By HARRY PARISER

Photos in Caye Caulker Sections by Fran Dwight

Editor's note: Harry Pariser is the author of Adventure Guide to Belize, published by Hunter Publications. It is one of the most-comprehensive guides to the country. A revised 4th edition (from which this article is excerpted, with some additions, changes, and updates by BELIZE FIRST) is planned. A world traveler since the mid-1970s, Harry Pariser also is the author of guides to Jamaica , the Dominican Republic, and to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. He presently lives in San Francisco. Original material copyright by Harry Pariser.

Caye Caulker is a small sand and mangrove island, less than 4 miles in length, of which only the southern one-third is settled. It is a uniquely Belizean version of Mexico's Isla Mujeres or Utila in the Honduras Bay Islands.

Although golf carts have grown in number on this once vehicle-free island (more than 80 at last count) and development is increasing - even luxury condos are under construction - today's slow-paced lifestyle still resembles San Pedro of a decade or two ago.

Surrounded by a shallow placid blue-green sea, Caye Caulker, also sometimes called Caye Corker, located about 20 miles northeast of Belize City and 11 miles south of Ambergris Caye, has just one village. Here, activity by day is focused on the sea and its life-giving reef; by night, the activity switches to casual bars, where the social drinking can turn heavy. If you need air conditioning, lots of activities, and resort-style shopping, you'll not enjoy Caulker. The island has no chain stores, no fast-food places, no international hotels, only one bank, and fewer than 200 telephones. But if diving or snorkeling, fishing, sleeping late, eating simple but tasty food, and enjoying friendly companionship is your kind of life, then you may well become a regular visitor here.

   Caye Caulker is a center for windsurfing in Belize
As everywhere, on Caulker things are changing. Satellite dishes are now in evidence (for the island's two cable services) as are new houses that clash with the traditional architecture. Capt. Chocolate, the island's best-known tour guide, boat owner, and all-around friendly character, now has an e-mail address (chocolate@btl.net). Once synonymous with the island, the spiny lobster has been severely depleted. Even the coco plum, which gave the island its Spanish name of Cayo Hicaco, today is found only on the southern part of the island.

Formerly a backpacker's heaven, Caye Caulker's prices have risen. But it still remains relatively affordable for the low-budget traveler. Despite a certain amount of environmental devastation, partially brought on by mangrove cutting, the island has seen a growing spirit of ecological awareness and cooperation spurred on by the problems which have become evident to all. A tour guide association has now been established, reef mooring buoys have been installed, and an offshore reef reserve is planned.

Another island feature is sand flies, which zero in for attack on calm days and can make life a misery. Mosquitoes are a problem during the summer rainy season, less so other times.

HISTORY: Visited by pirates and Mexican fishermen, the island was uninhabited as late as the 1830s. The first permanent residents were refugees from the Caste War in the Yucatán, and most of today's Jicacqueños can trace their ancestry directly back to Mexico. The initial industry was cocal, growing coconut palms and harvesting their nuts for oil. Lobster fishing became important from the 1920s and, after a struggle, a cooperative was formed in 1960 to assure reasonable prices. In a good year, a co-op member can catch 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. of lobster tails, with an average of 50-70 lbs. per day during the height of the season. Today, the 600-member Northern Fisherman's Cooperative supplies some of the lobsters sold in the Red Lobster chain.

Unlike other lobsters - which must be kept alive until they are cooked, lest a strong chemical reaction turn the meat into a putrid jelly - the rock lobster can be frozen. However, it lacks sizeable claws, so the meat is all in the tail.

Nearly every home standing on "Main Street" was demolished by 1961's Hurricane Hattie; the new version of town was constructed further inland using more hurricane-proof building techniques. The "hippies" discovered Caye Caulker during the 1960s. Over the years it has metamorphized and these days appears to be following in the footsteps of Ambergris. With overfishing and catching of undersized specimens rampant, lobster fishing appears doomed and tourism may soon become the island's primary source of income. As lobsters takes four to five years to mature, it is not been considered practical to farm them, although a plan by a Taiwanese group recently was floated to do just that.

