My plan to travel “border to border” across Mexico using only ground transportation (no airplanes) was cooked up on a foggy, cold morning in San Miguel de Allende. I had just arrived on the overnight bus from Dallas to an unseasonably cold December in the 6,000 ft mountains of central Mexico.
Leaning up against the edge of the steamy pool in La Gruta Hot Springs, wisps of fog rising up off the hot water into the frosty 37 degree early morning air, I casually said to my brother Don, “I’d like to just keep going and explore more of Mexico, but I am not sure which direction to go.” As if he had been rehearsing it for hours, he recited an itinerary that would take me all the way to the Belizean border and beyond. I think he was a little surprised when I sent an email a few days later asking him to put his proposed itinerary to pen and paper for me. It would become my travel blueprint for the next two months.
Don’s proposed itinerary covered a nice mix of old favorites such as Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, but also included enough few new stops mixed in to pique my interest. But none so much as Caye Caulker, Belize. “There’s a bus from Palenque to Chetumal, where it’s only a four hour ferry ride to the rustic little island of Caye Caulker,” he said, “which is like a step back in time.” Having started at the Texas/Mexico border, I liked the idea of traversing the entire country of Mexico into Belize without having set foot in an airport.
Caye Caulker is a small island only five miles long and a mile wide. I think there is maybe one truck on the entire island which is used for major maintenance jobs, but everything else from taxi service to trash pick up is done via golf cart. Five bucks will get you anywhere on the island in a golf cart taxi, including luggage. After that, its easy to walk everywhere. Bicycle rental is also cheap on the island, or even free from some hotels.
Having spent the past five weeks greeting every person I met with the applicable “Hola, Buenos Dios / Tardes / Noches” depending on the time of day, I stepped off the ferry to be greeted by an “AHH-looo” by a Caribbean rastaman in dreads, rolling a bicycle converted to a luggage cart. Yes, I knew I Caye Caulker was different country altogether, but my body made the transition faster than my brain. I was now operating on the Belizian dollar, no Spanish was spoken, reggae music was wafting through the air, and instead of local fare, tacos were now considered “Mexican food.”
Caye Caulker is probably best known for its snorkeling tours, where boats, both motor and sail, offer day trips to Hoi Chan Nature Reserve. Unfortunately, the weather was not ideal while I was on the island. My days consisted of misty intermittent showers with gray cloud cover, or brilliant blue skies with whitecap-inducing wind. Having been to some of the best snorkeling spots on the planet, I am a bit of a “snorkeling snob.” If conditions are not ideal, I’d rather wait until they are, particularly when tours start at $70. So I watched the weather every day and waited…unfortunately, that weather window never came.
There is a good bit of feeding of marine life taking place on the island, of which I am not an advocate. It’s bound to happen in an unprotected place where there is a captive audience of overfed humans on an island surrounded by hungry wildlife. I dislike this practice, as it changes the behavior of the wildlife being fed, causing them to become downright aggressive. I fear it depresses the animal’s natural instinct to hunt for food when a food source is provided. But then what happens when that food source moves on? I was pleased to see one tour company advertising that they don’t feed marine life. Hopefully this is indicative of a shift to “leave wildlife wild.”
Caye Caulker is not really as much of a beach destination as one might expect, particularly for an island. Most of the waterfront, while beautiful, is not conducive to swimming from the shore due to mangroves. There are a couple of good places for fun in the sun, one being at “The Split.” The island of Caye Caulker was divided in half in 1961 by a cut made from Hurricane Hattie. This natural wash proved to be beneficial in transiting from the east to west sides of the island, so it was dredged deeper to allow for boat traffic. The bar at the end of the southern island, the Lazy Lizard, offers plenty of opportunity for fun in the sun, as well as a spectacular place to catch the sunset.
Just across the Split, the northern island is mostly mangroves, with the exception of the Koko King Beach, a beach bar and grill with hammocks, lounge chairs, and innertubes, free (as is boat transport from the south island) with the price of a bar tab.
To be candid, there’s not a whole lot to do on an island that’s only five miles long. But after touring at a pretty fast pace for the past month, that’s exactly what I needed. It’s still a sleepy little island in spite of the streets being lined with open-air restaurants, bars, and dozens of tour companies.
If you are looking for “Adventure Island,” this likely isn’t it. But if you are looking for a place to settle into the island’s motto of “Go Slow,” then you will enjoy Caye Caulker. Photogenic strolls along the waterfront, leisurely bike rides along the lanes, and falling asleep to the clatter of the raindrops on the palm fronds help navigate that fine line between boredom and complete relaxation. You know you are getting old when you’re in the tropics and your thoughts change from “Oh good, it’s sunny so I can work on my tan!” to “Oh good, it’s cloudy so I can have a good nap!” 😉