The morning was damp. The occasional sprinkle fell to challenge our merry mood. Despite the weather’s best efforts we could sense that the storm had blown itself out and was able to but threaten more rain, clouds and wind. The cold front had claimed its three windswept days and now the cycle began anew with sun breaking through the clouds on the horizon with rays of golden light.
The trip I’d booked was the three-day two night Raggamuffin Sailing trip from Caye Caulker, down through the Cayes and along the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world to the small peninsula town of Placencia. We left on Tuesday and would arrive on the 24th – Christmas eve. The all-inclusive trip cost $350 – which included a $50 premium for travel over the holidays/Christmas.
We loaded our bags then slowly piled onto the small motorboat that would shuttle us out to the still small, albeit slightly larger sailboat which would be our home for the next 3 days – the Ragga Queen.
With an old battered pirate flag flying, we set sail and with our backs to Caye Caulker began a new adventure. As we sailed south the sun slowly began to break through the clouds. Bringing with it a warmth that left us all pinching ourselves – trying to remember that it was currently late December. With a grin and a shrug we stripped down to swimsuits and lathered on sunscreen.
The sailing was easy and the three-man crew took care of most of the work. We’d help periodically as they raised sail or made small adjustments, but beyond that we were mostly left to our own devices. We mixed, mingled and got acquainted with each other. Told stories, played card games, napped, read and fished from the stern of the ship. Before long we noticed an odd structure – seemingly rising out of the water. The fishing shack which during low tide sat on an exposed sandbar rested on pillars: sandbar completely submerged. The small structure was fascinating. Not because of its complexity, but rather the fact someone had not only managed, but also decided, to build a structure literally in the middle of the ocean. In many ways it reminded me of the structures built for the movie Waterworld, only far less complex and obviously still anchored in sand. The building itself though was an odd reminder that we were sailing in shallow water – a poignant reality I had learned several nights previous when the ferry I was riding on ran aground multiple times.
The fishing was decent, though slow going. The first day we caught two – a decent sized barracuda and what I believe was a Spanish Mackerel – both served as the foundation for a delicious dinner later that evening. Unfortunately, despite no small amount of time spent manning one of the two lines – I ended up skunked. Still the fishing itself was plenty rewarding, as I watched the barrier reef and various islands slowly slip by.
We paused several times during the first day – dropping anchor seemingly at random just off the reef. The water was typically between 8-25 feet deep and crystal clear. Eager to explore we pulled on our fins and snorkels, paused briefly at the side of the boat and then jumped. The water’s embrace was warm – a delightful contrast from what you’d expect which made the transition far easier than I’ve grown accustomed to in the Pacific, Atlantic and even northern Sea of Cortez.
It never ceases to amaze me how big a difference fins make when snorkeling. Truly, they’re more a necessity than anything. Recalling my childhood dreams of being a Marine Biographer I double checked my Flip Ultra Video camera and marveled once again at how well the $35 underwater case was working out. Then without thinking, snorkel in mouth, I turned my sights to the seafloor, only to quickly get a mouth full of water and a quick reminder: snorkels and ear to ear grins seldom make good bedfellows.
The reef was rich with life – while not as tame and prolifically populated as the Hol Chan marine reserve, the reef was still awash in life and color. With vibrant coral, giant sea fans and sprawling beds of light green sea grass the reef was an absolute delight. Make sure to take a few minutes and watch the video at the start of this post. I’m afraid that all I have is underwater video, no photos.
As I made my way carefully into the shallower water, I paid special attention to the currents and my fins. Careful, ever so careful, not to make any contact with the reef or plant life. It sounds easy enough, but given the ebb and pull of waves, long sweep of fins and 5-7 feet of water it quickly became a challenge. We took great care to stay horizontal in the shallower water – keeping our feet, and fins well away from the seafloor where they might potentially do damage that would take years – if not decades to heal.
We snorkeled for half an hour – or was it an hour? – before making our way back to the boat and relaxing as we quenched our hunger with ham sandwiches and fresh conch ceviche. Then, settled in for another brief sail before a series of quick pauses, this time in much deeper water, where those willing set out in search of conch for dinner. Unfortunately, most of us found the water too deep and the conch too hard to spot – still we searched, swam, and enjoyed as the captain and crew who had more free diving experience made to 20+ foot journey to the sea floor and back easily. Later, the captain an ex-fisherman mentioned that during his fishing days he would regularly make 90+ foot free dives.
