It’s summer in Florida, and that means heat and humidity. Most (normal) people survive by turning on their air conditioners and hiding from the great outdoors. I don’t blame them…it is HOT! But here on a boat in a mooring field in the Florida Keys, we are intentionally living a little more simply, a little less expensively, and a little more closely to Nature.
In the summer of 2010, we spent our first season in Marathon, and didn’t have the boat set up to handle the heat. Boot Key Harbor is notoriously murkey, warm, and full of moving dinghies and fishing boats, making it unswimmable. Afternoon thunderstorms meant that we couldn’t always have the boat open, so it would get downright steamy inside. That summer was particularly bad for mosquitoes as well. We quickly developed some coping strategies.
We had a large blue canvas rectangle, which we tied tent-style over the trampolines, ice, and a blender. I would make frozen lemonade every afternoon, take a good read-aloud selection, corral the kids, and we would have a siesta out under the tent until the heat abated. Every night, we’d give the kids a cool-down shower in the cockpit and send them to bed wet, with a fan over each bed. We would seek cool places, like local restaurants with pools, the beach for a swim, or the air-conditioned library. Jay made some Velcro-on bug screens, and we bought wind-scoops and better fans. By the next season we spent in the Keys, we had shade awnings for the decks and cockpit.
The summer of 2015, before leaving for the Caribbean, we got really smart: we stayed at Marathon Marina and plugged in and turned on the new air conditioners Jay had installed. We were there between May and November, the hottest part of the year, but that was expensive, and we felt a little trapped, both inside the boat, and tied to a dock.
This summer, in addition to all those stay-cool strategies, I made a list of menu items that don’t involve heating up the galley of Take Two. We’re also testing a single-burner induction plate that works with our cast-iron skillets, Oxo teakettle, and Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker. It takes electric power, but doesn’t create as much heat as cooking over gas. And because it’s portable, we can cook in the breezy cockpit.
Even with these coping mechanisms, we sweat. If there’s a breeze, it’s more comfortable. But when the wind dies, the perceived temperature goes up and we find it hard to concentrate on school and work. Sleep is disrupted and tempers flare. Unless we decide to head to a marina, our only option is to start up the generator and run the air conditioner. This is a real luxury, as many boats have neither. On hot, still evenings, we can close up, run the air full-bore, then turn everything off just before bed. If we wake up hot, we open the hatches above the beds and usually it’s cooled down outside. The exception, of course, is when it’s raining. Not much we can do about that, but I guess that’s what it means to live closer to Nature!
Seven strategies for staying cool
Shade awnings: Phoenix Square Sun Shade, from Amazon
The area around Guatemala City is elevated, mountainous, and volcanically active. One of the most prominent of the volcanoes in this area, Fuego (Spanish for “fire”), has been erupting regularly and has recently produced enough ash to close the airport in Guatemala City about thirty miles away. Right next to Fuego lies Acatenango, a dormant volcano from which hikers can obtain a stunning view of the eruption from less than two miles away. It’s not an easy view to obtain though, because unless you hire a helicopter, you’ll have to hike eleven miles round trip with a pack full of water and cold-weather clothes to the summit, where the eruption can be seen. Even without the added twenty-to-thirty pounds of backpack, climbing up the 5,150-foot elevation change on volcanic gravel trails would be tough.
On a recommendation from some friends, and because we knew we didn’t want to miss such a cool opportunity, we decided to do it during our week-long visit to Antigua in April. After talking over what we knew about the hike, it was apparent that the whole family would not be going on this excursion. We reached the conclusion that only Eli and I would go with Walter, a trusted guide recommended by Joaquin, a friend of ours who had previously done the hike with him. We each packed five liters of water, some snacks, and all the warm clothes we own. We would be hiking about five hours up to base camp, then remaining there until 4:00 AM, when we would be getting up to hike the remaining hour and a half to watch the sunrise from the peak. At an elevation of 13,045 feet, the temperature can drop below freezing and the wind chill can be wicked, though it seldom rains or snows due to lack of moisture.
We met Walter at the Parque Central of Antigua at 7:00 AM, said “adios” to Mom and Dad, and followed Walter to the bus terminal. The first bus took us to a neighboring town outside the old city from which we rode a second bus to a town lying at the foot of Acatenango. There Walter made some last-minute preparations, then we rode in the back of a truck up to the trailhead. We disembarked from the truck, bought hiking sticks for five Quetzales apiece (less than $1), shouldered our packs, and started hiking around 9:30 AM.
