A Caribbean Caper in beautiful Belize
At Caye Caulker, everyone has that laidback Belize Caribbean quality
“Hey man, be happy,” the locals are likely to call out when you first arrive on Caye Caulker, a tiny island in the Belize Caribbean. Situated on a reef of some 200 cayes, and blessed with a fascinating mix of Rastafarian, Garifuna and Creole culture, Caye Caulker offers a Caribbean experience at its most laid-back and affordable best.
Only seven kilometres long and 600 metres at its widest point, you can stroll the town in under ten minutes, walking the sandy lanes where hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom. Once the hangout of pirates, Caye Caulker’s main industries today are lobster-fishing and its own special brand of locally-run tourism.
It’s a typical Monday morning on Caye Caulker. Frigate birds wheel in lazy circles above a shore lined with coconut palms. Down the colourful main street of pink, blue and white clapboard shop fronts, strides a bare-chested Jimmy Brown, dreads hanging to his waist, carrying a milk crate of vegetables and lobster tails. He turns right on to a weathered jetty that juts out into the bluest of seas. Casually striding across to his boat ‘Faith’, he greets his waiting group of travellers exclaiming, “It’s going to be heaven out on the reef today.” Excitement and anticipation is on everyone’s face. We are off for a day’s sailing and snorkelling on a reef only second in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Feet trailing in the aquamarine waters, we ride the lee rail as Faith diligently slices through the waves. If I could paint the perfect picture of a man in his element, then it would be Jimmy at the helm, salt in his dreadlocks and a grin on his face. “I’ve been sailing nearly all of my life,” he says. Most days of the week he’s out on the water with a group of visitors. There’s no need for him to advertise. Word of mouth soon gets around that his sailing trip is the ultimate way to experience the reef. If Jimmy isn’t available, there are plenty of other local characters offering sailing trips.
Our first port of call is alarmingly known as ‘shark ray alley’, though Jimmy is quick to reassure everyone, they are harmless nurse sharks. As the anchor drops, a dozen dark shapes materialise in the clear water. Clutching a conch shell full of bait Jimmy leaps in. Eventually we all follow, some hanging onto the boat’s rails, feet kept well clear of the shallow sandy bottom. At least a dozen stingrays glide about in frenzy, some even squeeze between people’s legs as they search out the scraps.
Suddenly everyone spots a shark. All snorkels jerk to attention and hearts beat faster as the sharks move in for the food. As exciting as it is, you can’t help but wonder if the practice of enticing large groups of any creature into one area with food is a good thing.
By the end of the day, as Faith sails up onto her pier, everyone is reluctant to call it a day. But with thoughts of the institutional sunset drink at the Lazy Lizard, we eventually disembark, sunburnt, salty and satisfied.
At 8.45am the next morning, the first water taxi of the day arrives bearing a boatload of visitors. Generally easy to spot for their lack of a tan, they march down the dock at a million miles an hour. Harry, the water taxi skipper, watches the phenomenon. “The fastest thing usually on this island is a kid on a bicycle,” he says with a grin.
Criss-Cross, a local Rastafarian who makes his living as a luggage porter, manoeuvres his three-wheeled taxi cycle into position. He soon has a job escorting two British backpackers to some accommodation in town which ranges from no-frills guest houses to larger four-star establishments.
For many years, lobster fishing was Caye Caulker’s only industry, but these days tourism has taken over. Not that you could call it a rampant variety, the locals are keen to keep it low-key. Several food shacks and restaurants serve Belizean cuisine and a wide variety of seafood. Lobster is very affordable and cooked in as many different ways as there are days of the week.
Just down the sandy main street, I join another group of day-trippers who are setting off with local celebrity Chocolate, the island’s most active conservationist. With twinkling brown eyes and sporting a huge white moustache, he’s been taking tourists fishing and exploring the cayes for more years than he can remember.
The highlight of a day out with Chocolate is observing manatees (dugongs or sea cows) in their natural habitat. “I’ve devoted my life to protecting them,” he says. “We had eighteen manatees in this spot, in the past six months and we’ve lost six to speedboats operating between Caye Caulker and Belize City. It’s extremely important for visitors to insist that all guides and water taxis operate responsibly.” Chocolate hopes to be able to persuade the Belize government to establish more marine reserves in the area, which would restrict the speed and flow of water traffic.
Well before we reach the manatee’s breeding grounds in the mangrove and sea grass, Chocolate cuts the engine of his powerful speedboat and uses a pole to manoeuvre into position. Before long a mother and calf rise alongside, and for only a moment or two, they take a breath of air before submerging. Everyone on board is enthralled.
A snorkelling or scuba diving trip, fishing or observing manatees, is about as active as it gets on Caye Caulker. To say the island is laidback is an understatement. Relaxation is not an option — it’s mandatory. Over the coming days I deliberately cultivate slow motion in my stride, my bare feet trailing through the clean sand. It’s amazing how many more noteworthy experiences occur when you aren’t in a hurry.
One of the many worthwhile tours from Caye Caulker, is the day boat trip up the mainland’s northern river to the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha. After a speedy dash from the island to the mainland, I get my first glimpse at the fascinating world of the river. The water is dark and sinister, stained by the surrounding mangrove swamps. Epiphytes flourish within the tangle of tree roots. Orchids grow to an amazing size and a bizarre form of cacti live on the limbs of other plants. The boat zooms round the bends at breathtaking speed. Suddenly there is an immense splash and swirl of water as the driver releases the boat’s throttle. All that is left to see are the ripples that mark the way of a crocodile.
The small river settlement of Bomba is hardly more than a few ramshackle homes in a clearing. From here, our group transfers to a small bus for the bone-jarring ride to Altun Ha, on a road carved out of the jungle. It seems incredible that the ancient Maya once flourished here.
Once populated by 3,000 people, today we are the only ones to break the silence of these peaceful ruins. Altun Ha formed as a community around 600BC and developed into a rich and prosperous trading town until the collapse of the Classic Mayan civilisation around 900AD. Most of the restored structures you see today date from around 700AD.
In the rangers’ hut, our guide proudly points to a photo of the famous jade head of Kinisch Ahau, which was discovered here. Weighing nearly five kilograms, it is thought to be the largest Mayan jade carving in existence. Struggling up the Temple of the Sun, I spare a thought for the sacrificial victims who were said to be thrown down the steep steps. From the top, all five temples on the two plazas can be seen. While it may be said that restoration of Altun Ha has been somewhat over done, it’s easy to imagine the magnificence of what must have been.
After the steamy confines of the mainland, it’s a relief to return to the cool of Caye Caulker. After the obligatory sundowner at the Lazy Lizard, it’s off to the Little Kitchen for dinner for the best chicken burritos in town. Later at the I & I Reggae Bar, I adjourn to my favourite spot on the roof where one of Belize’s best Garifuna drummers is thumping out a hypnotic beat reminiscent of Africa, beneath the Caribbean starlit sky.
Caye Caulker is a great place to recuperate from the rigours of travel. It’s a place to hang up your footwear and stroll the sandy lanes barefoot. It’s a place to go slow and watch the frigate birds from your hammock.