Winter in Belize Guys!

So we finished up our PADI Open Water Diver certs in January 2010 in Vancouver (in dry suits) and headed to Belize to get a taste of some Caribbean diving. I’ll divide this report up into our experience in San Pedro, our diving experience, and our inland adventures.

San Pedro

We flew in to San Pedro from Belize International and took Maya Island Air to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Maya is actually quite reasonably priced if you pay cash. In San Pedro we stayed at the Conch Shell Inn. It was clean and well kept and had nice big showers which made cleaning up after diving very easy. It is also located very central to most dive shops so we just hopped into our wetsuits and walked across the beach to our dive ops. This also made it easy to wander back to the hotel for bathroom breaks and snacks during our surface intervals. All that said, there are some issues with the Conch Shell Inn and I would not stay there again. The biggest problem is that it is next door to Cholos Bar which is open all night long. The radio plays there continuously and while the bar isn’t particularly crowded, the night is punctuated by the yells of drunken revelers at all hours. This will keep you awake. If you do stay at the Conch Shell, stay on the second floor – you’ll get a bit of shelter from Cholos and will be a bit more out of earshot of beach traffic.

We happened to be in San Pedro during Carnival this year which was a bit of an added ‘treat’. Basically every local man, woman and child seem to have bottles and buckets of paint and a massive splatter war ensues for 3 evenings in February – this was additionally noisy and very messy. Made it difficult to wander around the town without getting covered in paint – I don’t recommend it unless you plan for it – you will get paint on you unless you stay in your hotel room and eat canned beans and canned salsa or something. Or just stay north or south of town and eat at your hotel those nights.

San Pedro is a great town. Lots of fun restaurants and bars. If you eat at the decent looking places, you’re going to pay through the nose for food in town. We were actually surprised that meals were so expensive. We had dinner at Caliente’s a couple times which we really liked – great sauces. Note that there is a roving beach BBQ that appears at different hotels each night of the week. We caught up with it at Ramon’s. Later in our trip we cut back our food budget a bit and ended up eating delicious food for about half the price we’d been eating at. We had some great stew at El Fogon in a fun hut south of town near the airport. Had massive entrees at Waruguma on the middle street. And came back for a selection of papusas and grilled foods from several different street vendors on the middle street out in front of Waruguma another night. There are several vendors who sell decent absurdly cheap meals from the plaza by the church near the center of town by the beach. The only meal we thought was lame for the price was from La Playa – which has a fantastic atmosphere but kinda bland, overcooked food. Oh and one more thing about our culinary experience in Belize… Belikin <3 Diving

As I mentioned, we are newbie divers. Had only done our open water cert dives. So we asked here on scubaboard and other venues for a dive operator that would hand hold us and keep a really close eye on us. We stuck with Ecologic the entire time we were in San Pedro and it was an absolutely fantastic experience. Shelly in the office kept Ecologic kind to our pocketbooks with incentives to keep diving with them and the divemasters Charlie and Marcos kept Ecologic in our confidence with really laid back and easy going but extremely attentive dives. They started every dive with a run through of what we would do, hand signals and signals for marine life we might see. They helped equip our gear for us and held our tanks from the time we slipped our first arm in the BC until we were flipping back into the water. They kept a buoy line in the water for us to hold while the rest of folks were getting in the water and pulled our gear out of the water for us when we surfaced. They kept a pace that matched ours, slowing down when we wanted to poke around a bit and speeding up when we were ready to move on or there was something to see – and they spotted a sea full of interesting wildlife for us over the course of the week. They took photos for us and frequently checked in with us that we were doing ok and were good on air. The boat was always right near by when we surfaced – and they provide steaming hot towels dipped in fresh water and eucalyptus (not a necessity but boy is it nice). It was a bit chilly (60s-70s) on the surface at times when there was cloud cover but I wore a 3mil wetsuit with a beanie (for my bald head) and was completely comfortable in the water. Charlie and Marcos response every time there was a bit of wind or some cloud cover was “Winter in Belize guys!” Very funny stuff.

