Belize is home to the world's second largest barrier reef; where better to base yourself to enjoy the marine life than laid back Caye Caulker, where their mantra is 'Go Slow'?
We floated in the crystal clear water as the sharks stealthily approached from all sides. Suddenly a seething mass of bodies surged forward into a feeding frenzy; luckily for us their menu was a bucket of chum rather than snorkelling tourists. Whilst they dined we spent a magical ten minutes getting up close and personal with the harmless eight foot nurse sharks, not to mention the Southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays gliding silently beneath us. This was just the first of several memorable stops on our snorkelling day trip in Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the coast of Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker (pronounced Key Corker) is the laid back little sister of bigger, brasher Ambergris Caye to the north. Traditionally a favourite of the backpacker crowd, with budget travellers being drawn by the chilled out Rastafarian culture, the island is now becoming much more of a mainstream tourist destination.
Tourist development is concentrated on the southern half of the island, separated from the uninhabited north by 'the Split', a narrow watercourse created by a hurricane in 2000. The 'Go Slow' attitude extends to the island's roads; there are no cars on the island with the only means of transportation being golf carts, bicycles or foot. In fact there are very few roads at all, with the imaginatively named Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street running north to south connected by several streets running east to west.
The island offers plenty to keep you occupied for a week, but it also offers lots of opportunities for doing nothing at all.....
The main activity on Caye Caulker is taking a boat trip out to the reef. Half day trips (US $30) generally involve three snorkelling stops including the Coral Gardens and Shark Ray Alley whilst full day trips (US $45) also include a stop on Ambergris Caye for lunch. There are a number of tour operators offering snorkelling trips; we went with French Angel Expeditions (Dock Street; 501-670-7506; www.frenchangelexp.com) and Carlos Tours (half way up Front Street, next to Amor Y Cafe; 501-226-0058) are also highly recommended. Be aware though that you may not actually end up with the operator you booked with as they 'share' customers on quiet days to fill boats.
Whilst the fish and coral may not be as spectacular as at some other holiday hotspots, the main draw for us was the opportunity to get so close to some of the larger ocean residents. As well as the nurse sharks and rays at Shark Ray Alley you are also very likely to encounter turtles; we saw all three resident species (green, loggerhead and hawksbill) during the day.
Tours slightly further afield can also be organised including diving at Turneffe Atoll or the world-famous Blue Hole and manatee watching at Swallow Caye.
For those feeling energetic, kayaks can be rented to visit the mangrove swamps of the Caye Caulker Forest Reserve on the northern half of the island. If you still have energy to burn, a rough trail is present at the the southern tip of the island which offers great bird-watching opportunities; we saw osprey, cormorants and herons.
The proximity of Caye Caulker to the mainland makes it a great place to base yourself for day trips to the rest of Belize. Tsunami Adventures (north end of Front Street; 501-226-0462; www.tsunamiadventures.com) offers a range of tours including cave tubing (US $110) and Xunantunich Mayan Ruins and San Ignacio (US $135), as well as several trips combining visits to Mayan Ruins (Altun Ha, Lamanai) with jungle activities such as zip lining and wildlife-spotting river cruises.
Time to relax
One of the most popular pastimes on the island is sunbathing on one of the many docks or lying in a hammock under a palm tree. Many people will be surprised to find that there are no real beaches on Caye Caulker, just a narrow sandy strip along the coastline. Likewise, swimming is limited by dense seagrass along much of the coast, with most people heading to the clearer water at the Split when they want to swim. With the reef being just a short boat ride away, this doesn't really detract from the island's charms.
If you've spent a little bit too much time in the sun, or just fancy a bit of pampering, try out one of the spas on the island such as Coco Plum Gardens ('Back Back' Street, near the airstrip; 501-226-0226; www.cocoplum.typepad.com) where you can enjoy the After-sun Green Tea Treatment for US $55.
Eat, drink and be merry
We generally started the day with a breakfast of fruit, granola and yoghurt and freshly brewed coffee at Amor Y Cafe (Front Street, close to water taxi dock; 501-601-4458); this small cafe with a shady terrace is one of the most popular breakfast spots on the island. Their chocolate brownies are also highly recommended, although possibly not for breakfast!
Caye Caulker offers a range of restaurants for all budgets. For top end dining, Habaneros (Front Street, next to Amor Y cafe; 501-226-0487) is considered to be one of the best restaurants on the island (mains US $10-25). The fairy lights will draw you in and the friendly, attentive service and delicious food served in generous portions will make you want to return again and again. As the name suggests, the menu is dominated by spicy options, although I went for the chicken with mozzarella and vegetables which was by the far the best meal I had in the whole of Belize.
For a contrasting, but equally enjoyable dining experience try Wish Willy's (501 - 660-7194; www.wish-willy.com) on the west side of the island near the Split. There's no written menu; instead, you sit at a wooden table (shared with fellow diners) in the backyard of a house and the owner/chef Maurice will tell you what's being put on the barbecue that night. Once you've made your choice, sit back and enjoy the music (reggae, jazz and blues) and knock back the rum punch (free for diners until 8 pm). The tasty meals cost just US $7.50 and options include marinated fish, pork chops and jerk chicken.
Once you've eaten your fill, head to the I&I Reggae Bar (501-625-0344; www.aguallos.com/iandireggaebar) at the southern end of Front Street for a lime daiquiri (or three). Split your time between the dance floor and the rooftop chill out zone which has an amazing array of seating options from swings to hammocks, and even vertiginous platforms accessed via ladders.
Where to stay
We stayed at the candy-coloured Barefoot Beach (east coast, just north of the airstrip; US $49-105) at the southern end of the island. The rooms are clean and comfortable but it's when you venture outside that this oceanfront guesthouse really wins you over; the sight of the pastel yellow, blue and pink paintwork alone is enough to put a smile on your face. The piece de resistance is the private deck complete with sunloungers and hammocks under a thatched tiki hut.
If you are after a bit more luxury, the Iguana Reef Inn (near football field, north of Dock Street; US $145-425) is generally highly recommended. Located on the quieter west side of the island, the hotel boasts one of the few swimming pools on the island.
Caye Caulker offers a variety of accommodation for those on more of a backpacker budget. Mara's Place (north end of Front Street; US $40) wins on location due to its proximity to the Split. At the southern end of the island, Ignacio Beach Cabins (east coast, just north of airstrip; 501-226-0175; US $15-50) offers cheap rustic cabins on stilts in an isolated location; however be aware that some of the cabins are very basic.
Flights to Belize from the UK generally involve an overnight stopover in the USA (Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis or New York) and cost approximately £600-700. Delta (www.delta.com), Continental (www.continental.com) and American Airlines (www.aa.com) all serve this route.
Two airlines, Maya Island Air (www.mayaregional.com) and Tropic Air (www.tropicair.com), offer reasonably priced domestic flights in 12 seater planes. Flights from Belize City to Caye Caulker cost US $35 one-way and take 15 minutes. Alternatively, catch the water taxi to the island from the dock in Belize City (US $8 one-way, 1 hour).
The dry season (and also the tourist high season) in Belize is between November and May, with February to April being the most popular months to visit. The temperature is generally in the high 20s / low 30s throughout the year, although reached as high as 40 degrees Celsius when we were there in early May, making the sea breezes on Caye Caulker very welcome.
The official language of Belize is English (spoken with a strong Caribbean accent) making it one of the easiest Central American countries to visit.