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.
Poor Punta Gorda. Down at the southernmost tip of Belize, practically in Guatemala, it’s well past the destinations most travelers visit. But we’re not most visitors and Punta Gorda, the capital of the Toledo District, was definitely on our radar. Okay, mainly because we had to extend our visas and we were told that we could do that easily in Punta Gorda.
Happily, that turned out to be true. The immigration office is located basically at the end of the road right at the small port. After a short wait our visas were extended for another 30 days for a fee of 50BZ (US$25) per person. Down the hall a very accommodating gentleman extended our truck permit for the same amount of time (no fee). For your information, you can also extend your Belize visa at immigration offices in the capital, Belmopan, Belize City and in Dangriga.
Mission accomplished, we explored Punta Gorda a bit. Turns out PG (as literally everyone in Belize calls it) is a really charming town. It was founded by Garufinas (escaped slaves) who still make up about half the population. Until 1992 PG was an R&R center for the British Army. Picture that, if you can.
Today, PG mostly serves as the end of the road and a transit point for anyone arriving in Belize by boat from Guatemala and Honduras (or vice versa). The pace is slow and the facilities are quirky (including the theme rooms and wacky architecture of the Sea Front Inn).
The pool at Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge in Belize.
The location on a hillside below the meandering Rio Grande, the awesome tricked out Land Cruiser parked out front, the lodge-like main building and the sounds of monkeys and birds in the surrounding jungle combine to give Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge the look and feel of an African lodge.
The massage room at Machaca Hill’s spa is uncharacteristically large and light-filled thanks to floor to ceiling windows with views to the surrounding jungle. Howler monkeys and toucans often stop by.
The place used to be a mid-range fisherman’s mecca called El Pescador before being sold and completely reinvented as Machaca Hill in 2009. The owners and management fess up to the fact that they’re going for the level of service normally delivered on high end safaris and Machaca Hill does deliver the best food and the best service of any of the many great hotels and resorts we’ve stayed at in Belize plus the chic surroundings you’d expect.
Enormous showers with inlaid river stones and jungle views at Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge in Belize.
The 12 enormous bungalows at Machaca Hill all have super-private screened in porches, tons of gorgeous hardwood and views into the jungle that get you VERY close to nature.
This howler monkey and his troop romped around in the trees right in front of our bungalow at Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge in Belize.
There seemed to be one guide on staff for every bungalow–which is a good thing since the list of outdoor activities offered at Machaca Hill is long and enticing–from hikes through the lodge’s 13,000 acres to river kayaking to guided fishing. We went kayaking on the Rio Grande every morning (after French press coffee and homemade biscuits in our room, but before a scrumptious breakfast) and we were rewarded with toucan and howler monkey sightings galore.
Morning kayaking with toucans and howler monkeys on the Rio Grande below Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge in Belize.
Active days were capped off by a nightly cocktail hour as a warm up to amazing meals, often using ingredients grown in the lodge’s unique organic garden.
A local Garufina drumming troupe performing during cocktail hour at Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge in Belize.
Check out our video, below, to see and hear Garufina drumming–including their version of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire…
Blue Creek Cave
While at Machaca Hill we signed up for their trip out to Blue Creek Cave which meant we finally got to get into that Land Cruiser for the drive from the lodge to the Kekchi Mayan village of Blue Creek where our Mayan guide Vincente was born and still lives with his wife and children.
We’ve been in a lot of caves in Belize including Waterfall Cave, River Cave and Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave. Blue Creek Cave is a different, more mellow experience. After a 15 minute walk along a lovely trail and past a small collection of basic bungalows that are sometimes for rent (ask in the village), we reached the mouth of the cave which really does have an incredibly blue creek rushing through it.
The river is deep too so be prepared for some real swimming to access the interior of the Blue Creek Cave. Called Hokeb Ha in the Kekchi Mayan language, the cave is believed to extend five miles into the earth and includes interior waterfalls.
If you want to enjoy the river but not go inside the cave (where guides are required), ask in the village about inner tube and life vest rental.
A swimming hole near the entrance to Blue Creek Cave in Belize.
The entrance to Blue Creek Cave in Belize.
We emerged from Blue Creek Cave to the real highlight of this trip–a beautiful table set up in the living room of Vincente’s home complete with utensils and chairs and linens brought from the lodge. This created an appropriately special setting for the food, which included traditional dishes prepared by Vincent’s wife. Our favorite example of traditional Mayan food was a dish made from hearts of palm (collected from the jungle) which were stewed then mashed with onions and peppers and chicken stock. Delicious! It was an amazing meal and a wonderful brush with living Mayan culture.
A swanky hand washing station set up by Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge as part of our luxury picnic lunch in the Mayan village of Blue Creek after exploring Blue Creek Cave.
