After our incredible adventure of sloshing through the ATM Cave, we all hopped back in the mini-bus and rode out of the jungle and back to the
highway. Cecelia and Laurie were heading east to the Belize airport near Belize City to catch a flight back to America that afternoon
and I was heading in the same direction, though to Caye Caulker. Everyone else in the group was going the other way, back to San
Ignacio to spend another night there and to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal in Guatemala the next day, so we had arranged for a taxi
to meet us at the highway turnoff to the ATM Cave.
Sure enough, the taxi was there waiting for us, so Cecelia, Laurie and I bid everyone
farewell and hopped in the cab, bound for the airport. The two women wanted to change out of their wet clothes but knew they
wouldn’t have time to do it at the airport, so they decided to sit in the back seat and told the driver and I not to look in the mirror
for a few minutes. And so, racing down the Western Highway to the Belize International Airport at 60 miles an hour, they somehow
squished and squirmed and changed into dry clothes – don’t ask me how, though, because I wasn’t looking.
I said goodbye to them at the airport and got back in the taxi, then headed to the Caye Caulker water taxi. The water taxi depot is
located in downtown Belize City in a pretty rough part of town – so rough, in fact, that some Belizeans in San Ignacio warned me not to
visit the area, not even during the day.
The driver dropped me off at the water taxi depot but, being an hour early, I walked (cautiously) around Belize City to check it
out. Then shortly before sunset, I walked back to the depot and boarded a 30-foot powerboat with a few dozen other folks
and we hit the water for a thrilling (and salty) ride. We pulled up to the dock at Caye Caulker about an hour later, as it was getting
dark, and I hopped on a golf cart/taxi for a short ride to my destination, a well-kept triplex on the outskirts of “town” called Picololo.
The owner of Picololo, a Canadian woman in her mid-30s, showed me around my cheerful and pleasant room. It was a delightful place. I
quickly unpacked, then walked back into town where I spent an hour strolling around the lively main street, checking out Caye Caulker.
“Street” is a loose term because it’s simply a wide, sandy lane lined on both sides with colorful shops and small family-run motels.
Above: Laurie and Cecelia on the way to the airport, moments before they changed out of their wet clothes. How they did it I'll never know.
A large and boisterous group was gathering in the town center that evening to celebrate the recent victory by the U.D.P presidential candidate and the air was filled
with the wonderful aroma of barbeque chicken from several open grills, while lively reggae music blared from loudspeakers. I spent a half-hour
walking up the main street to the end of town, then turned around and headed back, stopping at a take-out seafood place to pick up some dinner,
which I would eat back at Picololo.
From my brief tour of Caye Caulker that evening I immediately loved it and my affection for the island would only grow over the next three days.
It was the personification of the tropical paradise I had always wanted to visit and experience. I’ve been to many tropical areas: Key West
in Florida, all over Hawaii, the northeast coast of Australia, the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. But Caye Caulker, more than anyplace I’ve ever been, was the REAL Margaritaville.
Here's Jimmy Buffett singing about that fictional tropical paradise called Margaritaville.
Picololo, the triplex where I was staying, was terrific and just my kind of place: small, quiet and away from the semi-craziness
of the town. It was owned by a young couple, a Canadian woman who was married to a Belizean, and they lived upstairs while renting
out the two one-bedroom units downstairs. No one was occupying the adjacent room so it was very quiet and I slept blissfully that
night in my room under the whirring ceiling fan. I got up the next morning, Sunday, and spent much of it on the sunny front porch while
keeping their cat company and working on my laptop, processing digital photos I'd taken of my trip.
Around mid-day I headed into town and spent much of the afternoon seeing more of Caye Caulker, then capped it off with a dinner of
delicious and freshly-caught lobster at a waterfront restaurant.
Above: The Caye Caulker water taxi in Belize City.
Only a few thousand folks live on Caye Caulker and very few cars are allowed on the island. Almost everyone here either walks, bikes or rides a
golf cart. The name “Caulker” refers to caulking repair work that was performed on sailing ships hundreds of years ago, as they were purposely beached
here and laid on their sides, then caulked with the chicle gum that’s so common in Belize. Our lodge in San Ignacio, Chiclero, refers to harvesters
of gum from the Chicle tree and the term “chiclets,” which older readers of this website may remember, refers to a type of chewing gum popular back
when I was a kid.
Caye Caulker is a much-downscaled version of its sister island, Ambergris Caye (also known as San Pedro), which is about five miles to the north.
The two islands, although close in proximity, are world's apart. San Pedro is fancy, high-class, expensive and geared to affluent Americans,
while Caye Caulker is modest, down-to-earth and geared much more to native Belizeans. If you want to spend lots of money and hang out with
snobby Americans, go to San Pedro, but if you want an authentic tropical Belizean experience, go to Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker is definitely my kind of island and, in fact, is a place I’ve been looking for my whole life. Could I ever live here? Probably
not because it would be like eating ice cream every day: I love it but only want it once in a while. Nevertheless, Caye Caulker is one of the most
idyllic places I’ve ever been, giving Aitutaki in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific a run for its money, though with a totally different vibe.
