A tiny nation on the edge of the Yucatan, Belize packs a number of huge experiences, including swimming with some of the world’s most impressive marine.
By Tim Johnson
One minute, there are no sharks – just a wide-open stretch of aquamarine so clean and clear, I can see all the way to the bottom. And then, suddenly, dozens surround us. Forming an almost continuous grey mass off the back of our catamaran, they churn the water white as they jockey for position, chomping up the chum thrown in by our crew – and looking, to my eyes, genuinely terrifying as they did so. So I made the obvious decision to go ahead and jump in.
I’m in Belize at Shark Ray Alley on the Mesoamerican Reef. It’s the largest reef in the Western Hemisphere producing a swirling kaleidoscope of fish and the unique opportunity swim alongside dozens of sharks. Waiting for one particularly huge shark to pass, I put on my mask and snorkel and take the plunge, trying to keep my arms and legs compact – and unbitten – while swimming just inches from this roiling mass of shark.
An hour later, I emerge from the waters (happily) unscathed – nurse sharks, it turns out, are almost entirely harmless. These shark swims are commonplace here, offered on most snorkel trips, and the safety record is very good; even the squeamish on our boat manage to get into the water.
I return to the warm Caribbean several more times during my vacation, strapping on my snorkel and swimming along the surface, marvelling at the diversity, and sheer number of fish on the massively prolific reef below: the yellow-and-blue flash of queen triggerfish; black-and-white banded butterflyfish; small, menacing porcupine puffers; and creepy, sleek barracuda.
My adventure began in the water and fittingly ends in the water – this time with a paddle. Deep in the jungle, I glide down the Rio Grande, a sacred river, the tip of the canoe silently slicing the green-blue waters, the only sound being the mysterious creaks and croaks of the surrounding rainforest. It could’ve been now, or a hundred, or a thousand years ago – a timeless moment, simple, and yet extraordinary. Ahead, the village awaits. But I could’ve stayed on this river forever.
Top 5 Things to Do in Panama
By Kathryn Dunmore
From crystal blue waters to lush tropical rainforests, travellers can pack a lot into their days in this small Central American country.
1. See the rainforest: Just a 30-minute drive from Panama City and you’ll find yourself in lush, cool rainforests. Here, you will find many activities: kayaking, fishing, and even aerial trams to give you a bird’s-eye view of the flora and fauna.
2. Go bird-watching: Nearby Pipeline Road offers serious birders or curious travellers the opportunity for a glimpse of toucans, tiny Green Honeycreepers or even hawks. It’s an easy hike, and bird-watchers are likely to see many monkeys and sloths, as well as birds. Don’t forget binoculars!
3. Visit the Panama Canal: The Miraflores Visitor Centre is worth the trip to learn the marvels of this man-made canal. Here, there’s an observation deck where you can watch, in sheer awe, as massive cargo ships pass through the 50-foot-deep locks.
4. Wander Panama City: Panama City is the perfect blend of old and new – just one look at the city’s skyline and you know this is a modern economic centre. But, beyond the glass skyscrapers, you’ll find the Historic District, recognized as a World Heritage site for its original buildings from the 1600s.
5. Relax in Bocas del Toro: This stunning archipelago is mostly covered in rainforest and spectacular white sand beaches – perfect for sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling or diving. Known for its laidback vibe and colour clapboard houses, Bocas del Toro is also one of the world's biodiversity hot spots.
Ixtapa Travel Staff