Slightly north of Punta Gorda and down a remarkably rough dirt road you’ll find Cotton Tree Lodge, a kind of outdoorsy sleep away camp for grown ups with a sweet tooth.
Bungalows at Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize.
Thatch roof bungalows fan out along a raised boardwalk on the banks of the Mopan River where a rope swing beckons. Rates are all-inclusive and set menu meals are served family style (though the food, some grown on site, is quite a few steps up from camp cafeteria fare).
Nearly ripe cacao pods–the basic ingredient in chocolate.
The really remarkable thing going on at Cotton Tree Lodge has to do with chocolate. Now we have your attention!
Cacao has been grown (both wild and cultivated) in the area for years but the growers have never really been organized and the system for harvesting and processing the cacao seeds from inside the torpedo-like pods was never uniform.
As cacao farmers struggle to make ends meet, Cotton Tree Lodge has stepped in and set up a co-operative that helps them maximize profits and ensure that quality remains high and Belizean cacao remains available to select artisanal chocolate makers.
Cacao beans are removed from the pods then dried during the initial stages of chocolate production.
The lodge is also brainstorming ways to process and market things that have traditionally been considered a by-product of cacao production–like cacao juice. Turns out this slightly cloudy liquid which drains off fresh cacao seeds when they’re harvested, is delicious (like apple juice and grapefruit juice combined). It’s even better with a splash of vodka.
A shop selling local cacao and chocolate products in Punta Gorda, Belize.
Two great couples from Alaska were also staying at Cotton Tree Lodge when we were there and as we talked to them one of the guys started looking really familiar to us. A moderate amount of cross examining revealed that he had helped us change a flat tire on a remote road in Alaska back in 2006 when our Journey was exploring that beloved state. It’s an amazing but true story.
Rio Blanco Falls National Park
One morning we all piled into a van for a day trip from Cotton Tree Lodge to Rio Blanco Falls National Park, lead by our guide Marcos. Once there, we were eager to get into the cool water for a swim and most of us jumped off rocky ledges into the deep pools below. The Alaskans, of course, lead the way.
A hand-painted welcome to Rio Blanco Falls National Park in Belize.
During the dry season Rio Blanco Falls is fairly serene.
Rick showing us how it’s done, Alaskan style.
Check out our video, below, to see more people taking the plunge at Rio Blanco Falls National Park. Karen almost convinced herself to jump…
Lubaantun means “place of the fallen stones” and there are a lot of those lying about. What differentiates the piles of stones at Lubaantun, a pre-Columbian Mayan city that dates back to 730 AD, from those at every other Mayan archaeological site is that many of the stones used at Lubaantun were actually cut to fit. That’s a fact. What may not be a fact is the legend of the Crystal Skull of Lubaantun as we learned when we traveled to the site.
The main plaza at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
According to Frederick A. Mitchell-Hedges–adventurer, self-made archaeologist (with a disturbing propensity for dynamiting sites) and one of the first excavators of Lubaantun–an intact, anatomically correct skull carved out of a solid piece of crystal was allegedly found under a fallen altar at Lubaantun by his adopted daughter Ana on her 17th birthday. This is incredible, and perhaps even in the strict Websters definition of the word.
Numerous intense and detailed investigations of the skull have lead many scientists to believe that the skull was machine made in the 1800s before being purchased by Mitchell-Hedges in London in the early 1900s. Particularly damning evidence is given in a report printed in the journal Archaeology (published by the Archaeological Institute of America) in 2010.
The remains of a temple at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
Authentic or not, the Belize government has asked for the Crystal Skull back on numerous occasions but Ana has never given up the most famous paperweight in the world. She’s dead now and some dude named Bill Hollman now has the skull which he has dubbed the Skull of Love and has taken “on tour” through the US and Europe. He also says he’s writing a book, in counsel with Native Americans and Mayans, about what the Skull of Love can teach us about the meaning of the mysterious end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. You be the judge.
Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
An elegantly collapsed wall at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
The remains of a pyramid at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
Lubaantun architecture is unique in that buildings were constructed using stones that were cut to fit.
Nim Li Punit: stunning stelae
Nim Li Punit means “big hat” in the Kekchi Mayan language and is thought to have been inspired by the enormous head dresses worn by figures carved into some of the stelae found here. Stelae–giant stones carved with historical information and details of important events–are the main draw at this tiny site. An incredible 26 stelae were found at Nim Li Punit (weirdly, none were found at nearby Lubaantun), many of them in excellent condition.
One of the 26 intricately-carved stelae that were found at the Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize.
Four stelae are on display in a modest museum near the entrance to the site which oil prospectors stumbled upon in 1976.
A detail of one of the 26 intricately-carved stelae that were found at the Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize. Each of those square images is a Mayan glyph representing a word or date or other important piece of historical information.
Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize.
The ball court at Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize.