When I talk about Belize – Caye Caulker (pronounced Key-Caulker) – is the place that quickly comes to mind as my favorite. The somewhat sleepy island village is a backpacker’s dream. Beautiful water, exciting day trips, two delightful hostels, dirt roads, golf cart transportation, cheap prices and delightful people leave just about everyone who visits smiling.
As I understand it the Islands itself was carved in two back in 1961 by a major hurricane which created the channel on the right hand side of the photo above. The island has two main streets and the town itself sits mostly on the narrow northern part of the island. View an aerial of the map on Google Maps [here] and the official Caye Caulker website [here].
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. My Caye Caulker adventure begins in San Pedro where I left you last. After a delightful day spent on the reef and enjoyable night relaxing I strapped on my backpack and wandered my way to the local airport. The airports on the smaller islands are serviced by two main airlines. Mayan Airlines and Tropic Airlines. Both offer an affordable and enjoyable alternative to the water taxis for a small premium.
I was eager to see the islands from above and had discovered the day before that inter-island flights were surprisingly cheap. Instead of the $80-$150 USD ticket I was expecting to fly from San Pedro to Caye Caulker a one-way ticket was $56 BZD or $28 USD. Sure, it was more than triple the price for a water taxi – but it also came with a aerial view of the islands. Eager to enjoy my latest adventure I asked when the next plane was – learned the 10 o’clock plane was full, but that if interested they’d call up another plane for a 10:30 flight. I agreed. The operator made a quick phone call, and before long had me penciled in for 10:30. The planes were small, the airport more or less a dirt strip. It was refreshing. No security lines, no metal detectors. Just a patch of dirt with a raised metal table to leave your bag on.
As I sat, relaxing and waiting I couldn’t help but chuckle. My boarding pass/ticket was a laminated piece of color paper with a map highlighting where Mayan air flew. The lamination itself had begun to peel back allowing water into the ticket, as you’ve no doubt noticed in the image above. A few minutes later the plane arrived and with a little disappointment the pilot informed me I was too large to sit shotgun. Not to be dissuaded I squeezed into the chair immediately behind and had a nearly identical view.
The take off was fast, the view during the flight incredible. The water is so shallow and clear that you can see the reef and sand formations clearly, even on a cloudy day. The clouds are shaped heavily by the presence of the islands often mirroring the islands’ jagged outline. Some 9-10 minutes later we lined up on the Caye Caulker airport. The pilot dropped our speed suddenly leaving me with that Wile E. Coyote sensation, before suddenly gunning the plane at the ground. With the polished precession of someone who makes the trip several times a day he dropped us onto the short runway, before hitting the breaks and taxiing to the small building that served as the main airport.
There a Brit – Rob – and I disembarked and took the airport attendant up on an offer for a cab. A few minutes later a golf cart with “TAXI” painted across the windshield arrived and spirited us off to town. The 5 minute drive was a kick. The roads in Caye Caulker are all hard packed sand. Unfortunately, they’re also very susceptible to rainstorms and ruts. The result is a very bumpy golf cart ride and somewhat treacherous late night walking – at least for those returning from the bars.
Before long we’d reached Bella’s hostel only to discover from a group of local’s sitting across the street smoking and socializing that Bella was out and about. Rob and I took the opportunity to get acquainted. As it turned out he was visiting the Islands as part of his Dive Master certification – fun stuff! Some 15-20 minutes later Bella returned from her errand – and to my delight informed me that she had space in the group dorm room. The hostel was nice and clean. An odd building with more nooks and crannies scattered throughout it than you can image. Lofts, side rooms – you name it. The common area itself was basically an open air room. With solid walls on two sides and mesh/wire net walls on the remaining two. The price per night? $20 BZD or $10 USD.
Settled in Rob and I struck out to find lunch – both starving. Eventually we found a restaurant that had a few people already seated and a decent looking menu. Itching for seafood we both ordered the fish of the day. I opted for the whole fish pictured above served with coleslaw and french fries, while Rob went with the fillet and a Salad. The meal also came with a complimentary ceviche appetizer. I opted to wash it down with a Belkin Stout. One of the local beers brewed in Belize. The Belkin Stout is both surprisingly light, has a slightly honey brown taste and is curiously strong at 6.5% given its taste.
When the fish arrived I was pleasantly surprised by how well it was cooked. Pulled off the grill just at the right moment the meat was moist, flaky and full of flavor. It was the type of fresh seafood i’d been itching for – but having trouble finding (or affording) previously. To make matters even better – the price was decent at about 20 BZD or $10 for the meal.
