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Belize Trip Report: New Romantic Adventures (Part II)

Caye Caulker, sunburns and cheap lobster dinners... Nice.

sunny 27 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

Bus, Taxi and Boat, San Ignacio to Caye Caulker, November 1, 2010

The next morning I caught the bus back to Belize City. This time I was on a BBDC bus. Similar to the journey up to San Ignacio, though without the radio (IFE is broken! I wonder if I can get 500 points?). Unlike the National bus, there was no overhead luggage rack, so my luggage rode up front with the driver.

From the bus station, I got a taxi to the water taxi dock. $BZ 6 for the short trip. I threw my bag in the taxi’s trunk and climbed in.

Upon arrival at the bus station, however, the driver encountered a small issue. The taxi driver tried to open his trunk to retrieve my backpack and said, "Oh mon, where is the string? I can't open the trunk without the string!"

It transpired that the latch on his trunk was broken, and he had rigged a string to pull open the latch from the inside. By hanging the string out, he could tug on it, which would unlatch the trunk and pop it open. Without the string, no way into the trunk.

For the next twenty minutes, the taxi driver, myself and one of the workers at the water taxi company casually discussed options to get my backpack out of the car. Finally, the taxi driver pulled apart the back seat of his Toyota to get into the trunk and retrieve my backpack.

By this point, I’d had my share of foibles on the trip, and was becoming quite relaxed about everything, so I wasn’t too fused about the lost 20 minutes. The great thing about travelling in a place like Belize, you learn to relax and take it all in stride. I wrote about this on my blog, where I learn to accept whatever comes.

There are two ways to get to Caye Caulker - by air or by boat. A couple air carriers do the short trip from Belize City to Caye Caulker, and you can also arrange flights from other cities in neighbouring countries.

I decided to take the boat, though. Something romantic about skimming across the top of the waves towards an island paradise.

The water taxi costs $BZ 20 one way, or $BZ 35 return. The trip takes a little over one hour.

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The ride is mostly smooth, as the water is calm - protected from big waves by the Belize Barrier Reef off the coast. There were a few big jolts, but that’s to be expected when on a boat.

The boats aren’t really set up great to allow you to see what passes, with seats low in the boat. There are some seats at the back in the open air, but they fill up quickly and you do run the chance of facing a sudden rain shower, as we did. The folks in the exterior seats all tried to cram back inside the boat as soon as the rain starting pouring down.

Tropical Paradise Hotel, Caye Caulker, November 1 - November 4, 2010

Unlike San Ignacio, I knew where I was going in Caye Caulker. Of course, its pretty easy in that the island is long and thin, and there is only a few roads that run the length of the island. I headed from the water taxi dock south towards the Tropical Paradise Hotel, a well recommended location based on trip advisor and other sites.

My cabana was $BZ 80 for a room with air conditioning, satellite TV, ensuite, and bar fridge. The hotel has a private beach and pier. There is a restaurant and bar attached, though I never tried it out.

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Room interior

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Cabana
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Private beach

No complaints about the hotel. A good location, though the island is so small any place is a decent location. Everything in the room worked as expected, and hot water was plentiful.

Caye Caulker Sights, Sounds, Food and Drink

Caye Caulker is five-mile long island about 20 miles off-shore from Belize City. The place is quite laid back and easy-going, with little to do except snorkel, dive, drink beer and laze around in the sun. The waters are calm, with the Belize Barrier Reef to the east keeping big waves from hitting the shore. There is a small nature park near the airport, but mostly it is a place to either get up early and go diving or to just sit back and relax.

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There are numerous tour guides available if you want to arrange a day or half-day snorkelling or diving. They also do sunset cruises for the romantically minded. I was just looking to chill out. I never tried out any of the tour companies, so have no recommendations.

Seafood is the speciality of Caye Caulker. During the day, I grabbed a BBQ’d conch with rice and salad from the guy with the BBQ on the beach just north of the Sports Bar and Bamboo Bar. $BZ 14 for a full meal.

Bamboo bar has good food with an ocean view and sand between your toes as you eat. $BZ 35 for a lobster dinner.

Marin’s (close to the Tropical Paradise Hotel and beside the I&I Reggae bar) has excellent food, priced less than the beachfront restaurants. I had garlic shrimp for $BZ 20, which included chips and salsa appetiser on the house.

For lunch, check out the sandwich place beside the sports bar. For $BZ 8, I had the most amazing cheese burger. Jimmy Buffet was jumping through my head!

For drinks, the Lazy Lizard is a nice place by the split, and includes picnic tables in shallow water if you want to relax in the water. The Reef Sports Bar has TVs with American and European sports, in the event you want to catch up on your NFL, NHL or English Premier League while away.

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Lazy Lizard bar

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Sports Bar

More on Caye Caulker on my blog, including my realisation that while the islands are a nice place to visit, I am probably not cut out for living the island life just yet.

Water Taxi Return, Taxi to Airport

I caught the 8:30 AM water taxi back to Belize City. Checked in at the dock, provided my return ticket for inspection, and handed over my bag to be loaded at 8:00 AM. The Water Taxi showed up on time at 8:30, and we were away.

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Baggage Handling, Water Taxi, Caye Caulker

Back to Belize City in just over an hour. I grabbed a taxi to the airport, this time putting my backpack in the back seat, rather than in the trunk. $BZ 50 to the airport.

Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, Belize City, BZE

Checked in with Continental was quick, as there was only one person in line ahead of me. I did get four boarding passes handed to me, which was weird because I only had two flights.

“I think Mr. Andrews-slash-Arthur would probably want these,” I said, handing back two of the boarding passes. The check-in agent sheepishly took them back.

Security was quick - only two people in front of me.

Past security there was a couple of shops - I bought two t-shirts as gifts ($BZ 20 each).

For drinks or food, there is Jet’s Bar. While I had never been to Belize before, by the way I count having “been” to a country, I had spent some time at the Belize Airport when a flight to Honduras was diverted to Belize back in 2005 when the airport at La Ceiba was closed.

All the passengers were let off the plane and into the airport in Belize City. We stayed 3 1/2 hours in Belize (beautiful day there, sunny and warm), but were not allowed to leave the international departures area. Therefore, most of the plane hit Jet's Bar in the airport. Jet's quite a character, a small man with a big presence. Most people ordered bottles of Belikin, a local brew. About 3 hours later, though, we had drunk Jet out of Belikin.