The first part was probably the worst, because it took about an hour for us ascend the dusty trail that runs between cultivated fields before we started getting any shade—we were prepared for cold, but not for heat. From there we basically trudged uphill for four more hours until we reached base camp. The scenery was actually quite nice, but when we weren’t resting, all we really cared about was making it as far as possible before we had to stop again.
We were by no means the only ones doing this; we saw several other groups going up and several more going down from the previous day. The last part of the hike to base camp was probably the best (that and bumming around base camp just watching the volcano) because it was mostly flat. Base camp consists of several terraces in the mountainside where rows of tents can be set up.
We arrived around 2:30 PM and were immediately presented with an amazing view of Fuego. We set down our packs, sat down, and watched for a while as occasional plumes of ash and smoke billowed from Fuego like a chimney. Every once in a while we’d be able to hear it exploding and see chunks of rock go flying. But most of the time there was not much more to see than some cool cloudscapes. We decided that clouds are only interesting from above; from below you only get to see the flat bottoms.
Up to this point we had been wearing pants and T-shirts and had been rather hot. Now that we had ceased our strenuous exercise, we started packing on the layers. We helped Walter pitch our tent, then we took a little nap until it came close to sundown when we put on more layers and went to watch the sunset from a nearby vantage point. We took pictures of ourselves in front of Fuego, but it refused to erupt dramatically as long as we were holding the camera. It was still a sweet view, pretty high up on the list all the awesome things that I’ve seen. Erupting volcano? Yeah, definitely in the top three.
It got better after dark, because it was possible to see more color than in daylight. When it erupted, we didn’t just see clouds of ash, we also saw the reddish orange of the glowing lava spewing out from the top of the barren rock cone set against the darkening evening sky. It really was that dramatic; I’m not exaggerating. It was just like the cover of a national geographic magazine, with little orange lava particles being ejected with considerable force from Fuego just a few miles away. Unfortunately it was impossible to capture pictures that reveal what it looked like—when we tried to photograph fountains of lava, all we got was black background with orange splotches.
We sat around the fire with some people from a different group, ate dinner with the erupting volcano in the background, and then went into our tent to sleep. Or so we hoped. The hours between 8:00 PM and 4:00 AM ticked by agonizingly slowly. Neither of us could have gotten more than four or five hours of sleep and certainly not uninterrupted. The most probable reasons were the lack of pillows, the cold, and a mental giddiness caused by our location. Once during the night I became sick and spent some time outside the tent, though even now I can’t imagine why, because I felt fine afterwards.
We were awakened in the dark of early morning for the final push to the summit. Eli and I removed most of the contents of our packs to make them lighter, put on all of our extra clothes, and continued the upward journey. Not too long after we started, a little bit of light was visible on the horizon and we ascended past the tree line. There was no longer any vegetation at all, just black pumice for the rest of the way. The last stretch was possibly the most grueling hundred yards that I have ever traversed. Combined with lack of sleep and fatigue from the previous day, the almost 45° incline and the sliding gravel ensured that each step was as tortuous as possible.
The first thing I did when I got to the top was lie down and enjoy the view (and also the fact that there were no more uphill slopes in my near future). And the view was indeed worth all the trouble; from an elevation 13,045 feet we were actually looking down on Fuego, which was 700 feet below us at a height of 12,346 feet. We were also considerably higher than the clouds, which created a flat grey plane covering the ground below us. It was quite stunning.
And the volcano was even better, because we could still see all of the color, but also much closer and from a different angle. We could see it explode upward then fall and ooze down the side. We were not the only ones to see it; after a while there was actually a bit of a crowd—maybe twenty to thirty people around one of the more prominent viewpoints.
It was also really cold. Not just the temperature but also the wind chill had us freezing inside all of our layers within fifteen minutes. Not what you might imagine of tropical Guatemala. We drank some blessedly hot tea that Walter had brought in a thermos, took some triumphant photos, and just generally enjoyed our sense of accomplishment. The top of the volcano on which we stood looked like the surface of another planet: only black gravel, pale dawn sky, several mounds surrounding a central crater, and a white metal shelter constructed as a memorial in the middle of the crater, looking like a habitation module from Earth. I also felt kind of like an astronaut in all of my layers, standing against the harsh, cold, alien wind.
