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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of 2011 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the top travel adventures of the year including falconry in El Salvador, diving in Honduras and Belize, and many Mayan adventures in Guatemala. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2011 and part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the Year. Part 4 includes the Top Travel Gear of the Year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats. In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey thoroughly explored four, albeit very small, countries including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. We drove 8,055 miles (12,963 km) and spent US$2,300 on fuel. We had one flat tire (after driving over a nail in Copan, Honduras) and bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (vicious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes.

Despite all that driving we did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are the top travel adventures that made all that time on the road even better in 2011.

 Top travel adventures of 2011

Best adventure surprise: There are only a handful of falconers in all of Central America and only one who’s certified to guide guests. That would be Roy Beers, owner of Cadejo Adventures. We walked through the hills above San Salvador with Roy and his Harris Hawk Chucky (named after the horror movie character). As we strolled through coffee plantations and forested hillsides Chucky followed along from tree to tree, landing on our gloved hands when we called and half-heartedly hunting (he wasn’t very hungry). Somehow the forest looks and feels different with a hiking buddy who can fly and the experience made hiking without a bird of prey in tow seem downright boring.

 

Semuc Champey Guatemala

Semuc Champey in Guatemala.

Best natural swimming pool: Guide books and travelers rave about the descending pools of water called Semuc Champey in Guatemala. We are happy to report that these pools, totally created by Mother Nature, lived up to the hype and were worth the serious side trip to get there. Crystal clear water (except in the rainy season), a perfect warm temperature, dramatic surrounding cliffs, not crowded (though avoid weekends) and we even got free pedicures thanks to gazillions of tiny fish intent on removing every last scrap of dead skin as we soaked.

 

Aggressor III dive boat Belize

A p p-dive briefing aboard the Aggressor III live aboard dive boat in Belize.

Best adventure we did for the first time:  We love to SCUBA dive and we’ve done it hundreds of times all around the world. However, we’d never been on a live aboard dive boat until we boarded the Aggressor III in Belize in 2011. Specially built and equipped to accommodate just 18 divers with plush cabins and a huge dive deck. Even better? The swanky SCUBA services including hot showers and warm towels post dive, freshly made snacks all day long (hey, diving is hard work) and great dive masters. Bonus:The 3-D dive site maps drawn by the staff on-board the Aggressor III were colorful, informative and playful (sometimes they even featured plastic sea creatures stuck on the white board for effect). Best of all, the maps were clear. Even directionally-challenged Karen could quickly understand the layout of the site and navigate around during our awesome underwater adventures.

 

Best national park name: Parque Nacional El Imposible in El Salvador.

 

El Sapito Suchitoto

Luis Carrera, aka El Sapito, an outstanding guide in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Best guide: We don’t usually hire guides. However, when we wanted to get an authentic glimpse of the FMLN perspective on the decades of war between the El Salvadoran army and FMLN guerrilla fighters which started with genocide in the ’30s and really flared up in the ’70s and ’80s we went straight to Bar El Necio in Suchitoto and asked for the bartender. Luis Carrera is a treasure (and not just because rum cocktails and ice-cold beer are just US$1.50 at this revolutionary-themed bar). Luis has since quit his job as a bartender to focus full time on guiding. He will take you to nearby villages that were obliterated during the war and introduce you to elderly people and translate when they recount their often horrifying first hand experiences during the country’s darkest moments. He’ll even take you home to meet his mom, an infectiously bubbly woman who survived a massacre, fled into the jungle and quite literally gave birth to Luis on the trail while she was on the run. Contact Luis at [email protected] (dot) com.

 

Best voluntourism opportunity: Love and Hope Children’s Home in the hills above San Salvador lives up to its name providing a truly homey home for children whose own families are unfit or unwilling to care for them. Rachel Sanson, a native of Ohio, has been in El Salvador since 2001 and she helped start the home in 2004. She’s still there and she can use all the help she can get. Volunteers are accepted for short or long-term stays (room and board included). We visited the home and a friend of ours still raves about his experiences during a brief volunteer stint. We were impressed with Rachel and with the home’s policy of putting all volunteers through a background check before allowing them through the doors to help heal and teach her needy kids.

