Deep down with the predators - Belize and Guatemala
At first glance, jumping into shark infested waters might not seem like the most sensible thing to do. But in Belize, swimming Shark Ray alley is as compulsory as suntans and relaxation. Having been driven across the ocean in a tiny speed boat (complete with a small hole due to the rotting wood) I find myself seated on the edge of the boat, with my legs just a centimetre above the water. Below me are at least 40 sharks. I am not cage diving, neither am I just observing, I am about to be dropped, literally, into shark infested waters, with nothing but a snorkel.
This is not the scene of a horror movie, but is in fact my first step (or should that be splash?) into a two week trip to Belize and Guatemala. Having landed just two hours earlier in the Belize capital of San Pedro I had been convinced by a local fisherman to experience the delights of ‘shark and ray alley’, a reserve based at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, just twenty minutes by boat from San Pedro. Which is why, right now, forty odd nurse sharks, nicknamed the ‘celebrities of the sea’ due to the attention they attract from tourists, weave slowly between my legs and analyse me with their beady lifeless eyes. I began to worry this was where my holiday had started, and would end.
But if I was going to be eaten alive by wild sharks, then it was certainly going to be a good way to go. Within seconds of falling into the crystal clear, almost iridescent, waters of the Belizean sea, I am mesmerised by the sheer tranquillity and grace of Belizean shark life. Majestic, powerful, yet surprisingly gentle, these great beasts don’t seem to care about the tourist who has suddenly entered their world. Instead they swim around me, curious at first, before slowly slipping away into the dark depths below. But as the sharks depart, I am treated to another type of underwater life. Huge stingrays which have a 'wing-span' of two to four feet, swim directly towards me and allow me to reach out and stroke them. Below, slow and serene, a giant sea turtle glides just inches above the sand.
As I emerge from the depths, my guide points out towards the horizon and tells me to follow him. Surrounded by nurse sharks, we snorkel some twenty meters from the boat. Suddenly the ocean floor beneath me drops and I can no longer see the sand; we have reached the end of the reef and below is an intimidating endless blackness. The guide points frantically in the distance and I squint as I see a huge shadow appear and then swim out into the ocean. It is only when we are safely back in the boat that the guide informs me I had just seen a bull shark – one of the most dangerous creatures in the ocean alongside tiger sharks and great whites. Sitting on the edge of the boat as we head back to shore, I somehow managed to convince my fellow snorkelers that the tremble in my voice was because I was cold.
When booking this trip to Belize and neighbouring Guatemala, I did so with the idea of “celebrity” in mind. Not only did I want to swim with “the celebrities of the sea”, but I also wanted to experience the way the Hollywood elite might holiday. My first stop, nestled deep in the mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve was Blancaneaux lodge, formerly the home of legendary film director Francis Ford Copolla. Having been visited by the likes of Cameron Diaz and Nicholas Cage you feel like a star from the moment you step through the doors. Tucked into the Maya Mountains where waterfalls tumble into turquoise pools above the jungle canopy, Blancaneaux has riverfront cabanas and wrap around walk ways.
I arrive to be told I am staying in Copolla’s actual cabana, which he rents out when he is not in the area. Copolla’s cabana is decorated with a number of his personal effects, including family photos and memorabilia, and Blancaneaux itself is studded with Coppola mementos including movie posters and a ceiling fan which was used as a prop in Apocalypse Now. That evening I sit at Copolla’s favourite table in the Italian restaurant which serves family recipes and look out into the darkness hoping to spot the elusive jaguar which prowls the grounds at night.
The following couple of days are spent lounging in the private pool (something supplied to each cabana) and having head to toe massages in the spa. On my final day, I am escorted to the Copolla stables and embark on a horseback ride to the Big Rock falls – a waterfall famous in Belize for its breathtaking beauty and cooling natural pools, which, after the 2 hour horse trek, I welcome with open arms.
Next on my journey into Copolla’s world I am transported in an air conditioned jeep across the border, to stay at La Lancha, the Director's Guatemalan Resort which is a Gateway to the Tikal Pyramids. Perched on Guatemala's glassy Lake Petén Itzá La Lancha resort beckons to intrepid travellers intent on conquering the nearby ruins of Tikal. Latticing up the steep slope in pairs, each of the ten thatched-roof bungalows is abundant with carved teak furniture, Mayan rugs and panoramic views of the expansive lake. But what of the wildlife in Guatemala? On my first morning I was woken by the morning chorus of howler monkeys, perched on the balcony directly outside my bungalow. These charming creatures, gathered in little family groupings swung from tree to tree whilst howling animatedly, oblivious to the wide eyed gaze of the tourists.
The obvious lure of La Lancha is its proximity to the storied city of Tikal. Set in the Petén Basin, Tikal is dotted with hundreds of ancient stone structures dating back to 300 BC. One of the temples, I later discover, was served as the exterior of the rebel base in Star Wars.
My final destination is across the border and back into Belize at Copolla’s Turtle Inn. Once again I shall be throwing myself into deep cold waters and coming face to face with the terrors of the deep, this time, in the shape of Whale sharks.
Turtle Inn is situated in the sleepy Placentia village, and is famed for its Balinese-style beach huts, and the sun-sparkled waters of the Caribbean. Like sister property Blancaneaux Lodge, Turtle Inn has been built in such a way as to minimise its impact on the environment, using local resources and creating alternatives to modern technologies – you won’t find a TV or telephone here. Rather imaginatively, in order to ring through to room service you use a ‘shell phone,’ a conch set on a wooden box concealing an intercom link. Turtle Inn is boho beach living, A-list-style. Fling open the hand-carved double doors of your villa to stare out over the Caribbean, or, (if you’re feeling adventurous) head out into the ocean for a chance to swim with Whale Sharks.
After an hour’s journey out into the rough seas, I finished my trip to Copolla’s paradise by swimming alongside 60 foot whale sharks. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer fear and amazement when you first come face to face with these giants of the deep. Only a few dive destinations on the planet can boast about the return of the largest fish in the ocean year after year. During full moon week of April, May and June, the Whale Shark will glide through the waters giving divers and snorkelers the unmatched opportunity to share the ocean with them in close quarters. Bobbing up and down in the ocean whilst 60 ft creatures with huge vacuum like mouths swim aside you, is an experience that is impossible to forget. When you slip into the ocean and swim next to a whale shark, it’s the underwater equivalent of going on safari, then getting out of the Land Rover and running with elephants. All at once you feel fragile, tiny and insignificant yet empowered at having seen one of nature’s most elusive yet impressive giants.
Holidaying Copolla style snares you into a world of pure luxury, excitement and grandeur – who else can say they have swum with sharks, hung out with the A list and chatted with howler monkeys in the space of a two week trip?
Copolla will arrange transfers to other Copolla Resorts, and border crossing if you wish to visit Guatemala. All transfers are in air conditioned vehicles with your own personal Chauffeur.
If you wish to swim with Whale sharks then your trip must coincide with the full moon during the weeks of April, May and June. You can find out more by speaking with the dive centre at Turtle Inn.