After a little while, Walter suggested that we start down,
so we picked up our packs and followed him back down. We took a slightly
different path down which made it possible for us to basically run straight
down. If I’d had a snowboard or something, I probably would have been able to
ride it on the loose material. At any rate it was fast, fun, and not too hard
on the ankles. Upon our return to base camp, we changed into lighter clothes
for the hike down, ate a quick breakfast, packed up, and started walking. We
were the first to start hiking, and only passed one solitary hiker near the
trailhead who was the first person coming up for the day. It was all downhill
and we ran some of the way, covering the same distance as the day before in less
than half the time.
Five minutes from the end though, Eli and I both suffered the only injuries we received on the entire trip. Eli slipped and ripped his jeans, and I, in classic Aaron-fashion, tripped and landed face first, cutting my lower lip. It looked kind of messed-up for almost a week afterward. After quickly self-administered first aid, I rejoined the other two, and we took the truck and bus rides back to Antigua, where we met Mom, Dad, and Sam. We took leave of Walter and finished our trip with celebratory pulled-pork sandwiches at Pappy’s BBQ and went home for much-needed showers and naps.
We’ve noticed a pattern when we travel to a new place: for the first couple of months, we feel like strangers, after three months things begin to feel familiar, after six we’ve made friends with locals, and after nine we feel at home. Beyond that, it gets hard to leave and the place keeps a little piece of our hearts. Places are like onions—you have to peel back the layers. And a lot of the places we visit have a skin of tourism that puts us off initially, but once peeled away, reveals something fresh and interesting.
Little by little, we have begun to dig beneath the surface here in Guatemala, both literally and figuratively. Through a friend in the Keys who is starting an orphanage on Lake Izabal for abandoned and abused children, we met the Guatemalan guy who will be the house father, who also works for an organization that runs a high school for indigenous villagers with an itinerant teacher, and who helps organize a week-long kids’ camp in January before school starts (the equivalent of a Vacaction Bible School in the U.S.).
After visiting the orphanage in October, I knew there was something special happening there, and that I wanted to be a part of it. Our boys began to go on weekends to do work at the property— building a privacy fence, digging a pit at the edge of the lake that will eventually be a slip for the orphanage’s lancha, moving rocks, and doing anything else boys with lots of energy can do.
By the first week of of January (the last week before school starts here), we were excited to help with the Campamento Rio Dulce. If you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church in the United States, you may not know what a Vacation Bible School is: it is a week of camp, organized by a local church, geared toward introducing kids to the Bible in a fun and engaging way. Kids do arts and crafts, play sports and games, sing songs, and learn Bible stories. In Rio Dulce, the camp was started five years ago by a missions team from a church in Texas that wanted to give the local churches an opportunity to reach out to the children in the indigenous villages along the river. These villages originated as Mayan refugee camps during the civil war, and the people are survivors of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Some of the kids who come to camp from the 17 villages represented speak only Q’eqchi’. The local churches have taken responsibility for the camp (still funded by an organization in the U.S.) and it is an impressive community effort.
We rode a large lancha every morning full of screaming and singing children, teenage camp counselors, and volunteers to a remote place on the river, up a mangrove creek through the jungle to the campsite. The fast lancha with the cocineras, the cooks, got a head start so the ladies could light the fires and begin cooking lunch for more than 300 people.
This is not a peanut-butter-and-jelly operation. These are ladies who volunteer to chop vegetables, make tortillas, and cook rice, beans, and chicken soup in enormous pots over open fires in a thatch-covered hut, then hand-wash the 300 plates and cups outdoors—every day for a week.
Joining me, Eli, and Aaron were three teenage friends from other boats—two girls from Israel and a boy from South Africa. I was helping with arts and crafts, up to my ears in scissors, crayons, glue, and googly eyes. After standing around much of the first day trying to figure out what they could do, the teenagers ended up helping Josue with sports and games. Our kids’ time in Homeschool P.E. in Marathon came in handy, as they knew lots of big-group games. The language barrier was the biggest obstacle, but once that was overcome (with the help of a kind translator who speaks flawless Spanish with a North Carolina accent), there was no stopping them.
