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Belize is small in size but vast in cultural and biological diversity, offering everything from hammocks on sandy beaches with tropical breezes, to the second largest barrier reef in the world, the only jaguar reserve in the world, thousand-year-old Maya sites, and a melting pot of culture, heritage and outdoor adventure. It’s worthy of your consideration.
It’s been some time since the decline of the Great Maya civilization, and the colonial conquests of the Spanish and British flexing their might on the shores of Belize. The country gained independence in 1981, and within 20 years began modeling an approach to eco-tourism, similar to Costa Rica. With a currency tied to the $USD, which is also readily accepted, plus a stable democratic government and an English- speaking population, it’s an appealing destination in the middle of Central America.
A Belize kayaking adventure with Island Expeditions
We were in Belize to take part in a kayaking adventure. But it ended up being so much more. As an adult it’s likely been some time since you’ve experienced summer camp, if indeed that was even in your summer rite of passage as a teenager. The Island Expeditions Belize Kayaking adventure was as close as it comes to that giddy feeling you get at camp, surrounded by fun, active people, partaking in daily activities in a new environment, while not having to organize a thing, including meals – a bonus for our group of Moms.
The Covid-delayed Girlfriend Getaway
This was a girlfriend getaway trip originally planned for April 2020. So we were thrilled to finally have the opportunity to visit Belize in March 2022 for an action-packed week, with travel credits from two years previous being honored. Our group of eight from Vancouver were mostly from a women’s hockey team, the Stanley Cupcakes, with a few new friends joining the remixed version of the original trip.
Summer Camp for Adults?
The summer camp for adults parallel is based on more than just the multitude of activities like kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, paddle boarding, fishing, and interpretive hikes being led by guides. We joked, “We’re like kids with camp counselors planning the next activity to wear us out, then feed us, and then do it all over again in the afternoon!” Instead of cabins in the bush, we had off grid glamping tents, waterproof, screened, each privately placed on the white sand beach of our nearly deserted South Water Caye, on Glovers Reef.
With group dining, fresh prepared chef meals, including the catch of the day, and a social experience that encouraged conversation with other global travelers at the camp, plus free flowing adult beverages at happy hour, it was hardly the canteen dining hall memory of summer camp though. Add in a fine selection of hammocks strategically placed between palms, and the opportunity to unplug (no WIFI and generator power only between 5-8pm to recharge devices) and it was an ideal getaway. Since fresh water was precious on South Water Caye, showers were light, and make-up non-existent. But the “gone feral” look didn’t stop us from rocking a sundress at happy hour, assembled on the deck, overlooking a Caribbean sunset each evening.
Kayaking in Belize: Who This Trip Suits Best
Club Med? Hardly. And it’s certainly not for the 5-star resort crowd. But for those with a sense of adventure, craving a unique experience away from over-tourism, the Island Expeditions Belize Kayak Adventure might be just the anecdote your post-Covid travel plan needs. You don’t even need to be particularly good at kayaking since they use doubles. Reasonably fit and open to new experiences will suffice.
You’re In Good Hands
Island Expeditions comes with some solid credibility in the adventure tourism space. They’ve been running tours in Belize since 1987 when founder Tim Boys, a UBC student and kayak guide, went looking for a warm-weather locale to extend his paddling season. At the time, Belize was just beginning to stake its claim as an independent country, no longer under British rule, and was eyeing eco-tourism to attract travelers.
Belize is a small country with a very big off shore asset: the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, a 900km long area harboring islets, islands and more atolls than anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, it is the second largest barrier reef in the world, standing only behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The reams of coral, schools of fish, ribbons of white sand and Caribbean sunlight illuminating it all, make the area an uncommon and under populated playground for aquatic oriented adventurers. Since their modest beginning, Island Expeditions has thoughtfully built out their operations to employ locals and support the Belize economy. They’ve got Canadian roots, with offices in both Belize and Pemberton British Columbia, but they serve a global niche audience.
South Water Caye & Glover’s Reef
Our trip was based out of South Water Caye on Glovers Reef initially, then Tobacco Caye, with a departure by boat from Dangriga to the outer islands. Island Expeditions offers several different packaged options, but this is what out Paradise Islands trip looked like.
Normally guests take a hopper flight from the Belize International airport down to Dangriga, which Island Expeditions arranges as part of the tour. Several of our group members did just that. But five of us arranged a charter flight with Maya Island Air from Caye Caulker, where we had been staying the previous three days, to Dangriga, to include a special detour to view the famous “Blue Hole” on route. Be sure to check out 15 Fun Facts About the Great Blue Hole, as well as 25 Things to See and Do in Caye Caulker.
