At first it seemed like the gods of the sea didn’t want us to visit tiny Tobacco Caye, at the center of Belize’s long barrier reef. When we got to the coastal town of Dangriga, where we hoped to catch a boat to Tobacco Caye the next morning, the wind was howling and the waves were crashing. Weather forecasts predicted rain, 15- to 25-knot winds, and 4- to 6-foot swells for the next three days. Yikes!
We spent a frenzied hour with guidebooks and the Internet trying to come up with alternate plans. But Miss Louise, the wonderful proprietress of the Bluefield Lodge where we stayed, counseled us not to give up hope. The weather might improve tomorrow, despite the forecasters. Turns out she was right.
The sky was much clearer and the wind lower when we awoke, so we checked out and caught a small, open motorboat for the 45-minute ride to Tobacco. The boat was crowded, so Chris ended up on one end of the back seat, where she got drenched in spray. Melissa was perched at the edge of the front seat, where she was bounced so much she feared going right over the side of the boat. It was a relief when land finally came in sight again and we pulled up to a little island covered in palm trees and low wooden buildings.
Tobacco Caye is tiny (5 acres at the most); walking around the shore takes all of 10 minutes if you stop to chat with passersby or gaze at the nesting ospreys. Although the island is covered with sand, the sea floor around it is rocky. There are no good swimming beaches here. But there is a wonderful laid-back atmosphere. The island has six lodging places as well as various houses of full- or part-time residents. None are opulent.
There’re nothing showy here—just well tended or less well tended. It’s kind of the opposite of a resort island; it’s not pretentious for foreigners. People go about their business here: fishing, cooking, cleaning, looking after visitors, taking people on boat trips to the nearby cayes. It’s quiet, except for some noisy generators and the occasional crowd at the seaside bar or the snack shop.
During our four days on Tobacco, there were maybe 50 or 60 people on the island. Although you can see most of the other buildings from any one building, it doesn’t feel crowded. That’s probably because of the open sandy spaces with palm trees in the middle of the island and the endless expanse of sea all around it. Though there are some trash piles around, and old conch shells and other fishing detritus littering the shoreline, the island is much less dirty than we’d expected on the basis of other travelers’ blogs. We really like it here.
Lana, our hostess, and her husband, Pops, are island institutions. Pops is from an old island family and has been living here on and off his whole life. He and Lana (from the local mainland) have been running their little guesthouse since they retired from working in the United States. They’re both in their 80s now and looking to sell out and move closer to their grandkids. So we were lucky to stay with them before they left the island. Lana is a good cook who fed us well on traditional Belizean dishes and local seafood, which she bought from the island guys who go out fishing each day.
We came to Tobacco Caye mainly for a chance to snorkel right off the shore. Unfortunately, we were disappointed in the snorkeling here. We saw a few fish, a good-sized squid, some nice big yellow-brown starfish, and a few small eagle rays (always cool), but very little coral. So we spent more money than we’d like to take a boat to a more remote part of the reef, called Glover’s Reef. We anchored at three places and swam for at least an hour at each one.
The coral was amazing—beautiful and healthy, with many different varieties—second only to the Great Barrier Reef out of the places we’ve been. The fish (especially the huge angelfish) were colorful and fun to watch, as always, and Chris got to see her first shark (a harmless, toothless nurse shark). The day was sunny so we had good visibility, but we also got snorkelers’ sunburn on the backs of our legs—Ouch!
Other than our one sunny day for snorkeling, the weather was mostly windy and raining on and off. So we spent much of our time on Tobacco Caye lounging in hammocks with books, painting (Melissa), playing cards and backgammon, catching up on our travel journals, and watching the birds (lots of frigate birds, pelicans, and a pair of ospreys).
Paradise . . . until the trip back to the mainland, in another small open motorboat, this time in heavy seas. Our grizzled old captain is widely reputed to be the best on the caye, which is why we went with him today, despite the heavy winds. (That and the fact that we didn’t have enough cash left to stay on the island for another day, and who knows if the weather would be better or worse tomorrow.) When we cleared the reef and got into open sea and he muttered “It’s rough as hell out here,” we started to get a little worried.
Then his engine began making choking noises and he had to switch to the other one (thank heaven he has two!), and it just got worse and worse. Melissa, always the braver of us, watched the wind-blown swells that rose up and looked like they were going to swamp us. Me, I cowered under a piece of green tarp and stared at the floor, praying hard and willing the time to pass. If I’d actually looked at the waves, I would have been much more scared. My hair and face are plastered with salt spray, my bottom is black and blue from bouncing up and down on the plank seat, and my muscles are sore from clenching myself in place.
I’m starting to HATE boats. Our horrible crossing to the Aran Islands in western Ireland last summer and now the trips to and from Tobacco Caye. We are planning to head to coastal Honduras in a week or two, and we weren’t sure whether to take a ferry from Belize (three or four hours on the same seas in a boat not much bigger than the one we were in today), or go overland by bus through Guatemala. After this morning, I feel up to spending an infinite amount of time on buses, no matter how slow or crowded, as long as the ground is under our feet.
As soon as our hotel room is ready, I’m going to go wash the salt off me and then take a long nap in a very still bed.