Swimming with Sharks

Alex already mentioned that we did a snorkeling trip out of Caye Caulker that went to three specific dive spots: the coral garden, Shark & Ray alley, and Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

From the video you can see we saw all kinds of wild life there, and even though the weather was trying not to co-operate, it still left us with about 80% visibility in the water.

The whole video was shot on a GoPro Hero3 Silver Edition with the basic waterproof case (included in the basic packaging). I forgot my mono-pod in the bike, so had to make do and just held the GoPro in my hands the whole time. Got through almost the whole day on one charge before it died and had to swap out batteries. The film was edited using the newest GoPro studio and I sourced the music from freemusicarchive.org.

Caye Caulker

We hopped into a taxi boat Wednesday afternoon excited to leave the grungy heat of Belize City and looking forward to a few days of almost vacation.

We don’t plan very many days ahead of ourselves and since the islands off the coast of Belize are transitioning into ‘high season’ we had a little difficulty booking a place to stay.

We ended up getting a really great last minute deal on a hotel that was only a few more dollars a day than some hostels on Caye Caulker.

After our 45 minute water taxi ride to the Island we found ourselves blinking in the sunlight walking down a rough dock towards unpaved roads and brightly painted buildings- the tense feeling the city had given us started to fade. After dropping off our bags to the hotel we immediately made our way to what is know as ‘the split’ on the North end of the inhabited portion of Caye Caulker.

The area known as 'The Split' on Caye Caulker. Photo: Alex Washburn

The area known as ‘The Split’ on Caye Caulker. Photo: Alex Washburn

The split is a gap in between the northern mostly unsettled portion of the island and the southern end where most people live, work and visit. ‘The Split’ beach area is actually privately owned but there is a two story open air bar at the point selling ridiculously cheap beer and a dock for laying on and jumping off.

I can see why Caye Caulker is still a backpacker and budget traveler’s paradise with a few non-budget travelers thrown in. Some of the tours are a little expensive but if you want to sleep, eat and drink cheaply you could enjoy the island for less than $50 USD a day and get a rockin’ sunburn in the process.

We were lucky that we decided to go to ‘The Split’ in the last few hours of daylight we had Wednesday – that night the storm clouds rolled in and didn’t leave for the next 40 hours.

Thursday it drizzled a lot but the crazy wind didn’t kick up till we were on our way back from our snorkel tour of Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

A portion of the tour allows you to snorkel with sting rays and nurse sharks which is pretty incredible. It is unfortunate to be surrounded by an equal number of tourists but being able to reach out and touch a sting ray or a nurse shark as they glide past you is amazing.

This was Alex's second attempt at shark wrangling. She didn't tell me she was going to attempt this the first time - which was a more successful attempt. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

This was Alex’s second attempt at shark wrangling. She didn’t tell me she was going to try it the first time – which was a more successful attempt. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

I floated there watching the sharks nibble at the fish stuffed conchs our guides were using to attract them and I kept getting the image of all those Discovery Channel specials in my mind where a diver slightly twists the tail of the shark and it goes limp.

Well – I really wanted to see if that would work.

I picked out a smaller nurse shark perhaps 3-4 feet long and swam down to it. When I got close I reached out to grab it’s tail and very gently twisted. The shark rolled over in the water like a puppy looking for a belly rub and allowed me to bring it almost to the surface. I let it go and it swam away and went back to eating.

The entire incident lasted less than 20 seconds but I would strongly discourage other people from doing this. The guide came over to me and warned me that although nurse sharks seem docile they can hurt you.

A stingray cruises the ocean floor looking for food. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

A stingray cruises the ocean floor looking for food. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Nathaniel got some great video of our trip to the marine park and we should be publishing the video tomorrow morning.

After our day in the ocean we were pretty hungry and decided to splurge for dinner. While you can get some really legitimate meals for $5-6 on the island I really wanted to try the local lobster.

Lobsters are generally laid out near restaurant front grills on Caye Caulker and you select your lobster based on how much you want to pay for it – the dinners also come with a variety of sides. A giant lobster with garlic toast, pasta and salad for $25 USD is just not possible in the US.

Although the lobster was good I prefer eating at places the locals go when I travel. If you prefer the same I suggest grabbing some lunch at Pirates on Caye Caulker if you come. My $6 USD lunch consisted of Baked Chicken on rice and beans with a side of potato salad and a glass of limeade. If the same restaurant existed back home I’d still eat there.

Pirates restaurant (on the corner) is where we had one of our best meals on Caye Caulker. Don't expect a smile (they don't cater to tourists) but you should expect good solid local food at a local price. Photo: Alex Washburn

Pirates restaurant (on the corner) is where we had one of our best meals on Caye Caulker. Don’t expect a smile (they don’t cater to tourists) but you should expect good solid local food at a local price. Photo: Alex Washburn

While the rain ruined a large part of our time on the Island (and cursed me with unappealing lighting) we’ve had fun walking it’s dirt roads, talking to people and exploring this tiny island. Belize would be a great starter country for many people people in the US nervous about traveling because it’s still incredibly affordable and the dominant language is English.

