Belize might be the oddest place I’ve ever visited. It’s a total misfit; culturally Caribbean, linguistically English (or a bizarre creole form), accepting of US dollars as legal tender, surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries and there are Chinese takeaways everywhere.
Mind-boggling, but in a strangely pleasant way. Here is a country that only gained independence from the ruddy British in 1981, and this is the outcome after 34 years of doing it for themselves. There is industry, there is infrastructure, there is decent healthcare and, most importantly, there is a booming tourism industry. You have to stand back and appreciate how far Belize has come in its short, independent history.
It seems unfair that Belize has been labeled as ‘dangerous’. Too many tourists write it off before they’ve even given it a chance. When they arrive most realise that actually, there aren’t countless pistol-wielding gangs waiting to mug the next passer-by on every street corner; that actually, Belize is a friendly country where tourists are well-protected. Sure, there are certain no-go zones, like anywhere in the world, ‘cos you know, crime is kind of a global issue and everything, but these can be avoided by using common sense.
Out on the idyllic keys crime is almost unheard of. San Pedro and Caye Caulker are the most popular islands with tourists, the first preferred for 1-2 week holidays whereas the latter has transformed into a backpacker’s tropical paradise. They both offer fantastic snorkelling and diving opportunities along the barrier reef – the world’s second longest – and the nightlife (at least on Caye Caulker) is legendary.
I spent 4 nights in Caye Caulker, having travelled from Chetumal in Mexico to Belize City by chicken bus. The cost was 150 Mexican Pesos and the journey took 4 hours. I arrived just in time for the last water taxi from Belize City, which left at 17.30. It took about 50 minutes to get to Caye Caulker, the first stop.
Immediately you pick up the Caribbean/party island vibe as you begin wandering along Caye Caulker’s Front Street, filled with busy bars, Caribbean restaurants, reggae music and the unmistakable whiff of ganja. At that point you know you’re going to have a good time.
Where to Stay on Caye Caulker
Caye Caulker hotels are very expensive. Backpackers will almost certainly favour budget hostels, which are aplenty on Caye Caulker, despite there only being a couple listed on Hostel World. The most popular and well-known is Dirty McNasty’s, where I stayed for $15/night in the cheapest bed available. Breakfast is included (omelette, scrambled eggs or French toast + coffee) and – best of all – rum punch is served FREE every night from 7pm (saving you A LOT of money). There wasn’t much else to write home, or indeed, blog about, but Dirty McNasty’s is a party hostel alright!
Snorkeling in Caye Caulker
You can go snorkeling yourself off-shore or at The Split, where the water is perfect temperature but scenery is pretty limited. To get a real eyeful, your best bet is to take the Hol Chan Snorkelling Tour, which pretty much guarantees sea turtle, stingray and nurse shark sightings along the barrier reef. This is Belize snorkeling at its best.
There are loads of tour companies competing for your business, so you’ll probably want to research a few before making a choice. I chose and can personally recommend Raggamuffin Tours. We were fitted for snorkelling gear before the tour began at 10.30am. After a 45-minute sail out to sea, we made three stops: one to get a closer look at the coral and smaller fish, another to witness a nurse shark feeding frenzy and the third to swim in the channel where sea turtles graze on the seabed.
The second stop was the highlight for me; to get so close to sharks – some up to 6ft in length – and see them clambering over one another to get their lunch was incredible. Nurse sharks don’t go for humans, so there was no danger, but there were a few stingrays gliding beneath us, which can of course sting (RIP Steve), but they generally kept away from all the commotion.
The third stop at the channel provided the best underwater scenery, and even a Green Moray Eel sighting. He was either very pissed off that we disturbed him or just really ugly, I’m not sure which.
The Raggamuffin team – from Charlie in head office to Captain Rob and his crew – were fantastic. We couldn’t have asked for better service. The crew guided us in the water and really knew their stuff.
Also included in this brilliant Caye Caulker snorkeling tour was lunch (shrimp or chicken with rice), as much rum punch as we could drink and an abundance of ceviche on the way back (soo good). We made it back to the dock for 16.30, thoroughly satisfied with an experience we’ll never forget. If you want to go snorkelling in Belize, this is the tour to go for. Check out the Raggamuffin Facebook Page to get a better idea of what they’re about!
Nightlife in Caye Caulker
Where to start? The party never really stops in Caye Caulker but at night the place really comes alive. If you’re sick of the free rum punch at Dirty McNasty’s, then there are plenty of bars just a stone’s throw away. The most popular are on Front Street to the right of the water taxi dock and start to fill up at around 10pm. Bamboozle and Sports Bar draw the biggest crowds and play the loudest music. Beers are sold at 5 Belize Dollars a piece here ($2.50 USD) and there are happy hour deals on the cocktails in Bamboozle if you arrive early enough. At around 12, swathes of people head to I&I Reggae Bar to finish the night. It’s cramped, but fun.
Where to Eat in Caye Caulker
Anyone traveling through Belize on a tight budget is going to feel the strain on their purse strings. It ain’t cheap, and Caye Caulker restaurants are no exception. A hot meal in a standard restaurant will set you back between $15-25 BZD ($7-13 USD), lunch a bit less and breakfast a bit less than that. Southside Pizza is a nice mid-range option, with pizzas selling for between 10 and 16 BZD. Cheapest meal you can get is chicken/pork stew with rice from ‘the huts’ at $8 BZD per serving. However, there are a couple of street vendors selling delicious burgers and pupusas for $3-5 BZD near the Sports bar late at night.
What else to Do on Caye Caulker
Caye Caulker is small and there isn’t much to do inland other than eat, drink and sleep! All the fun goes on in the water. If you’re not keen on snorkelling or diving, you might like to rent a kayak for the afternoon and row the length of the island. A great spot to just drift idly is The Split, where the water is shallow and crystal clear. You can paddle up to the dock and leave the kayak for a couple of hours while you enjoy the waterside bar and catch some rays!
Getting to Caye Caulker
To get to Caye Caulker you must take the Caye Caulker water taxi from the water taxi station (also the shuttle drop-off and pick up point) in Belize City. Return trips to Belize are regular. Here is the current schedule. (belizewatertaxi.com).
To get to Belize City you can either take a shuttle or a ‘chicken bus’ from Flores or Chetumal, Mexico. Shuttles cost a lot more but are of course much quicker. Chicken buses rarely contain chickens, but they do take almost twice as long, usually involve two or three changes in random locations and are often filled beyond maximum capacity, which is always – so the joke goes – “one more”. They are much cheaper than shuttles so better suited for travellers on a shoestring budget. Theft does occur but only if you let your guard down and are extremely unlucky!
Heading north to Mexico after Belize? Check out my post on the best cenotes in Tulum!