Caye Caulker – Belize & Tikal, Guatemala (4 of 5)

The bulk of Belize tourism is centered around Ambergris Caye, which bills itself as a budget Caribbean island. Belize is a considerably more expensive place to travel in than is the rest of Central America, but it’s much cheaper than the popular Caribbean islands. Nothing about Ambergris interested us. We went instead to its sister island, Caye Caulker. Caulker is small; the length of the village can be walked in 10 minutes. There’s no beach to speak of. Like in the Keys, the shore consists of mangroves. The water is much clearer and more colorful than the water off Placencia, and the barrier reef is clearly visible just 500 yards offshore. Caulker was once a hippie enclave, and it still attracts a younger, budget-minded crowd. Recent signs suggest Caulker is following Ambergris’ lead and moving upscale, but the lack of beach and proliferation of sand flies should ensure that Caulker will remain relatively undeveloped.

We took a cheap (US$15) snorkel trip to the local reef. The water was beautiful and the reef appeared healthy, but fish life was sparse. The reef, after all, is very close to shore and is heavily fished. Serious divers will want to make the trip out to the atolls and the famous Blue Hole, but such trips were out of my budget for this trip. Closer to shore, I saw the biggest southern stingray I’d ever seen � easily six feet across � and the guide led us to a spot where nurse sharks waited to be fed. We swam with the nurse sharks for 20 minutes. I felt a little uneasy about this, as the practice is ecologically dubious, but I have to admit I enjoyed it.

Goff's Caye

Approaching Goff’s Caye on the barrier reef – your own piece of paradise

Dave could stay only one day on Caulker before heading, crestfallen, back to the States. After he left, I took a trip out to Goff’s Caye, a tiny, palm-studded slice of sand sitting directly atop the reef. On the way out we stopped by a mangrove island and observed manatees rolling in the shallow water. We also wove and tore through narrow channels between the islands, hoping that no other boat was doing the same thing in the opposite direction. At Goff’s we snorkeled, and here, well away from inhabited islands, I found large schools of reef fish: enormous stoplight parrotfish, huge swarms of blue tangs, a carpet of brilliant sergeant majors, trumpetfish hiding in the seagrass, and yellow-striped grunts lounging underneath elkhorn coral. A US$20 trip, money well spent.

I stayed at Tina’s Backpacker’s Hostel, yet another clapboard house on stilts, for US$5 a night. I met some interesting travelers there over five nights: a stoned English sunworshipper, a beautiful Swiss girl who’d had a fight with her boyfriend and needed some time away from him, a Harvard grad named Sam with whom I discussed the Vietnam War, and three very relaxed Canadian divers.

I somehow convinced the Canadians to go with me to the mangrove swamps at the southern end of the island, in search of the increasingly elusive American crocodile. Other than the sudden squall of rain that drenched us, and the mosquitoes that descended on us like a plague, and the fact that we saw no crocs, it was a successful trip. We almost got run over by a plane, too.

While walking down the airstrip towards the mangrove marshes, a twin-propeller plane descended rapidly towards us. Because the mangroves on either side of the runway are so thick, we had to spring 50 yards down the runway before we found an opening to leap into. The pilot must have radioed the single attendant in the one-room “terminal,” because soon we saw him waving angrily at us and blowing a whistle. We slipped away through the mangroves.

Caulker Streets

Rush hour on a Caye Caulker street.

I spent my Caulker evenings at the I&I Bar, a funky joint that has to be seen to be believed. It is essentially somebody’s house, with two extra stories built on top, supported by poles � no walls. There are no chairs or stools either. Instead, rope swings and hammocks hang from the ceiling. There is an observation deck on the ceiling, where I sat with three Deadhead girls from Chicago until the wee hours. In the back, between the bar level and the roof, is a treehouse, reached by crossing a precarious bridge that would never meet a building code. The treehouse is really just a plank of plywood nailed to the branches of a fig tree, with a single hammock. I spent a few nights there as well, nursing a Belekin (pretty much the only beer you’ll find in Belize. Luckily, it’s good) and listening to Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and Israel Vibration waft through the jasmine-scented branches. Why worry, man? It’s Belize.