Travel highlights: Cruising the West Caribbean

Travel highlights and things to do in Cozumel, Mexico; Roatán Island, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; and Grand Cayman Island


About the trip

Disclaimer: I wanted to write about this trip today because it’s very cold in Pennsylvania, and these photos make me feel warm again.

Joe (husband) and I are not Cruise People. We thrive in big-city hostels, shirking fine dining for eating out of grocery stores or through the kindness of acquaintances. We seek natural, real-life (read: free) experiences at our destinations, preferring to explore cities on sidewalks or watch the sunset over tourist traps.

But for our honeymoon in the spring of 2013, we wanted to take it easy. When else would we allow ourselves to relax in luxury, our every meal provided for us, swimming and entertainment just steps away from our rooms? Plus, we knew we wanted to visit somewhere warm, and we don’t know anyone living in Central America or the Caribbean to give us a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live there, so we resigned to take this trip as full-on tourists.

I’d mention the name of the cruise line or the ship we took, but frankly I don’t have much to say about those. The cruise itself was underwhelming. Many of the on-board restaurants were totally closed, the events were campy and lame, and everything just felt pretty grimy. Maybe it would’ve been nice if we liked to get drunk and hang out with strangers much older than us, but that’s not really our jam. For our at-sea days, we read on our balcony, watched the waves and ate way too much ice cream. We didn’t get out to many cruise ship events or spend any time on deck or in the pool, because people in general are weird and gross and drunk most of the time.

That said, a cruise is a good way to check out several different locales in only a few days. Cruises are great if you just want to float along your vacation, taking in the sun and the sights. Planning excursions ahead of time means you never have to ask, “What are we doing today?” and a day is never wasted. So, instead of dwelling on the particulars of cruising, I’m focusing on our four destinations: Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; Roatán Island, Honduras; and Grand Cayman Island.

Here I’ve posted a brief outline of things to do at each destination, along with a small gallery each day of us doing those things. Enjoy!

Day 1: Cozumel, Mexico (Paradise Beach)

Honeymoon0513_082After a day at sea, we chose a day at the beach. We had breakfast ashore and ate huevos rancheros on the deck of a super sketchy restaurant near the port. First time eating Mexican food in Mexico was a hit. Thanks for the good times, Sketchy Cozumel Restaurant.

We took a cab and spent the rest of the day on an excursion to Paradise Beach.

Paradise’s private beach area is closed off, and in the entrance sits a little gift shop, where you pay a small admission fee. Through there you’ll see a huge pool area with lounge chairs and a walk-up outdoor cantina. We had lunch there – Joe had some kind of nacho contraption, and I had a burrito. We both had fancy tropical adult beverages with lunch as well.

Past the pool are a few trees, then you’ll meet the sand and the waves. We sat all day in the sun, jumped in the water, inspected tiny shelled creatures in the ocean and ordered a few more fancy tropical adult beverages. Probably the best part: The beach had free wifi, so we could taunt all out friends back home in Pennsylvania with pictures of Paradise all day.

Here are some photos from Cozumel, Mexico:

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Day 2: Belize City, Belize (Xunantunich Mayan ruins)

We were warned about traveling around Belize City as tourists by a friend who lived in Mexico for much of his life. We were told by other family members that there would be armed guards around the port and security checkpoints throughout our excursion. We didn’t see any of that. There are, of course, real dangers to getting cocky in a tourist area, with luxury shopping tucked away at cruise ports in third-world countries. But we minded our business and had no troubles at all.

Off the ship, we boarded a bus to the Xunantunich Mayan ruins in the Cayo district of Belize. The reviews for this excursion complained about the 2-hour bus ride to the ruins, but for me this was one of the best parts of the trip. It was one of the only moments when we could get a sense of what life is like for Belizeans in that region. Our tour guide, a Belizean woman, recited history of the areas through which we rode, talking about the local economy, exports, politics, how land ownership works and more. She taught us that like Pennsylvania, Belize has a sizable Amish population. She even shamed some of the less inhibited of the tourists into trying out the local English dialect.

