Rediscovering the Color of Life on Isla Bonita – by Isaac D. Pacheco

Rediscovering the Color of Life on Isla Bonita – by Isaac D. Pacheco

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This past year has been the worst. In case you were off planet, a novel virus caused a global pandemic on a scale not seen for more than a century. It killed millions of people, locked billions more inside their homes, shuttered countless businesses, disrupted global trade, and brought international tourism to an abrupt halt. For travel-focused creative types like me, the past year wasn’t simply inconvenient, it was emotionally and professionally deleterious.

In non-apocalyptic times, my work as a multimedia journalist typically takes me to 4-7 countries per year. Surprisingly, 2020 actually got off to a comparatively hectic start with week-long assignments in Tanzania, Mauritius, and the Seychelles in January and February. When I returned to the States, however, the international community’s outlook on Covid-19 had started to shift from mild concern about an ostensibly isolated flu-like outbreak in Wuhan, China, to full-blown panic as the disease began spreading quickly around the globe.

My other long-planned travel assignments in 2020 were initially delayed, then rescheduled and then, like everything else, cancelled en masse. I tried to make the most of the lockdown situation that followed, catching up on editing and writing, and tackling as many local projects as I could. Although I was able to remain productive throughout this period, which certainly helped keep me sane, creatively I was languishing. With work travel postponed through the remainder of 2021, I knew I had to do something on my own time to keep my creative spark alive.

So, when Covid-19 case numbers and deaths began to plummet following the introduction of multiple effective vaccines this past winter, I immediately began plotting a getaway that would provide me with opportunities to capture vibrant scenes of people emerging from lockdown and returning to some sense of normalcy in a post-pandemic world.

One place that caught my fancy, San Pedro on Belize’s Ambergris Caye (also known as Isla Bonita), was at the perfect Venn diagram intersection of being relatively nearby yet very different from where I live, having affordable airfare and lodging options, and accepting tourists. Belize actually began reopening to international tourist travelers late in 2020, although with many caveats relating to where visitors could stay, how far they could travel from their in-country lodging, and what they could actually do while they were there. Before I could talk myself out of it, I booked round-trip airfare and finally had something on my calendar to look forward to besides “go to grocery store” and “buy more toilet paper.”

By the time I finally traveled to Belize in mid-May, many of the more onerous entry requirements and movement restrictions had been lifted, although local mask mandates and curfews still remain in some places. Newly vaccinated travelers like myself no longer had to submit negative Covid tests, but were still required to reserve lodging that met the country’s “Gold Standard” criteria for enhanced cleaning, reduced vacancy rates, and additional coronavirus-related safety measures. An unexpected benefit of these requirements was that my beach-side retreat on Isla Bonita was nearly empty throughout my visit, making it feel almost like a private getaway.

Finally settled into my seemingly exclusive hotel, I unpacked my gear and began preparing for the real reason I had gone to all the hassle and expense of traveling 1,500 miles south: photography, specifically underwater photography.

Belize is home to the largest and, some argue, most beautiful portion of the Great Mayan Reef, which runs along the Central American coastline from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to Honduras’ Bay Islands. The Great Mayan Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the planet’s second longest barrier reef system after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Needless to say, the diving was great and the underwater sights breathtaking, but that’s a whole different story.

When I wasn’t shooting photos of marine life with Nikon’s sublime D850 in a vacuum-sealed housing twenty meters underwater, I was trying to get proper exposures with Fujifilm’s maddeningly slow, yet delightfully saturated, Velvia 50 slide film spooled through my trusty Nikon F6 on dry land. For convenience’s sake, I only brought one lens to use topside, the versatile AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G. Blessed with bright, sunny conditions throughout my visit, I was frequently able to throw a circular polarizer on the front of my lens while still having enough light to feed my light-hungry slide emulsion.

I also snuck in a few film portraits with the AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G that I had brought along for underwater digital macros. On my first day in country, I may also have taken one or two street shots with my AF-S VR NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G. The 16-35mm really shines underwater with a diopter filter in a dome port, which allows it to achieve incredibly close focus and maintain impressive corner sharpness throughout its zoom range. Above water however, the lens’ physical bulk and slower aperture make it a less attractive option for street photography with slow transparency film, so I left it back at the hotel most of the time.

Fujichrome Velvia 50 has been my go-to “fun in the sun” 35mm film since Kodak discontinued my previous favorite slide stock, Ektachrome E100VS, more than a decade ago. Despite the recent reintroduction of a new (improved?) E100, I still prefer Velvia 50’s color rendition, and shoot it much more frequently than its subdued Kodak counterpart. Dynamic range is limited with Velvia 50, as it is with all slide film, but in even lighting, and guided by the F6’s amazing matrix meter, it produces stunning results. My only real qualm with Velvia 50 is the increasingly alarming cost to shoot it ever since Fujifilm started raising prices on their emulsions two years ago.

When I wasn’t on the boat hanging out with an awesome team of laid back and amiable local dive instructors, I mostly wandered around San Pedro, the island’s main population center. After dive-filled mornings I am always ravenous, so I was delighted to discover that San Pedro offers a cornucopia of delicious and affordable street food, as well as some equally tasty but pricier restaurants. I ate my way through the tiny town’s golf cart-lined streets, making a concerted effort to sample as many offerings as possible. When I wasn’t stuffing my face, I also managed to snap a few pictures of vibrantly painted facades, city-scapes, and a few portraits. In fact, interacting with the city’s residents was the real highlight of my time on the island.

San Pedranos were some of the warmest and most inviting people I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with in my many years of travel. Everyone I came across had something pleasant to say and seemed genuinely delighted to interact with me. While part of that hospitality may stem from the island’s well-established tourism economy (which was crushed by the pandemic), I think folks were just happy to finally be out of their homes, interacting with other humans, and leading a semi-normal existence again. It also doesn’t hurt that they spend their daily lives somewhere that most outsiders would consider a beach-side paradise.

Visiting San Pedro certainly had a positive effect on my mood and creative outlook after what felt like a year of forced stagnation. Whether laughing with a boat full of divers as salt spray from cerulean Caribbean waters misted my sun-kissed skin; delighting in the crisp, acidic, sweetness of fresh ceviche and golden, fried masa pupusas under the buzzing fluorescent bulbs of a street side food stall; or watching the violet robes of dusk steal away the blood orange remnants of a beautiful day on Isla Bonita, my visit to San Pedro reawakened a dormant sense of wonder within me.

Seeing, and being able to share with others, such visible reminders of life’s vibrancy reminded me why I chose multimedia journalism as a career in the first place—to bridge geographic divides and unite people across borders and cultures. It also filled me with hope for a future where our days are no longer defined by the darkness of what many of us have lost over the past year and a half, but instead by the brilliance and colorful possibilities of opportunities that lie ahead.

Isaac D. Pacheco is a Washington D.C.-based journalist who travels the world and tells the stories of people and cultures he encounters along the way. He invites you to connect and enjoy more of his work on his website or on Instagram.


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