Posts Tagged With: spelunking

The Skinny on Aruba

We left home at 3:15am, our brains like cotton candy from sleep debt and our minds surfing on surges of pre-trip adrenalin.

Delirious and uncaffeinated, we stopped at a Tim Horton’s en route. They are marketing red velvet “muffins” now? I was torn between a pretzel bagel and a carrot orange muffin when the oh-so-helpful night cashier barked, “Get the carrot. It’s the best and I don’t like nothin’.” It became my line for the week.

We felt a bit punch drunk queuing up at the United Airlines gate at YYZ. Talk about no frills service. The airline has eliminated seat back entertainment entirely. The flight attendants took cranky to the next level—not even smiles are available anymore. The drink service (oh wow, complimentary water or soda—but that’s it—not even a tiny packet of crappy pretzels or stale cookies with your beverage anymore) was quickly interrupted by turbulence. When a woman in 32B asked politely for tea, the sour attendant (who sounded like she’s sucked on car mufflers half her life) said, “We all have to sit down now. It’s gonna get real bad.” Nice reassurance. There was turbulence, yes, but nothing compared to the 6-year-old kickboxer seated behind me, violently playing with her headlocked My Little Pony.

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But, fast forward to Orangestaad, Aruba, the whole point. The Duty Free (named the “Dufry” for reasons unknown) welcomed us with Haig Club scotch shots. We made fast friends with two New Jersey broads who were impressed with our ability to seek out free Scotch before we had even grabbed our baggage.

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Our immersion into the liquid sun and crushing heat of Noord was immediate. Our taxi driver kindly took us to a Chinese supermarket to pick up a case of beer (we would soon learn that all the supermarkets are Asian owned and sell everything from Bolognese Lays chips to sushi to KitKat yogurt to wheels of Gouda the size of Goodyear tires). After dumping our bags in our villa and exchanging jeans for bikinis, we found our place poolside. Two inked-up Brazilian boys in Quiksilvers, as brown and oiled as coffee beans, were quick to offer us their leftover grilled chicken and spicy sausage straight from the grill. Yes, we could ease into this. The guys had a solid soundtrack of Queen, Joan Osborne (whatever happened to her? What if God was one of us….Bread and the Smiths. Finally, Celine Dion didn’t make the equatorial cut. Lime parakeets blurred by and called out alongside Freddy Mercury and the troupials (a flashy cousin of our oriole).

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We rented a perfect pad with a kitchenette in Washington ($1,200 CAD) with just eight villas sharing a limestone-tiled courtyard and pool. We were more than happy to take up loungey residence outside the mad tourist real estate of Eagle and Palm Beach.

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DSCF8490Eagle is a jammed stretch of low rise hotels (Holiday Inn, Radisson, Occidental) while the all-inclusive high-rise hotshots like the Ritz, Marriot and Rui, monopolize Palm Beach. This neon chunk of Aruba was quickly crossed off our list. I’m forever amazed that people jump on planes and fly seven hours only to seek out Starbucks, the Hard Rock Café, Cinnabon and Hooters. On my first morning run I nearly fell flat to see the likes of KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Burger King and Domino’s Pizza.

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Much of the island has been massaged by North American’s appetite and colonially rubbed by Holland (*I have no complaints about the mecca of Dutch cured meat, salty black licorice, stroopwafels and cheese available everywhere). But, there’s a reason Aruba is popular and cruise ships barf out thousands of passengers four times a week—the sea and sky is surreal. It’s arid—you could bet your nest egg it’s not going to rain during your vacation. There are no mosquitoes or pesky flies or bitchy sand fleas. As the Aruban license plates suggest—it is “One Happy Island.”

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The sand (and, we are self-titled beach experts) is like cornstarch here—so fine and el blanco—it’s whiter than the Kindle paperwhite. So white (dare I complain) that you can’t even read on the beach because of the glare.

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Tradewinds keep sweat licked off your skin before it even has a chance to make itself known. The trademark Divi Divi tree doubles as a compass. Follow the direction of the Divi tree—the tradewinds have blown them all into a southwesterly orientation.

