My body won’t cooperate.
I hear the Garifuna drumming. I feel the rhythm. I understand the moves. But I just can’t dance the Paranda.
I give it a college try, though, after all — I’ve had a couple of bottles of Belikan stout and only strangers surround me here on Tobacco Caye. I had made sure I was in fit kayaking shape before embarking on a week’s expedition along Belize’s Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. But I hadn’t practised any dance moves.
I’ve travelled from Vancouver to paddle through Belize’s reef system with kayak guides from Island Expeditions. As I would learn, this British Columbia-based operator traces its routes back 28 years, when another traveller from Vancouver arrived in Belize and became instrumental in the country’s rise as a paddling mecca.
In 1986, Tim Boys was a University of British Columbia biogeography student and part-time kayak guide looking for a warm-weather locale to extend his paddling season. Pouring over maps in the university library, he ran his finger along the coastline of North America and landed on Belize.
“All of its seascape, islands and reefs and how much diversity the reef system provided — this caught my attention,” says Boys. He loaded up his Toyota Hilux and drove south. Boys describes arriving in Belize like travelling, “to another continent, like you were outside of Latin America.” There was very little tourism, save UK and German expats or rogue scuba divers.
“There weren’t even many TVs in Belize when I first arrived,” says Boys. “The jungles were untouched and unknown. The coast was wild and undeveloped.”
At the time, newly independent Belize was looking outward for economic development and gaining confidence from Costa Rica’s successful ecotourism model, as well as watching Mexico’s mega-resorts as examples to avoid. The government had even brought in the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund to help spearhead conservation efforts.
“This was unique. Countries coming out of a colonial experience don’t generally look to outsiders for help,” adds Boys.
Boys was smitten with Belize, naturally and culturally. He returned to BC and founded his Belizean-focused kayak operator, Island Expeditions, a year later. Aside from guiding his mother and a collection of family friends, to start, one of IE’s first projects was setting up conservation infrastructure at Lighthouse Reef. In the years since, they’ve built and donated the Tropical Education Centre at the Belize Zoo, maintained a partnership with the Belize Audubon Society and now employ about 45 locals at any given time.
“We are doing everything we can to preserve an authentic experience. Belizeans are interested in the type of people who come down. They have stories to tell… And our shared British heritage connects Canadians and Belizeans,” says Boys.
Belize is small. The entire country could be an island in Lake Winnipeg. However, offshore of Belize is something very big: the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. At more than 900 km end-to-end and running through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, this reef system harbours 220-plus islets and islands and more atolls than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. The resort crowd flies to overdeveloped Ambergris Caye; its 100-room hotels, dredged-up beaches and 13,000 residents eager to cater to tourist hordes. Our eight-person kayaking group, though, is in search of idyllic islets like Tobacco Caye (two hectares, permanent population 20), South Water Caye (seven hectares, permanent population 10) and other locales within the 477-sq-km South Water Caye Marine Reserve with no one there at all.
Cocoa Plum Caye is one of those places with no one there at all. About 20 km after leaving a rain-soaked dock in the central-coast town of Dangriga, our group arrives via speedboat to find only a thatch hut and a kayak-rack hidden amongst Cocoa Plum’s palm fronds and spindly mangroves. A squall pelted us en route and soupy fog obscures the mainland coast. I have arrived here at the tail end of a particularly wet rainy season. At any given moment, we are caught between a tropical downpour and blazing sun. By the time we have our kayaks afloat, the latter dominates.
From Cocoa Plum’s beach, I can see the barrier reef outlined in whitewash. Inshore, though, it is generally calm. Even the tides barely change — Belize sees only one-foot ebbs and flows, which makes good sense, as some of these low-lying cayes would drown in a one-metre tide.
Below the waves, the reef-crest is a Technicolor knockout: reams of corals, schools of fishes, ribbons of white-sand and Caribbean sunlight filtering through a cerulean sea to illuminate it all. Randomly, a sandy caye punctuates the sea — perhaps an overwater bungalow awaits, perhaps only littoral forests, coconut trees and laughing gulls.
