Ok I know I’m going to risk the wrath of Belize lovers everywhere but I have to say that we were a bit underwhelmed by our experience of Belize. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy our time there and we’re truly grateful to have gone at all, it’s just that we didn’t fall madly in love with the country as we had expected to.
In all fairness I think the reasons for our less than passionate feelings towards Belize have very little to do with the country itself and more to do with our own personal expectations and limitations.
Well actually the expectation part was more my undoing than Nathan’s. After years of hearing people sing the praises of Belize I think I had built it up in my mind to such a degree that it couldn’t possibly live up to my own vision. Nathan on the other hand is rarely disappointed by anything as he never really has pre conceived notions or expectations and simply accepts and enjoys things just as they are…lucky guy.
The limitations part though did affect both of us. Belize is one of the most expensive places to visit in Central America and since we are long term budget travelers as opposed to “holidayers” we were extremely limited financially on just how much we could see and do. For us this meant that our experience of Belize would be limited to a drive through Belize City (more than enough) and five days on Caye Caulker. We would not be able to explore the jungles and ruins, lounge at a resort on white sand beaches or dive on one of the worlds largest coral reefs…all the things that make Belize lovers sing its praises.
Now before you ask if I want some cheese with my whine let me just say that we’re certainly not complaining and we are truly grateful for every minute of this nomadic life we’ve chosen. I just want to be completely honest for the sake of all the other travelers out there who may be somewhat limited by money or time and are trying to decide where best to spend that time and money.
For this reason I question whether Belize should be a priority on the itinerary of a budget traveler. In my opinion if money does not allow you to really take in all that Belize has to offer then I would say that you should do one of two things. Either skip it entirely and spend more time in places like Honduras or Guatemala where your money will go much further or just stay a few days in a place like Caye Caulker and see it as a small sampling of Belize and a great place to recharge and enjoy some downtime in lovely surroundings.
…Which is exactly what we did.
Having said all the above, Caye Caulker really is a pretty cool place to relax for a few days. With very few cars (golf carts and bikes are the main form of transportation), sandy streets, reggae music, hammocks and swings everywhere and no need for shoes or shirts you can’t help but succumb to the island’s motto of “Go Slow”.
Whatever you do on Caye Caulker you truly do it slowly and after a month of non-stop travel we were happy to settle into quiet routine for a few days. We slept until 8 or 9, we worked (usually from bed) until noonish, and then we exercised, walked, swam, sunned, relaxed, and did sunset yoga in whatever order we felt like.
There aren’t really any great sandy beaches on the island and much of the water right off the shore is full of sea grass so most people spend the day swimming and sunning at the Split. Here you can lay on the remnants of the old hurricane ravaged dock and swim in the clear, turquoise, sea grass free waters while listening to the music (often Reggae) coming from the Lazy Lizard beach bar. The Lazy Lizard btw is a great spot to end a day in the sun and watch the sunset with a cold happy hour drink.
Hopefully one day we can return to Belize with more time and money and less expectations and will very likely be singing its praises along with everyone else. However for now our praises will mainly be reserved for the amazing snorkeling tour we took. If you’ve been following our travels you’ll know that we have already been lucky enough to experience some spectacular snorkeling on the Pacific Coast of Mexico which you can read about here and here. Still, there is something about the crystal clear turquoise waters and white sand of the Caribbean side that make the experience feel somehow more exotic. Plus Belize is home to one of the largest coral reefs in the world so it really is something to see.
There are several tour companies on this tiny island of Caye Caulker and they have very similar itineraries and prices. We went with Raggamuffin Tours mainly because they offer a tour by sailboat rather than speedboat. The cost was $140 Belizean (about $70USD) for a full day sail including three snorkel stops, lunch, snacks, rum punch and snorkel gear.
