If you ever go to Belize, the first thing you’ll need to know is that there aren’t a lot of people there. Though small in size, vast stretches of sea and jungle spread out before you, and it can be a long time till you see another human. Which is a shame, really, because these folks are some of the warmest you’ll meet anywhere, living in a place they refer to as “the Jewel.”
On a recent visit, I learned that the paucity of developed areas is no accident: Fully two-fifths of this Massachusetts-size country is set aside as national parks, forest reserves, Mayan sites, and conservation areas. And because of this, wildlife proliferates, with myriad mammals, lizards, fish, and more species of tropical birds than you can count. It is said that outside the cities, there are more animals than people, and I believe it.
Like the US and Canada, Belize spent time as a British colony until achieving independence in 1981. It is a stable, parliamentary democracy where English is the official language, and its citizens make a living primarily from agricultural products and tourism. It’s a great place to visit (or live), and many cruise ships go there, but what makes it special is a magnificent barrier reef that calms the coastal water and makes for some of the best snorkeling and diving in the Western Hemisphere.
Wanting to get out on the water during my visit, I contacted Belize Sailing Vacations (belizesailingvacations.com) and arranged to hop on for a return delivery of one of their charter cats to its home port in Belize City. At the appointed day and time, I met Capt. Eric and first mate/chef Christie, crew of Luna Sea, a Leopard 46.
Within minutes, we casted off from the docks at Amigos del Mar, a small marina and dive shop on Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”) near the Mexican border, and were underway.
The day was a Caribbean dream, with light east winds and sublime, sunny skies. All day long, it was barrier reef to port and mainland to starboard, motorsailing along at 5.5 knots, with the sails drawing and a single engine purring at 1,500 rpm; the depth of the pellucid, turquoise water was consistently in the teens. I took a quick look around: The boat was whistle-clean and well-maintained. In addition to its crewed-charter offerings, Belize Sailing Vacations is also the only American Sailing Association-affiliated sailing school in Belize.
Occasionally we would pass a stick protruding from the water. How odd. Eric pointed at one and laughed. “Fishermen put them there to mark their traps,” he said, “one of the few things we have to watch out for here.” For sure, boat traffic was not high on the list of concerns. For the entire day, we saw nary a recreational boat—only three tugs and a few fishing pangas.
Christie whipped up a lunch of shrimp tacos with fresh pineapple, and said with a wry smile that it’s wine-thirty and that the bar is open. I glanced at the sky and noticed that the sun hadn’t crossed the yard arm yet, but what the heck—we were in Belize!
When I sail, I like it to be robust—not too much, just enough to scare me a little. I’d like to tell you that we were charging along, riding the whitecaps down that coast, but the fact is, the most difficult thing about that day was resisting the urge to take a nap—these are gentle, user-friendly waters. Even the semidiurnal tides are easy, averaging less than a foot. I rode with Eric for much of the day at the helm, and he regaled me with stories of life as a charter-boat captain. The Bimini top kept us cool and reminded me of the country’s motto, and how true it is: Sub Umbra Floreo (Under the Shade I Flourish).
At one point, we saw a strange sight: palm trees sticking out of the water. No, I learned, not a sunken island, but Belizean-style navaids.They should paint one green and the other red, I thought. At 1450, Belize City peaked over the horizon just as we squeezed into the narrows at Porto Stuck, and Eric kept a close eye on the depth sounder, which bottomed out at 3.5 feet under the keel.
Small island villages floated by; Caye Caulker, which was split in two by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, is a popular place for tourists. An hour later, we spotted fishhook-shaped St. George’s Caye, Belize’s first capital in the 18th century and site of a sea battle that fended off a Spanish fleet: a great source of pride and a national holiday every September 10.
The ruddy sun dipped low; Luna Sea lined up with the straight and narrow inlet of Old Belize Marina. Eric spun the nimble cat on a dime and squeezed into the tight slip along the pier.
After fist bumps and farewells, I was on my way to Philip Goldson Airport, already planning the day I will return—by boat, of course—to have a closer look at these exceptional waters and the jewels they contain.