Bumping the bottom in Belize – part 2

We had returned to Placencia from the Cays to restock the boat and spend some time visiting the mainland, We spent a week at anchor off the beach at Placencia in a well-protected bay which gave us the time and security we needed to spend more time ashore. We tested a few local restaurants where we could buy a meal for two with drinks for £20 equivalent and often ate lion fish which was delicious and even served as fish and chips. There was also the usual plethora of excellent hardware stores and at costs a quarter of marina pieces we fixed a few things on the boat and invested in a couple of solar lights to light the boat at anchor rather than using our power hungry Anchor light.


Placencia High Street


Fruit and veg was great quality and not expensive


Shopping at Greg’s store before we leave for Guatemala

After a few days relaxing we decided to take a two hour bus trip to Punta Gorda which entailed getting a water taxi to Mango Creek, a taxi to the bus station in Independence and a bus to Punta Gorda. When we arrived at the bus station I discovered I had lost our kitty money (around £200.00) after paying off the taxi. Panic stations – the taxi had gone but staff at the bus station were great, they identified the driver as John from my description and phoned him to ask to check the back of his cab. He phoned back to say it wasn’t there. I knew it had to be so I asked another taxi driver to take me to meet him, and after 30 minutes we tracked him down only it wasn’t our driver and this guy who was the President of the taxi association was furious at being accused of absconding with the money; not by me but by other drivers. I described the car and driver again to my driver and he identified him as “Junior” and rang him; 3 minutes later he rang back to say he had found it and so with great relief we set off to meet him. He told me I was very lucky because the wallet had fallen under the front seat and not been noticed by the two other fares he had had since us. Gill knew I had found it by the huge cheesy grin on my face as I got out of the taxi, just in time to catch our bus to Punta Gorda.


The bus station at Independence where we caught the bus for Punta Gorda

The bus passed through a mix of agricultural land and light jungle and we saw lots of little thatched farmhouses and at one point a sign which intrigued me saying “Slow Tapirs Crossing”. Apparently they roam naturally but are not very good at the green cross code!  This was the “Express” but in true Belizean style they stopped anywhere for anyone and delivered and collected parcels along the way. When the driver got thirsty he stopped at a little roadside shop and the conductor got off to buy him drinks and a snack and off we went again. Then a guy hopped on who sold snacks and went up the isle selling his wares and when he’d finished he got off to wait for the bus going the other way, no fare to pay, all very laid back.

One of the places we wanted to see in Punta Gorda was the chocolate factory which reportedly benefited from the first fairtrade agreement set up by Green and Black in the UK with the cocoa bean growers of Belize. This tiny facility made thousands of different flavour chocolate bars a week and of course we had to try some samples before buying the ones we preferred. The bars are individually numbered by hand and a best before date written on the back and taste terrific. (see photo). By sheer chance we met up with Palovi Baezar the other Lion fish jeweller in the Chocolate Factory while we were both visiting and gained a broader insight to the problem.


The Chocolate Factory but no Charlie


Gill doing a little tasting in the Chocolate Factory

By the time we came out of chocolate heaven it was lunchtime and we decided to eat at a beach side hut run by a large formidable lady called Jocelyn. We both chose grilled snapper which was delicious and washed it down with her freshly squeezed orange juice. This was quite similar to a place we ate at in Placencia called Brenda’s, another formidable lady of great character who had a shack on the beach, served simple tasty food from very basic equipment at a very reasonable price and bring your own beer.

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Jocelyn’s Beach side restaurant serving great fish

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Brenda’s Beach shack, Placencia

After a week in Placencia and with a favourable weather forecast for the coming week we decided to go out and visit the Sapodilla Cays at the south end of the reef, reputedly the loveliest and most remote in Belize. Our first stop was Ranguana Cay which we reached after threading our way through very shallow waters and coral heads, something which was to be a feature of our days on these cays. From here we sailed outside the reef passing through a narrow gap to the sea beyond hoping to catch a glimpse of the whalesharks which are currently taking advantage of the snapper spawning season (not one in sight) and then back in again at Hunting Cay 12 miles further south. This was easier sailing, avoiding the shallows, but nerve racking enough passing through these reef gaps, hoping the charts are accurate!  At times like this the forward looking sonar I had fitted in Cowes came into its own – a fantastic bit of kit that gives you a 40 metre underwater sonar view forward of the boat and a great aid for threading your way through such treacherous waters.

We tried to anchor off Hunting Cay but it was too shallow for us to enter despite chart information to the contrary, so we aimed for Lime Cay and anchored with 0.5 metres below our keel. We were then hit by a rain squall but all held well and we didn’t touch the bottom.