We arrived at the ruins, impressive as expected, and explored for a few hours. I’ll let the photos speak to that. On the way back, we ate some ridiculously delicious local food. Rice and beans like we’ve never had before.

Here are photos from Belize City:

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Day 3: Roatán Island, Honduras (Gumbalimba wildlife park)

Roatán Island is a place like I’ve never heard of: A swath of the island has been purchased and is owned entirely by cruise companies, developed for the express purpose of entertaining zipline-and-snorkel-enthusiast tourists. A large portion of the island is basically off-limits to Hondurans, except those who work there. There are locals on Roatan Island, and fishing brings the largest income for locals, second to tourism in economic importance on the island.

The whole colonialism thing really grossed me out, so we got out of the cruise-owned area and went to a wildlife park on the island, called Gumbalimba.

Joe’s top highlight was definitely ‘snuba’-diving, a combination of scuba and snorkeling, where divers breathe through respirators attached to air tanks floating on small inflatable rafts. We saw some really cool wildlife down there, and our guide even helped us sneak out a huge shell. But, for a claustrophobic person like me, trying to breathe through the respirator was overwhelming at times. I didn’t have an underwater camera, so I don’t have any photos of our snuba adventures for you.

We also toured the animal sanctuary, and we hung out with a very colorful bird and a tiny monkey. We even watched a larger monkey steal one woman’s expensive sunglasses, wear them, crack them against a tree branch, and drop them on the ground. That was hilarious for everyone but her.

Here are some photos from Roatán Island:

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Day 4: Grand Cayman Island (Grand Cayman Turtle Farm, Hell and the Stingray City sandbar)

Grand Cayman had so much potential, but our tour guide was uninspiring. He was obsessed with the American celebrities who have bank accounts in the Caymans or who vacation at the island’s private beaches. He didn’t get into any of the particulars of life for locals there, even though he had lived there his entire life.

Our excursion here first took us to the Grand Cayman Turtle Farm,  where sea turtles are raised either for re-introduction into the Caribbean or for consumption. Turtle is a staple of locals’ diets. We didn’t have much time here, so we just checked out the giant adult turtles, then got to hold some very adorable baby turtles.

Next we went to Hell, a large limestone formation so named presumably because it looks a bit like my nightmares. It was cool, but of course the gift shop was full of kitschy stuff like “I went to hell and back and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” T-shirts.

Our final stop was the Stingray City sandbar – definitely the highlight of Grand Cayman. We took a small boat out to a sandbar where we waded among dozens of huge stingrays, trained to docility by years of tourist organizations feeding and petting them. Joe was giddy with excitement.

Here are some photos from Grand Cayman:

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In the end…

It was a great trip, and we got exactly what we wanted out of it: namely, relaxation. We saw four new places and soaked up more sun than ever. I even conquered a few fears by letting a winged beast sit on my shoulder and going snuba diving  in Roatán. We got an overview of a few Caribbean locales, so we got an idea of where we may want to visit for a more inclusive, culturally fulfilling trip in the future.

Want the scoop on where you should visit?

Cozumel: Would recommend Paradise Beach, though other excursions would have shown us more about Mexico.

Belize City: The ruins were stunning. Highly recommended.

Roatán Island: Most excursions were weird and hyper-touristy, but the wildlife park was fun.

Grand Cayman Island: The island was gorgeous, but I wish we had chosen a different excursion, maybe something with more nature/beaches involved.

Any Caribbean locations you’d recommend we visit next? 

Adios for now!



The Photographer-Journalist 2015 (Reprise)

For those of you who have been wondering what’s going on with my life since I abandoned this blog in 2012, below is a brief list, in no particular order, of the various changes I’ve experienced in the last few years.

For those of you who have lost interest in my life since 2012, why are you here?

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1. I am inspired.

