You Gotta Belize

Dolphins, blossoming mangroves, white-sand beaches: Sailing a catamaran off the coast of this Caribbean country is an adventure in paradise.

October 1999By Comments

RILEY DUNN SLAPS his soggy straw cowboy hat against The Nasty Knot’s starboard pontoon, gives me the evil eye, and then spits with disgust into the blue Caribbean water. With the tricky easterly breeze, it has taken me a full fifteen minutes to maneuver my catamaran sailboat alongside his, and it’s clear that Riley is none too pleased about the wait. “When I wave my hat, I want ya to raise yer daggerboards, pronto,” he admonishes. “This coral will tear up these fiberglass hulls faster than a jaguar in heat.”

I’ve been with Riley for 24 hours now, and not once has he blinked, smiled, or offered me a compliment. Even though he’s ten feet downwind, I’m sure I can smell in his sweaty cargo shorts and unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt the cattle he’s wrangled off and on for the past thirty years. Riley’s gravelly baritone makes it clear he doesn’t suffer fools gladly—especially those who might damage his four beloved twin-hulled sailboats. He has dragged them behind his ancient Dodge van down to Central America all the way from Denver, where he spends six months of the year working as a forest management consultant and guiding city slickers into the mountains to hunt elk.

Earlier this morning, on our first day of sailing one of his Hobie Cat Magnums along the coast of Belize, I accidentally “teabagged” my sailing companion by digging a pontoon into a wave and, while reeling her in from the water, gasping, almost flipped the boat. A quarter mile away, Riley stood on his cat’s trampoline, the canvas seat stretched between the two pontoons, wildly waving his cowboy hat. Riley, who is 47—and is missing his right index finger (black bear? barracuda?) and perhaps even his eyelids—is an excellent sailor, but his communication skills leave much to the imagination. Semi-convinced that this particular hat-waving meant for us to jibe and head north, we hummed along at a good eighteen knots toward the port town of Dangriga before realizing that Riley’s blue-sailed catamaran hadn’t moved and was now just a dot on the horizon behind us. The tongue-lashing we got once he caught up pales in comparison to the one we are currently receiving for endangering our daggerboards, the three-foot planks inserted into each pontoon to help stabilize the boat.

I remove my sunglasses, pinch the bridge of my nose, and turn in exasperation to my friend (self-dubbed “Jib Girl”), an editor from Madison, Wisconsin, who used to race single-hull JY15’s with a former beau but who, like me, has never before sailed one of these ultra-fast, fairly temperamental eighteen-foot Hobie Cats. We have come to Belize for the promise of “unspoiled adventure travel” (and—truth be told—because I have a crush on my new friend and hope to woo her with some manly outdoorsmanship). But now, clenching my fists like a scolded child, I wonder if this week-long Caribbean-island-hopping package with Riley’s outfitting company, Under the Sun, was such a hot idea. “Perhaps this is why we had to pay up front,” I whisper.

At 26, Jib Girl is twelve years my junior. Delicate and slender, she listens to Chopin, reads Victorian poetry for fun, and has the pale, praying-mantis beauty of someone who has spent much of her life in museums. Plunging into the wilds of Central America with a guy she’s known for two months is a big deal for her. Yesterday we flew on Costa Rica—based Taca Airlines from Houston to Belize City (Continental and American also fly there). The country’s largest town, Belize City has a population of 50,000 and a reputation for harboring the most dangerous thieves in the Caribbean. A bumpy three-hour bus ride took us through the capital city of Belmopan and then along the northern rim of the Maya Mountains to Hopkins, an isolated and slow-moving but friendly fishing village on Belize’s central coast. With unpaved roads and ramshackle houses built on creaky wooden stilts (electricity became available in 1994), Hopkins has fewer than 1,300 inhabitants, most of whom are Garifuna, descendants of Nigerian slaves who were shipwrecked on the island of St. Vincent in 1635 and intermarried with Carib Indians who had migrated from South America. Though poor, the tiny town overflows with reggae and laughter. A recently arrived Canadian minister, his dazed-looking wife, and their half-dozen children, along with Riley and one or two bleary-eyed, Belikin-beer-swigging expats from Miami, seem to be the only foreigners living in Hopkins.