Jet’s is still there, and still wandering around the airport trying to drum up business. I had a couple of Belikins before my flight.

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Jet’s Bar

Jet is a small man - probably only five foot tall, if that. He has worked at the airport for years, and when the bar became available to buy, he bought it and renamed it after himself. He serves (according to him) the best rum punch in Belize, along with the best of everything else as well.

I noticed, looking up at the pictures on the wall, that Jet has taken a lot of pictures with his patrons, and they often look very similar. Jet, hand outstretched in a thumbs up, his head resting against the chest of the prettiest woman in the group.

I pointed this out to a couple beside me, a young set of honeymooners. To test the theory, they got a picture with Jet. The man tried to stand next to Jet, but Jet rearranged the picture, putting himself in the middle. He stretched out his hand, put his thumb up and tilted his head to the side until it rested firmed against her breast.

Conclusion

Belize was an interesting place. I had my share of frustrations and troubles there - my frozen accounts, my backpack getting locked out, David’s Adventures issues with his truck, along with getting severely burnt after buying counterfeit sunscreen and cutting my toe open on broken glass.

However, already these foibles are fading away, and I am left with a couple mental snapshots of my time in Belize.

The smell of burning fields as the bus drove through the night towards San Ignacio.

The water on my feet as I quaffed a Belikin beer at the Lazy Lizard on Caye Caulker.

Dining on garlic shrimp during a thunderstorm at Marin’s restaurant.

And most vividly, standing atop a Mayan temple, with no one else in sight, the jungles of Belize and Guatemala stretching out before me, with Duran Duran running through my head.

Take a chance
Like all dreamers can't find another way
You don't have to dream it all, just live a day

Posted by GregW 14:07 Archived in Belize Tagged backpacking air_travel Comments (0)

Belize Trip Report: New Romantic Adventures (Part I)

A week in Belize, a week in Toronto and flights to and fro. Just live a day, as they say.

overcast 27 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

The following blog entry is, in fact, a copy. It was written by me, but originally posted on Flyertalk.com, a website for frequent fliers. I wrote it for the Trip Reports forum, where fellow frequent fliers write about their trips. That is why there is a few bits and bobs about what the flight and food and In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) is like. If you want to read the original (with a little more on Canada), check it out here. Otherwise, enjoy.

Introduction

Mayan temples in the jungles of Central America always remind me of the video for Duran Duran’s 1983 song “Save a Prayer,” even though that video was filmed in Sri Lanka. Wandering around previous Mayan sites I have visited always made me feel like a New Romantic merged with Indiana Jones. Thus the draw to the former Mayan territories the span Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.

Due to situations with work and family, I hadn’t had a proper holiday since last November. Thus, feeling burnt out and in need of a rest, when the opportunity arose to grab two weeks away between jobs, I, much like J. Peterman on Seinfeld ran away to Burma (you may know it as Myanmar, Elaine), I ran away to British Honduras (you may know it as Belize).

The timing, as I said, was related to me switching jobs. I knew that as low man on the totem pole at my new job, I wouldn’t be able to get away for Christmas. Therefore, part of the two weeks I would spend back in Toronto, where I am from originally and where my family lives. So, with two weeks to plan, and hoping to use some of my cache of either Air Canada or Continental points, I started planning.

Belize wasn’t originally my destination, or rather not my only destination. I was open to any place in the Caribbean or Central America. Sun and sand and warm water was the only goal. I tried a number of combinations of destinations and dates, switching around whether I was in Toronto first, or second.

I did my planning on both the Aeroplan and Continental One Pass sites, eventually deciding on using Aeroplan points for a LHR-IAH-BZE, BZE-IAH-YYZ, YYZ-LHR routing. So close to the travel dates, I wasn’t able to get business class - at least not on the transatlantic LHR-IAH daytime flight or overnight YYZ-LHR routing where long flights, nice meals and lie flat beds would make the most difference. Therefore, I decided to book it in economy.

The IT failed me here. I was able to get to the point of booking, but the booking engine kept coming back with an error. I had to ring up the Aeroplan Centre to get the flights booked. 75K and $CDN 345 lighter, everything was booked.

West London to LHR Terminal 4, 30 October 2010

The morning started very early. I have used Addison Lee to get to the airport before, but then work was paying. For leisure travel on my own dime, I decided to try the cheaper Airport Direct. £30 from West London to LHR. Unfortunately, it didn’t start well. The driver didn’t show up at the appointed time. Ten minutes passed, and I started worrying about getting to the airport and coming up with alternative plans, when finally he came round the corner at the top of my street. I walked out to greet him, and he zipped right by me, stopping 100 feet down the street in front of a man who was warming up his car. I stood out in the middle of the street, starting to fume.

The driver and man conversed for a moment, and I saw the man point back towards me. The driver put his van in reverse, and squealed backward towards me. As he approached, I realised he wasn’t going to slow down.

“Jesus, watch out!” the man down the street called out.

I quickly moved aside, and swatted the van as he passed me. Hearing the bang, and applied the breaks with a jolt. I climbed into the van, and made sure to do up my seat belt, somewhat concerned about what the trip to Terminal 4 might bring.

The driver made up any lost time, driving like Nigel Mansell on the mostly empty roads of an early Saturday morning. I arrived with time to spare at Heathrow.

Unfortunately, I haven’t travelled much recently, and my Aeroplan Elite status had long ago lapsed, so I bought a couple bottles of Diet Cherry Coke (two for £1.70 at WH Smith), and waited at the gate.

CO 35 LHR - IAH 30 October 2010

Aircraft: 777. I had a window seat on the right of plane, around half way down. I realise I have already thrown away my boarding passes, so I can’t say exactly what seat. It was, however, comfortable and the leg room was fine for me (5 foot 9).

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Inflight Entertainment (IFE): Personal entertainment units, with movies, TV, music and games. The units seemed quite good. I have often found the Air Canada ones having poor sound, and I have to put the volume at full. The Continental ones I had no problem hearing. Additionally, I didn’t have to sit through any adverts at the start of the movies. Pay attention Air Canada! I watched three movies - The A-Team (“Overkill is underrated”), Robin Hood and Prince of Persia. I think the low oxygen environment aids in the enjoyment of movies that I would have found unbearable at ground level. They weren’t bad.

