Saturday, 20 July 2013

Chilling in the Breeze in Caye Caulker, Belize

As far as most major cities go in a country, Belize City moves at pretty slow pace but even that seems like a rushed affair in comparison to the laid back mentality adopted on the island of Caye Caulker, Belize's backpacking island mecca. With no cars and only golf buggies and bikes to get around, it's a relaxing place which holds true to it's mantra of 'Go Slow'. With world class diving, fresh catch of the day for dinner and hammocks to swing in the breeze, it's no wonder most people make a beeline for this place when they first come to Belize.

Getting to the island is easy, most people don't spend any time in Belize City itself and are dropped off across the road from the water taxi jetty, so all you have to do is walk in, buy your return ticket for $25 (Belizean dollars on this page) and hop on the next boat to Caye Caulker. If you are wanting to go to San Pedro on Ambergis Caye, there are boats from here too. If you come into the city via the main bus terminal, then you can either get a taxi to the jetty or walk 15 minutes, it's not a strenuous walk but it depends on how safe you feel walking there. Personally, I had no problems in the city and even the guys asking for change were friendly.

Once on the island, it is pretty easy to just walk around and find some accommodation that suits your needs: there are dorms, private rooms and cabins so there is a wealth of options for all budgets.The are really only three main roads running down the spine of the island, Front, Middle and Back, with most of the action on Front Road, the same side you arrive on. There are plenty of restaurants, mini markets and too many to count tour operators, and at the northern end of the island there is 'The Split'. This is where the island was cut in two by dredging to aid the fishermen back in the '50s and then after Hurricane Hattie ripped through the area in 1961, it was widened and since then has had to be maintained. There is no beach area per say, but you can chill out up her, snorkel, drink some beers and chill in the sun on the decking.

As mentioned, there are plenty of tour operators with various offers, these range from scuba diving to snorkeling, from sailing to fishing, as well as other options. One place that caught my eye was E-Z Boy Tours which offered a sailing day out with three snorkel stops for $140 (remember, Belizean dollars), this included snorkeling, park entry fee, lunch, ceviche and all you can drink rum punch for the journey back.

The three stops were Hol Chan Marine Reserve where we saw turtles, rays and a  baby shark (plenty of coral and fish but we're after the big stuff here), the second stop was Shark Ray Alley which as you can guess from the name was a site teeming with nurse sharks and sting rays. The guide on the boat threw loads of sardines in the water to attract them and when we were all in the water, to our amazement, he just scooped up one of the sharks and then a ray for us to pet. Brilliant. After here, our final stop was at Coral Garden but it was pretty lacklustre in comparison to the two previous sites. In between the second and third stop we had lunch and on the way back the wind picked up so we were able to sail in whilst enjoying the delights of happy hour. This was a great day out and something I would recommend to anyone.

As well as snorkeling, Belize is also home to some of the world's most famous dive sites, namely the Blue Hole. This was a big one for me and one that I was anxious to do on this trip so we booked through a company called Frenchies, these guys turned out to be a good company. For $450 you got boat transport and three dives, kind of pricey but that's what you have to pay.

It takes two hours to get out to the Blue Hole and once there you quickly descend down to 130ft/40m where you then swim between columns, avoid the Caribbean Reef sharks and slowly ascend. Given the depth, there is only a bottom time of 8 minutes and total dive time of 25 minutes. When we all got back on the boat, we realised that one of the girls in the group had narked and bolted to the top from 40m, the guide tried to stop her but she panicked and there was nothing anyone could do. We had to get back to the islands to get her to San Pedro where Belize's only decompression chamber is located to make sure she was alright, this meant that the other two dives were cancelled. This was obviously disappointing but it was good to see that the company dealt with the situation well, it also helped that they were really cool about telling us about the girl's expected recovery and they then sorted out refunds for everyone. I would love to have done more diving, but with time pressing I had no more time, I was just glad I got the Blue Hole in.

Sadly no pictures from the Blue Hole (not sure my 5m underwater camera could handle it) but it was an awesome experience and as it was my first dive in about a year has made me want to get some more in before I leave, hopefully up around the Cancun area before I go home if I have time. As for Caye Caulker, if you are coming into Belize but not sure whether you should hang around in Belize City for a day (or two) before heading to the island here is some sage and most certainly bias advise: don't bother, head straight for the islands, that's where all the fun is because even when you're not on a tour, there's nothing better than relaxing in the sun with a beer and the water lapping at your feet..

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