Local guides Karm, Felix and Omar are set to lead us through the next week of paddling. Karm, in his seventh year as an IE guide, is the most outgoing of the three; he’s all smiles, gold-tooth shimmering and waist-length dreadlocks dancing like octopus arms as we gather our boats at the tepid lagoon. He unfolds a marine map and traces his finger along a route from Cocoa Plum to Tobacco Caye — a lonely islet on the edge of the reef. And with that, we push off.
I had departed Vancouver a day ago; it’s good to finally be paddling. I pair with a surgeon from Toronto; our tandem kayak is stable and fast atop the now-calm seas. About a kilometre-and-a-half from Cocoa Plum, we arrive at the uncreatively named Bird Island. As we pass, we are dive-bombed by scissortails and haunted by cormorants, like the flying monkeys of Oz. We round the southern tip of Bird Island and paddle through the centre of an atoll toward the start of the Tobacco Cayes. A gap through a mangrove stand leads to the longest crossing of the day and towards our diminutive destination. Sitting within a stone’s throw of the barrier reef, Tobacco Caye looks like a desert island from a Far Side cartoon: little more than a dot of sand with a handful of palms.
Our five-kilometre warm-up paddle ends as we round Tobacco’s northwest tip. Nearing the beach, I count a half-dozen overwater bungalows rimming the island — each with a hammock, a pair of Muskoka chairs and a balcony with an infinite view. We push up onto a golden-sand shoreline and are greeted by heartening signage that so perfectly sums up the scene — Welcome to Tobacco Caye: Paradise.
Tobacco Caye is like a poor-man’s Polynesia. Rather than catering to Bora-Bora’s blue chip crowd, paddling groups like ours — or vagabond sailors like the Dutch couple I’d later meet and backpackers like the Yankees ever-present at the thatch-roof bar — flock to these rustic wood-frame huts. As we unload our dry bags, we’re told life on Tobacco Caye is governed by three simple rules: don’t waste water, don’t flush your toilet paper and don’t linger ‘neath the coconut tree.
“I was a fisherman. I retired seven years ago,” says Karm, whose real name is Mark, as we congregate for supper. “Now I don’t have to kill the fish to make money… I see the same fish over and over again!”
After a few years as a guide, Karm recruited his long-time friend, Felix, to join him. A former Belizean military man, the challenge of being an active adventure tour guide is, as Felix confidently assures from behind blackout sunglasses, “No problem.”
The most soft-spoken of the guides, Omar is an elder statesman with IE. Leaning on 17 years of experience, he is quietly in charge.
As we finish our fried fish, Omar entertains with a story from when he visited Canada and kayaked on Vancouver Island’s West Coast.
“The water is so cold,” he laments, “you can’t even touch it.” Each night, he had worried about bears and slept with a machete at-the-ready.
Along with being experienced paddlers, Karm, Felix and Omar are also our cultural liaisons. Karm later explains he and Felix are Garifuna, while Omar is Kriol. Mestizos, Yucatan, Mopan and Kekchi make up the other native Belizean cultures. And fully six per cent of the population is Mennonite.
“But we all speak Kriol — the broken English,” adds Karm. Though English is Belize’s official language, Kriol is the speech of the streets — the common ground for Belize’s multiple cultures. Anglophones can pick up some Kriol, if we listen carefully. At times, it’s simple: “Guud maanin,” is, of course, “Good morning.” In Dangriga, I saw a sign for a “Lumba Yaad” (Lumber Yard). More complex? “Yu kyaahn travl pahn emti stomak,” means, “You cannot travel on an empty stomach” — a folk saying in Bileez.
“Parrotfish eat the coral and poop out sand. Out at the reef, 70 per cent of the sand is parrotfish poop. People like to play in poop and they don’t even know it,” laughs Karm, as he flips through a marine guidebook that looks about 1,000 pages thick to point out a few of the species we’ll see on this morning’s snorkel. “Now, you won’t go home and just say, ‘I saw a red fish and a blue fish.’”
