"Pull, pull, pull!"our guide Tup Meesupwatana yells as I attempt to wrangle in whatever I've snared on the end of the 68-kilo fishing line.
The fish is putting up a fight, and winning so far.
We're deep-ocean fishing, Belizean style, which means I don't have a rod to help out, just line, hook and bait as we troll along Glover's Reef Marine Reserve, about 45 km off the coast of Belize. I'm wearing biking gloves so the line doesn't cut my hands, but it doesn't help with the haul. Every time I pull up some line, it slips through my gloves and the fish starts to win the battle once again.
Meesupwatana grabs at the line and helps me wrangle it closer to the powerboat. I really can't believe what I'm pulling in ...
Since arriving in Belize, every day has been an adventure, whether kayaking, fishing or snorkelling along the barrier reef. Designated a World Heritage Site, the reef system runs 300 km along the coast of the Central American country, making it one of the largest in the world. Relatively undeveloped, Belize's preserved and undisturbed natural areas attract those who want to bypass tourist crowds and experience the country's history, culture and environment first hand.
Thanks to Canadian-based Island Expeditions, I'm calling Glover's Reef home for five nights as part of their Glover' Reef and River of Caves tour. Since 1987, the adventure tour company has been showing travellers the best of Belize.
With the private island of South Caye as home base, we've spent each day exploring with expert guides. The atoll and some of the 700 patch reefs teem with varied sea life. A snorkelling expedition takes us through the turquoise ocean, with guide Bernaldo Villafranco pointing out hundreds of tropical fish of every size and colour.
I've never seen anything like it, and feel like I'm swimming in my own personal aquarium. Everywhere I turn there is another sea creature I've only seen in wildlife documentaries. There are delicate yellow and blue queen angelfish the size of my hand, giant spotted eagle rays -- even a sea turtle relaxing on the ocean floor.
Now we are tasked with bringing some of these beautiful creatures home for dinner. Fellow traveller Rose Todd and I share the same reservations about our mission; we don't want to catch anything too pretty.
We head out in the powerboat and anchor near a patch reef, where we are handed spools of line with a weight and hook baited with a thick piece of conch. One by one, people start yelling as they feel tugs at their lines and pull out yellow snappers and huge, wide-mouthed groupers.
Villafranco filets one of the snappers, attaches the fish to a 12-cm-long hook and tosses it overboard. We pull up anchor, and he places a loop of line in my hands and starts the motor running. Barely three minutes pass before I'm on my feet with Meesupwatana shouting.
As I pull the silver, metre-long fish over the edge, I can see shiny white teeth and know I've caught the king of the reef -- the barracuda. With 2.5-cm tall fangs, this is the largest, scariest fish I've caught. These predators swim quickly in short bursts up to 43 km/h and have been known to take a bite out of humans who get too close.
With a tub full of fish, we can return to shore with our heads held high, knowing we have done well by our chef, Diana. That night she turns our day's catch into fried barracuda steaks served alongside fish in coconut sauce.
Before this trip, I have only set foot in a kayak once. Thanks to Meesupwatana and Villafranco, within an hour of arriving I have learned how to paddle on the ocean and -- more importantly -- how to bail and hoist myself back into my shaky orange sea kayak.
It wasn't graceful and I ended up bruised and coughing up water, but after a few tries I felt confident I could command my own boat on the open sea.
The next morning my newly acquired skills are put to the test when we depart on a day-long paddling trip to Middle Caye. As we push off, the water is very calm. Soon my kayaking partner, Krista Phillips, and I have a rhythm and we're paddling along with the others as stingrays glide below us.
I'm soaking up the sun and appreciating the mid-winter shot of vitamin D. More than the sun and surf, the daily exercise has done wonders for beating the winter blues. Every experience has been active, but not strenuous. Patient and helpful, our guides encourage us to try new things from fly fishing to paddleboarding.
On the way back, we attach sails to our kayaks to take advantage of easterly winds blowing around five knots. With Phillips in front, I'm captain of the kayak, and with a little push out of the lagoon, we immediately catch the wind and are on our way toward South Caye. I hold the sail taut, and try to guide us between the coral and the shallows without letting wind gusts tip the kayak. With just a small rudder, it is a balancing act the whole way with Phillips trusting I won't flip us.
New Englanders Josh Goldstein and Regan Maund make it back first, and while we're a little slower, we glide onto the beach carefully.
That night, I hear waves splash against the shore just a few feet from my seaside tent. I wake early to watch the sunrise and join Phillips on the pier for some yoga. Waves lap under the dock as I enter the fish pose, and I can feel the fresh wind blow through my salty hair. This is exactly what my muscles need.
The group decides to relax this morning while Debbie Lawlor heads to Isla Marisol, a dive resort on the other side of the island. A recently certified deep-water diver, she is taking advantage of the good weather to experience the reef from a different perspective.
I snag the hammock behind my tent and relax between the palms. As I sway in the shade, I think back to the beginning of the week when we explored inland.
Our first night in the country we stay at the Tropical Education Centre, about 45 minutes outside Belize City in the middle of the pine savannah. After dinner, guide Juan-Carlos Orellana takes us for a trail walk in search of tarantulas. Within seconds of poking a stick into some curled up palm leaves, fuzzy, pipe-cleaner-like legs emerge and I'm staring at a baby tarantula about 8-cm wide. Heading down the path back to my cabin, I wonder what might be waiting in my bed ...
Rain slams down on the roof of my cabin most of the night. When I awake, I'm glad it is on stilts as it is surrounded by puddles.
At breakfast, Orellana gives us some bad news. The Actun Tunichil Muknal caves we are supposed to see that day have been flooded by the heavy rain. Instead, he will take us to an ancient Mayan archeological site just outside his hometown of San Ignacio. An hour-and-a-half drive west into the Mayan mountains -- and one hand-crank ferry ride across a small river -- and we arrive at Xunantunich, just a kilometre from the Guatemalan border.
Perched on a hilltop overlooking over the Mopan River, the largest temple -- El Castillo -- is 40 metres high. As we climb it, Orellana tells us how this was the tallest building of the ancient city that once stretched across the hillside and down to the river, and was home to thousands of Mayans.
After the tour, I'm eager to learn more about Mayan culture. And I am a little disappointed the weather prevented us from seeing Actun Tunichil Muknal. The caves, which are accessible through underground river passages, are home to crystallized skeletal remains of Mayan ceremonies and sacrifices.
Now I know what I'll have to see first next time I come to Belize.
NEED TO KNOW
Island Expeditions' inclusive Belize vacations are mostly offered between mid November and April. There are 10 different Belize options ranging from two nights to 10, with extensions available. Island Expeditions also offers vacations in Mexico's Yucatan region. Groups are between six and 20, depending on the trip. Flights are not included, but their website offers tips for finding flights from major cities. American Airlines, US Airways, United Airlines and Delta Airlines all fly to Belize City. For information or bookings, contact islandexpeditions.com or 1-800-667-1630.