I had one day left in San Pedro and everyone was asking, “where to next?”
They warned me.
“Nah! You should stay here. This is where the action is. Caye Caulker is boring.”
“There’s not much to do there. It’s very quiet.”
“Two days is enough.”
Each time I nodded and smiled. I’ve traveled enough to know I can’t form an opinion on a place until I’ve visited and stayed there myself. So I decided to brush aside the comments and give Caye Caulker a chance from the moment I stepped off that water taxi.
It wasn’t hard. As soon as I was off the boat and walking along the dock, I felt a completely different atmosphere. Still water, the sound of bicycles crushing sand on “front street” by the water taxi stop, the occasional shout from one local to the other and a reggae tune from someone’s stereo, all while waiting for my pick up.
And after four days, the feeling was no different. I wanted to stay longer. Even if it was just to sit and write by the sea or mingle more with the locals or maybe just walk some more around town. There just is much, much more to Caye Caulker than all of what I’ve done below. That rest, you’ll have to discover for yourself.
I can say though, two of the most exciting moments in my travels to Belize took place here. I went fishing for the first time, bringing in a Permit and I also hooked a tarpon. I snorkeled and watched manatees——> swimming right before my eyes underwater by the North Channel of the Belize Barrier Reef. Oh and as if that wasn’t enough, I captured some of the best portraits so far for my Faces of Belize project and met people who are making a difference every day and living their dreams.
OK, I’ll stop now.
Here’s what you should do and what I’d do again in a heartbeat.
1. Stay at Sea Dreams
When I head back to Caye Caulker some day, I know where I’ll be staying.
Sea Dreams is located just by the Split, Caye Caulker’s favorite sandy swimming area and close to everyone’s favorite sunset bar, the Lazy Lizard. It’s far enough to have privacy, but close enough to walk over for sunset. It’s also a short distance from “front street” or the center of Caye Caulker’s small town. My one bedroom cottage was cozy and just the right size. I didn’t mind the partial sea view either. There are two-bedroom apartments available that are even cuter. Not to mention, the owners started the first (and only) licensed high school in Caye Caulker, Ocean Academy, providing education to all kids on the island regardless of income.
Sea Dreams is made up of a wonderful group of people who make you feel like family and staying here is a great way to get a real glimpse of life on Caye Caulker.
Make sure you look for Stacy Badillo, the manager – she’ll not only give you great tips on the latest on the island, but she can also take you to her family-owned Purple Passion spa for a fabulous facial.
2. Snorkel the Belize Barrier Reef with EZ Boy Tours: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley and the Coral Gardens
“Who has never snorkeled before?”
Ian waits on the group to respond.
“Well, it’s been a long time for me,” one girl says.
“That’s ok. Are you quick to panic?”
Another girl across from the first nods instead.
“Ok, and where are you from?” he asks, as if it would help him formulate advice for her.
Her boyfriend is sitting across from her, silent.
“OK, well just remember – this is a marine reserve. All the fish here are used to snorkelers like you. Just don’t panic. If you panic, you can’t help yourself and then I can’t help you. And remember, for every problem there is a solution, yes?”
The Israel girl nods slowly.
“Plus, your boyfriend is here, so you’ll be fine. Oh and when you listen to the news, do you ever hear them say ‘woman-eating shark?’ No, they always say man- eating shark, right?”
Everyone laughs. Another classic tour guide joke but it works and soon we’re all ready to drop into the water from the boat, masks and fins on.
Ian isn’t done with the instructions.
“Just remember, we go as a group, and return as a group. We’re going to snorkel for about one hour. No one can be left behind. And no one is to go off on their own because they see some cool fish. There’s no chasing going on here. If you see something, point it out. We watch and we leave things exactly as they are, this is a protected area so please no touching. And make sure your masks work because once we’re out there it’s too late, and I definitely won’t be giving you mine!”
Great. I feel a slight adrelanine rush. I’ve snorkeled before but along the Belize Barrier Reef? I’m excited and anxious all at once. One hour could be a long time.
“Can I have a life vest?”
I’m not ashamed to ask. With my foot still healing from a sprain caving in Cayo last month, I need the extra support.
I strap on my vest at the waist and off we go.
We’re in Hol Chan, one of Belize’s most visited snorkeling spots –”little channel in Mayan” – a natural break in the reef which was turned into a marine reserve and is rich in marine life.
It’s like one giant aquarium. Beautiful schools of fish all around. I have an underwater camera that Hans, the owner of E-Z Boyz Tours was kind enough to let me borrow. It would be a real shame not to capture what’s under here.
We keep going and all of a sudden, in the distance below, a baby shark. It catches us by surprise, and I try not to panic. Surely he’s too small to even think of eating me. Still, I distance myself and then keep going.