We started with Hol Chan Marine Reserve to keep it shallow for our first dive and just get a taster. That dive had the most fish we saw on any other dive that trip – it may have been coincidence but we saw many small schools huddled around corals and swimming freely about. Saw lots and lots of various rays and eels and tarpon. At one point I was swimming along a wall and looked into a large dark hole and all I could see was a row of MASSIVE WHITE TEETH! It scared the hell out of me and I quickly retreated into the giant cloud of silt I had kicked up trying to get away from it so quickly. I signaled to Charlie who came over and chased the big fish out of his hole so we could get a better look at him. He told us later it was a Cobera Snapper.

We did several more local dives this trip. We went to sites named Esmeralda, Mayan Princess and Tres Cocos where we saw Smooth Trunk fish, Hawksbill turtles and lots of nurse sharks and eels, and plenty of lobsters as well as a couple barracuda and several groupers. We did a night dive at Hol Chan where we spotted some giant hermit crabs in conch shells moving about, lots of lobsters, and maybe the highlight of the trip, an octopus crawling along the bottom and filling up spaces in the reef like the skin of a drum. The tarpons were beautifully shiny silver as the passed in front of our lights.

One of my favorite local dives was Tackle Box. Most of the local dive spots are named after the spot on the shore that the are out in front of. There are fixed buoys for boats to tie off all along the coast. The spot out in front of Tackle Box is a series of deep, narrow canyons with several short cave-like swim-throughs and lots of crevices for unusually coral growth and varying ecosystems.

Ecologic had a really great price on their Nitrox class so we decided to buy the book and take the class and get certified while we were down there. Junior and Ian gave us some great guidance on when, why and how to use Nitrox. So for our last two dives we loaded up some enriched air and headed down. The experience diving with Nitrox while we were on the bottom wasn’t much different (except that we noticed out dive computer reaching our deco limit a lot slower). However, when we surfaced, we felt great! I don’t know if this was because it was our last dives and we were feeling comfortable but folks told us that Nitrox diving leaves divers feeling much better after a dive – so we took their word for it that that was the reason.

On those last dives, at Tackle Box and Bottom Time, we spotted some yellowhead jawfish backing in and out of their holes, a hawksbill turtle hanging out having a snack, soapfish, 2 HUGE crabs and a fireworm. All in all it was an excellent week of diving and it even more firmly implanted out diving bug.

Inland to San Ignacio

We took the bus from Belize City to San Ignacio on a Sunday. Actually it took just over 2 hours – not bad. The bus was crowded and there were several people standing when we left Belize City but by about 20 minutes into the trip there were plenty of empty seats. I would only recommend this on Sunday as it was less crowded. The buses we saw on weekdays were mostly packed with a lot of folks standing. On the way back we took a taxi which cost us $80US after a bit of haggling.

In San Ignacio we stayed up on the hill at Cahal Pech Village. Mostly a good experience but there are some oddities. First, the dinners are expensive so eat down the hill and take a taxi back up – it will still be a lot cheaper. Second, if you stay in the thatched roof huts… its a thatched roof, bugs can crawl through it and drop on you as you sleep at night (wheee!). The tours in San Ignacio are all run by local shops and tour guides need to be certified. We STRONGLY recommend the tour of ATM – the caves are an absolutely fantastic experience.

We had a fantastic time in Belize!

Foundations of Digital Games Conference Cruise

The FDG conference was on a Disney cruise to the Bahamas in 2009. The thing about a cruise is that there is a continuous flow of free food everywhere you look on board the ship. We tried to get out and get active during our shore leave but we still plumped up during this trip.

The conference was great, you can read more about it here. Now, let’s concentrate about the travel part of this trip.

Our stops were in Nassau, Bahamas and Castaway Cay (a Disney-owned island tailored to a cruise ship experience). We had fun in Nassau, rented a scooter, drove on the left side of the road, and buzzed south of town a bit to check out some different beaches, an old fort, and to eat conch. In general we found Nassau to be somewhat underwhelming, dirty, hectic, and a bit overpriced.

Castaway Cay on the other hand was fantastic. We originally were a bit skeptical of this ‘inauthentic’ Caribbean island but it is Disney and they carved it into a very relaxing, picturesque vacation spot with lots to do and the standard cruise-ship amenities of food and drinks everywhere. We rented bikes, strolled up the island, got ice cream which we ate from beach chairs with our feet in the ocean, swung from a hammock with drinks with umbrellas, and ate RIBS from the BBQ.