Kicking back in Caye Caulker, Belize
View from the Split beach, Caye Caulker, Belize. (Amy Mulcair)
Belize, on the northeast coast of Central America, embodies a wonderful mix of Spanish and Caribbean influences, particularly on its cayes (pronounced “keys”), a series of very small islands northeast of Belize City.
Set in the turquoise blue of the Caribbean Sea and an hour’s boat ride from Belize City, Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker have managed to retain an unspoiled and traditional feel while providing good facilities for tourists. This is mainly due to the ongoing efforts of the locals and resident expats who have fought off big developments. Caye Caulker is considered the more budget conscious of the two. Ambergris Caye has more up-market restaurants and hotels without losing its roots. The boat ride to the cayes is a treat in itself but there are some flights to the tiny airstrip if your sea legs fail you.
Unlike Jamaica, Barbados or even the Dominican Republic, Caye Caulker does not have all-inclusive resorts where it can be hard to get a feel for the locals and their culture. Things have stayed small and accessible with a range of hotels, guesthouses and hostels to choose from, and everything is in walking distance of, well, everything. There are very few cars on the island; most transport is by golf buggy or bike. You can walk from end to end, about five miles, in an hour.
The ocean surrounding Caye Caulker is part of a marine reserve, full of tropical fish, manta rays, dolphins, sharks and turtles. Scuba divers from all over the world come to the 400ft-deep, shark-filled Blue Hole, and the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, is located about one mile from shore. There are lots of companies running tours to both and offering scuba diving lessons with full PADI qualifications. Carlos and his snorkelling tours (his office is on Front Street beside Café Y Amor) are well respected. If you ask around, enterprising local fishermen will also bring you out to the reef for snorkelling, a cold beer and a chat about life. Other operators offer full and half day sailing tours, fishing expeditions for snapper and barracuda or bigger catch in deeper waters.
Otherwise, Caye Caulker is a great spot to do very little for a week or two. Caribbean life in general moves at a slow pace, and out there you can happily pass the days just eating, drinking and lying on the beach.
Start with a breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, bagels or granola on the deck of Café Y Amor (Front Street), with views of the colourful tropical birds and flowers and the latest local gossip. This is the best place in town for fresh coffee but they close in the afternoon after lunch, so plan accordingly.
The Split is a small beach, but it is also the best; other parts of the island have sea grass growing at the water’s edge which makes swimming difficult. This is not the kind of beach where you rent an umbrella but it is where everyone hangs out, including the locals. More importantly it is where lunch is delivered to your beach towel, courtesy of Charles the tamale man who cycles by regularly with fresh chicken or vegetable options. Wash them down with a Belikin beer (dark or light) from the Lazy Lizard, a wooden shack of a beach bar that opens around noon and serves a good happy hour special for most of the day.
The beach is also the perfect place to catch the sunset. Order a sundowner cocktail from the bar and salute another laid back perfect day by the Caribbean. The reliable dinner option at most places is a tasty dish of rice, beans and chicken, hot sauce optional. Alternatively, locals set up informal fish grills by the water and sell passers-by plates of whatever the fresh catch of the day is along with rice, beans and fried plantains for about $5. Lobster is also available, in season, at a very reasonable price. The I&I bar (off the south end of Front Street) is an institution on the island and another good spot for the sunset or to listen to reggae music into the later hours.
Yuma’s is a great hostel by the water and close to where some of the boats pull in from Belize City. The front garden is a relaxing spot of hammocks, shady seats and overhanging coconut trees. Rooms are basic, but functional and well priced. The nearby Bamboo restaurant, whose floor is actually the beach, cooks up a range of local dishes on the menu.
Caye Caulker has an internet café/bookstore, an ATM, the great Caye Caulker Bakery (Middle Street) and plenty of places to eat fresh seafood. Thanks to an easy co-existence of locals and expat-owned businesses, tourism has thrived while ensuring the island remains true to its origins.