Chilling on Caye Caulker—You’d Better Belize It

by Nancy Bestor

When I was little, one of my favorite television programs was The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I fancied myself growing up to be an oceanographer, diving to the bottom of the deepest oceans to discover life never before seen. (I also thought I’d be a beautician, a teacher, and a mom, so at least I was right on one count.) I still love the water, and although I’ve never gotten my diving certification, snorkeling does make me feel like I’ve been transported to another world. The eerie quiet, the swaying sea leaves, and the exotic fish all add to that experience. Our recent spring break trip to Belize was a great opportunity for me to continue to explore the undersea world, as Belize boasts 186 miles of barrier reef, just one mile off the shore of Caye Caulker, where our family spent five sunny days.

Belize’s Barrier Reef is part of the 560-miles-long Mesoamerica Barrier Reef that stretches from Mexico to Honduras and is the second largest coral reef system in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. My husband, two teenage daughters and I took a snorkel boat tour from Caye Caulker (pronounced Key Caulker), visiting three different spots on the reef, and it was without a doubt the most exciting snorkeling I have ever done.

We saw all kinds of beautiful fish and coral, all pointed out by our tour guide, who snorkeled with a spear/pointer that he would use to clue us in to octopi, moray eels and other fish hiding amongst the coral. He carried chum in his swim trunk pockets and fish trailed along after him, waiting for treats. It was the first stop on our tour, however, that far surpassed any of my previous snorkeling experiences. The name of the stop was Shark Ray Alley, and it was exactly as advertised—a chance to swim with nurse sharks and southern stingrays. Now I thought we’d see a nurse shark or two, and perhaps a few stingray, and they’d be a ways off in the distance, afraid to get too close to humans. I thought wrong.

At any given time, there were 5-8 nurse sharks, and 15-20 stingrays, swimming all around us, eating the chum our guide tossed to them. The depth of the water was such that an adult could easily stand, but when standing, the stingrays swarmed around your legs, grazing you as they passed by. Although I knew I’d be letting down Jacques and the Undersea World staff, I chose to swim. The stingrays generally ranged in size from one to four feet in diameter, and one was huge, at nearly six feet across. The nurse sharks were not small either; six to eight feet long would be my estimate. Ash, our guide, kept telling us how friendly the stingrays and nurse sharks were, as he invited us to pet them and even hold a stingray. I knew Monsieur Cousteau would have been disappointed in me once again, I declined.

When not snorkeling or jumping off docks into the warm and very inviting Caribbean Sea, we spent our time on Caye Caulker idling in hammocks and lazily strolling around the island. Caye Caulker’s motto is “go slow,” and that is exactly what we did. There are no cars, only electric powered golf carts, and no paved roads, just dirt and sand. About 1000 people live on the island, which is about three miles long and less than a mile wide. We ate fantastic local food—our two favorite spots were a tiny hole in the wall restaurant called El Paso, and Fran’s Fast Food, an outdoor barbecue shack that serves dinner only. El Paso offered up a great stewed chicken dish that included two pieces of chicken, rice and beans and coleslaw for a whopping $3.50. Fran herself tends the grill at Fran’s Fast Food every night, and hawks her wares as people walk by: “Hi guys, are you looking for some good food tonight? I’m cooking up some great food here. It’s Frantastic.” Some nights she had barracuda, red snapper and shrimp, each cooked in a delicious butter and garlic sauce. Fran’s menu also included chicken and pork ribs in a mouth-watering barbecue sauce. All her meals are served with a vegetable curry and rice side, a garlic baked potato, coke or rum punch and a slice of cheesecake for dessert. For $10 a person (non-fish) or $12.50 (fish), it truly was Frantastic.

Our favorite breakfast spot was Amor Y Cafe (Lonely Planet’s top pick as well). The homemade yogurt, granola and bread were served in lots of mouth-watering combinations. A few of our top meals included fruit smoothies, toast with peanut butter and bananas, and grilled cheese with ham and pineapple. This was rounded out by fresh orange juice and good coffee. What more does a good breakfast require?

The “go slow” motto of Caye Caulker doesn’t apply just to vacationers however. Food was excellent and service friendly everywhere, but everyone went slow, so we learned to relax and enjoy our surroundings while waiting for our food.

We stayed, in our opinion, at the best spot on the island: Seaside Cabanas (www.seasidecabanas.com). This hotel is located right on the beach, just steps from the water taxi dock, and has one of the few pools on the island. The 17 rooms are situated around the pool, a few hammocks, and an appealing deck, and range in price from $85-170 depending on the room and the season. Our room was $105 a night, with two double beds, and we could not have been happier. The view, the service, and the location were all outstanding. The hotel manager Israel, his wife and staff of 10 were extremely helpful, informative and kind.

Many people use Caye Caulker as a base for diving and snorkeling, and it’s easy to see why. The island is a great place to relax, but it’s also very close to outstanding underwater life. A trip here for either or both these activities would not be a mistake.

Notes:

  • We took the water taxi to and from Caye Caulker, which is about 20 miles from Belize City. The boat cost $10 (US) each, and took approximately 45 minutes from Belize City.
  • We used French Angel Tours for our snorkel trip. Ash was a great guide and the tour well worth the inexpensive price of $25 each. The tour was about three hours, and included a fruit snack. All snorkel/dive tour operators on Caye Caulker offer similar tours, and the price tends to be about the same everywhere.
  • We took a 30 minute boat ride over to San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye. In our opinion, it was not worth the trip. San Pedro is much, much busier than Caye Caulker, cars and noisy gas powered golf carts whiz all over the crowded roads (which are paved, I might add), and it does not have the laid back, casual feel of Caye Caulker. If you’re thinking about staying on a Caye in Belize, my advice is to skip Ambergris and head right over to Caye Caulker.

--Nancy Bestor is the co-owner of Travel Essentials. When snorkeling in Belize, she is sure she heard Rod Serling narrating her journey to the bottom of the sea.