Above left: Shortly after finishing our hike in the ATM Cave, we rendezvoused with a taxi driver who took Cecelia,
Laurie and me to the Belize Airport.
Above right: These speed bumps are called topes ("toe-pays") and are also known as "sleeping
policemen." You find them on the outskirts of just about every town in Belize -- and Mexico and Central America, in general.
They're a much cheaper speed deterrent than hiring policemen. And they work 24/7.
Above left: Our friendly and talkative taxi driver, a very interesting guy.
Above center: A Salvador Dali-esqe selfie at the Belize International Airport.
Above right: My boots were still sopping wet, two hours after the hike through ATM Cave.
Above left: Heading through a rather seedy part of Belize City on the way to the water taxi.
Above right: The transit depot in Belize City. From here you can take a bus to anywhere in Belize -- or in my
case, a water taxi out to Caye Caulker.
Above left: Pulling into Caye Caulker an hour after sunset after an exhilarating ride. There are two main
ways of getting to Caye Caulker. Flying is faster but more expensive, while the water taxi is slower but much cheaper. I chose Option #2.
Above right: After unpacking my bags at Picololo, I walked into Caye Caulker on Saturday evening. The UDP
party was having a celebration in town after their candidate had been elected president of Belize a week earlier. I can still smell the wonderful aroma of
barbeque chicken from the outdoor grills.
Above left: This is Picololo, my comfortable lodging on Caye Caulker, a quarter-mile from town. It was a perfect
place for me.
Above right: And my room. It comes complete with a friendly cat who enjoys being petted.
Swimming with, um, Sharks?
The next morning, on Monday – and still thinking about that yummy lobster dinner – I walked back into town and signed up for a half-day sailing/snorkeling
trip out to the reef. The coral reef near Belize is the second-largest in the world; only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is larger.
Steel drum music is really popular out in the keys. Here's the Jamaican Steel Band playing Red, Red Wine.
Around noon, and with about 20 others, I boarded the sailboat, a wide-beamed 50-footer with twin masts called "Ragga Girl" that was manned by a jovial – well, mostly – crew
of five. We sailed north for an hour and dropped anchor in about 15 feet of water, then several folks in our group donned their masks and snorkels
and dove into the water to explore. The crew threw some “chum” (fish parts) into the water to attract nurse sharks and, considering all the people
swimming nearby, I asked, “Um… Is that safe?” “Oh yes, mon,” said the captain. “Those sharks are tame. You can even pet them, if you’d like.”
So trusting grizzled Captain Jack, I put on my mask, jumped in and did just that (their skin felt like wet sandpaper – about 400 grit). I was so
mesmerized by the nurse sharks that I almost didn’t notice two huge manta rays swimming below me. They were tame, too, and gracefully flowed through
the water while flapping their large wings like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Above: Walking down "Main Street" in laid back Caye Caulker.
All of us eventually climbed back onboard and the boat weighed anchor and sailed north for a half-hour towards Ambergris Caye, then dropped anchor inside
the reef near a place called the Hol Chan Channel. The waters here were calm but I could clearly see waves crashing against the coral reef a half-mile
further offshore. Once again we donned our snorkels and fins, and this time we each paired up with a partner.
I partnered up with a young woman who told me her name was Holly. She was a 30ish flight attendant from Chicago who had some vacation time stored
up (and infinite free miles) so she had decided to fly to Belize for the weekend to check it out. Like 90% of tourists who visit Belize, Holly
traveled from the International airport straight out to the keys and didn’t explore the interior part of the country, which I thought was a
shame. I suggested to her that next time she comes to Belize, she should visit the mountain villages like San Antonio and Succotz. “It’s a totally
different world there,” I said.
Holly and I dove in and swam in the 80-degree water, awestruck by the colorful coral and beautiful tropical fish that darted about. I dove
down as deep as I could a few times – not very deep, to be honest -- and saw underwater sights that were amazing. But then we both noticed a
large barracuda hovering nearby, flashing an impressive array of very large and razor-like teeth. Holly had a navel ring that glinted in the
sunlight, which seemed to attract the barracuda’s attention, so she covered it with her hand. Wise move, Holly!
Above: Captain Jack sailing the "Ragga Girl" out towards the reefs for a snorkeling adventure.
After seeing the barracuda, Holly and I decided to swim closer to the group – there’s strength in numbers, we figured – and one of the young women there
was struggling a bit in the water, having a challenging time staying afloat. “I’m not a very good swimmer. Would you mind assisting me,” she
said with a British accent (and a bit of fear in her eyes). “Sure,” I replied and extended my arm towards her, which she grabbed gratefully.
She calmed down and, after a few minutes, actually started enjoying herself.