I loved helping with arts and crafts and felt at home in a roomful of little people jabbering in Spanish, as it reminded me of my teaching days in Atlanta, where I taught Kindergarten in a school that was 80% Spanish-speaking immigrants. Even the groups with big kids, who didn’t need help with the crafts, were a joy—they were practicing their limited English with me, and I was attempting to learn to count to 10 in Q’eqchi’.
Some of my favorite memories from the week of camp come from the assembly time at the beginning and end of the day. Aaron brought his electric guitar and wowed the kids with his rock riffs, and I filled dead time (while he set up) teaching a song I knew in both English and Spanish. I met a guy from Rio Frio named Franklin, and he helped me learn the word for “Hallelujah” in Q’eqchi’. On the last day of camp, we sang a two-part song, one part in English, the other in Q’eqchi’. To me, it was a beautiful illustration of how bridging language gaps draws people together and helps us find common ground.
After a week of camp, I had made friends with a group of young people (the camp counselors), all of whom were interested in learning English. I decided to start a free weekly English class and the pastor of the local church offered us a space. If it goes well, I hope the class will be the first plank in a language bridge between the locals and the English-speaking cruisers who live here for part of the year. As of this posting, I’ve had two great classes, and had other cruisers ask how they can get involved.
Photo: The crew of Take Two with camp counselors, Deon from s/v Dreamcatcher (far left), the crew of s/v Rothim (Hagit in the middle with Naomi and Adi to her right, Zoe next to Rachel), and our friends from Maine, Owen and Zuber (back row next to Aaron and far right).
One of my students, a guy we met at camp, plays guitar and drums and made friends with Aaron. They have gotten together already to practice music. Eli went along too and it makes me happy to see our kids using their Spanish to reach out to locals.
As we’ve peeled back the layers, I have begun to view my surroundings with different eyes. What first appeared as only a loud, dirty, and crowded town, Fronteras has become a place where I see familiar faces, occasionally hear my name called, and feel at home browsing in the produce stalls, waiting in line for fresh tortillas, or chatting in Spanish at the Dispensa Familiar. By the end of April, when our visas expire, we will have been here for more than six months. When we move on and approach the completion of our circle of the Caribbean Sea, Rio Dulce will be out of sight, but not out of mind. It is a place we know now, and love, and to which we may return for a future hurricane season.
We have been back in Guatemala one month, but not back on Take Two! We returned to supervise the bottom job (a one-week process) and decided to do more work. We rented a beautiful house on the Rio Dulce and have been zooming back and forth each day to work on the boat, socialize, or provision in town. This is a snapshot of our daily routine for the month of November.
6:00 am. Jay and Tanya up early for morning quiet time, coffee, and yoga in the rancho overlooking the water.
7:30 am. Breakfast prep, kids start getting up to do school, Jay goes to the boat to work on projects.
8:30 am. Breakfast, morning devotions, school work.
12:00 pm. Lunch, Jay returns in the dinghy to work from home for the afternoon. Finish school day after lunch.
2:00 pm. Tanya goes with Sam and Rachel to the marina to hang out with other boat families or to town to buy produce and get dinner supplies. Big kids finish school and practice music.
5:00 pm Tanya returns as the sun begins to set over the Rio. If there’s time, Jay and Tanya have a chat over sunset drinks in the rancho.
6:00 pm. Dinner prep with one of the kids. Free time for everyone else.
8:00 pm. Story time for Rachel while big kids finish dishes/evening chores.
9:00 pm Jay and Tanya head to bed to read until they pass out. Rachel and Sam to bed. Big kids watch a movie, send emails, or read until their bedtimes.
The boat is supposed to go back in the water at the end of the week, when we’ll begin the process of moving back home, cleaning the boat, and readjusting to the space. I’m hoping to get back to a daily ukulele practice and to find more down time to read or write. Jay is hoping to get the boat back in good condition. The kids are looking forward to sleeping in their own beds again. We’ll all begin thinking and talking about what comes next for Take Two, probably a trip north to Mexico.
One thing I love about living in Central America is the everyday encounters with exotic flora and fauna. I know that what is “exotic” to me is normal to the people who live here in the same way that North American birds and flowers that are normal for me would be “exotic” to them. We used to laugh, for example, when people would take manatee tours in the Indian River Lagoon—we would hear the vacationers screaming, “Look! A manatee!” as they nearly tipped the boat in their eagerness to photograph a slow-moving sea cow. We saw these gentle animals in our back yard nearly every day and became inured to them. To be fair, my friends in Panama laughed when I would stop by the same tree every day to look up to see what the sloth was up to (usually sleeping in the same place as the day before, but sometimes, gasp, it was scratching!). I never got tired of looking at this strange animal, but this strangeness and newness is part of why we travel. Nature is full of surprises—even when you’re used to the surroundings, a closer look always inspires wonder and awe.
On the way home from an afternoon out with Jay here on the Rio Dulce, we stopped to take a closer look at a tree surrounded by a cloud of pink blossoms. We idled over in our dinghy and realized that the flowers were not part of the tree, but were growing attached to the trunk, that they were, in fact, orchids. They were beautiful—with ruffled pink/purple petals and a deep magenta throat. I snipped a small cluster to bring home and show the kids and to see if I could identify the type of orchid. Suddenly, ants were crawling all over my hand and down my arm—the orchids were teeming with them. I gave the flowers a quick dowsing in the river and brushed the ants off my arm. I felt bad for having so thoughtlessly disturbed the flowers and their residents and regretted not carrying the good camera so I could have captured a closeup of the flowers without taking them off the tree.
My initial research made identification seem a difficult, if not impossible, task—there are over 1000 species of orchid in Guatemala, and there are several books and identification guides to enthrall the orchid-lover. There is even an annual orchid festival in Antigua, Guatemala every year, and many viveros which sell them to collectors and gardeners from around the world. I looked through pages and pages of images, and with a little patient digging, I was able to narrow down what kind of orchid I had. And it made perfect sense. The genus is myrmecophila: myrmex meaning “ant” and “philos,” love. These orchids and ants share a mutual affection for each other—they are, in fact, symbiotes.
I found a lovely article written by Ivan Gabaldón, whose curiosity about this phenomenon led him to closer observation through macro-photography of ants and orchids. He had done his own research and interviewed conservationist Joann Andrews in Mexico. She describes the relationship thus: “the ants help the flower bloom, defend the plant from herbivores and take up residence in its bulbs, where they store dead insects that in turn provide protein for the orchid. The reward for the ants is to feed on the orchid’s nectar.”
Further reading reveals another mystery: the ants are not the primary pollinators for the orchids, rather, each species of orchid produces its own signature fragrance that attracts flying insects—a different kind of bee for each orchid.
How often do we zoom past such wonders in our hurry to get somewhere or to do something? A microcosm, mysterious and beautifully complex, lies within our reach, but unless we slow down and take the time to look, and to study what we see, we miss it entirely. Perhaps this is the best gift nature offers us: the chance to pause in our busy-ness and get a different perspective, to notice and appreciate something new and strange.
How do bananas grow? I learned the answer to this question at the Bunches of Fun Banana Farm Tour in Belize.
Well, first the farmer plants seeds or small banana plants. It works both ways. They require a lot of water because their trunks are made of channels full of water. Banana plants need good soil, so farmers re-use old tree trunks, bananas, and leaves chopped up to make a mulch. They need warmth and sunlight, which is why they grow well in Central America.
The plant grows rapidly. A banana flower begins to grow. What is growing under each petal? A hand of bananas! Each banana is called a finger, and many hands make a bunch. Each plant produces only one bunch during its life.
The farmer protects the bananas from bugs. The two small bananas at the bottom are sacrificial bananas that protect the rest of the bunch from fungus.
After the bananas are full grown, the bunch is harvested. The farmer uses paper and plastic to protect the bananas from latex, a gooey brown sap that stains the bananas and makes them hard to sell. The bananas ride a kind of zip-line or cable to a large building where they are washed, cut, and sorted, then packed very tightly in boxes. Then they get loaded into containers and go by truck to a big ship. They are stored at 58 degrees Fahrenheit to keep them from ripening too quickly.
Once a banana plant has produced a bunch of bananas, they chop it down. However, a daughter plant is already growing right next to the old stem, starting a new cycle of life.
My favorite part of the tour was at the end, when we got to eat some fried green bananas, which are better than potato chips!
After much discussion of family goals, summer plans, boat projects, and seasonal weather, we made a decision while in Belize in June to head up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala instead of sailing back to Florida to haul out for hurricane season. This is a departure from our original plan, but for those who know us, this will not come as a surprise since all of our plans are written in wet sand at low tide.