TIPS: There are january flights under $500 available from San Francisco to Cancun right now. A $50 (isn) bus ride from Cancun can get you to Belize City within a few hours. Our Hotel was $56 USD a night although you can find cheaper if you book ahead.

Hello Belize

A map documenting our progress through Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

A map documenting our progress through Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

After waiting a day in Chetumal for the Banjercito to open, Monday morning came and the rain clouds cleared to reveal the humid boiling sun. We packed the gear, counted our remaining pesos, and fueled up at the last Pemex of the trip.

Nathaniel packs his gear, getting ready to cross the Belize border. (Photo: Alex Washburn)

Nathaniel packs his gear, getting ready to cross the Belize border. Photo: Alex Washburn

Chetumal ended up being closer to Belize than we thought, and it took us less than ten minutes to get to the border crossing (we might have been able to cross on Friday, but after all the paperwork I think we may have gotten stuck in limbo). With all the issues we had in La Paz we knew we had all the needed paperwork, but were still ready for some bureaucracy.

First stop was to turn in our FMM cards and get stamps out of Mexico (check). Next off to the Banjercito to get our deposits back and release the bikes from Mexico, we went to the wrong Banjercito first but found our way eventually (check). Next we had to get the bikes fumigated (what?!) and get insurance for Belize.

The office where you get your fumigation certificate is also where you can purchase insurance. However, by the time we got there we were running low on money and Alex had to make a run to an ATM while I hung out with the attendant. It was during this time that a heavy rain moved in, and I discovered that the first language of Belize is English. Once Alex got back, we got the insurance slips and were informed we didn’t need to be fumigated because of the rain (sweet!).

After this it was off to immigration at the Belize border to get the bikes and us into the country. It took some time (the officers were in no hurry to fill the paperwork out to get us processed), but there were no hiccups in getting it done. Once all the stamps had been pushed, I walked over to join Alex in Belize, only to have a middle-aged man approach us.

I didn’t know who it was as Alex introduced me to Hector. The continued to talk in Spanish, and I was afriad this was a scam trying to get us to buy something before we crossed (or worse, be drug mules). I was later to find out that this was one of her Uncles who was running a load from Belize up to Huamantla. It’s such a small world, where you can run into family even at a border crossing. It was fitting, we had family at the beginning, middle, and end of Mexico, the best book ends.

As we left the immigration office we were all smiles walking back to the bikes. As we packed our documents back into the bikes, I saw another bike pass by and head towards the border, but he was soon directed (as we had been) to the immigration parking lot. This is when we met, Thiago Berto who is driving from Alaska to Brazil (or maybe all the way to Argentina, he hasn’t decided). He flew from LA to Fairbanks, Alaska and found this motorcycle (which was driven years ago from Brazil to Alaska and then left by another Brazilian, which it why it has Brazilian plates) that he is now riding down the continent.

We exchanged stories, he questioned us about the process of getting across the border, we asked him where he was going. There is a respect that fellow travelers have for each other, and that camaraderie is only magnified when they are also motorcyclists. Bikers like Thiago make us feel less bad-ass as he was riding in just a light jacket, regular pants, boots and his stuff heaped on the back of the bike, but to each his own (I seem to fall a lot so my choice of gear seems fitting).

Thiago is riding from Alaska to Brazil, trying now to get through the Belize border Photo: Nathaniel Chaney.

Thiago is riding from Alaska to Brazil, trying now to get through the Belize border (Photo: Nathaniel Chaney).

We wished him luck, readied our papers and made our way for the border crossing. The guard asked me if I was hot in my gear and I replied it was hot, but protective. He responded that that is true, but that falls don’t happened that often. My response? More often than you would think. And with that I was waved on.

We ran into Hector one more time after we crossed, he gave us some final directions (though there is only one real road in Belize) shook our hands and we were off.

About an hour down the road we hit the worst rain of the trip. It wasn’t just raining, it was pouring enough to work its was into our helmets and for me felt like pinpricks as the droplets hit my jacket. Knowing now that Belize is only 174 miles long, would have helped in that situation of knowing how far Belize City was, but we drove on, not worried about the gear getting wet because we knew we would have time to let it dry.

For a while, each time we broke through the black clouds and towards the blue sky the road would veer off back into the heart of the darkness. However, we finally blew past the storm and made our way to Belize City. It took a little while to find a place (Alex gets all the credit for finding the Palm Inn), but when we did and it was amazing. It had parking in the back behind high walls and under an overhang so we were out of the rain.

I will skip the details of Belize city (we were only really there a day and a half), but needless to say it isn’t the best city. It is mainly used as a stopping point for cruise ships and people heading to the Cayes (think of keys, but no bridges) and it shows. There aren’t many restaurants, and there is a hustle to the city that clearly denotes that a main portion of its income is derived from tourists.

Alex and I were happy to plan our escape to Caye Caulker the next day. We spent some time at the Belize Museum and walking around the city, but really we were just biding our time and the moment was coming to escape!