I tried some of the games, but was underwhelmed. Then again, I am not a gamer.

The IFE did freeze with about 2 hours left in the flight, but was rebooted and I ended the flight listening to some music.

Meal: The first meal was beef brisket with salad, cream cheese and crackers, carrots and broccoli (steamed) and potatoes. The beef was quite good - very tender and with a good flavour. Desert was an apple crumble that looked so dire I didn’t even try it.

The snack before landing was a hot ham and cheese sandwich with a packet of crisps and a small chocolate. It was edible, but hardly impressive.

The flight took off and landed on time.

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Houston Airport (IAH)

As an international transfer with no checked luggage, I used the “One Stop” line. It was at this point, worth it, as there was only two people ahead of me and I was through USA CBP in just a few minutes. (It didn’t work out so well on my return, as the line was longer and moved much slower than the regular line, but I’ll cover that later). One Stop allows you to skip through the luggage pick-up area, and get back to airside via a short path to security.

Security line was short, and security seemed same as ever. I had been concerned, as the toner cartridge bomb had just been the day before, and they had spoken on the news of increased security measures.

I had a short transfer window at IAH. I wanted to accomplish just one thing - to get out some US dollars to use in Belize. Belize uses the Belize dollar - pegged at an exchange rate of $BZ 2 to $US 1 - but the US dollar is well accepted. I knew I would need a bit of cash, as I was planning at staying at budget hotels which didn’t take credit cards. So I punched in a $500 withdrawal from a Chase Bank machine.

“The transaction is invalid,” said the machine back to. “Please contact your bank.”

“Ah well,” I thought. “I can get some Belize dollars upon arrival at the airport in Belize City.”

What I didn’t know, at that moment, was that a computer in the United Kingdom had decided that my attempted withdrawal was “suspicious.” That decision by an automated brain an ocean away would come to vex me in a few hours, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

CO 1628 IAH - BZE 30 October 2010

Aircraft: 737-800. Another window seat, this time on the left side of the plane. Power plugs at every seat.

IFE: DirecTV, for $US 6. I didn’t buy it - that’s why I had a book and an iPod. They said DirecTV was available, but on the flight back said it wasn’t because we were outside the continental USA. I am not sure what would have happened when we crossed the border into Mexico - would the TV have still worked?

Food: A diet Coke and pretzels. Everything else cost money.

A generally uneventful flight, though the guy beside me did have the same jacket as me, bought at NEXT in the UK. He was English, and turns out he was just starting a job in Belize. Keeping the British in British Honduras, I suppose.

Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, Belize City, BZE

I arrived at BZE, were we disembarked via steps and across the tarmac into the air conditioned customs area. Customs wasn’t too bad. It took about 20 minutes to clear. From there, straight out the door as I was travelling without a checked bag. Others on my flight were still waiting for their bags.

Just outside the secure area was a cash machine. I tried to take out some Belize dollars, but was rebuffed twice - transactions denied. I swallowed my distaste for it, and decided to try a cash advance on my credit card. Again denied.

I examined my situation. I had only brought my debit and credit cards from the UK, leaving my Canadian based cards at home, as I have little money in the chequing account and no easy way to pay off balances on my Canadian based Visa card. I had £30 and $US 30 in cash.

I tried making a call to my bank back in the UK using my credit card, but obviously it was rejected. I was starting to panic. The money I had might be enough to get me to Belize City, but without a working credit card and little cash on hand, I couldn’t afford anywhere to stay.

I wandered up to the second story of the airport, and out onto the viewing platform. I watched as a few local flights took off, and tried to calm myself. Things looked bad, but I would be able to figure something out. I wasn’t actually broke, just temporarily unable to access my money. After 10 minutes to psyching myself up, I went down to try and tackle the problem again.

I exchanged my £30 for Belize dollars, receiving $BZ 80.10 back. Just about to walk away and plan my next step, I had a brainstorm.

“Excuse me, is there somewhere to get an international calling card?” I asked.

The woman thought about it for a moment, and discussed it with a co-worker. They finally remembered a BTL (Belize Telemedia Limited) store across the parking lot. I wandered over and bought myself a $BZ 30 phone card, which the man said should be enough for a 30 minute call to the UK.

I got through to the bank, and then was on hold for 15 minutes. I was starting to sweat, wondering if I should have bought a longer calling card, when someone finally came on. Another 10 minutes and a transfer to the fraud department, and the situation was resolved.

“Can I ask something,” I said before hanging up. “I travel often, and haven’t had trouble before. I know you are supposed to tell your bank when you travel, but I never do. Would that have helped in this situation?”

The answer was unexpected, but honest. “No,” the fraud advisor said. “It would stop us from manually putting a freeze on your account, but this was a freeze that was computer generated. It stops suspicious activity whether abroad or at home.”

I bought an ice cold Coke and headed back up to the viewing platform, to wait the 10 minutes the fraud advisor said it would take for my card to reactivate. I thought about what the advisor had said. I realised that in the UK I hardly ever use cash, preferring to pay by debit card with my chip and pin. Any large withdrawal, whether in Houston, Belize City or Bermondsey was going to be out of character, I suppose.

Fifteen minutes later (just to be safe), I went back down to the cash machine. I held my breath as the machine thought, and breathed a sigh of relief when it told me to collect my Belize dollars. Newly minted, I headed out of the airport and got a taxi to the bus station in Belize City.

My key lesson, always bring enough cash to get you through the first couple days of travel. You never know when you might get stranded.

Belize Dollars - not as easy to get as I would have hoped.
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National Bus Company, Belize City to San Ignacio, 30 October 2010

It cost a flat rate $BZ 50 ($US 25 - remember a fixed 2:1 exchange rate) to get from the airport to the Novello bus terminal in Belize City.

From there, I grabbed the first bus to San Ignacio. Because of the money issues, I was running almost an hour and a half behind my schedule, but buses run frequently from Belize City, so it wasn’t an issue.

Regular bus service in Belize (which means non-express) is provided in old Blue Bird school buses. On my trip to San Ignacio, there were overhead racks (metal brackets and wooden shelves) on the bus for luggage storage, though that isn’t the case on all buses, and you may have to leave luggage up front by the driver or at the back of the bus. A few buses have undercarriage storage.

