Wandering through Belize

From our nice, protected anchorage behind the Drowned Cays about 10 miles east of Belize City, we called to see if the marina had any room.
“Cucumber Beach Marina, Cucumber Beach Marina, this is Sea Trek on Channel 16, over.”
Carlos, the marina manager, indicated they did and we could arrive any time that day. We decided to go into a marina — something we normally do very seldom when cruising — for several reasons. First, very strong winds were expected to develop over the next few days. Second, our outboard was cutting out at inconvenient times, such as heading downwind in a strong current. Good thing Chuck is a strong rower or he might have been blown to Belize City in a good easterly. Since we were in no hurry, we got the anchor up, motored out of our little “bogue” and headed just south of west across Belize Harbor. Once on course, we popped the jib and cut the engine. What started as flat-water sailing got progressively more boisterous as we left the lee of the Drowned Cays. By the time we approached Cucumber Beach, we were surfing down 4-footers. I thought it was supposed to be flat sailing behind the reefs in Belize, but this is a wide area with a 10-mile fetch in waters of only 25 feet or so.

From a few miles out, Cucumber Beach is very apparent with its red-and-white roofs, which stand in stark contrast to miles and miles of nothing but mangrove trees. The marina entrance coordinates had been provided to us by Carlos and we rolled up the jib about a half-mile from the waypoint. A jetty running diagonally to shore has been built at the marina entrance to reduce the amount of surge that is allowed to enter. We were guided in on VHF channel 68 to our slip, having cleared ahead of time which side we would be tied to and had fenders and dock lines ready. Smiling, friendly dockhands were on hand to assist us, and within minutes we were secure.

Repairs and provisions
Cucumber Beach Marina is truly an oasis along the mainland coast of northern Belize. Once a commercial port for the exportation of, you guessed it, cucumbers, the property has been converted to a marina, yard, restaurant and museum. Just five miles from Belize City on the Southern Highway, this is the perfect place to reprovision, do inland trips or get those repairs done that have plagued you since you left the United States.
Our first order of business was the outboard. Carlos and Paul know every mechanic, taxi driver, service provider, etc., in the area and within hours, had a mechanic respond to our boat. There are no services on the grounds, but someone can drive out from the city very quickly. The mechanic took our outboard back to his shop and delivered it the same afternoon in much better working order. We also needed propane and were concerned about riding the bus with our tank. No problem. The gas company came to the marina, picked up our tank, refilled it and also had it back in the same day for around $5 (U.S.). (Note: Belizean currency is $2 to 1 U.S. dollar, which gives you the illusion of getting everything half price.)

Now that the critical issues were resolved, we could move on to the more mundane concerns of laundry and groceries. With only one washer and one dryer, laundry took a while, but it was a short walk from the boat. Shopping was another issue with town being five miles away.

We happened to strike up a conversation with a Canadian woman whose cousin lives in Belize, and had lent her a car to use during her stay. I was able to hitch a ride to the store with her and top off Sea Trek’s stores with items from the Save-U and the wonderful produce markets directly across the street. We found local meats and produce to be fairly reasonably priced and of good quality. U.S. products could also be purchased, but for substantially more than at home.

Taking in the sights
Back at the marina we had finished all of our projects so decided to explore the grounds. From our vantage point on the northern side of the marina basin next to the office, we had to walk west and around the Travelift pit to get to the restaurant. Very noticeable are all of the very large ferry catamarans parked in the basin. They service the cruise ships that anchor out in the middle of the harbor, just south of the city. They begin early in the morning on days when ships are in port and take passengers to the ferry terminal in the city. (Should you make it into the city, there are wonderful duty-free shops and arts galleries near the terminal.) Also on the property is Old Belize, a museum with artifacts and historical background on this tiny country. On the waterfront is Sibun Bite restaurant.

The entire complex is owned and operated by Francis Cisco. A nicer and friendlier proprietor you will not find. He personally greets all boaters and is very open to suggestions. We should also mention that we found the food at Sibun Bite reasonably priced and delicious. Free wireless Internet is available in the marina and restaurant.
Francis has taken the area in front of the restaurant on the harbor’s edge and transformed it into a beach complete with tiki huts, kayaks and palm trees. It makes one feel like they are in Polynesia.

We got weathered in Cucumber Beach with very strong trades so decided to go inland. If your cruising kitty is well-stocked, you can hire a private taxi to take you virtually anywhere in the country, even to neighboring Guatemala to Tikal. (It’s closer from here than from the Rio Dulce.) The Belize Zoo is only 20 miles away from the marina and is an inexpensive, fun-filled day. With limited funds, we braved the country’s bus system and rode to San Ignacio. It was hot and crowded and lots of water is recommended. We had the small ruins of Cahal Pech, a Mayan city, to ourselves one bright morning. Hotels and restaurants are plentiful and reasonably priced. We spent three great days in this rustic small town that is loaded with tourist attractions.

