Central America trip CliffsNotes

As I meet people now who are curious about my adventures in Central America, I want to share this blog with them but my prolific 100+ entries from the trip are a daunting pile to sift through. So to help I have put together a collection of entries that to me represent the essential narrative, the most important/meaningful/highlight moments of my trip. It’s not the whole story, but they are my favorites. It’s still a good chunk of reading (it was a crazy six months ok? There are a lot of stories!), but hopefully it is more a digestible guided tour. Enjoy!

Let’s get this fun in the sun started!

Origins story
Safety concerns for a solo woman traveler
What’s in my backpack
Mexico: Day 1, arrival in Merida
Mexico: My first cenote, the beginning of a water love story
Mexico: Tulum ruins
Mexico: Tulum cenotes
Mexico: San Crisobal de las Casas
Guatemala: Border crossing and arrival
Guatemala: Hiking Santa Maria volcano
Guatemala: Colored chicks, the first sign of Semana Santa
Guatemala: Lake Atitlan
Guatemala: Bugs
Guatemala: Chichi market
Guatemala: On traveling solo
Guatemala: Semana Santa in Antigua
Guatemala: Alfombras
Guatemala: Semuc Champey
Belize: I decide to get SCUBA certified
Belize: Open Water course, day 1
Belize: Open Water course, days 2 and 3
Belize: Caye Caulker, sunset at the split
Belize: Cat calls and drug dealers
Belize: Erin’s Caye Caulker food manifesto
Belize: Just say yes
Belize: Crystal Cave
Belize: Iguana photo shoot
Belize: I heart stew chicken
Honduras: Epic transit to the Bay Islands
Honduras: Roatan
Honduras: Deciding to extend the trip
Honduras: Settling in to Utila
Honduras: Advanced Open Water
Honduras: Le sigh roommates
Honduras: Makeshift rum cake
Honduras: Rescue Diver
Honduras: Falling in love with Utila
Honduras: Perpetual illness
Honduras: Snorkel vanity shots
Honduras: Stability in Utila
Honduras: Thunderstorms
Honduras: A birthday party
Honduras: Photo dive
Honduras: Nico’s 100th dive day
Honduras: Last Utila dive
Honduras: Leaving Utila
Nicaragua: Erin gets a travel buddy
Nicaragua: Lady at a cock fight
Nicaragua: The Fourth of July
Nicaragua: Granada
Belize: Epic three-day transit to Long Caye
Belize: The Blue Hole
Mexico: Diving cenotes
Mexico: Swimming with whale sharks
Mexico: Isla Mujeres
Utila throwback
Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels
Gratitude

A week on Isla Mujeres

From Playa del Carmen, we moved north up the coast to Isla Mujeres. I had heard from other travelers that it was a cool, chill place to hang, much better than Cancun. Rich and I went to give it a shot. We took a collectivo to the Cancun bus station (MEX$30/$2.50USD), connecting bus (MEX$8/$0.75USD), climbed aboard the passenger ferry (MEX$70/$5.85USD) and left the mainland behind. En route we suffered through some live entertainment (does anyone really dig pipe flute music?) and arrived on the island in about ten minutes.
Making the crossing from Cancun.

We stayed on the northern tip of the island and hung out at Poc-Na, the local hostel that has a beach party every night and is a great place to meet people. My first impression of downtown was just how tourist-focused every single business was. It didn’t have the same plastic quality as Cancun, but everything on the main walking boulevard of Avenue Hidalgo was designed with the American tourist in mind. Knick knack shops and dinner specials quoted in USD, all with American price tags to match. We did find a few restaurants tucked away that served cheaper food–with tortas priced at a pretty standard MEX$25/$2USD–but most closed down for dinner. The best reasonably priced late night option we found was a taco stand outside the grocery story on the center plaza. Tacos loaded with toppings were MEX$15/$1.25USD, double the price of Tulum but half the price of other restaurants.

The first really special thing that happened on Isla Mujeres was my adventure swimming with whale sharks, detailed in a separate post. Super awesome! If you come to Isla Mujeres during the summer months it is a must-do.

Toes in the sand at Poc-Na.

I was getting a little jaded by the beachy lifestyle, but I would soon get over the slump. Back at Poc-Na we were generously invited to a private house party being thrown by a group of Americans from Georgia. We arrived just in time to watch dusk descend on Cancun just over the water. The house was beautiful, our hosts an awesome group of guys, and the atmosphere a fun change from the hostel beach parties. We all hung out chatting, having a great time. I lamented my lack of skinny dipping on this trip to a very cute Swede and suddenly I had a partner in crime. On the count of three… splash! And skinny dipping is like dominoes; once one falls, it’s not long before you’ve got a pool full of naked people dancing to “Thriller”. Excellent, and you’re welcome. 😉

A beautiful start to an awesome night.