Unfortunately, the quiet charm and pristine environment that has given the island its touristic appeal over the decades is in danger as well. Bizarrely, condo developments have started to sprout. A more inappropriate form of development for this island could not be conceived of. A whole host of mangroves have been cut, and newly built sea walls are intended to stave off the erosion produced by past mangrove felling.

EVENTS: Commemorating the introduction in the mid-1800s of the vitally important coconut palm, a three-day coconut festival is held in May. There are activities such as a food fair, processing tour, crowning of a Coconut King and Queen, and various coconut competitions, including husking, tree climbing, grating, tossing, and chipping.

GETTING HERE: The preferable way to visit the island is still by boat. After less than an hour's journey from Belize City's new Marine Terminal (formerly the old fire station), you're deposited at one of the piers at Caye Caulker - normally at the "front bridge" pier. All the Caye Caulker boats have banded together to form the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association. The association has 14 boats. The group has signed a contract with Belize Tourism Industry Association, which owns and operates the Marine Terminal, to do regular runs from the Terminal to the cayes. Boats operate on a regular schedule starting at 9 a.m. daily, and departing thereafter every two hours - at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. - to Caye Caulker. Schedules are usually reliable. The boats from Caye Caulker to Belize City depart at 6:45 a.m., 8 a.m., 10 a.m., and 3 p.m. Price is US$7.50 one-way or US$12.50 if round-trip is scheduled for the same day. The boats also make stops, on request only, at St. George's Caye - US$10 one way - and Caye Chapel, US$7.50 one-way. There is also a scheduled boat to San Pedro from Caye Caulker daily at 10 a.m. which returns at 3 p.m.

By air: An airstrip was completed in 1991, wreaking ecological devastation on the southern part of the island and starting a decline in the island's serenity. Both Maya Island Air and Tropic Air have hourly flights during daylight hours from Belize City to Ambergris Caye's newly expanded airstrip, and these flights will stop on request at Caye Caulker: Tropic Air (tel. 501-2-45671, 2-62012, or 2-22040 locally in Caye Caulker, or toll-free 800-422-3435; e-mail: tropic@btl.net); and Maya Island Air (tel. 501-2-31348/31362/31403; 800-257-8802; e-mail: mayair@btl.net) also has limited service. Fares vary a bit, but figure US$35 or less one-way from the international airport in Belize City to Caulker, and about US$20 from municipal. Flights from San Pedro are around US$20 one-way. A Caulker travel agent, Dolphin Bay (tel./fax 501-2-22214, e-mail dolphinbay@btl.net.), can book flights and dive trips.

A note on telephone numbers: When calling from the U.S., add 011 and then dial the country code, 501, plus the six-digit number; when calling from another part of Belize, drop the 501 and dial 0 before the six-digit number. When calling locally, usually the last four digits are all you need to dial.)

ORIENTATION: With only a few streets and numerous but short side streets, it's nearly impossible to get lost on the island. To the north, the village ends at The Cut (also known as The Split), a swimming hole created by Hurricane Hattie. The swift current can make it dangerous for children and poor swimmers. Separated from the rest of the island by this barrier, the island's north doesn't have much in the way of development. It remains a preserve with swamps, mangroves, and a lot of coconuts gone wild. A nice path leads along the southern shore, dividing the hotels from the piers. Along the way, you might see a hummingbird or an iguana basking in the sun or descending from a palm. You'll also note the lobster traps piled atop one another. Each year, they are beached for longer and longer periods. From Shirley's near the airstrip, a path wends its way past iguanas, small anoles, and seabirds, until it terminates in mud, muck, and mosquitoes. Near here, the toxic village dump has bred a population of crocodiles. Island residents are working on the declaration of an offshore marine reserve, separate from the Siwa-Ban Nature Preserve and larger than the one at Hol Chan.

Traveler's Tip: Despite whatever deceptive signs you might see (such as "no trespassing"), access to the shoreline within 36 feet is guaranteed by Belizean law. So, all of the island's shore is public right of way.