The bus costs $BZ 7, which isn’t bad for a 120 kilometre journey. It takes between 2 and 2 1/2 hours, depending on the number of stops that the bus makes. The buses act as both local and intercity buses.

A sample of a Belize bus
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I wouldn’t say the buses are chicken buses - they are nicer than that. Though, the woman sitting beside me did have a fried chicken dinner that she had brought aboard. The seats aren’t very comfortable, and while I am not a tall man, I did find my knees squished pretty firmly against the seat in front of me.

IFE consisted of the radio, tuned to a radio station that played 80s tunes, hip-hop and dancehall. A strange mix, to be sure. They did play Thriller by Michael Jackson twice on the journey. It was only on the second playing that I clued in that the song was in celebration of Hallowe’en the next evening.

Night fell as we drove. The windows were all open, which kept the bus cool and drowned out the radio when on the open road. Obviously the end of the harvest season, farmers were burning off their fields, and for most of the journey the bus had the slight aroma of burning fields.

Hotel Hi-Et, San Ignacio, October 30 - November 1, 2010

The bus dropped me at the main intersection in central San Ignacio. I had a list of a couple places to check out based on internet recommendations. What I didn’t have was a map of San Ignacio that listed where the hotels were. I ended up being able to see the Hotel Hi-Et from my vantage point, and as it was on my list, I decided to check it out.

The Hi-Et (no affiliation with Hyatt - it is named after Ethel, one of the founders of the hotel) is a budget hotel spread over a couple houses on West Street, connected by walkways. Rooms were $BZ 40 with an ensuite or $BZ 25 for a shared bath. I took an ensuite. Rooms are clean. No air conditioning, but their are ceiling fans.

The rooms were clean, and the bed was comfortable. The shower had ample hot water. At the corner of West Street and Bullet Tree Road, it can be a bit noisy, but even on Saturday night the noise died down by about 11:30, and I had a peaceful and quiet sleep. For $US 20, I can’t complain at all about the accommodations.

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Balcony outside my room
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The Hi-Et, San Ignacio, Belize

San Ignacio Sites, Sounds, Eats and Drinks

San Ignacio is twinned with Santa Elena across the Macal River from it. As a tourist, the main purpose of visiting San Ignacio is to use it as a base for touring nearby attractions. There is little for the tourist in town that I found. However, there are a choice of decent restaurants and bars.

Eva’s, on Bullet Tree Road, has a decent selection of Belize and international dishes. I had Fried Chicken for $BZ 10, and a few Belikin Beers ($BZ 5 each). Guillermo, my waiter, also had a number of excellent suggestions of ways to spend my time in San Ignacio.

Mr. Greedy’s on Burns Ave is a good place for drinks. They have excellent happy hour deals. In addition, I had chicken wings there which were quite good, in the event you have a hankering for a taste of Buffalo in San Ignacio.

In the morning, there are a few places along Burn’s Avenue. One place, which didn’t have a name, served excellent breakfast burritos for $BZ 3. It is on Burns Avenue, on the left as you walk from the market square up towards the petrol station. You’ll see the line up of locals getting breakfast.

Xunantunich

The Mayan civilisation flourished in Central America, most especially in the Yucatán Peninsula, until 900 A.D. During the period from 250 A.D. until 900 A.D., some of the most impressive Mayan cities and temple sites were built, including the Mayan sites I have seen previously at Chechen Itza and Tulum in Mexico.

Xunantunich, in the interior of Belize, sits just a few miles from the Guatemala border. The site covers approximately a square mile, with the centre of the site consisting of a plaza with three structures in a row.

The main building on the site is called El Castillo, a 140 foot tall structure with a number of steep stairways and impressive stucco friezes.

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Xunantunich is on the highway between San Ignacio and Benque. From San Ignacio, I took a “Benque Taxi.” All cars registration province is written on the cars license plate. Directed by a local, he said I could grab a taxi in San Ignacio with a B (for Benque), and that he would charge a low rate to get to Xunantunich, as he would have to go back to Benque anyway. I paid $BZ 4 for the ride, whereas the bus cost $BZ 1.75 or a Cayo taxi (one registered in San Ignacio, Cayo province) would charge $BZ 25. On the way back, I took the bus, which you can catch right outside the ferry.

The ferry crossing to Xunantunich is about 20 minutes from San Ignacio. You have to cross the Mopan river, which is accomplished by a hand cranked ferry.

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It is then a 20 minute walk up to main site. Entrance fee was $BZ 10. A guide can be hired there, but I chose to go without.

Being low season in Belize, I arrive to find I am almost alone at Xunantunich. As I walk up into the main plaza, a tour group of four (plus a guide) are just leaving. I wander towards the main pyramid - El Castillo - and meet just one other traveller, a solo woman wandering the site without a guide, like I am.

I climb to the top of El Castillo, and look out over the countryside. Off in the distance, the Belize countryside and the borders of Guatamela. Nearer to us, aerial views of the other temples. The air is thick and sticky, not a hint of wind. The only disturbance is a swarm of dragonflies flittering around in the air. I hummed “Save a Prayer” to myself, and imagined myself a member of a New Romantic band in 1985, even if I don’t quite look the part.

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And you wanted to dance, so I asked you to dance, but fear was in your soul. Some people call it a one night stand, but we can call it paradise.

More photos and text at my blog entry on Xunantunich.

Barton Creek Cave Tour, David’s Adventure Tours

I arranged an afternoon tour with David’s Adventure Tours. David’s is across from the market. David’s is owned and operated by Dave Simpson, an Afro-Mayan local. Dave’s speciality is tours to Barton Creek Cave, a water filled cave that is the source of Barton Creek. Dave was the one who started giving tours of the cave.

I had tried a couple different tour companies that morning, seeing if I could arrange a trip to Caracol, a large Mayan site not far from San Ignacio. Unfortunately, they all had minimum tour sizes (from 2 to 4 people), so everyone tried to put me on another tour. Most tried to sell the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour - the primary selling point seems to be the chance to see “human remains!”). I really wanted to see a Mayan ruin, and Dave was the only one who came up with a suggestion - self tour Xunantunich in the morning, and do a tour with him in the afternoon. Dave even turned me on to the “Benque taxi,” so before the tour I was very pleased with Dave in that he listened to what I wanted.

The Barton Creek Cave tour is usually $BZ 90, but as I was the only one going, I paid $BZ 120.

