After an exhilarating time exploring the wild jungles and mysterious Mayan ruins on mainland Belize, it was time to soak up some surf and sun on one of Belize’s many cayes (islands). I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end my wonderful week in Belize than in Caye Caulker. Located roughly 21 miles northeast of Belize City, Caye Caulker is one of 400 cayes along Belize’s 180-mile long coastline and after Ambergris Caye is the second most visited. However, don’t let her popularity fool you. This tiny island offers island and ocean loving travelers a wonderful refuge to swing away lazy afternoons in a hammock or take an adventure of a lifetime swimming with nurse sharks and sting rays in the nearby Belize Barrier Reef. Best of all, Caye Caulker still has retained her laid-back island charm despite the upswing in tourism. Whether a few days or a week, there is plenty of things to do in Caye Caulker. Check out my guide on how to go slow, as the locals say, in Caye Caulker.
Why Caye Caulker
If you love the relaxing Bohemian vibe of island life and embrace the motto “go slow” as they say in the cayes, then you are in luck. You can spend some time at one of many resorts on the more developed Ambergris Caye or opt for the smaller, laid-back Caye Caulker both within a short boat ride to the reef. Although I never went to neighboring Ambergris Caye, based on what I read about it I knew I’d be much happier on the smaller, more chill Caye Caulker. Ambergris Caye is the largest caye measuring over 25 miles long and is the most developed. If you are looking to stay in a tropical paradise with swim-up bars and all the luxurious amenities, than Ambergris Caye is probably for you. If you want more of a barefoot, no nonsense island feel where the only means of transport is on foot, bicycle or golf cart, than Caye Caulker is your best bet.
I found Caye Caulker to be a wonderful place to stay as it has a variety of accommodations for all budgets, tons of delicious places to eat, and is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the cayes’ main attraction, the Belize Barrier Reef. Best of all, the tiny size of Caye Caulker – the island is a mere 5 miles long by less than 1 mile wide- makes it easy to get around.
Although tourism is the leading industry for this tiny fishing island, the culture is not at all lost. With roughly 2,000 inhabitants, it is easy to intermingle with the locals and get a feel for the island’s diverse culture of Belizean, Creole, Rastafarians and Asians. While it does have a party feel to it, you don’t have to be 21 to enjoy the island. Whatever your travel style, Caye Caulker offers a little bit of something for every traveler and cannot be missed.
How to “Go Slow” in Caye Caulker
Those who know me understand that I am not one to “go slow”. I tend to have a boundless level of energy and enthusiasm for life and love to be on the go. Laying on the beach? Not for me. Having a leisurely morning stroll with no agenda? Not going to happen. Instead, I am someone who can’t seem to sit still for long especially when traveling. I want to see everything and do as much as I can. Thankfully on Caye Caulker the mantra Go Slow incorporates every aspect of island life. After the first day, I too was lulled into it.
Where to Eat and drink
For such a tiny island, Caye Caulker has a ton of excellent dining options whether it be indulging in the local street food, eating on a picnic table on the beach or embracing some of the island’s fine dining options. Freshly caught fish is what the island is most known for and lobster when it is in season. There is also your standard bar food fare, Creole, Italian, Asian and more. Here are a few of my favorite eats on the island.
- Have lunch at Bambooze on the beach and sit in a swinging chairs while people watching.
- Go for drinks and dancing on the beach at the Sports Bar(they have live music daily).
- Try yellowtail snapper at Happy Lobster (the main fish caught and served on island).
- Watch the world wake up at Ice & Beans, my favorite coffee shop
- Buy a homemade slice of Key Lime Pie from the famous “Cake lady”
- Eat homemade ice cream for B$4 at Scoop Dis located near the ferry dock
- Try Fry Jacks for breakfast to go at Errolyn’s House of Fry Jacks on Middle Street. (Fry Jacks are deep-fried dough filled with your choice of rice, beans, eggs, and/or meat. They are cheap and absolutely delightful).
- Sample Asian stir fry, freshly grilled fish or BBQ or more at one of the many street vendors along the beach.
There are tons of street food options to be found around the island.
Eat outdoors at Maggie’s Sunset Kitchen on Linds Cocal Street (our guide Hugo’s favorite place on the island. I had Caribbean coconut shrimp and it was delightful).