CAYE CAULKER NATURE PRESERVE: On the northern end of the island, this proposed reserve, to be modeled after Hol Chan Preserve, will preserve the flora and fauna of the littoral forest, mangroves, seagrass, and barrier reef. The littoral (seaside) forest will protect coco plums, seagrapes, and areas of red mangrove. The seagrass habitat will extend from the littoral forest and mangrove zone into part of the barrier reef. The preserve's name comes from the black catbird (siwa-ban in Yucatec Maya), which is a relative of the tropical mockingbird. Also present in the area are over 125 species of birds and the endangered American crocodile. For more information or to make a donation, contact Ellen McRae at Galeria Hicaco (e-mail: sbf@btl.net) or send a tax-deductible donation to The Siwa-ban Foundation, 143 Anderson, San Francisco, CA 94110-5602.

SWIMMING: The water's too shallow to swim from shore. Most go to The Cut. You can see the erosive damage done here from cutting down mangroves. Note that crocodiles are sometimes seen in this area - they live on the west side in the mangroves. There's also an area for swimming created by the new dock opposite Oceanside bar. Other popular swimming areas are off the front and back public piers.

DIVE SITES: It's about a mile to the Barrier Reef. Hol Chan near Ambergris Caye is another popular destination. The Sponge Avenue, North Cut, and Swash are snorkeling and diving locations off the east coast. Mackerel Hole and George's Cut are near the South Cut. A difficult and potentially dangerous cave system is located off the island's west coast. Diving this cave is not recommended, and local divemasters will not take you there.

Belize Diving Services (tel. 501-2-22143, fax 2-22217, West North Avenue, Wauwatopsa, WI 53266 or P.O. Box 667, Belize City) is the oldest dive shop on the island. Frenchie's Dive Shop (tel. 501-2-22234) leads dives to all of the major sites. BZ Travel Services (tel. 800-382-7776; Box 1723, Dickinson, TX 77539; e-mail: bztravel@compassnet.com) is near the soccer field. Their packages include a stay at Tree Tops. NAUI and PADI classes are available. Sea-ing is Belizing (tel. 501-2-22189) shop includes a gift shop, photo gallery, and a bookstore. Caye Caulker's School of Scuba (tel. 501-2-22292, fax 2-22239), the island's dive school, is next to Edith's. Two-tank dives from Caye Caulker run about US$40.

ACCOMMODATIONS: There are still a lot of relatively cheap digs around, although prices are rising, and newer, more upscale accommodations are being built. With hotel occupancy averaging only about 33% on Caye Caulker even in the high season (Thanksgiving to Easter) according to Belize Tourist Board figures, rooms are generally easy to find after arrival. Exceptions are around Christmas, New Years, and Easter, when most places are booked.

Among the upper end: the 12-unit Tropical Paradise Hotel (tel. 501-2-22124; P.O. Box 1573, Belize City), which charges from around US$22.50 single to US$65 for a triple suite. It has ceiling fans. Don't smoke pot in your room; busts have occurred here. Right nearby is Morgan's (tel. 502-2-22178; e-mail: sbf@btl.net) the cozy if simple cabanas run by Ellen McRae and her husband, Orlando. Rates are around US$40.

The Tree Tops Hotel (tel. 501-2-22008, fax 501-2-22115; P.O. Box 1648, Belize City) has five spacious and attractive rooms for around US$30 double. Rooms have cable TV, refrigerator, ceiling fan, tiled floors, and high ceilings. They are kept in immaculate condition by the owners Terry and Doris Creasy. Terry will sit down with you and give you the lowdown on where to go and what to do. It's a pleasure just to sit up on the breezy balcony and shoot the breeze. If it's within your budget, this may be the best place to stay.

Popular with budget travelers, Tom's Hotel (tel. 501-2-22102) overlooks the water. Tom charges between US$11 and $26 for a room and US$27.50 for a cabin. (See accompanying article by Fran Dwight on her experiences at Tom's ) Tom's Hotel -- Why a "Regular" to the Island Loves It

One of the best budget hotels is the small Hide-A-Way (tel. 501-2-2103), which features five comfortable rooms with fans. Located behind the evangelical church and on the same street as the Health Center, the hotel is around the corner from Daisy's Hotel. Run by Ray and Carolyn Avila, the Seaview is just down from Tom's and charges around US$30 double. The Anchorage (tel. 501-2-45937) has four white cabins with thatched roofs from around US$20. Ignacio's Cabins (tel. 501-2-2212; P.O. Box 1169, Belize City) are cute and have private bath. Charges are US$15 double; triples are also available. Ignacio has the following notice by his pier: "IF YOU DO NOT STAY HERE AT IGNACIO CABIN, DO NOT GO ON MY PIER BECAUSE I, IGNACIO WILL RUN YOU OFF OR CHASE YOU AWAY." Don't say that you have not been warned!

Owned by a hospitable local woman, Lorraine's Guesthouse (tel. 501-22002) charges around US$17.50 for its cabins, which have hot water. Run by expatriate Shirley Young, the attractive Shirley's Guest House (tel. 501-2-22145) charges US$16 single, and US$20.50 double. The Caye Caulker Guest House (tel. 501-2-22249) charges around US$17.50 double. This spot is currently up for sale, although it remains open.

   Cabins at the split
Near The Split: The Castaways (tel. 501-2-2294) charges around US$12.50 double with shared bath. The Mira Mar Hotel (tel. 501-2-22157) is next door and the Sandy Lane Hotel is behind it. The Oceanside, formerly The Reef (tel. 501-2-22196) is next. The unspectacular Rainbow Hotel (tel. 501-2-22123) follows, charging around US$25 single and US$27.50 double. Chocolate's (tel. 501-2-22151; P.O. Box 332, Belize City) has one room for US$50, with a great view and a small refrigerator. Cheaper rooms (some of which may still be under construction) are US$17.50. The attractive Island Sun Guest House (tel. 501-2-22215; P.O. Box 1698, Belize City) charges US$25 for a simple room with a bath. This guest house also is for sale, but it is still operating. Note: Theft is more likely if staying in the north end. Watch your possessions. Sobre Las Olas is a set of simple rooms with showers not inexpensively priced (for what they are) at about US$27 and US$35 w/tax. These rooms have fans; more expensive rooms have a/c. Barbara's (tel. 501-2-22005) is a six-room budget-priced establishment where single women will feel comfortable. Rooms rent for around US$10.

Others: Other hotels include eight-room Edith's Hotel (tel. 501-2-22150), one of the first hotels on the island; nine-room Hotel Marin (tel. 501-2-22106); six-room, moderately-priced Sea Beezzz (tel. 501-2-22176); Daisy's Hotel (tel. 501-2-22150; P.O. Box 196, Belize City); the three Jimiñez Huts (tel. 501-2-22175); next to Tom's; the 15-room Lena's Hotel (tel. 501-2-22106); Johnny's Rooms (tel. 501-2-22149); the Caribe Hotel (tel. 501-2-22159); and the Trend Hotel (tel. 501-2-22321).

New developments: Condos, for good or ill, are coming to Caye Caulker. The first building in Emerald Pointe Condominiums' three-building development at the Split was to have had 10 condo units and two penthouses, with prices from about US$95,000 to $250,000. Construction on this controversial project has been, at least temporarily, suspended. Separately, Iguana Reef Inn is under construction, with suites units in the US$75 to $100 a night range, expected to open soon. More in the Corker tradition, the 1788 Motel, near the Split, owned and operated by George Besta and his partner Abe Meehl, both U.S. expatriates now resident on Caye Caulker, has opened. The motel has seven rooms with private bath around a courtyard with rates of around US$25 a night. It is unclear whether the island can support all the new development.

Rentals: Ask around if staying a long time. Houses may be rented from around US$400 per month, or US$150 a week. Camping on the beach is prohibited. Contact Heredia's Apartment & House Rentals (tel. 501-2-22132; P.O. Box 1018, Belize City); or the four-unit M & N Apartments (tel. 501-2-22111). Dolphin Bay Travel (tel./fax 501-2-22214; e-mail dolphinbay@btl.net) has two nice apartments with tile floors, kitchenette, and hot showers which can be rented weekly or monthly.

