Traveling from Tikal to Caye Caulker we get up as early as we can to catch the first bus to the border of Belize. We are trying to make it in time to go explore some of the caves. Partially underwater and an ancient sacred place for the Mayan, these caves still have skeletons in them! To make the scheduled tour departure, we have less than 15 minutes of leeway. And not surprisingly we learned that this wasn’t nearly enough! (We’ll just have to go to the caves next time!) As we crossed into Belize we also realized that we were at a fairly remote boarder crossing without enough money to pay for a cab into the next city….apparently planning isn’t always our thing. Thankfully we found a cab driver that took pity on us, took us to the city, and an atm, and still only charged us what we had to begin with! As he dropped us off so we could make the connection into Belize City, I asked where we could get food. (We’d been on the road for hours by now…and I was starting to get hangry.) He pointed to a small little shack/stand by the road. Seriously the best food we had all trip!! The chicken was stewed and served over rice and with beans. Very “tipico”. We had the same dish a few days later in Caye Caulker, but it just wasn’t as good. After getting another taxi and then a water taxi we arrived at Caye Caulker a few hours later.
Our first view of the island:
Stepping of the boat took my breath away. It felt like we had somehow landed in a wonderful little Carribean island! The air was salty and warm, and the sun was HOT! Caye Caulker is a backpackers island near the barrier reef of Belize. (Which is second in size to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.) There are other islands nearby that are popular with tourists…one’s a private island owned by a golf course, and while Caye Caulker definitely is tourist friendly, it still maintains some part of originality. We learned that a lot of the islands residents are former gang members from Belize city that have gotten out, and want to start over and start families. The whole island feels very safe, and small town-ish…after only a few days we could walk down the street and say hi to locals we recognized. (Although to be honest one or two of them were drunk enough when we met them that they didn’t remember us.) The islands motto is “go slow” and it’s probably the only thing that is seriously adhered to -we got “yelled” at for walking to fast. Caye Caulker is small, you can walk the whole thing in a less than an hour. A hurricane split the island back in the 90’s and “the split” is a favorite place to hang out, and it’s always busy. During the day the dock is loaded with sunbathers and at night, fishermen stay to catch dinner. You can stand on the dock and watch Rays and Tarpons glide through the water. There isn’t a lot to actually “do” on the island, besides relax and eat there are tons of restaurants here, and we gave it our all to try them them all!
Our first hostel, steps from the beach, on the back of the island:
It’s here, in Belize that eating everything we come across finally catches up to us. While neither of us are ever violently ill, there are some “I need a bathroom immediately” moments. (And that means we’ve crossed that dating line, now, which neither of us were very pleased with). All in all though the food was wonderful. I would say one definite miss, two so-so places…and four amazing restaurants. Not bad for ratios. As dusk fell every night there was a guy who rode around with fresh baked bread and treats which was amazing! We also tried the tamales in the morning- same kind of deal, there’s a guy who rides around on a bike and sells them. They had great reviews on the Internet, but I thought they were awful. Biting into them I got a mouthful of bones! They never took the chicken off the bones! There was just whole wings shoved in a chicken meal shell…not very good….although the stray dog we fed them to (minus the bones) seemed to love them. We found a wonderful fry-jack hut, and had a hard time not eating here every day-as in we did eat here every day after we found it. And there were a few businesses run by ex-pats. (Pizza Caulker is awesome.) I also tried sea kayaking for the first time. We found a guy who runs the local shelter (Caye caulker does have a LOT of strays) and he rented us two kayaks. (By rented I mean he pointed to them, said “see you when you get back” and let us float away with them. No deposit, or holding of ID’s or credit cards. That’s one of the best things about this island…it’s so small town! At home in Georgia I’ve done some white-water rapid kayaking, but never sea kayaking. It’s fun! Hard work, because it’s flat water, I’m used to swift rivers and creeks…we went across the split to the mangroves on the other half of the island. I wanted to go,around the tip of the island to look for crocodiles (apparently they like to sun themselves there) but the combination of flat water, sun, and most importantly-rum put a bit of a damper on that plan.