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The sun is giant and reliable. Sunsets are like watching the apple drop on New Year’s Eve on Times Square. It’s massive and radiant and an acceptable reason to pop a champagne cork or pop the big question.

As we watched the sky move from Tiffany to mauve from our sandy audience seats, Kim and I marvelled at how different this trip was for us. How easy! We only had to unpack once—we weren’t hopping around solar-powered beach huts every few days. At night, we weren’t tucking in mosquito nets with army cadet precision or hosing ourselves down with DEET. We could actually drink the tap water! (When you know you can’t drink the tap water, you inevitably go into panic mode and end up buying more than ever). Our villa had endless hot water—hot enough to boil lobsters. In fact, the coldest setting of our Aruban shower was still HOTTER than Colombia’s ‘hottest’ shower. And instead of a Grandma floral soap bar the size of a dieter’s pad of butter, we were issued a Costco-sized bar of Ivory. We had towels for the pool, the beach, for showering. Face cloths even. We laughed thinking of our stay in Tayrona National Park where our toilet didn’t even have a seat.

ATM’s in Aruba actually had money in them. We didn’t have to notify the Canadian embassy of our travels. We didn’t need any sketchy immunizations or Dukarol cocktails pre-trip. No bank-breaking anti-malaria pills prescriptions to fill. Our villa had Netflix for crying out loud! We were kitted out with a Cuisinart coffee maker, a Hamilton Beach blender, a Weber grill, air con (ugh—also, why do people fly seven hours to seek out bars, restaurants and hotels that are the same temperature as Canadian winter?), and black-out blinds that even knocked out my wide-eyed insomniac (though the tiny red light on the air conditioning system did keep her awake until I found a mango fruit sticker to blot it out).

Aruba shares our same time zone, electrical voltage (no accidental camera battery frying necessary!), love of karaoke (not us), and sex shops.

The kicker was the Canadian dollar sitting at a pukey 70 cents American. However…

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What surprised us most was that there were no beach vendors or touts. No one was egging us on to get our hair braided or to buy shells glued together to look like turtles. “Pretty lady, how ‘bout a massage?” Nothing. No eye-bugging harassment to hop on a sunset catamaran cruise, to rent a jetski or dodgy coconut cookies for sale.

When a string of colourful, makeshift structures on wheels rolled in to the empty stretch between Eagle and Palm Beach, I thought that maybe we’d happened upon a food truck festival of sorts. Dead curious, I finally approached one of the tiny hut owners. About 25 homemade trailers had gathered in the parking lot near the beach, taking up prime waterfront space. There were toilets on wheels even—it was like an instant presto campground for over 75 Arubans and counting.

I was told that it was part of the Holy Week celebration. For two weeks, Arubans congregate on the beach to celebrate. Imagine how quickly that would last in Canada! As if you and 50 of your friends could park your tiny house nation on any ol’ beach. Cool for the Arubans though—but I was disappointed that they didn’t have any greasy empanadas or heavy bricks of rum cake for sale.

Oddly, there was no begging either. No one begging for baksheesh or shillings or, Aruban Florins. Gratuities were automatically added to bills. I read that the unemployment rate is 1%, so, maybe this is what such a state looks like. The dogs don’t even beg.

The bus system is so simple. The lines run north or south—1A or 1B. For $2.30US, you can do a cheater northern tour of the island like Kim and I did, surveying Arashi, Malmok beach and Boca Catalina before committing. But, be forewarned about the buses—in the words of a Lonely Planet writer (Colombia guide), “the air con is at a level to stun an elephant.” When we first asked a local about the bus system Kathleen Johnson (oddly the name of my great aunt) repeated my question with a frown. “How often does the bus run?” “When you are on it, it is running.”

