Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Cruising the Caribbean Coast

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In the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, I took a night bus from hell from Mérida to Chiquila, on which I couldn’t sleep because of the sub-zero conditions normally incompatible with human life and the racket everyone would make getting on and off the bus whenever it stopped. Despite my hoodie and warm socks which normally suffice, my nose, fingers and toes felt like they were going to fall off, and I spent the night huddled in a ball shivering, nose running, barely sleeping a wink. I arrived at Chiquila around 5.30am, and waited with several other fatigued looking travellers for the boat across to Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh), a small island off the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo.

The boat only took about half an hour, but when we arrived on the island at 7, it was still sleeping. Our hostel reception didn’t open til 9… we went down to the beach and tried to nap but got eaten by mozzies, so decided to move into the yard at Hostel Tribu which was filled with hammocks… Much better! So we napped there until reception opened, checked in and went for some breakfast at the bakery around the corner. Tribu was an awesome hostel- the owner John told me his inspiration was a hostel in Katherine Australia of all places!

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I spent the first day lazing on the beautiful beach, doing a photo shoot with some pelicans and having a little bit of a wander in town. There isn’t actually a whole lot to do in Holbox… The island is pretty small. You can cover the whole town comfortably by foot, and if you want to go anywhere further, there’s golf buggies. There are no cars on the island!

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The main draw for Holbox is the whale sharks. It is peak whale shark season in July, so I had come in prime time to tick ‘swim with whale shark’ off my bucket list. The trip left at 7am- there were 8 of us on the boat, 4 other travellers, myself and a dad with his two young sons from Holland. The ride out to the site was long and rough, it took about 2 and a half hours of gripping the seat as we flew off the tops of the waves before we got there. We did get to see some dolphins frolicking alongside us though!

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By the time we arrived both of the little boys were seasick and crying, but there were whale sharks EVERYWHERE. I could believe the numbers of them. They are filter feeders and eat plankton which are right at the surface here in nice weather. We were only allowed to get in the water 2 at a time with the sharks and our guide Carlos, but all of us got to swim twice. They are huge, but swim super quickly! It was an incredible experience, not quite the same as seeing a random one out of the blue on a dive or something (still on my list!) but still amazing.

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The little boys both had a swim and were thankfully looking much more cheerful afterwards! We had a little snorkel over a small reef on our way back which wasn’t super spectacular, but just as I was about to go back to the boat I saw a sea turtle swim by which was awesome! I’ve never seen one in the wild before.

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By then it had started to rain, but we kept on to our next stop where we were fed some delicious fresh ceviche (Carlos had literally just caught the fish off the back of the boat with his hands!) and saw a whole lot of pelicans roosting. It poured with rain while we were there, but we all enjoyed sitting in the warm water and watching the storm.

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Unfortunately we caught the full brunt of the storm- it was intense! Carlos had doled out lifejackets just before we hit it to help keep us warm then we all squished ourselves in a huddle on the floor of the boat with a sarong around the back of us to protect us from the spiky rain! Carlos had put his wetsuit back on and our captain had taken off his shirt to keep it dry, so topless battled us through the tempest back into the sunshine! It was quite an experience!

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After, we stopped off to see the resident flamingos then headed back home. After all the rain, most of the islands roads had flooded, so much so that you basically had to take off your shoes to walk through the giant puddles that covered the entire street! My last day on the island was taken up much like the first with lazing on the beach and wandering about town.

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My next stop after Holbox was a small town down the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo called Tulum. I had to take the ferry back to Chiquila, get a bus to Cancun, then transfer buses there for Tulum. I had a pretty swift transfer so only saw Cancun’s bus station! But from what I’ve heard, despite the nice beaches it’s a pretty overcrowded and expensive place, so I wasn’t too worried. In Tulum I stayed in a little B&B kinda place called ‘Calm Cabins’. I was the only one in the dorm and there was only one other girl staying in a private room, so calm it was! The owner Dora was lovely, very friendly and helpful, and lived there with her 6 (!) cats. She cooked a different breakfast each day and served it to you in the garden. The only bad bit was the mozzies!

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For my first full day in Tulum I’d organised a cenote dive trip at a site called Dos Ojos (it means ‘Two Eyes’ in Spanish). In case you don’t remember, cenotes are natural sinkholes formed in limestone that are filled with fresh water. Dos Ojos, as its name suggests, has two caverns, both from the one entrance point and we dived both. Diving Dos Ojos was pretty exciting, as I have never done any diving in an overheard environment before (meaning you don’t have direct access to the surface). Cavern diving is different from cave diving in that you can always see a source of natural light- it gets reasonably dark in places, so you do have a torch, but it is never pitch black. It was pretty weird jumping in a truck from the dive shop instead of a boat! We drove a little way out through the jungle to get to the site. Once we’d had our briefing and geared up, in we went. The water was SO clear, they say 100m visibility down there! There wasn’t a heap of marine life to see, the cenote dives are more about the incredible rock formations and the colours created by the filtered light from the surface.  On our second dive, we surfaced at one point in Bat Cave, which obviously had some bats, but was also highly decorated and really cool to see before we descended again and headed out.

