’s offices were to check out of Belize. Here is where Dennis and Lisette had to pay the daily fees to the Port Captain’s office. At least they paid for the actual days versus we who “guessed”. We only overestimated our stay by one day!

Big Creek Ferry. – Nikki rehydrating in the heat of the mangroves. This is the small town about a 20 minute ride from Placencia where we checked out of Belize.

After we got back to town, the gals did some shopping and we made a reservation for dinner at the “Secret Garden”. This was another recommendation from Peter and Mary of “Neko” and also a nice place, good food and a lovely atmosphere. The internet however was not much use. Just before dinner we went on “The Mile Long Side Walk:. It’s a local boardwalk that has a raised and wide walkway which wends through the backwater areas of the town to lots of beach accesses and artists shops. We immediately came across “John the Baker Man” and went in to have a look and of course buy a few samples.

John the Bakerman – whom we met along \”The Mile Long Walk\” in Placencia.

He was quite the bread baker- YUM!

We left early the next morning as we had to time ourselves for the tide 50 miles to the south to cross the Rio Dulce “bar” upon entering Guatemala at the small town of Livingston.
We went over the entrance first and I saw water as shallow as 4 1/2 feet. The conditions were calm, but the crux of the bar is almost a quarter of a mile long. This might be a problem for “Windward”.
Dennis gave it try with the knowledge that he could call in for a “tip over”. This is a technique where a local fishing boat comes out and uses there fishing reel to pull your boat over to get over the bar!
Cost – 50.00 USD and very well worth it! We saw Dennis get stuck on our AIS system and quickly asked our agent Raul if he could send someone out. Ten minutes later, Hector aboard “Wally” was out to the rescue!

The Rio Dulce River Bar – Just a teaser! In our next blog I hope to be able to imbed the video of \”Windward\” being tipped over by the local fishing boat \”Wally\”….. Note the halyard (line) at the top of the mast going off to the left.  \”Wally\” was at the other end!

We were late in the day, but due to the super services of Raul of Servamar, were able to get completely checked in and found an anchorage on the side of the river for the night.
The next morning, we’d go up the 7 mile long and very winding – Rio Dulce River Gorge which itself was a highlight and quite spectacular!

Next: Guatemala, The Rio Dulce and the Mayan Ruins of Tikal. And of course….let’s not forget – getting to see – CARMINA!

Stay tuned for more soon….

Scott and Nikki (written from Roatan – Bay of Islands, Honduras….still waiting out the weather to move East)