Once in Dangriga, a guide picked us up from the airport to go to Bocawina Rainforest Reserve for the afternoon and overnight. Bocawina is a National Park, nestled in the rainforest, hosting numerous jungle adventures. We only did an overnight there, but made use of the afternoon to hike to a jungle waterfall, amidst the chorus of tropical birds in the canopy.
And if you’ve never heard a howler monkey in the wild, with its prehistoric guttural howl, you’re in for a Jurassic Park like experience come nightfall.
One of the reasons for staying in the Dangriga area the previous evening, was to enable an early morning departure and boat ride out to the distant South Water Caye. Meeting at the IE offices, we were offered dry bags to repack what would be needed for the trip, and the opportunity to leave behind a suitcase with other items. But since the open boat had dry storage up front, and the plan was to have our bags transported between the two camps, several people elected to just pack along their whole carry on suitcase. Some tours kayak between camps, in which case using dry bags would be the only option.
The boat trip out to South Water Caye on Glovers Reef took an hour, and at times the seas were rough, so we arrived a little damp and salty, but otherwise smiling at the sight of the tropical paradise we would call home for the next three days. A brief charade at departure to rock the boat off a sandy shoal, and then a return to retrieve the cook, accidently left on shore, wading towards the boat with her suitcase at shoulder level, was met with laughter and a “don’t worry, be happy” type attitude. Welcome to Belize.
Steve, the camp manager, and misplaced prairie boy from Winnipeg, greeted us along with Mario and Byron, our local guides for the trip. South Water Caye is an off-grid island, peppered with tent cabins on platforms, and out station buildings housing the washroom, dining hall and kitchen. After a brief tour around, unpacking and a short break, it was off to be fitted with snorkel, mask and fins. Then lunch. Then an orientation to SUP, and an afternoon paddle. While drifting over coral reefs and white sand just off shore, we could see numerous fish and rays in the shallow waters. With sunsets at 6pm daily, happy hour before that, and dinner to follow, our days unfolded in an easy rhythm of activities and meals.
Belize can deliver a mix of humid heat and sunshine, as well as tropical storms. Our first night was wild with big wind and rain, but by the morning it was all sunshine. The tents on platforms held up exceptionally well, with their roll down and Velcro window coverings on both the inside and outside withstanding the pounding tropical storm.
Daily activities were planned by our guides Mario and Byron, and took into consideration weather, water and wind conditions. So on this day, we did a morning snorkel out on the reef by boat, and then following another rain shower at lunch, it was off for a paddle board and another snorkel. Mario and Byron linked the boards together and towed them to Glovers Reef Ranger Station, and then we paddled back to South Water Caye with the wind at our backs. Each snorkel featured the guides introducing us to various features of the reef, including choral and fish habitat. At times it was overwhelming to take all the sea live in. Even close to shore accessed by paddle board, snorkeling Glovers Reef is world class. You literally are like a fish in an aquarium!
Since the seas were a bit rough for kayaking and paddle boarding, we went fishing after breakfast. Fishing Belize style is an impressive simplification of gear, using only a line with a hook wrapped around a foam ball. Our guides baited the hooks with sliced mussel from a conch shell. The goal was to catch small fish to later use as bait when trolling for barracuda. Some in our group were better at bobbing than others, but once snagged, fish were hauled in by hand. Most of the fish we caught were Grey Snapper, but there were a few larger Trigger fish we kept to eat. Our guides showed us how to toss the really small fish in the air for the birds, who would swoop down and grab them mid-flight.
Later, the heavier line on a circular hand-held disc was brought out, with sizable hooks used to catch barracuda. It was an upgrade from the previous gear, but still very much a simplification with not a rod in sight. Mario baited the hooks with fish, and we trolled, taking turns in pairs off the back of the boat. After several 15-minute shifts, our group caught two barracuda, which were cooked by the chef for our meal that evening. The adrenalin rush of hauling a bare line by hand with a sizable fish, while Mario chanted “reel it in” was a thrilling experience!
In the afternoon we kayaked and snorkeled on the reef half way out to the Glovers Ranger Station. Since the frontal system appeared to have cleared by then, the sunlight on the reef made the snorkeling come to life even more than previous days.
With the wind at our backs for the return, we rigged sails to the double kayaks and had a wonderful sail back to South Water Caye later that afternoon.
Following another lovely sunset happy hour and dinner, we gathered for a night walk by the surf break. Sometimes groups will do a night snorkel if the water conditions are not rough. It was an interesting experience to see sea life at night, but unfortunately also a tragic reminder of how many plastics are discarded in the ocean, when viewed at the sea break. Even Belize, with its progressive stance on recycling, is still battling a shameful waste culture off shore.
We had a short activity in the morning, snorkeling by paddle board on the reef just out from South Water Caye, before a departure at 11:30am for Tobacco Caye – our second base camp. It was some of the best snorkeling of the trip. With the help of our guides and the sea life guidebook later to identify species, in just a one-hour snorkel we saw a ray, a reef shark, and countless fish: Queen Angelfish, Blue Tang, Sergeant Major, Queen Trigger Fish, Trunk Fish, Blackbar Soldierfish, Big Eye, French Grunt, and Porkfish
The color of the coral ranged from purple to red and yellow, and the textures from wispy to intricate and solid. For the full experience be sure to watch the snorkeling video above in this post.
Off to Tobacco Caye
After an early lunch, we packed up the tents and boat, and it was off to Tobacco Caye, a 40- minute boat ride, closer to the mainland coast. Tobacco Caye proudly welcomes guest with a “Welcome to Paradise” sign at the dock. The approach with colored cabins overhanging the water, initially dotted on the horizon at a distance, was a welcoming site. While a small island, Tobacco Caye does have more people, including local residents, and other travelers, as well as crew from private yachts, ashore for a drink at one of the two outdoor bars on the island. The cabins were a step up from tents, with electricity, and on suite bathrooms. Some of our group did an afternoon snorkel, but I elected to take a break in the hammock, swinging on our porch over the ocean.
Still accompanied by our guides Mario and Byron, we were introduced to new cooks who prepared meals for our group. While it can hardly be described as upscale when your feet are dangling in the sand of an open-air bar, and still without make up, we did enjoy both the Sunset bar the Reef’s End Lodge at the far end, on our modest early evening pub crawl of sorts, before hanging out at our cabins overhanging the ocean.
The wind gods were in our favor for a full day adventure of sailing and kayaking from Tobacco Caye towards the Mangroves. It was an intensely hot day, so we slathered on the sunscreen, hats and sun shirts. The sailing was on a broad reach and a down-wind run, and at times was wavy with a good blow, so it wasn’t unexpected when one of our group kayak capsized! Fortunately the crew reassembled without too much trauma, thankful for the warm tropical water.
We anchored our kayaks to snorkel through the mangroves. Wearing lifejackets for floatation and no fins to limit disruption of the ecosystem, it was interesting (but a bit creepy) to see where a lot of sea creatures begin their life in protected areas. We learned the importance of mangroves beyond sustaining early sea life, and how they are instrumental in shoring up islands, preventing erosion and creating new land masses over time. Maintaining the mangroves, and preventing development, often fueled by tourism, is an ongoing battle in Belize. We were informed later that crocodiles also reside in the mangroves, but were assured they were females and not dangerous!
Later we kayaked and sailed towards “Bird Island” where Frigatebird’s migrated after their original habitat was disrupted by development. Bushes dotted with birds, many of them male with puffed up red “balloon style” throats, were vying for the mating attention of females. We had broken off dead twigs in the mangroves to toss in the air for them to retrieve in building their nests. On route we saw Marie Sharp’s island, a rather humble existence as a summer getaway, for a successful business legend in the hot sauce market.
The wind gods were in our favor for the return with a rare easterly which allowed us to point slightly upwind to round the point towards Tobacco Caye again. Shallow waters allowed for a pit stop mid-way to have lunch, while our guides packed away the sails, and then it was a full-on paddle into the wind for the return to Tobacco Caye. Although the sailing had been fun, it was great to get the exercise that paddling demanded!
After getting cleaned up on shore, we made happy hour sunset stops at both bars again, prior to a later dinner that evening.
We had an early breakfast at 8am and departed for Dangriga. A few of our group joined the sunrise snorkel, but I elected to swing in that hammock for a most peaceful and beautiful Caribbean sunrise. I was not disappointed!
Island Expeditions dropped us back at the docks in Dangriga, and ensured our check in at the Pelican Resort. Once sorted, we hired a cab to tour Dangriga and hit the market to pick up a few items to take home, like Marie’s Hot Sauce which we had all become somewhat addicted to, and a couple of us also bought hammocks.
We spent the balance of the day swimming in the ocean and relaxing in and out of the sun, with the heat and humidity fueling our orders of cool drinks from the bar. It was a lovely way to regroup in preparation for the departure flight the following day.
After dinner our server arranged for us to experience Garifuna drumming at one of the local open-air restaurant/clubs in town. Dangriga is known for its culture of drumming so it was a unique eye into the local music scene. With two singers, vocalizing a chant to the rhythm, three drummers took different rolls as base, accompaniment and lead. It was like jazz, in the improvised approach to composition, especially when new drummers appeared from the audience and took over lead rhythms, while the rest of the group adapted on the fly. We didn’t make it a late night, but our server bragged the next morning that he had partied until 5am!
We departed the Pelican Resort for the Dangriga airport on our last day. Although a cab had been arranged for us, it was a very short walk away. But hot and dusty was not a good way to kick off the day of international travel that lay ahead. It was a short flight to Belize Airport, then connections to international flights home.
If you go
Island Adventures offers different destinations for their various trips. Since ours was an eight-day trip, several of us elected to fly in early and arrange our own pre-trip add on with an Airbnb rental for three days in Caye Caulker, which was a great way to extend the trip. Check out this post to learn more about Caye Caulker – a very laid-back island, just a water taxi, or short hopper flight away from Belize City.
Normally Island Expeditions arranges a flight from Belize to Dangriga to link up with their tour, but they were very accommodating to our group, since five of us took the charter flight from Caye Caulker to Dangriga via the Blue Hole, two others flew down direct from their international arrival in Belize, and one gal was already in the area, having arrived the week prior seeking some Zen time in the jungle! For more Belize travel inspiration, check out these posts: 15 Fun Facts About the Great Blue Hole in Belize, and 25 Things to See and Do in Caye Caulker.
While many tour companies were threatened by the drop in travel during the pandemic, Island Expeditions was well managed throughout, and continue to earn their reputation as an honorable company servicing sustainable tourism in Belize. Link HERE for their response to commonly asked questions about their trips!
Island Expeditions: https://www.islandexpeditions.com/
Maya Island Air: https://www.mayaislandair.com/
Tropic Air: https://www.tropicair.com/
This is far from a comprehensive packing list for the trip. You’re best to refer to the Island Expeditions website for that, and needs for a particular trip. This is a list of critical items we found indispensable – basically stuff we used every day as necessities!
- Water bottle – don’t leave home without it! The hot temperatures of Belize take their toll. You need to consume water to stay hydrated throughout the day. We loved the collapsible soft bottles for how they pack up once empty. Having a carabinor attached to the handle was another nice feature to be able to latch onto a line on a kayak or paddle board, or a backpack.
- Water proof backpack – although Island Expeditions provides water proof bags, we loved having our own day packs to take in the kayaks or strapped to a paddle board. It was a great way to carry sunscreen, extra shirt, phone or cameras.
- Water proof phone protector – you’ll no doubt want to capture memories on your cell phone. A waterproof holder will protect your phone, and give you a way to attach it to your body around your neck. Some protectors steam up a little in humid conditions, so you just need to be mindful of how you use them.
- Sunglasses holders, floating – even if you have no intention of knocking your glasses off your head, live happens! These will likely keep your glasses on your head in the first place, but if your glasses disaster causes them to fly from your head, at least they’ll float!
- Quick dry towel – you’ll spend a lot of time getting wet and drying off on this trip. A quick dry towel will dry in less than an hour on a line in the sun and wind. Plus it packs into next to nothing. We were careful to only use ours after a freshwater rinse – to keep it fresh.
- Head lamp – good for off grid camping, but also just a great back up to always have a light source
- Kayaking gloves – not absolutely necessary if you’re doing casual kayaking, but if you’re going any distance, you’ll appreciate how gloves will save your hide from blisters
- Sun shirt – long sleeve and light weight is key for sun protection while kayaking, paddle boarding or snorkeling.
- Water shoes – something with protection for your toes in particular, but feet in general is necessary when kayaking. If you want to invest in quality that will last, go for Keens. You’ll be glad you had them when others are bashing their toes on coral when snorkeling and wading in shallow waters
- Sarong – nice to have for a cover up from the sun, or an easy beach wrap to make you presentable for that first happy hour drink before you change up to your sun dress!
- Sunhat – super important while kayaking, or anytime you need sun protection. A chin strap is needed for windy conditions. But a well fitting ball cap with a visor will actually keep the sun off your face better in a stiff breeze.
- Reef friendly sunscreen – this isn’t just a consideration for the eco-minded. It’s actually a thing in Belize. Locals are very conscious of any impact on their precious reefs.
- Underwater camera There are several different brands out there, but likely the best known is GoPro. Alternatively a waterproof disposable camera is fun (great for snorkeling) and the anticipation of what might have been captured versus the immediate gratification of a cell phone will help you appreciate patience and gratitude. Consider that your final gift from Belize!
I used the Belize Lonely Planet guide book to plan and prepare for our trip to Belize. The seventh edition became available on May 10, 2020. My earlier version was great, but I suspect that the most recent one may have updates since the pandemic. As with anything, you are best to check online resources for updates, since some operators may have had operational impacts coming out of the pandemic.