May 15, 2005 Update

Rio Dulce to Belize-

We left Mario's marina early in the morning of March 6th, fueled up and headed downriver with plenty of time to check out of Guatemala and cross the sand bar at the mouth of the river on the afternoon high tide. It was a lovely ride down the rio...

Unfortunately, the afternoon high tide was not a particularly high one, and there was a lot of chop built up from a squall that had just come through. We tried it anyway, and bumped much too hard as the front edge of our keel (a rather sharp angle) jammed into the mud as each wave dropped out from under us. Poor Zora! Only yards from the sea bouy we admitted defeat and turned around. We headed back upriver to the first bend and anchored for the night. We realized later that we had another handicap: we were totally full of fuel and water, whereas on the way in we'd been totally empty (and therefore lighter in the water)! Luckily, the next morning's high tide was a full 1.9 feet above datum and we got over the bar with just one little smoosh over a shallow spot.

We had a fantastic day-sail up to Belize, and by mid-afternoon had the islands of the Sapodilla Cays in sight. As we approached the long barrier reef in incredibly clear blue water, we were approached by a school of dolphins. They stayed with us for an hour, playing in the bow wake, rolling over to look up at us, and I even touched one, leaning over the bow with my outstretched arm as he swam back and leaped out of the water under my hand. Olivia and I spent a long time watching and talking to them. It was really magical!

To watch a movie about these dolphins, click here.

We also caught a nice-sized Cero Mackerel on the way, and had a wonderful dinner when we anchored that night at Nicholas Cay. The Sapodilla Cays are gorgeous, but Belize has recently designated many of their islands as parks, with fees to anchor of $5 or $10 per person per night. That's pretty steep when you're on a cruising budget, so we had to avoid those places. Unfortunately, there's no literature given out about the park boundaries, so we were surprised with fees at some places.

After sailing up inside the barrier reef, and stopping for some snorkeling and spearfishing near North Spot, we spent the night behind South Long Cocoa Cays. We checked into Belize at Placencia, a very sweet little town with friendly people and the very best Italian gelato you've ever had. A young Italian couple runs TuttiFrutti, and makes amazing gelato out of all the fresh local tropical fruit. Yum!!!

Another norther was forecast, so we (and, as it turned out, several of our friends including Chewink and also Mandolin, who we were about to part company with after almost a year of traveling the same path) headed to the Pelican Cays. The Pelicans are protected from any wind direction, but the water is very deep: about 60 feet. Late in the day several charter boats came in and anchored, and 3 of the 5 boats dragged. It seems that the Moorings Charter company had recommended the Pelican Cays to them for blows, but had only supplied the boats with 150 feet of anchor rode... insufficient for the water depth and wind strength!! One boat was trying to reanchor just at dark, and Neil and Cabot (Chewink) went in the dinghy to help them. Cabot had sounded out the depths of a mangrove creek nearby earlier, and they got the catamaran safely tied off in a snug little hurricane hole. Earlier, Liv and I had gone dinghy trolling in the same spot and she'd caught a Cero Mackerel, a barracuda, and a small Nassau grouper. Neil had gone spearfishing along the mangrove edges, too, but with no luck. It was a pretty neat place!

We continued up the islands, stopping at Twin Cays, and were surprised to find out it was part of the South Water Cay park, and we had to pay. That was OK, though, since Neil and I went trolling along the mangrove creeks in the dinghy and landed a good-sized Cubera Snapper! Yum, again!

The next day we set off early out to Lighthouse Reef. Lighthouse is one of Belize's offshore atolls, rumored to have incredible diving and snorkeling (and, we hoped, fishing!) It was a tough slog, motorsailing into the wind and building seas, but we arrived by dark, a bit wet and seasick. I'd made the mistake of trying Stugeron again, a British seasick medicine that most people love. It does not agree with me at all! Not only did I still get seasick (and it wasn't even all THAT rough!) but I felt badly drugged, weak and trembly. No fun.

Lighthouse Reef had some okay snorkeling and nice paths to explore on the island. Neil caught several fish, and one night we cooked a hogfish dinner for our friends Good Hope and Chewink. Hogfish is by far our favorite reef fish, with sweet firm white meat that we prefer even over grouper and snapper! We spent several days there, waiting out yet another norther. By now we were feeling very much that this was the end of our trip, deadlines loomed (it looked like our house would not rent for the summer, so we needed to get back and get jobs immediately to pay the mortgage) and every beautiful anchorage or delicious fish caught for dinner had a bittersweet quality: it might be one of the last for a very long time.....

On the way back to the islands behind the barrier reef, we stopped at the south end of Turneffe Islands, another of the three offshore atolls. There we had some spectacular snorkeling, finally!!! Even Olivia, who's become very picky lately about where she'll snorkel -it has to be perfect!- had a blast. Sadly, our time was running out and we needed to be heading north. We had a wonderful fast and flat sail back into the barrier reef and anchored at Bluefield Range, joined by Chewink. It was very pretty (although the fishing was disappointing and we lost several lures!) with resident manatees playing near the boats. Liv had some dinghy-driving lessons and even went for a solo ride.

As soon as the wind let up, we poked around the corner of the island towards Rendezvous Cay, which we'd heard was one of the prettiest places in Belize. As we approached, we saw some strange things in the water all around the tiny cay. It turned out to be hundreds (literally!) of tourists from a cruise ship docked in Belize City. Small boats had ferried them out and they now swarmed all over the tiny little island and surrounding reefs, the swimmers wearing bright orange lifevests. It was very, very strange. We anchored a fair bit away from the cay, behind the barrier reef, and did a bit of snorkeling and fishing. The next day we came back out, and there were no tourists. It seemed a completely different island, serene and beautiful and isolated, far out on the reef! We found fantastic snorkeling on the windward side, and good spearfishing. We even stayed the night. The next day, the tourists were back, and we set off north.

Yet another norther was on it's way, so we headed for protection in the Drowned Cays. When the blow passed, we threaded our way between the cays and sand bars towards Cay Caulker. It's very shallow behind the reef in northern Belize, and we ran hard aground on the banks north of Porto Stuck (yes, that's it's real name!)

Cay Caulker is a nice town, touristy but in a laid-back backpacker sort of way. Although it is much more built up than when I visited it 18 years ago, it still had a sleepy backwater feel. In the anchorage one evening we saw two pretty Belizean sloops racing each other into port. It turned out they were gravel boats: they spent their days hauling gravel from one cay to another, all by sail power! We were able to get much-needed drinking water, and I took the high-speed "ferry" (20 foot high-sided panga) to Ambergris Cay to get us checked out of the country. We planned to leave at the same time as our friends Peter and Elisabeth on Good Hope, and possibly sail up to Isla Mujeres, Mexico with them. On the way we stopped at the north end of Turneffe Island for a bit of snorkeling and fishing, and then we were on our way.


Next: to Isla Mujeres, Mexico...