For such a small country Belize makes a big impression. Not only did we find the azure waters, exotic snorkeling, and hundreds of stunning islands, we also loved our trips ashore in this pristine Central American democracy. Its well-documented delights offshore are mirrored on shore by the country's British heritage, peaceful coup-free history, and its own fascinating Mayan ruins.
Geographically, Belize forms the southeast region of the Yucatan Peninsula, a narrow strip of land squeezed between the ocean and eastern Guatemala, with Mexico's Yucatan State to the north. It is Central America's only country lacking a Pacific coastline, but despite being just 8,867 square miles in area, it seems much larger in attractions and diversity. Situated in the heart of Central America, Belize is nevertheless quite different from its neighbors. Along its eastern shore the country is blessed with 174 miles of coral reef, the Western Hemisphere's largest barrier reef and second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Behind the reef, calm seas allow exhilarating sails in the 15 to 20-knot trade winds, and the coast offers hundreds of usually deserted anchorages. Its three easily accessed offshore atolls have deep blue lagoons, 2000-foot coral walls, lobsters galore, the famous blue hole, and a colony of unusual white booby birds with their fluffy young.
Inland, the tropical forests to the west have scenic rivers and limestone caves, and intriguing animal and plant populations with several species that are on the endangered list. Some of these can be seen in the Belize Zoo, which came into being after animals used in the film Path of the Raingod were determined to be too tame to go back to the wild. So many are interesting, such as the Baird's tapirs, Belize's national animal. Our particular favorites were the exotic ocelots who loved to socialize with the visitors and the blue-black, powerfully sleek jaguars who were perfect ‘Bagheeras' (our boat's name Bagheera comes from the black panther in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book).
In addition, Belize's Mayan temples are poignantly beautiful, although smaller than those of Guatemala, Honduras, and the Yucatan. These tall temples rise from bright green courtyards making memorable sights. After the adventure of crossing a river by a small raft chain ferry, Xunantunich (Mayan for maiden of the rock) turned out to be the perfect size for the grandchildren and they easily climbed the steep steps to the top of the 130-foot temple, the tallest man-made structure in the country. From this height, the panoramic view stretched across the lush Mopan valley and beyond the border into Guatemala where, not far to the east, lie the magnificent temples at Tikál.
That Belize cares for its natural and cultural resources is evident in the immaculate way the country is kept and we were told that 40 percent of the land is protected in some form. The small population of 256,000 is a diverse mix of Garifunas, whose ancestors had been deported from the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1797; Mayan; Creole (descendants of African slaves and British pirates); and Mestizo (Spanish and Indian). Added to this pool are Swiss-German Mennonite farmers, Chinese and Lebanese traders, and increasing numbers from Europe, North America, and neighboring countries. We found the mix of cultures fascinating and loved the laid-back atmosphere and the fun-loving people with whom it was easy to communicate since the official language is English.
The only problem most cruisers notice about this area is the shallow water. Although depths are reasonable in the channel close to shore, when coming from the south up to Belize City, we found it very shallow out toward the barrier reef. This presented a problem since Bagheera draws seven feet three inches, particularly when we moved between the chain of mangrove cays that provide many safe anchorages out to the barrier reef where the beautiful diving is found. In fact, as we wove our way out to jewels like the tiny islet of Rendezvous Cay, with its 13 palm trees surrounded by deep turquoise seas, there was frequently only a foot of water under our keel. For hours Andy stayed permanently at the bow, eyes glued ahead on the lookout for coral heads– hardly a relaxing way to cruise! Incidentally we noticed most of the charter boats were catamarans, which are ideal for these shallow waters.
When we ventured back to civilization, we found that Bagheera couldn't enter Moho Cay Marina, close to Belize City, until high tide. With the help of the marina work boat, a quick haul-over by Andy in the dinghy, using the halyard from the masthead to reduce our draft, and my weaving Bagheera's wheel while I gunned the throttle, we were able to plough through the sandy channel and med-moor to the wharf. The marina has pleasant surroundings and within minutes the kids found large green iguanas en route to the marina office and restaurant. There was even a washing machine!
Having heard stories about safety issues in Belize City, we were pleased to hear that times have changed for the better. Reputedly built on a base of mahogany chips and rum bottles, we found the low-lying town a pleasant mix of old and new with its row of colorful wooden gunter-rigged working sloops lining the creek. In the former elegant governor's house a pictorial history of Belize took us from the days of the Mayans and Caribs to the era when it was a safehaven for pirates, and on to the historic sea battle of St. George's Cay in 1798 between the British and the Spaniards. Later there were contests between Guatemala and Mexico. Finally in 1981 the colony of British Honduras became the independent nation of Belize, although a small detachment of British peace-keeping troops remains here to help maintain the country's borders.
Cruising is best enjoyed during the dry season, from late November to May. At this time the weather is generally clear and fine, with the exception of northerly frontal systems. Unlike the eastern Caribbean where weather is generally settled during the winter months, the western Caribbean is affected by ‘northers' that often reach gale-force conditions. These winds are associated with cold fronts that move down from Canada and the US. The fronts march through from October through April, with the greatest frequency in December and January, and may last for three days. It is wise to be in a sheltered anchorage behind the barrier reef before these systems hit. With only a few passes open through the reef, this requires planning if you find yourself out near an offshore atoll and a front approaches. We had one memorable trip through the narrow pass that leads into Ambergris Cay in the North, which is one of the most popular tourist towns, even though the winds were less than 25 knots.
During the rest of the dry season the easterly trade winds provide perfect sailing, usually keeping the temperatures comfortable in low 80s in the daytime and then dying off to a gentle breeze at night. Winds tend to be more northeast in the early part of the winter, southeast in late spring or summer. The onset of the wet season in June brings humidity, frequent thunderstorms, and the possibility of hurricanes, most likely in October and November. The Rio Dulce in Guatemala is the only reliable hurricane hole in the entire region. Most cruisers will either make for the Rio or vacate the area, north or south, before the middle of June.
In addition, Caribbean currents are strong, a result of the North and South Equatorial currents converging as they enter the eastern Caribbean. After sweeping along the north coast of South America the current is deflected along the Central American coast and becomes the Gulf Stream as it surges through the Yucatan Channel. One should always watch for strong currents through the passes and allow for the strong northerly set when on passage.
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