Saturday, July 12, 2014

Best of the Western Caribbean

Posted by Scot

Boats moored at the entrance to the Rio Dulce, Livingston, Guatemala.
It’s been over a month now since we moved off the boat.  So it is probably time to start looking back with nostalgia at some of the places we went, and the things we did.  For some of us, anyway (i.e. me).  Even though we are now travelling on the west coast of Canada, the kids have refused to let me walk through a marina and look at boats.  I can still evoke wails of protest by threatening to do a “Captain Ron”.  For those that haven’t seen the movie (shame on you), that means changing our minds at the last minute and heading back out to sea to continue living a cruising lifestyle.  For now, the kids just want to get back home so they can see their friends and sleep in their own beds.

Anyway, I am already at the stage of reminiscing about our time aboard Monashee.  While we were on the boat, we sailed in 9 different countries: the U.S., Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico.

We specifically chose to limit our cruising to the Western Caribbean.  Most people, when they talk about sailing in the Caribbean, mean the Eastern islands.  The west is much less populated with cruisers, and more “off the beaten track”.  For us, this fit the bill perfectly, and was exactly what we were looking for.

Here then, in no particular order, are some of our fondest memories of our time on the boat. 

Favourite Anchorage

Empty beach in the Berry Islands, Bahamas.
We anchored as much as we possibly could.  It was cheaper, quieter, and cleaner than staying in marinas.  Most of the places we anchored had shallow, clear water, and we were able to check our anchor set and have a comfortable sleep hanging on our 55 lb. Rocna pretty much every time.  The best anchoring we had was almost exclusively in the Bahamas.  Probably our three favourite anchorages were there.  We were in the Berry Islands and the Exumas early in the season, and there was no one around.

Nobody around for miles.
Our favourite anchorage of the whole trip came early on.  Hoffman’s Cay was the second place we dropped the hook in the Berry Islands.  We had a couple of miles of empty beach to ourselves.  The nearest boat turned out to belong to Bruce and Val, a Canadian couple, on Windrush.  Bruce took us conching, and taught us the secret art of cleaning the conch.  It was also there that we found our first blue hole.  Again, we had it all to ourselves, and spent a couple of hours jumping off the cliff and floating in an unbelievable paradise.

Learning to conch.
The blue hole at Hoffman's Cay, Berry Islands, Bahamas.
It was also at Hoffman’s Cay that we celebrated Halloween, with Katie’s awesome party.  We danced on the boat under the stars, playing our music and turning on the underwater lights, secure in the fact that we weren’t disturbing anyone else around, since there wasn’t another boat to be seen.

Our Halloween party.  The first of many great parties on Monashee.

Best Sailing

We had some really great sailing while we were out.  We also had a lot of not very good sailing, some really crappy sailing, and a fair bit of motoring, too.

When you are just out sailing for the weekend, you end up going in all directions, and trying your boat out on every tack, all in the same day.  When you are sailing long distances, though, you sail the same direction for days and weeks on end.  Since the wind in the Caribbean is pretty consistently from the east, that meant as we were heading south, we were mostly on a port tack.  We never really sailed on a starboard tack until after we left Guatemala, months into our trip.  Which was funny, because the boat did a few things on a starboard tack that were unusual, and we didn’t even know about them for months.

Some of the best sailing we had was in Belize, when we finally did get on a starboard tack.  With the barrier reef blocking the waves, and a steady 15 to 20 knots on our beam, we flew along, as if we were on a lake.  Monashee loved being on a beam reach, and would happily kite along at 7 or 8 knots in the calm water.

But I think our favourite sailing of the whole trip was along the north coast of Jamaica.  This was the only place that we were consistently pointed downwind during the trip, heading straight west in the prevailing easterlies.  Despite some big following waves, we had a wonderful smooth ride, and we really got to use our spinnaker to fly along.  It was magnificent, and provided us with days we will never forget.

Best Marina

As a rule, we tried to anchor out as much as possible.  Marinas are kind of like RV parks for boats.  You are usually right up against your neighbour, paying an exorbitant amount to tie your boat up to a decrepit dock, and are often using pretty grotty, shared bathrooms, and dealing with the wakes of other boats constantly going by. 