Before our first morning of sailing, we ate breakfast at Iris’ Cafe—little more than a wooden table in the kitchen of an unmarked, two-room seaside shack owned by a middle-aged Garifuna woman. The chalkboard menu offered us a choice of “fried eggs and fried jacks,” which we ordered, and “gibnut” (a short-haired swamp rat), which we did not. “Yah, yah, mon,” Iris said to Riley, directing a noisy fan right into our faces, “I have Coke but no coffee. The mon from Dangriga, he brought me no coffee. Tomorrow maybe.” Barefoot and dressed in a faded red cotton frock, Iris moved so slowly across the concrete floor from stove to table she seemed almost a parody of slowness; it was unclear whether she was exhausted from a morning of preparing swamp rat or just profoundly mellow from a lifetime spent under palm trees and perfectly blue skies.

Under the Sun operates in Hopkins from November through May. Its three-room “base” lodge, decorated with plastic furniture, hammocks, fishing nets, and Japanese World War II buoys, sits among coconut trees fifty feet from the water. Under the Sun’s Web site (www.underthesunbelize.com) extols Belize’s year-round warm weather, the delightful and inexpensive Rasta lifestyle, and the chance to man one of the world’s most exciting sailboats in some of the world’s most pristine waters. Riley claims to have the only four Hobie Cat Magnums in all of Belize (you certainly won’t see any others in Hopkins), and for $1,480 a head he’ll loan you one and provide a clean bed, a mosquito net, and running water at the base lodge and any cays you visit; all the garlic shrimp and gibnut you can eat; and a support boat (for clothes and scuba gear) for a week. The price also includes his services as a guide for a multi-night catamaran expedition through the cays along the barrier reef fifteen miles east of the Belizean coast. (Reservations can be made through Under the Sun’s Web site or by calling 800-285-6967.)

On our second full day in Hopkins, the mysterious appearance at brunch of a woman named Joanne—fortysomething, with beautiful green eyes, traveling alone through Central America for two months after quitting her importing business in Oregon—proves a blessing. Invited by Riley to “serve as ballast” for his sailboat, Joanne possesses a calm nature that adds the perfect balance to our uneven threesome. At noon the four of us launch our two boats on what turns out to be a magical six-hour journey to the tiny tropical paradise of South Water Caye. Accompanied by dolphins and a warm southerly breeze, our two Cats purr effortlessly along the barrier reef, the twin hulls offering up a delicious vibration hum whenever we hit speeds above fifteen knots, each rudder spewing rooster tails, the Caribbean’s water so calm and clear you swear you could reach down and touch the white coral forty feet beneath the pontoons.

We arrive at South Water Caye exhausted, sunburned, and exhilarated. Pulling our two boats onto the island’s white sands, we are greeted by swooping pelicans and a handful of locals who have gathered in the knee-deep water to watch our approach. One of them says he’s never seen a sailboat move so fast and, while wiggling Riley’s tiller, asks, in all seriousness, “Mon, where’s the motor?” Made giddy by the vision of this almost absurdly beautiful, twelve-acre Eden (and the aroma of grilled fish drifting through the palm trees), I can only chuckle and shake my head at the memory of yesterday’s tensions. There’s nothing here but gently waving coconut and mangrove trees, enormous blush-rimmed conch shells (so ubiquitous they’re used for flower pots and doorstops), squawking frigate birds and herons circling gracefully overhead, the Blue Marlin Lodge, a few rustic cabanas, and a small wood-framed field station for International Zoological Expeditions’ two marine biologists, who offer eco-tours of the barrier reef. Jib Girl and I share IZE’s “Swamp Hut”—a surprisingly comfortable open-air cabin situated among blossoming mangroves ten feet from the water, with a full view of the setting sun. In the evening, barefoot on the beach, we eat slices of papaya under a moon bright enough to cast shadows.

We decide to spend an extra day on the tiny cay—Joanne jokes about staying forever—and Jib Girl and I devote an afternoon to scuba diving in the warm, clear waters surrounding the coral reefs. Forty feet below the surface the visibility seems endless; wearing diving suits borrowed from IZE, we flirt with moray eels, stingrays, and a dazzling array of brightly colored fish until we almost empty our supply of compressed air.

