By Thomas Malkowicz
Full throttle across the Caribbean Sea, our destination was the small island of Caye Caulker. Every seat on the water taxi was full, and, from a small window, Belize City was disappearing behind the boat. My wife, JoLee, and I are in Central America, on a 21-mile trip north into waters that become incredibly clear and blue. Small green islands are stretched out all along the horizon. Compared to the heat of Belize City, the air became noticeably fresh and cool as we approached the island.
Blackbeard Island National Wildlife RefugeThe free Belize Illustrated map I was reading during this 45-minute voyage was filled with information that explained why this area is a destination for people from all over the globe. It states that, “Belize is a haven for abundant flora and fauna … Belize has the lowest population density in Central America … the climate is pretty much near perfect … and Belizeans make you feel as welcome and comfortable, like nowhere else.” Perfect!
The day before, while waiting in line at the airport a gentleman had advised us to skip Belize City and hop on another plane. He explained it would save us a lot of trouble if we just flew to Caye Caulker. But being on the water is why we came here, and it only seems proper to explore this tropical setting aboard a boat.
The colorful buildings along the coast were our first glimpse of the small community of Caye Caulker. As our water taxi slowly pulled up to the dock, we grabbed our luggage. The owner of the rental property we booked was waiting to give us a ride in her golf cart. The island, five miles long and at most a mile wide, is known for using bicycles and golf carts for transportation — it’s all part of the charm. In reality, it’s only half that size because the northern part of the island is separated by a small channel known as the split.
The island is a genuine mixture of laid-back locals and tourists. After only a few hours on Caye Caulker, we made new friends and basically saw everything the island had to offer. As we enjoyed our first evening, we watched all kinds of boats returning to the island after a day of adventure.
One of the main attraction of Belize isn’t visible from the shores of Caye Caulker. On the horizon, waves can be seen breaking over the Belize Barrier Reef located just beneath the water. The reef is a series of coral formations that stretch the length of the Belize coastline. It is a world renowned destination for underwater recreation and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A blue sky and waves visibly splashing over the reef is a sign of good weather, which means the local guides will be out in force trying to talk every tourist into going out to sea. They offer every water activity imaginable — the most popular being scuba diving and snorkeling. It’s important to take advantage of every nice day because it seems as if there is always on the island a chance of rain.
The advice we got from locals was to shop around when looking for a snorkeling tour. After an hour chatting with a few different businesses, it seemed they were all offering the same service. So the real decision was who do we want to hang out with?
In a small aqua green cabana under palm trees, a couple yards from the ocean, we met a crew of local guides that had the easy-going attitudes we were looking for. It was no coincidence that the name of this small business was E-Z Boy Tours.
At the end of a long pier, a 40-foot, locally built sailboat known as INRI was waiting to take 10 passengers and two guides out for the day. This full day at sea included three stops at different snorkeling locations, with the main attraction being the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Snorkeling in the area is amazing, and swimming over huge coral formations filled with all kinds of marine wildlife is addicting. At each stop, we saw even more: turtles, stingrays, nurse sharks, and an entire rainbow of small fish. Any description given to this natural wonder will not do it justice; this place needs to been seen, in person, to be appreciated.
Once everyone was back on the boat, the sails were hoisted, and we headed back to the island. Unlike the water taxi, this voyage was a much more traditional form of transportation in the area.
Renting a kayak or canoe may be the most personal way to experience the waters that surround the island. Caye Caulker is a paddler’s paradise; the calm clear waters are incredibly inviting. The weather is the only thing that can be a problem.
The morning we had planned to rent and paddle a canoe was windy and rainy. The weather reports called for clear skies by noon, so we headed down to the beach in our rain gear to wait. The locals all knew better; they first looked north into the sky, and then looked at us and said “it will be nice tomorrow … maybe.”
We decided that the rain didn’t matter. We only had a few days left on the island, and we wanted to paddle. We found a local entrepreneur named Kenny who had long gray dreadlocks, a colorful outfit, no shoes and a warm smile. He had a small booth selling hand-made souvenirs such as jewelry and baskets, but he also had what we needed: a bright white canoe.
Kenny was waiving and laughing, as he watched us push the boat into the water and paddle out into the rain. Even in rough weather the water is spuriously calm because of the barrier reef. As we paddled along the coast toward the split, we saw other people out in canoes and kayaks and this made us feel better about our decision. I remember seeing a sign on the island that read: A rainy day at the beach is better than a sunny day at the office. This is especially true if a canoe is involved.
As we paddled over the crystal clear water, orange starfish could be easily spotted hiding in the seagrass. We found a quiet little beach and decided to stop for a swim. We were already soaking wet, so why not? The rain started to let up so we decided to stop by a bar along the beach and grab two beers for the paddle back to Kenny’s place.
When my wife and I had planed this trip, we had only scheduled four nights on the island. Our original plan was to to spend the last few nights of our trip in Belize City, visiting the Museums of Belize and Mayan ruins. However, after being on the island only a few days, we started to inquire about staying longer. It wasn’t a hard decision once we learned our rental was available for two more nights. The idea of not staying here as long as possible … seemed crazy.
The extra days allowed us to plan another excursion. This time we wanted to go fishing. On the last day, the clouds finally parted and we returned to our friends at E-Z Boy Tours.
This time we loaded our things onto a 25-foot speed boat named E-Z Girl. We had met a young local guide on our snorkeling tour named Harry, and today he would be our fishing guide. Harry was probably in his 20s, but handled the boat like a pro.
We anchored in a spot about a half-mile from shore, in waters only 10-feet deep. Harry pointed out the dark areas around the boat, explaining that they were coral formations and that that’s where the fish were. It took us a few casts to get used to the equipment, and while we were trying to figure it all out, Harry was already pulling fish out of the water. He wasn’t even using a rod and reel, just baiting a hook at the end of a line and throwing it overboard. As he pulled another fish out of the water he looked up at us, and said, “traditional way” then laughed as he threw the fish into a bucket.
We did eventually catch a few Yellowtail Snapper, although if this had been a fishing tournament Harry definitely would have won. The next fishing spot was out past the reef, where the water becomes deep blue, to try our luck at deep sea fishing. The thought of catching a giant fish was exciting but after an hour of trolling up and down in the choppy waters, with no luck, we decided to give it up.
As Harry motored the boat back into the calm shallow waters, he pulled out a spear gun and said, “This is the last resort, we’ll just go in after them!” We all put on our snorkeling gear and jumped into the water. Once again, Harry didn’t waste any time and speared a fish within minutes. He tried his best to help me spear one too, but after a number of failed attempts, we had to head back to shore.
The day wasn’t really about fish, it was about being out on the water, and in the water. As we headed back to the island, I asked Harry if preferred snorkeling or fishing. He smiled and said, “It doesn’t matter man … as long as you’re out here.”