One of my most memorable meals was at the lovely garden Italian restaurant, Il Pelicano (49 Pasero Street), where we dined al fresco listening to live guitar music and indulging in one of the best meals we had in Belize.
Fave Coffee Shop is Ice & Beans Cafe located at 10 North Front Street right on the beach. Each morning the smell of freshly made mini donuts dipped in sugar lured me in half awake until I had my delightful cup of Joe. They also serve smoothies and other baked goods.
Try kite surfing, rent a bike for the day or go exploring by kayak or paddle board
If snorkeling or diving isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other adventures to do on or off the island. You can give a try at kite surfing or rent a bicycle, kayak or paddle board for the day to explore the island. Located right off the Split is the Caye Caulker Forest Reserve which you can check out. Fishing is also extremely popular and you can go in the flats, deep sea or reef. Unfortunately I was surprised to learn that there really is no good swimming or beaches on the island given the sea grass. However, some of the hotels have a pool and you can take a swim near the Split as there is a tiny beach.
Walk the island and people watch along the way.
I’d say people-watching is one of my favorite pastimes and it is especially fun walking the unpaved streets of the island soaking it all in. There are plenty of great places to people watch on the island whether it be at one of the many open-air restaurants, swinging in a hammock alongside the beach, or grabbing a seat at the Split for sunset. Both the tourists and the locals alike are as colorful as the rainbow-hued buildings and signs throughout town.
Marvel at the street signs…
Watch the Sunset at the Split
It goes without saying that everyone who visits Caye Caulker must watch sunset at the famous Split. The Split is a narrow channel that literally splits Caye Caulker into two and is where most of the action can be found on the island. It has a couple of bars, some shops and lodging. Best of all, watching the sunset at the Split is absolutely free. Grab a drink and head down for a beautiful display of color and light.
Do a bike tour with Bike with Purpose
Bike with Purpose is a student-led social enterprise that is supported by Planeterra and G Adventures. Since education is not free in Belize, Bike with Purpose was created for students to help pay for their school fees and offer tourists the unique opportunity to see the island from a local teenager’s point of view.
Exploring Belize’s Barrier Reef
Belize was first put on tourist map by its extraordinary barrier reef which is the second largest barrier reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) stretching over 185 miles along Belize’s coastline. The reef comprises seven key marine reserve zones, over 400 cayes and three atolls and is home to the world famous Blue Hole that drops over 400 feet into the deep blue ocean. With over 100 types of coral and 500 species of tropical fish, the reef is an underwater paradise for divers, snorkelers and anglers from around the world.
The great news is that the reef is easily accessible from Caye Caulker and there are tons of amazing marine sites to visit for either a half day or full day tour. Since I absolutely love to snorkel, I chose to do a full-day tour with Carlos Tours and a half day snorkel with Anda De Wata Tours. Both were very good however the tours offer very different experiences. With Carlos Tours, we sailed on a beautiful catamaran out to three different stops, ate a delightful lunch and drank rum punch singing to tunes on the way back. For Anda De Water tours, I was on a speedboat with only a four other snorkelers and we went to a few different snorkeling spots.
Depending on what you are looking for, it is best to check out all the reviews on TripAdvisor before booking and see what kind of experience you are most comfortable with. Also be mindful of the sustainability of each company if that is something that concerns you. I noticed some pretty reckless behavior by tourists who swam way too close to the coral or even stood on it once while the tour companies said nothing. It is also important to note that if you visit the popular Shark Ray Alley, the sharks and rays that come to your boat to entertain you are being fed by the tour companies. It has been done for years so if that is something you don’t agree with, you may not want to reconsider.
Most full-day tours visit three main snorkel sights throughout the day and provide lunch. The highlight is a trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a 6.5 square mile area filled with spectacular corals, abundant and diverse marine life and a little something for all. “Hol Chan” means “little channel” in the Mayan language and was given to this area due to a natural break in the reef. The reserve offers tons of great snorkeling and diving spots and also contains the famous Shark Ray Alley, a popular habitat for nurse sharks and southern stingrays.
With Carlos Tours, our first stop was at the Coral Gardens in Caye Caulker Reserve. This is the best sight for viewing the reef’s amazing corals. There is a wide variety of colorful soft and hard corals, tons of amazing fish, sea turtles, eagle rays, barracudas, and nurse sharks. After a 45-minute snorkel, we headed to our next stop, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. There we swam with sea turtles and once again encountered lots of brilliantly colored fish. The water was a little bit rougher out there as we were closer to the break. I am a strong swimmer so I felt fine without a life jacket but others wore them for safety.
Our final stop was at Shark Ray Alley. This area is famous due to the abundance of nurse sharks (some as long as 8 feet long) and stingrays that hang out in the shallow waters of the reef. Fisherman used to come here to clean their fish, attracting hungry stingrays and nurse sharks who have remained in the area thanks to the tour boats that feed them. As I mentioned above, it is a little controversial. Some say that feeding the nurse sharks and stingrays make them dependent on humans for survival and aren’t so keen about feeding them for tourists’ photos and entertainment. Others see no harm done as long as tourists don’t feed or touch them. I confess it was pretty terrifying at first to get into only ten feet deep of water and swim with the rays and nurse sharks but it was thrilling. I truly enjoyed seeing them so close.
Under water at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, one of first established marine parks in Central America encompassing 6.5 square miles of protected area. The park is under 24-hour surveillance via drone from Ambergris Caye and even has a floating ranger station.
Where to Stay
Since my entire tour booked through G Adventures, I did not have to choose any of my own lodgings. There are tons of different accommodations on the island ranging from small little beach houses, to quaint boutique hotels, cheap hostels and a couple of larger hotels. We stayed at La Isla Resort which is probably the largest hotel on the island, is reasonably priced, has nice newly renovated rooms and is in ta great location being only a few blocks from everything noteworthy. However, in my opinion it was pretty generic and charmless. If I had my choice I would have tried to stay at the highly recommended Seaside Cabanas, a boutique hotel with only 14 beautifully appointed rooms. Otherwise I would have enjoyed staying at Amanda’s Place or if I was with my family, renting one of the elegant spacious apartments at Caye Reef.
There are two main ways to get to Caye Caulker from Belize City. You can either fly or take a ferry. To fly, it is a short but sweet five minute flight from the Belize’s International Airport for roughly $89 on either Maya Island Air or Tropic Air. Otherwise you can catch the 45-minute long ferry with either Ocean Ferry Belize or San Pedro Belize Express Water Taxis. Road trip fare is roughly $25. Both ferries also go to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Once on the island, you can hire a golf cart taxi to bring you and your luggage to your accommodation or just simply walk.
One thing I quickly discovered in Belize is that you don’t need to exchange any money as everyone takes US dollars. It is also very important to bring lots of small bills for tips as you are handing out tips all the time. Finally, dress code is very relaxed as you would expect. They often say in Caye Caulker, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem”. After a few days of “going slow” you won’t want to go home!
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This definitely sounds like my kind of place Nicole. I’d happily do the “go slow” thing interspersed with snorkelling, walking the streets, cycling, more snorkelling, and people-watching. It sounds ideal.
Yes you’d love it Alison. I was so relaxed by the time I went home.I especially enjoyed my morning coffee on the beach and just walking around with a glass of wine to sunset. A really charming place!
Oh my goodness sign me up for this! Love the idea of ‘slow travel’ and this gem of a place looks like the spot to do just that. An excellent guide which I will come back to should we go to Belize.
Thanks Sue! I can totally see you and Dave in Caye Caulker. I did the snorkeling during the day then relaxed at sunset and a nice meal at night. I loved it there. Belize is really a great country! Definitely put it on your travel list! 🙂
Going into my travel files for a possible winter escape! Looks really great!
I just loved Caye Caulker. It was a fun island and normally I’m not an island girl but I really enjoyed all the snorkeling, the laid back charm and the great restaurants. I think if I go back to Belize, I’d head further south along the reef and stay at one of the Atolls or another island further south. Lots more to check out. 🙂
What a great motto to “go slow”. Sounds like my ideal holiday Nicole. Walking on the beach and slow coffees in the morning sound so relaxing. Thank you for taking me along virtually with you. Gorgeous pics too. Belize sounds amazing.
Thanks Miriam! We all need to slow down a bit in life. Otherwise it just passes you by! 🙂
So very true.
Sounds like a perfect winter escape! The only thing we are not sure about is the amount of seaweed on the island 🙈
Yes it is true. Not the best place for swimming but then again you can just ride out to the reef and go snorkeling with all the amazing fish! 🙂