Monday, 29 December 2014

You'd better Belize it! - December 2014

Wow, the end of week two already! From Tulum we took a bus down to Chetumal, a seaside town in the Mexico/Belize border and the jumping off point for the Belize cayes.
After a very casual immigration process leaving Mexico (and consequent delay when the border officials realised there were two passengers who hadn't had their passport stamped, and so proceeded to check everyone's passport again) we were finally allowed to board the boat.
We all looked on in amazement as 65 people were crammed on a very small vessel - and after a few passengers were asked to sit on the top deck (read roof) and a a few on fold out chairs, or on the floor of the boat, off we set, with everyone aboard.

It seems that the smaller the country, the greater the levels of bureaucracy and more complex the official procedures. A perfect example of this was going through customs and immigration in San Pedro before being allowed to continue on to Caye Caulker. Before we got off the boat, we were each given a number and told to line up in strict numerical order  upon disembarking. This was so we went through border control in the same order as our names appeared on the boat's manifest - imagine if all planes landing into Heathrow requested the same procedure!
When we finally cleared immigration and had our passports stamped we embarked a small boat bound for Caye Caulker and twenty minutes later we pulled into paradise.

Caye Caulker is a small Caribbean island, very different in feel to Mexico.
English is the national language and the accent is more Jamaican with hints of creole dialect and laid-back Rastafarian locals. It is definitely representative of the 'Island lifestyle' we have come to love!

Locally made rum is more readily available than drinking water - and probably cheaper too! The most common Belizean cocktail is a coconut rum, pineapple juice and grenadine concoction called a 'panty ripper', offered everywhere two-for-one during happy hour - which itself takes place anytime from midday until around 7pm.

Stout is also really popular in Belize - certainly as popular as lager - so Kev was happy - if only it were the same back home in London!

The cuisine is largely Caribbean - lots of jerk seasoning and rice'n' beans. However Caye Caulker's main speciality is sea food, with an abundance of lobster. Every restaurant from street-side barbecues to the fancier establishments sell lobster for incredibly cheap prices. Our first lobster meal, all-in including sides and drinks cost about £10 each!

We certainly ate well and enjoyed sampling the local drinks on the island. One of our favourite local vendors was the 'Cake Man' who pedals a cart up and down the main street, calling 'cake man!' He sells his wife's homemade cakes and we fully endorse the pineapple upside down cake and the banana bread. Perhaps I should send Kev out on to Winchmore Hill Green selling my cakes! Ha ha.

Caye Caulker isn't renowned for its beaches - in fact there isn't really one, but there is 'the split' (the island was split in two by a hurricane a few years ago) and the old harbour wall surrounded by shallow water and a sandy bottom, which is the perfect swimming spot.

The best way to cool off however is to sign up for one of the various snorkelling or dive tours to take you off to the nearby reefs for the day.
We booked on to a 3 tank dive to the Unesco world heritage site, the famous 'Great Blue Hole'. 
Normally you have to do the Advanced Open Water PADI course to be allowed to dive here, in order to dive to 40m to see the stalactites, however the company we found offered us a shallower dive at 24m, so we could still have the experience of diving the Blue Hole but without the risk of the deeper dive.

Unfortunately visibility wasn't great due to the heavy rain over the previous two weeks - fresh water mixing with the salt water makes it go cloudy - so we couldn't see the stalactites down below, but the second and third dives on Half Moon Caye Wall, and a dive site called the Aquarium were much more rewarding and we saw reef sharks, a turtle, sting rays, lobsters and a large green moray eel.

The Blue Hole is situated in Lighthouse Reef, a two hour (choppy) boat ride from Caye Caulker so only recommended for those with sea legs! Fortunately I seem to take after my grandad and enjoyed the boat ride out on deck watching the sunrise and the dolphins alongside the boat. (This trip is probably not recommended for Hannah or Orlaith!)

After two dives in the morning we stopped on Half Moon Caye for lunch and did a walk to see the nesting colony of red-footed booby birds, though perhaps more impressive were the male frigate birds, who inflate and drum on their red gular sacks on their chests to attract the attention in the female birds flying overhead. 

After four glorious days on Caye Caulker we hopped over to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, 30 minutes away by boat for the next stop on our trip.
When Madonna sang, 'last night I dreamt on San Pedro...' in the song 'La Isla Bonita' this is where she was singing about...

San Pedro is a lot bigger, busier and more built up than Caye Caulker, with a lot of resort style accommodation to cater for the droves of North Americans that spend their winters here. Like on Caulker there aren't really any beaches - until you take a ferry up the coast towards then north of the island, where there are fewer tourists and lovely sandy beaches.

On Christmas morning we went on a snorkel tour to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. We saw turtles, reef sharks, rays, an octopus and hundreds of fish - none of them phased by us (and the other hoards of snorkellers) swimming amongst them.

