Caye Caulker, Belize

80 pesos equals roughly $4 for
a Shrimp Michelada. 
Though we had traveled to Cancun using air miles, "free" flights to Belize City weren't available.  One-way tickets go for $300+ pp, so we opted to travel by bus.  Returning
our rental car in Playa we caught the first leg of our trip, traveling on the ADO Mexican bus line to Chetumal.  ADO bus line offers travel that is first-class and cheap.  The four-hour trip ran us $23 pp, purchased at a discount thru Click Bus while still at home.  

One slight miscalculation had us arriving in Chetumal on a Sunday.  In resort areas that is not a problem--in this non-tourist oriented city almost everything was closed down for the day.  Luckily, the hostess at our hostel was able to direct us to an open restaurant, Marisqueria Mi Viejo, roughly a one-mile walk away, though taxis are dirt cheap as well. The restaurant was packed and we were definitely the only gringos on hand.  The generous dinner was tasty and inexpensive, and the meal was enhanced by a live band with a talented vocalist, so it was an authentic Mexican experience.

The following morning we boarded a 20-passenger bus offered by Marlin Espades to Belize City, where we changed buses and traveled on to our final destination San Ignacio at $35 pp total.  Visiting Alan's sister, Diane and her husband, David, in nearby Bullet Tree Falls was the reason for our trip.  We spent our time hanging out, eating, talking, and more eating.  Diane had stocked up on local seafood brought in from the coast, so we indulged in conch, lobster, hog snapper and yellow tail, and we visited the produce market to load up on fresh veggies and fruit.  Gourmet dining every evening!

Taking advantage of the fact we were already in Belize, we decided to travel to Caye Caulker.  Traveling back to Belize City, we then caught a 45-minute ferry over to the island.  Two ferry companies run several trip a day at $25 for a round-trip ticket.  Though seats are generally available, it's a good idea to purchase tickets prior to your travel date to insure a seat especially on weekends or holidays (and note Belizean celebrate different holidays, so research that before your travel).

Having located a room on airbnb, we were located near the ferry, the center of town and with a waterfront view.  We also had a partial kitchen and AC.  Air conditioning is something which cannot be taken for granted.  Most accommodations on the island do not offer it, saying you won't need it because of the prevailing onshore winds.  But when it is 90 plus degrees with a heat index of 100 (as it was during our visit), you will be grateful to have upgraded to a property that offers the AC.  Caye Caulker is a relatively tiny island, roughly 5 miles long and less than 1 mile wide.  Walking around the island is fairly easy, if centrally located, but bike and golf cart rentals are also available.  Deciding to splurge on a cart rental, we enjoyed buzzing around the island and at the same time creating our own breeze.  We spotted a handful of commercial vehicles but no cars are allowed on the dirt roads.  A few blocks along Main Street are closed during the evenings to reduce dust, created by the carts, from flying into restaurants.

Our first evening, we followed the recommendation of some folks we met, and ordered beef and cabbage tacos with
salsa offered a a street stand along Main Street.  Three hearty tacos sold for $5 Belize (or $2.50 US).  Throughout the country US dollars are widely accepted, in fact it is generally preferred.  The street exchange rate is 1 USD equals 2 BZD, but if you pay in US dollars you will receive Belizean money in change, just something to keep in mind as your trip is drawing to a close--unless you want to take some foreign monies back home as a souvenir.

Since the island is known for snorkeling, we scheduled a half-day tour with Caveman Tours, though there are at least a dozen companies offering snorkel/dive, land tours or fishing trips.  Traveling out to the Hoi Chan Marine Reserve, we had brief stops to hand feed sardines to tarpon and then to a seahorse sanctuary.  Unfortunately the constant 15-20 mph winds which had preceded our visit created cloudy conditions with silt covering the coral at the Coral Gardens. Moving next to clear, relatively shallow waters where, according to our guide Ronnie, fisherman have historically stopped to clean their fish.  Because of this activity, rays and nurse sharks are attracted when they hear boat engines.  Swarms of both sharks and rays surrounded the boat on our approach.  While both are, for the most part, harmless the sharks do have thousands of tiny serrated teeth and they will bite if aggravated, so Ronnie recommended we not get too close.  Feeding sardines to the throngs kept them near the boat as we snorkeled over, under and through them.  Finally, the boat moved closer to the outer reef.  Ronnie swam ahead of us diving down periodically to identify the variety of corals and fishes.  During our visit their were few tropical fish seen but numerous snappers and a nice variety of coral.  Diving is popular in the Reserve, so perhaps that offers a more colorful experience.