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As these dives were shallow, I’d taken my camera down, but sadly after the first dive to 8m, it crapped out and came up completely flooded 😦 sad times… Luckily one of the other guys from my dive Brian kindly donated me his pics. He also gave me desiccant sachets to hopefully dry out the camera, but even after I’d left it in a bowl of rice overnight it didn’t come back to life. My luck with cameras has not yet changed it seems…

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The next day, I met up with Brian again and we went to see Tulum’s Mayan ruins. It was so beautifully located, perched on a cliff top overlooking the superbly blue Caribbean Sea. Tulum is a very small site, so shortly after we had arrived and the tour groups came in, it seemed very crowded! It’s buildings aren’t as spectacular as some of the bigger sites, but I still really enjoyed it. I just couldn’t get over the setting and the amazing colour of the sea!

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From the ruins it was a short walk to the main beach, which was stunning! We went for a dip, and then got some sun lounges (which came with 2 free cocktails and an umbrella) just in time for happy hour at midday! We enjoyed some cocktails and lazed about til happy hour ended at 3pm then enjoyed  a late lunch of delicious shrimp ceviche. I could get used to this kinda life!

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That night I met up with some friends from earlier in the trip- Lisanna and Aida who I’d met on a tour in Oaxaca as well as Mike and Sebastian who I’d hiked with in Oaxaca were all in town. Brian and I caught dinner at a local street stall (and of course had some beers) with the German boys, and later I met the girls at their hostel for yet more drinks. It ended up being quite a late night!

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The next day I managed to get up in time for my 8am bus and was feeling ok, then slept the entire 4 hours to Chetumal where unfortunately the hangover caught up with me. Here I said goodbye to my breakfast, and then said goodbye to Mexico after a great 2 and a half months, and jumped on a boat to Belize.

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I actually did ok on the boat, again sleeping most of the way to San Pedro where we went through immigration- a little wooden booth on a pier staffed by the most softly spoken man in the world. I had to fully lean my head in his window to hear him. I got some new stamps and from there it was another short boat ride over to Caye Caulker.

Belize felt a world apart from Mexico. For starters, the official language is English (though many people also speak Spanish) and the culture is completely different. It is garifuna, very Caribbean and they also speak a Creole version of English (like Jamaica, man).

Caye Caulker is a very touristy but very chilled island just off the coast of Belize. A caye is technically ‘small, low-elevation, sandy island formed on the surface of a coral reef’ (thanks wiki). The place reminded me a bit of Holbox in the way that there was actually not a heap to do on the island itself so it was super laid back, and there were also only golf carts to kick around in, no cars. Caye Caulker is sheltered by the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world (to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia). It runs over 1000km, all the way from the tip of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico down to Honduras. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef however which is slowly dying, this reef is still growing. The Great Blue Hole (a huge ocean sinkhole) is also off the coast of Belize, so hearing about the great diving and snorkelling here resulted in me adding Caye Caulker to my itinerary.

I had a pretty lazy first day on the island, wandering around town with Karin, a lovely Dutch girl I met on the boat over. We thought about going canoeing in one of the boats that were free at our hostel, but it was really hot, so we went up to ‘The Split’ at the top of the island for a swim (a hurricane years ago tore through and left a channel of water down the middle of the caye). Caye Caulker doesn’t have any actual beaches, so you just swim off the piers and docks. The Split is also home to the Lazy Lizard bar so is always packed with people fighting for a piece of prime pier real estate.

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Needless to say, we got stuck there til sunset! No canoeing for us… That afternoon, someone had brought in some little fish and people were throwing them up in the air to feed the frigate birds which hovered above the pier. It was a very cool sight to see- they almost look like they are hanging ornaments magically suspended in the air; they barely need to move their wings!

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In the evening I was feeling up to experiencing Caye Caulker’s night life, so we had dinner at Enjoy Bar (which offered the cheapest lobster on the island – a whole one plus a whole plate of sides for US$10!) then hit up the Reggae Bar. After that closed at midnight, followed the crowd to Oceanside, a nightclub which also had karaoke! It was super hot inside with only fans to help quell the tropical humidity and hoards of people, but the karaoke was surprisingly good and didn’t make me want to run outside and jump off the pier so we danced up a storm anyway- it was lots of fun.