Lovely sunset over the water. What a view!
The next morning, I was super happy after having WAY too much fun the night before. Keeping my excellent mood going, we splurged on breakfast at a restaurant I had been eyeing: Rooster Cafe. Eggs benedict all around please. Um, yeah, it was so fantastic of a breakfast feast that I went there every morning for the next two days. So delish!

Earlier we had linked up with James, Rich’s friend from traveling in Argentina, and Helen, who we convinced to join us on the whale shark excursion. They were excellent friends to hang with throughout the week. We had a delightful surf ‘n turf double date with them on their last night on the island before they headed to Tulum.

We did have one casualty on Isla Mujeres though: Rich’s beard. After not shaving since his thirtieth birthday in Utila, he decided a more clean shaven look would blend in better at the swanky Cancun resort we were headed to. He opted for the 70s porn star moustache for two days before shaving it all off. The in-between look was, let’s say, sketchy at best!

Rockin’ the Mexican mo.
As my plane flight approached, I got the urge to do one last day of diving while I was still able. We did two dives off Isla Mujeres: Gunboat C58 and Punta Sur. Diving the current off Punta Sur was unreal. I had never experienced current like that before. Someone asked me recently if diving feels like flying. In normal conditions I’d say kind of because you can move in all directions, but this current most definitely felt like FLYING! It just took me, swept me away and was incredibly fun.
About to dive the wicked current off Punta Sur.

Rich about to get reg popped by a Hawksbill off Punta Sur. It was the end of turtle mating season, so we saw a bunch!
Making fun of my addiction to selfies.
Alright Isla Mujeres, I was skeptical at first but you got me. Adventures, cool people, and beautiful scenery. You are indeed la isla bonita.

Swimming with whale sharks!

Whale shark!!!! AMAZING.
From May to September, the northern tip of the Yucatan is whale shark country. The huge beasts (the world’s largest fish!) flock to feed in the plankton-rich waters. Swimming with whale sharks is most definitely a must-do bucket list activity in the Caribbean that I had yet to experience. I had to go! We were in Isla Mujeres at the right time, whale shark snorkel tours were hawked by every other shop on the main strip. The price tag gave me sticker shock: $75 for a *snorkel* tour?!? But prices are fixed across vendors (they all seem to funnel together to fill boats anyway) and they have a monopoly on the experience. And where else are you going to find an experience like this? Price would soon be forgotten once I fell under the whale shark spell.
We got up early (again, after not nearly enough sleep the night before… recognize a pattern?), rushed to the hostel to be on time for our pick up, of course ended up waiting for 15 minutes, were walked to another meeting point at the docks, ate a slice of provided cake and the world’s tiniest juice box, then boarded a semi-ghetto boat. Our guide passed out fins incredibly slowly, one by one. Good thing we got up at 7am so he could take his time! When he finally finished, we motored out to sea, chatting and shooting the shit with fellow travelers.
After about an hour, we arrived where dozens of other boats were collected. I guess this must be the place. Suddenly we saw a whale shark. Then another, and another! There were dozens all around us, the size of small busses, coming right up to the boat! You could practically reach down into the water and touch them. Giant white manta rays with eight-feet wingspans cruised under the boat. They were all so massive! And didn’t care whatsoever that there were boats and snorkelers all around them. They just didn’t give a fuck. Incredible.
Whoa!

To keep the area from being over crowded, only three snorkelers per boat are allowed in the water at any given time. Each person on our boat got three ten-minute snorkels. We rolled off the edge and went hunting. They were everywhere around us. Madness. Two whale sharks almost ran me over. Actually. I kept forgetting how to swim as the excitement of being near these beasts overwhelmed me. I somehow managed to snap a few photos while in a state of near-hysteria.

They move more swiftly underwater than you might imagine, and when one comes towards you with its mouth open it is easy to freak a little. But they always avoid the snorkelers somehow. Whale shark are just so freakin’ cool!

Yes, they get thisclose!
Attempted selfie with me+whale shark. I got his tail in the background!
Even back on the boat our snorkel surface intervals were awesome. I lay on the bow playing spot-the-whale-shark, not a very difficult game in these waters. The plankton keep the sharks near the surface so even when you aren’t in the water you can still watch and be in awe. The whole time felt exciting, like we were experiencing a miracle that kept happening.
Exhausted, I crashed on the ride back, falling asleep with my head in Richard’s lap. The rest of the boat was in a similar condition. I woke when I started to get cold. Suddenly, rain started to pour. Cold rain. Everyone woke up as the captain told us to quickly! get in the bottom of the boat! We huddled together, shivering, barricading ourselves with lifevests, and laughing. Luckily we were close to shore so made a beeline for the beach to pick up our lunches. When we arrived, everyone jumped into the water to warm up. Within moments, the sky cleared, the sun came out, and we drank beer and ate ceviche while lounging in the warm water. 
 