More exciting however was Shark Ray Alley - a spot where the boats feed the sharks and rays so there were loads of them. On my first peek into the water there were six sharks nearby and as many sting rays - I was a little nervous have the rays swim underneath me after what happened to Steve Irwin, but it seems they weren't interested in me. I even 'stroked' a shark!

The seas here are so fertile - we even saw a sting ray swim by in knee-deep water as we sat and had lunch in a restaurant on a pier. Our snorkel guide also pointed out to us two baby sleeping sharks under the pier their dive boat departs from.

The biggest Christmas surprise however, was Kev's proposal on Christmas Eve - I can honestly say I didn't see that one coming (but did of course say yes!)

We're back in Tulum, Mexico now, enjoying the last few days of warm weather, cocktails and relaxation before we fly home. See you on the other side!

Love Sarah and Kev xx

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Mexico, part 1 - December 2014

With 2.5 weeks planned for Mexico and Belize, what better occasion to resurrect the travel blog, we thought!

We had been saving what's left of our annual leave this year in order to take an extended Christmas break in the sunshine - and not having taken any time off since July, a holiday feels long overdue...and it feels good to forget about work until the new year!
So we decided on some familiar territory (Mexico's Yucatan Peninsular)  and some new: Belize's cayes (pronounced 'keys') which are just over the Mexican border at Chetumal.

The day before we left London there were glitches with the air traffic control computer system, so we feared we would be held up (or even have our flight cancelled, if the news was anything to go by). Now, our flight was delayed - but not for the reasons you might have imagined: One of the cabin crew tripped over and cut his head (before we took off) so we had to wait while they called for medical assistance and took his bag off the plane.
Then when we did land there was another plane on 'our' stand in the airport so we had to wait for them to move before we could disembark.
It wasn't a massive delay but we were certainly glad when we finally arrived at our accommodation in Isla Mujeres by 10pm Mexican time (about 4am UK time) - a long day's travel but worth it!

Since then we've been relaxing and enjoying ourselves, hanging out on the beach and sampling Mexico's cuisine (tacos, burritos, quesadillas and chicken mole - a savoury sauce made from chocolate, spices and chilli), and cocktails (something tequila-based for me and rum-based for Kev!)

In Isla we went scuba diving on our second morning - our first dive was in the underwater museum, amongst the stone statues of people, followed by a second dive I the nearby Manchiones Reef - and then we hired out a golf cart in the afternoon to drive around the island (which is only 5 miles long), though Kev's off-road antics meant we had to pay an excess on return for cleaning! 

It was lovely to be back on Isla - which hasn't changed a bit since we were last there 2 years ago, so it was easy to relax into our holiday with such familiar surroundings.

The weather so far has been pretty good - cooler than we expected at around 26 or 27 degrees Celsius, but definitely hot enough in the sun - and scorching compared to England in any case!
Unsurprisingly it doesn't feel very Christmassy over here - there's something about summery weather that just doesn't feel festive, but there are Christmas trees and decorations everywhere, including a few snowy scenes and shivering snowmen which do look a little out of place, as you can imagine!

After 3 days in Isla Mujeres we took the Ado bus (much like a Mexican version of the Greyhound buses in America) to our next stop, Tulum, where we spent the next 4 days.

Tulum is a charming beachside town surrounded by jungle and with a motorway running through the middle of it. 
Our accommodation happened to be right on the main road so we did feel a bit like we were living at a truck stop. In addition to this, we were right by a speed bump so had the constant squeal of big lorries and cars slamming on their brakes in a desperate bid to slow down before the bump, which usually ended in the car bottoming out - it basically sounded like a constant series of car pile-ups throughout the day and night! Still, it's funny how quickly we got used to this and were soon sleeping through the noise.

However on the other side of the premises was jungle, and we were visited one morning by a large family of coates (pronounced co-ah-tees), which are Mexican raccoons. As we enjoyed our breakfast in the garden, twenty-odd raccoons descended on us from the treetops to be fed by the hostel owner - this experience is not to be confused however with eating breakfast (or trying to eat breakfast) with the monkeys around in Borneo! The coates are timid and not aggressive (and very cute!)

One particularly sunny morning, we got up early to go to Casa Cenote - one of the many 'cenotes' or limestone sinkholes across the region. Casa Cenote is situated right by the beach so the water in the cenote was saline, rather than the usual (freezing) fresh water. We hired a kayak, a snorkel and mask and spent the morning paddling around in the water, then spent the afternoon on the adjacent beach, reading and watching the pelicans dive into the sea.

The next stop on our trip is Belize - I'll write you another post from there. 
I hope the Christmas preparations are going well!

Sarah and Kev xx