PART 2 OF 2
Not too long ago, Karen and I took a trip with some friends to Belize. While some things are a little different now with COVID protocols, (check out my last blog on travel to Belize), the experience remains the same. Here is what we discovered while down there in what can only be described as an island paradise.
The mainland of Belize is located along the coast, south of Mexico. To the west is Guatemala and to the south is Honduras. To the east is the Caribbean Sea. Along the coast are several islands, some still uninhabited. The main tourist islands are Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye, and St. George Caye. The latter is located on the Belize and Mexican border. While relatively close, each island is very unique. Caye Caulker has a small island vibe and is very laid back. Small boutique hotels line the beaches. On Ambergris Caye you will find more resorts and an active nightlife, more of a party spot. St. George is the smaller of the three, and has some very quaint but luxurious lodging. We chose Caye Caulker for this trip. Our friends had been there before and bragged about how wonderfully laid back it is. That’s my style!
At the time we went, there was only one way to get there, by ferry boat. The airport was closed for repair while the Belize government and Caye Caulker island argued over who would pay for it. So we caught a cab from the airport to the coast and a ferry to the island. And when I say ferry, I mean we were jammed into a banana boat that seemed to be racing to get us to the island. By the time we got there, I think my stomach was where my liver was supposed to be. I guess the ride lasted about 30 minutes but it sure felt longer. We were inside with a couple open windows, so the heat was not pleasant. The airport is back up and running today. Not sure what it costs, but use it. It would be much faster and smoother.
Once we arrived on the island, we found a quiet, quaint island vibe; very peaceful and tranquil. Lots of shops and vendors, but no one accosting you like some places we have visited. There was little to no transportation other than the occasional bicycle, but you don’t need it. Literally, you can stand in the middle of the island and see water to the east and west. The width of the island is much longer, but definitely walking distance (at least to the split). In 1961, the island was cut in half at a spot that is creatively called “The Split.” That year, Hurricane Hattie cut a small path across the island. Since Mother Nature started the project, the islanders dredged it out to create a usable waterway for boats. At the south side of split you will find a great hangout and place where everyone gathers for fun and entertainment. This side of the island is where most of the population is, but you can take a water taxi to the other side of the split for some interesting restaurants and a couple hotels. The north side is just starting to be developed. A popular activity for tourists (locals know better), usually after a lot of margaritas, is to swim across the split to the jungle on the other side. Unless you are a very strong swimmer, don’t even try it! The current is very swift and dangerous. As we sat at the restaurant, we watch three people try it. I honestly didn’t think that one of the girls would make it. We watched as she reached the other side and struggled with exhaustion trying to stay above water, reaching out against the current for a tree branch. For a while, it seemed the current would carry her out to sea. Pretty scary.
Our hotel could be described as the equivalent to a Motel 6. But it was cheap, clean, and the employees very friendly. Only the bedrooms had air conditioning. This is a common feature of island life or any area that electricity is at a premium, but it really wasn’t necessary as the breeze from the ocean blew through the living room and kept it comfortable. There were a few hotels that were a little fancier, but no chains or resorts. The entire island has this laid back vibe, which is very calming. Day and evening the streets are lined with vendors selling their wares or skills. You can pick up island trinkets, stop at a grill and enjoy some fish fresh off the boat and grilled on the spot, get a massage on the sand, and oh…don’t miss the lady selling homemade pies. One of the restaurants we loved was Little Kitchen (I think it was called Mama’s Little Kitchen at the time). It was a little hard to find, but the food was excellent. There is a third story patio that has a great view of the sunset, although it is pretty rickety. You know everything is fresh because the menu is written on a chalk board and seafood is crossed off as they sell out. It is clear that living on an island, everything is imported. When we arrived at the restaurant, the owner greeted us. We tried to order beers and she said, “I’m sorry, we only have one beer.” We told her, “No problem, which one.” She said, “No, I only have one beer left. The beer guy comes tomorrow.” Anyway, she made us some great tropical drinks instead and I think we came out winners on that one. After that they turned on the stove (we were their only customers) and proceeded to made us a fantastic dinner so fresh the fish could have still been flopping and the vegetables still growing!
In the evening, the hotspot on Caye Caulker is the Lazy Lizard, a beach bar and grill at the Split I mentioned earlier. There you can sit and enjoy some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world while sipping your favorite island cocktail. In fact, if you want a chair come early because it seems like the entire island shows up to watch the sun disappear so lazily behind the horizon. The atmosphere is relaxed and chill. There is even a pool cut into the concrete with sea water. It has bar stools for you to chill. For breakfast, go find Errolyn’s House of Fry Jacks in the middle of town. This is a Belizean breakfast that is quick (as quick as an island gets) and delicious. A Fry Jack is a fried flour dough sandwich filled with ham, cheese, or some other yummy ingredients. Trust me, you will be back every morning.
Marijuana was decriminalized in 2017 according to Wikipedia, for possession of 10 grams or less. You will find islanders on bicycles trying to sell you weed, especially around the Split in the evening. However, we never felt pressured or nervous. They were very friendly and, even after you say no thanks, they continue to chat and laugh with you. Maybe they just want your snacks…. Now having said that, we had a bit of a scare on the search to find Mama’s Little Kitchen Restaurant (I mentioned it earlier). Karen has a way of finding the most off-the-wall, incredible restaurants. She found this one, so we set out to have dinner there, cellphone GPS in hand. As we walked to the other side of the island, we came to a dead end, with houses and jungle beyond the roadway. As we approached, there were three guys on bicycles in the middle of the road about 50 yards away. My cop-senses started to tingle. It was clear we were not welcome beyond that point. Just then, a guy came out of the bushes where we were standing. “Hey guys. Are you looking for the beach? This way.” He was very friendly, but clearly his job was to steer us away from there. We told him we were looking for Mama’s Little Kitchen. “I know it… Right this way.” Then he walks us under a fence and across a vacant lot. I am looking around, ready to be jumped at any moment. But there it was… He pointed to the entrance and made sure we went in.
If you are into scuba diving or snorkeling, Belize is the place for you. The scuba shops are cheap and really friendly. In season, you can go out on a boat, dive down, and spear your own lobster. When you are back on shore, they will cook it for you on the spot. It doesn’t get fresher than that! Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world. It is beautiful and host so many colorful species of marine life. While snorkeling, I came face to face (literally) with a manatee. What an awesome experience. We were told by the boat captain that, if we see one, do not touch it or it will swim away. As the waves pushed me closer and closer to the manatee, all I could think was, don’t touch it and be the guy that scared off the only manatee out there.
While in Belize, divers will want to see the Great Blue Hole (pictured below). This is a giant marine sinkhole about 41 miles off the coast of Belize. It is about 1043 feet across and 407 feet deep, and extremely popular among divers. Jacques Cousteau named it one of the top five dives in the world. Only the most experienced divers certified in cave diving should attempt it. It is a beautiful phenomenon from the air as well.
We didn’t get to visit Ambergris or St. George’s Cayes. These are on our bucket list to complete the Belize island experience, so we will have to go back. Next time, we plan to island-hop. You can take a ferry from one island to the next, so we plan to stop at Caye Caulker again for a couple of days and then spend a couple of days on each of the other two islands. Belize operates on the Belize dollar, which is a 2 to 1 exchange rate with the UD dollar. So basically, everything is half priced and very affordable. The water is amazing and the islanders are very friendly and welcoming. Don’t miss any opportunity to visit. If you are worried about travel during this pandemic, read my article on Belize during COVID. They have world-renowned protocol for safety. Island paradise at it’s best.