The Split, located at the north end, divides the island in two.  The property at the tip is managed by the Lazy Lizard Bar and Grill, a popular tourist haven, with loud music, cocktails, beer and a bar menu.  But, the waters at the Split offers visitors an opportunity to snorkel free rather than pay for an offshore tour.  Coral is non-existent here but an assortment of fish can be seen, especially near the mangroves on the bay side.  Snorkeling earlier in the day is recommended, particularly on weekends, when the Lizard starts drawing a crowd.  Currents can be strong though and boats moving through the Split offer another possible danger, so caution needs to be used if swimming/snorkeling across to the island and mangroves on the opposite side.  The only two public beaches we found were located near the Split.  One was on the ocean side along the sea wall, with entry via metal steps or a diving platform.  Currents on the oceanside were very strong during our swim here, so we weren't tempted to explore.  The other location was a small sandy beach on the bay front, crowded with locals on the day we stopped for a swim to cool off.  Finding a few palm trees to provide shade, we listened to the reggae music being played by the DJ and enjoyed the breeze.  Lizard customers have access to wooden boardwalks offering entry to the water, and even a few tables with palm thatched covers located down inside a cove.

Over the next few days we explored the island multiple times, tooling around in our cart.  Locating the bakery (for Alan),
multiple grocery and convenience stores, the produce market, and a tortilleria (where fresh tacos are made).  The tacos were made in a little wooden shack located not far off Main Street.  If the wooden window was propped up, she was open for business, 6 hot, fresh off the grill tacos went for 1BZD.  Though we wound up eating most of our meals at the local restaurants, and there are plenty of places to choose from, we also prepared red snapper with a garlic, lime butter sauce, that competed with anything we ate out.

Returning to Belize City on an early morning ferry, we were able to easily score a taxi for the ride to the International airport, a 30-minute drive away and a flat-rate $25 USD fare.  It was a long but uneventful travel day, and we are now back home, at least for a bit.

At the outer reef 

Laundry day in Bullet Tree Falls

Along Main Street

Along Front Street

Produce market in San Ignacio
Laundry day on Caye Caulker

Bay side

Volleyball tournament at the Lizard

Playa del Carmen vicinity, MX

Early last fall, we were literally packed and ready to drive to the Orlando airport when an updated weather report showed that Hurricane Irma might be headed our way.  Even though we felt our property would probably be okay, we cancelled our flights and reservations in Mexico.  Shutters had been put up a few days earlier, just in case something happened while we were away.  So except for some last minute organizing we were prepared.  Bottom line, though the Caribbean, Florida Keys, and western Florida suffered substantial damage, our property sustained damage which required prompt attention, so it was good that we decided to stay home.

Having traveled to Mexico numerous times through the years and the Yucat√°n Peninsula region several times, we had a low key trip planned.  Over a decade ago, we had purchased a Mexican time share with Vidanta.  With multiple high-end resorts scattered at prime tourist destination around the country, it seemed like a good fit for us and we have always enjoyed our visits.  

One annoying aspect of arriving at airports near popular resort areas is the onslaught of purveyors for resort properties vying for visitor's dollars by offering free snorkeling trips, off-shore fishing, and even cash, if you are willing to sit through a 90-minute sales presentation.  Exiting the airport is somewhat like moving through a gauntlet.  Obviously, they are hoping to convince you to part ways with your money and buy into whatever they are selling.  But even if they don't succeed, the gifts they used to lure you to the sales pitch are yours to keep.  A firm, polite "No, gracias," does work, and we made it out of the airport unscathed.  But then, while I kept an eye on the luggage outside Hertz and Alan retrieved our rental car, he was approached by someone offering something "different".  The bottom line, is we spend the following morning at a sales presentation for an all-inclusive resort, but we had an outrageous Mexican buffet breakfast, and on our departure (with no sales transaction taking place) left with 3000 pesos, roughly $150 US.  Obviously, this sales model must work or it would not be sustainable.  Just seems like a strange way to do business. 

Loading up with groceries at the MEGA mart in Playa del Carmen, we were fairly well set for the week.  Traveling during the off-season meant some venues were not as busy, but overall we found business brisk and parking at a premium, especially in central Playa.  Though the resort has multiple restaurants on-site, we prefer to prepare most of our meals, and cocktails, in the room.  It is certainly far more economical, and that is our more typical travel mode.  With the exception of the shopping and the sales talk, our first few days were spent vegetating on the beach or poolside.  

