BELIZE - What a dive
Article in an Australian Paper on diving the Great Blue Hole, March, 2001
Deep and meaningful ... the Blue Hole is a wonder of nature, formed when subterranean caverns collapsed thousands of years ago.
There are some phrases designed to put you at ease when you're 50 kilometres offshore and about to dive deeper than you've ever been before. "Don't worry about the sharks" is not one of them.
Alex, our dive master, a softly smiling Belizean, quickly explained. The sharks swimming alongside us would be of the harmless Caribbean reef variety. They might look intimidating, but they were just being inquisitive. No, really. They were so laid back you'd think they were listening to Bob Marley.
Alex was briefing us before we set out to explore one of the world's great dive sites, the Blue Hole, off the coast of Belize.
Don't feel too guilty if you don't know where Belize is. Most people don't. It's one of the world's smallest democracies, only 10 times the size of the ACT, with a population of 200,000, sandwiched between Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Many people still know it better by its former colonial name, British Honduras. Which makes it an oddity in the region: the only country in Central America where the official language is English, not Spanish. For most of its history, it has been content to be a backwater, not quite sure whether it was Central American or Caribbean.
But recently it has been put on the tourist map, for two reasons: regular flights from American cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, and the fact that the world's second largest barrier reef (after Australia's) lies in its territorial waters. Even further out to sea are three coral atolls, the Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef and Glover Reef, which, in turn, means that Belize has some of the best deep-sea fishing and scuba diving on the planet.
It was the diving which had lured us and, in particular, the Blue Hole. To reach it, we had set off at 5.30 am from Ambergris Caye, the palm-frocked island which doubles as the country's main tourist centre, in a threateningly small twin-engine speedboat.
For two hours, the nine divers in our group had been buffeted as Alex negotiated a route through the relatively sheltered waters of the mangrove-fringed Turneffe Islands before hitting the rolling waves of an open ocean. Yet any discomfort was quickly put aside as Alex moored our boat on one of the permanent anchoring chains and we were able to see the Blue Hole for the first time.
From the surface, it looks mightily impressive: a dark blue doughnut the size of a football pitch, surrounded by the lighter turquoise waters of the Caribbean. The real majesty, however, is only apparent when you plunge many metres below.
For the Blue Hole is a wonder of nature, formed 15,000 years ago when an ice age exposed the limestone beneath the reef and formed huge subterranean caverns. After the ice age, the rising water level forced the roof of the cave to collapse, forming a sink hole which plunges down 140 metres. Jacques Cousteau first popularised this dive in 1970, and what has drawn his disciples here ever since are the unusual features which cling to an overhanging remnant of the old cave: massive submarine stalactites, great columns of rock formed before the ocean encroached.
Alex's briefing was firm. To see the stalactites, we had to get below the overhang - and that was 40 metres deep. For safety's sake, we would have to descend very quickly. The group could not afford any stragglers since that would use up valuable air and bottom time. If you couldn't make it down to the 40 metres within the allotted three minutes, Alex's colleague would escort you back to the surface to snorkel while the rest of the party carried on. No ifs, no buts. So, with some nervousness, we rolled off the boat. Alex had warned that the initial 18 metres would be quite murky, but it cleared as soon as we reached the top edge of the wall, and we were suddenly confronted with a seemingly bottomless void of the most beautiful blues.
Better still, all nine of us were there to enjoy it. In unison, we sank ever deeper into the void. Long before the three minutes were up, our gauges were reading 40 metres, yet the temptation - as Alex had foretold - was to drop even deeper. Fortunately, the mysteries of the overhang were now revealed, and we took turns swimming through the maze of stalactite sculptures.
On cue, we were joined by four or five Caribbean reef sharks, each one about 2.5 metres long. It's not easy to know whether people are smiling when they are wearing diving masks and their lips are fish-mouthed around regulators, but I swear all nine of us were. Certainly, by the time we were back on the boat, having slowly ascended through our safety stops, we were all stumbling over our words about what a magical experience it had been.
