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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 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 Adventures & Attractions of the year (from falconing in El Salvador to diving in Honduras). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2011 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels 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 (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (after driving over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (vicious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are some of the adventures and activities that made all that time on the road even better. Enjoy!

 Best Adventures & Activities 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). We strolled through coffee plantations and forested hillsides as 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.

Best natural swimming pool: Guide books and travelers rave about the descending pools of water called Sumac Champay 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.

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 liveaboard 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.

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 $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′ (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.

Best private waterfall: For $120 you can reserve your own private waterfall, swimming hole and rustic picnic pavilion in the vast protected area around Hidden Valley Inn 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.

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 ($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: [email protected] (dot) com

Best adventure honeymoon suite: Eric and I 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′ (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.

Best jungle hike: We were hot. Our feet were sore. Our minds were blown. Hiking through the jungle to reach El Mirador 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 lucky to spend 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.  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 comedor. 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.

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. 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′ 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.

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 bird watching platform: Belize Lodge & Excursions has a lot going for it including three of the most unique lodgings in Belize and an equally unique approach to conservation.  Jungle Camp, a lodge so deep in protected jungle that it’s only accessible by boat, offers one more superlative to add to the list: epic bird watching platform hung around the girth of a sacred ceiba tree 100′ off the ground.

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 nine miles (15 km) of trails through the jungle and past waterfalls are all well marked and well maintained. And the restaurant even has WiFi service. Well worth a night or two.

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.


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The Mega Mundo Maya Manual (with a little help from us)

Moon Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and HondurasEarlier this year travel writer and guide book author Joshua Berman asked us for input for his new book, a mega Mundo Maya manual published by Moon Handbooks called  Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. It was a perfect fit.

During our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve spent well over a year in the Mundo Maya visiting more than 50 Mayan sites in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. In addition, Josh (who also writes the Moon Handbook travel guides to Nicaragua, Belize and the Living Abroad in Nicaragua guide) is committed to conveying a true sense of place based on actual first-hand experiences just like we are.

We did some digging around and provided Josh with information about the best guides, events, tours and hotels to help readers plan the most powerful and revealing trips through the Mundo Maya in 2012.

The end of the world (as we know it)

Why 2012? Well, the Mayans were meticulous record keepers, astronomers and day counters. The carved-stone calendars they left behind are stunning in their accuracy and artistry and have been the focus of intense research for decades.

Mayan calendars end on December 21, 2012, however, for reasons we may never know. Theories range from hysterical (and often ignorant) cries of “It’s the end of the world!” to the more moderate view held by many actual Mayans that the end of the Mayan calendar is merely a kind of re-set button for humanity–difficult and painful, but nothing to get apocalyptic about.

Whatever theory you subscribe to, 2012 is a year full of unique celebrations of Mayan culture throughout Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. If you’ve ever been curious about these countries and/or the Mayans, 2012 is the time to visit.

Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras (Moon Handbooks, $7.95 for the book/$2.99 for the Kindle edition), is available NOW so if you want the inside scoop about the most unique and authentic on-and-off-the-beaten-path celebrations, pick up a copy and start planning smart.

We do not get a percentage of book sales. We just hate to see people waste their vacations (and their money) on mediocre experiences, especially with regard to a once-in-a-lifetime event like the end of the epic Mayan calendar.

Use the link at the end of this post to buy a copy of Maya 2012: A guide to celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras (or snag a FREE Kindle version). But first, here’s a sneak peek look at the interview with us that ran in the book.

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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 through just about every inch of Belize in Central America 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. 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 business (and even a few of those) close between 12 and 1:30,  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 published on the subject.

Here’s more about travel in Belize

 

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The Birds! – 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 Birdwatching 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 spotted at La Milpa Field Station in Belize.

Lineated Woodpecker, birds of Belize

A lineated woodpecker.

Great Egret, birds of Belize

A great egret.

Ocellated Turkey, birds of Belize

An ocellated turkey on the grounds of Chan Chich Lodge in Belize.

Pygmy Kingfisher, birds of Belize

A pygmy kingfisher tucks in for the night near the Lamanai archaeological site in Belize.

Black-headed Trogan, birds of Belize

A black-headed trogan seen in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Laughing Falcon, birds of Belize

A laughing falcon along a rural road in southern Belize.

Black-collared Hawk, Birds of Belize

A black-collared hawk heads out to hunt near the Lamanai archaeological site in Belize.

Violaceous Trogan, birds of Belize

A violaceous trogan spotted in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Slaty tailed Trogon, birds of Belize

A slaty-tailed trogon in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Red-footed Booby, birds of Belize

A red-footed booby and fledgling on Half Moon Caye Natural Monument in Belize.

White-necked Jacobin (hummingbird), birds of Belize

A white-necked jacobin (hummingbird) in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Tiger Heron, birds of Belize

A tiger heron in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

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 where they practically disappear into the foliage.

Roadside Hawk, birds of Belize

An aptly-named roadside hawk on the grounds of Hidden Valley Inn in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize.

Osprey Eagle, birds of Belize

An osprey eagle spotted in Belize.

Magnificent Frigatebird, birds of Belize

Magnificent frigatebirds (these are courting on Half Moon Caye Natural Monument) have a seven foot wingspan and can stay in the air for weeks.

An orange oriole, birds of Belize

An orange oriole seen from the epic bird watching platform built 100 feet up a ceiba tree at Jungle Camp, part of Belize Lodge & Excursions.

Boat-billed Heron, birds of Belize

A boat-billed heron along the river that runs through the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Northern Jacana, birds of Belize

A northern jacana seen near the Lamanai archaeological site in Belize.

Great Blue Heron, birds of Belize

A great blue heron seen near the Lamanai archaeological site in Belize.

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 in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

 Wood Stork - Birds at Crooked Tree wildlife sanctuary, Belize

Wetlands in the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary attract enormous 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

A group of rare king vultures way off in the distance on land owned and preserved by the Hidden Valley Inn in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle, birds of Belize

An ornate hawk-eagle in deep jungle.

 

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Live-Aboard Life (the diving) – Aggressor III, Belize

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

11 reasons live-aboard 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).

Happy divers! Eric and Karen pre-dive on board the Aggressor III live-aboard dive boat in Belize.

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 live-aboard 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 live-aboard 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 3D 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 live-aboard 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 totaling about 20 hours underwater at 12 different dive sites including the famous Blue Hole–a cave with a collapsed ceiling that’s been engulfed and filled by the sea (photo below–click image to enlarge).

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!

Eric spends so much time taking pictures on dry land that he leaves his camera behind when we dive. We thank Captain Simon Marsh and fellow divers Michael Eppoliti and Brian Shea for the use of their awesome underwater images from our time on the Aggressor III.

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.

Eric and I 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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Live-Aboard Life (topside)- Aggressor III, 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 including bucket list toppers like Palau and Sipidan. Yes, we’re lucky.

And, yet, we still have SCUBA dreams. Specifically, we dream about getting on a live-aboard dive boat–a dream we finally fulfilled in Belize.

The Aggressor III, our home and dive base for a week 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 and the Galapagos Islands.

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 live-aboard in Belize is called the Aggressor III and it was our home for a week of eye-opening diving.

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

Live-aboard Life on the Aggressor III

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 3-D dive 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 (we’ll get way into the dive sites and marine life in our next post), part of the live-aboard 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 an 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 their red feet full with fluffy, demanding chicks when we were there.

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

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

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.

There she is: the Aggressor III live-aboard dive boat and our home for a week of SCUBA diving in Belize.

 

Read more about travel in Belize

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