As the sun began to race towards the horizon we reached our destination for the evening. A delightful, tiny speck of sand with a deep water dock for the sailboat, 7 palm trees, and a small one room hut for the island’s steward. With 15 passengers and 3 crew, our little boat was overloaded. There was ample sitting room during the day, if you didn’t mind getting a bit cozy, but not even the faintest chance of fitting us all at night.
Luckily the island had room (if just barely) for 7 tents. We paired up, unloaded the tents, gear and sleeping pads, then set to assembling our tents. Some teams did better than others, leaving a few to grumble, huff, and curse gently under their breath as we all struggled to figure out just how the slightly off-center, somewhat worn tents had been designed.
Hartmut – a gentleman from Germany, my tent-mate and a friend I’d bump into during later travels – and I quickly got our tent assembled and began to wander the island. Despite its small stature the island was absolutely gorgeous.
The island’s white sands were soft, warm in the afternoon’s fading sunlight, and a beautiful white that picked up the hues of the sunset and seemed to blend seamlessly with the lapping waves.
The locals themselves – mostly seagulls and pelicans – were also quite hospitable. Lazily sharing the island with us, and periodically taking flight to feed or just circle the island in an incredible show of grace.
The pelicans themselves, while wary, seemed comfortable with visitors. More than that though, they seemed almost eager to show off their natural agility and skills.
Antsy, I wandered a bit more – pausing at an old tree stump that now held a dried coral fan and several conch. As the sun set behind it – I held my breath in anticipation.
As we paused, enjoying our dinner of fresh seafood and garlic bread the sun continued to set. As each minute passed it revealed new beauty, new colors and my smile grew.
Words cannot describe the incredible beauty of the sunset as it set the sky afire. The leftover clouds – those straggling behind the cold front – picked up the sun’s evening song and magnified it ten fold. The waves of the ocean gently moaned as they slowly tickled the white sandy beaches – turned golden by the sunset.
It had been a good day. An incredible one, that I’ll remember for the rest of my life – but as the sun set and we settled in around a campfire I quickly realized that the day held one last surprise. As complete darkness settled over our small island, with the fire slowly burning down – I sprawled lazily across the sand and looked up.
The stars were incredible – so vivid, so densely packed and so bright that I could hardly contain a soft sigh. Living in the city, the stars are always dim and far away. On the rare occasions I escape into the countryside camping or return back to my parent’s home in Prescott I can always count on vivid stars but even those barely compared to the sight that greeted me.
It was as though the galaxy itself sat just out of reach. The depth and richness of the stars something beyond the norm, something special, something incredible. Then breathing slowly, eyes roaming the sky I saw the first shooting star. Then another. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth…they blazed across the sky in incredible arks. As luck would have it – I was witnessing what I believe was the Ursid meteor shower. The view that night alone made the trip well worth it.
The following morning we struck camp; laughing at the slow, stiff movements and pained, hungover looks that plagued our group. The tents proved every bit as difficult to break down as they had been to put up leading to small frustrated mutterings and no small shortage of lighthearted teasing.
We paused briefly for breakfast, then began transferring bags, sheets, tents and bodies back onto the cramped confines of the Ragga Queen before saying goodbye to the Island and its surprising wealth of local wild life.
As the boat gently drifted away from the Island I was once again taken by its small size, pristine beauty and the unique flavor of the adventure. As you might imagine, a plethora of movie references and great cinematic moments filtered through my mind – always an entertaining narrative and realization: that epiphany that you’re living the adventure often delivered as fairytale across the world’s silver screens.
The day was beautiful with hardly a cloud in the sky. The sun kept us warm and left us relishing each opportunity that arise to pause and dive into the water to fish, snorkel, hunt for conch, or just generally relax and cool off.
As we neared our first snorkeling stop I was relieved. The weather was fantastic, the group with the exception of one bratty girl, was an absolute delight and the adventure was unfolding nicely. I’m always wary of any sort of extended duration tour. While something like the Raggamuffin tour tends to only attracting the more laid back, younger and heartier traveler – all it takes is one or two people to really turn what should be a 3-9 day adventure with new found friends into an absolute nightmare. As you can tell from the photo above things were rather tight and personal space was at a premium. That said, everyone took it in stride and worked to chip in.
Our first stop was along a steep wall along the reef. As I first jumped in and looked down, I felt my stomach surge towards my throat. The water below me was some 20-30 feet deep on a steep incline, drifting quickly into a dark blue abyss. The seafloor was covered in coral, fans and schools of fish and I couldn’t help but think I stood a good chance of seeing an open water shark.