What a rough way to spend an afternoon.
Just another day in paradise. No big deal… except that it was freakin’ kick ass bucket list shit! I’m finally a member of the whale shark club.

Fulfilling a dream: diving the cenotes of Tulum

Seeing divers in the cenotes–beautiful sinkholes only found on the Yucatan–around Tulum was what first lit my interest in diving. I extended my trip in Central America for all sorts of reasons, but changed my return departure point to force myself to come back to Tulum as a diver. An early inspiration, I was not going to leave the cenotes unexplored now that I had the skills and opportunity to experience them more fully. As my trip turned me back towards the cenotes, I grew so excited!! Spoiler alert: they were each gorgeously unique and turned out to be more freakin’ awesome as I hoped.

Sun-dappled and stoked after my first cenote dive.

Many people are concerned about diving in an overhang environment, and rightly so as it limits direct access to the surface. This does increase the risk factor if something goes wrong because you cannot simply go up for air. However, cenotes are not as dangerous as many might think. There are two categories of overhang that often get confused: cave and cavern.

Cavern: There is access to open water (meaning: air) within 60 seconds from overhang areas and you can see sunlight. (Interesting fact, because a cavern requires a daylight zone there are technically no caverns at night; all caverns become caves when the sun goes down.) Recreational divers can enter when led by a trained cave diver with extra gear and following more strict safety protocols.

Cave: There is no sunlight or access to air within the cave. You must go in and go out. Only cave divers with special equipment and significant training should enter.

Cenotes can either be caves or caverns (or have areas of both), but the ones recreational divers go into regularly are caverns. The amount of overhang varies greatly, with some being very cave-like with extensive overhang and others completely open water. Regardless, when diving caverns you follow some different safety rules. Instead of using half your air out and half back, you use a rule of thirds: one third out, one third back, and one third emergency reserve. ALWAYS. Your guide must be a full cave diver and enter the cenote with cave diving equipment including most notably double air tanks. When diving a cavern/cave you use a line that marks a safe path and tracks how to return to open water. You dive with a light, pay attention to signs underwater, and use good buoyancy to not run into walls/ceiling or kick up sediment on the bottom (which can ruin visibility and cause big problems).

What to do and not do when diving a cavern, posted outside of Dos Ojos.

Dive shops in Tulum do exist but there is also a strong network of independent guides who either give private cenote tours or work for the dive shops on a contract basis. Differently than ocean diving, there are no boats or boathouses, so all you need is a guide with know-how, transportation, and access to gear (easily available in Tulum; all the guides have a gear-supplier and access to the tank fill station). My travel companion Richard had a personal recommendation for an independent diving guide, Julia Gugelmeier. Julia was kind enough to meet with us upon my arrival to explain how everything worked and answer all of my cenote questions over beers. Julia was already booked to dive with another group, so set us up to go with her associate Sandy Moskovitz (you can book diving with Sandy via email: samoskovitz@gmail.com).

After meeting with Julia, we went out and had an intense night… I most definitely should have gotten more sleep than I did, but stumbled out of bed diligently at 7am, grabbed a ham and cheese croissant and a banana-grapefruit liquado to perk myself up, then waited by the curb to be picked up. The powerful Tulum taxi mafia dislikes guides picking guests up at their hotels and driving to cenotes because they want the business for themselves; the common practice is to meet for pickup in an alternate location. (Yeah, it’s serious.) She arrived promptly on time and we quickly found we had lots to talk about. Sandy had been an instructor at Cross Creek in Utila, the sister dive shop to UDC! She spent a good amount of time in Utila and knew many people in common with Rich and me. It was a ton of fun to talk shop about Utila life. I had no idea my spending so much time there would enter me into an inner community of divers who also know and love-hate that mad crazy place!

We made a few stops before heading out of town to gather everything we needed. First, we went to the house of her equipment guy (why pay expensive rent for a retail/storage space if you can keep your inventory at your house?) and suited up in some brand new gear; very pleased with the quality. We used 5mm wetsuits as the cenote water at 25C is a little cooler than the Caribbean. Then over to the fill station to pick up our tanks. Rich couldn’t help his divemaster instincts and carried tanks out to the car. It all sounds a little piecemeal, but when you see the system that is in place it all starts to make sense and you realize it is legit and just a non-traditional way of providing high quality diving service. Then off to our first cenote dive: the Pit.

