Belize: Kayaking the Cays

December 5, 2006

It is early evening in Placentia. Somewhere far away the sounds of the night jungle are coming alive, but here in a thatched-roof waterfront restaurant on the longest sandy beach in southern Belize, I am listening to the wind blowing through the palms. It has been blowing for three days, hard enough that you don’t want to walk under a coconut tree, and I’m wondering what that will mean for the days ahead.

Outside, children are playing on the sidewalk, a mile-long pathway that is the main thoroughfare (there is no road) in this fishing village. Where the cement is cracked and broken, you can see that it was poured over a bed of conch shells, thousands upon thousands of still shiny, gift-shop conch shells, as commonplace here as rocks in an Irish field.

Inside the restaurant the service is friendly but glacially slow. No one seems to mind. After all, the shrimp (when it comes) is fresh, the local Melinda’s hot pepper sauce (three degrees: hot to incendiary) livens up the rice and black beans, and the nearly cold Belikin beer (with a Mayan temple on the label) is tasty – if you don’t mind the thick, syrupy flavor that leaves you spitting dark brown juice for sometime afterward, as if you were chewing tobacco.


At another table some kayakers are celebrating the end of their trip. Sunburned and surprisingly subdued, they remind me of hikers who have been rescued after being lost. Their leader is a guide named Clark. His hair is a bit wild, and he has a beard that’s seen a lot of sun, but he has a presence about him, as if he’s been down here for a long time. He knows the place.

So later some of us ask Clark about the wind, the diving along the reef, and what it’s like where we are going. When someone mentions that we are headed first to Laughing Bird Cay, he describes it as one of the most beautiful cays in Belize. Which is why it then seems so funny, almost hysterically funny, when someone renders Clark momentarily speechless by asking: “Just what do you do there?”

There are those who say that Belize is what much of the Caribbean used to be, say, 30 years ago. If you like places where the streets are dirt or sand, and wood-frame houses in bright Caribbean colors are perched on stilts, where the sun is hot, and the water is warm and clear – well, then you’ll probably like Belize. It’s the kind of place where you can leave your watch at home, grow a beard, chase a fish or two, spend your afternoon in a hammock, drink rum, and call that a good day’s work. In other words, you stop worrying about what to do.


If you look at a map of Central America, Belize lies just below Mexico’s Yucat¿n; on maps before 1973 you’ll see it called British Honduras, as it was known for more than a hundred years. Today Belize remains the only English-speaking member (and the most peaceful) of a cohort that includes more troubled neighbors like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Belize, like the others, was once Maya country, and the ruins of ancient cities, some still hidden by jungle, stretch from one end of Belize to the other.

But I had come to Placentia (via a red-dirt airstrip and a boat ride downriver) to go island-hopping. Scattered along the coast, and sheltered by one of the world’s longest barrier reefs, are more than 200 offshore cays (pronounced “keys” despite the spelling) with names – Alligator, Little Monkey, Mosquito, Crows Nest, Man-O’-War, Spanish Lookout, and Dead Man’s – that date to the time when British pirates sailed these crystal waters.

Word of mouth has it that of all Belizean cays the southern ones are the finest. And starting tomorrow, in the company of two guides, about a dozen of us are going to test that theory – by kayak. Our only worry at the moment is the wind. Thelocals say that March can be a windy month, that the winds could last two to four days. But no one is sure.


“The north wind always used to blow November to December,” a fisherman told me, “and now it blows sometimes in September, and sometimes in February. It’s all changed.”

After dinner we walk back to our tents on the beach. There are supposed to be biting sand flies on this beach, but the breeze is keeping them hunkered down somewhere. The ill wind does blow a kayaker some good.

The water’s colors, blues and greens, race by as we make our way to Laughing Bird Cay – not by kayak, but in a boat powered by twin outboards. The wind is still too strong for kayaks.


Normally this week-long trip would have begun with an easy, three-mile paddle, a sort of shakedown cruise, to Bugle Cay. By the second day, or so the plans went, we would have been ready to paddle nine miles, about four hours or so, to Laughing Bird.

Instead, we are leapfrogging ahead by boat. Actually, two boats. Most of us are piled into one; the kayaks and gear (including a week’s food) are in another.

Originally I had thought about making this trip with just a friend or two, but it seemed to make more sense to hook up with people who knew the cays – and already had kayaks in Belize. I could leave to someone else the basics of gettingto a place that’s not at all easyto get to, cutting through all ofthetime-consuminghassle of gear and guides, and gently steering me out of harm’s way. Enter Slickrock Adventures, a Utah-based outfit that started kayak trips to Belize six years ago.

