“We don’t get ill here, so we’re happy,” a laid-back bartender told me as he fixed me a coconut rum cocktail. “It’s never cold and we have nothing to worry about.”
I swirled my turtle-safe paper straw around in my glass while I processed this simple but meaningful statement - widely accepted as fact on the island of Caye Caulker. Is life really that simple?
A small Caribbean island off the coast of Belize, Caye Caulker may just be the next big ecotourism destination. Sandy beaches, protected forest and marine reserves, and access to one of the premier diving sites in the world (the Great Blue Hole) mean this laidback island has been a magnet for backpackers in Central America for years. But with eco-resorts popping up all over the island, Caye Caulker is increasingly attracting travellers from different backgrounds.
The attitude is 'No Shirt, No Shoes…No Problem', you don’t need to get dressed up or worry about the ironing here. With no cars, intermittent WiFi, and an ‘easy-going' approach to opening hours, you won’t find a reason to be in a rush either.
In fact, the only traffic signs you will see on the island are the words ‘Go Slow’, a sentiment taken seriously by locals.
Caye Caulker has everything you would hope to find on a Caribbean island; pristine beaches, clear waters, welcoming locals, and home-cooked food with a hint of spice. And it's easily one of the most popular places to stay in Belize.
As an old British colony, the locals speak a mixture of English and Creole, and the Belizean Dollar is tied to USD with an exchange rate of 2:1. This all makes Caye Caulker a very easy place to travel around.
While the more northerly island of Caye Ambergris is perhaps better known (and certainly more pricey), Caye Caulker retains a unique island charm not all that easy to come by.
Its standout attraction is the Belize Barrier Reef and the Great Blue Hole, part of the second largest reef system in the world - but there are also dense mangrove forests and diverse birdlife on the small tropical island.
Many travellers to this part of the world will have one thing on their mind; that surreal, postcard-perfect image of the Great Blue Hole. But is the trip out to the Blue Hole from Caye Caulker worth the cost? And what else is there to do on the island - besides drinking rum cocktails and eating fried chicken, that is?
The Great Blue Hole is an absolute must for anyone travelling to Belize. There are two ways to see the Blue Hole from Caye Caulker; by sea or by air. A small 6-seater plane is the only way to see the collapsed sea cave’s picture-perfect outline, as well as the atolls and intricate reef systems of the Belize Barrier Reef.
Tsunami Adventures offer a short scenic flight for US$225 a person. Dive trips from Caye Caulker to the Blue Hole take 2.5-3 hours by boat and cost around US$300, snorkelers can hop on for a slightly lower cost too. Frenchies offer day trips that include lunch, one dive in the Blue Hole, and two other dives on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Belize Barrier Reef - Lighthouse Reef and Half Moon Caye.
Though one of the more costly things to do on the island, this once-in-a-lifetime experience is a highlight of any trip to Caye Caulker.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are the two most popular snorkelling trips from Caye Caulker. They don’t disappoint, delivering close encounters with loggerhead turtles, southern stingrays and nurse sharks in abundance.
The world’s largest population of West Indian manatees also live in these waters, thriving under protection for the last 30 years. You may be able to spot them nursing their young in the sheltered sea gardens.
The best tours are run in a responsible way (without feeding the marine life), and include snorkelling equipment, lunch and drinks, park fees, and a local guide - all you need to do is pack the reef safe sunscreen.
Besides diving and snorkelling, there are some other fun ways to enjoy the calm waters of Caye Caulker. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to explore the Caye Caulker Forest Reserve, a 100-acre refuge on the north of the island that’s home to rare birdlife, crocodiles, boa constrictors, and scaly-tailed iguanas.
The south end of the island is also a great place for wildlife watching, as few visitors make it that far. Windsurfing is popular here, too, with year-round winds and calm, shallow waters. You can rent boards or take lessons.
Perhaps the most important thing to do in Caye Caulker is to ‘go slow’. Plan to spend at least a few days relaxing and exploring all of the local eateries. Visit the Caye Caulker Animal Shelter to leave some good vibes, then head to the Split, have a rum cocktail, and eat some jerk chicken.
A few of the best restaurants to try in Caye Caulker are Wish Willies for lobster and seafood, Errolyn’s House of Fry Jacks for breakfast, and Suggestion Gourmet for croissants and fresh baguettes - the chef of the latter has rejected many offers to work in Michelin star restaurants, simply saying he prefers to work in peace on a tropical island!
For an unforgettable and authentic experience stop by at Meldys for a home-cooked Belizean menu - it changes daily. Sit at one of two tables on her front porch and tuck into real food cooked with love - the fried chicken is particularly memorable. If you are fortunate enough to visit Caye Caulker in July you will come across Lobsterfest - a festival celebrating all things lobster with lively music, odd cocktails, and even lobster ice cream.
Some of the best hotels in Caye Caulker are on the north island and require getting a water taxi to the main island. Blue Zen Cay Caulker is a top choice if you’re looking for complete tranquillity and a touch of luxury.
On the main island, Dream Cabanas is tucked away in a quiet corner, providing peaceful bungalows at an affordable price. If you want to be more central, La Isla Resort has its own beach and private pool and is just a two-minute walk away from the water taxi dock.
Caye Caulker is located approximately 32 kilometres northeast of Belize City and is easily accessible by ferry - locally known as a water taxi. You will need to get a 20-minute taxi from Belize Airport, or you can easily walk to the water taxi terminal from the Belize City bus station.
The quicker, but more expensive option is the 8-minute flight from Belize International Airport with Tropic Air or Maya Island Air on a tiny 4 or 12-seater plane.
San Pedro Belize Express and Ocean Ferry both offer a 45-minute ferry to Caye Caulker. Opt for San Pedro Belize Express for a larger terminal and more frequent crossings.
There’s no need to book in advance - just buy your ticket at the water taxi terminal, drop off your luggage, and follow everyone else when it’s time to board. And don’t forget the number one rule; go slow!