Caribbean Reefs and Rainforests; How I Spent My Winter Vacation.

Jan 31, 2013 Avatar Dan Ilves Dan Ilves

In spite of coldish weather in the low 60’s, on our first morning after arriving in Key West from Miami, we headed out by skiff into the Tortugas National Wildlife Refuge, picked up kayaks and paddled out and around Archer Island. A popular birding area, we watched many cormorants, frigate birds, Blue and White Heron, Osprey and even a bald eagle. There are a number of snakes on the island and we often spotted them dangling from the beaks of voracious ospreys flying about the island. We paddled close to the mangrove-lined island and found a narrow channel where we used our hands and ducking pulled the kayaks single file among the roots and branches hanging just overhead to the other side. In the shallows we saw a small shark, “flying” fish, and on the way back to Key West even saw a stingray leap out of the water just ahead of us. We revisited some of Key West, which was touristy and full of more bars than we remembered from a prior visit, with tourists getting soused.

We made it to Georgetown, Grand Cayman, on a Sunday, finding most everything closed, except for a few restaurants and a few jewelry stores. Having visited Seven Mile Beach before, we came here to snorkel, and just offshore explored the reef in front of Georgetown. In spite of a recent storm that seemed to linger in the area, snorkeling here was still like swimming in an aquarium, with thousands of fish of all shapes and colors, and good coral reefs. Later we walked a ways to Da Fish Shack, a small local place seaside and had some conch fritters and jerk chicken as small waves crashed just below our feet.

Next morning we’re in Cozumel and jump into taxis that take us to a private beach club for some snorkeling off the beach. I’ve snorkeled in Cozumel off the beach some years ago, and as then, didn’t find this too appealing. With the waters a bit choppy and hardly any reef remaining (at least where we were), fish were scarce, except around some artificial structures that were placed underwater. We at least enjoyed a good swim in warm water before we travel to Central America.

Arriving in Belize City, it was time for a change, and we were driven inland a couple of hours to one of the underground cave systems in Nohoch Chen National Park for some cave tubing: riding inner tubes on a river that traverses some seven miles and underground. (Kayaking the river is another option.) The operation is quite commercialized, but provided a sense of security (not to mention a guide and the equipment). A highlight was floating through one large cave where water from a tributary flowed down into the cave, creating a wide waterfall of a few feet in height, with the sound reverberating loudly within the cave.

Next morning we’re in Santo Tomas, Guatemala, near the Honduras border. Driving through this poor port town and observing daily life here was fascinating, but our mission was to head to a military base nearby which had a landing strip, and get on a small plane chartered for us, and fly to Santa Elena, El Peten to visit Tikal, one of the premier Mayan ruins in Central America.

Having visited Chichen-itza and Tulum on more than one occasion, visiting Tikal was on my bucket list, and it doesn’t disappoint. The only problem was our time was limited, and it’s an hour’s drive each way from the airport to the site. Usually you have to park in the lot and walk 40 minutes up to the site, too, but our guide, through some personal connections, got permission to drive our vehicle right up to the sight.

As the site is some 22 square miles, this helped us see five temples, climb to the top of one for a fabulous view, and do some jungle walking among howler and spider monkeys.

Tikal is magnificent, and not unlike Egypt’s great pyramids, no photos can match the experience of being face-to-face with these magnificent structures. On the return we stopped for a traditional lunch at the lovely Maya International hotel, just outside of the small “island city” of Flores, which we made a brief visit to.

On Roatan, Honduras, we did a bit of shopping in the local market, appreciating the fine woodwork in particular, then drove out to the West End, the ritzy part of the island, full of some beautiful homes, for a bit of ocean kayaking followed by some great snorkeling at Gumbalimba Park. We saw many lobsters and fabulous coral. The world’s second largest Barrier Reef runs along either side of Roatan, and provides good snorkeling and diving areas.

Our final visit was in Costa Maya, in the Yucatan Peninsula, just above the Belize border. Costa Maya was built for cruise ships, and other than a fishing village nearby, there’s not much here besides a nice beach resort and large shopping arcade.

However, we chose to head out by coach on a two-hour drive to visit the less-visited Mayan ruins of Kohunlich, a well maintained site which is noted for the Temple of Masks.

Many of the Mayan temples were decorated with large reliefs, and many of those, such as in Tikal, were cut and taken to museums elsewhere (the government’s trade off for allowing some explorers and archaeologists to unearth many of these jungle-covered ruins). But here there is a temple still decorated with large “masks.”

We arrived back in Miami and flew home. Oh, I forgot to mention, this was our winter cruise vacation on the Regent Seven Seas Navigator, a 497-passenger luxury cruise ship.

Better yet, except for the chartered flight visit to Tikal, all our activities (and equipment) were included in our cruise price!

As a result, while our days were active, our evenings were spent luxuriating onboard, being wined and dined (yes, the wine and cocktails were also included in the cruise price). From 18 0z prime rib steaks on the bone in Prime 7, to Italian dishes in Setti Mare, fresh seafood and more in Compass Rose restaurant, we needed all the activity to help stabilize the additional calorie intake onboard.

All in all, a wonderful and relaxing way to spend some days away from the office. You can read more about Regent Cruises or Central America vacations, and check the exclusive offers we have on select voyages.