I am a documentation fanatic, and it is a best diving practice to keep a log of all your dives. I write in mine religiously, largely as a diving journal instead of statistics and boxes checked for each dive. Below I have included the notes from my dive log for the cenote dives, in italics.

THE PIT

We started with two classic cenotes. The Pit is a great first cenote dive as it is beautiful, yet fairly straight forward: a deep open water dive with glimpses into caves below. On a typically beautiful Yucatan day the sun pierces the water for some dramatically beautiful light effects.

Entry fee: MEX$300/$25USD for Pit and Dos Ojos combo ticket
Max depth: 37.7 m
Time in: 9:53 am
Dive time: 38 min

My first Tulum cenote dive! All open water, we descended to a deep dive in the bottom of the pit, passed through a shimmery helocline as we went from fresh to salt water, saw a layer of trees decomposing, Watched rays on sunshine pierce the cenote and illuminate a rock formation in the center. Absolutely beautiful. Love how 100% clear cenote water is! First time in fresh water. So nice to not have my eyes sting when water gets in my mask! The dive gear is shiny chrome because there’s no salt to corrode.

Looking down into the pit as another dive group gets ready to go down, me snapping a photo from the deck below. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.
Me looking up out of the pit, just catching Rich back!
Cenote water is so magical.
Rays of sun coming into the Pit. Image from http://www.tauchernest.de
Image from http://www.gocaverndiving.com
Photo credit: Paul Nicklen via http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/

DOS OJOS

This was where I was first inspired to dive, and now I was back to explore it fully. Fantastic! There are two routes in Dos Ojos–the Bat Cave line and the Barbie line. We went Bat Cave. Dos Ojos feels more like a cave than the Pit, swimming through passageways in a loop. I was in awe of the experience, absolutely loved being inside the beautiful cavern. I’m now one of those people I wanted to be!

Entry fee: MEX$300/$25USD for Pit and Dos Ojos combo ticket
Max depth: 10.5 m (note: super shallow in some places. In snorkel areas, my frog kick brought my fins out of the water.)
Time in: 11:55 am
Dive time: 53 min

I adored this dive. Brought me back full circle to why I became a diver. The cavern is immense, and the formations above and the crystalline floor below remind me of Crystal Cave in San Ignacio, Belize, but flying through instead of climbing. I did have moments of “holy crap, I’m in an overhang environment!” but all felt very under control and safe. Inspiring experience and breathtaking dive. Diver air bubbles trapped in the ceiling, glistening and moving like mercury. Tasty sandwiches for lunch!

Snorkel area of the first eye. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.
Divers heading into the cavern. Notice some of the trapped air bubble in the ceiling in the upper left corner. Image from http://www.expertvagabond.com
Strolling the grounds after, basking. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.
I hope Sandy will laugh I included this… every little touch helps make for a good day of diving. And Julie’s sandwiches were great–so unusual to have bread with seeds, spinach, good cheese and meats, and roast vegetables in Central America! Actually quite an unexpected treat for this foodie.

ANGELITA

Day two: visual obscura day! After our first day of classic cenote beauty, our second day focused on weird phenomena. Up first, Angelita. Unusually not connected to a large underground cenote system, Angelita does not have an inflow of current so as plant matter decomposes a murky hydrogen sulfide cloud has formed. It’s an unusually spooky and organic cenote. So freakin’ weird! Definitely a favorite.

Entry fee: MEX$200/$16.66USD
Max depth: 37.4 m
Time in: 9:20 am
Dive time: 37 min

I love each cenote more than the last! Angelita is a deep near perfectly round hole, not connected to other systems so there is no current and decomposing plant life creates a murky hydrogen sulfide cloud midway down. We descended through the cloud, magical mystical enveloping. I felt a fine grittiness in my wetsuit that I loved. It smelled lightly of rotten eggs. The visibility cleared immediately under the cloud and a spiny tree rose from the depth like something out of a spooky story. BREATHTAKING descent–made me squeal with delight! Under the cloud it was beautifully odd. My heard beat rapidly, I was so entranced. Had to try to calm my breathing, but still chewed through a lot of air. Wound around the perimeter and up, then moved through the cloud up — a smokey pea green. I reached for Rich’s hand as we went up, he and Sandy becoming figments. Coming up, I couldn’t see the bottom half of my body, then emerged from the liquid smoke, my fins stirring it slightly and beautifully as I delicately kicked up. Came up feeling elated. Wondered if it was possible to get high from the cloud, or maybe just narked from going deep. 