By midweek, we headed south to Akumal and the nearby, Yal Ku Lagoon for some snorkeling. 
Snorkeling the lagoon has always been an easy going experience.  Luckily, we arrived early and missed the busloads of tourists arriving as we prepared to depart.  After a lunch of tacos and tostadas, we walked to Akumal Beach.  We had decided not to snorkel with the turtles, even though our experience there 3 years ago was good in terms of turtle sightings; the water had been overcrowded and chaos seemed to reign on the beach.  We were pleasantly surprised to see that changes had been instituted since our last visit.  Admission of 100 pesos (about $5 US) per person for all non-Mexican visitors is now being charged, with public restrooms and showers as part of the deal.  Restrictions have also been placed on the number of guides certified to take groups into the water, with controls on the size and number of groups; the positive changes were immediately evident.  While there is a free swimming/snorkeling area, snorkeling in the conservation area requires hiring a SEMARNAT certified guide (600 pesos -which includes the entry fee for the conservation area).  The beach is still inundated with crowds though, so arriving early in the day would be better.  Mask, snorkel and life jackets are available for rental.  Life jackets are not required, but some visitors may prefer using them and they help protect the reef.  Long and medium length fins are no longer allowed due to the damage they cause the reef.  

With rain in the forecast throughout our visit, we decided to visit Puerto Morales without our snorkel gear.  Scant tourists in town caused vendors of the multiple gift shop to be insistent in their attempts to attract you into their shops, though most are packed to the ceiling with the same inventory, t-shirts, hats, jewelry, magnets, miniature Mayan sculptures and colorful ceramic pieces.  Scouting the north end of the waterfront road we discovered a different restaurant and snorkel outfitter, Restaurante Chayito.  Throughout town the rate for snorkeling in the national park reef is generally $25, which includes the park entry fee.  Of course, the boat captain and guide expect a tip as well.  But on this visit, we skipped the water and indulged in possibly the best tostados ever.  Fresh shrimp tossed with cilantro and lime, topped with red onion, tomato and avocado over the crispy corn shell were enjoyed with perfectly mixed margaritas, yum!  Before leaving town, we snagged some grouper at the fish market across from the central plaza.  Prepped with tons of garlic, butter, lime juice, and seafood seasoning it provided a delicious dinner for the next 2 evenings.

In spite of ominous cloud the following morning, we returned to Puerto Morales.  After waiting out a
few squalls, the skies cleared and we headed out into the water.  In spite of the preceding storm, the water was clear and visibility was excellent.  Jumping into the sea grass beds at the reef's edge, we followed our guide into "The Gardens".  All snorkelers in the park are required to wear life vest and be accompanied by a guide to help minimize damage to the reef.  The reef appeared healthy, with a colorful variety of soft and hard corals, though few tropical fish.  Moving further out, we sighted a few larger fish, including large schools of yellow-tail snapper, several large permit, and barracuda.  

Entertainment of all types is offered at the resort, ranging from blues and jazz to Mexican fiesta night.  Having missed out on their Cirque du Soleil show, Joya, on our previous visit, we had purchased tickets before leaving home.  The story of an elderly alchemist and his young granddaughter embarking on a "quest to uncover the secrets of life" is played out in the typical Cirque format with beautiful costuming, elaborate staging and dramatic acrobatics.

With our trip in Mexico drawing to a close, we were moving on to Belize.  

Padangbai and Beyond, Bali, Indonesia

Departing Pemutaran with our driver/guide, Edy, we were able to take the coastal road to our next destination, Padangbai.  Passing thru the resort city of Lovina and then Singaraja, the former capital of Bali, we were in the heart of a major agricultural area.  This region is known for its produce and coffee plantations.  Numerous small roadside markets gave us the opportunity to purchase a variety of unusual fruit for snacks later at our hotel; black grapes, custard apples, lychee nuts, rambutans, and mangosteens were snagged.  

Tirta Gangaa (holy water of the Ganges) was our only tourist stop for the day.  Built in the 1940’s and 50’s, the palace was rebuilt in 1963 following it’s destruction due to an eruption of the nearby Agung Volcano.  Focal point of the water palace in an eleven-tiered lotus fountain surrounded by pools, water-spouting sculptures, and meticulously maintained gardens.  Waters come from a natural spring and are said to have curative powers.  Admission to the grounds is 30,000 rupiah (roughly $2.85) but for an additional 10,000 rupiah visitors can take a dip in the healing waters.  The area provides gorgeous overviews of rice fields and terraces.