 

Best zip line: In the hills above Metapan in El Salvador, just shy of the Montecristo National Park, lies Hostal Villa Limon. In addition to a handful of lovely, multi-bedroom cabins with kitchens Villa Limon has one hell of a zip line. Eight different sections criss-cross the slopes up to 300 feet (91 meters) above the jungle and coffee plantations below. One particularly steep stretch is 1/4 mile (.40 km) long. It’s almost enough to distract you from the awesome views of volcanoes in the distance.

 

Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve Belize

Eric swimming in our own private waterfall at Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve in Belize.

Best private waterfall: For US$120 you can reserve your own private waterfall, swimming hole and rustic picnic pavilion in the vast protected area around Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize. They’ll even bring you a four-course champagne lunch and string a handmade Do Not Disturb sign across the trail to ensure complete privacy.

 

Termales Santa Teresa hot springs El Salvador

Termales Santa Teresa hot springs in El Salvador.

Best hot springs: Just outside Ahuachapan in El Salvador lies Termales Santa Teresa, a paradise for anyone who likes to soak in water super-heated and full of healing minerals. Huge, deep pools (US$10 pp for a full day of access) already exist in the shade of a well tended garden surrounded by a vast coffee plantation. A few large villas are also available for rent right around the pools and a new hotel and reasonably priced dorms are being constructed right now. Our thanks to Claudia and Roberto from the lovely La Casa de Mamapan hotel in Ahuachapan for taking us to this hidden gem!

 

Best borrachos: The pro partiers in the town of Todos Santos in Guatemala know how to drink and these borrachos (Spanish for drunks) don’t let a little inebriation get in the way of a good time either. A popular regional pass time is drunken horse racing which is every bit as baffling (and dangerous) as it sounds…

 

Best tour operator: Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours in El Salvador. He knows the most unique places, the most enjoyable activities, the most innovative guides and tour operators and he devoted a tremendous amount of time, effort and passion to make sure that we got acquainted with all of them. And he’ll do the same for you: suchi[email protected] (dot) com

 

Best adventure honeymoon suite: Eric and I are well past the honeymoon stage but if we weren’t we might consider spending part of our honeymoon inside a cave owned by Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize. First, you hike for an hour into the jungle then you rappel nearly 300 feet (91 meters) down a cliff face called the Black Hole Drop (we did this as part of our awesome cave adventures with Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch). After the rappel, a short walk leads you to the mouth of a cave where a real bed has been set up and strewn with flowers, candles have been lit and champagne has been chilled. Your guides cook you a romantic dinner, then wander off to leave you two alone. In the morning, they cook breakfast and guide you back out.

 

El Mirador Guatemala

No guards, no entrance no parking lot. The understated entrance to the El Mirador archaeological site, one of the most important in Guatemala.

Best jungle hike: We were hot. Our feet were sore. Our minds were blown. Hiking through the jungle to reach the El Mirador Mayan archaeological site in northern Guatemala isn’t easy, but the remains of one of the biggest and hardest to reach Mayan cities is worth it–as is adding a day onto your adventure so you can hike back out via Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites (where we finally saw a jaguar, sort of). Our thanks to Manuel of Tikal Connection for providing us with the gear and guides needed to have this amazing experience.

 

Best religious festival: Turns out, there are very good reasons why the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala are world famous. In 2011 we were spent the entire week leading up to Easter in Antigua (huge thanks to Gene and Judy for letting us stay in their gorgeous home). We watched elaborate religious floats paraded through the streets. We saw artistic but temporary alfombras (carpets) created on the streets and even got to help make one thanks to Evelyn of Hotel San Jorge.