Gearing up. Nice to prep on land instead of a rocky boat.
Rockin’ the Flor de Caña swag. Oh yeah…
Angelita, with new swimming guide ropes.
What? This is weird… Image credit: Anatoly Beloschin via http://thewatchers.adorraeli.com/
Approaching the cloud. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
Coming up through the cloud. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
Debrief. I should probably get in on that…
What an awesome dive!

CALAVERA

Another weird one, Calavera is connected to Gran Cenote and has the feature of a very distinct helocline–border between fresh and salt water–that the line passes through over and over, so you get to experience the phenomena thoroughly. Super cool to see the difference between the two! I totally dug it.

Entry fee: MEX$150/$12.50USD for diving (you can get in for around MEX$40 for just swimming)
Max depth: 16.1 m
Time in: 11:37 am
Dive time: 41 min

Surprisingly awesome dive. I’d been here swimming twice before but had no idea of the super cool helocline phenomenon underneath  The line zigged and zagged up and down alternating between fresh and salt water, often passing through the helocline, which made everything blurry like an oil mirror or gazing through a transparent oil slick. We went through many times–so cool! Buoyancy changed too, became more positively buoyant as I sunk into the salt water. The light from the holes above shone green and we saw snorkelers thrashing above at the surface. If they only knew what they were missing! Love the mystery of vision being obscured. Mystical and special. Found treasure: a dive light at the ladder. Rich’s light broke AGAIN. It happens to him on every dive!

The jumping off point.
Looking up to the swim area. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
More bouldery that other cenotes. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
Following the line, up and down… Image from http://www.moskitoplayadelcarmen.com/
Image from http://www.gocaverndiving.com/

DREAMGATE

I couldn’t get enough so opted for a third day of diving, just Sandy and me. Dreamgate was only opened to the public a couple of years ago, so isn’t as popular or as busy as the other cenotes I dove. We were the only people there. Another factor is that the cavern is highly decorated with fragile stalactites so is not appropriate for divers who cannot control their buoyancy. Sandy said there is a gentleman’s agreement between all the divemasters to only bring people who can handle it here and that she never brings anyone here on their first day, only after she has evaluated their skills.

Entry fee: MEX$200/$16.66USD
Max depth: 6.9 m
Time in: 9:00 am
Dive time: 43 min

So DARK! Felt like a cave dive, not a cavern (though does have two dark air pockets inside). Fine stalactite formations, beautiful, especially the ceiling. Followed by a school of small fish the whole time–attracted to the light. Crawdads. Was a buoyancy obstacle course–so much fun! Felt awesome about my buoyancy; some of my best work. So much fun being hyper aware of buoyancy. When we got out, I loved it but felt very eerie because of the darkness. The cave feel make me feel still and struck inside. I decided instead of a second Dreamgate dive (our plan), I wanted to end on a cheerful sunny note so switched to Gran Cenote instead. I’m drunk with power!

The fifteen-minute long suspension-killing drive to the cenote entrance.
Pulley system to lower tanks and other gear to the water surface.
Shallow entrance. Image from http://www.xibalbahotel.com/
Ceiling detail. Image from http://www.xibalbahotel.com/
Passing through Dreamgate. Image from http://www.xibalbahotel.com/
Beautiful, lovely Dreamgate.

GRAN CENOTE

My cenote journey ended with the classic and beautiful Gran Cenote, the one most tourists go to if they only have one day. It was pretty and happy, and a perfect spot to eat lunch, just the note to end my cenote adventure on.

Entry fee: MEX$150/$12.50USD
Max depth: 10.0 m
Time in: 11:15 am
Dive time: 45 min

The sunlight and beautiful ambiance of Gran Cenote is so happy and cheery. Under the water it really is grand — the rock formations are a brilliant white and more majestically large. Passed through a keyhole archway swimthrough that was a picture perfect view of the open water spots. I dug watching the snorkelers’ feet kicking around too. 🙂 Positive energy of people having fun. We had lunch together in the cenote, fun chatting with Sandy , getting the scoop on being an independent guide in Tulum.
Classically beautiful Gran Cenote.
Sunny and lovely.
Image from http://www.gocaverndiving.com/
Living the dream. And it’s gooood.

It is unreal how beautiful the cenotes are from within. They inspired me to learn to dive and called me back. Fulfilling dreams is what this trip is all about. And I am taking that lesson with me. I know I will be back.