After about a half-hour, and thankfully with no barracuda incidents to report, we all got back onboard the sailboat, the crew pulled
up the anchor and hoisted the sails, and we headed back to our dock, which was an hour away. The captain cut up a conch that a crew
member had caught – a tough and chewy but sweet meat and quite delicious. Then Captain Jack brought out a huge bottle of rum and
the crew made several large pitchers of rum punch, which they copiously doled out to the pliant guests.
I sat down alone on the bow as the boat sliced through the water and the novice swimmer came forward and thanked me for being helpful, then she
sat down next to me and introduced herself as Angie. She turned to her woman friends and, in her British accent, said with a joking smile, “This is
the gentleman that saved me out there.” We all talked, drank rum punch, told some traveling stories, drank more rum punch, laughed a bit, and drank
some more rum punch. It was a blissful afternoon and one that Jimmy Buffett would’ve enjoyed.
Above left: This is the unofficial motto of Caye Caulker. It applies not just to traffic speed
but to just about everything here.
Above right: The beach on Caye Caulker.
Above left: And here's the Main Street.
Above center: Rum drinks here are really cheap (remember, the Belizean dollar is pegged at 50 cents American).
The island's most popular drink, as shown, is the cringingly-named "Panti Rippa."
Above right: Jimmy Buffett once wrote a song called "Defying Gravity" but I'm not sure if this is what he meant.
Above left: These are the three modes of transportation on Caye Caulker: golf cart, biking and walking.
There are only a few cars allowed on the island.
Above right: Soaking up the sun on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Above left: And soaking up some rum drinks. I love this picnic table.
Above center: On Monday morning, I headed up the beach to go on a sailing/snorkeling trip.
Above right: And here's our boat, the "Ragga Girl." There were about 20 folks and it was a fun cruise.
Above left: That's Holly, my diving partner, on the left in the brown suit. You can't quite see her navel ring, which
glinted in the sunlight as we were swimming and attracted the unwanted attention from a razor-toothed barracuda.
Above right: I swam with these nurse sharks -- but only after being repeatedly assured that they were harmless.
Their skin, like that of most sharks, feels like sandpaper.
Above left: One of the jovial crew members. This guy could freedive (i.e., without scuba gear) 30 feet down.
Above center: Looking for buried treasure -- or maybe just some coral -- near the reefs, about a mile offshore.
Above right: We found instead a few conch shells.
Above left: Passing out rum punch to cheerful guests after our swim.
Above right: That's Angie, in the black top, who I "rescued" in the ocean. She and her three smiling friends were
from England and were spending two months touring Central and South America.
Above left: Cutting up a conch. The meat is chewy and delicious -- like eating a tasty rubber tire.
Above center: Sunset on Caye Caulker after we returned from our sailing adventure.
Above right: Ruben is a master carver and sells his goods on Main Street in Caye Caulker. This
beautiful and colorful hardwood is from the Ziricote tree, which is native to Belize.
Ruben is amazingly talented and I bought several of his carvings, including the shark.
Above: After the sailing adventure, I bumped into several ProBelize folks -- Roger, Bruce, Joy -- and even Michael, the ProBelize construction manager,
decided to join us.
Around sunset the boat pulled up to the dock at Caye Caulker and I said goodbye to Holly and Angie, then I strolled down the lively main
street, a hungry man in search of dinner. Instead of food, though, I found a small gaggle of my ProBelize crew, who had just arrived on the island
after their tour of the Tikal ruins in Guatemala the previous day. We ate seafood at an outdoor restaurant, then bumped into some more
ProBelize folks who were passing by -- about a dozen were on the island from what they told me.
We swapped stories for a while, and then Tom said, “Oh, I have a present for you, Del.” From his daypack he pulled out a “ProBelize”
t-shirt that Jonny had given to everyone the day before, the best souvenir I could’ve ever asked for.
After spending another night at blissful Picololo, I left Caye Caulker the next morning, catching a 9 a.m. turboprop flight for Belize City. Then
from the Belize International Airport I boarded a jet bound for Houston. Late that evening I arrived back in Portland “tired but happy,” as
they say, after a memorable week and a half in the tropics. What an amazing trip it had been, and one that I would never forget.
And that's the story of my trip to Central America, Belize it or not.
Above left: We -- Sylvia, Sheila and Tom and I -- were eating dinner when Urban bumped into us. It's ProBelize, Caye Caulker style.
Above right: Tom gave me my reward for a week (well, four days) of hard work.
Above left: The next morning, Tuesday, I headed back to North America. The first leg was a flight to Belize City.
Above right: Caye Caulker is 45 minutes from the mainland by water taxi but only about 10 minutes by plane.
Above left: So long, Caye Caulker. But I'll be back someday!
Above center: The happy tourist after 11 days in Belize. My work here was done.
Above right: The International Airport in Belize City is the only international airport in the country.
Over 90% of the tourists head straight out to the keys and never see the interior part of the country.
Above left: So long, Belize.
Above right: And hello, Portland. As much as I enjoyed my trip to Belize, it was nice to be back home --
because as Dorothy once said, there's no place like it.