WHY CAYE CAULKER?
Swimming with sharks off the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker was not exactly what I had in mind on my first trip to Belize, but it turned out to be one of those experiences of a lifetime! It was January in NY, …..cold! My travel buddy Otilija and I were both craving sunlight and water and a Caribbean island seemed to be a perfect remedy. However, we decided to do the unheard of. We by-passed the famous, most touristed Ambergris Caye and headed instead for the closer, more laid back island of Caye Caulker, Belize. Caye Caulker is a place where you can leave your watch at home, put on a Tee shirt and sandals and forget about the rest of the world while you relax on the beach, swing in a hammock, or de-stress in the warm Caribbean waters.
Caye Caulker is its own world: Nobody watches the clock. It gives you the peculiar, but wonderful feeling of stepping out of time, a welcomed change from life in NY where people want everything done yesterday. Caye Caulker is only a 45 minute boat ride from Belize City and is less crowded than the popular Ambergris Caye, but like Ambergris it’s also one of the best places to go for water sports and to see marine life along the beautiful Belize Barrier Reef.
GETTING TO CAYE CAULKER
Our kind Airbnb hosts ordered us a taxi in the morning which took us down town to the San Pedro Express Water Taxi at the Belize City boat terminal.
You can either make reservations for the water taxi online or buy a ticket at the dock, but schedules are subject to change so you should check before going. It turned out to be more difficult than I thought to find a short term inexpensive phone plan in Belize, so I figured it would be OK to rely on email communication. It soon became clear that this was not easy either. We never did get an answer as to what time the boat would actually arrive at the island. Out of desperation I used my Samsung tablet to message our Caye Caulker Airbnb host who found it a bit amusing that I was stressed out over the schedule. He said,
“Nobody answers emails in Belize: Just have the captain call me when you got on the boat! ” In all fairness, that is partly true – sometimes I got no response to emails and just as often I DID, but had to wait several days – not helpful if you are traveling during high season trying to plan your schedule. In hindsight it would have been a lot easier to just bite the bullet and GET A PHONE.
While waiting at the terminal I was struck by the multi-cultural environment that characterizes Belize. We found passengers, street vendors, and shop keepers from the all the neighboring countries: Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras,and El Salvador along with Belizeans, North Americans, & European tourists. Everyone was cheerful and not at all in a hurry about anything they were doing. Having spent a lot of time in the rest of Central America, it felt very strange to hear everyone speaking English!
When the boat was ready to leave, the horn sounded and we all climbed in. This was our first day on the water, yeeeehaawww! 85 degrees in January and the sun was shining!! It honestly does look like the photos you see in vacation magazines. I started counting the various shades of blue, turquoise, and a most unusual color of jade green water.
As soon as the boat set off for Caye Caulker we asked the captain if he would call our Airbnb host, Mario, “No problem, Mam” he said, dialing his cell phone. Mario sent a “Taxi” to pick us up which appeared in the form of a Golf Cart at the landing pier! We learned shortly that people in Caye Caulker don’t use cars, but get around on the sandy white roads by foot, bikes, and golf carts! My guide book described the island as a laid back, sleepy little fishing village. Laid back, yes, but it didn’t look a bit sleepy to me. Against the turquoise waters and coconut palms were numerous little art exhibits, cafes, hair braiding booths, and the wafting aroma of fresh seafood being prepared by the locals on outdoor grills. Here’s what it looked like:
Our “Taxi”driver pointed out unique places of interest such as where to get fresh cinnamon rolls, coconut bread, and local home cooked meals. He then dropped us off at our airbnb which was a 5 minute golf cart drive from the island center. Our hosts, Mario, Karen, and their two sweet dogs were Canadian transplants who decided to trade their hectic lives in the North for the laid back island life. In addition to opening his home to airbnb travelers Mario runs a coffee bar business on the beach called “Ice and Beans” – an ideal treat on a hot day as you step off the boat!
