Last week my partner Michael made the trip to visit me in Belize. His ten day trip gave me an excuse to finally see the biggest tourist attractions in the country. Our first stop was the perfect way for him to ease into the tropics: Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker is an island about twenty miles off the coast of mainland Belize. On Friday afternoon we squeezed into the back of a Caye Caulker-bound water taxi in Belize City. The boat was crammed to full occupation. We saw one Belizean man carrying a huge plastic bag of broccoli on his lap: all food except coconuts and seafood is shipped onto the island by whatever means possible.
After 45 loud, bumpy minutes, we alighted upon paradise. The island is covered in mangroves, palm trees, and exuberantly colored buildings. As we approached it seemed to grow organically out of the bright cerulean waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Our colorful hostel was in the perfect spot right on the beach. We spent plenty of time on the island swinging in the hostel’s hammocks, watching the sea, and chatting.
We spent the first night on Caye Caulker exploring. Until fairly recently, Caye Caulker was not a tourist destination. According to one local we met, twenty five years ago the only white people on the island were backpackers pitching tents on the beach. Alas, tourism is Belize’s largest industry and it was inevitable that the tiny, laid back caye would eventually become a hotspot for hotels, hostels, ice cream parlors, and gift shops.
That being said, Caye Caulker still retains a good amount of Belizean charm. Compared to nearby San Pedro, where large package resorts are king, it’s downright authentic. There is still a small community of locals born and raised on Caye Caulker and signs of their everyday lives are interspersed with the tourism development. Walking around on our first night, we witnessed a children’s soccer game in the middle of the island. It was just a five minute walk from where drunken American bros were spilling onto the sidewalk from a hoppin’ happy hour.
That night we indulged in the touristy strip of the island. We had an overpriced seaside dinner and wondered the whole time whether our broccoli arrived on the same boat as us. Then we hit up an American-style sports bar where a solid classic rock cover band was playing. It was a fun break from the usual Belizean nightlife routine of soca music and pool tables.
The next morning I unexpectedly awoke at sunrise. I took the opportunity to take an early morning solo walk around the island, getting in some pictures when the streets weren’t packed and the light was soft. It was quiet, quaint, and lovely.
When I returned we went on a hunt for fry jacks. Fry jacks are a Belizean breakfast staple. They are puffy fried dough that tastes like somebody used pancake batter to make a funnel cake. They are served either plain as a breakfast side dish or stuffed with eggs and other ingredients as a main course.
Without much trouble we found the right spot: a little pink take-out window that is packed every morning, selling nothing but stuffed fry jacks for about $2 U.S. apiece. Let me tell you: a cheap fried dough breakfast sandwich eaten by the sea is an awesome way to start the day.
Our original plan had been to spend the day swimming, lounging, drinking rum, and generally relaxing in the sand and sun. But the preponderance of snorkeling ads and recommendations got the better of us, and at 10 am we spontaneously booked a 10:30 half-day snorkeling trip.
Fifteen minutes later we were led to grab some equipment and funneled onto a boat with a handful of other tourists. Opting for a half-day tour meant we snorkeled in the closer (and ultimately more damaged) Caye Caulker Marine Reserve. Despite the presence of dozens of other tour groups in the same general area, it was really cool. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve snorkeled in a real barrier reef, so it was very exciting to spot eels, nurse sharks, stingrays, lionfish, angelfish, sea urchins, colorful coral, seahorses, and more.
At the end of the trip the captain took us around the back of the island to feed some tarpons, a type of enormous sportfish. It’s debatable whether this is an environmentally friendly practice, but I tried to ignore that as we watched the fish jump out of the water towards us.
The event also attracted some pelicans to us, which led me to this photographic gold:
We got back to the island in the early afternoon and immediately got to work on some Relaxation with a capital R. We grabbed a quick lunch of fried lobster and immediately headed over to Sip and Dip, a bar where you can enjoy rum drinks while floating in tubes or hammocks in the ocean.
Several exhausting hours of sun and rum later, it was dinner time. We decided on Little Kitchen, a ramshackle yet quaint restaurant located in a dark alley far off the tourist strip. It was an excellent meal. We relished a lobster burrito, savored coconut barracuda, and reveled in bite after fiery-hot bite of homemade jerk conch.
The next morning we took our time getting ready and caught a late-morning water taxi back to the mainland. I reflected on weekend on the island as we bounced around in the boat. I’m not typically the type to enjoy tourist-trap destination. I crave meeting locals and delving into local culture, which is difficult in the sterile western-friendly establishments of tourism hotspots.
Even so, I enjoyed Caye Caulker. It is nothing short of a slice of paradise. What’s more, that island beauty is still accompanied by a mixture of locals and tourists. I believe it will become less and less authentic over the coming years, but for now it’s still a lovely, lazy, tropical way to experience Belize.