Dave is an interesting character - a dreadlocked rasta type with a very laid back attitude. It makes for a somewhat scattered tour, with Dave stopping to do a little shopping along the way, and often repeating himself. However, Dave is also very familiar with the area, and spices up his stories with personal anecdotes that make it very interesting. We had a few troubles along the way - Dave’s old pickup twice stalled, and I spent an hour sitting around staring at the green jungle as Dave tried to get his light working for the cave tour.

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Once we were in the cave, though, it was quite amazingly beautiful. The cave varies from a few feet wide to over 20 feet wide, and the ceiling soars up to 100 feet high in some places, while in others you need to duck down to get your canoe under the rocky outcrops. Dave does all the paddling, as guest you just hold the light and explore with your eyes.

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Dave’s promises adventure tours, and while it wasn’t exactly Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, I left feeling like I had received a very “authentic” experience. Dave’s is not slick, but it was enjoyable.

Posted by GregW 13:46 Archived in Belize Tagged backpacking air_travel Comments (0)

Red Dragon

Visiting the Welsh Capital

sunny 24 °C

I am trying to do at least one weekend away every month while I am living here in London, at least while being abroad is still a new and exciting thing. Eventually the novelty will wear off and I will spend my time shut in my flat bemoaning the weather and the state of the trains, like most Brits. For now I’m taking advantage of living in Europe and getting to see the place.

Originally when I was envisioning these weekend city breaks, I pictured myself jetting off to exotic locations in Europe like Riga, Copenhagen or Bratislava. Due to the rather unfortunate state of the British Pound as compared to other currencies nowadays, I’ve readjusted my sites to include more local destinations as well. Given that I’ve just returned last month from Monaco, which was the most expensive trip I ever took, at least on a cost per day basis, this month I decided on a short stint away in pound-friendly Cardiff, Wales.

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Cardiff is the capital of Wales, which is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Wales, or Cyrmu in the Welsh language, is on the western side of the island of Great Britain. Cardiff is in the south of Wales on the Bristol Channel which separates Wales from South-West England. The symbol of Wales is a big, red dragon, and as I wandered around Cardiff I saw red dragons everywhere.

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The city is quite cosmopolitan. It used to be quite the coal mining town, but now you are more likely to find artists and actors in Cardiff than miners. Wales has a history of song and singers, and The Wales Millennium Centre, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff International Arena and St. David’s Hall all provide places for local and visiting acts to play. It is also home to a few television broadcasters, including BBC Wales who produce both Doctor Who and Torchwood at their Cardiff studios.

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I took a Cross-Country train from Birmingham to Cardiff on Friday night. Cross-Country is the name of the brand, not just a description of the route of the train, by the way. Speaking of the state of the trains in Britain (which I was, four paragraphs ago), I think Cross-Country must have the most cramped train carriages I’ve been on since arriving here. My knees were pressed firmly against the back of seat in front of me, and I’m not exactly a giant among men. I arrived in Cardiff after two hours of sitting with my knees banging off the hard plastic seatback, and I was ready for a drink. Luckily the sun was out and the patios were open.

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After my drink, I did a quick tour around the area of the town hall called Cathay’s Park.

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The next day, I headed down to the shore of Cardiff Bay. The area has been redeveloped in recent years, turning what used to be a working dock into a centre of leisure and shopping.

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It’s also home to the Welsh Assembly, known as the Senedd, pronounced sen-eth. The dd in Welsh is pronounced like the English th sound, but it seems to me a little softer and run on. It is also sometimes represented as ff in English. Cardiff in Welsh is Caerdydd – Car-dith. Welsh words are often long, and because of the use of what are constants in the English language to represent vowels and other sounds, it often looks like they have randomly drawn letters to put on the signs. W is the most used vowel, making an “oo” sound. Bus in Welsh is bws, said “boos” like it rhymes with moose. I would make a joke about the Welsh language here, but Mark Twain is a much better writer than I am, so I’ll let him do it. “Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson.”

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The Senedd building is beautiful. The mostly glass building is open for visitors, so I took a tour around. There weren’t many tourists there that day, just myself and a woman from Australia who now lives in Sheffield. Because of the low number of visitors, one of the women working at the information desk actually took us around the building on a guided tour, including going down into the debating chamber, known as the Siambr.

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The building is meant to be as open as possible to give the public the ability to view the assembly at work. It is also very environmentally friendly, with geothermic heating and cooling and lots of natural light. There is a giant mirror that hangs above the debating chamber, filtering light down into the chamber from three stories above.

Most of the chamber is made with local wood and stone, but the roof is made of Canadian wood, both because it is easier to mould into the swooping shape and also because the amount of wood required was quite significant.

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After visiting the Assembly Building, I grabbed some lunch. First I tried Subway Sandwiches, but halfway through the creation of my six-inch BMT on wheat, the fire alarm rang, and we were evacuated. I abandoned my sandwich and instead bought a prawn-mayo sandwich at Tescos.

After lunch, I headed around the bay. There is a famous church on the shore of the bay called the Norwegian Church. As a popular and busy port, Cardiff always had lots of international visitors. The Norwegian merchant fleet was quite large, and used Cardiff as a base of operations.

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Norwegians still visit, as can be evidenced by this video of a Norwegian marching band. They were there to serenade the church with the popular Norwegian song about a New York disco club named after a beach in Brazil.

At the Copa… Copacabana! The hottest club north of Havana.

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The bay is now enclosed by a dam and causeway. Boats entering the bay have to go through a lock to get from the level of the Bristol Channel up to the level of Cardiff Bay.

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The other side of the bay is a place called Penarth. It’s nice near the bay...

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...but quickly becomes suburbs. I have nothing against suburbs; they just aren’t very interesting to visit as a tourist. I did find this place though.

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Frankly I always thought a royal court would be more glamorous.

There was a few more things I took photos of along the way.

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Arriving back in the town centre of Cardiff, I went to check out the castle. The castle’s keep dates back to 1091, but has had lots of work over the years. The interior of the outer walls includes a few other buildings, including a Victorian mansion but with a medieval theme.