Hungry for more? Check out this photo gallery or the video below:

A week on Long Caye with Huracan Diving

Back in April, I was lucky enough to meet the lovely staff of Huracan Diving when they were all vacationing in Caye Caulker. They had a warm familial spirit and welcomed me into their group immediately, adopting me for an evening. As my travels continued in Central America, I stayed in touch with my new friends and when the road led me back up to Belize in June I came by their island paradise on Long Caye out in the Lighthouse Reef for a visit.
Hellooooo Long Caye! *

Most visitors who come to Long Caye have one primary activity in mind: diving. And Huracan is a prime place for a Belizian diving holiday (check out their stellar reviews on TripAdvisor). Run by Ruth Devacht (be sure to take her up on one of her signature coconut caprianhas!), it’s a place that perfectly mixes excellent personalized service with homeyness. She thinks of everything when considering how to make guests’ experiences great. Consider the condiments at breakfast: spreads like Nutella and Vegemite to give travelers around the world a taste of home. It is not a five-star luxury resort, but this four bedroom guest house is a beautiful and relaxing home away from home.

Huracan lodge. Home sweet home. *

Being a diver myself, I was stoked to check out what I had been told was the best diving in Belize. I was not disappointed; the diving around Long Caye, Hat Caye, and Half Moon Caye is indeed all pretty fantastic. I dove eight times in six days, with one day off to go kiteboarding (more on this below!). The gear, service, boats, and staff were all top-notch. No need to take my word for it: the head guide and dive instructor Jerome just won Belize’s tour guide of the year award.

This is why Long Caye kicks everyone else’s butt for diving Lighthouse Reef.

Because dive sites are so close, there is either three one-tank dives per day or two in the morning and one in the afternoon, at 8am, 11am, and 3pm. Of course, one of the major attractions in Lighthouse Caye is the Blue Hole, which was a blast. You can read the story of my Blue Hole Day here. The diving staff includes multiple divemasters–Jerome, Ruth, Ryan, and Jhoanna–who are all awesome, listen to the kind of places and diving activities you like, and plan dives according to your interests. The reef is absolutely stunning, with so much healthy sea life and gorgeous scenery.

Heading out to the boat.

Our chariot.
Divemaster and swim-through queen Ruth giving a briefing.
Diving the reef. *
Diver diver, are you okay? Most definitely!

I put together a quick video with a mash-up of some of my favorite moments from my dives. While we did see big stuff like reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, and turtles, I really like normal reefy creatures so that is what I put in my video. My very favorite is the sharpnose pufferfish (the hummingbird of the sea)! As you’ll see, I also adore barrel sponges. Yes, I’m a little weird.

My favorite: sharpnose pufferfish! *

Surface intervals are also a special daily occasion at Huracan. When diving out at Hat Caye or Half Moon Caye you can take your fruit or candy bar snack and go ashore to explore the islands. When diving just off Long Caye, the boat returns home to freshly baked treats waiting at the lodge.

A gorgeous arrival on Half Moon Caye.
The red-footed booby in his natural–and only–habitat on Half Moon Caye.
The old Half Moon Caye lighthouse, slowly being claimed by the sea.

The remote location and “go slow” island rhythm of life can easily lead to a pattern: eat, sleep, dive. But I didn’t stop there. There are a bunch of other things to do! Ryan was my ready willing and able tour guide and fun partner. We kayaked, snorkeled, biked, and last but not least he taught me the basics of kiteboarding–his specialty. Check out the video below for some of the highlights. Included is a sequence I like to call “Erin the Christmas tree worm TERRORIZER!”. 😛

Biking the boardwalk over the mangroves that make up the majority of the island.

Fishermen off the west dock on a calm evening.

Ryan is the instructor at Huracan Kiteboarding and there was no way I was leaving the island without a lesson. Ryan was clear, kind, and patient as he walked me through the gear set up, safety, and kite control technique. We launched the kite and he demonstrated some basic kite movement and control, which explaining the theory behind where the kite should be positioned in the air, how I should steer by moving the bar left and right, and adjust power/control by moving the bar up and down. He handed the bar over to me, hooking in my chicken loop, and I tried my hand at flying. It was really cool! The kite is powerful if you want it to be, but quickly you get a feel for comfortably keeping it under control. I graduated to body dragging, using the kite to pull me through the water. Wheee! Super fun. I had more trouble doing this with only one hand, but crashing meant he got to teach me about water launches. 😛 On day one, I didn’t quite make it up on a board, but I was pretty tickled by playing with the massive kite. Totally a blast. Needless to say, I did not make it through nearly as many books as I planned.

Gear check!

Getting ready for a water launch!
Flying the kite–booyah. So much fun!
When I did manage to sneak away with a book, the adirondacks at the end of the dock were my favorite reading spot.
Kickin’ back for an afternoon read.