 

 

 

Best national park entrance: The swing bridge that gets you into Parque Nacional Pico Bonito in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

 

Best (easy) bird sighting: Quetzals are known for three things: the technicolor plumage and extravagantly long tails of the males, their shy nature, and their love of a narrow swath of remote cloud forest. In other words, they are exciting to see but usually very difficult to see. However, during their mating season (roughly March to June) all you have to do is manage to wake up at dawn and stumble from your basic room at Ranchito del Quetzal Hotel on the edge of the Biotopo del Quetzal in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala and head down to the hotel’s humble dining room. There, you will find a hot cup of coffee and quetzals waiting for you. You almost don’t even have to leave your seat to watch the extraordinary birds dip and dive from tree to tree, tails streaming and feathers glinting.

resplendent quetzal Guatemala

This is a resplendent quetzal.

Best (worth the effort) bird sighting: The resplendant quetzals we saw during our morning at Ranchito Quetzal came so easily that we almost felt like they didn’t count. So we made the rough journey to a remote privately run nature preserve called the Chelemha Cloud Forest Reserve & Lodge. In addition to a stylish, sustainably handcrafted guesthouse and gourmet, organic, locally grown food you will find quetzals here, but you’re going to have to hike for it. We walked for three hours high into the protected cloud forest where our guide finally pointed out a known nest site inside the hollow stump of a dead tree. After sitting silently nearby, camera at the ready, the male emerged from the nest and obligingly posed on a branch for a while.

 

Best dive site: During a few days of diving with Utopia Dive Resort on the island of Utila in Honduras we visited a dive site called The Pinnacles. In the course of a 55 minute dive in warm, crystal clear water we saw dramatic coral and rock pinnacle formations, the most enormous green moray we’ve ever seen (easily 6 feet/ 2 meters long) plus spotted morays, golden morays and a turtle feeding serenely on a coral head with a bevy of colorful angel fish scavenging around it.

 

camping Lake Ipala Guatemala

Our camp site on the shore of Lake Ipala in Guatemala.

Best camp site: We spent our very last nights in Guatemala camped on the shores of Lake Ipala, a lake in the crater of the Ipala volcano. The road up was wicked, it rained like hell and some dude stole our cooler, camp stove and camp chairs (which were all recovered with the help of our friend George Boburg of Guatemala’s awesome Proatur tourist assistance organization). Still, what we really remember was the scenery and serenity of this spot.

 

Best national park infrastructure: Parque Nacional Cerro Azul in Honduras was developed in partnership with a Canadian NGO. This helps explain the extraordinary infrastructure which makes it such a pleasure to explore this park. In addition to a variety of very comfortable rooms, the park has a covered camping area with running water, flush toilets, cold showers and electricity. The park’s 9 miles (15 km) of trails through the jungle and past waterfalls are all well marked and well maintained. And the restaurant even has Wi-Fi service. Well worth a night or two.

 

Church of the Rosary San Salvador El Salvador

The extraordinary Church of the Rosary in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Best church: We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is the irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario in Spanish). The church, located in downtown San Salvador, was created in 1971 by artist and architect Ruben Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America. The exterior looks like a particularly ugly crumbling airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews. To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadorean independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia el Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this ground-breaking church.

Here’s more about travel in Belize

Here’s more about travel in El Salvador

Here’s more about travel in Guatemala

Here’s more about travel in Honduras

 

 

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Hotel Review: Belcampo Belize in Punta Gorda, Belize

One of the Best Hotels in Belize, Re-Born 

It’s always a tense moment when a hotel that seems to be on top of its game announces it will be getting a new general manager, a new name and a new direction. That’s what happened shortly after my stay at Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge in Southern Belize.