Submerged off the western edge of Tobacco Caye, all I see is red fish and blue fish. And spotted eagle rays, southern sting rays and leopard rays. And pink conch and purple fan coral; striped trumpetfish and luminescent parrotfish; French gruntfish and French angelfish. A neon-speckled squid pops by and blasts a mug-full of ink in my face before jetting into parts unknown. A moment later, we spot a spiny lionfish; Karm pursues it spear in-hand, his dreadlocks looking even more tentacle-like as he swims.
In the Caribbean Sea, lionfish are an invasive species. Released or escaped from regional aquariums, lionfish are decimating endemic marine life. Karm explains that the Belizean government used to pay a bounty to try to eradicate them — $50 BZD apiece.
“But that ran out fast,” he says. “I try to spear as many as I can, though I never eat them. I am scared!”
A giant southern stingray follows us on our return to shore. Easily a metre in wingspan, this species is the most dangerous ray in the Caribbean, though no one seems to mind its presence and it pays us the same respect. Karm cautions us, however: when wading along sandy shorelines, always do the “stingray shuffle.”
Rays, I discover, will be our companions throughout the week. After lunch, we paddle northward from Tobacco Caye to a snorkel-spot alongside the reef. Half our group, including me, opts for stand-up paddleboards in lieu of kayaks. As we set out, another southern stingray — even larger than the one earlier — flaps beneath my board, lingering like a curious mutt.
After our snorkel session — during which a squall blew up so sudden and strong the rain obscured vision beyond 50 metres before it dissipated just as quickly — we meander back to Tobacco Caye at our own respective paces. Kayaks and SUPs soon separate. The sun dips low and ignites the clouds. The water is glass. The only sounds are my paddle dipping downward and the board slipping forward; the only terra firma I see is Tobacco Caye, puny atop an expansive sea. Suddenly, twin eagle rays flash by — close enough that my paddle could have brushed their backs. The end-of-day sendoff is scripted to perfection.
At nightfall, following a couple of stouts at the beach bar, Karm, Felix, Omar and a few local friends entertain with Garifuna drumming. Karm keeps time on twin turtle shells dangling from his neck, others rhythmically pound djembes and I proceed to humiliate myself with that pathetic Paranda.
A northwesterly wrinkles the water in front of my bungalow and wakes me early. It’s a welcome sound — today, we sail. But sailing a kayak is unlike sailing a boat. For starters, without a keel there is no way to transfer wind energy — the breeze must blow in the exact right direction. Further, a stiff gust could flip a kayak, so sails aren’t tied to the deck. Always used with a tandem kayak, for stability, the stern-paddler grips the sail-rope, adjusting tension as needed. If a gust comes on too hard, just let go! The bow-paddler — today, it’s me — simply enjoys the cruise.
It’s just over 10 km from Tobacco Caye to South Water Caye and today’s wind will push us perfectly southeast. Felix, who has barnacled his single kayak to our tandem for added stability, tells me that before working at IE he had thought sailing like this was “impossible.”
“It’s too small!” he exclaims. “People everywhere think we are crazy for doing this.”
Crazy like a fox. Within seconds of hoisting the sail, we’re cruising at twice paddling speed, tracking towards South Water Caye like we’re on rails. It’s a chauffeured ride — I relax and run my fingers through the temperate seawater as we parallel the reef. We’re cruising silent, save the breeze, the lapping of ocean against fiberglass and random fits of laughter from other group members who seem occasionally overcome with giddiness at our mode of transport.
Halfway to South Water Caye, we moor our kayaks and set up a picnic table atop a lightly submerged sandbar. Tobacco and South Water Cayes are mere dots to the north and south; I’m eating a chicken sandwich knee-deep in the Caribbean Sea. Maybe we are crazy. Between sailing kayaks, maniacal laughter and picnicking in the middle of the ocean, it could be hard to convince an onlooker otherwise.
Frederick Dodd welcomes us to South Water Caye. The owner of International Zoological Expeditions — a collection of waterside cabins scattered throughout a mangrove stand — Dodd first came to “British Honduras” 44 years ago as a herpetology graduate student from the University of Arizona. Obsessed with the country’s marine areas, he opened IZE in 1974 as a means to spend as much time here as possible, and to share this experience with the world.
