71. George Town
Cayman Islands, where the act of breathing will drain half of your bank account. We were in for an expensive three days.
The one hour flight from Jamaica to the Cayman Islands was just enough time to fit in a rum punch before landing. It seemed odd being served alcohol on such a short flight, but who were we to say no? On touchdown we joined in the applause of our fellow passengers (a custom common in this part of the world), more to say thanks for the free booze than the safe landing.
There was only one hostel on Grand Cayman, and we were booked in to stay there. Immigration did not like that. The officer we spoke to refused to let us enter the country until we had booked a proper hotel (for a lot more money). We stood at the tour desk for 15 minutes, planning on booking something but cancelling later, but no one served us. The first officer called us back, wrote the name of a random hotel on our immigration form, then instructed us to walk out of the airport and on to the main town. We were NOT to take a taxi, and even if we tried he said the taxi would not drop us off at the hostel. Lucky the island was small. Three kilometres with backpacks through the searing heat was unbearable, but better than being booted out of the country.
Talking to the British manager at the hostel, we learned that the Belize government was strongly against the operation of any sort of hostel or cheap accommodation, afraid of what sort of tourists it would attract to their exclusive, rich-folks-only island. Rules were constantly being amended or added to suit their desires, and applications and permits were denied for no reason. I guess we were disrupting the status quo, not quite living up to the five-star quality they expected of their visitors.
George Town, the capital city/tiny waterside town, was in stark contrast to Jamaica. Not one taxi beeped their horn to see if we needed a ride. Traffic was orderly, well below the speed limit and oftentimes non-existent. Roads were paved and smooth. Buildings were well maintained and colourful, in a mish-mash of architectural styles. Cleanliness was a priority. The only wildlife on the streets was giant lizards (not dogs, rats or cockroaches). It looked like the country was doing well being one of the world's largest tax havens. Except for the giant lizard thing - they were everywhere. I reckon they almost outnumbered residents.
Lizards definitely ruled the streets.
It didn't take long to explore George Town. Souvenir shop, duty free store, touristy restaurant, repeat. One store was giving away free rum tastings, so obviously we stopped there, but we skipped over most of the rest. The fact that three cruise ships were parked off the coast also deterred us from spending any more time than absolutely necessary in this area of the island.
We discovered one of our favourite places: a giant, international supermarket. What is it with us and food? Neat aisles, hot food buffet, salad bar, every type of food or drink you could think of - except alcohol. This megastore sold everything except alcohol. We bought a few basic salad ingredients for dinner for two nights, thinking it was the cheapest way to eat. When the total came to $60 (remember, no alcohol), we couldn't believe our eyes. It was about this point that we decided to throw the budget out of the window while we were here and pick it up again in the next country.
Our first act of financial freedom was to visit the uber-expensive West Indies Wine Company, the largest tasting room in Central America and the Caribbean (how could we say no to that?). Eighty bottles of wine in temperature-controlled fridges, dispensed through automatic machines that prevent the wine from deteriorating. I wanted one of these for home. We loaded up a prepaid card (always a bad idea) and headed around the room, selecting the style and volume of each wine that caught our eye. We limited ourselves to six half pours each, conscious that we didn't have a bottomless bank account to play with. Italian wines were on my hit list, happy to be drinking non-South American wines for a change. It cost a fortune, but it was so worth it.
The next day we took a diving trip, keen to get as much diving in while we were travelling through this part of the world. From the dive shop we kitted up, climbed down a ladder into the water and surface swam our way out to the dive site. Caves and swim-throughs were the draw out here, which were stunning. The water colour and clarity was the best we had experienced by far. The maze of rocks and tunnels kept us constantly entertained - perhaps too much, as I repeatedly hit the walls of the cave with my tank while I looked around (I really hoped I didn't injury anything living). Caves would become narrower and narrower before suddenly opening up into bright blue pools brimming with sea life. Schools of tarpon and squid, beautiful lionfish, a solitary turtle plus numerous other fish species were all captivating and justified the financial outlay.
The Tortuga Rum factory was calling our names, asking us to walk two kilometres out of town in the midday sun. There was not only rum, but also rum cakes - perfect combination. After trying numerous flavours of each product, we well and truly needed that walk back to town.
We caught a bus up to the public beach, one of the few spots not barricaded off by resorts. The lack of people on the sand suggested that they didn't need to provide any more. There was not an ounce of shade out there, so we took a quick swim in the pristine waters, then sneaked into a neighbouring resort to use their lounge chairs under the trees. Danny became bored after a while and left. I honed my doing-absolutely-nothing skills for a couple of hours before walking several kilometres back to the hostel.
Stingray City was the most popular tourist attraction on the island, so naturally we signed up. A short boat ride transported us out to a sandbar in the middle of the sea, where the water was waist deep. Immediately we (and the hundreds of other people there) were surrounded by stingrays, swimming by and brushing our legs. I put my hand out to brush one as it glided past. It had a firm but spongy texture – pretty much exactly what you would expect it to feel like. Stingray food (in this case, squid) was handed out to everyone, so they could suck the dead animals right off our hands. No wonder there were so many hanging around. All I kept thinking was, “A stingray killed Steve Irwin,” and hoped I wouldn’t follow suit.
Next up was the photo shoot, which we were not aware was part of the package. Everyone lined up to hold and kiss the poor stingrays, which we absolutely refused to be a part of. It was painful to watch. I couldn’t imagine how the stingrays were feeling.
Afterwards we visited two snorkeling sites. The fish were similar to those we saw when diving, but the colours were much brighter due to them being closer to the surface. The coral was nowhere near as impressive. Overall, I would say the diving beat out the snorkeling on this occasion.
Back on shore we headed for the beach, not having had enough water time today. We couldn’t get over how beautiful the beaches were. In my opinion, they were ten times better than Australian beaches, mostly because I didn’t develop hypothermia as soon as I entered the water. Plus there were many more sunny days here every year, making open-water swimming a year around activity.
In the afternoon we walked up to an Irish pub to watch Australia in the women’s World Cup, a sport I had absolutely no interest in (for either sex). I was glad we were at a pub. Real cider – I had missed it a lot. I later found the same cider at a supermarket for half the price. I might have picked up a couple to drink back at the hostel later that night.
You would think it would be more bearable to run along the water, where a fresh breeze could cool you down, rather than through the streets of a big city. For me, there was no difference. Humidity is humidity, and nothing seemed to change that. As much as I hated winter, I was glad to be heading back to colder weather in just five weeks’ time.
Tip: don’t visit Cayman on a Sunday. Everything was shut and the whole place was like a ghost town. It seemed that if there were no cruise ships, the population decreased 90%. We wandered around the desolate streets, where the only sight of significance was a regular, unassuming building that apparently had 18,000 businesses registered to it. I didn’t know why that was worth seeing, or why we ended our Cayman Island adventure here. I guess it was a way to pass the time before our sweat-inducing walk back to the airport.
Must be pretty cramped with 18,000 businesses in there...