Along for this ride were Evans, the trip leader from Slickrock’s home “port” of Moab, and a local Belizean named David, who had stayed up partying and drinking rum in Placentia until 4:30 a.m. He wasn’t moving all that fast while the boats were being loaded this morning, but he was moving. You have to admire a young man with stamina like that.

As we near Laughing Bird – an almost too-perfect island of green palm trees and white sand surrounded by blue water – David says it was named for the laughing gulls that nested on the island, until about five years ago.

“We used to take tourists out here in June, and you couldn’t even walk on the island because every six inches there was an egg. And at sunset the birds would fly up so thick you couldn’t see the sun.” But, he says, the birds have moved on to another islet because Laughing Bird has become too popular with visitors.

How popular? David says that recently a cruise ship has been stopping at Laughing Bird on Tuesdays. At first I think he is joking, but no. About 70 people go ashore for lunch, he says, for a sort of cheeseburger-in-paradise pit stop. Slickrock tries to avoid being on Laughing Bird on Tuesdays. The very thought depresses me no end.

Equally depressing, as we land at Laughing Bird, is the sight of another large group of kayakers onshore. From their expressions, I’m quite sure they are as sorry to see us as we areto see them.

They turn out to be a tour led by a Canadian firm that began tours of Belize about the same time as Slickrock. Originally they went to other cays, but recently have been following the same course that Slickrock first charted, and sometimes they cross paths. Maybe it’s the heat, but I’m beginning to feel uneasy about “adventure travel,” if we have come this far, to this small island, and still can’t escape the rest of the world.

Onshore we set up tents and hammocks and ready our gear for the week ahead. The idea is to be self-sufficient, carrying everything we need, from swim fins to sleeping bags, in our kayaks. At Placentia, however, we discovered that packing for a kayak trip (“Do I really need more than one T-shirt?”) forces you to need less than you think.

Our group, for the most part, is made up of baby boomers who have settled into careers but still like a little exercise, like Jim (an appraiser) and Ann (a teacher), both Midwest marathoners with matching ankle tattoos (their initials). Others include a physicist, two nurses (one male, one female), a California surfer-turned-avocado rancher, and a few members of the under-thirty-something set, including Mike, a financial planner from San Francisco who says he had a “tremendous first quarter,” and Clay, a University of Washington student who’s traveled throughout Mexico and likes sleeping in hammocks. About half the group has never been in a kayak; the rest generally know how to hold a paddle. One, a veteran whitewater kayaker, even brought his own set of paddles. Also, one of our party is missing; he failed to show up at the Belize City airport in time for the charter flight south. And Jim’s luggage never arrived.

In the morning it’s kayak practice at Laughing Bird. Actually, there’s not much to it: Sea kayaks are stable (even more so when loaded with gear), and they paddle much more easily than canoes. Still, I keep expecting to hear laughter in the treetops as we learn the fine art of “chicken-winging the paddle” (twisting it in a deck rope whenever you stop, so the paddle doesn’t float away) and “wet escapes” (slipping out of the kayak in the unlikely event it tips over). How unlikely? Evans says it has happened only once in six years.

A short time later Mike makes it Number 2, and in short order proceeds to set a one-day record with capsizes 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. His leg bleeding from a coral cut, he calls it a humbling experience. (“It just goes to show you,” he says gamely, “that you can have a terrific first quarter and still get screwed by coral.”) He is young, strong, and athletic, but his confidence is shattered and, worried about turning over at any moment, he is not looking forward to a long paddle over open water tomorrow.

He is not the only one: Even those of us who do make laps around the island without turning turtle find that heading into this wind is a bit more of a push than we expected.

Just before midday the last of our party catches up to us, also by boat. Tom, a Chicago salesman, is a bit older than the rest of the group. He had missed a connecting flight in Houston but doesn’t seem too anxious to make up for lost social time: He sets up his tent down the beach, away from everyone else. A short time later he discovers that his day pack, last seen in Placentia, is missing. In it are a pair of binoculars, a few odds and ends, and his medication – for high blood pressure. The trip hasn’t started well for him, and he’s frustrated. “I can get along without everything except the medication,” he says. “That’s what I’m worried about.” I’m worried about his being worried.

In the afternoon a couple of us go snorkeling for our dinner. Coral gardens encircle the island, and at one point I find myself drifting over fan corals that wave back and forth in

the current like a crowd watching a tennis match. A few minutes later I see a large conch shell on the bottom in about 20 feet of water, a faint trail in the sand behind it. On the way down I spot another, and end up grabbingboth of them. Meanwhile, John, the surfer/rancher, has speared a nice Nassau grouper, and David has filled a kayak with conch and fish. David usually has to provide all the fresh seafood on the nightly menu by himself. This group, he says, won’t go hungry.