I’ve recently become connected with a huge network of devoted women writers. These writers are insanely talented and immensely supportive of each other. This network has introduced me to countless stunning pieces of work that fill my heart daily as I read them. It has provided me a safe place to ask my questions about writing, editing, freelance work and more and get prompt expert responses from women who have been where I am.

Most importantly, surrounding myself with smart ladies and their writings has inspired me to strive for a level of professionalism, motivation and enthusiasm for both writing and photography that I couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

And I’ve made new friends! That’s always a bonus.

With these ladies’ support, I’ve decided to delve into the realm of brief, topical personal essays. I had one brief stab at it in February 2014, when I revealed to the world my less-than-secret love of death metal. While that one was fun, I have so much room to improve. I’ve got more stories to tell, and I’ve got my eye on a few outlets where I’d love to contribute. So, I’m reading more engaging authors and honing my storytelling skills.

I’m making a photography comeback as well. No, not weddings. I’ve decided to continue a series I began in college called Through the Windowpane. You can read the artist statement at the link, but in brief I’ve taken slide photos that my father took of our family before I was born and projected them in various parts of a home, inducing sometimes haunting scenes. Parts of the piece were published in plain china, a literary magazine, in 2011. It has been one of my favorite series, and I could see it morphing into its own book someday.

I have finally procured my own semi-portable projector, so I can now take the show on the road – so to speak – and shoot in almost any location. I’m even seeking out other families’ slides, and scouting antique shops for strangers’ discarded, old slide photographs. I am unspeakably excited about this project!

Here’s a slideshow of my past Through the Windowpane photos.

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 2. I’m more in love with Sweden now than ever.

My husband [Side update: oh, right, I got married in May 2013.] and I visited Gothenburg again in August 2014, this time also with my father. It was his first time meeting his Swedish family and seeing his motherland. I believe it was as transformative for him as it has been for me, although he’s not hellbent on moving there the way I am. Perhaps it’s my mid-twenties naiveté.

On this trip we saw as much and more — the bustling city of Gothenburg during kulturkalaset (cultural festival), the beaches of Lake Vänern, the forests, the aquaducts, our first real-live castle called Läckö Slott, rainy Borås, Oslo city, and other sights too lovely and fleeting to embed themselves in my fragile memory. We spent lots of time with our family, which was priceless. Joe (husband) and I decided, definitively this time, that we’re moving to Gothenburg. It’s only a matter of treacherous, crawling, arduous time.

Here’s a slideshow of our many escapades.

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 3. I’ve become obsessed with Westeros.

I’ve read the five main-series books; debated the HBO adaptation with frienemies who dare to say that Danaerys is a stronger feminist than Arya; delved into the new A World of Ice and Fire history epic; and even bickered with my husband over the Risk-esque board game. (If the Targaryens were a playable house, I could just fly dragons to non-adjacent areas and burn all your supply tokens. So there.)

This probably shouldn’t even be on this list, but I swear it’s important. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has inspired me to be a reader again. It has been much too long since I have immersed myself in a fictional world so deeply that I can escape when I need a break from the toils of life. Not since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings have I declared myself an expert in characters and worlds of little to no real-world consequence.

I credit the series with re-introducing me to the beauty of fiction. I had entirely written off the genre as not-for-me. So, indirectly, without A Song of Ice and Fire, I wouldn’t have been so quickly introduced to Swedish-Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s brilliance in “Fair Play,” which is easily the most touching book I read in 2014.

In related news, I also briefly reacquainted myself with popular Young Adult fiction, devouring both The Hunger Games and Divergent series, and also sweeping up “The Fault in Our Stars” just for fun. It was a nice little fling, but I think I’m done with YA for a few more decades.

A friend bought me some delicious poetry books for Christmas, and I consumed Tytti Heikkinen’s “The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal” and Patricia Lockwood’s “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” with great glee.

Those are the major life-updates for now, although there’s much more spinning around in my headspace.

Stay tuned, for in the coming days I’ll grace the Internet with a thousand thoughts about debt and goals. You’ll love it.