Related blog post: A tale of two hurricanes
Story by Jon Bowermaster
Photography by Barry Tessman
The 32-foot fishing boat slams into another five-foot aquamarine breaker. Only the joyriding captain, dreadlocks flying straight back from his sun-creased forehead, has a firm grasp on anything. Everybody else on the 70-mile ride - there are eight of us making the crossing from mainland Belize out to it's farthest atoll - nearly bounces out with each boat-cracking slam, along with our shiny new Perception kayaks, crates of eggs and beer, and the captain's pip-squeak assistant. Fingers grasp the air for purchase, bare skin rubbing raw against plastic and fiberglass.
Between jarrings I can make out just bits and pieces of conversation between two guides for Slickrock Adventures, whose camp on a petite spit of sand is our destination. They are passionately recalling, I kid you not, the final episode of Gilligan's Island. "I'm not sure I remember where I was exactly," says the tall one from Minnesota, " but I do remember watching…"
We have left the coast of Belize - from the Mayan word belikin, for "land that faces the sea" - and are headed for a speck of sand called by one tour guide "the quintessence of tropical paradise." Belize is a tiny country - 175 by 68 miles, the size of New Hampshire. Its population is just 200,000 today, perhaps one-tenth of the population of the Maya 1,000 years ago. Its barrier reef, stretching from the northern border with Mexico to its coastal intersection with Guatemala, is the second longest continuous reef in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Lying east of the 180-mile-long reef are three immense atolls - Turneffe, Lighthouse, and Glover's - covering more than 400 square miles. Within the oval coral border of Glover's are six sandy cays, four of them named and largely unexplored. We are headed for Long Cay.
Once used by early Mayans, pirates, and 20th-century coconut growers, Long Cay is now the exclusive home to Moab-based Slickrock Adventures. The company's boss, Cully Erdman, is struggling along with the rest of us to stay in the boat as we approach - too fast, he thinks - his little tropical island paradise. Vermont-born, Erdman has been running wild rivers for nearly 30 years. Like many other ambitious whitewater kayakers, he dreamed of starting a business that would allow him to pursue his passion while simultaneously building a bank account. He started with trips in Utah and Arizona in the late 1980s and eventually his specialty became taking paddlers to Mexico, specifically the rivers of Chiapas. After one-too-many run-ins with guerillas, he started looking for adventure farther south. Belize - and its postcard-perfect, reef-protected offshore Belize islands - was an ideal base camp for his surf kayak/ windsurfing/ sea kayaking trips.
With 10 guest cabins, a half-dozen tent palapas, solar showers, a composting toilet, three dozen sea kayaks, a bunch of sailboards and surf kayaks, a dive shop, and a freezer permanently loaded with Fanta sodas and Belikin beers, his camp truly is about as close to paradise as the active leisure seeker can get. (Don't kid yourself - except for the occasional hurricane, this is definitely the soft side of "adventure" travel.) A roomy sand-floored kitchen, a pair of spectacular Garifuna cooks, nightly volleyball games, 1,001 water sports within walking distance, and spearfishing just off shore are further enhancements to this outfitter's heaven. You get the feeling that Cully's is a paradise about to boom.
His only real worries are those occasional hurricanes. " A repeat of Mitch is my biggest nightmare," admits Cully as his camp comes into sight off the north of the now smooth-riding boat. "We lost our kitchen and several cabins, and it took us months to dig out. We're still finding things - CDs, coffee cups, watches - that were buried by the 20-foot waves washing across our island." His other nightmares? A threatening palm tree disease and over fishing by illegal Honduran and Guatemalan fishermen. ("They'll take anything that swims, including angelfish and octopus," says Cully.) Other than that, the boss sleeps peacefully when he's here on Long Cay, the strong wind blowing over the Caribbean Sea from the east.
During eight days of hanging out with Cully and his crew - on a break between commercial visitors - I wander the perimeters of the 19-by-7 mile atoll by sea kayak. Long paddles that start just after sunrise and end as the slate-colored horizon melds into a slate-colored sea. One day it's 12 miles one way, from Long Cay south to Usher and Southwest Cay, a calm paddle/drift with the wind. We watch nurse sharks in the shallows, undulating between the white-sand bottom and the aqua surface of the sea. A gang of five pelicans slams the surface, devouring small jacks and minnows in a single gulp, then rocketing back into the sky.