Arriving late afternoon in Padangbai, we were able to schedule a snorkeling trip for the following morning.  Our accommodations were located up a narrow road on the outskirts of town.  With a recommendation from our hotel’s owner, we walked down to the waterfront to a local warung offering fresh fish.  Selecting red snapper and black grouper from the offerings our first evening, the fish was cleaned and butterflied, and slathered with garlic butter and sizzled over a wood-burning grill. It was served with rice, a salad and a fruit plate, the meal was heavenly and cheap.  Confident we had found the best place in town, we returned nightly to repeat the feasting and were never disappointed.

As we headed out on the water the following morning in a traditional jukung, there were two destination on the schedule.  The renowned Blue Lagoon offered little during our visit, but the second location was like jumping into a giant aquarium with excellent visibility and a huge variety of colorful tropical fish and corals. During our off-season visit we were the the only snorkelers at the site.  Plans to travel out to nearby Nusa Penida were cancelled due to a bad weather report.  But, luckily, the weather was beautiful in Padangbai and by staying in town we had time to explore the overlook for Blue Lagoon, White Sand Beach, Black Sand Beach and to hang out poolside during the heat of midday.

Walking back to our hotel after dinner one evening we witnessed the illegal, yet common, cockfighting at a waterfront property.  A large crowd had formed, betting on the action.  Not wanting to actually watch the fight, we moved on.  Cockfighting is legal in Bali, if it is part of a Hindu ceremony, this was definitely not a religious event.  Another evening, we saw a group of children, 5-8 years old, near the same location, gambling.  A large game board was laid out on the ground with cartoon-like characters.  The children placed their money on a character, an adult shook two large dice and then another adult either paid out the winnings or collected the losses from the board.  We didn’t have a camera with us, but we watched for quite a while, unable to believe what we were seeing.  Turns out this is also illegal, but not necessarily uncommon.

In wandering around town, we saw some men preparing for the upcoming New Year’s celebration, which we missed.  Called Nyepi, a day of silence, the event differs radically from the rest of the world.  The evening before New Year's Day, parades are held across Bali featuring Ogoh-ogoh.  This large sculpture is carted through the streets, and represents evil spirits.  At the end of the evening the character is burned to dispel those bad spirits.  The following morning at 6 AM and for the next 24 hours everyone must stay inside.  Restaurants, and all businesses are closed, no flights are allowed to come into or depart the only airport, and the only vehicles allowed on the streets are for emergencies.  Special watchmen are assigned to monitor this restricted activity and anyone (including visitors) will be admonished to return indoors.

Edy returned to Padangbai to deliver us to Jimbaran, our final destination before departing Bali the next morning.  We stopped in Kusamba, where salt is made from the sea water using a centuries old technique.  The lengthy process starts with retrieving the water from the ocean and then sprinkling it over large, raised beds of volcanic black sand.  Once the salt has dried it is raked up and put in a wooden filter to remove the black sand, sea water is poured over the mixture, and the process is repeated as needed.  The resulting brine is poured into hollowed out tree trunks where it dries out.  The salt is then scraped out and bagged for sale.  Historically the salt was used for preserving fish, but it has now become an artisan product but it is still inexpensive, in spite of the huge amount of work involved.  

Arriving in Jimbaran, Edy mentioned that we could purchase seafood at the waterfront fish market and then have our
purchases cooked at nearby warungs, which would also provide sides and beverages for a total charge far below the restaurants in the city.  Once we were set at a the hotel, we walked to the market and selected our dinner, crab and lobster.  With multiple warungs available, we selected one next to the market.  Once again we were not disappointed.  We are quickly getting spoiled with the excellent, inexpensive food here—good thing it’s time for us to return home now.  

The journey home is lengthy, and we made it a bit longer by giving ourselves a couple of breaks—3 days from Bali to Florida, flying from Bali to Singapore to Hong Kong to Los Angeles and then Florida.  It was an incredible trip, but it’s good to be back home.

In Padangbai, busy street following an evening ceremony at the Hindu temple

Padangbai waterfront

Overview of Padangbai on our walk into town

Roosters waiting for the evening's activity

Black Sand Beach

Jimburan waterfront

Dinner prep in Jimburan

Dinner in Padangbai
Jimburan waterfront

Overview of Blue Lagoon
View of the rice fields near the water palace

Brine drying in the tree trunks to create salt