Lime Cay and its shallow anchorage

The following day we headed north to Nicholas Cay but the same story it was just too shallow for us to get in so we sailed 3 miles north to Franks Cay and anchored in a perfect horseshoe anchorage protected from everywhere but the north. Again we anchored after 5 attempts and a change of anchors in 0.6m under our keel over thick turtle grass, the prospect of a beautiful island to visit the following day and some great snorkelling on offer. Wrong – the wind got up in the night and guess from where – the north. We bounced and pitched all night but only hit the bottom once, I was out of bed 2 seconds later. We couldn’t risk trying to find the narrow entrance out of this trap in the dark and had to wait it out until morning. By dawn the wind was 30 knots and rising, not what was forecast, so we decided to get out fast but as we had used our second anchor it meant that Gill had to raise it by hand while I controlled the boat in wildly pitching seas. She did it brilliantly and we squeezed out between the reefs into deeper water, breathing a huge sigh of relief and counting the lessons learned. The nearest safe haven in a northerly wind was 4 hours away on the mainland and we spent an uncomfortable time motoring through steep seas towards it with uncharted shallows around, sometimes having to stop the boat to find a way through and unable to use our sails which would have stabilised some of our pitching and rolling – not for the faint hearted. We later learned from an American boat that was also out on the Cays that the weather had worsened considerably and we were so glad we had decided to cut and run when we did. I also decided to give Gill much more practice in boat handling to free me to do the heavier tasks when required – one of our lessons learned.

We headed for a place called New Haven and anchored in 6m of water behind an island, well protected from all directions and by nightfall the wind had died and we had a blissful sleep. The next day we decided to explore the 3 mile long deserted beach ashore and headed off in the dinghy. There we found many coconut palms, some of which I could whack coconuts off with a long bamboo pole. The problem then was how to open them – the pictures show our manic attempts to crack them open with only modest success. (We now have a 3ft machete which does the job just fine and provides us with an effective boat defence.


How not to crack a coconut


Still no luck!


This could be better


Gill looking on with amusement


This how you do it


All that work for this!


Much easier – now we’re talking coconut tonight

We now have a good supply of coconuts and a source of milk – useful for our Pacific Island adventures yet to come.

Farther along the beach we saw some manatees grazing on the turtle grass close to shore and walked in to chest height to get close to them. We got within 20ft before our presence scared these gentle creatures away.


A view of coconut beach


Believe it or not this is a manatees nose and only 15ft away

We had decided to go back to Placencia to restock the boat again after our week on the Cays and return to Dangriga by bus to clear out through customs and immigration as our visas expired on the 21st May and the Customs guy had said it would be much cheaper than Placencia or other ports. The bus left at 7.00am so an early start to dinghy ashore and walk up to the terminus. The bus as always was packed and we were lucky to get a seat, although they are so hard your bum goes numb after half an hour. The kids are great and give up their seats for elderly and people help the elderly and infirm on and off the bus in a very caring way. No – neither Gill nor I needed assistance if that’s what you’re thinking. When we arrived at the offices the Customs guy told us it was $50.00 fee to exit but when I told him it was my birthday he let us off with no charge and a hearty handshake and happy birthday wishes – what nice people.

One of the other reasons Gill wanted to come back to Placencia is the Italian ice-cream shop, Tutti Frutti where they sell the most delicious selection of 18 flavours. So when we returned from our hot bus journey we headed straight there for choices of mango, dark chocolate, lime, baileys, pistachio, blackcurrant and many more – mmmmmmmmmmmmm!


Spoiled for choice


She’s here again


Gill’s second home in Placencia

While we were in Placencia I celebrated my birthday and had lunch at a place called the shack which served the hottest tacos we have ever tasted – needless to say it required a lot of beer to put the flames out


The Shack on the beach in Placencia


Man killing the heat!

Back in the nineties Placencia was hit by a hurricane which fortunately did little damage but just after it passed they had an earthquake which devastated the village and they left this jetty as it was afterwards.

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We often moored to this sorry structure with the dinghy


We wanted to go back to the Sapodillo Cays however the winds were too strong for the exposed anchorages so we headed down south to Guatemala a journey of around 60 miles stopping along the way at New Haven, where Gill ran the boat aground for the first time and another little cay called Moho – confusingly this was named the same as another cay we had visited further north.

We entered Guatemalan waters and hoisted our yellow quarantine flag and as we approached Livingston at the mouth of the Rio Dulce we set out lunch in the cockpit only to be attacked by a large swarm of wasps that decided our boat would make a handy resting place – let battle commence! Gill battened down the hatches and I set to work with a flip-flop and Gill with a kneeling pad and her expert tennis swing and we attacked the swarm with vigour. The main swarm had landed on a red and black reefing line hanging on the rail while the rest explored the boat. Lunch was put on hold while the battle raged for an hour until we had killed or driven off every wasp. The aft deck and cockpit were thick with dead bodies and remarkably neither of us was stung – boarders repelled!


A few of the casualties

To get over the 5ft mud bar at the mouth of the Rio Dulce river we had organised a tow from a fishing boat through Raul Morales the local agent, prior to leaving Belize. To catch the highest tide in May we had to arrive at 06.15 off the Livingston sea buoy and so after sussing out the lay of the land for the next morning, we spent the night at the nearest sheltered anchorage off Cabo Tres Puntas (2 hrs from Livingston) see map!

For the next chapter when we cross the bar to Livingston and explore the beautiful Rio Dulce through the Guatemalan jungle tune in at the end of June.

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