Just before sunset it is happy hour on Laughing Bird. We are drinking rum and coconut water. Mike, his wounds patched, is relaxed. “What day is it?” he asks me. “Sunday or Monday?”

I think about it, and then admit I really don’t know.

“Isn’t that great?” he says, smiling.

After dinner (featuring conch ceviche with fresh lime juice and Melinda’s hot sauce), we finish off the first bottle of Belizean rum. David, holding the bottle by the neck to pour the last drop, calls this “choking the turkey.” He points out the turkey on the label, the mark of the best rum in Belize, he says. As the night goes on, the talk around the campfire of dried coconut husks is of life and the sixties. It was, someone says, a time when “things seemed to be coming unglued¿” Jim finishes the thought: “And the more unglued the better.” This is a group, I suspect, that will choke a few more turkeys before the trip is over.

At daybreak the wind has eased slightly, so we decide to paddle to the Silk Cays, about eight miles away, mostly into the wind.

We start fresh, but before long the constant effort of battling the wind takes its toll. Our first stop, Little Water Cay, is three hours away and just seems to sit on the horizon, a little mound of green, never growing any larger. Gradually we all settle into our own rhythms, one stroke after another after another. Mike, who managed to get under way without turning over, regains confidence throughout the day and turns out to be a strong paddler. Jim and Ann are paddling a double kayak. We string out over a half mile or so, weaker paddlers behind. Tom, trailing the group, winds up getting a tow from Evans.

It’s noon before we reach Little Water. The sun is hot, even with the wind, and most of the group is flat-out beat as we drag the kayaks ashore past mountains of empty conch shells left by fishermen to bleach in the sun. Ann says she is more tired than after a marathon, and we are only halfway there.

Little Water is home to nasty no-see-ums, and in the five minutes it takes for someone to find bug repellent, I am attacked so often I find it impossible to count the number of bites on my legs; there are, I notice, 17 on one kneecap.

Even so, it seems we are back in the water almost too soon, heading for the Silk Cays (which sometimes show up on maps as the Queen Cays). Whatever their name, there are three of them, close together on the horizon. The moon hangs over the middle one. It is there, after another two hours of paddling, that we land.

The island is not deserted.

Living in a hut made of palm fronds is a Rasta named Moz. He says he is 29, but I mentally add some years to that, despite the lean, muscular frame and dreadlocks lightened by the sun. Born in Belize City, raised in Placentia, and a longtime friend of David (“Placentia is one big family,” David says), Moz has lived on several cays as a fisherman during the last 12 years, paddling a dugout canoe (“nonpolluting,” he says) and diving for conch. “I sell my fish, I go where I want, but this is home,” he says.

Moz says the wind will continue until the full moon, still a couple of days away. He should know. Alone on these cays, he sometimes paddles his dugout five miles to another cay, spends the day diving, and then paddles back another five miles at the end of the day.

I ask if he ever worries about the wind.

“It’s mind over matter,” Moz says. “Anything you decide to do you can do. I’ve never been blown away yet.” He smiles. “I’ve always made it home.”

There is a gentleness about him, and the reggae-like rhythms of his speech seem as natural here as the palm trees. I can’t argue with his taste in islands, because the Silks – small circles of coral perfection in a clear, blue sea near the barrier reef – are simply the most idyllic I’ve ever seen.

At the end of the day I walk out into the bathtub-warm water – it must be nearly 85¿F – and swim around the island. This middle cay, like the other two, is about the length of a football field, and as I move around the reef that encircles it, the voices onshore fade, carried away by the wind. I’m nearly back to the opening in the reef, where I started, when I stop for awhile to watch the sunset, then swim back to shore.

That night, over a little rum, Moz shares more philosophy (“Too much sun is not good for you, as well as too little sun is bad for you”) and talks about this island: It is an earth between heaven (the quintessential cay to the south) and hell (the smaller cay, which has only a rocky beach, to the north). He says it is all in the mind how you see things. I’ve had just enough rum to quote him a few half-remembered lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost, something like “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Moz looks at me for a long while and then says, “Very heavy, mon.”

The days are passing one after another, each of them much the same as the one before. Here in the Silk Cays we dive a little, do some kayaking, read in our hammocks, eat fresh fish for dinner. This morning I join Clay, Mike, and some of the others to play boule, using coconuts as balls. (You make do in Belize: Last night’s prime-time activity was hermit crab races.) If all this doesn’t quite stack up as high adventure, well, nobody said you had to be Indiana Jones to do “adventure travel.”

