Saturday, 25 February 2017

Caye Caulker, Belize – Days 161 to 164

We feel as though we have arrived in paradise here on the little tropical island of Caye Caulker, in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Belize. 

It is very laid back, has no cars only golf carts, some with small engines, others all electric, that don’t go very fast. The roads are compressed earth and, other than the golf carts the only ways to get around are on bicycles, walking or by boat. It is surrounded by shallow sea with the world’s second largest barrier reef just off the coast and stretching from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsular right down past the bottom of Belize into Honduras. The shallow sea makes it impossible for ships of any size to get to the island so this, we think restricts numbers of visitors and the building of large hotels.

It seems still a locals island with many indigenous,  Jamaican’s and Afro-Caribbean’s making their homes here in amongst the holiday accommodation that often seem to be converted houses. There’s a school here and, opposite our guest house (which itself is a collection of various buildings) is a football field where local kids kick balls about and have a great time.

Main Street Caye Caulker during the 'rush hour'
The Afro-Caribbean culture along with the Creole language is here and people are so very friendly, no-one rushes and they always have a smile, time to speak, wave or touch fists. There’s a welcome at every bar or restaurant, they tell you in such glowing terms what’s on offer, but there’s no pressure, saying just come back when you’re ready and if you want to. Most food is, of course seafood and most is cooked on BBQ’s outside the front and served with coconut rice and salad, some offering a weak rum punch and desert to go with it.

The usual mode of transport
Locals private houses and the other mode of transport
The island is partly developed in a rustic sort of way but the southern part is relatively unspoilt, a coastal trail leading down round the tip and through woodland with only occasional views of the sea through the mangroves. It’s very low lying, being only a metre or so above sea level with the southern part being quite marshy and swampy, we had to take off our sandals and paddle on parts of the trail and we’ve noticed that many buildings are on stilts, so maybe they are being affected by rising sea levels.

Jackie getting in on our snorkeling trip
The main reason for coming here is to get out onto the reef, either diving or snorkelling and there are many operators willing to take folk out, most of them offering a similar price and similar trip: half day tour starts with a five minute boat ride to the reef, snorkel about in about 2m of water looking at coral and fish, the second is ‘shark and ray alley’, which really is just that, masses of the creatures swimming around and under us as we snorkelled. We had to get into the water without fins and by climbing down the ladder to avoid standing on the rays, who are ‘bottom feeders’ and could be right under your foot. 
The third stop was another reef section, then two more non snorkelling stops, one feeding the 4 feet long tarpon fish who would jump out of the water and snatch the sprats we held over the side. The feel of a huge mouth closing over your hand was quite scary but they didn’t hurt (despite someone telling us they have barbs in their mouths and can scratch). The last stop was to look at a sea horse colony, housed in an artificial enclosure at the edge of the sea, after the building of a hotel on their previous habitat. At least they rehoused them! After a quick circle in the bay, our captain had just given up on seeing the manatee, when he screeched to a hault (in a boat?) and there was a manatee, rubbish pictures, but we know we saw one! We chose one who offered a discount of BZ$10 each, at BZ$60 (£24) each and we went out the following day and really enjoyed it.

Meeting up with Steph for a meal
We met up again with Steph, the German girl travelling on her own, that we met in Tulum. She’s on a two week holiday and arrived in Caye Caulker the night before us, having taken the more expensive sea route there from Chetumal in Mexico, rather than our overland route to Corozal in Belize and then the ‘Thunderbolt’ express water taxi to San Pedro island and then another water taxi to little Caye Caulker. She was keen to meet up with us for a beer and meal when we arrived on the island, which we felt quite flattered about as she is under 30 and we are much older (me being more than twice her age!), so we had a really nice evening with her and then we felt really embarrassed as she insisted on paying!

Jackie in amongst the reef
She did the much more expensive diving option on her one day here, aiming to head off on the afternoon water taxi to Belize City and then onto the western jungle town of San Ignacio, where we are heading tomorrow. We won’t see her again as she only had a day there before going into Guatemala and the Tikal ruins and then returns to Mexico to fly home from Cancun. However before she left we met up again for another beer at a beachside bar, soaking up the afternoon sun and chatting about our snorkel and diving trips before she headed off, but not before paying for the beers! Such a nice person, but really not necessary, but thank you all the same, it was great meeting you. Safe journey!

A shark trying to hide in the reef
So yesterday, we chilled, drank, ate and generally spoiled ourselves. Today we went for the coastal walk, which took about three hours in the hot sun and now we’re chilling before getting ourselves organised to go out for some beers and a final Caye Caulker meal (we may even depart from seafood tonight, we saw someone BBQ’ing a piglet last night, the smell was fabulous! He told us he’s cooking another one tonight….).

