After the magic of Mexico, meeting the lovely chocolate makers of Cozumel island and finally getting my PADI Open Water cert it was time to head south, and dip into the Caribbean English-speaking enclave of Central America known as Belize, for four days in the Cayes, spending most of our time on Caye Caulker.
Originally inhabited by the Maya, the first European who settled in Belize was actually shipwrecked off the Yucatan Peninsula in 1511, he was a Spaniard named Gonzalo Guerrero. First captured by the Maya, he later married into a Mayan family and settled in Northern Belize. The first Brits to settle in the early 1600s were pirates…arrrrr…so they left little records as they stayed in makeshift camps from which they would then raid Spanish ships, before the more stable less aggressive industry of logging was introduced around 40 years later.
Squabbles ensued between Britain and Spain over the land now known as Belize, and for a while it was known as British Honduras, remaining a sovereignty under British rule until its independence in the 1970s. To this day though, Belize is still a British Commonwealth country and you will see the queen featuring on the Belizian dollar note and coins.
We took a bus at 7am from the ADO bus station in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to Chetumal for $272 MXN (Mexican Pesos) £10.23 / $3.11USD each, with a taxi to the ferry terminal costing a further $8. We needed to purchase our tickets to San Pedro / Caye Caulker at the ticket office in Chetumal. There are two water taxi companies and they run on alternate days from Chetumal to San Pedro – Caye Caulker – Belize City. After getting our tickets we then needed to line up to pay our dues to leave Mexico, which stood at around about $490 MXN or $25 / £20*.
*Now there are varying schools of thought as to whether this is a legitimate fee or a scam, most forums online will state that if you have flown into Mexico on a commercial airline, therefor arriving into Mexico ‘by air’, you are exempt from paying this tax – however YOU MUST PROVE THAT THIS TAX HAS BEEN INCLUDED IN YOUR FLIGHT TICKET. If in doubt, check with your airline or flight attendant on your flight. As it turned out, Thomas Cook do not include this departure tax in their flight costs, at least not in our one anyway. So sadly for us, we did have to pay it. The story goes, if you have legitimately paid it within your flight ticket (and can prove this in a printed ticket receipt with it itemised) then the border agent should not charge you, but be aware they sometimes decide to anyways.*
The water taxi left Chetumal, Mexico around 2pm, costing a whopping $50 USD from San Pedro Water Taxi, but before boarding we were requested to lay our bags out in a very neat line so the army (along with immigration officials) could run their dogs on them, they were checking for drugs and other contraband. Then we were away, until we got to San Pedro in Ambergris Caye, where further immigration procedures awaited us, basically the stamping of passports and paying more money – $5 BZ or £1.80 / $2.50 USD as a ‘port fee’; or what some consider another scam, as you should only pay an Exit Fee when you leave Belize, if anything at all.
Anyway, our next challenge was accommodation on the island. Which was a near disaster, as on arrival at the Drifting Coconut – a hostel towards the ‘top’ of the island shrouded in darkness, with limited running water and no electricity – had managed to double book our room, even though we had booked a month ahead. Despite this, and after getting nowhere with the woman at the desk, the owner of the hostel arrived and took me round to the other hostels that were still open, just, (most receptions close at 7pm, and it was now 5 past!) until we found an alternative – Jerremiah’s Inn – which was cheaper, yet surprisingly expensive for what we actually got; a creaky weather-worn second floor hut directly overlooking the beach. 30 second walk to the beach, 10 minutes walk to the Lazy Lizard and 10 minutes to the water taxi terminal. So in the grand scheme of things, not all that bad, and actually a welcome relief from what we nearly had.
With accommodation sorted, we could then get on with the more important activity of partying. After a surprisingly restful nights’ sleep, we spent pretty much all the next day at the Lazy Lizard on ‘The Spit’, which resulted in hopping on a boat over to the ‘leeward side’ of Caye Caulker and to Koko King for Happy Hour and sunset watching, before harking it back to main Caye Caulker for Sports Bar. Sadly I remember little of the latter as the rum punch was effectively paint stripper and I don’t even remember leaving Koko King. However, if you are wondering how to get to the less inhabited North Island for Koko King, to watch the sunset, sup those cocktails and down those chicken wings, then a shuttle boat leaves from Ocean Ferry Dock every 30 minutes between 1030am and about 2am. The shuttle is around $5USD return and you get a wrist band, but I’ve heard rumours of the rates changing depending on who’s running the boat. Either way, just remember you’re in gringo land now so its going to be expensive! Regardless, it’s a great chill out place with sun loungers and hammocks free to use, swinging beds, a volley ball net mounted in the sea and an infinity pool. But at $35USD, you’re probably better off going in the sea – it’s warm, clear and FREE – with the added bonus of fish! This is pretty much all there is to do on North Island, as the rest of the island is a forest reserve.
Once we‘d partied our hearts out we then got on with the other important activities below.
