Tikal and Flores were our last stops in Guatemala; it was time to move on to Belize. It’s a tiny country with less than 400,000 people, and used to be a part of Guatemala; in fact, Guatemala still disputes the country’s right to sovereignty and Guatemalan maps show Belize as one of its territories!
We caught an early morning tourist bus from Flores that waited for us at the easy border crossing, and before we knew it we were in Belize City, the scruffy capital city. It was strange being in a new country where most people spoke English (Belize’s official language), and after getting used to towering over tiny Guatemalans all the locals here seemed huge. The bus dropped us off at the ferry terminal and we bought tickets for the next speed boat out to Caye Caulker (Caye is pronounced “Key”), with an open ticket on to Chetumal, the border town in Mexico where we were headed next. It seemed very convenient not to have to come back to Belize City, which from the tiny bit we’d seen we weren’t too fond of, and catch a bus on to Mexico. Also at $35 US each we thought it was a pretty fair price.
We only had to wait an hour or so before the boat left, and we found ourselves speeding across beautiful turquoise waters on a fast modern boat that probably had a capacity for 100 or so people, but was half empty. The trip was only an hour or so, and when we stepped onto the rickety dock on the little island of Caye Caulker we were all smiles.
The Caribbean! It’s hard to believe the water colors here, so many shades of blue and green it just doesn’t seem real. There was a breeze blowing keeping the heat comfortable, and barefoot tourists and locals were strolling around on the sand streets. The only vehicles were golf carts and bicycles. Caye Caulker is known as one of the cheapest places to visit the Caribbean so it brings in a lot of backpackers and young people. It’s a little ramshackle, but we found the place pretty charming. After Guatemala it seemed a little expensive but not bad: a very basic room with a shared bath at the Hotel Miramar (a great cheap place to stay with a wonderful raised porch overlooking the water) was less than $20 a night, and good street food was available starting at $5 or so for dinner. Rum was cheap and bad, which seemed appropriate for former pirate territory.
Probably the biggest drawback for Caye Caulker, and apparently most of Belize, is that there really aren’t any beaches, which can make a beach vacation confusing. The water’s edge tends to have lots of seaweed and grasses and such, so people hang out on piers a lot. The main place to swim was called the split, where a hurricane years ago cut a channel through a very narrow part of the island. Now there are a bunch of wood and concrete places to sunbathe there, and the water is deep enough right offshore to dive in and swim. It’s a beautiful spot complete with a popular bar playing music, and every day there would be dozens of people hanging out.
Belize is home to one of the world’s longest barrier reefs, and diving and snorkeling are one of the biggest attractions here. We booked a day trip with Raggamuffin Tours, a popular local outfitter, to go out with 15 other people on a 40 foot wooden sailboat for a snorkeling trip on the reef. At $50 US each it was a big expenditure for us, but so worth it! The sailing part of the trip alone was amazing, cruising silently over that beautiful water, but it was the views underwater that really blew us away. At our first stop we weren’t seeing very much, when Denae grabbed me and pointed something out: at first I didn’t see it, but then realized we were looking at a six foot Nurse shark with his head buried in some seaweed! That was the biggest fish I’d ever seen snorkeling, and it was just a minor prequel to what we were going to see that day. Our next stop was called “shark alley,” and our guides chummed the water a bit to attract a huge shiver (yes I just looked that up) of Nurse sharks, which we jumped right into! Swimming right in the middle of a couple dozen sharks up to eight feet long was a unique experience. Our guide was quite the fish whisperer and bear hugged one of the sharks and had everyone come and feel it. Apparently Nurse sharks only very rarely bite… A school of giant Jacks were also swimming around us, and it was just indescribably cool.
Our final snorkeling stop of the day was a gap in the reef to the open sea, and for me this was the highlight of our day. Due to potentially strong currents our guide had us stick pretty close together and he took us along, pointing out an incredible array of different fish. I had thought the sea life we’d seen snorkeling in Baja was amazing, but this blew it away; there were just so many fish! Big jacks, snappers, grouper the size of people, barracuda, and thousands of colorful reef fish. Our guide appeared to be amphibious, and was diving down thirty feet and swimming through caves, staying down for minutes at a time. He also kept a pocketful of dead minnows and had huge grouper acting like trained animals waiting for their treats. At one point he lured out a big green Moray eel- and these things are scary and potentially dangerous- and scratched it under the chin like a dog! As a wannabe waterman I was very envious of his abilities…
At one point a big Spotted Eagle Ray swam serenely right under us, and we ran into a trio of sea turtles feeding on sea grass on the way back to the boat. I loved the fact that our transport for the trip was a sailboat instead of a stinky motorboat pounding over the waves. On the trip home we sat on the boat savoring the views and the silence, and they served us rum punch and delicious ceviche. It was an incredible, highly recommended trip that made for one of our favorite experiences ever, and definitely reinforced my fantasies of living in the tropics on a sailboat.
We ended up spending five nights on Caye Caulker. It was outrageously beautiful and if felt fantastic to soak up the heat and the sun, but it’s a tiny island and there really wasn’t a whole lot to do, especially on a tight budget that didn’t allow for going out to bars or restaurants. So, we were ready to move on when we caught the morning boat to Mexico.