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The islanders are point-blank, no guff responders. If you want a serious dose of history, oil refinery politics and an ear-to-the-ground opinion of the red light district in San Nicolaas, drop into Charlie’s for a Balashi and a pound of shrimp. Charlie the Third will serve you the most succulent pile of three minute boiled prawns and atomic “honeymoon sauce” and fill you in on it all (two slim beers and two pounds of prawns–$46 US). While taking long drags on his ever-present cigarette. (And don’t be worried about rolling your eyes—you have to just to take in all that is hanging from the ceiling and plastered on the walls at Charlie’s. It’s a global museum of licence plates, Auschwitz photos, totem poles, aerial maps, trophies, lanterns and kitsch nearly 75 years in the making.

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It’s an intelligent island. Elementary school lessons are in Dutch. Kids grow up speaking the native tongue, Papiamento. In grade four they learn English—grade five is an intro to German. Talk about being ready for the world. And, the world is coming to Aruba, it’s obvious. Tourism is the biggest financial injection but sales staff show zero interest in actually making a sale. Whether you walk into Cartier or Ralph Lauren or any of the dozen diamond joints, you probably won’t be acknowledged. Even the smaller vendors in Orangestaad don’t bother to look up from their conversations over Red Bull to convince you of the merits of buying garage-sale-destined grains of sand in a bottle or maracas or carved machetes and parrots. They really couldn’t care. Obviously they’re not making commission or, they’re reserving their energies for the crush of cruisers on day pass and souvenir money to blow.

It was our first travel destination void of diarrhea (*editor’s note: please see shit-pants-in Egypt, Belize, Colombia, ________, etc. blog posts). To live in Aruba, I’d have to shave my head though—those tradewinds just wreak havoc with your hair which may explain the number of beauty salons per capita. If you are into kiteboarding or windsurfing, this is your piece of terra firma. If you have a toupee or like to eat potato chips outdoors—it’s too dangerous.

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If you rent a Polaris Razor as we did to rip around the island, you can achieve “skydiver face”—you’ve seen grainy, wobbly footage of divers when their faces go all wonky on the plummet, right? The winds off the east coast replicate this if you are in an open-air UTV at 40mph.

The highlights?

Yeah, the Razor was cool. It was a steep $200 US per day (or, in Canadian pesos, $260, ouch. $1,500 deposit). You can easily circumnavigate the island if you don’t doddle over wooden maracas and Hooters servers. After an hour we were near-deaf and vibrating from the engine roar. Gasoline hung on our skin like teenage boys doused in first date Drakkar cologne. The coast was wild, raw and rough—a sharp contrast to the placid western waters.

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The Arikok National Park ($11 US, UTV’s permitted) was a drive-thru safari of winding, windy paved trails (no burrowing owl or rattlesnake sightings). We pulled over for a few spelunks in the Fontein and Quadirikiri Caves. There are no guides, so, you can explore as far as your nerves take you.

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We didn’t spot wild donkeys until we were outside the park and their “wildness” is now questionable. We watched as two vehicles were surrounded by the “wilds” seeking snacks. The donkeys are on to the tourist game.

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My favourite spot was the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary where nearly 150 donkeys have been rescued from abuse or injured by vehicles. A volunteer proudly told us “we are saving the wild donkeys from being demolished.” We grabbed $1 pellet feed bags but were told to stay on the balcony to feed the donkeys as they are known to create a quick mosh pit.

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Cruising through San Nicolaas back to Santa Cruz and Paradera I was happy to see that most dogs were collared. A friend had contacted me just prior to us leaving asking if we were flying direct. The Aruba Rescue Foundation (cutely acronymed “ARF”) is always looking for volunteers to fly back to Toronto with dogs. Fosters will meet you at the airport and the process is seamless for volunteers. I would have brought back 50 but we had a stopover in Newark. (*If you know of anyone going, please reach out here and I’ll put you in contact with the Aruban dog do-gooders!)