With a full stomach we set off to explore the city of Caye Caulker. The town itself was simple, straight forward, and of a size where you might walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes or less. The main road traces along the beach with a thin layer of bars, homes, hotels and dive shops periodically squeezed into the space left.
In the North West part of the town there’s a large open lot with a half completed foundation. The lot seems to serve as the towns local animal shelter – home to at least 10 cats and a similar number of dogs, all of whom live in harmony. As most cats seem to do, these had set themselves up at the entrance, keeping a watchful eye on everyone passing by on the street, lazily purring when someone pause to take a photo or scratch them. The walls themselves were unpainted and undecorated, except for large bold biblical quotes and religious statements.
From there it was off to a small internet cafe to write home – and then back to the hostel to relax for a few hours. Once there I met one of the other guys staying in the group dorm, as well as learned that 3 girls – 2 sisters and their friend – who I’d gotten to know in San Pedro and shared the Ferry/Run Aground adventure with were also in one of the hostel’s private rooms. We caught up and lamented the light rain and poor weather while exchanging tidbits we’d picked up from the locals. The rain and cloudy weather was the vanguard of a cold front that would be passing through the area. The locals shrugged, expecting it to last 3 days and break on Tuesday but had little confidence in official weather predictions. Apparently the islands have their own micro-climate which results in unique, quickly changing weather.
Ready to explore once again I set off, hardly noticing the periodic light drizzle that brought a heavy freshness to the air. It was refreshing and the electricity in the air invigorating.
After a walk up and down the main drag, I noticed a sign set out in front of one of the local restaurants advertising fresh grilled lobster at an unbeatable price – $20 BZD or $10 USD. The lobster was delicious, but the highlight was the young kid and his dog who decided I was his new best friend. Shortly after placing my order, the young boy – who was just learning to count looked my way, smiled and waved. His mother was distracted by her nursing babe, and he was bored. He took my smile as an invitation to join me, making his way over and asking me what my name was. Bored as I waited for my food, and entertained by his sincere curiosity I answered his questions (including what my name was some 5-10 times).
Eventually he decided to raid the salt shaker. Unfortunately for him, the second sprinkling of salt – actually ended up being pepper. Chuckling, I began to teach him how to look at the holes in order to best identify which shaker was salt and which was pepper. Which quickly turned into helping him practice counting to 10. All the while his dog would wander into the restaurant, hide curled beneath my feet for a minute or two, and then get chased out by the waitress. Eventually, my food arrived and his mother collected him, leaving me to subtly trade the saliva covered salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce to another table before diving into my meal.
From there it was back to the streets and into a light rain. Eager to stay somewhat dry I ducked into an open air bar near the restaurant. As my eyes adjusted and I took in the lay of the venue two girls sitting at the table with a 3rd and another guy got my attention and encouraged me to pull up a spot along the bench. Happy to connect with other travelers I obliged and was quickly introduced. The three girls were from the West Coast of the US, the guy from German but working in NYC. Shortly there after “Smiley” the DJ appeared and joined the table.
In typical backpacker form we all set to drinking, exchanging entertaining – and often inappropriate – travel stories, and generally enjoying ourselves. As the night progressed we quickly accumulated other travelers. Rob re-appeared and joined us, as did one of my roommates from the hostel. Other random travelers made brief cameos – the most noteworthy of which was a tall, bull-necked Texan who did the region’s reputation proud. While discussing tattoos he informed us that at 17 he had gotten a rather unique one: A winking smiley face on the head of his shlong. Not in the least bit put off by the girls disbelief he collected their digital cameras, and disappeared briefly before returning with photo evidence. Even now, over a month later – I still find myself laughing at the absolute insanity of it.
As the night progressed I learned that the girls were also signed up to do the Raggamuffin Sailing tour which I had signed up for on the following Tuesday – 2 days away (more on that soon). Hartmut, the German gentleman, was also considering it – and eventually opted to join us. Rob opted to sign up for the same tour, but the one departing the following Friday.
It was then that I made a mistake. A bit tipsy after several shots of local rum, several Belkins and a short or two of Tequila I bought a bread pudding from a boy selling them out of a bucket. Needless to say, purchasing bread pudding from a bucket vendor at 8PM isn’t the best of decisions. It’s one that I paid for with a light case of food poisoning which left me retching my guts out from around 3AM-11AM the following day.
As you can imagine I spent most of the following day re-hydrating, trying to get my stomach settled and hiding out, which – given the bad weather and near constant rain worked out relatively well.
On that chipper note – stay tuned for my next post exploring the wonders of the Belize Barrier Reef as I spend 2 days and 3 nights sailing, snorkeling, and camping along it!