Our hosts gave us bikes to get around the island and hooked us up with their neighbor, Carlos of “Carlos Tours” who leads snorkeling trips to the Belize Barrier Reef. I couldn’t wait until we learned that they swim in the water with sharks and sting rays!! Fish and sea turtles….love it, but swimming alongside sharks I thought was CRAZY! In Florida if anyone sees as much as a fin sticking out of the water everyone gets out asap! Mario explained that these were nurse sharks and not aggressive, but I’d never heard of anyone the US saying it was OK to stay in the water with nurse sharks. Well, this is Caye Caulker, Belize where everyone is laid back and moving slow, so maybe the sharks are the same way? Mario offered to reserve us a place on this tour for the following day. “Sure, that will be great” I replied after taking a huge breath of air. ( My left brain was in shock,”Oh my G-d. What did I just do? Sharks, sting rays! Oye vey! “)
The next morning we jumped on our bikes, passed school children, young and old people biking along with us down town along with the golf carts and no cars! Tropical plants and flowers spilled over the fences of colorful painted houses and there was an enormous amount of new home construction going on all over the island alongside the more traditional clapboard houses.
We soon arrived at the tour office where Carlos met and ushered us in. He is a gentle young Belizean and an expert diver with many years of experience leading snorkeling tours. He’s also an accomplished underwater photographer who takes photos of each excursion and will put it on a CD for you at $15.00 US dollars. The underwater photos you see in this blog post are those Carlos took of our trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Carlos gave us snorkeling gear and made sure everything fit properly before we headed to the boat that was waiting for us on the water front. The reef is one mile out from the shoreline.
Hol Chan & Shark & Ray Alley
We lucked out on that day with perfect weather for a snorkel trip. The boat skimmed over the turquoise colored water and after docking at the reef Reserve Carlos began throwing pieces of fish bait into the water:
Within seconds we were surrounded by sharks! I don’t know if throwing food overboard was to attract them to the boat or to make sure they were not especially hungry as we jumped in the water! Whatever…. it did caused a formidable feeding frenzy!
I waited til the sharks cleared from the side of the boat, but they were still in the water everywhere! It really took a leap of faith on my part to jump in, but Carlos was the expert. If he said it was OK, then it had to be. I finally took the plunge inwardly thinking “OK, God, send your angles now, please! Here goes!”
The water was delightfully warm and once in, even with the sharks around, I felt as if I never wanted to leave this magical underwater kingdom! Huge rays glided underneath and around me like giant space ships and there were two huge sea turtles eating sea grasses on the ocean floor only a couple yards away! The water was as clear as glass as Carlos lead us over forests of coral, and schools of brilliantly colored fish that I had never seen before – even a barracuda idled by.
I was kicking myself for not having brought an underwater camera – This is a MUST if you plan to do this trip! Fortunately, Carlos had one. He surprised us all by effortlessly turning a nurse shark on her back as she allowed each of us to stroke her belly!
We followed Carlos on the underwater trail as he pointed out the different species of coral, a lobster hiding in a reef crevice, and other creatures whose hiding places he knew so well. After about 40 minutes we returned to
the boat and continued touring the reef, docking at the best locations for snorkeling and viewing the abundant marine life. We stopped for lunch at Ambergris Caye which gave us the opportunity to take a quick look at the shops and experience the charm of this island. Just enlarge the photo below and read the sign for a chuckle!
We sampled some typical Belize cuisine at lunch – coconut rice with red beans mixed in, fried plantains, fresh sea food, and fresh tropical fruit drinks such as water melon whizzed up in a blender, papaya and mango smoothies, or pina colada. It’s also pretty easy to find someone who will whack off the top of a fresh green coconut with a machete so that you can have thirst quenching coconut water straight from the source.
After lunch we headed back to the boat for more explorations of marine life before returning to Caye Caulker. On the boat ride back Carlos prepared a huge platter of fresh tropical fruit for us – papaya, coconut, pineapple, watermelon, mango – and topped it off by giving each of us a shot glass of the local Coconut rum! I am not a drinker, but must admit – this was good!
Carlos’s snorkeling tour turned out to be one of the highlights of our Belize trip – don’t miss it and I would strongly recommend getting a hold of an underwater camera. After five hours of sun, water, and marine life we called it a day, picked up some warm freshly baked cinnamon roles, and headed home to our airbnb.