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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Belize used to be British Honduras, but gained independence from Great Britain and changed its name to Belize in 1981. It has an interesting history in that like most of Latin America, it was once part of Spain, but the Spanish did little to govern it, probably because it has little in the way of natural resources. It did have vast forests, but the great hardwoods were harvested long ago. However, its barrier reef, which is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, meant that it had a protected shoreline and a natural barrier to deep draft war ships. So, with little opposition from Spain, English and Scottish settlers and pirates moved in. Finally in 1862, while the U.S. was embroiled in civil war and in no position to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, Great Britain simply annexed the area and dubbed it British Honduras. The Spanish felt it wasn't worth fighting over and let it go. English became the official language and still is. Documents and signage are all in English, but the accent can be daunting. Plus, because of the country's location, most Belizeans speak Spanish and a local dialect that is a conglomeration of English, Spanish, Creole and Mayan. The country is very small with a population of less than 500,000, with high mountains on the west, Mexico to the north, the Caribbean to the east and Guatemala to the south.
The Belizean coastline stretches about 120 miles north and south with relatively shallow water ranging from five to 105 feet between the mainland and the barrier reef. The area between the mainland and the reef is full of small islands. Some are occupied and some are not, but all are interesting to visit. The closer to the reef, the clearer the water, so some of the islands have superb snorkeling and diving. Several miles outside the reef there are two large atolls. One is called The Turneffe Islands and one is called Lighthouse Reef. We did not visit these islands as the winds were not favorable and we felt we did not have time. We will save those islands for another visit. However, we were told that the snorkeling, diving and fishing are superb there.
Coming north from Guatemala, our first stop in Belize was a bay on the mainland called New Haven, where we anchored for one night and rested after a rather raucous sail since the winds were out of the northeast. The coastline of Belize is not particularly pretty. It is low and marshy with many mangroves. The water is not particularly clean either, so we left the next day and motor sailed east to Sapadillo Cay (Key), which is a small island on the barrier reef. The water there was very clean and we enjoyed snorkeling. There is a large break in the reef just south of Sapadillo, which allows boats to have access to the Caribbean side. We saw many small and large boats trolling up and down in the deep water close to the reef. The next day we sailed north to the city of Placencia where we checked into the country. The Belizeans do not make checking in easy. We had to go into town to have our passports stamped at the police station, which also served as the immigration office, then travel three miles to the customs office to have more paperwork filled out and stamped and finally to the Agricultural Department where we had to fill out a form listing all the food we had on board. Since we listed some fruit, an inspector had to come aboard and confiscate our apples, lemons, limes, bananas and tomatoes. Supposedly, the fruit would be destroyed to be sure no parasites were brought into the country. This was the first time in all our travels in the Caribbean that anyone asked about fresh fruit and vegetables.
Placencia itself is a nice little town that depends almost exclusively on tourism. There are many restaurants, a couple of small hotels and some apartments to rent plus lots of dive shops where snorkeling and diving trips can be arranged. We stayed three days and mostly explored the restaurants. It was quite novel to be able to speak English to everyone. Even the television and radio stations were in English. After leaving Placencia, we motor sailed back to the barrier reef and spent several more days snorkeling and exploring Lagoon Cay, South Water Cay, Glory Cay, the Colson Cays, Cay Chapel, Cay Caulker and finally Ambergris Cay, which is at the northern end of Belize and almost on the border with Mexico. The condition of the reefs and abundance of fish was about what we had seen elsewhere in the Caribbean except that there were many more conch and lobster than we had seen anywhere. We surmised that since most of the Belizean economy is based on banana exporting and tourism as opposed to fishing and since the population is still small, there is much less pressure on the fish and related seafood resources. We arrived in San Pedro, Ambergris Cay on 11 May 2004. San Pedro is a neat little town with sand streets and dozens of dive shops as well as the usual restaurants, hotels and shops. We did some provisioning there and found a pizza parlor run by an American expatriate where we got the best pizza we have had since our last visit to the states. We did not buy any fuel in Belize because of the prices. Diesel was $3.00 a gallon and gasoline was $4.00. We only think we pay high prices in the states.
We checked out of Belize on 12 May, intending to leave via the small cut in
the reef just across the small bay from Ambergris Cay, but after watching
one 50 foot sailboat fight the 20 plus knot winds in the narrow channel, we
elected to stay inside the reef and sail south to Long Cay Pass, which is a
cut in the reef about a half mile wide. We left Belize on the 14th with the
seas lower, but still strong, but nothing like they were at Ambergris Cay. We had to motor sail against the wind all night to reach Cayo Norte, which is an atoll off the coast of Mexico. We had intended to spend the next night there, but we were far enough east by then to be able sail a slightly west of north course without using the engines to reach Cozumel. So, we
continued on, reaching the town of San Miguel on the island of Cozumel at
1000 on the 16th. Since it was Sunday, we knew we could not check in without paying a weekend fee, so we stayed on the boat and rested. The next day, instead of checking in at San Miguel, we decided to sail on to Isla Mujeres. We had a favorable 2 to 3 knot current, which coupled with a
strong easterly wind enabled us to record speeds in excess of 9 knots over the ground. That was a record for us. On the way to Isla Mujeres, we sailed past the beaches of Cancun. The beach is about 5 miles long and is crammed with huge and incredibly gorgeous hotels. The beaches were snow white and the water was crystal clear. We saw the bottom clearly 70 feet
below us. It is no wonder this is such a popular tourist spot. Isla Mujeres lies across the Bahia Mujeres from Cancun. It is a small, but beautiful spot to spend some time. Stay tuned.