The Norman Keep:

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The Victorian Mansion:

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From the Grounds:

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Saturday evening was the FIM British Speedway Grand Prix, which is a dirt bike racing event. The event was held at Millennium Stadium, so I thought about going just to see the inside of the stadium in action, but decided against it upon learning that the cheapest tickets were £29. The event was very popular, though, especially with Polish people. Walking around on Saturday afternoon and early evening, the Polish flag was more often displayed than the Welsh banner or the Union Jack.

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Millennium Stadium is nice, and was right by my hotel.

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It was a long walk right round the bay, and I was tired from the walk, the sun and frankly the beer the night before, so I decided to grab a quick dinner and call it an early night. About 10 o’clock I was in my hotel room watching the BBC when the fire alarm in the building went off. I had to evacuate a building for the second time in one day.

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After having been out in the sun all day, I will admit that my skin was pretty red and putting my head on it, I could still feel it radiating heat back to me. I wondered if perhaps the heat radiating off my sun burn might be the cause of the multiple fire alarms I had experienced, but didn’t bring it up with the fire fighters just in case they decided to arrest me for being too hot.

After spending 30 minutes outside with my fellow Holiday Inn guests, it was determined that there was no fire and we were let back in.

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After my massive walk on Saturday, I decided to take it easy on Sunday. I found out on line that there was a Canadian Consulate in Cardiff, so I wanted to see it. I’m always interested in seeing the embassies and consulates of Canada to see if they are impressive or not.

Cardiff’s was a first, in that I actually couldn’t find the consulate at all. I went to the address listed on the Department for Foreign Affairs website, but all I found was a industrial park which was home to a flooring company.

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I decided to continue walking along the road I was on, hoping that it would wind back around towards Cardiff Bay.

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It didn’t, and I wound up having to turn around and retrace my steps after walking for a couple of miles. So much for taking it easy. I did, however, check out this somewhat desolate looking beach, made up of large boulders, a strange black substance that looks like dried molten metal and tiny black disks. Hopefully the beaches materials weren’t radioactive or carcinogenic.

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The weather had been glorious Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning, so I can’t complain that Sunday afternoon clouded over and we had bursts of rain. I bought a book and grabbed a seat inside a local pub, sipping a pint and reading. I grabbed a quick dinner and headed back to the hotel for the 8PM showing of Top Gear, one of my favourite TV programs over here in the UK.

About 20 minutes after the show had started, the announcers were drowned out by the sounds of claxons. Another fire alarm, and I had to evacuate again. This time round the fire department was quicker to determine there was no fire and let us back in, so I only missed about 20 minutes of the show. I’m just glad that the alarms went off in the early evening and not at 3 in the morning.

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Despite not getting woken up by a fire alarm at 3 in the morning, Monday morning came around too quickly, and I was back on the train to Birmingham bright and early. After walking to the train station in the rain, I grabbed a First Great Western train to Bristol Parkway before transferring to a Cross-Country train up to Birmingham. The First Great Western train had such comfy and roomy seats compared to the Cross-Country train, I was concerned that I had perhaps accidently sat down in First Class, but I hadn’t. Cross-Country is just really cramped. It is the Ryan Air of train travel, I suppose, though they don’t charge you to use the loo.

I enjoyed my visit to Cardiff. This weak pound thing really isn’t so bad, actually. I’m getting to see a lot more of the UK so far than I probably would have otherwise, and there is still a lot of it to see. I mean, I haven’t been down to Cornwall yet or up to Scotland. Manchester is still unvisited, and I haven’t ventured over the water to see Northern Ireland. Then there are all those islands to see – Isle of Mann, Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

Don’t get me wrong. I still want to visit Riga, Copenhagen and Bratislava, but I also want to make sure I don’t neglect visiting the country in which I’ve chosen to live. After all, the weather is great and the trains sure are comfy and fast. At least, that’s how I feel about them now… for the most part.

I must admit that Cross-Country’s seats sure our close together. Not to mention that we were five minutes late arriving into Bristol Parkway on that First Great Western service. And the price! £39 to go from Cardiff to Birmingham? Outrageous. Why, when I was in Italy, I paid €4.40 for a similar length train journey. Finally, that rain sure was heavy on Monday morning, was it not?

I’ll make a good Brit some day. Now I just need to figure out how to complain intelligently about the luggage handling at Heathrow.

Posted by GregW 10:59 Archived in Wales Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Night Bus

550 to Canning Town. The next stop is St. Edmund's School.

semi-overcast 4 °C

"Come on, just one more," they say.

You look at your watch. Ten minutes to midnight. If you ran, right now, to the tube station, you'd be able to catch the last central line out to the DLR, and then onwards to Mudchute, where you live. You look at your glass, empty, and your friends, only half full of beer. "Hmm, maybe another pint can't hurt," you think. After all, your friends aren't full of beer yet.

And, of course, you can always catch the night bus...

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A few beers later, after you are most drunk and your friends are full up on beer so you head out. Soho is, as always on a Friday night, crazy.

"You looking for some women?" a woman asks, not the first and not the last to ask as you move through Soho.

"Sure," you think, I'd always be up for a women, but they aren't asking because they have a bunch of women hanging out looking to sleep with pasty, fat Canadians for free.

"£200 for a night," they say. £200, you think, is 80 pints. That is a lot for a woman, especially, you think, when if you drink 10 pints women who used to look... ummm, to be kind... not so good looking would, after 10 pints, look awesome.

So you skip past the women offering the services of other (mostly eastern-European) women and keep walking through Soho. The temptations are not finished, though.

"Coke," the man hiding in the shadows says. Unlike those offering sex, those offering drugs hide in the shadows, quietly offering their wares. You, though, aren't interested in much beyond bed at this point, though, so you keep walking without even acknowledging those offering you cocaine.

Soon, though, something tempts you. The smell, as you get closer to Oxford Circus, gets stronger and stronger. It is the smell of hot dogs.

The hot dogs are boiled to almost being finished. Close to being ready to eat, they are finally slapped upon a grill to finish before being put into a soggy bun to be served. Boiled hot dogs are, to be frank(furter), crappy. But something about frying them on the metal grill prior to serving gives it an excellent taste. The frying give a crispy outside.

Then comes the best part of the Oxford Circus hotdog. The toppings.

"Onions?" they ask.

"Of course," you say. And the hot dog vendor piles on the fried onions, partially brown and partially translucent, the onions add a sugary blast to the meaty taste of the crispy-outer, gooey-inner taste of the hot-dog. Only one thing can make it better, you think to yourself, as you trace a line of mustard along the length of the hot dog. You take your first bite of the dog, and you can only think one thing.