Huracan works on an all-inclusive basis: your package includes diving, accommodation, meals, snacks, and some beverages. The main house has four guest rooms, so accommodates eight guests maximum. When I was there, there were two other guests plus the staff. That’s it. Virtually a private vacation. The house feels warm and comfortable. Everyone has their private space, but eats and chills out together often in the sunny dining room.

Our eating and hang out space. *
One of the four guest rooms. *
En suite bathroom. *
The entry way and center of the lodge. *
Just a normal island clothes line. Wish I could wear candy-colored bikinis every day!

Their new chef Shannon did an awesome job of keeping us all happy and well-fed, cooking a variety of tasty things with that good home-cooked feel. We were spoiled by a beautiful breakfast spread every morning, the meals throughout the day were delicious and hearty, and there were frequent snacks timed perfectly with our diving schedule. Food is life to me and one of my very favorite things, and I felt very taken care of.

A typical breakfast spread with everything to make the start of anyone’s day kick-ass.
Yum!!
Lunch: Chef’s salad, while filling up the ol’ log book after a morning dive.

My favorite: stew chicken, rice ‘n beans, fried plantain, and potato salad.

Shrimp fettuchini alfredo. I spiked mine with Marie Sharp’s habanero sauce. 🙂
Lobster night!
Our awesome chef Shannon, hard at work.
Very important shipment from the mainland!

But what makes a real difference is the people. Especially on a small island, it is important to have good company with positive energy. Ruth and her crew have that in spades. They are a welcoming bunch who treat each other like family and welcome you in as one of them too. After spending a day diving, exploring, chilling, and generally having fun, we kicked back in the living room together most evenings before hitting the hay. Hey, we’ve got to get up and go diving tomorrow morning! One of my favorites was a new game Ryan taught me: Rummikub. He whooped my butt for two days straight before I got a win off him!

Learned how to play Rummikub–super fun! Ryan executing his trademarked rearranging strategy.
Silly face photo contest with my new little friend.
Hostess with the mostest joining in!

All in all, I had a lovely visit exploring Lighthouse Reef and spending time with everyone at Huracan Diving, a homey little oasis. So much fun in so many different ways. It’s a special place and visiting was a treat and a joy. Thank you all for having me and for a wonderful week!

Send off party.

Thank you for such a lovely visit!


* Photos from http://www.huracandiving.com

Blue Hole Day

Ah, the day many a diver waits for when visiting Belize: Blue Hole Day. The Blue Hole is one of, if not THE, most iconic dive sites in Belize. Unlike most of the reef diving that goes on around here, the Blue Hole is a flooded cenote way out in the Lighthouse Reef. It is 1000 feet across and 150 meters deep, was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, and is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its fame, the Blue Hole received mixed reviews from many divers I encountered, mostly due to the fact that it is just a deep blue hole without the “prettiness” of the reef. But I’ve been diving the reef in Belize and Utila for thirty-odd dives now, so welcomed something different. I was curious what I would think but had an inkling I would dig it.
The Blue Hole, arial view. Image credit http://www.atlasobscura.com

I celebrated Blue Hole Day on Long Caye with my friends at Huracan Diving, where I stayed for a week. Upon waking up at 6am with that same “it’s my birthday!” feeling of holiday specialness, I was immediately confronted by a dilemma: my blue bikini was still wet from hanging outside in the rain. I could of course wear my dry pink bikini but that would be so off theme for Blue Hole Day! I shared my problem with Jerome and Ryan over first breakfast (more on this later) and both voted there actually was no dilemma because whatever I wore was going to get wet on the boat anyway. I took that as two votes for blue. 😛

Yay for Blue Hole Day! (note the bikini choice)
Yum… no better way to start the day than first breakfast!

Huracan Diving on Long Caye is in the unusual situation of being located very close to the Blue Hole, within the same reef in fact. Most people stay further away in Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye and must get up very early then take a two-plus hour boat ride to get to Blue Hole, usually arriving about 8am, followed by two dives at Half Moon Caye (these people always rave about). It’s a huge day trip! But at Huracan we were was just fifteen minutes away and took multiple trips to nearby Half Moon Caye on different days, so we could take it easy. We got up at a reasonable hour, had first breakfast, departed Long Caye at 7am, and were the first ones at Blue Hole by a long shot. Diving early and without crowds is always better, especially when there is silt that can be kicked up and destroy visibility. As my friend Nick would say, winning!

This is why Long Caye kicks everyone else’s butt on Blue Hole Day and diving Lighthouse Reef anytime.

Our divemaster Jerome briefed us once we anchored at the south side inside the Blue Hole. From the boat we could just barely see the reef edge that is so distinct in arial photos. We went over our dive plan with particular interest paid to going deep; to reach the stalactites we would be maxing out the depth limits for recreational diving so received reminders on maintaining neutral buoyancy at depth, ascent path and timing, the possibility of additional safety stops if needed, and awareness of possible nitrogen narcosis.