Not that our exploring was over for the day. Our next two dives took us to the other highlight of Lighthouse Reef, Half Moon Caye. Apart from being one of the most celebrated wall dives in the Caribbean, Half Moon Caye has some of the most unusual bird life. While our divemasters cooked lunch on the island - the Belizean favourite, chicken, rice and beans - we set off on foot to a little wooden observatory tower where we were able to watch the large colony of red-footed boobies, which are as exotic-looking as they sound. Most tourists to Belize are drawn by the diving, snorkelling, fishing and other water sports to be found on the cayes which lie off the mainland. The word, pronounced "key", comes from the Spanish "cayo", meaning low-lying island, and there are 175 altogether, many of them little more than sandbars with just mangrove trees and birds.
Essentially, there are two main groups of tourists to Belize: affluent Americans, who see it as a cheaper, and less spoilt, version of the Bahamas, or backpackers of every nationality who are travelling through Central America and see it as a perfect spot for some R and R. Neither group is disappointed, and neither will you be, provided you understand it is the simpler pleasures that are on offer here. Those seeking sophistication should head elsewhere. That's what the Spanish conquistadors did five centuries ago. Finding nothing to plunder, they left it largely alone, which turned out to be a mistake when, in the 17th century, it became a base for the pirates and buccaneers who made their fortunes plundering the treasure ships of the Spanish Main. Belize City, with its safe harbour, became one of the chief ports of iniquity in the Caribbean, until the whole province was snatched from the Spanish by the British in 1862, becoming one of the most obscure colonies of the empire. So it uneventfully remained until 1981, when it became an independent democracy.
All this makes Belize very different from its neighbours. There have been none of the coups or revolutions which have bedevilled the region, and the stable currency, pegged to the US dollar, means that it is much more expensive than the bargain-basement republics around it (expect to pay Australian prices). The main difference, of course, is that English is the official language, although many Belizeans converse in a singsong patois that is a cross between English and their native creole.
By and large, visitors either decide to spend their time on the cayes or on the mainland. We chose the cayes, although the mainland, a mixture of lush farmland and rampant wilderness, has much to offer. The Maya Mountains, which run along the border with Guatemala, are covered in dense rainforest, streams and rivers, and are so rugged that the area was used as the jungle training ground of the British SAS. Forests, which used to be plundered by loggers, are now being cherished as a tourism asset, with the growth of a number of eco-lodges and wildlife sanctuaries.
Just as exotic as any wildlife are the large number of Mennonites who fled religious persecution in Europe and now farm much of the land around the country's new capital, Belmopan. You can see them at work in their fields, dressed in their dungarees, or sitting in their horse-drawn carts, looking for all the world like characters from the Harrison Ford film Witness. And if that's not enough, you can always visit some of the 600 ancient ruins left by the Mayan civilisation, the most celebrated being the temple complex at Caracol.
However, don't reserve too many hours for Belize City itself. Despite its colourful history, there is little left of any great moment. Battered over the years by one hurricane after another (which is why the capital was moved to Belmopan), it has a down-at-heel atmosphere which falls short of faded charm. Tourist muggings, once common, have been curtailed by the presence of special tourist police who patrol the main part of town. But, even so, Belize City is a place most travellers stay in no longer than necessary, which is usually the time it takes to travel from the airport or the bus stations to the quaint terminal from which ferries speed them to the outlying cayes.