   Vegetarian and meat lasagne are available at The Sandbox, one of Caulker's best restaurants
FOOD: Food prices here are climbing, with many restaurants charging US 75 cents just for a cup of coffee. Glenda's is famous for large bottles of fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast, along with fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. For lunch there are burritos and ganaches. Another excellent place is Syd's Bar nearby which, unfortunately, is legendary for the long wait to be served in the evening. Either go here for lunch or bring a thick novel. Marin's has a nice atmosphere and accompanying fairly high prices. For Chinese food, the only choice is the nearby Chan's Garden. The Oceanside, now in a new location where The Reef bar formerly was, serves a light lunch. Razzle Dazzle is a thatched-roof bar and coffee shop with a tropical ambience. The budget Little Kitchen is right across from Vega's. In a new location but still relatively near The Split, the Sandbox is another fine restaurant. It's run by the affable Mary Jo Prost, a former manager of the Seaside Guest House in Belize City. Dishes include snapper almondine, ceviche, and both vegetarian and meat lasagna. Sobre Las Olas is right on the shore and has outdoor dining; dishes are pricey for the island but attractively prepared. It has vegetarian and other dishes, including breakfast with fried jacks and omelettes. Right on the shore, Popeye's Pizza has pizza and other light dishes. They offer free delivery. Their full moon parties have a DJ or band and feature limbo contests. The attractive Castaways serves lasagna, Thai shrimp, fried rice, and other dishes in an outdoor area. It's one of the more romantic places to have dinner. Located near the soccer field, J&L's has ice cream and coffee. Also try the Martinez Restaurant, and the Tropical Paradise, famed for its seafood. Located in a blue house on the second street inland from the ocean at the island's western end, Emma sells lobster pies for US 50 cents; they're ready at noon and gone by two. Also try her chocolate coconut.

WARNING: The lobster that Caye Caulker is so famous for is being overfished out of existence. Although most restaurants stick by the code and serve legal-size lobsters, some of the lobster you receive may be undersized, sold by fishermen under the table. A legal lobster tail must weigh at least 4 oz. and should measure no less than 3 inches from eye to carapace. It's up to you whether to eat them or not, but the islanders are undoubtedly killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Someday there will be no lobsters at all!

MARKET SHOPPING: There are a number of small stores, including Chan's Mini Mart, which has a variety of goods including pasta and bread. Sample prices in stores: onions, US 50 cents/lb.; carrots US 70 cents/lb.; Campbell's Vegetable Soup, US$1.08/can; Del Monte Peach Halves, 16 oz./US$1.98; Joy dishwashing detergent, 22 oz./US$3.25; and Head & Shoulders shampoo, 7 oz./US$4.38. New to the island is the Harmouch Supermarket which offers a variety of goods. Tortillas are sold at the Tortillera Princesa del Mar which is across from Edith's Hotel.

ENTERTAINMENT: Down near The Cut, the Oceanside is a favorite of tourists. The multi-leveled I&I is the most-popular after-hours spot on the island and has a special atmosphere. You'll also note the ubiquitous television sets. In this village of around 1,000 there are two cable companies: one controlled by the UDP, the other by the PUP. Sadly, whereas entire families of Jicacqueños once sat out on the pier at night, enjoying the night air and shooting the breeze, today they stay glued to the tube.

CONDUCT: The island has been plagued by Rastaphonians. Coming from as far away as Roatán, most of these dreadlocks-with-attitudes are thoroughly obnoxious and their presence is resented by many locals. Many of the men supplement their income by playing gigolo to naive visiting foreign women and selling drugs, including crack. Don't let this ragamuffin posse spoil your visit. The Jicacqueños are still friendly and hospitable in the extreme, and you can really have a fine time talking to them.

 

Back to Main Menu: Caye Caulker: Island of Smiles

Island Life: A Day in the Life of a Local

Tom's Hotel -- Why a "Regular" to the Island Loves It


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