Returning to the island with our scuba gear, we encounter two bearded, tanned sea-kayakers in their late twenties, who are bickering like an old married couple over the culinary value of coconut milk. It turns out they are in the sixth month of the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition  (CASKE) 2000, a two-and-a-half-year, five-thousand-mile journey from California to Panama—perhaps the longest sea-kayaking voyage ever attempted. They launched their two Feathercraft kayaks last October off the Baja Peninsula and, after a bus ride through the Mexican interior to the Caribbean, are scheduled to arrive at Panama’s Darien rain forest in the spring of 2001. With tents, cooking supplies, a satellite positioning system, water pumps, and a speargun, the expedition is completely self-sustaining. Folding solar panels generate power for a laptop computer with which the kayakers daily update their impressive Web site (www.caske2000.org). Over ice-cold Belikins we learn that they met during a cross-country ski race in Japan and that their expedition’s chief goal is to “explore, learn from, and document the lifestyles of the last remaining indigenous tribes in Central America.”

The next day our two Hobie Cats bop from island to island along the barrier reef, from the northern reaches of Dangriga to Sittee Point, thirty miles to the south. We circle Bird Caye once or twice, marveling at the thousands of red-throated frigate birds hovering above the mangroves, and spend a lazy afternoon on Tobacco Caye, a dreamy five-acre isle seemingly unfazed by Hurricane Mitch’s heavy seas (a tiny waterfront cafe was washed fifty feet deeper into the palm trees, where, magically intact, it remains open for business). One or two scuba-diving guests of the Island Camps lodge gently sway in low-slung hammocks among its pastel-colored cabanas, and two old men who say they haven’t worn shoes in thirty years play an endless domino game in the white sand.

There’s a moral in our return to Hopkins. Battling high winds and six-foot swells that threaten to topple the catamarans, I finally understand the point Riley had tried to make with his earlier admonitions: Deep-sea sailing can be dangerous if you don’t respect the elements. Several times the crashing waves throw us wildly across the trampoline and wrench my hand from the tiller. Battered and exhausted and thoroughly humbled, Jib Girl and I survive the final five-hour run by following our guide’s savvy tacks and sail positionings, and as soon as we stumble ashore we hug Joanne farewell and drag Riley down to the Jabiru Bar to buy him a beer.

Having paddled from South Water Caye to Under the Sun’s lodge in Hopkins (to meet with a local Garifuna herb doctor), the two CASKE 2000 sea-kayakers agree to join us for our final full day in Belize. Riley generously offers the unsupervised use of a kayak, but we opt instead to have him lead us, at no additional cost, through the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve in search of jaguars. The 100,000-acre nature sanctuary at the foot of the Maya Mountains is thirty minutes by van from Hopkins.

My eyes widen at the beauty of what Riley shows us. We splash upstream through a waist-high river bordered by fifty-foot-tall mahogany trees and elephant-eared cassava plants, the humid air filled with the rustling of peccaries and white-collared manakins and the surreal, echoing shrieks of howler monkeys hidden in the thick vines and colorful flowers overhead. Riley points out quamwood leaves and rare copal trees, whose resin was collected by the Maya and burned as incense for the gods. Even the two sea-kayakers seem impressed by the depth of Riley’s understanding of the natural world. Deep in the jungle, the first humans we encounter, snaking toward us on river rafts, are wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying machine guns; Riley calmly identifies them as a visiting British diplomat and his escort of six bodyguards. For the first time on this week-long escapade in Belize I feel thankful, even privileged, to be in Riley’s company.

Behind me in the river, Jib Girl hums a little song to herself, lost in reverie. Rosy-cheeked from the sun, her long hair soaked from the warm water, my companion gives me a smile that suggests this might not be our last adventure together.

The next morning, when the two of us board the single-engine jungle hopper that will ferry us to the Belize City airport, it feels fitting that our final farewell to Riley is a silent wave of our sweat-stained hats.

Keith Kachtick wrote about playwright Terrence McNally in the November 1998 issue of Texas Monthly.

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