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If you are looking for a safe, sanitized, super Anglo hot spot with all the Americana pleasures at the ready, Aruba is it. If you’re looking for cheap beach hut rentals, cheap happy hour mojitos, golden Johnnycakes for a buck or, cheap anything—Aruba has a big VISA tag attached to it. Yes, you can get a flight for a steal ($420) but this is not an island where you can live like royalty for $20 a day. We couldn’t even begin to compare our time or expenses in Taganga, Colombia ($32 US for a cabana, 75 cents a beer, $1.25 for an avocado-stuffed arepa). We travelled around Egypt for three weeks for the same price tag!

Did we have fun? Of course. Kim and I can sniff that out anywhere. Aruba is finally a destination that a big percentage of our friends and family would actually enjoy. And that’s good too—we are all different in what we want and demand of our destinations. We just want to call dibs on all the uninhabited islands now. Forget the Cinnabons but, okay, we’ll take some gouda.

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Channeling Our Inner Cavewoman: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize

My spelunking career aspirations were squashed early on, after an unexpected and very harrowing moment for my 11-year-old self. I was midway through the fox hole of a cave in Rockwood Conservation Area, ignoring a rapid heartbeat and clammy hands in pursuit of raw adventure. After emerging from the fox hole we were promised the awe of a chamber that would allow us to all sit semi-upright and experience the void that is the 1000% darkness of a cave.

We were slick with muck, jittery from anxiousness, knees and elbows soggy from contorting through the narrow passages. The fox hole required us to crawl on our bellies through an opening that would surely make me hyperventilate today.

My age 11 whippet-thin body was not naive to my summer camp BFF’s discomfort that day. She was a husky girl, and clearly, husky foxes did not exist in these parts. Husky foxes did not use fox holes of this size. Crawling behind me with an increasingly heavy wheeze, Cheryl came to a dead stop in the middle of the fox hole. She was stuck. Ahead of her, shivery in the silent, wet depths, I was now stuck as well. The only way out was where Cheryl lie prone, psychologically paralyzed. I imagined a hundred long and dark deaths in the cave with Greg, our semi-fearless leader, and Cheryl, stuck in the fox hole.

It was immensely terrifying and in no way enlightening. It was simply a terrible thing that I still can’t fathom when I imagine myself in Cheryl’s skin. It seemed like days that she was immobile, heaving with tears, wailing with worry. I’m not sure what I did besides breathe equally as heavy and contemplate my own sorry fate.

Of course, as you may have surmised from this post, we got the hell out of that cave with the lubricant of confidence and Greg talking Cheryl off the ledge, so to speak.

In my hurry to be upright and feel sunlight on my shoulders again, and get out of the cave that I almost perished in, I split my head open on the top of the cave in my scramble out. The dull thud of skull on rock vibrated in each of my 206 bones. Everything felt thick and in soupy slow motion. Greg kept asking me who the prime minister was (which isn’t really a fair question to ask a kid. In fact, it’s not even the best question to ask me nowadays either).

The camp counsellors plied me with charred marshmallows by the fire, and pestered with quiz-like questions all night, fully aware that I may have conked myself into a concussion. I ate the marshmallows and rolled my eyes at all the political talk and was apparently fine. Fine enough to still be excited by the allure of caves and to poke around bigger ones (with standing room only) in Tennessee and Kentucky when I was a teenager.

As Kim and I read intensively about Belize pre-departure, clearly, caves were a dynamic draw for Central American travellers. We had already booked a recreationally lazy tube ride through the Caves Branch system (stalactites taken in at the comfortable speed of a gentle river’s slow flow). We asked other travelers about the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave with more trepidation. Kim was keen on the challenge after our tube time while I was experiencing minor Cheryl-stuck-in-the-fox-hole flashbacks.

This WikiTravel ATM cave description made me sweat and pace a little: “The cave can be exited through a tight squeeze ending in a giant sink hole collapse in the jungle.” The main cave system at ATM is three miles long. Tight squeeze. Three miles seemed like a dreadfully long time to be in the dark. Again, tight squeeze.