"Oh my god, this is so good. Cook me up another," you say.

Halfway through your first dog, you are given your second dog, and your thoughts turn from getting fed to getting home. Hot dog and a half in hand, you wander over to the nearest bus stop and check out if you are anywhere near a night bus which is heading to where you live.

The night buses take over once the tube, trains and regular buses stop running. The London night buses run out from the centre of London into the suburbs like the arms of a spider. No matter where you are going, you can find your way home, as long as you are starting out in the centre of London. Most of those who are looking to catch a night bus are, whoever, looking to get out from the centre. After all, what other reason other than drinking, dancing and partying at some club in central London can you think of for taking a bus at one thirty in the morning.

You check out the bus stop, and realize that you are in the wrong place. To get to the Isle of Dogs, where you live, you need to head down to Piccadilly Circus and catch the 550. It's not a far walk, and it gives you time to finish your hot dogs and pick up a Diet Coke for the ride home.

Nobody plans to get a night bus, but rather stumbles out of a bar late in the night and wanders to a night bus stop. If you are lucky, the bus arrives soon. If you aren't lucky, you have to wait for 20 minutes, maybe even 30 minutes, until the bus arrives. Tonight, you are lucky. As you are trying to focus your beer-muddled eyes on the schedule, trying to figure out when the bus will arrive, the N550 drives up to the stop. You quickly jump from the schedule out to the street, flagging down the bus.

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You walk up to the second floor up the bus, grabbing a seat up amongst the other travellers heading home for the evening.

The bus windows soon fog up with the breath of those riding the night bus. You keep wiping off the windows of the bus to see what is passing you by. At the start, it is the historical monuments of London. St. Paul's Cathedral, the Victorian Embankment and the Bank of England pass by you. Soon, you are in East London, and monuments give way to less impressive edifices. Kebab shops and the occasional Chicken Shack are all that is open, but you pass the closed clothing, stationary, and grocery shop. You sit silently watching the landscape move by you. Other bus riders sit quietly, some chat among themselves. Rarely, you get someone who causes trouble, but that happens rarely. Tonight, you get a quiet bus, other than a couple sitting near the back , the man who is from London and the woman who is from Chicago, the bus is quiet. You watch the scenery pass you by as you, like the rest of the silent bus, listen to the couple from London and Chicago discuss their lives.

Soon enough, after the bright lights and glass towers of Canary Wharf pass you by, St. Edmund's School arrives. You press the red button, and once the bus stops you work your way down to the ground floor before jumping off. A 3 minute walk takes you home and to bed. The night buses has delivered again. You had a good night in the centre, and somehow, without issue, you made your way home.

If you weren't already quite drunk, you might think about raising a glass to the night buses. But as it stands, you really just want to go to bed, and so the night buses are, as usual, unheralded. One hopes, though, that the night buses know that you really love them. Cheers to you, night buses.

Thanks for getting me home, you buses with an N before your number.

Posted by GregW 15:00 Archived in England Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Wild Chickens of Tobago, Part II

Revenge is a dish best served fried...

sunny 28 °C
View Trinidad and Tobago November 2007 on GregW's travel map.

Continued from The Wild Chickens of Tobago: Part I

  • * *

The next day, after a good sleep in, I rented a car to head out and see the island. Tobago is small island, only 31 kilometers from one end to the other, but driving there can take a while. The roads follow the natural contours of the hilly terrain of the island, so roads switch back and forth up and down the rainforest covered hills.

I picked up my car, a Nissan Almera at the airport, and opened up the door on the right hand side of the car and took my seat inside. I took a deep breath, putting my hands on the wheel. This was the first time I was ever going to drive a right-hand drive car. Like many ex-British colonies, Trinidad and Tobago drives on the left side of the road.

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I was nervous about driving on the right. I reached down and turned on the car, and then without thinking raised my right hand above my left shoulder to grab my seat belt. It wasn’t there. That’s where it would have been in a left hand drive car like we have back in Canada, but here I had to reach up over my right hand shoulder to find my belt. My belt securely fastened, I reached down to put the car in drive, and hit my right hand against the door. I looked to my right to see the door, and then looked to my left to see the gear shift. I was not off to a great start so far.

The first few minutes of driving was nerve wracking, my hands gripping the wheel in a death grip as I reminded myself over and over again to drive on the opposite side of the road that every ingrained instinct told me to. On making my first turn, I reached over to put on the turn signal, and found my windshield wiper blades going instead. Sweat covered my brow as I spoke to myself aloud, “Turn into the LEFT lane, turn into the LEFT lane.”

Ten minutes into the drive, however, I was starting to relax. I’d negotiated my way out of Crown Point and made a number of left and right hand turns without smashing into oncoming traffic, so I was starting to feel pretty relaxed. It turns out that driving a right hand drive car wasn’t that hard after all. Heck, millions of Britons do it every day, and some of them aren’t all that bright. If the inbred royal family of England can do drive a right-hand drive car, then it should follow that I shouldn’t have a problem.

I drove up along the north coast of the island, which locals call the Caribbean side. After passing by the nice Mount Irvine beach, my first stop was Plymouth. Plymouth is the oldest European settlement and is the host of the international renowned for its Jazz Festival, which last year included acts like Elton John and Gladys Knight.

The biggest draw in Plymouth when the Jazz Festival isn’t on is the “mystery grave.” Inside the tomb is one Betty Stiven and her child. No one knows the story behind the very strange inscription, which concludes with the words, “What was remarkable of her, she was a mother without knowing it and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgences to him.”

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I wonder if I have any wives out there that haven’t let me know about it. More importantly, I wonder if the 3 women I am secretly married to (at least in my head) know they are married to me. If it wasn’t for those damn restraining orders…

The other thing that Plymouth has is the creepiest cemetery I’d ever seen. Overgrown with undergrowth, trees toppled over to smash headstones, goats wandering around in the cemetery eating the grass. Bear in mind that this is no historically untended cemetery, but a still active and used graveyard. I saw graves from as recently as 2006 in the yard.

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Look at that place!

