Here’s a story of how Island Expeditions started. We managed to catch up with IE founder, Tim Boys and learn more about the early days of the 3 Dudes heading to Belize. Find out more in this interview with Tim below.
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Can you tell us the story about how you first came to Belize and what was it like when you first arrived for the first time back in 1987?
How much time do you have? Just kidding! I’ll stick with the highlights. The idea of Belize came about from the desire to continue paddling during the Winter months. I’d heard about this little country in Central America that no one seemed to know anything about. At the time I was studying Biogeography at University and working as a guide during the Summer. There was so little information about Belize that it really intrigued me and a couple of friends. And best of all, it promised to have this just incredible barrier reef and virtually unexplored rivers and rainforests in the interior.
From Left: Pappy (the late Hugh Buller) was our first guide in Belize; Our now Operations Manager, Alex Usher Jr; and company Founder Tim Boys
What captivated you most about being in Belize and when did you realize you could start an Adventure Travel company here so others could experience it? What were your ambitions?
It was the sense of the unknown that first attracted me; the geography of coral reefs and rainforests. However, it was the people of Belize that captivated me. I didn’t go to Belize with the intention of starting a business. I was just a Canadian kid, looking to escape the cold and continue paddling into the Winter months. With my background as a guide, it didn’t take long to recognize that Belize was an undiscovered paradise for travel. So the idea to start an Adventure Travel company that specialized in Belize was born. That was in 1987. I was 24 years old.
In the early days what were some of the challenges in getting started or setting up? Give us some of the highlights or embarrassing moments that you can remember?
When we first started, communications was a huge issue. In Dangriga Town, where we set up the operation there were only 2 or 3 working telephones in the entire district and you had to line up to make a call. We were paying like $3 or $4 a minute for international calls back then, so we’d bring a bag of coins and every couple of minutes you’re plunking money in and hoping you don’t lose the call, frantically scribbling notes and hoping that you got it all. Back in those days, it was not uncommon to have people you had no idea about showing up as part of the trip. We learned to roll with it and it always seemed to work out.
In our line of work, one of the most embarrassing things that can happen is arriving at your hotel or lodge to find out that you have no reservations. One year when we’d just started out, we came in from a 4 day jungle and river trip, and after three days of rain, the river had become a brown torrent and risen to where it was flooding through the trees. We had to pull off the river and bushwack the last few miles to reach our take out. It was dark by the time we were packed up; many of the group were exhausted, for sure some frayed nerves and everyone was ready for pampering. All we could think about was reaching the cush jungle lodge we were booked into for the next 2 nights.
I remember standing at the reception desk with my muddy, wet group behind - their fearless leader staring in shock and disbelief at the receptionist as they informed me, “I’m sorry sir we don’t seem to have any reservations for your group, we’re fully booked for the entire week”. It was as if he lobby floor fell out from underneath me. Everyone heard. Everything went quiet. Something had gone very wrong.
It wasn’t my best night. It took a while, but we eventually got ourselves sorted and in the end, with the help of the receptionist we found a really nice little place. We were lucky - the only reason it was available for our group is that it had just finished being built and had not even officially opened.
Folding Kayaks at our Glover's Reef Basecamp on Southwest Caye, Belize. 1992
How did you start to formulate the adventure tours, destinations and journeys like Glovers, Tobacco Caye, Bocawina and Lighthouse?
IE has been operating in Belize for 30 years, and from our very first inspiration to share the magic of Belize right through to this moment, creating new trips has always been just a blast. It’s so much fun. It’s the best part of the job.
In the early years there weren’t many larger boats in the south of Belize, so we stayed closer in along the reef and the coastline. Eventually our curiosity led us to the outer Atolls. Glovers first and then Lighthouse. These places just blew us away, tons of marine life, gorgeous cayes and still so wild. It was unbelievable, and we just knew that we had to get people out to experience these places.
The heart of a great trip has always been based on strong relationships with the surrounding communities. Our Belizean managers and guides, cooks, drummers, boat captains, the Belizean landowners and their families, the NGO’s and conservation community have all been so important to the success of these trips. They really open a door and give us the chance to share the really cool things about Belize that so many travellers don’t get to experience.
What are some of the major improvements and advancements that have taken place for Island Expeditions that made it even better for adventure travelers?
There have been so many changes. Owning a jungle lodge in the middle of the Bocawina National Park is pretty cool. That’s been a big change for us as it means we are operating year round now.
Bringing paddleboarding to the reef and the outer atolls has been more fun than we ever imagined; this is our 2nd season of running a 6 day SUP journey along the southern barrier reef. And now with motorboat support we’re able to open things up and offer this trip experience to people who are pretty new to the sport as well as to highly skilled paddlers. Everyone has a blast, and it’s been really great to see how the groups gel together with the more skilled paddlers helping out the less experienced ones. For any of the longer excursions, whenever someone gets tired or wants a break the motorboat can be called in to take them onboard.
Another major improvement is how we’re training our Belizean guides at a different level. Along with the National Belize Tour Guide licensing we are training and certifying our guides as sea kayak instructors, SUP instructors and Swift Water Rescue Technicians. This additional training has been a real boost in skill and confidence for our Belizean guides.
What does the next 10 years look like for Island Expeditions?
There are so many directions possible, our next decade in Belize is going to be very exciting. We have a longstanding love affair with food - expanding our organic gardens and linking our menus with more traditional foods is a goal, and we’re especially excited about the potential at the Bocawina, Wild Fig Restaurant for incorporating foods traditionally harvested from the jungle. Bocawina Resort has so much potential, we’d really like to further develop the natural history - especially the birding as there is an incredible diversity of birds and wildlife at the resort and we’ve really only just begun to look at all the opportunities.
I see the SUP trips on the reef really taking off and we’re planning to grow the SUP program with river and wetlands trips.
I’d like us to roll up our sleeves and find ways that we can improve our community involvement and sustainability at every level of our operations. I think this would also be a great tie in with our existing school programs. Our school trips are so fulfilling for everyone, including the students, teachers, guides and the communities we work with, so expanding our school programs and involving more youth to take part in these enriching and often life changing experiences is also one of our key goals.
What are IE's involvements with conservation & local communities over the past 30 years and future plans for ecotourism and sustainable travel?
This has been no less than a cornerstone for our business. We were one of the first companies in Belize to realize the value of aligning and supporting the conservation movement in Belize. Our values make this a natural fit and we are going to continue to build on this. Each year we’ve been able to contribute over $100,000 to organizations that are actively involved with protecting the coral reefs, wildlife management, education and advocacy for sustainable development in Belize. Island Expeditions and all of our guests benefit tremendously from the connections we’ve developed on many of our trips. Lighthouse Reef Adventures based from the Halfmoon Caye Marine Reserve , our work with the Belize Zoo and their Jaguar Rehabilitation program, and the deep connections we’ve forged with the Mayan Communities on our Epic Belize Adventure are directly tied with our conservation and community involvement. We plan to continue and expand on this path.
Guide Juan Carlos with a group outside the Belize Zoo.
Are there any favorite moments over the last 30 years that you would like to share?
I remember doing a reconnaissance on one of the river trips we run, I was paddling upstream in jungle pool, the quamwood trees were in full blossom overhead, it was just this perfect setting and I noticed an animal swimming in the river. When I slowed down to watch, I saw that it was a jaguar swimming across the river. You know they have a very low profile in the water when swimming, only the top of its head was out of the water. I watched the animal swim across, come out the other side, shake the water from its fur, it then turned and looked straight at me - by this time I was not more than 20 or 30 ft away. Then the young cat casually walked along the shoreline and disappeared in the forest. This experience represents for me all that is so special about Belize….you never know what is around the the next bend in the river!