Then, right in front of us: a huge sea turtle. First on the ocean floor and then coming up for air and going back down gracefully. We watch the turtle over and over, snapping away.
We keep swimming, admiring the coral. I lose track of time.
Before I know it, we’ve spent an hour snorkeling around the reef and back.
After we get back on the boat, we head to our next stop just a few minutes away: Shark Ray Alley.
“Don’t be scared Lily!”
Ian watches me as I linger on the boat as long as possible. But I’m not alone, the Israeli girl is hesitating as well. There are tons of sharks circling our boat, and stingrays. Well, nurse sharks. But the sight of fins all around us is a little unnerving.
“I’m not afraid.” I say to Ian.
Yes I hate insects and I’m afraid of snakes, but if it’s a harmless creature I want to see and marvel at all of God’s creations. Isn’t that what they’re here for? Besides, where else could I do it – Belize has the world’s second largest Barrier Reef. And I’m right by it. There’s no time for fear.
I put my mask back on, my fins and hop! I’m in the water.
I spent almost ten minutes taking photos of the sharks from the boat. But watching them in the water, up close, is a completely different experience.
After they depart – they only want fish as food not humans – a massive stingray is circling us and swimming towards the guide. It’s as if he recognizes him.
Ahead of us, more schools of colorful fish. Everything is moving along the turquoise background.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s peaceful down here. Much more peaceful than out there.
Caye Caulker is only about 20 to 30 minutes from the Barrier Reef and Hol Chan, so snorkeling is just as easy from here as it is from Ambergris Caye. Make sure you also make a snorkel stop by the “coral gardens” off the reef – you’ll see some of the most amazing formations here.
You may not know this – I sure didn’t – but the fishing guide voted best in all of Belize this year is based in Caye Caulker. Ken Coc and his partner Haywood Curry, who run Anglers Abroad also won first and second best fishing team in the past two years in Belize’s annual Tres Pescado Slam Tournament.
And lucky me, I went fishing not only for the first time but with Belize’s best team as my instructors, one on one.
“We beat all those San Pedro guys!” Ken and Haywood recalled along the way, smiling at each other, when I asked about the tournament.
“So Lily, should we go for the small fish, or the big fish? What do you think, it’s totally up to you and what you’re confortable trying.”
They wanted to make sure it was my fishing day, and I really appreciated that. Let’s see, the country’s best fishing guide and team beside me… first-time fishing… competitive-me….ha! it was a no-brainer.
“The big fish!!”
Off we went deeper farther at sea and for almost three hours that I barely noticed, I learned how to throw a line with precision and distance, how to bring in a fish – my first Permit! – and I even hooked a Tarpon on the first throw. Now that was an experience, watching the Tarpon fly into the sky and unhook himself.
OK, of course I had Ken’s eyes. I seriously do not know how he sees those fish. Even in the wind and dark waters of that morning, he would stare into a distant space, and suddenly point and say “There! Throw over there!”
It’s not the polarized glasses, either. The man has magic eyes, seriously.
We caught a Jack first, and then a Permit. I was stunned at how beautiful the fish were – so large and such pretty colors!
“This is what people from all over the world come to Belize to fish,” Ken and Haywood both say, admiring the ten-pound Permit.
Learning to bring a fish that large in was a serious arm workout too, but both men were patient while I tried and tried. And along the way I got it –why people come here to fish, and why people fish for fun and spend the day at sea.
After we took our obligatory “look what I caught” photos with the fish, Ken would dip his hand in the sea each time, to rinse the fish and release them back into the waters.
The Permit in particular is a protected fish here in Belize.
On the way back, we saw dolphins and even manatees coming up for air. Lunch was on the boat, closer to Caye Caulker, near some beautiful mangroves.
I could definitely go fishing with these guys again some day.
4. Snorkel the North Channel to spot manatees
It’s windy and the waves on the North Channel are pushing my body sideways from time to time. I’m snorkeling, pushing forward, following my group but I see nothing yet.
And then I hear a sound. I look out of the water and it’s Stacy. She’s mumbling loudly through her tube. Her hands are making waves.
“Did you see it?!”
“Manatee!! Right below you!”
I slip my mask back on and dip my face back in. I look directly below me.
I push my head back out of the water, spitting my tube out.
I’m saying it to myself and I don’t care that anyone hears or not. I had to say it out loud, it was almost as if I had a vision, that was one big animal below me.
I take a deep breath and look down again. I snap away with E-Z Boyz Tours‘ borrowed camera.
The size of the manatee is such that I feel minuscule, even floating way above it.
I hear another screech from Stacy. The manatee is moving. It’s coming up for air. It seems to be looking at me.