The next day Karin and I went on a snorkelling trip on a sailboat and ended up on a boat with two other girls we’d come across from Chetumal with, Greta and Cari. Our boat was called ‘Raggagal’ and our captain was Ramsey, with Sherwin as his second.

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We sailed a little way north and Ramsey had soon spotted a manatee. You could just see its little nose poking out of the water when it came up to breathe! We quickly got our gear and hopped in, and then noticed there was a pair of manatees. Apparently it was mating season so they were often hanging out in twos. They were so cute, one looked like it was kissing the other, butting its nose on the other’s face! They hung around for ages and we were the only group there, so we just watched them til Ramsey ushered us back to the boat. It was AMAZING! I was so shattered I didn’t have my camera, but again got donated some pics from a friend taken at the same sites which I’ll use to show you here…

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Our next stop was Shark and Ray Alley which was a bit crazy and hectic as there were quite a few boats there and lots of snorkelers. There were HEAPS of nurse sharks and rays, and people were throwing food off the boats to them so they were going nuts. It was cool to see, but felt a bit like a zoo, so I didn’t really enjoy it as much. The best thing i saw was a stingray trying to eat a giant conch shell!

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Our last stop was the reef, where we swum all the way out over some beautiful coral, saw lots of gorgeous fish and also the resident green moray (they are so creepy looking…). There was a small swim through down at about 5-6m which I did, but was worrying so much about whether I’d be able to hold my breath all that way that I didn’t probably appreciate what I was seeing so much!

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At this site we also saw 3 sea turtles swimming around munching on sea grass. The vis was a lot better than when I saw the one off Holbox, so I could appreciate the amazing patterns on their bodies and shells a lot more- just gorgeous.

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On the sail back, the crew pumped up the reggae and we were fed shrimp ceviche, thousands of corn tortilla chips and gallons of rum punch (very dangerous, as it tastes just like juice!) as the sun sank in the sky. It was a really awesome day!

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My last full day on the Caye was an early one- I had booked a dive trip to the Great Blue Hole. I had to go to the dive shop at 5.30am where luckily we were dosed up on fresh coffee and sweet breads (I definitely need some caffeine on board if I have to associate with anyone at that time of the morning!). There were about 13 divers and 3 staff on the small boat. The ride out to the blue hole was around 2 hours, and rough for much of the way like in Holbox, but this time with a couple of gentle breaks over the reefs. We got to the blue hole before 9- you can’t fully appreciate it from the surface, but you could see the azure colour of the Caribbean change to a deep blue as we cruised into it.

The aerial shots of the hole are unbeliezable (had to be said at least once!)- it is about 300m across and 120m deep. So the dive itself is really short because it is relatively deep- if you had your advanced certification you could go to 40m. We only spent 25 minutes under all together- a quick freefall to 40m, then just 8 minutes bottom time before spending the last 15 minutes or so ascending slowly. Before I went, some people had told me they were disappointed and didn’t think the dive was that great but I loved it and was so glad to have done it. From a marine life point of view you’re not going to see millions of fish and coral, but it’s a site unlike any I’ve ever seen. As we were dropping into the dark blue abyss, we were lucky enough to see a couple of grey reef sharks lurking around but they soon swam off into the blue. But then the rocky formations appear- giant stalactites above and a rocky ledge below at 50 metres drops straight down into the hole. It was incredible- makes you feel so tiny!

We had two more dives for the day, both gradually a little shallower. The first was called Half Moon Wall which was an amazing coral wall which seemed to go on forever- we dove to 18m, but the reef kept going deeper. There were some very curious reef sharks who came right up to us, and we also saw another sea turtle. We stopped at the gorgeous and quiet Half Moon Caye for lunch and spent our surface interval wandering around the white sand beaches and checked out the red footed booby (a rare type of bird) nesting area.

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The last dive was at the aptly named site, The Aquarium. It looked like an underwater forest with massive gorgonian fans and tree-like whip corals, and was teeming with tropical fish. I also saw a green moray actually swimming which was a first- he was so huge and fat! I’ve only ever seen them poking their heads out of small crevasses in the past. Of course on our boat back, we were given surprise rum punch, as well as corn chips, salsa and cookies as we looked over beautiful Turniffe Atoll… (wouldn’t mind a private island round here!)

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That evening I had a delightful feast at the hostel with Marijke and Pieter (from Belgium) and Josh (originally from Trinidad and Tobago but has lived in Australia for several years). As a side note, Josh is in the midst of sailing from Florida down the Caribbean Coast and eventually on to Australia– he has a great blog about his adventures at www.sailsandsandals.com. Josh had been spear fishing that day and caught 2 big snapper which we fired up on the grill with some veggies- it was lovely to do some cooking and dining on some delicious, fresh seafood was a perfect way to finish my island time before heading back inland!

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