 

Honestly, I didn’t see the need for any changes at Machaca Hill. The boutique resort’s 12 suites were chock full of luxury with large, chic rooms with stone-inlaid showers and floor to ceiling windows with views into 15,000 acres of private jungle, outrageous food and a petite spa with an epic, nearly entirely glassed-in massage room (be prepared for toucans and spider monkeys to spy on your spa day).

All of those book-it-now elements remain. But owner Todd Robinson didn’t become a successful innovator by sitting on his laurels and doing things the way they’ve always been done. So, in December, the hotel was re-born as Belcampo Belize  with a fresh focus on sustainable, local, traditional food—a theme that dovetails nicely with the cleanly raised and carefully butchered organic and grass-fed meats sold by Mr. Robinson’s Belcampo Meat Company  in Northern California.

Belcampo Belize is located on 3,000 acres of farmland including an impressive three-acre organic garden which already supplies the resort’s restaurant with fruit, vegetables, eggs and (coming soon) pork and poultry. Starting in the fall of 2012, Belcampo Belize will debut three culinary packages (US$75 per person) to help guests get deeper into local food traditions and techniques.

A jungle food foraging trip will culminate in a cooking demonstration of the ingredients gathered, another tour will teach guests how to process and use traditional Mayan ingredients like tepary beans and a third tour will introduce guests to the country’s unique blend of Belizean, Indian and Caribbean cuisines making the most of the resort’s newly-planted spice grove.

Our review of this hotel was originally published by iTraveliShop and note that this property is now called Copal Tree Lodge

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Rear View Mirror: Belize Travel Tips After 2.5 Months in the Country

We spent a total of 78 days traveling 1,540 miles (2,478 km) through just about every inch of Belize during our little road trip. This is an impressive feat since you can drive from the northernmost point to the southernmost point in this tiny country in just 286 miles (460 km). Our travels in Belize took us to Belize Citybird watching in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area (just one of the places where we saw tons of the amazing birds in Belize), Ambergris Cay, to Hopkins to look for whale sharks, way out to Turneffe Atoll and all the way down to Punta Gorda.  We saw Mayan ruins and  jaguar sanctuaries, went on cave adventures and enjoyed dive sites from border to border. Here’s a short list of top Belize travel tips to get you started right.

Belize travel tips

  • Belize is the size of New Hampshire with the population of Anchorage.
  • The tonic water is lavender colored–except when it’s not.
  • Skype is mostly blocked for reasons we never figured out.
  • The two main cigarette brands are Colonial and Independence, an interesting irony in a country which received its independence from Great Britain in 1981.
  • Hardly anyone smokes.
  • The country is a very rich melting pot. You can sit in a 15 table restaurant and see Garufinas, Menonites, expats from around the world, Ladinos and sundry travelers all in one (mostly congenial) place.
  • There are, essentially, only four main paved roads in the country.
  • The paved roads are in great shape, hardly trafficked, and have very few speed bumps.
  • Speed bumps are commonly called “sleeping policemen.”
  • You almost never see a cop except in Belize City.
  • Most non-tourist-based businesses (and even a few of those) close between 12 pm and 1:30 pm including government offices, banks and post offices.
  • You can easily and instantly extend your visa for an additional 30 days at immigration offices in Belize City, Punta Gorda,  Belmopan or Dangriga for BZ$50 (US$25) per visa. NOTE that your extension time starts from the day you extend, not from the end of your current visa.
  • English is the official language of Belize (though Spanish is encroaching fast).
  • There’s no tricky currency conversion to master since the exchange rate is pegged at two Belize dollars for every 1 US dollar.
  • Belizeans can’t help but smile back.
  • The dominant radio station is called Love FM and the DJs are extremely fond of Lionel Ritchie and the Pointer Sisters and any song about love–interspersed with Jamaican dub reggae and Madonna. But mostly Lionel Ritchie…
  • There are WAY more animals than people in nature-rich Belize. Get a grip on the Beasts of Belize and where to see them in the newspaper story we wrote on the subject.