And there's an eel
Tomorrow morning we get the water taxi to Belize City and then the bus to San Ignacio with a decision to be made on what jungle activity to do.

The only downside about Belize is the cost of things. No-one is over charging, it’s just that the Belize dollar is tied to the US dollar at 2:1 and it’s generally considered that the currency is overvalued. In many ways they seem to have a similar problem to Greece in the Euro, their balance of payments is in deficit, they are still overspending so the price of things has risen accordingly making it difficult to maintain the exchange rate. 
One local guy we spoke to in a bar in Corozal reckons there will be a devaluation very soon, which will make it much cheaper to come here, but will also make imported things more expensive for the locals. At the moment the US dollar is accepted everywhere along with the Belize dollar and the two are completely interchangeable at 2 Belize dollars to 1 US dollar, so you can pay in US, Belize or a combination of the two and get change in either currency.

A live Conche our guide brought to the surface (and replaced again)
For us it’s also very nice to see our Queen Elizabeth II’s head on all banknotes and coins, this being the old British colony of British Honduras. The name was changed to Belize in 1973, Britain granted independence only in the 1980’s and withdrew most of its troops in 1993, although there is still a British garrison here today. Interestingly, neighbouring Guatemala have never fully accepted Belize’s claim to be independent, still thinking it should be a province of their country and the border has never been completely settled. It may explain why border crossings can sometimes problematic. We shall see, we have that crossing yet to make, maybe Steph will let us know her experiences as she will do it before us.
Arriving at 'shark and ray alley'. There were a lot!
And they swam so gracefully!

 I don't know if you have access to Facebook, but if you have, have a lookat this video of an eagle ray I took:
A nurse shark cruising by
Not sure what this guy is, possibly a stone fish

Our third snorkel on the reef
Our fourth stop feeding the huge Tarpon fish. Here's one just crashing back into the water after snatching the sprat out of Jackies hand. It's never the one you see cruising around, it's another that darts unexpectedly from under the boat scaring you half to death!
I forgot to mention in the text the other stop to see the Manatee. This was the best shot I got. We are not allowed to snorkel with them anymore (which is a good thing, but not so good for photos)
The sea horse stop. They are not easy to photograph being so small!
This was the scene on land of people waiting to take the sunset photo at the top of this entry. There were quite a few people!
This is the Sandy Lane Guest House where we are staying. We are in the pink block with en suite at US$20 per night
And here's the football field opposite with all the locals playing
The animal sanctuary. We went in and made a donation, the old guy repairs bicycles to make ends meet and gladly accepts dog and cat food and any money donations. He has many cats and dogs and has even reared some iguanas. There was one iguana sleeping with two cats, they didn't seen to mind!
Even the police ride round in golf carts. Here are two giving a ticket to a lad on a bicycle. Don't know what he had done but I hid behind Jackie to take the photo as I thought they might not like it
In case you thought you were safe from iguanas in an upstairs room, think again!
Approaching the southern tip of the island on our 'round the island' walk
Not much going on at this end of the island, it's lovely

We did see this though, 'the worlds largest conche shell wall'. Who are we to argue?
Not sure who he was, but he was standing very quietly!
I tried for an artistic photo. Not sure if it worked or not
The path did get a bit boggy in places, not from rain, but because its low lying
Jackie trying to get a suntan on Crocodile Road (we didnt see any)
Here's something you don't see everyday, a gravel airstrip in amongst the marsh
He did manage to take off though
The golf carts can get to the most strange places
Picking our way through the marshes as we approach town
Caye Caulker fire station. They have two appliances, very impressive! Hope they don't get a big fire, most of the buildings are made of wood

Thoughts on Mexico

On the housesit in Tepoztlan, one hours drive south of Mexico City and at an altitude of 1700m, we loved the ‘Goldilocks weather’ as Louise called it: not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, just right!
Enjoyed being in a place that the locals visit, without many white faces, but we still became regulars at the market, the supermarket, and chatted with ‘chicken man’ and ‘dog man’

Got charged the same prices in the market as everyone else, and there was no haggling, it was really easy. Loved being able to buy celery by the stick, and cheap avocados…..

San Miguel de Allende had similar weather, but many more white faces, so prices went up!
Mexico City only saw a small part but enjoyed that and felt safe, where we went.
Hated Cancun, but can see its place in the world and for an expensive family holiday it would be great, loads to keep the kids amused, but it was hot!

Enjoyed going west to Valladolid and Merida, felt it was all quite ‘real’ and once we’d visited Chichen Itza we could much more enjoy, particularly Uxmal, without the ridiculous crowds. The concession stands and ancillary stuff at the ruins in Tulum were horrendous which was a shame as the ruins were really quite cheap, and pretty.