“When I’m here, I forget about news, about home, about everything,” Dodd says post-dinner, as he guides me through a marine-life handbook. It’s easy to see why a scientist like Dodd would be compelled to settle in such a biodiverse area. In fact, scientists descend on this region from around the globe. A Smithsonian Institute Field Station sits within eyeshot, on neighbouring Carrie Bow Caye. And the next blustery morning, with that same northwest wind now blowing up foot-high chop atop two-foot rollers, we push off from South Water Caye to see the station for ourselves.
Wind, waves and currents all are in our favour as we paddle towards Carrie Bow; we practically surf. With a storm-cloud sky, deep-blue choppy waters and a stiff wind, I’m reminded of paddling back home on the West Coast — save the temperature. We’re soaked, but warm, when we surf ashore.
Gary Peresta, an environmental engineer with the Smithsonian Institute Environmental Research Center, is beaming when we arrive, eager to show newcomers around. Over the past 30 years, he quickly explains, work at this institute has resulted in 500 published papers — a raging success for a remote frontier laboratory that more resembles a beach shack than a research station.
“Not much science can be done here without the help of plastic pails and PVC piping,” says Peresta, showing us one instrument that is actually a modified turkey roaster.
I learn that mangrove conservation is at the forefront of the centre’s work. Resort developers, Peresta explains, cut down mangroves then dredge up sand for tourists to laze upon. But without mangroves, the islands quickly erode into the ocean. Carrie Bow Caye once had a twin, just a few hundred metres away. Its mangroves were cut down, now all that remains is a shallow point in the sea.
“People think mangroves are a renewable resource,” says Peresta, shaking his head. He points out a stretch of sand where Smithsonian scientists have been attempting to regrow mangroves for the past 30 years. Three small saplings, each no taller than a yardstick, are all they’ve managed to cultivate in that entire time.
As we depart Carrie Bow, the wind becomes our enemy. Rain hits like BBs; it feels like I’m paddling on a treadmill. We dig our blades in and punch-pull the kayak through the storm. I like paddling in such conditions. Travel should never be too easy.
It’s our last full day and the group is lucid. Over breakfast, a woman from Alberta remarks on how most of her friends back home would never go on a trip like this.
“Most Belizeans won’t do the things you are doing,” Karm interjects, explaining that many mainland nationals have an unnatural fear of the ocean. “Belizeans don’t hike, unless you have to get somewhere. We don’t bicycle, unless you are professional or you have somewhere to go. We don’t camp — why leave a perfectly good house?”
It’s sound logic, especially given the morning’s brief rainstorm, but we set out from IZE’s cozy cookhouse anyway. Our destination is Twin Cayes; a pair of mangrove stands that hug one another like a yin-yang about three kilometres westward. As we push off, the sun threatens to burn off the clouds once again. In the seven days I’ve been here, I’ve seen a year’s worth of weather.
We soon slip into the centre of the cayes. The area resembles a gator swamp, though I learn manatees are the only large creatures known to the area; it’s perfectly safe for a snorkel. We ease from our kayaks into the calm water — ever gently, conscious of the delicate ecosystem of which we are now within.
If the Mesoamerican Reef is like an action film, a mangrove stand is strictly art-house. Rather than blasts of vibrant colour and frantic schools of fish, I have to focus to see wary lobsters, flighty angelfish and reclusive sea anemones living amongst elaborate root systems. It’s serenity at its finest. Womb-like. An hour-and-a-half disappears as if I was sleeping. I am finally on Belizean time.
We paddle back through Twin Cayes, past a barking dog standing sentinel on an empty dock, and into the open water. It’s the final push of the week — there’s no reason to conserve strength. Without a word, we pick up our pace. Our kayak pulls adeptly ahead. Even fit Felix has to catch up.
“Look at you cruisers! Cruising along!” he laughs.
Laser focused, core engaged and paddling in unison, our boat slices forward. Storm, calm; ebb, flow; sunset, sunrise. I am in rhythm. I still can’t dance. But at this moment, I’m doing my own personal Paranda.
If You Go:
Book the Paradise Islands tour at islandexpeditions.com.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue.