I recently read a great article on CNN on why more Americans don’t travel abroad. The first speculation was that because America itself is basically large enough to be considered a continent, it can take decades to fully explore, maybe even a lifetime for some people. Understandably, there seems to not be a need or interest in leaving what is already their comfort zone or “playground” – there’s enough to do in America. The second speculation, which I won’t delve too deep in, is the skepticism and ignorance of cultures/ethnic groups outside of the U.S. A lot of which is due to the media’s tendency to portray the negative over the positive and sadly, the American perspective of countries being “dirty” or inferior to theirs. And the last observation is that traveling isn’t encouraged. We as Americans are cultivated to apply for college, work hard to get to the top, put in 40-80 hours a week, buy a house, raise a family, retire with a hefty 401k plan – all of that with only a dismal sprinkling of 10-12 days a year that we refer to as “vacation”. In other countries such as England and Australia, citizens are given at least a month to travel and encouraged to take a year-long Sabbatical! The American work mentality as I’ve come to know it is “work hard, then play hard… but come back within 12 days or you’re fired.”
The last thought concerning work ethics and patterns, I ponder the most. After being exposed to the care-free lifestyles of people in cities such as Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Luang Prabang, it made America look like a sweatshop. In Buenos Aires, the day doesn’t even really begin until 2 pm. In Barcelona, we adapted to the “siesta” lifestyle, where people were encouraged to rest for 3-4 hours after lunch. This applied to businesses too! It really got to me – just how active I was and incapable of standing still. Always out and about, doing this and doing that – busy, busy, busy. Even while on vacation, I found myself trying to pack in as much as we could during our limited time in other countries to “get the most out of our trip”. But Jeni was the one that told me to slow down and take a chill pill. And I learned that we were actually missing out on one of the most essential things about traveling: relaxing at your own pace. Having no agenda. Gracefully inhaling and exhaling versus huffing and puffing. Waking up at your own leisure. Staying up as late as we wanted. Traveling was more than just eating, drinking and sight seeing, it was a way to step out of our familiar “American comfort zone”. I told myself on the next trip I wouldn’t rush anything – I would just try not to do anything and enjoy life.
My first opportunity to try this new approach to traveling came in April, as I sat in a ten-seater propeller plane quietly humming over crystal clear Caribbean waters to a tiny island in Belize, named Caye Caulker. From Los Angeles, we flew into El Salvador (one of Central America’s main hubs) in under 5 hours and took another 1 hour flight over to Belize City. All in all, we were in a different world in less than 7 hours. Jeni had been to Caye Caulker before (pronounced ‘Key Cocker’), and since we had become deeply addicted to the drug called scuba diving in Roatan, Honduras, the 80 degree waters of the Caribbean were beckoning us for yet another underwater excursion. From Belize City, we hopped into the ten-seater plane for a whopping seven-minute flight and couldn’t help but laugh at the size of the plane. The pilot was almost within the reach of the person in the “first class” section and I could very well see all the elusive gauges and monitors in the cockpit. Before entering the plane, the flight attendant, who didn’t even board the plane, took a look at each of the ten passengers and grouped us by weight and told us to sit either on the left or the right side to balance the plane out. Hey, if the plane for any reason started to take a nose dive, I’d at least have the pleasure of meeting everyone aboard before our watery fate haha.
Seven minutes later, we landed at the Caye Caulker airport, which was nothing more than a 50′ foot shack and a tiny airstrip. We were greeted by a British ex-pat sitting inside a golf cart. Her name was Amanda and she was here to take us to our home for the trip – the eponymous Amanda’s Place. We hopped into the golf court and headed towards our place on one of the only three streets in Caye Caulker. She explained that the residents of Caye Caulker get around on golf carts, bikes or by foot and there are no more than 5 or 6 cars on the whole island of 2,000 people. Just north of Caye Caulker is the more resort-heavy San Pedro island, also known as, Ambergris Caye, with a population of about 20,000. Think we’ll go with the smaller island.
A few minutes later, we arrived at Amanda’s Place. It was 2 pm and I was a bit shocked by the fact that there was no one really walking around. I could look down both streets and see maybe a stray dog running across, and maybe 1 or 2 people walking slowly. I looked over at Jeni who was smiling as usual. I knew right away that this indeed what she was looking for and the reason she didn’t mind coming back here. I asked Amanda, “Where’s everyone?” She replied, “This is everyone!”
We went into our unit and got settled in. The first thing Jeni did was jump in the pool. The first thing I did was run to the liquor store and buy the local beer and whatever rum seemed the least painful. Most of the supermarkets and liquor stores are owned by Chinese from Guangdong. My mom always told me about the saying, “Where there is land, there are Chinese.” So yes, they exist even in Belize and Roatan.
On the left is the main street in Caye Caulker, called Middle Street. The other two streets are appropriately named Front Street and Back Street. How awesome is that – only three streets! There you can see Amanda’s Place, an elegant 5-star boutique hotel with 30 floors and bell hops ready to take your bags up to your penthouse suite. Or not. How about enjoying the cozy, laid-back cottage style units equipped with a pool and all the coconuts you can crack open with a machete? We met new guests at Amanda’s Place everyday and shared Belizean beer and cheap rum with each other. It was fantastic.
One thing I love about the Caribbean are the colors and architecture, if you want to call it that. Most of the homes you can tell are built by local contractors and almost always hand painted by the locals. The weathering caused by the sun, wind and water adds a nice touch to the buildings. Islands always offer great opportunities for photography because of the raw and organic look. And more importantly, the people there are simply genuine as well.
Every morning, I woke up and walked over to Amanda’s yard (she lives directly across from her properties) and scaled her fence to grab some coconuts. Her dog was coco for coconuts as well and was waiting for the second that coconut would drop and steal it from me, flavoring it with dog saliva. I would then walk over to the guy next door to my place and borrow his machete and open up the coconuts. Ahhhhh, nearly 24 oz. of nature’s Gatorade in that photo above. As much as I love Zico, it doesn’t beat the real thing – and man, the flesh inside. Mmmmm.
Aside from the calm lifestyle in the Caribbean, Belize is known first and foremost for two things: the Blue Hole and whale sharks. I learned that the first thing you should do if you plan to dive is to check out the dive operators. Using TripAdvisor, I was able to narrow down the many dive shops and ended up going with Scuba Sensations. Finding the right dive master is like finding a soul mate because when it comes to being underwater, you definitely don’t want anyone unprofessional. Any sort of shenanigans can result in you being 6′ underwater. I met Bert Pacheco (pictured above) and I liked him right off the bat. Positive and no bullshit. He has lived on Caye Caulker all his life and has been diving for over 18 years – so he must know everything about diving here. Another thing I look for in a dive operator is how large of a group they tend to go out with. There will be dive shops that run cattle boats, with one dive master for 12-15 people – that’s ludicrous. A good dive shop will guarantee you one dive master with no more than four divers. And with some words of assurance and a firm handshake, I was ready to meet the Bert and his crew the next day for a dip into the ocean.
And let me tell you this, I hate swimming because I suck at it. All my years of smoking cigarettes has resulted in my ability to swim no more than 20-30 yards. A fucking piece of plankton the size of a dust particle can swim faster than me. Fortunately with diving, you’re really not swimming at all. You are basically responsible in maintaining neutral buoyancy with the help of a inflatable vest and a weight belt. All you have to do is kick your fins and keep your eyes wide open for sharks, just kidding.
Blue Hole, Belize. Photo from Google.
On the second day of diving, I decided to check out the Blue Hole, which was made famous by the amazing Jacques Cousteau in 1972, when he took his Calypso ship down to the site to chart its depth (407 feet!). One of the best things about traveling is meeting people from all over the world. But in the subculture of scuba diving, its even more amazing to meet people, like you, that have traveled here specifically to dive. Like with backpackers, conversations are based on where you’ve been and the same applies to scuba divers. I befriended a lawyer from Harlem who needed a break from the concrete jungles of NYC, a Navy diver from Seattle whose job was to investigate anything sunken (even collecting corpses) and a young lady from Montreal who was diving from country to country and it made that much more fun to dive together for 4 days straight. Bacck to the Blue Hole, I actually wasn’t kidding about looking out for sharks because that’s the first thing I saw descending into the deep blue. Because this was a special 2-hour charter to the Blue Hole, there were close to 16 divers all together – and I actually felt safe with the 1/16th chance of losing a limb. There were close to seven 4-6′ reef sharks just circling us about 30 feet away. Up until to this point, I was educated on the negative effects of razor sharp teeth on aluminum cages and in some cases, human flesh. Watching Shark Week on TV is exciting, but being in the water with actual sharks is indescribable. For the first time, I actually appreciated the beauty and design of this fascinating creature. I watched carefully as it steered through the water with very little muscle movement. We descended down as far as 120 feet and I patiently waited for this moment to look up above and catch the silhouettes of the sharks, schools of fish and annoyingly, some overweight divers in the way. It was picturesque.
Blue Hole, Belize. Photo from Google
Scenery-wise, the Blue Hole is simply a hole (formerly a crater) that goes down 407 feet. There are massive stalactites that are formed around the edges of the hole and they don’t provide shelter for much sea life. So really, there are just the random reef sharks and schools of fish. I’ve learned that with diving, “to each his own” – some like big fish, some like reef, etc. But, I am glad I dove this as it one of the top dive sites in the world.
Each morning, I looked for local food as I do in every country. Besides the cafes, there’s almost always someone cooking up something tasty. I met this woman working behind a stall that consisted of a tabletop and display case. I took a peek around the display case and saw that she was spreading some sort of braised chicken over some warm tortillas. I knew exactly what it was after eating it in Tulum, Mexico. “Pollo pibil?”, she nodded. For only $1, I got two small tacos with homemade Caribbean salsa. The people in Central America LOVE their habanero salsa – it’s delicios, as were the tacos. There is also another guy across the way that sells tacos for $1 a piece but I think hers are better.
When you’re on a small island, the chances of finding stellar food is a bit more slim. So it’s important to ask the locals what they like. Avoid all the places that seem touristy – you didn’t come to Caye Caulker for Italian or Chinese food right? We heard about Syd’s, a fried chicken restaurant. One thing Jeni and I always eat when we’re in Central or South America is the chicken. So far our favorites have been Pollo Campero in Guatemala, Kokoriko in Bogotá, Colombia and various places throughout Brazil! Frozen or not, you’re getting the real-deal free range chicken (pollo or gallina) which has so much flavor. It’s one thing you have to take advantage of when traveling because back in the U.S. We sadly have to pay more for something we should be eating in its original form. After swimming or diving, this hits the spot. It’s very good.
The place to be “seen” is a spot on the island known as “The Split”, a term referred to the land gap caused by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. The 150 ft. gap actually provides a great place to swim and snorkel, with the occasional sighting of shallow-swimming rays. There’s a bar called the Lazy Lizard that dispenses local Belizean beer and unknown rums for small change. We came here everyday to hang out and enjoy the chill vibe and Caribbean beats. Once in a while, there is a full moon party right around the Lazy Lizard bar. If you’re hungry, there are 2-3 guys on bicycles selling home-style tamales out of Igloo containers. Look for the man from New York, he makes the most decent ones. Still not as good as Salvadorean or Mexican tamales, but these do the job.
Of all the restaurants we walked by, this restaurant called Rose’s seemed the most appetizing. Outside the restaurant, there was a guy grilling seafood next to a table with skewered local offerings including grouper, barracuda, shrimps and one of my favorites, Stone Crab claws. At Water Grill in Los Angeles, it cost $18 for ONE claw! Here in Caye Caulker, you get a plate of FOUR claws, veggies, rice and bread for about $24. It’s still expensive in comparison to local food but this is expected. Jeni and I ate here daily because of the Stone Crab claws – so sweet. Almost every night, this place was packed probably because it could house a lot of people. If it weren’t for the claws, I’d probably skip this place as everything looked above average.
Several times I woke up too late in getting some tacos from the pollo pibil lady. She started selling at 6:30 am and was usually done by 9 am. Luckily I found this nice woman named Reina – famed for her homemade meat pies which are very tasty. For $.50, you get a piping hot pastry straight out of the oven. I wrapped up a few in foil, gave some to J and brought some with me on my daily boat ride to the dive sites. Very tasty.
“Where there’s land, there’s Chinese.” And where there’s Chinese, there’s Chinese food, no matter how bad it is. You have to expect places like this to be mediocre because of limited access to food and the fact that these people are not really cooks, but more so families trying to get by. I saw locals at joints like this everyday and I eventually gave in to some $5 chicken chow mein. Terrible but the noodles hit the spot. I’m thinking some of the supermarket owners also own restaurants too. And there were a few instances where I saw locals show disgust towards the Chinese and their businesses. The locals feel that the Chinese don’t contribute to the community at all and simply set up shop to “take” their money. I can see their frustrations but at the same time, I saw zero Belizean-owned supermarkets. They were in fact providing a service. Some locals would do a little cliché stretching of the eyes, murmur something “ching chongy” or downright underpay for their stuff. I even corrected a kid on his improper angle of his insulting eye stretch… “it’s like this… not like this!” It was sad and I know how hard these Chinese families work to survive – I hope the locals see their true intentions as well. I found it funny that locals would still continue to buy the food from the Chinese. It’s like “I hate that you guys are here… but I love your chow mein. Five boxes to go, mon.”
Look for Coco Loco, he is known to truly be loco but sells some tasty coconuts for your enjoyment.
Reina sells meat pies and at the Caye Caulker Bakery on Back Street, you can find Belizean-style baked goods every morning. They are known for their cinnamon buns and do sell out by the afternoon. It’s not a bad idea to stop by over here and get some bread to go if you’re going out to “The Split” or going diving.
This is Fran of the eponymous, Fran’s Grill. Everyday from 6:30 pm, she sells the local catch either grilled or fried along with chicken, potatoes and rice. All for less than $10! As I’ve learned from BBQ hunting in Austin, sibling rivalries do exist in the restaurant industry. Fran’s brother is just a hundred feet away running Jolly Roger’s. He is considered the largest man on the island and sits on a chair next to his grill – you can’t miss this jolly man. We tried the barracuda at his place but agreed that sister Fran actually does a better job cooking.
We saw this kid showing off his prize python to his friends and I immediately pulled out my camera. Say “cheeeeeese” and “mice”.
After diving, it’s customary to have beers with the dive masters and fellow divers. This is Mangar, one of the most chill dive masters I’ve had. A good dive master will also share some of his air tank with you to extend your underwater time. I thank Mangar for not letting me croak underwater. Before the dive, I promised him beers if we saw manta rays. We saw a pair of manta rays gracefully flying by and we did an underwater cheer. I ended up buying him two beers!
I enjoyed Caye Caulker more than Roatán (Bay Islands of Honduras). There was great diving, great food and a great vibe throughout the trip. My first experience being on a pretty quiet island was awesome and I’m already thinking about heading back here. Not many places you’ll visit where you’ll know a good majority of the locals by the second day. If you’re interested in learning scuba diving, I can tell you all about the PADI certification process – just email me. Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed your visual stay on the wonderful island of Caye Caulker, Belize.
Facts on Caye Caulker, Belize
Currency: US or Belizean dollars. $1 US = $2 Belizean
Languages: English, Creole, Garifuna (African) and Spanish
Amenities: 1 hospital (mainland), 1 post office, 1 library, 1 bank