Island hopping
We knew we needed to press on so continued south after saying goodbye to the friendliest, most helpful marina staff we had ever met anywhere. We broke the days up into short hops of 15 or 20 miles as the weather forecast looked quite good for the week. The first night was Bluefield Range near Rendezvous Cay close to the reef.
This defunct fishing camp is distinguishable from a distance with its light blue tiny stilt cabins. One can anchor in its lee, in between the cays for all around protection or on the Caribbean side in a westerly, with good holding. It is a short two-mile dinghy ride to the outlying reef for snorkeling, fishing or diving.

The next night we had chosen Coco Plum Cay near the Tobacco Cay reef pass. Although a beautiful little cay, broken up into three after numerous storms, the holding was terrible and we spent two hours trying to get either a CQR or Danforth to hold. The bottom was just too hard and grassy for anything to penetrate so we let out the 45-pound anchor and 150 feet of chain to hold us in place. We prayed for no squalls overnight and fortunately there were none.

Ordinarily we would have moved to a better anchorage, but the afternoon was wearing on and we didn’t want to get stuck in reef-strewn waters in the dark.
We moved on to Placencia the next day. I was very excited to see so many anchored boats through the binoculars as we approached from the north, but quickly realized the majority of them were charter boats. We did become reunited with some recent friends that had left us back in Cay Caulker.

Placencia is an interesting town at the end of a very long road. (See accompanying story, Page 11.) We cleared out of Belize in Big Creek, just south of Placencia. Chuck and the captain of the other boat dinghied the three or so miles there from the anchorage in Placencia. (It’s only three miles by water, but 45 miles by road.) They were chastised for not bringing the big boats to Big Creek as well as fined an additional $20 by the customs official. Live and learn.

A quiet anchorage
Our last stop before the Rio Dulce was New Haven Bight. This secure, protected anchorage on the mainland side of Belize is also part of the National Park system. We decided to spend two nights there to wait a weather window to cross the Gulf of Honduras to Livingston, Guatemala. Once the home of Hard Luck Charlie’s Boat Yard, this quiet anchorage is all but deserted. Hard Luck Charlie died some years back, as rumor has it, by getting drunk and driving his boat into the mangroves. You can’t get your boat hauled here, but there is a lovely mango tree next to Charlie’s old house that was spilling delicious fruit onto the ground.

A catamaran anchored in the little bay was occupied by an American couple looking to buy property in the cove and spend their retirement here. We found this to be true in many places in Belize and Guatemala.

Like much of Belize, this area is now designated as part of a park system. On our second morning there we were hailed on VHF 16 by the Port of Honduras. Two gentlemen in a panga approached our stern and advised us that we would need to pay $10 (U.S.) per day per person for our stay there. Chuck politely discussed this with them. We could not understand why this would be part of the park as it was mainland area and not reefs, and there were no moorings or services.

They couldn’t have been more courteous and accepted payment for one day instead of two. They told Chuck that some people refuse to come out of their boats to speak to them and others don’t let them touch their boats to hang on to talk.

Belize is a wonderful, beautiful country with friendly people. However, one should note before traveling through Belize by boat that much of the country, mainland and cays, is part of the park system and as such is subject to a per-person charge to anchor. Tropicat, a cruising boat out of San Francisco, reported to us in December 2005 that at Lighthouse Reef the charge is $30 (U.S.) per person per day.

For those of us on tight budgets these costs can become prohibitive so, unfortunately, we did not see as much of Belize as we would have liked. Hopefully, the government there will reconsider some of these charges and the effect they might have on future tourism.
Having said that, we loved the time we spent in Belize and the new friends we made. But it was time to move on and experience Guatemala.

2 comments:

  1. Reading your blog has been very interesting and brings back a lot of memories. I spent nine months wandering through Mexico, Belize and the Rio Dulce back in '92 single-handed. Back then there were no charges for anchoring in Belize. I loved Caulker and Placencia.

    One of my best anchorages was at Garbutt Caye. There I traded three cans of Chef Boyardee raviolis, a can of pork and beans and two tiny Taster's Choice instant coffee jars and got 13 lobsters and 3 conch in return. I spent nearly a week there going out with George Dawson who worked out there as he went diving for lobster. And I spent another five days on the way back when he helped me dive on my boat and scrub the bottom.

    Again, I'm really enjoying your blog.

    Richard

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hard luck Charlie was my dad and I lived in New Haven until I was 11 . I love re as reading about him. Heather

    ReplyDelete

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