Our first stop was Shark and Ray Alley which as the name suggested consisted of snorkeling with Nurse Sharks and Southern Stingrays. Although somewhat controversial to the eco minded most of the guides on these tours will feed the sharks and rays in order to provide better viewing for their passengers. In doing so our guides ensured that we were literally surrounded by these beautiful creatures. The experience was somewhat surreal as together the rays undulated smoothly around us and the sharks swam with regal poise and purpose in a silent underwater dance. Maybe not as elegant but certainly just as beautiful in his own way was an old half blind sea turtle that was well known to the guides. He would occasionally swim straight for the snorkelers and have to be gently guided away. It was such a great first stop that we wondered how the rest of the day could possibly compare.
The second stop was the aptly named Coral Gardens which was equally as beautiful as the first stop but for very different reasons. We jumped overboard into the midst of one of the largest coral reefs in the world and peered down through our masks into the crystal clear waters. What we saw was a magical underwater garden of coral beds displaying a multitude of colors, shapes and patterns along with a constant parade of colorful fish and other marine life gliding through the living formations. Thankfully these beautiful coral reefs are very closely protected so you can only view them with a guide and if you were to venture too far off you may be asked to return to your boat by one of the special marine guards.
Our final stop of the day was another area of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The name means “little channel” in the Maya language and it is a natural hang out for marine life. As there is no fishing allowed in the reserve the marine life is abundant and felt as though we were swimming in a massive tropical aquarium. We floated for almost an hour among a myriad of colorful fish, sea turtles, Stingrays, Manta rays and Nurse Sharks and even found a scary looking green Moray eel peeking out of his hole to see what was going on.
All three stops were unique and amazing and we wished the day could have gone on forever. Thankfully we have our GoPro video (see below) so that we can share it with you and also look back on it ourselves.
In between the first and second stop we were served a tasty lunch consisting of our choice of seafood or chicken with rice and salad. After the final stop we munched on a delicious ceviche that one of our guides had made fresh in front of our eyes. Until that point we had been urged to drink plenty of water, juice or soda but once the snorkeling was over the endless supply of rum punch was served. I have to say that in this way the tour was very different than our experiences in Mexico. On Mexican excursions alcohol is not only available throughout the whole trip but it is in fact somewhat pushed. Some may think that’s a great thing but when it comes to making the safety of their passengers a priority Belize (or at least Raggamuffin Tours) wins hands down. Anyway, the spectacular underwater sights really are stimulating enough on their own and have no need of embellishment.
Where to Eat and Drink
For a tiny island there are quite a few restaurants to choose from and you can find everything from Belizean food to pizza to Chinese (there’s actually quite a big Chinese population in Belize now). Our favorite for Belizean fare was Fran’s which is just a small stand on the sandy Front Street that only opens for dinner. Around dusk they drag over a couple of picnic tables and fire up the coals on a large grill while Fran sits there in her chair and yells out the evening’s menu to potential customers as they walk by. There will usually just be three or four options to choose from but all are delicious and come with rice, potatoes, chocolate cake and two cups of rum punch for $20 Belizean.
Note: you will find very little in the way of vegetables here (hence the rice and potatoes as side dishes). However fruit is pretty abundant and well-priced.
We also really liked Pizza Caulker for their brick oven Pizza and fun atmosphere. The crust is thin and crispy and the sauce is a little spicy and delicious, it was very much like our favorite pizza back home. Like several of the bars and restaurants on Caye Caulker Pizza Caulker is owned by a Canadian. The island is full of ex-pats who came and never left or have made it their home for the winter months.
If you crave Italian food there is absolutely no competition for Pasta Per Caso. Unfortunately the owners Anna & Armando were in Italy when we arrived on the island so the restaurant was only open for one night while we were there. Thank goodness we decided to try it on that night! It is a tiny place on Front Street with only outside seating for about fifteen people and the menu consists of only two nightly changing pasta options. The night we were there we shared lasagna which was quite possibly one of the best lasagnas we’ve ever tasted and was served with absolutely divine garlic toasts.
For a snack definitely look out for the Cake Man (he looks like Chef on Southpark). You’ll find him walking the street with his cart of delicious baked goods and if you try any one of his temptations you will be back for more. We tried a meat pie, a coconut tart, a chocolate/coconut tart and banana bread while we were there and they were all scrumptious!
If you’re looking for a cold beer or a tropical cocktail there are also plenty of options. As mentioned before you will definitely visit the Lazy Lizard at some point as it is right at the Split and pumps out music all day and into the evening…a must for sunset at least once. For drinks, music and fun a favorite spot day or night is the Barrier Reef Sports Bar & Grill which holds events such as Trivia, Open Mic and Guitar Jam nights. If you want to really soak in the tropical vacation vibe just seek out one of the many bars and restaurants that have swings for seating such as Bambooze which is right on the beachfront. For late night drinks and dancing (and yes they have swings too) go to I & I Reggae but don’t bother going much before 11pm as you’ll likely be swinging alone.
Caye Caulker has always been known as one of the more budget friendly areas of Belize for accommodations but this seems to be changing. There are still numerous hostels on the island but many of them are becoming overpriced for what they offer and most of the hotels are upgrading and renovating which means that they will soon become out of reach for the average budget traveler. During the time we were there (Feb, 2014) the least expensive hostel was $40 per night for a private double room. The upside is that some of them are right on the beach and have hammocks to waste the day away in which could be worth the extra splurge.
As we’d been unable to book anything online we arrived on Caye Caulker without a reservation and found ourselves at the mercy of a toothless Rasta. He put us and our luggage on a golf cart and took us to the China Town Hotel where we were shown a double room with AC for $40USD a night (cheap for Belize). There seemed to be a lack of availability so we took it. The room was basic but decent and the hotel itself was undergoing massive renovations. They were redoing all the rooms (ours hadn’t been done yet), setting new marble floors in all the common areas and completely redoing the pool (so it wasn’t useable while we were there). Obviously this was why we got the discounted rate of $40. I think it’s safe to say that in a few months this hotel will also be struck from the list of budget options.
There are two ferry services from Belize City to Caye Caulker: Caye Caulker Water Taxi and Belize Water Taxi. They have different schedules and depart and arrive at different points in Belize City and Caye Caulker but they both have boats leaving at roughly 90 minute intervals from early morning until early evening and cost about $25 Belizean each way. Once on the island there is really no need for transportation as the main part of the island is easily walkable. However you can also rent bikes or golf carts by the hour, day or week. We rented a golf cart on our last morning to go and explore the less developed south end of the island and paid $12USD for an hour.
Once back in Belize City you can take a taxi to the bus station and get a bus to anywhere else in Belize or you can go to Mexico or Honduras or Guatemala. You can also take a boat to other places including Chetumal. Mexico but it is quite a bit more costly.
We had decided to go to Merida, Mexico on an overnight bus for a cost of about $96 Belizean ($48USD). The bus departs for Merida at 7pm and for Cancun at 7:30pm and you can only buy the ticket at the bus depot. If, like us, you have been on Caye Caulker and didn’t buy your ticket in advance you will want to be at the station by 5pm when the ticket booth opens. There’s usually not a problem for the Merida bus but the Cancun bus can sell out. Also be prepared to pay in cash as they do not take credit cards. You will pay a portion of the ticket price (about $20 Belizean) at the station in Belizean or US cash. You will then have to pay the balance when the bus crosses into Mexico (you can pay in Belizean or Mexican cash: Pesos are the best option here). You will also need some Belizean cash for a departure tax and some Pesos for a taxi in Cancun or Merida.
It’s a good idea to plan in advance for how much of each currency you will need as there is no ATM at the Belize City station and it’s not a great neighborhood to go wandering around the streets looking for a bank. We know this from personal experience as I had to take a taxi to find a bank while Nathan stayed to guard the luggage from drunk locals. Belize City is not the nicest or safest cities.
The overnight bus we boarded was not as nice as the one we took in Guatemala but as the Merida run is not as popular as the Cancun run we and one other couple were the only people on board so we were able to spread out as much as we wanted. After stopping at the border we were all able to get a full six hours sleep before our arrival in Merida at 4am where we would be spending our last few days of traveling before settling down to Live, Dream and Discover the Yucatan.