As I paddle into the sun-drenched wind, my mind drifts and I find myself pondering the recipe for paradise, at least the Glover's Reef Belize version. Rather than counting strokes I come up with and A-to-Z list of ingredients:
A. Surf kayaking. Just off Slickrock's kitchen, set after set of glassy ocean waves rolling in from the east. The later in the day, the bigger they get. Cully has a small fleet of new high-end surf boats - orange, blue, yellow - perfect for trimming the edges of the big waves or dropping right into the middle. There is a completely calm point-break just to the north, so you can ride the waves and then paddle back up alongside, over and over, an incredible two-hour workout. Just be sure to avoid dragging your wrists over the reef bed when you inevitably tumble off your sit-on-top at the end of the run.
B. Dive the Crack, the Emerald Forest, Split Reef, Shark Point (where immense whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, pass through on their southward autumn migration). It's "Wall" drops off 2,600 feet to the ocean floor, a mile east of Glover's. Skin Diver magazine called this reef one of the three best dive/snorkel sites in the world, and Jacques Cousteau gave it his seal of approval in the early 1970s. Large stands of cactus and elkhorn coral, mixed with sea whips, a variety of sea fans and vibrant sponges, are home to the most diverse and complex marine life in the Caribbean. Slickrock shares Long Cay with a dive concession, run by dive masters who work the Grand Canyon during the summer months. Want to learn to dive? They can arrange it. A dozen different dive sites are an easy motorboat ride away.
C. Walk and swim the border of the atoll. A quick geology lesson: atolls are open sea reefs that form rings, ovals, or horseshoe shapes around a shallow lagoon, usually the crater of a now submerged volcano. Glover's sits atop the Maya Mountains. The ring of coral that outlines the reef continues to grow. There are only four such reefs in the western hemisphere, and three are off the coast of Belize - Glover's, Lighthouse, and Turneffe. (The fourth, Chinchorro, sits off the coast of Mexico.) You could literally walk - and swim - the entire circumference of the atoll, and doing just a part of it is eye-opening. The sandy cays are basically just "rubble," blown-up heaps of sand and rock and shell on top of limestone that has caught on the reef over the centuries thanks to winds and hurricanes. Glover's Reef has probably been here 1,500 years. No one knows for sure. Hurricane Mitch provided ample evidence of how quickly these little sand spits can be reshaped, reformed, or destroyed. Fortunately, a hurricane of that force comes just every 30 years or so. There is currently a tiny new island - just 50 by 100 feet - growing to the north of Northeast Cay. One day, say in a century or two, it will be an island of it's own.
D. Competitive volleyball. Almost nightly, the crew from the Belize Fisheries Department - based on Middle Cay and responsible for patrolling the reef for illegal fishing - shows up around 5 p.m. for Fantas and volleyball. Play is fierce and lasts until it's too dark to see the dirty-white ball.
E. Windsurf. Winds of 30 to 40 miles an hour are not uncommon blowing in from the east, which means you want to be strapped and harnessed to your board. Fortunately, the protected bay on the west side of Long Cay offers plenty of calm waters for the novice.
F. Drink fine Belizean rum until you pass out in the fine white sand (you can opt for the locally brewed Belikin beer, if you prefer, though that method will require more hours).
G. Siesta. There are, by my count, 14 hammocks on the island.
H. Simply observe. Which out here means watching little birds persistently flipping over small rocks along the beach's edge, searching for chubs in the wet sand. Or following a hermit crab down a sand path as it trundles its shell-home toward…whoever knows where exactly they are heading. Or watching schools of bar jack chase minnows toward the shore, where sea birds and extremely lazy pelicans join the fast-paced hunt, chumming on the beached minnows that have, in their panic, thrown themselves into the shallows.
I. Paddle your sea kayak one hour to the north along the reef, past Northeast Cay, in the relative calm provided by the protecting coral. One goal would be to collect shells from the emerging tiny new island. In another century or so, you could say you'd truly seen the new island back when it was just a pile of beach rubble.
J. Search for pirate graves (or Mayan artifacts) on any of the cays. The Mayans paddled their dugout canoes from the mainland to fish; the pirates, like Englishman John Glover, buried treasures here, as well as each other. Glover, encouraged by Great Britain, which wanted to break the Spanish monopoly on trade in the New World, used the area's dangerous reefs as a weapon. The cays were also perfect hideouts for raiders of the Caribbean, great places to stash loot taken from Spanish galleons heading in and out of the Gulf of Honduras. One of Glover's descendants lived on Northeast Cay well into the 20th century. Ancient Mayan camps were located here, and everything from pots to eating utensils has surfaced through the sands on Long Cay.