Allowing my nerves to settle, I began to explore the area. The sea wall offered a great opportunity to see a different type of reef life. Some of the fish were different, the corals were slightly different and the general feel of the place had its own unique flavor. As we snorkeled around the area I made my way along the wall watching rays and schools of fish go about their daily business. Eventually, I made a wide loop that took me into the shallow water – that which was 4-10 feet deep – and towards the areas where the reef broke free from the sea. There, in the shallower water I was greeted by large spiny sea urchins, vibrantly colored, albeit smaller, coral dwelling species of fish and even a lazy sea turtle enjoying the open sea grass. The video I’ve included above is shown in near chronological order, and while you may recognize it from my previous post – it covers all 3 days.
Tired and hungry I made my way back to the boat for lunch. After a quick meal, it was time to set off again. Sail up, bodies sprawled across the decks, the subtle sight of soft white lines decorating our bodies where we’d missed a spot of sunscreen.
Our next stop was similar. This time, however, it was a series of small sea mounts that rose from the ocean floor (about 30-40 feet) to a depth of some 10 feet below the surface. The mounts were small but packed with coral and sea life.
Once again we struggled into our fins, held our breaths and jumped over the side before fanning out in all directions to explore. Some were armed with spear guns, others with cameras. As we slowly explored, we found ourselves pointing off into the blue, motioning, and trying to speak through snorkel filled mouths. All the while sharing little discoveries – a large school of 5 or 6 barracuda, a lazy sea turtle taking a nap on the ocean floor or a particularly beautiful fish.
It was during a foray in towards one of the larger mounts – one with significantly shallower water – that I came across the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen. You’ll notice him in the video I posted above, though the size doesn’t really come across. Easily four feet in length the monster oozed predatory confidence as it slowly, ever so slowly drifted through the shallow water.
Eager to get video and see it up close, I followed. All the while wondering….was it truly a good idea? After all, the plastic housing for my camera reflected the glint of sunlight and was lined in bright dive orange rubber, looking more like a giant fishing lure than anything else. Luckily, neither I nor the Barracuda listened to the nagging voice in the back of my head – leaving us both to watch each other warily, enjoying the moment.
From there it was back onto the boat for more fishing, sunbathing and drifting. Pausing periodically to hunt for Conch, Lobster and to give the captain an opportunity to put his spear-gun to work. We feasted on fresh lobster, conch and fish ceviche, fresh fruit and cup after cup of fruit punch before eventually arriving at our second destination: Tobacco Caye.
The small (albeit significantly larger than our last) island was home to a series of docks, a small forest of large coconut trees, small restaurant, series of cabanas and small circular beach bar.
We quickly set to setting up our tents in a small clear space in the middle of the island, before grabbing a Belkin – Belize’s delicious local beer – and setting off to explore the island. Some 5 minutes later we found ourselves back at the dock eager to snorkel off the dock.
The area surrounding the island itself was sheltered by the reef behind it and offered a large expanse of smooth shallow water sea grass which stretched out and away from the island on the remaining 3 sides. The grass itself attracted large schools of fish and a large number of rays and the incredible looking eagle rays which are black with white spots, a long streaming tail and in many ways look like a manta ray. The eagle rays are an absolute delight to watch – not only are they graceful and beautiful, but they periodically leap free of the water, throwing themselves several feet into the air.
As with the day before, the sunset on Tobacco Caye was every bit as incredible. This time framed by sailboats, a small panga, and picturesque palm trees. We ate a delicious meal with fish and shrimp before settling in for another night of stories, drinks and jokes before crawling into bed. Stiff and exhausted from a long day swimming and relaxing in the sun.
The following morning greeted us with more blue skies and warm weather. After breaking down our tents and re-packing the boat we set off once more. This time on the final leg of our trip to Placencia.
The trip itself was fairly lazy. We paused several more times for seafood and caught a few fish by line. With each stop the number of us that jumped overboard to explore diminished until there were only 3 or 4 of us left that dove in at every opportunity. We swam, laughed and relaxed for the remainder of the day before arriving in Placencia about 3 or 4PM. We disembarked and set to the task of finding accommodation.
It was Christmas eve and the town was quiet, although not completely shuttered. Before long I found a small budget hotel with a room for $40 BZD ($20USD) a night. To my delight the room had 3 beds, and a private bathroom. The shower didn’t offer warm water (not unusual in Belize), and consisted of a PVC pipe with a small turn nozzle. It was more than I needed.
I settled in, read my book, grabbed an evening meal and then dozed contentedly. Life was good.