In the instant before my head dunks into the fluorescent Caribbean Sea, somewhere between two tiny islands off Belize, I think: Am I ready for this?
A moment later, I'm clutching the side of my kayak, legs flailing as I shovel water out of the seat with a bucket. Then, I'm yanking my soaked self up onto the hull, face first and wheezing. Finally, I roll my bottom half into the seat with an audible thud. It was all as ugly and graceless as it sounds.
The wet exit – learning to tip my kayak and then quickly climb back in, without assistance – was the first of many moments in Belize that sounded daunting, very un-vacation-like.
But once I did it, the journey gave way to unimaginable beauty and adventure, the most exhilarating nine days of my life. I would kayak for hours each day, snorkel with stingrays, climb a Mayan high temple, come face to face with a crocodile, meet the crystallized skeleton of a sacrificed maiden – all before returning to Canada to attempt to resume ordinary life.
Back in the kayak, I peel my hair from my eyes and there's Karm, one of two Belizean guides, leading our group of 12 on the Paradise Islands tour by Island Expeditions. Karm is clapping, his gold tooth gleaming, his thick dreads bouncing as he laughs. "You're a natural!"
In that moment, I wanted off the kayak and onto the nearest all-inclusive resort. I was completely new to the adventure-travel concept, more used to exercising on holiday in a hotel gym. This island-hopping tour was in a different category than any beach vacation I had ever been on.
After we all pass the tipping test, our first stop is "bird paradise": a small island with a large black cloud in an otherwise bright blue sky. Wait, that cloud… it's alive, it's moving. Wait, why is Karm packing branches onto his kayak?
As we approach, the need for the sticks becomes apparent: The island is jam-packed with thousands of birds. (Watch the video here.) When we throw the sticks in the air, the cloud swoops eerily close to our heads. These are magnificent frigate birds, which build nests they share with yellow-footed boobies, those water-loving birds that dive for food to divvy up, in symbiotic fashion, with the frigates.
Then we get settled into our first stop, Tobacco Caye, a tiny island with a gift shop, a bar, about 30 residents and two lucky dogs. We strap on our snorkel gear and prepare for our first lesson.
Just 10 metres from the beach, I wasn't expecting to see much. I pop on my mask, adjust my breathing tube, and there he is. "A triple spotted eagle ray!," exclaims Karm (who, I'm now convinced, knows everything about everything in and around Belize).
A large, majestic stingray, slowly flying through the water, passes under me. He's not scared of our encounter, so neither am I. Our eyes meet, time stops. He continues on his way, and I come up out of the water yelling, "Never in my life!!"
From the instant I started snorkelling, exploring the barrier reef that snakes through the Caribbean, I never wanted to leave the water. Largely ignorant of the underwater universe, except for nature documentaries and TV specials, I never anticipated this kind of magic, so close. If these were the only jaw-dropping moments in which Mother Nature appeared to be strutting, I would be content. But here in these largely untouched, flawless islands, I learn that up-close exchanges with beautiful creatures are the norm, not the exception.
Our first two nights were spent on Tobacco Caye, about 16 kilometres from the mainland, and I am astounded nearly every waking second. (I'm sure our guides tired of my "Never in my life!!" exclamations, but they couldn't be helped.)
That first night, sipping the local Belikin beer while sitting on the pier, I take in my first Belizean sunset. Bright blue sea horses inch by under the dock, and a pelican drops from the sky, diving for his dinner. That rock on the sand? It's a hermit crab. It gets up and shuffles down the beach. Dolphins, blue herons, osprey – the beauty is almost comical, something out of a Disney movie.
The food here is sensational (fish caught hours before eating, shrimp soup made with coconut from the trees above us). And the people – I consider them my friends now – are remarkable.
We stay up long past sunset, discussing politics with the bartender (a federal election has everyone riled), boyfriend troubles with a 20-year-old woman on the beach. There is also Donald, the lone Canadian expat, a marine biologist from Prince Edward Island who calls the island home. His monthly rent is lower than his bar tab, and he spends his days on the water, teaching Belizean children about marine life.
"I'm currently exploring the intricacies of fauna," he tells me in his makeshift lab, and teaches Belizean kids about the wondrous underwater world.
The two days breeze by, and I physically ache over having to leave. But we must. A group of locals stand on the pier and call to us as we nestle back into the kayaks.
Blessed by a westerly wind, we take the opportunity to hoist sails in our kayaks, grouping two boats together and creating makeshift catamarans. We sail for two hours and say very little for long stretches. We're all, I think, a little mesmerized by the hot sun, the greens and blues radiating from every angle and the sight of the island ahead getting bigger.
I had thought Tobacco Caye couldn't be outdone, but in our first moments on South Water Caye, I realize it's possible.
Our cabins that sit on top of the water are a little more refined, the warm breeze a little stronger. The wildlife – eels, squid, lobster, starfish, jellyfish, frigate birds – is all the more astounding. This island is bigger, with three hotels, but not any less endearing.
Three nights go by in an instant. One afternoon, as the sun sinks into the horizon, Karm gives us a lesson in coconuts. He climbs a palm tree to get the fruit, takes a machete to several, then pours us a beverage – fresh coconut water and rum. He reminisces about finding young coconuts, the ones with the most electrolytes, for his grandmother.
One morning, he talks about mangroves: Three kinds are responsible for growing, filtering and protecting the island. We kayak out to Carrie Bow Caye, an incredibly small island just big enough for two buildings.
The Smithsonian Institution has a marine research lab here, and our group gets a lesson in the delicate underwater environment. A tiny rock in the distance used to be a twin to this island less than 50 years ago. Mangroves were cut down for a better view, and the island was "taken back by the water." I learn about sea turtle mating habits, peer inside a conch and almost lose a finger to a sassy hermit crab.
But it's on our last night that I fall madly, head over heels in love with Belize. I'm wrapped in a hammock on the porch of a cabana, surrounded by the friends I've made on this journey. I'm swinging with the sea underneath me, staring at the dark sky dotted with millions of stars. I look down: bioluminescent fish sparkle in the water; sea and sky are virtually seamless. It's a kind of beauty that makes me thankful in a way I've never known before.
On the boat trip back to main island, where our little family is about to part ways, we are all silent, sucking in the our last drops of island life.
On the way home, I'm equal parts exhilarated and exhausted. I doze off, my muscles aching, and dream of coconuts, turquoise and that transcendent Belizean breeze.
For more information, visit islandexpeditions.com.
OFF THE WATER: Don't leave Belize without doing these 4 inland adventures