Caye Caulker, Belize
The boat drifted through a river leading into the open sea, having just departed the water taxi station in the centre of Belize City, making its way to a small island just a few miles away. The open sea was a great contrast to the busy city left behind.
Caye Caulker is less than an hour from the centre of Belize City. While light aircraft operate a quick and comfortable transfer to the island, the powerful two engine speed boats that operate a taxi service to the Caye, and other islands, are also popular and a far more enjoyable way to travel.
A relatively small number of backpackers make the journey to these islands; the reward for those that do is a unique atmosphere and environment that can only be found in the Caribbean. The islanders frown on commercialism or mass development and the islands have retained their unique charm. Only reggae can be heard playing on shop or restaurant radios and the ‘no shirt no shoes’ philosophy is strongly encouraged.
Cities Sign Post
The rush and hustle that usually comes with an arrival did not happen as we docked on Pier One in Caye Caulker. A few men were waiting patiently with golf buggies or bicycles, to take tourists to the various hotels, but they did not rush upon us, as is so often the case. One passenger tried to jump ashore before the boat was tied, only to be told, in a friendly Rasta manner ‘hey man, you gotta take it easy here’. At the end of Pier One is a sign, pointing the directions to major cities of the world. Baghdad was a recent addition at the bottom of the post. At the top a small square sign declaring the islands motto: ‘go slow’.
If anyone was seen to be walking too fast, or running, it would not be long before you would hear someone call out: ‘hey man, slow down’ or words to that effect. There is little reason to go fast on this island, even at a snail’s pace it takes only a matter of minutes to walk the width of this island, and little longer to walk the length of the main street. Being laid back is an art, and the residents of Caye Caulker are true masters. After just a few hours on the island you drop into a slow stroll, one of a person without a care in the world. It is as if all your cares are left on the dock in Belize City.
There are over 30 hotels in Caye Caulker, yet few have more than a dozen rooms. All accommodation on the island is family run and owned, mostly of a basic, but comfortable standard and within meters of the beach.
Main Street is a sandy road, lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and a few art galleries; offering work from the island or local area. Dive shops or boat tours fill the remaining spaces. Numerous bars and restaurants offer various cuisines; the Sandbox Bar and Restaurant offers no menu and instead shows you whatever has been caught in the nets that day. Fishing and lobster catching form a large part of the industry in this area; they are the freshest you’ll ever have and with a price to suit a backpacker’s budget. A mixture of Mexican, Jamaican and Western food makes for an eclectic eating experience and Rastafarian, Mestizo and Creole cultures have all heavily influenced the area.
BBQ’d chicken can be eaten on the beach and conch fritters (Conch meat mixed with herbs, crabmeat and fish, which is then deep-fried) can be found in rasta pasta. You can also snack on coconut macaroons and brownies, baked freshly on the island, and delivered to your door, or hammock, by Cake Man One, or his assistant, Cake Man Two.
The rooftop bar in the middle of the island has a variety of tropical cocktails, as well as local Belizian beer; instead of bar stools, swings and hammocks are there for you to relax in as you gaze over the water. Sunset boat tours can also be taken from the island; as dusk approaches you could find yourself sailing into the Caribbean, accompanied by Bob Marley on the stereo and a cup of rum punch.
Windsurfing, sailing, kayaking and fishing can be enjoyed from the island and with over 500 species of birds in Belize, it is a naturalist’s dream. With Caye Caulker lying just one mile from the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, a trip to this area is not complete without enjoying the world class snorkeling and scuba diving.
Diving and snorkeling tours can be found all along the coast of Belize, while the famous ‘Blue Hole’ is unique, there is more impressive diving to be had just a few miles from the island. The reef is just meters from the shore in many places in Belize, but to enjoy the real variety of nature that the reef has to offer, such as the bigger fish, the brighter colours and the deep trenches, you have to head to the areas away from the coast.
The white surf, seen breaking across the horizon from Caye Caulker, gives visitors a clue to the size of the reef in this area. With coral only growing a few millimeters a year, a reef of this size has been in existence for thousands of years.
Fitted with snorkel, mask and fins, David, our guide, lead us to his small boat to begin our tour.
I was snorkeling with a few other backpackers who had made the journey to this part of the world, to experience a little bit of paradise, and a lot of relaxation. John also joined us; having given up his job in the city he’d moved to Caye Caulker to try and make a living on the island. He lived in a small hut, with no electricity or running water, in the forested part of the island. Today John was helping with this trip in exchange for a free-guided tour of the reef.
Dolphins appeared in the water as we left the pier, but they just as quickly disappeared. The rest of the wildlife we were to experience on this trip did not disappear so quickly, yet these were the first, and last, dolphins we saw.
The boat stopped just a few meters from the breaking surf; a few white pieces of coral were poking above the waves as David carefully threw in the anchor to keep the boat from drifting into the reef. From here you could see only the waters of the Caribbean, the island had disappeared over the gentle surf with the blue sky above disappearing into the even bluer ocean. Only the waves breaking over the reef told us that we were not too far from land. We had sailed to the marine reserve of Hol Chan, a five square mile preservation area with abundant sea life.
Turtle Swimming Below
The warmth of the water was the first thing to hit me, shortly followed by the variety of colours and life below the water: A large barracuda was already in the shadow below the boat, blue and yellow parrot fish swam close by and silver needle fish could be seen in every direction, yet we were not even in the reef yet. A ray made its way below me and I was able to stoke its velvety body and smooth underside, without it appearing the least bit perturbed. Rays have a very potent sting in their tails, but many only use it if they are directly threatened, by not alarming this ray, it was of little danger. David had given us strict instructions that we could only touch what he told us was safe.
The area of the reef we swan into is known as Shark Ray Alley and many more rays passed by, while some remained partially hidden in the sand and weeds on the sea bed. The graceful movements of the rays made us all look cumbersome in our fins.
Visibility was perhaps over 100 meters, and our first view of a shark came just at the edge of this field, its sleek movements glided it into the depths of the reef before we could get closer. It was only a few moments before another swam towards us as we made our way through the reef.
Nurse sharks are fairly docile fish and the first one we saw was a little over a meter, still with sharp teeth. Nurse sharks generally prefer small prey and are generally playful, even with intruders such as us. Swimming next to the group this shark followed us for part of the way, even as I reached out to touch its skin, it did not seem bothered; instead it turned round and remained almost motionless as my hand run over its underside.
Barracudas hovered in the water, watching as we swam past, only moving as a watch or other shiny object caught their eye. Attracted by silver, barracudas have been known to attack swimmers who are wearing jewelry. David told us of a woman who had recently died when a barracuda went for her necklace, taking much of her throat with it.
The reef was vast, in some places rising almost ten meters from the seabed, and stretching as far as the eye could see. Brain coral, over a meter wide, grew in patches away from the main reef and blue and red fan coral swayed in the currents of the water. Fish of all size and colour swam in and out of the cracks and crevices in the reef. Lobsters quickly moved into their holes as we approached and sea turtles swam for the safety of caves in the reef if we moved too close. Sea cucumbers could be seen on the seabed, and pieces of white coral lay there after being knocked from the reef.
As well as being sharp, coral is very fragile, and even a slight touch can cause permanent damage. In addition to the vast numbers of poisonous anemones and fish, touching the reef is strongly discouraged. What has taken thousands of years to grow can be destroyed in a matter of decades. David, and guides like him, take steps to ensure that the tours he runs are in no way damaging, and the reef will remain, and grow, for future generations to enjoy.