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Friday, January 25, 2013

Procrastinating in Placencia


The picturesque seaside town of Placencia, in southern Belize, was meant to be a brief stopover for Bandit; a place to clear in with immigration, re provision, check internet and wait for a weather system to blow through.   Along with Amanda and Mark on Balvenie, we’d headed here after three days in the glorious Sapodilla Cays. DSC_0348

Belize gets frequent “northers” blowing down from the United States in December and January.  As the reefs and cays offer little protection for yachts, it’s essential to head for a safe anchorage such as Placencia to sit out these winds.


But our few days in Placencia turned into four, five and then six but oddly enough it wasn’t the wind keeping us there it was the cloud cover.  The wind never really came to anything but for days on end we had overcast skies which meant we couldn’t move very far.  The coast of Belize is strewn with coral reefs – much of it uncharted – so eyeball navigation is essential and that’s impossible with cloud cover.


 So procrastinate we did, ears pinned to the morning weather report hoping for a break….but it continued to be bleak.  Just as well Placencia was a gorgeous spot to wait.  With its bright colours, vibrant atmosphere, reggae music and spicy food, it felt thoroughly Caribbean even though it’s essentially a central American country.



Life in Placencia is simple.  Townsfolk live in tiny houses, many appear homebuilt and most sit on stilts, theoretically for air flow and to keep bugs at bay but I reckon it’s for the magnificent sea views.  The beautiful beach stretches for miles and is coarse golden sand – the kind that doesn’t get in your lunch or stick to your skin – perfect.DSC_0349

Placencia was spotlessly clean – the beach was regularly raked and we never saw any rubbish in the town.  This was an absolute pleasure after months of being in central America where everyone drops litter at random.   Sometimes you feel like you are living in a rubbish tip.


We found a fantastic coffee shop – sitting on stilts in a funny old wooden building - and wasted a few hours there drinking great flat whites, catching up on email and internet news and filling in time.


We tried to eat out at Omar’s Creole Grub, reputed to be the best (and cheapest) in town for fresh seafood, and highly rated by those in the know.  Come Friday night we dressed up and headed out with Balvenie only to find Omar’s was closed.  That’s how it works in the Caribbean!  Oh well, maybe Omar didn’t catch any lobster.  We found another creole restaurant and feasted on prawns and chicken.


Another night we had a true creole feast thanks to my namesake Brenda who runs a great seaside shack on the waterfront.  Every day she’d ask with a huge smile “when you gunna eat here?”.  We eventually relented and for NZ$7 she dished us up a huge plate of plantain, breadfruit, turkey, gumbo, rice and a few things we couldn’t identify (and decided not to ask).  As it was her birthday she threw in rum, fresh fruit and cake.


Placencia certainly had its charm but by day seven we’d had enough.  We had detailed GPS coordinates for nearby Lark Cay so headed off and gingerly picked our way there dodging reefs and shoal ground. 


It was a safe anchorage and it was wonderful to see dolphins feeding right beside Bandit and a manatee surfacing nearby in the mangroves.  But the overcast weather continued so after two days we headed back to Placencia for another dose of internet and good coffee and to procrastinate a little longer.  The forecast is for sunshine by the weekend so with any luck, we’ll be able to continue our exploration of the Belize Barrier Reef which is the second largest in the world.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Unique Utila


The Honduras Bay Island of Utila will be memorable for two things – freediving and the wind.  Freediving is diving without scuba gear – something that had always intrigued David. 


When he discovered that Lisa, our fantastic yoga instructor, also taught freediving he needed no encouragement - he was in, fins and all.  First day he dived to 12m and the second to 20m…holding his breath for an astonishing two minutes.   Not bad for a first timer… and on old timer!


Freediving simply means diving without bottled air, as David says – “Just a breathing procedure lasting about two minutes a big breath and down you go.”  There is some necessary breathing techniques and safety stuff to learn first of course.  He had some trouble getting deeper than 12 metres because he could not equalise his ear pressure.  “However once I figured that going feet first worked I was able to plummet like a stone to 20m!  (66 ft).  Rest assured this will be a personal best as I have no intention of having a go at the record of 101m, but the experience was great and the adrenaline rush must have got rid of my shingles!,” he says.


