As I prepare myself to trudge through several feet of snow and slush in post-Jonas DC, Caye Caulker feels like both miles and eons away. In a way I guess both are right as these pictures are from a family trip we took when I was 19. And yet the memories of Belize and especially tiny Caye Caulker, a speck of land in the Caribbean that can easily be traversed from end to end in a matter of about 30 minutes on a bike, are quite vivid (much like the place itself).
I find the phrase ‘tropical paradise’ is tossed around so often that it has lost it’s (sun)shiny allure. But I guess it does some justice to this quaint little island, depending on your definition of a tropical paradise. It is not glossy and polished like the Maldives or St. Bart’s. It is not postcard pretty but cookie cutter screensaver beaches, infinity pools, Jean Georges restaurants, possible Rihanna sitings and over water bungalows (at least not yet)(and hopefully not for a long time). It’s unequivocally turquoise sea is teeming with seagrass, manta rays, whale sharks and sting rays that dart away from you at dusk. It is ramshackle beach bars that serve lobster yes, but with a heaping pile of rice and beans and plantains on a styrofoam container with a frosty Bellikin beer. And if lobster is not your thing there is always the ‘chikin’. It is where the bare concrete walls are adorned with odes to both Bob Marley and God (one and the same to some), all in the same loopy handwriting in the lovely phonetic language that is written Creole. It is creaky bungalow hotels, leaning casually on thin stilts, covered in peeling pastel paint, with a hammock in the terrace and always a cat or two monopolizing any inch of wavering palm-leaf shaped shade. It is the people, the truly happy people that have no qualms when it comes to smiling wide, singing out loud, and catcalling the sunburned tourists.
Beaches: Split is a scenic little beach popular with tourists and local alike. And the only that is not covered in seagrass. A crumbling concrete wall juts out and then sinks into the ocean, a great, if increasingly tenuous spot for suntanning. Although the sandy portion of the beach is small, it’s a fun place to spend time and there are vendors selling beer, tamales and fried fish. The best spot to catch the sunset in the island.
Diving and Snorkeling: You MUST go diving in Belize. If you are a newbie, this is an excellent place to do your first course, which is exactly what we did. Warm waters, great visibility, pretty reefs and calm oceans make it easy to obtain your PADI license. The Belize Barrier Reef is also the second largest in the world. If you are a more experienced diver or have more time, the Blue Hole is one of the best dives in the world. Supposedly there are great whites that circle the outer perimeter of the Blue Hole, making it all the more dramatic. If that is not your cup of tea (it certainly is not mine) be comforted in the fact that we only saw little black-tip reef sharks and if you go during the right season there are plenty of friendly (and entirely vegetarian) manta rays and whale sharks. Closer to the surface, there is plenty to see with a snorkel too. Many boat tours will take you out to shallow spots in the reefs where you can spot cobalt blue and bright yellow schools of darting tropical fish.
Biking: There are no cars on Caye Caulker and the traffic consists entirely of golf carts and bikes. A leisurely stroll around the island takes no time at all and you can cross over to other beaches and bike past many palm-framed sand-paved trails. When we headed out on our bikes we were eventually confronted with a sign explicitly telling us to go south but not to the north side of the island. My dad being my dad he concluded that there must be something great and secret on the north side of the island so there we biked….right into the heart of a mosquito-laden mangrove. As we tried to pedal thru the mangrove assuming it had to end soon I could see the distinct outlines of oh say 30 to 45 mosquitos dotting every inch of exposed shoulder and back on my sister ahead of me. I could only assume I looked the same to my dad behind me. We finally saw a patch of concrete and made a sharp turn to get out of the muddy trail and we’re overjoyed to see a wide, tree-less, mosquito-less paved road. We alternated between laughing in joy and yelling in anger at my dad as we leisurely pedaled down the road. Only to see a man ahead desperately waving his arms at us and emphatically pointing behind our direction. As the low din of the engines grew louder we turned our heads around just in time to see a plane rapidly approaching…turns out we had pedaled right onto an active airstrip. We immediately pedaled to the side and threw ourselves on the grass. To say it was a memorable afternoon is an understatement. And even if it hadn’t been the 44 mosquito bites I had all over my body the next morning were a pretty powerful reminder. Trust me this story only became funny 2-3 years later.
Eating & Drinking: Although the spiny lobster is a speciality when in season my favourite dish was the simple plate of rice, beans, and chicken. It was what the locals ate and it was a hearty and affordable meal after a day of swimming or having all my blood sucked out by mosquitoes. Get your plate wherever the locals are going. Café Y Amor is a great spot for Western style breakfast with a bit of Caribbean flair. Although my dad always warned me against it and you should probably avoid if you are more prone to food poisoning, I loved getting fresh fruit smoothies (pineapple and watermelon were my favourites) from one of the many smoothie bars. Lastly, for afterhours I & I Reggae Bar is a near institution in Caye Caulker. As we were traveling with the fam and diving every day we did not go, but many locals assured us it was a must visit.
Nothing: The benefit of a tiny island like this is that there is plenty of time to not do anything. To sit in a hammock for hours on end, to read a book in your hotel balcony, to slowly drink beers at sunset at the same beach bar every night, to sit in the shade and squint at the sun like one of the native iguanas. So make sure you pencil in some nothing time. Caye Caulker is a small island and it’s charm is in what it lacks: fancy hotels, all-inclusive resorts, hordes of tourists, cars, easy access. If you are after a more upscale stay and a touch more civilization, Ambergris Caye nearby is your place. We took the ferry over after a couple of days in Caye Caulker and although it was nice to have faster internet and good gelato the bumpy paved streets, the cruise crowds, and whizzing cars felt jarring (v. Leo + Tilda getting supplies in The Beach). We missed the quiet, the powdery sand beneath our feet and the “Go Slow” signs directing the almost non-existent bike traffic.
If you’re wondering yes that is my dad blissfully biking into the mangrove and yes that is us in the airstrip right before the plane landed, me in the orange checking out the constellation of mosquito bites sprouting on my wrist.
Caye Caulker is the kind of place that you don’t really need a long guide for. While for trips to places like New York or Paris or Shanghai I meticulously research activities and restaurants and bars and museums, I think you are better off just booking your plane ticket and then figuring it out from there (usually words that strike fear into the very core of my being). You are more apt to find good food and activities by just asking around. And the sooner the better. As we pedaled through the mosquito infested mangroves we biked past many abandoned houses and hotels. Probably built on cheap land, sold for a bargain and then promptly abandoned due to all the mosquitoes and mangrove-ness. But according to the Lonely Planet they are are thinking of investing in really developing this more ignored side of the island. Bringing more people in to see the reef. Some tourists complain of the local men who they find a nuisance (they are pretty bold when it comes to catcalling female tourists). Don’t know if they intend to pave over the swamps or muffle the men but if you go now, you might still catch it as it is. Just pack some powerful repellant and your best comebacks.