What’s inside the hole. Source: Google Images

Down we went, equalizing like normal down to the edge of the reef at about 30 feet. From there it was a sheer drop down. We regrouped, then descended into the dark blue. It was an easy sinking descent to our max depth of 43 meters, a new personal record for me. At that depth, we reached the stalactite overhang. Approaching them, my mind began to race with excitement, wondering if I was tinged with narcosis, but I slowed my breathing and calmed down. From there we saw reef sharks lazily swimming beneath us. We wove in between the stalactites, encrusted with sea life, and I knew for certain then and there I was going to adore cenote diving for sure. Happily, I did flips for the camera, perhaps a little narked out after all. (And yes, I did notice shortly after the flips that my backup second stage had come loose and fixed it…) The whole ambiance was one of adventure and otherworldliness. I loved it.

The deeper you dive the more quickly you use up your air supply, so on a deep dive you can only spend a little time down at depth then take the majority of your time slowly and safely ascending. We spent about ten minutes from jumping off the boat, descending, and swimming the stalactites before beginning our twenty-five minute ascent. On the slow way up we worked our way out of decomp, saw more reef sharks, and enjoyed the view of the blue deep. We took our normal safety stop at fifteen feet at the top reef, and all was well. As we returned to the boat and got ready to depart, a second boat just arrived from Caye Caukler was just being briefed. We were in and out before anyone else.

A little deeper than we’re *technically* supposed to go…

Another glorious thing about Blue Hole Day at Huracan? Double breakfasts! One at 6am beforehand and one at 9am upon returning. I was psyched after a great dive, quick boat ride home, hot shower, and clean clothes that continued my fashion theme. The gang gathered for second breakfast (including pancakes with nutella+chunky peanut butter for me!) and a log book debrief. We were pretty happy after a great morning of diving.

Log bookin’ it up with the gang over second breakfast.

After the adventure of the morning I took it easy for the rest of the day. To add to the happy times we had stew chicken with rice and beans for lunch! Afterwards, Ryan and I spent the afternoon kayaking, snorkelling, having fun with his new GoPro video camera, and scaring the bejesus out of Christmas tree worms and the spots off Flamingo Tongues (two of my favorite creatures!) at the shallow reef just off the coast near the Long Caye west dock. That night we ate shrimp, drank Belikin, and I finally got my first win against Ryan in Rummikub. Heart Blue Hole Day!

Happy blue diver.

And now for something completely touristy: Volcano boarding

The beginning of the rainy season hit just as we arrives in Leon, knocking a true volcano trek–what we essentially went there to do–off the table. But when life gives you lemons, go volcano boarding. Our hostel was BIG on promoting their volcano boarding tours (it’s the tagline in their name, the walls of the lobby are plastered with news outlet endorsements, was apparently a reward challenge for SURVIVOR: Nicaragua in 2010, and they give away free tshirts that are essentially ads) and it is definitely one of the “things to do” on the gringo trail. Almost everyone I know who has come to Nicaragua has a picture on facebook of them in a bright orange jumpsuit tobogganing down the side of a volcano. I aimed to get me one too.

The day we went the sky was overcast. We piled into the back of a truck and drove 45 minutes to the volcano. Cerro Negro is an active remarkably young volcano, something like only 150 years old. Apparently its eruption a few decades back sent a black cloud of debris that fell on Leon, causing much of the blackened coloring on the building you see today. It isn’t all that tall–just tall enough to board down for a minute!–and its face is mostly small volcanic sand. We hauled our boards and gear up a 30-minute path to the top.

Up we go on the brief, most mountainous section of the hike. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

Partway up it began to rain, just in time for team photos at the vista point.

Even on a rainy day, we can still have fun on a volcano! Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

As we approached the crest, smoke and steam wafted up from below.

Almost there. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

We got to the top, donned our electric orange prison jumpsuits (yes, they are legit; some had prisoner numbers stenciled on the breast) and lined up. The wetness of the rain made the sand stick together and significantly slowed down the ride. Some people were able to overcome this by pushing off with their legs at the right time, but others got completely stuck in the pebbles. My run down went okay. Not the slowest in the group, but not the fastest.

Discarded boards at the base. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
In my opinion, I think volcano boarding is a highly overrated novelty activity. I’m glad I did it because I would have wondered otherwise, but it’s not as rockin’ as everyone’s facebook photos led me to believe. Oh well.

Grrr… yeah, that’s volcano grit in my teeth. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.