But back to the wind.  We left the neighbouring Honduras Bay Island of Roatan with strong winds forecast, but didn’t feel we were in a secure enough anchorage to sit them out there.   It was a brisk sail across to Utila, with a messy swell, but as we arrived the winds lightened and the anchorage was beautifully sheltered- not for long!


Utila is a hangout for backpackers – as opposed to Roatan which is full of expatriate Americans, wealthy tourists, cruise ship passengers (about 10 ships visit a week) and washed up yachties.  It didn’t rate that highly with us but was a good place to wait for David’s shingles to improve.  Utila, with its laid back atmosphere, quaint shops, dozens of dive centres and hundreds of young people was far more our scene.


We’ve found throughout our travels that we really enjoy young people – they are so energising, interesting and inspiring.  And of course backpacker haunts are always cheaper than high end resorts!

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Utila may not have the multi million dollar resorts that Roatan does but what it lacks in flash hotels it makes up for in cheap and cheerful atmospheric cafes, bars and restaurants….some are downright weird (see pix above!).   There are more tattoos, dreadlocks, piercings and alternative clothes on show here than elsewhere in the Caribbean too.


But (once again) back to the wind.  The one thing people never tell you about in the Caribbean is the wind.  Before we sailed to Greece well meaning people warned us about the Meltemi but noone ever mentioned the Caribbean trade winds and, to be honest, since arriving in the Caribbean December 2011…it’s done nothing but blow.   Give us a good Greek Meltemi any day of the week!


So there we were stuck in Utila with winds of up to 35 knots blowing day and night.  Then there was the odd torrential rainstorm just to keep us on our toes and fill our water tanks - we collected 300 litres in one downpour!  We also managed to get totally saturated in the process as we’d been in town for a meal when the deluge began.


The wind was very frustrating and meant we couldn’t get down to the picturesque cays at the bottom of the islands or do any snorkelling – it was just too windy and rough.  Luckily Utila had enough to keep us occupied – internet, free Spanish lessons and of course, David’s freediving course.  We both also did the sunset yoga classes with Lisa on a dock over the sea – fantastic location and amazing classes.


We were relieved when the wind eventually eased and there was a window for an overnight sail to the Sapodilla Cays in Belize.  We left in company with Kiwi mates Mark and Amanda on Balvenie.  It’s always nice to sail in convoy in these waters which are generally safe but there has been the odd incident of piracy including one last year.



As we gingerly picked our way through the coral reefs at the bottom of Utila we caught a tuna – first fish of the season!   Dawn brought us to beautiful Nicolas Cay – which we visited last season.  It remains one of our favourite and most memorable anchorages in the Caribbean with its crystal clear water, fantastic snorkelling and gorgeous white sandy beaches.  Within minutes of anchoring the caretaker paddled out saying he remembered us from our last visit and did we have the cigarettes we had promised him!!  We did and handed them over along with a couple of cold beers!DSC_0312

We stayed for a couple of days enjoying the remoteness and tranquillity and some fantastic snorkelling.  Highlight was watching two beautiful spotted eagle rays feeding. An interesting experience was having a small reef shark swim right up to us – so close that David had to punch it in the nose…just to let it know who was boss.  It was our third shark sighting in as many days.  Most of the sharks here are harmless nurse sharks…but seeing them still is a bit spooky.  There is a “norther” forecast – a cold front heading down from the US with strong winds – so we’re now tucked up in Placencia on the Belize mainland for a few days to sit it out.  Looking forward to exploring the rest of the beautiful Belize Cays and the famous Blue Hole.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Paradise found….the Cayos Cochinos


Sailing in the western Caribbean has been an eye opening experience.  We had absolutely no idea there were so many gorgeous islands and anchorages, so many different and wonderful cultures and best of all…such amazing snorkelling in crystal clear water.


We’ve had many surprises in this part of the world but when we arrived in the spectacular Cayos Cochinos – an archipelago about 15kms off the north coast of Honduras – we reckoned we’d found paradise.  They were just magic – quiet, remote and beautiful.