The two main destinations are the two largest cayes, Caulker and Ambergris. Caulker - motto, "no shirt, no problem" - is the smaller, and the closer to Belize City, about 40 minutes away by motor boat. The charm of the island, and the islanders, was apparent as soon as we began to explore. Not that there is much to explore. The entire island is barely 7.5 kilometres long, and 1.5 kilometres wide. There are only three streets - imaginatively called Front Street, Back Street, and Middle Street - and none of them is any grander than a simple sand track since the only vehicles on the island are motorised golf carts, which double as delivery vans and taxis. We had no trouble finding a room in a beachfront hotel and then relaxed over a lunch of fish tortillas at a restaurant over the lagoon. Caulker is an unhurried, take-us-as-you-find-us place. There is not very much - a few bars, restaurants selling fresh lobster and conch, an Internet cafe, an American deli and stalls offering snorkel trips, dives, ferry rides and cycle hire (though why you would want to hire a cycle when you walk the island in half an hour is mystifying). The locals seem to typify the best side of the Caribbean - warm, friendly, welcoming, laid back with a minimum of the hassle that has taken over other Caribbean cultures. One of them cheerfully chastised us with the words: "Hey, mon! You're walking too fast. This is Caulker, slow down!"
We found it so enchanting we were reluctant to move, but after a couple of days we took the morning speedboat to Ambergris, 25 minutes away. It differs from the other cayes in that it is not really an island; the northern end was actually attached to Mexico until the Mayans built a canal to separate it from the mainland. It is also more developed, a fact that became apparent as our boat cruised past a ribbon of 30 or 40 hotels which line the main beachfront leading up to the main town, San Pedro. There are plenty of visitors who find San Pedro already a little too developed. Yet it's not Mexico's Cancun; for the time being, the streets are still made of sand and the main form of transport is still the golf buggy. We liked it. It is a more obvious place to base yourself, especially if you're looking for some kind of nightlife, though you can still walk from one end of the town to the other in less than half an hour (at Australian pace). It remains essentially an overgrown fishing village, where the church is still a centre of social life. Still, there is a greater range of restaurants, a lot more bars, and every type of accommodation, from simple cabanas to luxury resorts. Again, we found a beachside hotel with little difficulty (although in the peak season you should book ahead) and hired a cycle so we could swim and snorkel at some of the more remote beaches. One of the attractions of Ambergris is the proximity of the barrier reef, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which lies at the southern tip of the island and is one of the best places to snorkel and dive close to habitation.
It was to Ambergris that we returned after our adventure at the Blue Hole. That night, as the sun went down, we celebrated with some of our fellow divers at one of the restaurants on the island. This one specialised in Caribbean jerk cuisine, and as we tucked into a dish of spicy conch washed down with a decent glass of white wine, the man behind the bar began showing a video for some travellers who were thinking of diving the Blue Hole the next day. We couldn't help looking at the video. Generally it looked pretty accurate. Except for one thing. The sharks definitely looked smaller than the ones we remembered.
GETTING THERE: The obvious way from Australia is to fly via Los Angeles. The Star Alliance group of airlines, including United, has regular connections to Belize City. However, many backpackers will travel overland, either via Mexico or Guatemala. There are regular buses connections between Cancun in Mexico and Flores in Guatemala. We booked via Trailfinders, 8 Spring Street, Sydney; phone 9247 7666.
GETTING AROUND: Belize has only two paved highways, one running north to Mexico, the other heading west to Guatemala. The public bus system is well organised, with Belize City the hub, and fares are inexpensive. For the cayes, regular ferries run from Belize City. The fare to Ambergris costs about $30 one way.
WHERE TO STAY: Ambergris and/or Caulker cayes. It really depends on your wallet, and whether you are going in peak season or not. We never booked ahead and were able to choose the hotels we liked. The best way is to buy a guidebook which suits your style of travel and use its recommendations. Or check the Ambergris Caye Web site (www.ambergriscaye.com), which offers an up-to-date list of accommodation packages.
WHERE TO DIVE: We dived with Blue Hole Dive Centre, of Ambergris. Check www.ambergriscaye.com/diving for the latest prices and deals. The three-dive trip to the Lighthouse Reef, including equipment, cost us $320 a person. For the Blue Hole dive, you must be PADI-certified or the equivalent.
For more on the Great Blue Hole, click here.
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