Imagine it at night, a fog rolling in. You are walking through the cemetery, tripping through the undergrowth. Soon the fog closes in and you lose your sense of direction. You walk, hands out in front of you to try and feel your way, but find yourself stumbling over a toppled headstone. You hands become tangled in the thick undergrowth as you try and stand when suddenly; you feel the hands of an undead zombie grabbing at your leg. You try and move, but can’t. Your heart races but can’t take the stress and soon fails. Your heart stops, your face frozen in a death mask of shock and horror, the last thought in your mind of the zombies tearing at your flesh.

The next morning, the Plymouth chief of police looks at your body. His deputy approaches and asks, “What happened here?”

“Heart attack. Strange to be wandering around a cemetery at night.” The chief of police and his deputy walk away as the cemetery caretaker uses his machete to clear some undergrowth and starts to dig a grave for you as the undead zombie that had your leg last nice continues to munch happily on your leather shoes. Goats will eat anything.

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After leaving Plymouth I had one goal in mind, to find the perfect, deserted beach. As many people who head south from the cold and snow of the Canadian winter, all we want is a little piece of paradise to be alone. We want a deserted beach, all our own. It’s impossible to find in the developed tourist spots like Cancun or the beaches of Varadero, Cuba, where you need to dodge beach chairs and tourists to find a spot to put down your towel.

Some of the beaches along the Caribbean coast held the promise of the desired emptiness. After a quick lunch in Castara Bay, I was off to Englishman’s Bay, which was described in 2004 as being a place where no one else was.

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Arriving though, I find that while the hordes haven’t exactly found Englishman’s Bay, there were a good 10 to 15 other people on the beach and a few food and drink vendors. While it was still possible to find a good spot of beach to myself, it would be impossible to not see other people, so I moved on.

Parlatuvier Bay was nice, with no other tourists in town. As fishermen cleaned their daily catches and school children learned how to play Christmas carols on the steel drums, I took a quick dip in the ocean. It was nice, but I was basically swimming in the backyard of the residents of Parlatuvier, and my protestant work ethic of trying to relax as others worked soon took the joy out of the experience, and so I moved on again.
My final hope was Bloody Bay before the sun would be fading into the sea and my dream of finding a beach to myself would be lost. Arriving at Bloody Bay the looks didn’t look promising. The road down to the beach was a mire of red muddy clay, and a man was shutting down a large earth mover. I stopped my car and walked a few feet down the road, my shoes soon covered with the red mud. I wasn’t sure if the road was passable, or even open, when the man climbing out of the earth mover said, “it’s passable by car.”

So I went down the road to Bloody Bay, the car slipping and sliding through the muddy bits before coming around a corner to display what I had been hoping for; an empty beach.

As I got out of my car, I realized that along with the road, the facilities at Bloody Bay were also under construction. There were 3 half-built buildings on the grounds, and the sounds of hammering could be heard from inside the buildings. As I was standing surveying the long sweep of the beach and trying to figure out if I wanted to take a dip at a construction site, the hammering stopped. The men working soon walked out of the buildings and started cleaning up for the day. A truck came down the hill, and the men piled into the back of the truck. I looked at my watch – 3 o’clock. It must be quitting time.

Soon the workers were all gone, and the beach was left to me and an old Rasti who was wandering around the site with his dog. He was either the night watchman or an old homeless dude the slept in the construction trailer at night. Perhaps both. He walked into the trailer and took a seat, leaving the beach to myself.

So my empty beach was found. I swam in the warm Caribbean waters for an hour, the only person on the entire length of the beach.

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Soon the sun was getting low in the sky, and I wanted to get back to Crown Point before dark, unsure of driving at night in a strange country on the wrong side of the road, so I started to pack up. I was about to wrap a towel around myself to change from my swimsuit into my dry shorts when I realized that modesty wasn’t called for on a beach where no one else was around, so I just changed in the open in the parking lot, not a human eye upon me.

Generally, I wouldn’t tell you all about this find, saving it for myself for future trips. But soon the construction of the widened road, bathrooms and restaurant will be complete, and Bloody Bay will be, if not exactly teeming with tourists, at least not empty for me. So my next trip will have to be somewhere else where I can find an empty beach to call my own.

  • * *

Leaving Bloody Bay I took the Roxborough-Parlatuvier road through the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Back in the 1700s, the land proved so fertile that soon the sugar planters were cutting down more and more of the rainforest. The government acted to ensure that some of the natural rainforest was preserved, and in 1765 declared 3,958 hectares as protected, and oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere.

As I approached the rainforest road, I soon came across a blockage in the road. A gang of them, the wild chickens of Tobago, standing in the middle of the road, unfazed by the approach of my car. Sweat covered my brow, would these chickens alight upon me, pecking me to death and devouring my carcass?

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Luckily, a kindly old farmer happened upon the scene, and threw rocks at the unruly mob screaming at them, “get from the road, get from the road,” until they dispersed. Saved by the kindly local, I waved him a thank you and sped away, before the mob could reform.

  • * *

Friday was my last day in Tobago. I had to catch a flight at six PM back over to Trinidad, and on from there to Toronto, landing on Saturday morning. With a long night of flying ahead of me, I decided to take it easy on Friday. I planned to spend some time swimming and then just liming at a local bar. In Trinidad and Tobago, the word lime is a verb, which means to just hang out.

I chose to do my liming at the Land’s End bar along the Pigeon Bay road. I took a seat on the patio, sipping on Caribs and watching as the waves crash against the sea wall and splash up onto the sea-side patio.

Soon the day has ticked away, and I need to head to the airport, taking one last chance to walk along the beach, enjoying the feel of sand between my toes before having to wear winter boats back in Toronto.

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After showering and checking out of Mike’s Holiday Resort, and went to check in to my flight to Tobago. After getting my boarding pass, I still had an hour and a half until the flight, so I went to the nearby Cutter’s bar and restaurant for a beer and some dinner.

I looked over the menu and saw the ideal meal. After being tormented by them all trip long, there on the menu was my payback.

“I’ll take an order of fried chicken wings.”

The plate arrives, 6 wings, deliciously fried.

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Forget everything I said earlier about the best meals being the local food, or even the two AM greasy meal, the best food is REVENGE food. Not only did I get my retribution on those that tormented me throughout my trip, but I also made things little bit safer for the next group of tourists, who will have 3 less wild chickens of Tobago to deal with.

Posted by GregW 12:16 Archived in Trinidad and Tobago Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

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