On the upside, though, you can get right off the boat and go for a walk.  Getting a little space away from each other was sometimes worth any price.  Also, you have electricity and water close at hand, so if you want, you can run the air conditioning and shower to your heart’s content.

The runner up best marina we stayed in was Tortugal, on the Rio Dulce.  It wasn’t the fanciest place we stayed, but it was clean, the showers were great, the staff were pleasant, and we met some of the nicest people on our trip there.  In fact, if we had to go back to one marina, it would probably be Tortugal.

Enjoying the empty infinity pool at Resorts World Bimini, Bahamas.
The winner in this category gets the nod mainly because we had the whole place to ourselves.  In Bimini, the first place we stopped in the Bahamas, we treated ourselves to a couple of nights at the expensive Bimini Resorts World marina.  We were there in the lowest of low seasons, and there was no one else at the docks, or in the beautiful pools around the marina.  Although the place was starting to show a bit of wear, for the Caribbean, it was still pretty fancy, and it was a great way to start our trip.

The weather wasn't great, but we enjoyed the modern floating docks, new(ish) facilities, and water and power.  With no one else around.  Resorts World Biminis, Bahamas.

Best Snorkelling

Without a doubt, our best snorkelling was in the Bahamas.  Probably the single best experience we had was in Warderick Wells, where the reefs and fish are protected, and grow to amazing sizes.  But pretty much any of the islands in the Exumas chain provided great snorkelling experiences.

Lionfish at Warderick Wells, Exumas, Bahamas.

Best Beach

Our favourite beach was on the ope Atlantic side of Stocking Island, just off Georgetown in the Bahamas.  We ended up staying for about six weeks in Georgetown, what with a trip home to work, a visit from my parents, and Christmas and New Year’s holding us in once place.

Waves.  Fun.  Stocking Island, Bahamas.
While the Georgetown side of the island was busy with boats and people, a 5 or 10 minute walk up and over Stocking Island brought us to a beautiful wind swept beach that ran for miles and miles, and was almost always empty.  The cruisers in Georgetown worked to keep the beach clean, so we didn’t see the usual plastic trash that defiles most open ocean beaches in more remote places.  Playing in the waves on Christmas Day is a memory that will last a long time.

Walking on the empty beach with Grandma, Stocking Island, Bahamas.

Best Diving

We only went diving in a couple of places.  For some reason, Alexander and I seemed prone to ear infections after diving, which put a damper on the experience.

We did our PADI course in the Caymans, and enjoyed diving there right off the beach.  But the best diving we had was in Honduras.  This ranks as number one for a couple of reasons.  It was remarkably cheap, especially compared to the cost of diving in the Caymans.  It was the first dive we went on without an instructor.  And we got to dive on the wreck of a ship and a plane, which had been sunk right next to each other.  The whole thing was pretty cool.  Too bad my ears hurt for weeks after.

Wreck dive on Roatan, Honduras.

Favourite Country

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Looking at the list of favourites above, you would think the Bahamas would be the clear winner for the best country overall, since it had our favourite beach, best snorkelling, and the best marina.  While the Bahamas were great, they weren’t all that different from places we had been before.  Lots of cruisers and tourists make it to the Bahamas, so the sense of adventure there is slightly less than other places.

Cuba, on the other hand, was different than any place we had ever been.  Cuba is an anachronism wrapped in an enigma.  (An enigmanism?  Or maybe an anachronigma?).  It is like the whole country got frozen in the late fifties, and things have just been decaying elegantly ever since.  We loved our time exploring there.  The people were incredibly friendly, the music was beautiful, and the way they carved joyful lives out of difficult circumstances was uplifting.

Walking in Santiago de Cuba.
Sweet ride in Holguin, Cuba.
Park Central, Gibara, Cuba.
Our favourite country overall, though, was Guatemala.  Again, it gets the nod mainly because it was one of the places that was the most different from home.  The interior of the country, around Antigua and Panajachel were remarkable with volcanic geography everywhere.  We were surprised by the number of people in traditional dress, living fairly traditional lives.  We loved visiting the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal.  Adding a bit of a modern economy on top of all that made it easier to travel than Cuba, so this is the place that wins for our favourite country overall.

Market day in Panajachel, Guatemala.
"Chicken Bus", in Antigua, Guatemala.

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