K. Spend a day following the Teva tracks of island manager (Lord) Jim Schofield. A buddy of Cully's, he came down a few years ago for a holiday and basically never left. He quit his third-generation dental practice in Tucson and moved to Long cay four years ago - retired at 35 - and opened the dive shop. Now he has added "Island Manager" to his c.v. and is the first person you meet when you step onto the island. With and infectious laugh and a voice that sounds as if he'd sucked on his own laughing gas once too often, he conducts a beer enhanced tour of the island that is a one-of-a-kind welcome to paradise. Sun-bleached ponytail sticking out of his gimme cap, leathery skin the color of terra-cotta, rose-tinted wire-frame glasses perched on his nose, this carpenter/plumber/bartender/late-night raconteur/dive-boat master is hard to keep up with as he prowls and carouses all day long, up and down the sandy paths that wind through the island.
L. Play the carabiner ring-toss with carabiners strung from the beams in the dining palapa. Five in a row gets you $500 Belize ($250 US) from Cully.
M. Late at night, with the cool wind blowing through the kitchen and the stars high and clear overhead, other indoor games range from chess to Janga to 4-Across to a slaphappy Belizean version of dominoes, in which Las Vegas style counting and sleight of hand are admired skills.
N. Learn about the Garifuna people from one of the two local guides. The Belizean population is mostly English speaking Creoles, mixed with mestizos from Guatemala and Mexico, and strong smatterings of Mayans and the Garifuna, or Black Caribs, whose history is rich. In 1635, a pair of Spanish ships filled with male African slaves broke up in a storm off the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. The freed Africans eventually took Carib and Arawak Indians as their wives, and a new culture, Garifuna, emerged, with its own language. Defeated in 1796 by the British, they were moved to the Bay Islands off Honduras. From there they migrated to what was then British Honduras.
O. Day follows day of blue skies studded with thick white cumulus. The sand, made up of crushed shells and dead coral, grows softer underfoot. Don't get lazy, try snork-yaking - snorkeling form your kayak. Inside the coral oval lies an 80-square-mile lagoon surrounding more than 700 patch reefs, and the coral gardens just a hundred yards offshore are tanked with angelfish, glasseye and mutton snappers, parrotfish, schools of mackerel, blue tang and doctor fish, groupers, needlefish, and barracuda.
P. Carry a speargun along to catch your own dinner. One day we speared a fat hogfish and just missed a three-foot barracuda. Though it is illegal for non-native Belizeans to take them, we saw a small niche in the coral laden with prime lobsters. All the better reason to go dive fishing with a native.
Q. Did I mention those 14 hammocks scattered in the shade around the island?
R. After a successful fishing trip, clean the fish near the shore and watch the frenzy of nurse sharks as you toss fish body parts into the shallow waters. At the end of a day, tie a string of fish carcasses onto a stiff rope and you can almost coax the swarming, usually harmless, sharks onto land.
S. Save a palm tree. A palm killing disease has swept through the Florida Keys to Cuba, before jumping to the Yucatan, and is now making its way down the coast through Mexico to Belize. It's already cost Long Cay half of its palms. The antibiotic that is injected into each tree's base costs $5 per tree and has proven a plant-savior. Cully also intends to replant at a cost of $15 per tree. "I'll start with 150 and I'm sure as soon as they're in the ground I'll look around and realize I need to plant 500 more." It's worth it. What would paradise be without its signature emblem?
T. Learn to thatch a roof for a palapa with palm fronds.
U. At sunset, paddle back to Manta Reef for a frozen pina colada. Don't forget to take Lord Jim's cell phone number (yes, there's one on the island, discreetly hidden, plus a laptop and e-mail). Ring him when you're done and talk him into running one of his motorboats down to save from having to paddle back in the dark.
V. Learn the inner workings of a composting toilet, Lord Jim's pride and joy, along with the solar-powered electricity for the kitchen and the pumps that keep the showers showering. Try to avoid the once-a-month clean-out of the toilet, if you can.
W. Wait out hurricane winds. If your timing is right, you might catch one of the big ones, most often in October or November. The last, Mitch, was a doozy - 100-plus miles an hour in October 1998, whipping 20-foot waves over the island. The same hurricane killed 11,000 Hondurans and sank a Windjammer with 40 hands aboard. On Long Cay it washed away a three-story house, built by the island's previous lessee, that had withstood all previous storms for 27 years.
X. Coral identification. All those beautiful fish hide out in some equally beautiful coral. How many species of the living, growing stuff can you identify by name? The elkhorn and sea fans are easy. But which are the gorgonian colonials and, most important, the itch-inducing fire coral?
Y. Bone fishing. We left the beach by kayak before sunrise with Todd, who's has guided fly-fisherman along the coast of Florida and insists that the bonefishing here, as well as tarpon and permit, is far superior. "These fish have never been fished, so it's a lot more fun. Up north, along the Keys, those fish are jaded. They've been caught before. Here it's like they're just waiting for you."
Z. Did I mention those Hammocks?