Here’s more about travel in Belize

 

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Three Months of Bird Watching in Belize

With huge tracts of protected forest and jungle and more than 400 species of birds that either live in or pass through these areas it’s almost impossible not to turn into a bird watcher while you’re traveling in Belize.

Karen bird watching at La Milpa Field Station where we saw 50 different species of birds we’d never seen before in just two days.

During our nearly three months in Belize we saw hundreds of species we’d never seen before in stunning natural places like Chan Chich Lodge and La Milpa Field Station in the vast Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. That’s where we met guide and naturalist Vladimir and dubbed him the bird ninja. Then there’s Lamanai Outpost Lodge and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Some birds simply appeared by the side of the road.

We saw the flashy colors of trogans and aracaris and the shimmery, orange-dotted get-up of the ocellated turkey. We learned to recognize the frog-like call of the toucan, marveled at the near-perfect camouflage of the great potoo (which still looks just like a tree limb even after you know it’s there) and tried and tried and tried to see a harpy eagle in the wild.

 A few of our favorite birds of Belize

 

Orange-breasted Falcon, birds of Belize

A rare orange-breasted falcon.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Birds of Belize

A ferruginous pygmy owl.

Collared Aracari, birds of Belize

A pair of collared aracaris.

Toucan, birds of Belize

A toucan.

Lineated Woodpecker, birds of Belize

A lineated woodpecker.

Great Egret, birds of Belize

A great egret.

Ocellated Turkey, birds of Belize

An ocellated turkey.

Pygmy Kingfisher, birds of Belize

A pygmy kingfisher.

Black-headed Trogan, birds of Belize

A black-headed trogan.

Laughing Falcon, birds of Belize

A laughing falcon.

Black-collared Hawk, Birds of Belize

A black-collared hawk.

Violaceous Trogan, birds of Belize

A violaceous trogan.

Slaty tailed Trogon, birds of Belize

A slaty-tailed trogon.

Red-footed Booby, birds of Belize

A red-footed booby and fledgling.

White-necked Jacobin (hummingbird), birds of Belize

A white-necked jacobin.

Tiger Heron, birds of Belize

A tiger heron.

Great Potoo adult + juvenile, birds of Belize

Look close. There are two great potoos (an adult and a juvenile) sitting on that branch.

Yucatan Nightjar, birds of Belize

Yucatan nightjars nest on the ground.

Roadside Hawk, birds of Belize

A roadside hawk.

Osprey Eagle, birds of Belize

An osprey.

Magnificent Frigatebird, birds of Belize

Magnificent frigatebirds.

An orange oriole, birds of Belize

An orange oriole.

Boat-billed Heron, birds of Belize

A boat-billed heron.

Northern Jacana, birds of Belize

A northern jacana.

Great Blue Heron, birds of Belize

A great blue heron.

Harpy Eagle, Birds of Belize

We’d hoped to see an endangered harpy eagle in the wild while in Belize but we had to settle for this one in the Belize Zoo.

Crested Guan, birds of Belize

A crested guan.

 Wood Stork - Birds at Crooked Tree wildlife sanctuary, Belize

Wood storks (with the black heads), herons, egrets, cormorants, and other water birds.

Chestnut-headed Oropendola, birds of Belize

A chestnut-headed oropendola.

King Vulture, birds of Belize

Rare king vultures.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle, birds of Belize

An ornate hawk-eagle.

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Liveaboard Life Under Water – Aggressor III Dive Boat, Belize

We think SCUBA diving under practically any conditions is great. Then we got on our very first liveaboard dive boat with The Aggressor Fleet in Belize and learned that on a liveaboard conditions are always perfect. Yeah, the Aggressor III and staff spoiled us. Here’s how.

 

Happy divers! We prepare for another dive from the Aggressor III liveaboard dive boat in Belize.