Lonely Planet touted ATM as “undoubtedly one of the most incredible and adventurous tours you can take in Belize.” I thought our kamikaze boat ride to the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef to see the red-footed boobies was, but…Kim and I have a relationship that thrives on balance. She was a willing and enthusiastic participant in a back-breaking wave-smacking two hour trip to see birds with red feet. Surely I could suck up some old and dusty latent fears and poke around this cave at the edge of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.

The part that made me scull back Belikin beer more quickly than usual? “Follow your guide into the cave starting with a frosty plunge into a 20-foot deep pool.”

We knew we’d have wet feet all day (with three river crossings en route to the cave opening), but to be completely wet up to my bangs—and frosty—for maybe three miles inside the cave? Insert groan and goosebumps here.

The 45-minute hike in was painless. The jungle was flat and moist. Bird shrills pulled our attention in all directions, massive morpho butterflies the size of Frisbees glided past, leaf-cutter ants led processions wherever they pleased. We paused to eat some live termites with encouragement from our guide who insisted they were minty. Indeed, they were. The African variety I had eaten in previous years had more of a scrambled egg aftertaste. The second jungle snack he introduced us to was a leaf with anti-venom properties that tasted like mouse shit, Vegemite, Buckley’s and death. Which meant, right before entering the cave, I felt like barfing from the bitter film of anti-venom leaf on my tongue with not a stupid venomy snake in sight.

Fast forward. We get the cave primer from our sturdy and sinewy guide and the plunge is totally frosty as promised. We have to swim 20 glacial meters to the cave shore and I already feel like I’ve entered an igloo.

But, wow. We are surrounded by a world that hums with the spirit of the Mayan people. Stalactites reach towards phallic stalagmites, thousands of years from ever meeting. The calcium-carbonate glistens as though the entire belly of the cave has been massaged with oil. We train our headlamps on the ceiling of the chamber to see massive jellyfish-like bodies of rock and shimmery chandeliers.

We become well acquainted with the river that winds through the cave. Sometimes we are knee-deep, at other times (more frequently), up to our collarbones with rocks pressing into our ribcages and unsuspecting knee caps. We scramble, heave, wade and swim deeper into the belly, in gentle pursuit of the Crystal Maiden.

Actun Tunichil Muknal translates into “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher,” and among the shards and intact pottery vessels that dot the chamber, we are on a strategic route to the calcite-encrusted remains of the Crystal Maiden. She keeps company with fourteen others that are visible. I begin to believe that more than 14 ancestral eyes are watching us.

In 1993, National Geographic filmed scenes in the ATM cave for a series entitled ‘Journey to the Underworld.’ ATM was also featured in the magazine’s July/August 2001 edition which boosted curiousity and foot traffic in the cave that only opened to the public in 1998. A Belizean archaeologist named Jaime Awe began exhaustive research into the ATM caves in the early nineties, and, to protect the area’s fragility, Awe personally trained two tour operators from Pacz Tours and Mayawalk Tours (six guides). To this day, only licensed operators are allowed to lead visitors inside the caves. The route is rigorous and a high level of fitness is paramount. You are sopping wet the entire time and in order to see the Crystal Maiden nearly half a mile inside the cave, you must remove your footwear and scramble up slick boulders and eventually mount a ladder to reach the uppermost chamber, in socks.

There is an eerie silence and historical pulse in that dry chamber. The depth of the darkness is liquid, calming and, if your mind permits, a bit anxiety-inducing. You are sharing breathing space with skeletons and troubling echoes of sacrificial cries.

Did I mention the squeeze where you have to angle your head and neck just-so? Yeah, with water up to your collarbones? That passage, tinier than a mouse fart, is a game changer. With walls like a vice grip, barely shoulder-wide, one must turn sideways, slide through the narrow neck allowance and heave up and out of the well. (Enter five pages of self-talk and mild cursing and palpitations here).

The guides spend around three hours inside the cave. The Crystal Maiden and the sacrificial grounds are the dramatic end point (where you can temporarily pull on a dry shirt from dry-sacs provided). Disclaimer: You must retrace your calculated steps back the same route and take that same frosty plunge to exit the cave.

