In late 1981, early 1982 I spent 3 months travelling from California through Mexico to Belize with my good mate Muz Paddison. In those days few people had heard of Belize let alone visited there. The Gringo Trail, as it was, certainly petered out before Belize and the now very developed (some may say over developed) Riviera Maya coast from Cancun to Tulum was only just starting to happen.
We arrived in Belize City after travelling by open air bus from Chetmal on the Mexican border via Corozal and Orange Walk Town in Northern Belize. Belize City felt like a forgotten part of the Calypso Caribbean with its largely Afro-Caribbean population and reggae (mostly Bob Marley) blasting out wherever you went. It was all quite a contrast to the couple of months we’d spent in Mexico where mariachis seemed to lurk around every corner.
We took a slow (very slow) small, rickety boat from Belize City to Caye Caulker – it took around 3 hours. You probably could’ve swam there faster – breaststroke!
For “accommodation” there was a roped off section of beach on the ocean side where you could tie your hammock between two palm trees, if you had one (we did). From your cosy hammock you could spy sinister iguanas at the top of the palms contemplating whether to dislodge a coconut onto an unsuspecting backpacker below. Needless to say, sleep wasn’t as carefree and relaxing as one might have expected. The “camp site” provided a cold water shower and a toilet as amenities.
Dining options were few. A couple of houses sold meals to the few travellers that materialised. You were seated in their front room and offered fried jacks (a fried dough pocket) for breakfast and a choice of fish or lobster for dinner.
For entertainment there were two small beach bars that played the compulsory reggae all day. Here you could get a chilled Belikin beer. Dancing was popular, especially at dusk, as the sandflies were ferocious and this was the only method to keep them somewhat at bay.
To visit the reef for snorkelling (Belize has the second biggest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) we paid an old fisherman a few Belizian dollars to take us out in his little boat for a few hours. Needless to say we didn’t see anyone else all day out there on the reef.
And that was Caye Caulker 1982.
Fast forward to November 2016, almost 35 years later and I’ve returned, this time with Cally, to see how things have changed. For starters it’s no longer undiscovered – Lonely Planet have listed Belize as one of their best value destinations for 2017and Caye Caulker is noted as one of the star attractions. Not surprisingly the Caye Caulker (CC) of 2016 was almost unrecognizable from the 1982 version I remember.
We caught the fast ferry aka Belize Water Taxi from Belize City to CC – 45 minutes. And even though it’s still low season the water taxi was packed.
The town on CC is replete with guesthouses and hotels with much ongoing building work sending the message that they’re not done yet with ‘development’. Tour operators offer reef snorkelling, diving and sightseeing trips. Competition is fierce – TripAdvisor lists 38 tour operators on CC! No sign of the old fisherman and his little boat.
Restaurants, bars, supermarkets, masseuses, yoga centres, souvenir sellers and much more. It’s all there. Tourists and locals dash about on bicycles and golf carts. Not sure why they’re in such a hurry.
The ocean side of the island, where previously we camped, has a long spine of jetties punctuating the coastline. I don’t remember any previously. And two tall communication towers guarantee you need never be without your Facebook updates or Twitter feed. Heaven forbid such isolation from reality.
A very disheartening sight, particularly on the leeward, less touristed side of the island, is the abundance of plastic and other rubbish. It seems CC hasn’t worked out a good way to deal with the detritus that development and mass tourism inevitably brings.
To ensure that we made the most of our short stay on CC we took a half day snorkelling tour out to the reef. It was our last day, and the weather was bad, a lot of rain that had been generated by Hurricane Otto that had struck Nicaragua and Costa Rica to the south a couple of days earlier.
But we went anyway and it was great – especially swimming with rays and nurse sharks. Unfortunately, our underwater camera died some months back, so you’ll have to take our word for it.
In ’82 our camera had failed us too, and so I didn’t have any photographic evidence of my first trip to Belize and CC. My only tangible proof was the Belikin Beer t-shirt I bought at the time and still have to this day. Thirty five years on it’s as thin as tissue paper so doesn’t get worn often. So, I figured it was time to get a replacement. And this time we’ve also got photos to show that we went to Caye Caulker.