11 reasons why liveaboard dive boats rule

1. No elbowing the diver next to you. The Aggressor III has a very roomy dive deck with plenty of space to stow and dry your gear and ample room for suiting up (hey, it requires plenty of room to get into and out of a wet suit).

2. No freaking out about basic gear. The Aggressor III is stocked with spares of basic essentials in case something in your kit stops working or you forgot something. For example, Eric borrowed a wet suit hood (he’s modeling it, above) from dive master Jordy and wore it for most of the diving to stay warmer underwater. This made his dives much more enjoyable.

3. No waiting until you get back on dry land to use the bathroom after a dive. On a liveaboard your bathroom is always right there immediately after a dive. Anyone whose done any SCUBA diving knows how important this is.

4. No soggy towels. After every single dive on the Aggressor III we were handed a clean, warm towel fresh out of a dryer right on the dive deck. You heard us.

Eric taking the plunge off the Aggressor III’s ample dive platform. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

5. No stale crackers and over-ripe fruit to keep your energy up. Diving is hard work. The staff of the Aggressor III knows this and they keep the platters of freshly baked cookies, conch fritters, lionfish fingers, and more coming so everyone stays fueled up.

6.  No scrambling in and out of small boats to travel out dive sites. Just turn up on the dive deck of the Aggressor III, gear up, and step off the specially designed platform at the back of the boat. Think of it as a chauffeur service for divers.

7. No fighting for the fish i.d. books. There were more than enough copies of marine life reference guides on board the Aggressor III to satisfy all of the curious divers.

Photo courtesy of fellow diver Michael Eppoliti.

8. No nasty regulator taste. Crew members came around with a spray bottle full of diluted mouthwash to shoot into our mouth pieces before each dive. Yeah, that happened.

9. No sand. When diving off a liveaboard your feet never touch the ground.

10. No vague (or non-existent) dive site maps. The dive masters on the Aggressor III drew wonderfully detailed maps of every site we visited.

11. Perhaps our favorite live-aboard touch? The two hot shower heads (with shampoo and conditioner dispensers) right on the dive platform which made post-dive rinse-offs a complete pleasure.

Karen all wet. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

Dive! Dive!

Another plus about liveaboard diving? The sheer amount of diving you can do–up to five dives a day. During our week on the Aggressor III we did 22 dives each totaling about 20 hours underwater at 12 different dive sites including the famous Blue Hole which is a cave with a collapsed ceiling that’s been engulfed and filled by the sea. 

Blue Hole Belize

Click to enlarge our shot of the Blue Hole in Belize.

So, what did we see down there? Plenty, including seahorses, lots of turtles, lot of amazing spotted eagle rays, colorful reef fish galore, gorgeous corals (soft and hard), barracuda, frogfish, reef sharks, dolphins, octopus, and hammerhead sharks.

A pair of spotted eagle rays “fly” by. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

Okay, we didn’t see the hammerhead. But fellow diver Brian Shea did and he shot the underwater video, below, to prove it.

We also got the chance to try out a very James Bond hand held underwater scooter which was fun, though we startled the heck out of a curious eagle ray.

The strange underbelly of a spotted eagle ray. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

We also put our nitrox certifications to use for the first time and we have to say that we agree with those divers who claim that this mix (which is lower in nitrogen) left us feeling more energized at the end of a long day of diving than regular old air.  Then again, it could have been the post-dive hot showers and warm chocolate chip cookies…

Aquarium-like reef fish and corals underwater in Belize. Photo courtesy of Michael Eppoliti.

Eric hanging around checking out a seahorse. Photo courtesy of Michael Eppoliti.

Divers exploring coral heads. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

Us watching a spotted eagle ray “fly” past. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

A common reef shark. Photo courtesy of Michael Eppoliti.

A great example of a brain coral. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

An angel fish dining on coral. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

A turtle with a pair of remoras attached to its belly. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

That’s why it’s called a spotted eagle ray. Photo courtesy of Michael Eppoliti.