Around midday we take the kayaks about a mile out to the barrier reef. The wind is little more than a stiff breeze, and the reef itself is calm. Finding a passage through the coral, we paddle outside the reef and then slip into the water with masks and fins. “It’s like one huge, huge pool filled with wonderful toys,” Clay says. But to me the reef here seems different, less congenial somehow. Maybe it’s because of the huge barracudas drifting by, or the much bigger nurse shark that suddenly swims out under a ledge just below me. Or maybe it’s because here there is nothing beyond us but open water, the full expanse of the Caribbean.

Of course, this is Moz’s other home. It is a pleasure to watch him at work, swimming underwater with his homemade spear, effortlessly chasing a sizable hogfish from place to place on a single breath. He spends his days diving – mostly 25 to 35 feet down, sometimes at 45 feet. These shallow-water dives with us, in only 15 to 25 feet of water, are child’s play for him.

That night Moz is cleaving a coconut with his machete to use in a fish curry. He carries the mark of another machete – a scar on his chest – from being robbed in Belize City. He is, as always, philosophical about it. “Got to learn the bad, because life isn’t all easy.”

Certainly the conch diving is no longer easy. Moz says he used to be able to anchor in one spot and fill a canoe with conchs. Now he has to swim for hours, pushing his canoe ahead of him into the wind as he dives in ever deeper water for fewer and fewer conchs. He saves some conchs for breeding, but the future, it seems, is uncertain for Belizean fishermen.

We decide to stay another day at the silk Cays. There is no argument. None of us is in a hurry to leave this place. When some of the others kayak to another cay a few miles away to get some fresh water (paradise is not perfect; there is no water on the Silk Cays), I stay behind. Later I paddle over alone to the nearby southern cay, Moz’s “heaven.”

A narrow beach of white coral sand surrounds the cay. Even with the sun overhead, the sand is cool to my feet, which step by step are leaving the only footprints on the beach. It takes five minutes, perhaps, to stroll completely around the cay. There are, I count, 27 palm trees. What would it like to be alone here? I wonder. When Moz had asked me last night how long I could live alone on one of these cays, I guessed a month or two. (“After a month or two,” he said, “I like a trip to Placentia.”) Now a month or two alone seems like a long time. It’s momentarily comforting to look across the water and see not only the other two Silk Cays nearby, but four other cays on the distant horizon.

Sitting in the shade, I turn to the book I brought with me, Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast. I’d packed it because I knew that the movie made from the book was filmed in Belize, even though the story itself is set in Honduras, not all that far down the coast. It’s the tale of one very stubborn man and his family who try to carve a new world out of jungle, and eventually fail. It is not exactly an upbeat tale to curl up with on a tropical island, but just reading it makes me think about what I’d do here if there were nothing to read.

The 64,000-peso question? Could I survive without limes and Melinda’s hot sauce?

we are paddling toward Ranguana Cay, which is not even visible on the horizon. Evans says it is about eight miles away. By noon, the wind finally, for the first time, eases. But without it the day is very hot. Every ten minutes or so I have to stop paddling, take a drink of Gatorade, and soak my floppy-brimmed canvas hat in the sea, pouring the seawater over my head and down my neck. The water, warmer than any swimming pool, feels refreshingly cool – for perhaps half a minute.

The hours of paddling, and the heat, are draining. It’s like riding a stationary bicycle, because there seems to be no progress. But at last we edge around a reef and paddle onto the island’s beach – just as the wind suddenly picks up again with renewed, even stronger, force. Looking out at the surge of whitecaps I’m grateful our timing was good.

Later Evans says this is the windiest trip he has ever taken. But it really hasn’t been much a problem. We got an extra day on Laughing Bird, and if we missed the sense of reward that would have come from paddling there, we certainly made up for it later on. And now, although the group still has its stragglers, the paddling is almost second nature.

Tom, who seems to be surviving without his pills, and a couple of others say the trip has been more strenuous than they expected, but others say they would have liked to paddle even more.

All in all, it’s been a good trip. There are some not-so-pretty cases of sunburn, but nobody’s complaining about it. Mike has come to feel at home in a kayak. The physicist is making plans for a kayak trip to the Arctic. John is talking about returning to Belize again next year, this time with his son. (“This reminds me of going to Balboa Island when I was a kid,” he says, “and never wanting to go home when summer was over.”) And Jim has found he can get along without his luggage. He borrowed a hat, a T-shirt, swim trunks. That’s really all he needed.

In the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep, I climb out of my tent and walk over to a hammock. The wind is again stirring the sea. Overhead the moon is not quite round, and for a long time I just look at the light on the water.

The following night, back in Placentia, the moon is full. The wind has stopped completely, and the sea is calm. Moz knows.


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