It was with nervous excitement that we left our hotel in Chetumal, Mexico and headed to the port. We decided that we would try get to Caye Caulker by ferry (via Ambergris Caye where immigration occurs), but once we reached the port that plan was definitely up for debate. The cost of the ferry we discovered was over 1000 Peso, making a few hours on a boat very expensive. So we flagged down a taxi and headed for option two: the bus.
We reached the buses and were immediately shown onto a bus which would go to Belize City for the insignificant amount of 100 Peso (approximately, we can’t remember the exact amount). The bus left soon after and we were on our way to the border. For some reason I always feel nervous when doing the border crossings, even though I have nothing to hide and nothing dodgy in my bags, I always breathe a little easier once the stamp is on my passport. Am I alone? Does anyone else feel like this as well? A couple of notes I will make on this particular border crossing is to have all your FMM information for Mexico with you. Just having the tourist card is often not enough to avoid them charging you again. The proof of payment will be in an itemised invoice (not all airlines provide this without asking) if you flew in or if you crossed a land border just remember to keep your official payment receipts. A few of the other backpackers on our bus got stung with this “tourist tax” as we have been calling it. On the Belizean side the customs staff were all lovely and friendly. Overall the crossing didn’t take long even having to get out of the bus twice so we were off south to Belize City with no issues.
On the bus trip we made friends with a few other backpackers who were also heading to to Caye Caulker. We hoped we would arrive in time to get to the port and onto a ferry before the last one departed at 5.30pm. With the time quickly ticking by we realised that luckily we had an extra hour as Belize is in a different time zone. That was a bonus but it would still be touch and go to make the last ferry.
Belize is the only country in Central America that has English as their first language. Of course being surrounded in Spanish speaking countries this is widely spoken too, as is a type of Creole which is almost incomprehensible. So it was quite strange after 10 months of getting by with our Spanish that we could freely speak English again. I found it very strange to revert back to saying “Hello” and “Thanks” instead of “Hola” and “Gracias”. Even now that I’m home there is times I still find a Spanish word pop into my mind on occasions.
As we passed through a town called Orange Walk we discovered that it was Independence Day for Belize and there would be celebrations throughout the country for the next few days. From what we saw of the parade in Orange Walk it was a big event.
At 5.25pm we made it to Belize City and jumped straight into a taxi with our two new friends. At the port on of the companies said their last boat had already left so after the fastest argument ever about the taxi fee with the driver we were literally running down the road to the other ferry company. It was only 100 metres but that’s pretty challenging with a heavy pack on and a smaller backpack on your front. The boat at the opposition company was just pulling out of the dock as we arrived and after some yelling and waving from us and a few staff members they turned back. We grabbed some tickets and jumped onto the boat. We were so lucky as none of us were keen on the idea of spending the night in Belize City, even for the Independence Day party, as it has a reputation of being relatively dangerous. Phew.
The boat cost 25USD for a round trip so even with that we were still way ahead of the price of the ferry from Chetumal. Funnily enough that boat had just arrived as we were checking out hostels and we ran into a couple we had chatted to briefly at the ferry terminal in Mexico. Their ferry had taken just as long to reach Caye Caulker as our trip by bus. We kept quiet about how much it had cost us in comparison.
The island was tiny with only a handful of sand streets so we set off in the dark to find somewhere to stay. The accommodation wasn’t cheap and so we ended up settling for a hostel that had “sleep boxes”, which were the tiniest rooms I had ever seen. Basically they were a double bed (or bunks), a shelf, a fan and a tiny patch of floor space to stand on while you opened the door. But the hostel included breakfast in the downstairs restaurant which was our selling point. After having walked the island looking for accommodation we didn’t really want to move far for dinner so we ate at the restaurant downstairs. It was delicious! They offered fish (red snapper) with three sides, three rums and cake for dessert. For 15BZD it wasn’t quite as cheap as Mexico, but it was some of the tastiest fish I’d ever eaten. After eating we chilled out for a while chatting with our new friends before they headed to a bar. We meanwhile decided to see how the locals partied as we had been informed that the Independence Day celebrations for Caye Caulker would be starting that evening and continuing into the following day.
The party kicked off that evening in the centre of town (the basketball court) which had a huge pile of speakers pumping out music. People were buying beers, rums and a toxic green frozen cocktail called ‘Lizard Juice’ and getting merry. We wandered around checking out what was happening until it started pouring with rain again. A majority of people took shelter but a select few backpackers (not us) decided that dancing in the rain was the best idea and some young local kids joined them. Luckily the rain stopped at midnight and the planned fireworks started on a boat out from shore. The fireworks were surprisingly good and we watched them before making our way to bed. Because everyone was partying and there was a bar next door it was a loud night so we stuffed earplugs in and did our best to get to sleep. At least the rain had made it cooler.
The following day was disappointingly rainy and overcast. There had been some heavy rain overnight (which contributed to our bad sleep) so the only thing we could do was hang out. Eventually the rain eased enough to go for a walk and so we did a loop of the island which wasn’t hard as it’s only a couple of kilometres long and maybe one kilometre wide. Running short of things to do we brought some drinks and played 500 against each other. Rum it turns out is the only thing in Belize which is cheap, and it is really cheap. We were buying little 200ml bottles for $2-3BZD or around $2 New Zealand dollars.
That afternoon however it was still party time on the island and a parade was scheduled for just after midday with everyone crossing their fingers and toes that the weather would clear. We wandered to the street where it would be starting to check it out and were very surprised. The Caye Caulker Independance Day parade is a full on Carnival style booze walk around the streets of the island accompanied by loud Belizean party music from a truck full of speakers and scantily clad dancing girls following the truck. Needless to say we were very entertained. This went on for over two hours and as the parade made it’s slow progress through the streets the girls got steadily more and more drunk. It was hilarious, I don’t think either of us will forget that day.
Again the evening turned into another street party but feeling tired I called it a night around 10pm. Tom stayed out with some other people from the hostel and at around one in the morning I checked the time as Tom still hadn’t returned. Not realising that he was out with other people who were staying at the hostel I was immediately worried as he didn’t have a key and the door had been locked at midnight. So in my pyjamas I waited outside for him until he returned from a bar. Being a concerned and tired girlfriend I told him off (in spectacular fashion) for making me worried. I’m quite certain that the two guys from the hostel who were with Tom thought I was ‘that’ type of crazy girlfriend who scolds their boyfriend for doing anything fun but I swear I’m not!
Finally we had sun the next morning so we were determined to do something. While eating breakfast we made a quick decision to go on a snorkelling trip so while Tom packed what we would need for the day I ran off to get some cash out so we could pay for the tour. After quickly organising ourselves we made it to the tour agency just in time and met an Aussie couple who would be joining us. Four in a tour group is a pretty good size so we were happy with that. Off we went in our boat out to the Belize Barrier Reef. Apparently the reef which spans the coast of Mexico, Belize and Honduras is the second largest in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. We would get to snorkel in a few different locations, get fed lunch and then head back to Caye Caulker to see the tarpon and seahorses.
First stop was at a point in the reef which is a protected reserve. We all jumped in the water with flippers, snorkel and mask to see what there was to see. This area had great coral and lots of large fish like snapper. We were shown around by our guide who was fantastic at pointing things out and once back on the surface told us the names of fish and more about them. We spent about an hour in the water here before heading off to our next destination.
Our next stop was the selling point of snorkelling tours in this area and was know as Shark-Ray Alley. The name says it all really; we were going to see and swim with some sharks and rays. It sounds a little scary but the sharks are a harmless, peaceful species called nurse sharks. Once the boat stopped the sharks were at the surface and greedily waiting the tasty snacks (bits of fish) the driver had for them. So it was a little daunting to get in the water here. We all did it on the opposite side of the boat than they were getting fed. Once we were in the water it was really cool to see the nurse sharks; they ranged in size from maybe a metre long to easily over two and a half metres and were not particularly scared of us until I chased after them for a photo. Camera shy maybe? Our guide jumped in the water and managed to gently catch both a nurse shark as well as a sting ray in his arms for us to pat. Scavenging for the scraps were dozens of blue fish who you could trick into thinking you had food by making snapping motions with our fingers. This resulted in the fish getting close enough to touch but also being at risk of one of them chomping our hands as well.
On our way to our next destination we were lucky enough to have a manatee sighting. This was a rare occurrence and we all threw ourselves into the water to get a closer look and photos. Another boat was in the area as well so there were about eight to ten of us madly swimming after this huge creature. We did get a little cranky at one of the people from the other group who had his selfie stick almost in the poor manatees face. It’s no wonder he was trying to swim away from us. A slow movement from it’s tail was more that enough for it to move steadily away. Our little legs, even with flippers, were no match so soon we had worn ourselves out and headed back to the boat.
The final destination on the reef was a wreck where we could explore the coral and plants that had grown over the sunken boat as well as the fish in the area. It wasn’t as interesting as the previous stops and I was feeling a little nauseous from the motion of the sea… Surprise, surprise. After this we were on our way back and heading to the opposite side of the island where we would check out Tarpon’s Hole. This is an area where huge fish called tarpon live and Tom was given a sardine to feed them with. He had to hold the bait about 10cm above the surface of the water to try coax the fish to jump out. I was filming the whole thing and we waited, and waited, watching the fish circling under the surface. Finally one shot up from under the boat and ate the fish and we all screeched and jumped back from the side of the boat laughing hysterically from our fright. Unfortunately with all the excitement Tom bumped the camera and the video didn’t end up recording. We also got to see some cute seahorses which hang out around the island’s mangroves.
So after a nice day of snorkelling we felt like our time on Caye Caulker wasn’t completely wasted from the bad weather but we also didn’t feel like we needed any further time. For our final dinner we decided to go a little further afield and wandered towards the split where we found some island food. Tom ended up having lobster while I had shrimp, both were in a coconut curry, served with rice and were delicious. The rum punch which was served along with it was particularly dangerous as well.
So the next morning we packed our bags and wandered out to the dock to get the ferry back to the mainland where we would find a bus to our next destination.