Crew of Take Two heading upriver
While some of the crew is ready to go back to the United States for good, others of us would like to spend more time in the Caribbean and Central America. The compromise is to spend a season in Guatemala, fly back to the US for a long visit, and eke out one more cruising season before sailing back to Florida. The cost of boat work and risk of hurricanes are both significantly reduced here as well.
So far, we are loving it here–we’re plugged into a marina with a pool, and have met some new friends as well as connecting with some old ones. The day we pulled into the dock, Jacob and April and their two girls from s/v Lark were having lunch at our marina, and they formed a welcoming party. One of the reasons we love this lifestyle is that boat-friendships, no matter how transient, are really special–the world is small and you never know when you’ll run into an old friend.
For those land-lubber family members and friends we haven’t seen in a while, we look forward to seeing you sometime this summer or early fall when the crew of Take Two goes on the road!
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Weighing around 20 tons and reaching lengths of over 40 feet, they are bigger than any other currently-living species of fish or non-mammalian vertebrate. They are slow-moving filter feeders, eating krill, plankton, and other tiny sea creatures. Their gentle nature, graceful movements, and tremendous size make whale sharks one of the more majestic creatures on the planet. We swam with some.
We had been in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, for a little over a week, enjoying the excellent diving, and were making plans to leave for Utila. Mom mentioned that there were whale sharks in Utila, and would we be interested in taking a tour to see them while we were there? Would we?! I should think so! It sounded just like the sort of incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience that we try to collect.
Utila is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can not only be found year-round, but can be found easily, as their migratory route takes them past the Bay Islands. Whale sharks are very rare, secretive, and shy, and as a result, very little is known about their life cycle, breeding patterns, or migrations.
We arrived in Utila a few days later, after a short half-day passage. The weather would be calm and sunny for only a few more days, so one of the first things we did was to sign up the whole family for a tour the next morning with Bush’s Bay Island Charters. The trip would start at eight, and we would be out “whale-sharking” for several hours.
We had just finished breakfast when our captain came by in a dive boat. His name was Denny, a local guy whose family had originally come from Louisiana and the Cayman Islands. We got our snorkeling gear and cameras together, and loaded up. After a quick fuel stop, Denny took us around to the north side of the island, along the edge of the drop-off. The sharp peaks of the Honduras mainland were clearly visible to the south, while in the north, we could see the hills of Roatan low on the horizon.
On the way, he told us a little bit about finding whale sharks. Whale sharks eat plankton, an extremally abundant commodity in this area of the ocean, so they should be able to go wherever they want. But they don’t. For some unknown reason, whale sharks follow the schools of tuna, which feast on the bait-fish, which, in turn, feast on the plankton. Whale sharks can almost always be found near a tuna boil, a place where a school of tuna feeds near the surface. Then it is a simple matter of locating the shark, and jumping in on top of it. There were already several dive boats out looking for tuna boils when we got around to the north side of the island.
We soon found such a boil, and Denny told us to jump. We pitched ourselves over the side. The water was deep, disappearing into inky blue-blackness far below us. Tuna swam around in the upper few feet, snapping up bait-fish. Then we saw the whale shark. It was huge, maybe twenty feet long, greyish-blue and covered with white spots. It was most definitely a shark, and not a whale. It wasn’t just the fin alignment, the gills, or the vertical tail, there was something distinctly un-mammalian about it. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the least bit frightening. Maybe it was the knowledge that they had no teeth. The shark seemed shy, and soon ghosted off into the depths.
We got back in the boat, to look for the next boil. The sharks always seemed to be near the surface in the middle of a boil. Denny said that later in the afternoon, when the tide rose, they would become less skittish, sometimes letting snorkelers swim with them for 30 minutes or more.
By this time, the other dive boats had caught on, and were beginning to arrive. At the next boil, we were joined by a half-dozen other snorkelers. We didn’t mind; the pool was big enough for all. In total, we made five dives, with about 15 minutes in between. We saw a whale shark on each dive, sometimes two at a time. A few were over 30 feet long. They seemed more annoyed than scared at our presence. They would swim around for a few minutes, then go deep. We brought along a couple of cameras, and I got lots of video footage of whale sharks swimming majestically away from the obnoxious snorkelers.
