I want to tell you guys about a really wonderful woman, and a really special little place in the world.
The woman is named Madi Collins, and the place is the colorful little PAW Animal Sanctuary on the tiny island of Caye Caulker in Belize.
I found Madi (that’s her pictured above) several weeks ago, while asking relatively pettier questions about hotels and such on TripAdvisor’s Belize forums. (Sidebar: Do you know about/use TripAdvisor’s travel forums? They’re the best wellspring of info ever.) She popped up there in a somewhat desperate search for a donated laptop for her animal sanctuary — and as a devoted animal lover, I reached out to her in the hopes we could help.
Just before our trip, we’d not yet turned up a spare laptop we could donate, but I emailed Madi to tell her I had a never-used smartphone, still in the box, if perhaps she could use it for her organization? She emphatically said she could, so I put it in my suitcase and we set off for Belize.
Belize is well known for its world-class diving along the western hemisphere’s largest barrier reef, yes. But there’s a littler-known activity on the mainland that’s a total must for adventure travelers: the absolutely amazing ATM cave tour.
When I read about the sacred ATM cave — that’s for Actun Tunichil Muknal, no relation to the cash machine — I knew we had to try it. I did some research on the web (thanks, as always, trusty TripAdvisor!) and reached out to Carlos, who goes by “Carlos the Cave Man.” People seemed to love his expert leadership and charisma on tours through world’s top sacred cave, according to National Geographic. He’s one of only 23 guides in the country certified to lead the experience.
Readers of this blog will know that my short career as a scuba diver has been less glorious marine brochure and more P.S.A. warning.
It began with four treacherous certification dives in the frigid Southern California winter, and continued immediately with a Vietnamese dive in near zero visibility that saw me separated from the group and forced to practice my just-learned skills immediately. (Now what were they?)
I’m writing now after a pair of dives off Tranquility Bay on the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize, and I’m happy to report: I get it. I totally, totally get it. The appeal of diving, when it’s good, is intensely powerful and wonderful and undeniable.
A chunk of years ago, now-hubby and I had a hankering to go to Belize. But it was the recession and everything was more spare, so we opted for a relatively budget friendlier Hawaii trip. There, he popped the question on a hike in Maui, which is an absolute setup for romance. (Try playing your “We just got engaged!” card for free dessert in Hawaii — then look around and see that every last dude in the restaurant is on bended knee.) Obviously, no complaints about our destination pick for that trip. It was the magical stuff of dreams. (Followed eventually by a Tahitian honeymoon that was like, the stuff of dreams’ dreams. I mean — gulp. Speechless.)
But the idea of Belize remained under our skin, and now that we’re open-water dive certified (which readers of this blog know is a whole other dramatic story), we knew we had to get there, where the diving is supposed to be some of the best in the world.