It took us a while to get there as we got stuck for two weeks in French Cay anchorage in Roatan – not our style at all.  We are a bit of a rare breed amongst cruisers in that we like to keep on the move…any more than a few days in one anchorage and we get itchy feet. 


We had been trying to leave Roatan for some time but had to wait until David’s health improved.  We ended up having New Year’s Eve there which was great as we finally caught up with Kiwi buddies Mark and Amanda on Balvenie who’d come up from Panama.


New Year’s Day dawned a cracker, David was feeling okay so we were off.  We had a fantastic sail the 20 miles down to the Cayos Cochinos with 12-15knots of wind in flat seas.  We watched Roatan fade into the distance – a nice enough island but we will remember it for the wrong reasons – the shingle sanitarium!   The Honduras coast is mostly considered unsafe due to piracy but the Cayos Cochinoas are regularly patrolled by Coast Guard and so relatively safe for cruisers.DSC_0132

Within minutes of arriving we had proof of that.  The marine park manager arrived accompanied by two young military guys armed with M16s.  When we told them that in New Zealand our coast guard (and even our police) aren’t visibly armed, one insisted he pose with me for a photo and I never argue with a man holding a gun.  He assured me it was unloaded but still…the false smile is sheer nerves!


We’re getting used to seeing men with guns – they seem to be standard issue in most of Central America.  Guards outside all banks have shotguns while it’s common to see security staff in shops with a pistol at their waist.  At KFC in San Salvador guards had AK47s.



Only some of the Cayos Cochinos are inhabited.  On Cochino Grande there are a handful of holiday homes on the west side and a small village and school on the east.  Cochino Pequeno has a marine research centre, a very low key eco tourism resort and the coast guard base.


The locals are incredibly friendly and come paddling out in their cayucos selling fresh coconuts, fish or just wanting to chat.  Some speak English but most speak only Spanish (good practice for us).


The snorkelling around the islands here was the best we’d had since  Venezuela with some beautiful coral.   Only downside were the nasty transparent jellyfish which meant we had to wear rash suits and leggings and cover our faces with vaseline.  We still got stung!


We only planned to stay a night but it was so beautiful we couldn’t tear ourselves away.  In fact it was only due to rapidly diminishing fruit and vegetable supplies that we reluctantly left.  There are no shops in the islands and we would have got awfully sick of coconuts. 


One day we motored to the neighbouring island of Cayo Chachahuata, an island about the size of two football fields which is home to 200 people.  To say they are crowded is an understatement. 


There is no running water or electricity.  Water is either collected when it rains or taken from a slightly salty freshwater well.  Cooking is done at a communal outdoor kitchen.  The two toilets are also communal.  The huts are tiny and absolutely basic with packed sand floor and little in the way of furniture – just the odd plastic chair or hammock…yet everyone seems incredibly happy.


Fishing used to be the mainstay but tourism has probably taken over.  While we were there two boatloads of tourists (from the mainland) visited with all those on board enjoying a freshly cooked meal of lobster or red snapper and buying handmade turtle jewellery. DSC_0181

We refused to buy turtle products and couldn’t quite understand why they were being sold given the neighbouring island is a protected turtle sanctuary!!…but bought two fresh lobster to cook on Bandit – $10 for a kilo.  We felt we’d contributed a little to the island. 


The people we spoke to were all incredibly friendly.   Wandering through the maze of huts we came across an old couple who were happy enough to converse and allow us to practice our Spanish. 


We chatted for a while and when we handed over a small bottle of rum they were delighted – we’d slipped a few such gifts into our backpack.  We got some great shots of them.


There seemed to be lots of children on the island (wonder why?)…all very friendly and cheeky “quero un limpero”….I want money!


We could have happily stayed here longer but the weather forecast was good to get back to Roatan and we’d finished the last of our fresh pineapple and papaya.  Despite the Cayos Cochinos (and Roatan for that matter) being incredibly lush and green, nothing much in the way of fruit is grown here.  It’s all shipped in from the mainland.  And the fruit and vege boat gets in to Roatan on Friday……and it was Friday so we reluctantly headed away.