We found a plethora of great street food stalls all over Caye Caulker, and most do amazing ‘Fry Jacks’ – basically just a deep fried tortilla, filled with whatever the hell we wanted – for about £1! Tasty, amazingly tasty, but my stomach did not thank me once we‘d had one too many!
Roy’s Blue Water Grill
We went here for snapper: stuffed, grilled, however we wanted it. It carries a price tag, but we got to choose our fish and it is worth it. We were paying the gringo / holidaymaker price after all. On our way here there were many other snapper restaurants punting for our money. We took a look, and although cheaper and still fresh (we’re on an island after all) we still had our hearts set on Roy’s.
Maggie’s Sunset Kitchen
Was good, but we were really just paying for the sunset. I say this because, although tasty, the food was over priced, small portions, and the waiter was most definitely stoned; successfully getting everyone’s orders wrong, and even then forgetting half the food. In terms of value for money, I thought Meldy’s is a much better shout.
Is actually run by the mother of one of the staff of Belize Diving Services. We soon learnt not to go here with any ideas of grandeur, or being able to choose from everything on the menu, BUT, this didn’t matter. Simply because we were going here expecting delicious, authentic, wholesome Belizian food, cooked by the amazing Meldy herself with whatever local ingredients she had that day. Have whatever is on the menu, it’s bound to be good.
Belize Chocolate Company
Technically not on Caye Caulker, they are actually on Ambergris Caye, but really, a post of mine wouldn’t be complete without a chocolate stop mention. Belize Chocolate Company is the most awesome little place run by a British couple living in San Pedro. To read more about this magical Caribbean chocolate paradise then please check out my post San Cocoa, Belize. I can’t recommend these guys enough.
Ambitious plans for spear fishing after the previous day’s Lazy Lizard and Koko King antics were sadly scuppered, as The Hangover to End All Hangovers was in control of my whole body and ability to move. I can, however, vouch for Connor, who lives at Jeremiah’s, who our friends went spear fishing with and had a fantastic time.
There are some epically large fish (that are not sharks) who hang about Caye Caulker by one of the pontoons, in an area known locally as The Tarpon View Reserve. For a small fee we could buy a bucket of smaller fish and feed them to the bigger fish, it was alarming when the bigger fish wrapped its mouth around someone’s whole hand and some of their arm to get the smaller fish. If you’re not up for feeding, or don’t want to spend the money you can always just stand back with the pelicans and watch.
After pretty much recovering from that spectacular fail of a hangover the previous day, we were up at 5am and on our way out for a 3 tank dive in the Big Blue Hole. As my first dive as a qualified OWD I was beyond excited. But, as a newly qualified diver as I could only go down to 18m, and all I could see was the wall with its surrounding underwater life. Advanced divers like Sam had the pleasure of going down to 40m, where the wall opens up into an underwater cave full of stalagmites and stalactites. But that’s not all, booking the Blue Hole dive with Belize Diving Services included a further two dives at Half Moon Caye and Long Caye Aquarium. There was a break in between these dives at a gorgeous little atol for lunch, full of iguanas, giant hermit crabs, red footed boobies and frigate birds. A great Caribbean lunch was provided by the crew. And take my advice – the rum out here is lethal, so even recovering with a hangover the day before the dive, as I’d been paying homage to the porcelain god all day that previous day, my ears hated me!
Land Based Lunching
Of course, I’m backpacking through the Americas, currently on a desert island, my life would not be complete without – yoga! Held by RandOM Yogaon the top floor of Namaste Cafe, this was something I didn’t want to miss, especially given I needed to cleanse my soul after drowning it the night before! As it’s yoga by donation you pay what you think it’s worth (and what you can afford).
Blown your budget on all of the above?
If you’ve run out of money, there are a couple of free things to do on Caye Caulker
There are various ways to keep fit on Caye Caulker; we decided against a golf buggy and just walked around the island, we also found a brilliant little set of weights that had been hand made with metal tins, a metal rod and some cement on the beach, so we felt the need to pump some iron, or pump some cement-filled tins!
Along from the fish feeding pontoon we found an area with some nets dedicated to the preservation of a small seahorse colony. Seahorses are the goofiest little things and we watched them move their way about the nets, going from the curled up ‘seahorse’ shape we are all used to, to an elongated nobly miniature trumpet with eyes as they zoom from spot to spot looking for food.
People do say the best things in life are free, and with home made exercise equipment on the beach and many natural underwater wonders to admire for free from the docs, the list wouldn’t be complete without the sunset! We found many spots to watch it each evening around Caye Caulker, but for this particular shot we just had to just step out of the back of Belize Diving Services and it was right there, in all its golden glowing glory. Whether hungover and / or skint, this is something you won’t want to miss.
This is only a brief selection of what there is to do on Caye Caulker, with only 5 days on the island (and one of them being spent nursing the mother of all hangovers), there will obviously be things we have missed. Feel free to share them in your comments. Equally, if you visited any of the places I suggested above, I would love to know your thoughts!
And remember, Go Slow!