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Paddling cay to cay in balmy Belize

Kayaking around heavenly isles in the Caribbean is a daunting challenge.

March 23, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Placencia, Belize — Less than an hour after I pushed my bright red kayak from the shore into the shimmering Caribbean Sea, the gentle breeze turned wrathful. No matter how vigorously I paddled, my banana-shaped boat refused to glide toward the fuzzy speck in the distance -- a tiny Belize cay (pronounced key) -- that was my intended destination. Instead, the gusts blew me to the left of the island, pointing my bow toward a vast, empty horizon.

The swells rocked my plastic boat violently as my numbing arms fruitlessly battled the choppy waters. Others in my kayaking group disappeared from view. As wave after wave washed over my hull, my stomach lurched in synchronicity.

I rested my paddle, leaned back and closed my eyes. I felt utterly defeated. I tried not to retch. Why was I here, I wondered.

Actually, there wasn't much that Andrea, my former New York roommate, had to do to persuade me to join her for some adventure travel. She was between jobs, and I had vacation time to kill. We had pondered luxuriating at a spa but then thumbed our noses at how dreadfully sedentary that seemed. We wanted to push our muscles, challenge our senses. We were City Girls, surrounded too long by material comforts, with something to prove.

We wanted to rough it.

And that we did, in our kayaking and island-hopping camping trip in Belize.

Andrea heard about the trip's organizer, GAP Adventures, through referrals from friends. We checked out the Toronto-based tour group's Web site, and an eight-day kayaking tour along the Belize Barrier Reef in February seemed just right for us. It would end before Andrea would begin her new job. The price -- less than $1,000, excluding airfare -- was within each of our still-paying-back-student-loans budgets. And we were enticed by the other advertised activities: snorkeling along the world's second-largest barrier reef, possibly catching our own fish for dinner. Weather permitting, we could even sleep under the stars on the beach.

It took two flights, with a transfer in Houston, to bring me from Los Angeles to Belize City. As I stepped off the jet, I felt the welcoming embrace of Belize's temperate, humid air. A taxi with a badly cracked windshield and a penchant for stalling chugged me into the city's gritty downtown, where I met Andrea and the rest of our tour group at a budget hotel. Our crew of 10, which included a GAP leader, rose early the next morning to drive to the country's southern coast.

Our mode of transportation was a local "chicken bus," the cheapest way for Belizeans -- as well as the occasional farm animal -- to get around other than on foot. Some in our group found the six-hour ride in the salvaged school bus uncomfortable, almost offensive. But I didn't mind. I was glad to see beautiful rolling hills and lush countryside as we rumbled down Hummingbird Highway, the country's most scenic route, even as we sat on cracked upholstery.

We turned onto Southern Highway, which isn't always paved and doesn't always seem wide enough for oncoming traffic, though cars zoomed past us anyway. It was midafternoon when our bus puttered down a small peninsula and screeched to a halt in the funky seaside village of Placencia. We were to embark for the islands the next day.

Placencia, a laid-back town of about 700 residents, is organized mostly along a 4,071-foot-long concrete walkway considered by all to be its Main Street. Dotted on each side with small hotels, modest shops and boxy wooden houses on stilts, the Sidewalk is the kind of place where even strangers can't help but socialize. Everyone says hello, and it is easy to strike up conversations. Most people in Belize's multiethnic mix of Creoles, Latinos, Garifunas and Mayas speak English, the official language of the former British colony.

The next morning we rented snorkels and plastic-wrapped our backpacks and sleeping bags to keep them dry for our motorboat ride to the islands near the reef, about 20 miles away. Local tour guides, working under contract to GAP, brought tents and cooking supplies. Another boat carrying our kayaks followed. As we skipped toward the open sea, my ponytail flapped in the wind like the tail of an excited puppy.

Belize's barrier reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere, stretches for about 180 miles from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula to the Gulf of Honduras. It is home to a vibrant ecosystem of dozens of coral species, hundreds of varieties of fish and countless other marine animals, such as dolphins, turtles and manatees. More than 400 small islands, or cays -- some lush with palm trees, others no more than barren sandbars piled with crushed coral and broken conch shells -- speckle the shallow, sun-drenched waters between the mainland and the reef.

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