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Liveaboard Life Topside – Aggressor III Dive Boat, Belize

We love SCUBA diving and we’ve managed to do a lot of it, racking up almost 400 dives between the two of us in some of the best dive destinations in the world, but we’d never been on a liveaboard dive boat until we boarded the Aggressor III for a week of intensive diving and topside fun in Belize.

The Aggressor III, our home and dive base for a week in Belize.

Liveaboard life in Belize

It’s fitting that we had our first (but hopefully not last) live-aboard experience with The Aggressor Fleet which has been taking small groups of divers out for multi-day, all-inclusive, full-service, intensively-dive-focused trips since 1984. The fleet currently has 10 ships serving 11 of the world’s best dive destinations including the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

Aggressor is, admittedly, a terrible name unless you’re a pirate. But that’s what their fleet is called and who are we to argue? The company’s liveaboard in Belize is called the Aggressor III and it was our home for a week of wonderful SCUBA diving.

Crew members navigate the Aggressor III through the notoriously tricky reefs off Belize. Photo courtesy of Captain Simon Marsh.

We were welcomed aboard the Aggressor III by Captain Simon Marsh and his first mate (literally and figuratively) Andrina. They’ve both been diving for years and have both worked on other boats in the Aggressor fleet. We were in good hands.

Captain Simon Marsh with a map of Belize’s famous Blue Hole dive site as he briefs us on board the Aggressor III live-aboard dive boat.

Dive master Jordy hoisting the ship’s dingy, on board the Aggressor III live-aboard dive boat in Belize.

As the ship set sail we took a quick tour of our home for the week and found nine smartly-laid-out cabins (for up to 18 guests total) with A/C and televisions (for playing DVDs), ingenious storage/stowage areas, and private bathrooms. The communal living room was cozy and had plenty of plugs for laptops and for charging cameras and batteries.

Upstairs on the top deck, a small wet bar even had a tap of local Belikin beer (though smart ship rules mean that once you have a drink you become a snorkeler for the day). Sadly, the top deck hot tub was out of commission.

One afternoon a pod of dolphins came to play around the boat, but by the time we got our snorkeling gear on and jumped in they were gone.

It was all kept spotlessly clean and neat by Randy who, when he wasn’t serving us delicious snacks or making sure our dinner plates were heaped high, was either polishing something, plumping pillows, or ironing and folding napkins into amazing shapes. We wish him luck with his pizzeria in the town of Orange Walk. We can guarantee that it will be clean!

While the focus of the eight passengers on board was diving, part of the liveaboard life occurs on the surface and, sometimes, even on dry land. You’ve got to let your body expel accumulated nitrogen (commonly called “out gassing”) above the water anyway, so you might as well have fun. Plus, it’s was much easier for Captain Simon to whistle  “Hello” when he didn’t have a regulator in his mouth. The Lionel Richie’s hit quickly became the silly theme song of our sailing. “Hello. Is it sharks you’re looking for?”

Part of the Half Moon Caye Natural Monument as seen from the Aggressor III.

We spent one afternoon at the Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, a protected island that’s home to a thriving population of red-footed boobies and many of them had fluffy, demanding chicks when we were there.

Nesting red-footed boobies on Half Moon Cay Natural Monument in Belize.

Nesting magnificent frigate birds on Half Moon Cay Natural Monument in Belize.

The island is also a great place to have a picnic, especially with the talented Yanis, the chef from the Aggressor III kitchen, is on hand to handle the grill.

Yanis, the chef from the Aggressor III kitchen, takes her skills outside for a BBQ lunch during a shore excursion to Half Moon Cay Natural Monument.

The imposing Aggressor III is too big to dock at Half Moon Cay Natural Monument, so a local boatman ferried us from  our floating home to shore.

Just one of many beautiful Belize sunsets that we saw while living on the Aggressor III.

 

Here’s more about travel in Belize

 

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