This was originally written for Mildred Magazine.
‘Hey gal, why you be walkin’ so fast?’
He had a crown of dreadlocks and a mouth full of silver so that when he turned his face to meet mine his smile glinted in the Caribbean sunlight.
‘Don’t you know Caye Caulker is a go-slow island?’
The question stopped me in my sandy tracks. The smiling man had a point. There were no appointments to be made or meetings to be held, my morning coffee had already been swapped for a coconut and the peak hour commute exchanged for a bicycle, and yet there I was – rushing down Main Street, hurrying to a point of tropical relaxation. Apparently I was having more difficulty adjusting to island life than I’d imagined.
It’s the Journey not the Destination
As Central America’s youngest nation, Belize is often overlooked by travellers for the more prominent beaches of Mexico or the Mayan ruins of Guatemala. What many don’t realise is that this tiny country boasts crystal waters, ruinous relics and a unique melange of Creole, Garifuna, Maya, Mennonite and Mestizo cultures all of its own.
With Spanish-speaking neighbours to the left, Jamaica to the right and a Commonwealth stamp on the national flag, Belizeans are just as likely to be watching NBA as futbol, eating rice and beans as tamales and honouring the Queen and the Mayans in the same sentence. Most likely in English.
I’d arrived at the limestone atoll after a week spent hugging the Caribbean coastline, making my way by boat and bus from Guatemala. A journey through the Jurassic Park-like jungle of the Rio Dulce, followed by an overnighter in the Creole port town of Livingston. From there it was a longboat to the Punta Gorda immigration office, another boat across the choppy waves to Placencia, a speedboat to the hallowed Dangriga, the bus to Belize City and finally, a ferry to Caye Caulker.
What the guidebooks fail to describe, however, are the details. Like how Placencia is so quiet that the lights go out at ten and boats come only every other day, or how Belizean public buses are actually discontinued American schoolies with a lick of paint and that ‘two hours on a speedboat’ can often translate to ‘four hours on a speedboat’ in which case access to sun cream is in your best interests.
I Could Wile Away The Hours
Home to 386km of uninterrupted coastline, the second largest barrier reef in the world, and the famous Blue Hole, it’s unsurprising that most travellers come to the Belizean isles for the impressive underwater world.
Whether it’s snorkelling, fishing or diving you’re after, one walk down sandy Main Street will see you spoilt for oceanic choice.
My personal recommendation? Go with a tour operator that serves rum punch over lunch.
In keeping with my own advice, I settled on a snorkel and sail day tour with Captain Jerry, a rum-bellied, Rasta-haired fisherman whose first words were ‘don’t scare the sharks and they won’t scare you’. I laughed at the time, but I was soon to discover that’s easier said than done.
Most snorkelling tours on the island follow the same three-point pit stop itinerary. The day begins with a swim at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, followed with Shark and Ray Alley (aptly named) and finishes in the gloriously colourful, Coral Garden.
With restricted fishing and a huge spotlight on conservation, a day spent here is in the company of teeming angelfish and unintimidated schools of giant nurse sharks and cautious green, moray eels.
Having grown up splashing between the flags of Australian beaches, I’ve long considered myself a confident swimmer, rip safety enthusiast and connoisseur of coral. So when I lost my snorkelling buddy in the shallows of Shark and Ray Alley, I was unconcerned.
It wasn’t until I’d been duck diving solo for 40 minutes that I noticed an unusual presence behind me. Aware that I was swimming in the vicinity of others and not wanting to catch anyone with a flipper to the head, I turned to find myself face-to-face with a huge grey nurse! And a big one at that. With a scream into my mouthpiece and a kick of my flippers, I made haphazardly for the boat and climbed aboard, panting.
‘Did she follow you then?’ Captain Jerry asked with a smile, handing me a consolatory rum. ‘Oh, she likes to do that’ he said, ‘but don’t worry, she’s a slow-mover that one.’
Caye Caulker may be unhurried during the day but come nightfall locals crawl from beneath the shade of their stilted weatherboards in search of BBQ and Reggaeton – Belize’s holy duo.
While it’s hard to pin down any particular cuisine as being truly ‘Belizean’, what this backwater idyll specialises in is undoubtedly seafood. Whether it’s fried, poached, crumbed or curried, Belizeans have a way with the sea that translates in their cooking.
Over the course of my stay I sampled the best, from drinking coconut cocktails and eating grilled lobster at Wish Willys to braving fried conch at Chan’s Takeout or the fresh Ceviche from Marin’s, a heady mix of Caribbean, African, Mayan and Spanish culinary influences see no shortage of coconut milk, cayenne peppers, pineapple fry and beans. Fried chicken with potato salad, johnny cakes with melted butter, tamales stuffed with corn and a mean coconut pie for dessert are some of your options!
But be warned, eating on Caye Caulker is no fancy nor speedy affair. It’s more of a plastic table, paper plates and long wait dining vibe. But the endearing aspect is that there’s no barrier between yourself and the locals, the specials are made with love and the wait staff are generally extended family, children included. You’d describe it as heartfelt, home-cooked Carribean degustation.
As I sat down on my final night, I was surprised to see a familiar face approach my table. It was Captain Jerry, rum in hand and a woman on his arm.
‘Hey gal, so you know how you be leaving the island tomorrow?’ I nodded in reply. ‘Well, that won’t be happening no more. Captain Bobby gone got himself engaged and the whole crew be dancin’, he said.
‘You just gonna have to stay in paradise another day, gal’.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
What’s a gal to do? It’s a go-slow island after all.