I scramble away with a few strokes. I’m not the only one, I see the others do the same. Our boat captain Ian tells us not to be afraid. That they’re gentle and curious creatures, and might come to us only to smell and see us but that’s all. They’re vegetarian, he jokes.
It’s okay, I was close enough anyway. They are beautiful. And just gigantic. The photos don’t show their size, even with someone’s legs floating above them in the image. I keep staring.
A second manatee appears, swimming towards the other at the bottom of the sea and they seem to greet or hug each other. I scramble away some more, because the current is constantly pushing me forward toward them. And yet their movements so gracious in the water that nothing is felt. They go up and down with little noise.
My mask is leaking and I’m swallowing a ton of salt and coughing. Still, I can’t miss this and I keep looking and snapping.
After about thirty minutes, I swim back to the boat, stunned.
Summertime is manatee mating time, which is why we had better chances of seeing them “in the wild” while snorkeling. I can’t thank Stacy, of Sea Dreams, enough for planning this activity for me. Actually, it was her first time seeing manatees too. The North Channel of the Barrier Reef is just twenty minutes from Caye Caulker, so if you’re in Belize right now, make sure you go!
5. Bike around town and meet the locals
Copyright Lebawit L. Girma
Caye Caulker is special because of its residents. No one passes by without saying hello and it’s really the best way to learn about life on the island. The residents do all they can to preserve Caye Caulker the way it is and that includes the environment.
6. Have dinner at Rose’s Grill
Pick your catch of the day outside, before you step into the restaurant. Black snapper, lobster, grouper, the list goes on. Once you do that, take a seat on the outdoor patio, order your sides and a drink, and watch Caye Caulker go by. Within thirty minutes you’ll get your freshly-grilled fish. Another great option is Tropical Paradise restaurant for Belizean food or Sobre las Olas, with its lovely outdoor seaside set up.
7. Have a sunset drink at the Lazy Lizard
If I had to create a list of top sunset bars in the Caribbean, Lazy Lizard would have to be on it. Its tag line says “a sunny place for shady people” – hmm! – and this is where lovers of 2 for 1 rum punches (Bze $5 for a single), sunsets and reggae music flock to every day. Located on Caye Caulker’s famous “Split” or northern tip of the island, it’s not hard to find and the view alone is worth it.
When you get off the water taxi, turn right at the end of the dock and walk for ten minutes, you’ll hit the Split.
If you don’t ever make it for sunset and only visit for the day, make sure you come to the Split area anyway –it’s the best swimming on Caye Caulker and you can still have a drink and hang out by the Lazy Lizard all afternoon.
8. Watch sunset from a boat while eating freshly-made ceviche
Ask Hans of E-Z Boy Tours to take you on a sunset ride – no need for one of those typical sunset cruises or even a stop at Lazy Lizard if you don’t feel like witnessing rowdy tourists. You can ride around the Cayes in the afternoon, and later anchor in the sea somewhere close (but not too close) to the Lazy Lizard to watch the sun go down, rum punch in hand, while Ian the captain makes you fresh lobster ceviche.
9. Visit Ocean Academy and meet Heidy Curry
There’s a fantastic story behind Caye Caulker’s three-year old high school. The founder of the school, Heidi Curry, is an American who moved to Belize with her husband after falling in love with the place and its people. After some years as a diving instructor, Heidi finally found her true calling: teaching English and helping the children of Caye Caulker get a secondary school education right at home. Before the Ocean Academy came along, there was no high school on the island. Kids had no other option but to go live with relatives in San Pedro or on the mainland, and that’s if they could afford it. Thanks to Heidi, now they can stay home with their families and go to school, and through support from various sources, even those less fortunate have that opportunity. It’s an incredible story and if you’re looking for passion and purpose, this is as inspiring as it gets. I visited the high school with Heidi, and while it’s currently closed for summer, I still got to meet some of the students and was touched by the whole experience.
Besides, it’s always a great thing to mix vacation with good will when possible so if you’d like to donate anything – school supplies or maybe even time and talent – please contact Ocean Academy ahead of time.
10. Jump off the Sea Dreams dock in the morning in your clothes
I’m not kidding, try it! I was told to do it at the end of the day but I think the morning is even better. It was the most instantly therapeutic thing I’ve done and the best way to start my day. The morning calm, the views and the water temperature –just perfect.
There are many other day trips possible from Caye Caulker. You can snorkel by Caye Caulker’s “local” marine reserve of stingrays, cruise around the surrounding Cayes, go diving in the Blue Hole or by the atolls or go for a barbeque on one of the Cayes, Belizan-style. Or, you can be lazy, rum punch in one hand and book in the other.
And if you ever hear someone say that there’s nothing to do in Caye Caulker, just smile and move on – because you either get it or you don’t.