Eventually, it was time to go. We climbed back into the boat, and Denny headed us for home. Rachel, justifiably a little leery of swimming in ridiculously-deep water with ridiculously-large fish, had elected to stay in the dive boat the whole time, but had still seen some from the surface. As for me, I’m happy I took the plunge. It will stand out as one of the highlights of our trip. If I’m going to swim with sharks, they might as well be 30 feet long.
Picture this: a volcanic island covered with pine trees, sparsely settled, fringed by coral reefs, with a small round cay lying just offshore, covered, and I mean every available inch, with brightly-colored, multi-story buildings, some built on pilings out over the water. Shrimp boats with names like Flaming Arrow and Lucky Lady line the wharf along one side. A system of alleyways and canals crisscross the island, and water taxis buzz here and there, picking up and dropping off people going to the main island or through a channel to the north side, where there are sparkling sandy beaches and resorts, and one small settlement in a mangrove bay. At night, the taxis all retire, and country music begins to waft over the water from several bars. You might think to yourself, where am I? If you talk to anyone official, you will need some Spanish. If you meet someone on the street, you will speak English. The inhabitants of the island come in all shapes and colors, religious backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. If you feel confused, this is part of the charm. You are in Guanaja, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.
This place is full of seeming contradictions: a local who grew up in New Jersey and used to work in the New York Public Library returned to his island home to teach English to kids in the afternoons in a make-shift sidewalk-school. A Frenchman sails here every year on his way to or from Rio Dulce, Guatemala, but hates the water, so he comes only to hike in the pine forests. A German who settled here twenty years ago serves pizza in a palapa-on-stilts. A local couple who grew up in crowded Bonacca bought a hillside property on the main island and opened a first-class bar and restaurant which looks more like a chalet on a lake in Switzerland than a tropical island bar-and-grill.
An Australian couple who have traveled the whole world by every conceivable conveyance house-sit on shore near where we are anchored (we met them in town on the day the supply boat came in). You never know what or whom you will encounter in the narrow streets of Bonacca.
Roatan is no less strange. Isla Barbareta, to the east, has virgin hardwood forest and good diving—it’s owned by a Texas tycoon. Mannie and Tita, originally from Mexico, run The Mango Creek Resort, a quiet getaway in Old Port Royal—yet another old pirate lair—with pastel-colored bungalows over the water, where people come for fishing vacations.
Jonesville and Oakridge are local villages on bays lined with shrimping boats that ply the Cayman banks several months each year. The area looks and feels more like Louisiana than Latin America.
French Harbor boasts Fantasty Island, an exclusive dive resort with a hotel, marina, dive shop, restaurant, and white-sand-lined lagoon—guarded by Hondurans with shotguns. In the same area, Little French Key brags that it is the “#1 Tourist Attraction in Honduras”—an island complex of beaches, restaurants, gift shops, swimming lagoons, and wild animals in cages, including lions and tigers and jaguars (Oh my!). We’ve never been anchored where we can hear lions roaring at sunset. It adds to the feeling that we have stepped into a Salvador Dali painting.
Coxen Hole, where the cruise ships come in to unload their thousands of passengers, has a reputation of being unsafe, and West Bay is the place said passengers go to play for the day—think parasail boats, jetskis, overloaded snorkel boats, and beaches lined with lounge chairs. West End is a little quieter—a small beach community with boutique hotels owned by North-Americans, open-air restaurants, cruising sailboats, and walls of coral to explore just offshore. A cruise around the island offers, if nothing else, variety. Each time we anchored, it felt like we’d arrived in a different country.
Utila is as different from Roatan as Roatan from Guanaja. A mere 17-mile sail takes you into a different weather pattern and social atmosphere. There are still palatial gringo-retiree houses with ocean views, still tin-roofed houses on stilts in town, but Utila is obviously a young diver’s mecca. Dive shops with palapas strung with hammocks line the waterfront, delicious after-dive lunches can be found for a reasonable price at lots of establishments, and the dance music starts at sunset and doesn’t finish until the wee hours. Young people from all over the world come here to get certified to dive and to become dive instructors themselves. Others come to swim with whale sharks, which are often found in the waters along the north side. Like Guanaja and Roatan, Utila has clear water, beautiful living reefs, lots of fish, and inexpensive dive-shops, which makes for phenomenal snorkeling and diving.
