Caye Caulker – lobster central

Within 60 seconds of being underwater we were surrounded by sharks, rays, moray eels and hundreds of fish.

We’ve been looking forward to Caye Caulker since before we left England.  Our original plans were to start backpacking in Mexico, spend Christmas in Caye Caulker (we even had an apartment booked) and then fly out of Panama down to Brazil for the Carnival, working our way back up to Colombia in South America.  The big change was simply down to cost; flights from Panama down to Rio are very expensive. It worked out cheaper to spend our first three months in Asia and then use air miles to get to Brazil.

Our view from the cabin
Our view from the cabin

In the last few weeks before leaving the UK I would browse pictures of this tiny Belizean island for hours. Arriving up the coast from Placencia we caught the San Pedro water taxi for an hour through turquoise water and across shallow reef. Arriving at Cake Caulker we realised just how tiny this island is. Comparable to Little Corn Island in size but more developed. There are no cars on the island; they have adopted golf carts as their first choice of transport. Taxis, delivery vans and even police vehicles are golf carts. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to walk from one end of the island to the other, many American tourists seem to prefer spending $50 a day on a cart – lazy buggers.

You can outrun the local police
You can outrun the local police

We are spending a week here, the first  three days in a sea battered wooden house on the beach (Lena’s place)and the rest in a hostel in the centre of town (but still on the beach) called Yuma’s.  Lena’s was a great place run by an old local couple, rooms were simple with a fan and bathroom that even had hot water. Uma’s had a reputation for bedbugs but we heard it had been taken over by a German lady so we assumed it had got its act sorted out. We were correct; the place was run with ruthless efficiency, perhaps a little too ruthless, there were signs posted on every wall with various warnings and instructions on what to, and what not to do. One of the fun parts of backpacking and spending time with other cultures is how often country stereotypes are reconfirmed.

We spent our first few days exploring the island; at first glance food seemed to be expensive. But with a little hunting we found a couple of places where a breakfast would cost only £3 for both of us, and a whole lobster, rice and beans with drink and dessert would cost only £8. Opt for the American sports bar and the same would cost you three times that.  We recommend Marin’s for breakfast, Fran’s or the Enjoy bar for dinner. If you come here, and you should, hunt down the pizza shack run by the local policeman after hours, the pizza is first rate and his Cuba Libres are deadly.

Fran's Grill - some pretty good lobster
Fran's Grill - some pretty good lobster

Sometimes we get advice from other travellers and it gets forgotten quickly but when an Australian couple who have dived the Great Barrier Reef tell us we can’t leave without snorkelling here with a local guide, you start to think it’s going to be special. Later the same day, an American couple give us the same name and tell us his snorkel trips area the reason they came back to Cake Caulker. So we book a whole day on the reef with Juni, a 73 year old sea dog with a small sailboat and very curious manner. When asked what the day would involve he just replied  “not going to tell ya, wait and see” I suspect this act was a little bit of  pantomime for the tourists, but he’s known by everybody on the here, he was born and raised on the Island so I’ll go along with the fun. He’s the boss.

Juni - he talks to the fish
Juni - he talks to the fish

This time of year the warm wind blows hard onto Caye Caulker, at night it howled through our cabin. We wake up to our day at sea and there is not the slightest breeze so Juni has to fire up his motor, which sounds like it’s packing about 2 bhp. The sea was like a lake, not the slightest of waves. It took us about an hour to get to our first snorkel spot, the motor sounding like an electric toothbrush.

A quiet day at sea
A quiet day at sea

Within 60 seconds of being underwater we were surrounded by sharks, rays, moray eels and hundreds of fish. Incredible. The waters were teeming with life and Juni seemed to summon fish up to him with a few clicks of his fingers and fed moray eels right in front of us.  He liked to tell us he’d known some of the fish personally for years. We spent a few hours snorkelling the second biggest reef in the world; as good as any I’d seen before in Asia. On our way back a small pod of three dolphins swam around our boat for a few minutes checking us out.

The lesser spotted sea bat
The lesser spotted sea bat

Whilst walking through town one day our friends the Stefs from Switzerland ride past on the back of taxi-cart. They hadn’t originally planned on coming here but had heard great things. This of course meant some more big nights out. The disgusting local rum, One Barrel, was consumed late into the night and we were the first on the dance floor at the local club, OceanSide.  No shame.

flesh-fest down at the split
flesh-fest down at the split

We loved Caye Caulker. It may not have the perfect beaches like some other islands near here but the Caribbean atmosphere is incredible. We spent many days just sitting reading down at the split (the end of the island), local music blaring from speakers, surrounded by half the island’s tourists doing the same, occasionally jumping off the sea wall into warm crystal clear water to cool off.

Placencia – they speak English!

We are very much in the Caribbean now, the Caribbean that I had always imagined. Patois is now spoken along with English and a very youthful Queen now features on all the notes – it’s like stepping back to the 80s.

It’s only a one hour boat ride across from Livingston in Guatemala to the Belizean mainland. Border proceedings were a breeze and after breakfast we were on a chicken bus up the coast. We are very much in the Caribbean now, the Caribbean that I had always imagined. Patois is now spoken along with English and a very youthful Queen now features on all the notes – it’s like stepping back to the 80s. Although Belize has been independent for over 20 years they have chosen to keep the Queen on all the notes – but nobody has thought to update the picture.

Dollars and the Queen? just seems wrong
Dollars and the Queen? just seems wrong

Four hours up the coast we pass some quite impressive jungle, I think this is where an expedition of British Army soldiers got lost and had to be rescued by helicopter whilst on a jungle survival course. Amusing.

The standard Central American Chicken Bus
The standard Central American Chicken Bus

To get to Placencia you have to get off at the wonderfully named Mango Creek and hop onto the local Hokey Pokey water taxi through the mangroves.

Hokey Pokey Water Taxi
Hokey Pokey Water Taxi

Placencia itself is an immaculate small caye. It’s one of those one road type towns, but it’s been invaded by North Americans so although it’s still all wooden shacks and sand floor bars it’s all very – nice. The beach is stunning – white sands and crystal clear water and we get lucky with the weather too – according to an American guy who’s been spending the winter here it’s the first nice day in four weeks.

We hate cruise ships too
We hate cruise ships too

Since the place is catering mostly to middle-aged Americans, there’s a surprisingly good range of restaurants for somewhere so small. But if you’re on a tight budget then this probably isn’t the place for you. It’s certainly not expensive by European standards but we struggled to find a room for less than $40 and eating out definitely costs more than anywhere we’ve been in Central America so far. We ate at a great little restaurant, run by another American ex-pat but if you’re looking for something more local there are plenty of bars serving fresh seafood on the beach.

Placencia’s lovely, and it’s the kind of place I could imagine coming for a two week holiday but at the moment it’s a little expensive for us so we’re only stopping for a few days before heading to the cheaper, more backpacker-friendly Caye Caulker.

Placencia beach
Placencia beach