Easy to get ‘ruined out’

Would have been nice to have our own mask and snorkels for use in all the cenotes.

ADO buses make traveling easy, comfortable and affordable.

A huge country, but we didn’t feel safe to travel in all of it. Copper Canyon, up in the North-West near the border with the USA sounded lovely, but….. Acapulco on the Pacific coast sounded lovely but drug gangs make it very dangerous and we’d heard of people in campervans and big cars being ambushed and their vehicles stolen, even heard of a couple who resisted having their campervan stolen being killed and burnt inside their vehicle.

The border town (between Mexico and Belize) of Chetumal felt like an entirely different, and third world, country.

Although apparently the basic daily wage is 80 peso (£3.20) there is a lot of money floating around and it did not feel like a poor or third world country, particularly out in the east.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Mexico land border crossing to Belize (Corozal)

We have written this special blog entry just covering our land border crossing from Mexico into Belize as there is so much confusion , discussion and horror stories. This is our experience and what we did. 

For our non-Facebook readers, this is our second entry today, the previous one covers our stay in Tulum.
Here's the place in Chetumal that the busses for Belize leave from
Crossing Chetumal to Corozal. We left Tulum this morning on the regular ADO bus to Chetumal, costing, interestingly 165 peso for one of us and 179 peso for the other! Must have hit cut off point on concessionary tickets I guess. This was rather than 518 peso per person for an ADO bus that went across the border to Corozal, which is only an extra 26km. So we got a taxi from the ADO station to the Nuevo mercado bus station, for 50 peso and onto a chicken bus, only a third full at most, so plenty of space for us and bags. Cost $3 in US currency, or $5 if we had paid him in peso! 
Also showing the border crossing
Almost his first words, in lovely English, how refreshing, were "you will have to pay 500 peso each to cross the border, and I can't wait if you take too long" We had heard this figure of 500 bandied about the hostal which is quite a lot more than the 294 peso we had been working on when we hatched our plan. I had emailed Interjet who we flew into Mexico, from Peru on and they had confirmed that the DNI tourism tax was included in the ticket whether we left by air, land or sea, however had not provided the itemised receipt we had found was the best thing to have. So we had taken the email confirming our booking and added an extra line, so rather than just having the total price, we had flight price, and MX tourism tax, all coming to the same total. We had printed these two documents out.

Here's part of our doctored flight receipt that shows the MX Tourism Tax included. The original only showed the total price, we added the the two lines above
This little room is the Mexican Customs post
When shown into the little room, the border guard immediately started with “500 peso please, land exit fee”. I presented her with the email which she wasn't interested in, and then the flight schedule, which she was, she had a little pile of similar, from Expedia and the like, all with the FMM immigration cards neatly stapled to them. She said it was very important if we came back by air and out by land again that we had this in the future, stamped our passports and away we went, very happy people. 

This isn't a border 'scam' if you arrive by land and leave by land you have to pay, if you arrive by charter flight, eg Thomson, you have to pay, but our scheduled airline ticket included this fee, so we didn't want to pay it twice, even when we thought it was only going to be about £24, let alone £40. 

This doesn't always seem to work though, I found a blog entry dated the 11 February this year stating that with an itemised flight ticket the guy still had to pay, and watched the money go into the breast pocket of the officials shirt, so I guess it does depend on the official you get, and some luck. We got the luck.

The Chicken Bus from Chetumal to Belize. It goes through to Belize City but we only went the 26km to Corozal.
The next potential problem was entering Belize, without proof of exit, so we'd printed out our first hotel booking in Guatemala, the cruise itinerary to prove we are leaving Central America, and the itinerary Brian had prepared for us, and a map showing where we were going. We weren't even asked for these, all that was required was an address of where we were staying tonight, which turns out we had wrong! When we got off the bus and walked to the address provided by we found ourselves at the Copper Horse, with our hotel being another 10 minutes away, and it was very very warm! 

Comfort is not its by-word, no aircon (30plus C) and very uncomfortable seats. Chetumal to Corozal is only 26km and about an hour with stops at the border so its not too bad. Going on to Belize city at 160km and about 4 hours I'm not so sure! But it is cheap, massively cheaper than the ADO bus
Oh well we are here now, just have to exchange our last pesos for Belizian dollars and buy the ferry ticket for Caye Caulker for the morning, which seems to involve loitering about when the ferry comes in at 5pm this evening.

No complaints this evening as we watched the sun set from the rooftop terrace of the Mirador Hotel in Corozal with a cold beer

Here's the view from the roof. The Thunderbolt boat for Caye Caulker leaves the pier you can just see behind the red clocktower. Its about 5 minute walk in the morning for the 7:00am once per day sailing. It was about 600m walk from the bus station to here.