I recently went to Belize & Guatemala with a couple friends. Our last stop was Caye Caulker (see photos & scroll down for recommendations). The travelers we met in Guatemala who had come from that direction had almost universally stopped at the small island off the coast of mainland Belize. I had never heard of it myself until my friends invited me on this trip. Caye Caulker is known as a Caribbean island for the budget traveler, like the high number of backpackers that pass through on their way between Mexico and Guatemala (rentals go for as low as around $75-80 a night, and hostels are dirt cheap). It also might as well be known as the Caribbean island for travelers who want to interact with locals rather than being roped off in a resort. Simply the fact that there are hostels there is a nice option for those of us who don’t want drop a ton of money on accommodations and actually like the atmosphere of hostels (esp. if solo rooms are available!).
The island has two main streets and several side streets with restaurants, bars, snorkeling outfits, and guests houses. This area is about a mile long (the whole island is about five miles long). There are no chain hotels or restaurants - not a Ramada or Best Western or McDonald’s. The islanders - mostly native Belizeans but some expats and people who moved there from neighboring countries like Nicaragua and Mexico - are friendly.
The people we met who had been to Caye Caulker – mostly Europeans, North Americans, and Australians – had almost uniformly good things to say about it. It was low key and free of cars – the only motorized vehicles allowed are golf carts – and near some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving. But mostly it was just a nice place to relax and “go slow” as the island’s motto is. The friends I was traveling with had visited Little Corn Island in Nicaragua one year ago and wanted a similar experience on a small, relaxed island.
To get to Caye Caulker from Flores, Guatemala, we took a direct shuttle to Belize City, a rundown seaside city with small hints of charm that reminded me a bit of New Orleans. (Tourists usually try to avoid spending any time in (probably for good reason, as it seems pretty rundown)). Our shuttle ride included the price of a ticket on the water taxi to Caye Caulker and San Pedro Isalnd, which took 45 minutes. As we waited for the ferry, it started to rain, and I worried we were going to encounter bad weather. All of the passengers crowded into the covered part of the boat. A man with a grey mustache in a vacation shirt who looked like he belonged squarely in Jimmy Buffet’s target audience was talking loudly to a young couple about how he had been to Caye Caulker years ago, when it was quiet and harder to get to. As we rode on, the rain let up, the sky cleared, and when we docked and got out of the boat, the sun was beating down on us and making me sweat. It didn’t rain a drop the whole time we were there.
I could see what people had meant about the island. There weren’t paved roads. People lazed around on hammocks that hung from trees or sprawled out on the little strip of sand that constituted the beach, which had eroded over the years. Vacationers biked past us on clunky commuter bikes. We walked from the water front west to the main road which had cafés, restaurants and grocery stores, which were all Chinese.
During my three nights and three days at Caye Caulker, we struck a great balance between relaxing and taking advantage of the activities that the island afforded us. We followed the advice of a Canadian couple we met in Guatemala and got pinā coladas at Rainbow Grill. We came in second at trivia night at Barrier Reef Sports Bar, teaming up with an Irish couple who had quit their jobs and were traveling the world, and two British guys who worked together at Nike.
We went kayaking along the calmer, west side of the island. We sat and swam at the Split, which is literally a split in the middle of the island between its north and south, caused by Hurricane Hattie in the 1960s. I swam across to the other side, where the tree roots went deep into the water. The current was strong and boats frequently sailed through, so I swam back before I could get too tired. We went snorkeling and saw (small, friendly) sharks, sting rays, all sorts of colorful rainbow fish, and amazingly shaped reef. We spent some time at our hotel’s small but refreshing pool, enjoying bottles of the local beers, Belikin and Lighthouse.
We wandered the few streets of the island, past restaurants serving the catch of the day, jerk chicken, and cocktails like rum punch and panty rippers. We ate cinnamon rolls and donuts from a local bakery and fry jacks with eggs, cheese, beans, and Marie Sharp’s hot sauce and washed it down with fresh fruit blended juice. My digestive system still hasn’t quite recovered from the trip, but I have no regrets.
When I was beginning my journey back home on the Belize City bound water taxi, I looked back at Caye Caulker one last time, taking in the colorful wood clapboard, buildings, weathered docks, and clear blue water. I saw a man pulling in in a small motor boat, waving, a memory that now seems like a mirage.
To think about how a place like Caye Caulker, with its bright sun and calm warm waters, exists at the same time as the New York City I came back to, with its remote winter light and a fresh coat of snow, is one of those strange and cool things about traveling far from home.
Coffee: Ice and Beans
Fry Jack: Errolyn’s House of Fry Jack
Snorkeling: Caye Caulker Reef Friendly Tours
Cinnamon roll: Caye Caulker Bakery
Trivia Night: Barrier Reef Sports Bar
Best Place to Watch Sports: Besides the aforementioned Sports Bar, it’s the basketball court right behind the water taxi, near the burrito trucks that do a brisk business at night