The Bay Islands of Honduras have always been a crossroads. Mayan glyphs can still be found here—relics of a once-expansive population which had established trade routes throughout Central America. The first European explorers who came to get fresh food and water were welcomed by indigenous Paya in cayucos. The ubiquitous pirates of the Spanish Main lurked here. The Garifuna (Black Caribs) of St. Vincent were shipped here by English Colonizers during the wars between the intermarried “Black” Caribs and pure-blood “Yellow” Caribs of the Eastern Caribbean. The people from Africa, those whom “England left behind” have formed their own unique culture and language. Seafaring Caymanians sailed downwind from their islands to the East. Louisiana shrimpers seeking a new fishing grounds plied the nearby banks. The Hondurans who took over the islands brought Latin culture and cooking and Spanish language. The tourists seeking pristine reefs and beaches, the expats looking for cheap property in paradise, the sailors looking for a quiet anchorage—they have all come through the Bay Islands and left their mark. We too have come, made friends, formed impressions, created memories, and enjoyed the beautiful waters of the Honduran coast.
We came to the Cayman Islands to haul the boat out for an insurance survey, and also for the supposedly-stunning underwater landscape. We got the survey sorted out the first week. and broke out of the marina to experience the rest of the island. One thing many people strongly recommended we check out was Stingray City.
We did a little research, read through sickeningly-cheesy articles in tourist brochures, and talked to other people. Apparently, it all started as a bunch of fishermen in the early 1900s, who always cleaned their catch in the same place every day. Before long, the local stingrays caught on, and began showing up for the daily banquet. Not long after that, the local tourist industry caught on, and began running tours to see the stingrays.
There are two sites: The Sandbar, which is shallow enough for non-swimmers, and the actual Stingray City, which lies in 12 feet of water and is hailed as the #1 shallow diving spot in the world. Both are frequented by dozens of “gentle giants” in search of an easy meal. Dive masters and tour guides throw squid in the water, and when the “lovable creatures” show up, the tourists throw themselves in to “cozy up”. Supposedly, stingrays only sting when under attack, but I would think that getting lifted out of the water, kissed, or ridden would register as attack. But apparently, not enough people have been stung to ruin the fun for everyone else.
From our anchorage, we couldn’t see the famous place, but we could see the mass of boats anchored on top of it (and almost, it seemed, each other). It looked awfully crowded, and we generally avoid large crowds. But Grandma Mary flew down for a week, and we were going to be sailing around anyway, so we figured, what the heck, and went. It was early evening when we anchored nearby, and all but a couple speedboats were left. We swam over.
There certainly were heaps of stingrays, some of the largest I’ve ever seen. The stingrays would get close enough to touch, but didn’t hang around after they realized you didn’t have any squid. It was still pretty cool, but not “magical” and we were not “mesmerized by the antics and charm of these fascinating creatures” as advertised. It seemed like just a bunch of ordinary stingrays. Of course, I doubt that the average tourist has ever seen a stingray, so the chance to touch a wild one must seem exotic and “unforgettable.” The stingrays themselves were a diverse lot. One of them, a particularly large black one, had no tail. Another had a gash that split its face almost to its eye. Most of them were buried in sand, trying to sleep.
The sun went down, and I swam home. I enjoyed it about as much as I normally enjoy an early-evening swim. It seemed to me that the whole stingray thing was hugely overrated.
The next day, we returned. It was quite a beautiful day, with cloudless skies. The Sandbar was thickly-coated with tour boats and their camera-wielding cargo. Mom, Rachel, and Mary swam over to look at the stingrays, and the rest of us (except for Aaron, who stayed on the boat) swam over to the reef. The coral, for the most part, was bleached, but there were quite a lot of fish. We saw a number of ridiculously large snapper, which were so docile, I could easily have shot one with a short pole spear (which is totally illegal, of course). We returned to the boat. Mom, Mary, and Rachel were still off playing with the stingrays, so we just swam around the boat, reluctant to mix with the throngs of tourists. I absently began stacking rocks and lumps of dead coral into a big heap. Sam and Sarah joined in the fun, and the heap soon turned into a cairn, and the cairn into a tower. We decided it was done when it was as tall as I was.
Mom, Rachel, and Mary had since come back, with lots of photos. We picked up the hook, and left the zoo behind us. So much for Stingray City, the island’s premier underwater attraction.