National Geographic Society deems it one of the Top 10 Caves in the World for formidable reasons. The red-footed boobies are still awarded my Best Belize Moment, but if you want to wildly shake up your adrenalin stores into champagne fizz, submerge yourself into the world of 300 A.D. The ATM is taxing, exhausting and exhilarating. Our quad muscles groaned the next day from precarious toe-holds and careful foot placements in the riverbed.

When you click through photos that capture the heavy-breathing, chill and wonder, the reward is palpable. And the swallowed fear and hesitation is appreciated ten-fold weeks later in the safety of my Toronto apartment with a glass of wine and dry clothes.

 

The Nitty Gritty Insider Tips:

Most tour operators depart from San Ignacio (one hour to site, 20 minutes of which is spine-crunching bumpy). It’s a relatively easy 45 minute hike/amble to the mouth of the cave with periodic stops to learn about local flora & fauna and to enjoy termite pick-me-ups. It’s three shiver-inducing hours inside the cave, mostly submerged, but not completely. Lunch is provided by tour operators (a satisfying fix of grilled chicken, rice, curried squash and zucchini, grapefruit and granola bars).

There is a crude outhouse before the cave entrance where a pit stop is made for last minute nerve emissions and some carb-fueling for others. Helmets and headlamps are provided (they are Black Diamonds with fully charged batteries, not dim budget variety). You must be able to dog paddle at least 20 meters and be agreeable with water up to your chest in a few spots, be able to climb a 15-foot ladder and be comfortable in not-so-comfortable spaces. The tightest squish is the one displayed in the photo stream above. No flip flops or sandals are allowed, for good reason. The riverbed is rocky, silty and the the cave surface is often slick. Underwater cameras are best, although the guide carries several dry packs for cameras, money and dry shirts. Your feet will be wet the entire day and socks are essential for the dry chamber area. There is a small and primitive changeroom/washroom facility where you can change into dry clothing at the end. Bring your flip flops for the ride back to San Ignacio so you can slip out of everything that is soggy and be able to enjoy a cold Belikin or rummy drink in the downtown upon your return.

$85 US each, cash preferred. Half-payment on Visa allowed.

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An Elixir for a Shivery March Night: The Bounty of Belize

Lighthouse Reef, beyond the Blue Hole. Turquoise-injected waters so stitched in my mind that it would be impossible to dilute the imagery with the passage of time.

Stop the waffle presses: Ham and Cheese Whiz waffles at Reina's on Caulker for 5 Belizean dollars ($2.50 US).

Beef burritos as long as my arm at Let's Go Eat, San Ignacio. Spiked with Marie Sharp's hell-hot haberno hot sauce.

Jerk chicken and shrimp ceviche from Enjoy Bar on Caulker. Best served in the sand.

You can teach old dogs new tricks. Even how to surf. Two of Jungle Jeannie's four surf-mad German shepherds.

Hi-tops in Hopkins Village.

Horse is in the garage.

Collapsed lighthouse, Half Moon Bay, Lighthouse Reef.

The comical red-footed booby. I'd seen the blues in Galapagos, so, a 2 hour ride out beyond the Blue Hole to their colony on Half Moon Bay (Lighthouse Reef) was essential.

Male frigate birds trying to impress the gals. It takes nearly 20 minutes for them to inflate their sexy sacs.

Entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, the Mayan Underworld. Start heavy breathing now.

LOTS of self-talk going on here at the ATM cave. Glad I didn't stuff my bra with Kleenex that morning. Tight squeeze all around.

Last bit of sun at Caves Branch before entering the cavern of the Crystal Cathedral waterfall.

Jungle Jeannie's Inn by the Sea, Hopkins Village. Cue up crashing Caribbean waves soundtrack here.

Beach cabanas, Caye Caulker. If you can't walk on stilts, you can sleep on them.

Sundowner cocktails on Caye Caulker, 5:30 sharp.

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