But the highlight of trip was snorkeling the reef. There were probably 12 or so of us that went out on a sailboat to the reef. Our first stop was near the reef where they put us in a let us swim around and get used to the equipment, before we went out to the “big” water.
Now, I am an awful swimmer…I dog paddle, and that’s about it, and always end up drinking/breathing in tons of water. This was my first time snorkeling, and my first time ever in the ocean in water deeper than my shoulders. I kept getting water in my snorkel and drinking it. I felt like I was going to get swept away from the ship, drown, or just sink. The water was pressing in on me and I could barley breathe. When I came up to gasp for air the waves were bashing my face, and I couldn’t keep my head above water…and this was just the baby “get your feet wet part!” I watched enviously as the other swimmers dove underwater, seeming perfectly at ease…and they went so far from the boat! I was terrified. (Obviously…I may have actually been having a panic attack…I don’t know I’ve never had one before.) I finally went to the boat, swallowed my pride and asked for a life preserver. Like the kids in the pool with the arm floaties, i strapped that sucker around my waist…and bobbed along. I still was sucking in unsafe quantities of sea water, but at least the terror of drowning was diminished. If I floated away from the boat at least there’d be able to see my florescent orange vest before I was eaten by sharks. 😊 As I bobbed up to empty my snorkel from sea water-again-the guide in the boat waved to get my attention…he pointed to a spot a few (hundred?thousand?) yards away. As I slowly, painstakingly made my way, I still couldn’t see anything…then as I came up for air, I saw a head also coming up….a sea turtle!!! Right there in front of me, just swimming along, eating sea grass and all in all being awesome. I couldn’t breathe, but this time it was because I’d forgotten to, I was so excited! The turtle was completely unconcerned that we were near…he just swam along, doing his thing. Suddenly drowning or being swept away weren’t even a thought on my mind…I just wanted to follow and watch. As we finally loaded back on to the boat I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. (This is when I learned that those “giant” waves crashing into me were in fact some of the smoothest seas ever.)
Next we went to Shark-Ray alley. Here they feed the nurse sharks and Rays, so when our boat came up, we were quickly surrounded by hungry aquatic beggars. (I won’t get into the ethics of feeding wild animals for entertainment.) by now my curiosity it’s had (mostly) overcome my fear, and I was off the boat and into the water. The sharks swam by, close enough to touch, and there were rays and tarpons everywhere. (Water really does mess with your depth perception and understanding of size!) It was breathtaking…there was a huge roiling ball of sharks just feet away from me!!
Our last stop was at the actual reef where our guide took us around and showed us all sorts of animals and coral. We even saw a moray eel! (All I could think of was Little Mermaid). After when it was time to go back, our guides set out the sails, and we slowly drifted back to shore. We snacked on homemade (boatmade?) ceviche, fresh fruit, and rum drinks. Amazing after such a wonderful day! I do have to give a shout out to our crew, not only did they take wonderful care of me (watching out for me as I was such a bad swimmer) they never made me feel awkward or dumb about it. And on the way back they really lived the islands motto of “go slow” we took hours to get back, when they could have put the engines on and brought us back in minutes. And this while time we were just chatting, eating, and drinking. Most places would try to finish up as quickly as possible. As so often happens they really set the tone for our trip, and these guys did it right…they were wonderful. (As a side note: we found out minutes before we left in the morning that we had no place to stay that night-completely my fault, I hadn’t booked extra nights and it was a weekend…but when we got back to land, the owner told us some places to try, and when we saw him again on the beach he checked up on us to make sure we had a place and were set for the night…really meant a lot that he went that extra little bit!)
Even though I was scared (terrified) at first I’m so glad I went. For me vacation is about exploring, both yourself and your surroundings; challenging and pushing your boundaries, and trying different things. I can say that I did that!