Spelunking San Ignacio: Actun Tunichil Muknal

Pulling myself away from the beach, I backtracked west towards the Guatemalan border in search of caves, a famous attraction in this part of Belize. The cave on top of everyone’s list is Actun Tunichil Muknal, the Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher commonly referred to as ATM. It is both the most popular and most expensive cave to visit ($170Bz). I booked a tour through my hotel (J&R Guest House) with a well-known tour guide, Carlos, who my friends recommended highly. Unfortunately he had to cancel and sent a replacement from Hun Chi’ik tours.

The morning, my group of ten drove one hour east from San Ignacio, hiked an easy 20 minutes from the parking lot, and entered the cave swimming in between tall cavern walls. We continued wading through water and walking over rocks moving from room to room. Most spaces we were in were very open and the scale of the place felt impressive. The walls of quartz made me think of my Grandma and the geology lessons and projects she used to give us as kids. ❤ Twice we had to navigate a tight space, but not often was there any true physical challenge (once, we climbed a ladder!). It is an accessible cave for most visitors.

The entrance, the deepest swimming you do in the whole cave. Most other places it is shallow enough to walk.
Source: Google Images
Grand formations inside.
Source: Google Images

One of the special things about ATM is that it was used by the Mayans as a ceremonial space and when it was discovered twenty-some years ago artifacts were left where they were found, making the cave a living museum. The Mayans believed the spirits of their ancestors dwelt in the caves and performed rituals including human sacrifice inside ATM in their honor. In the main chamber you see pots and crystallized human remains. The apex of the tour is a full skeleton that has been claimed by the crystals.

The famous Crystal Maiden.
Source: Google Images

The tour experience on the other hand I found to be quite gentled. ATM is the top cave tour in the region, one that everyone goes on, and it showed. I was shocked by how crowded the cave felt. We were inside from about 11am-1:30pm and were constantly bumping into or waiting on other tour groups. The pace felt slow. We wore protective helmets, headlamps, and reef shoes. My young guide seemed uncomfortable going off script and I found his source material (many Discovery Channel-esque tv special references) suspect. The principle information we got was there’s a big rock here, watch your head here. I’m an adult. I can figure out where to put my feet. And If I don’t come out of a cave without a few scrapes then I don’t feel I have been exploring, you know? I felt like it was a good tour, but somewhat unsatisfied. Was it really worth the trip?

The next day I visited Crystal Cave and it blew my mind. Bottom line: ATM is for tourists, Crystal is for adventurers.

Prying myself away from the Cayes

Caye Caulker was addictive beachy quicksand for me. Preparing for departure, it was like I had forgotten how to move. Every day from my hammock I watched people arrive off the water taxi, struggling with their luggage and trying to get settled. After staying put for two weeks the sensation of new arrival began to feel foreign. I got to know things so well I had a newbie guide prepared (pro tip: the fry jack stand is across from the bank and people go to the Split for sunset!). Constantly I saw the influx of new people around town and had my group of friends turn completely over three times. Even standing still nothing stays the same.

But with my backpack zipper repaired, I got the itch to move on. How to spend my final day? What tribute should I offer this lovely place? I took out my camera and snapped a few shots for the food blog post, treated myself to an internet cafe (INCREDIBLY expensive here, apparently due to a government monopoly that screws everyone), and acted like a local: went to the grade school to eat lunch at their Cultural Day fair. I tried the Garifuna dish: fried fish with spiced coconut milk and mashed plantains. I bought a new bottle of purple nail polish but was then talked out of a pedicure. I prepared for my next stop–ATM cave near San Ignacio–by procuring caving reef shoes and selling a pair of yellow crocks back to a Chinese grocery for cost. No day in Caye Caulker is complete without appreciating the sunset. Spent it at the Split with my friends, enjoying the view from our usual spot on top of the bar.

Sauntering down Front Street.
A classic Split sunset.
The regulars.
Oh my!
Source: Google Images

It was a blustery day, and it may not have been the best idea to wear my pleated black mini skirt, but it’s just so fun and swishy I couldn’t resist. There were a few Marilyn moments, but that’s all part of the fun, no?

The evening brought with it a brilliant full moon; whale sharks should be gathering off the coast of Placencia soon. It rose golden over the ocean as we ate a dinner of $1Bz wings and beer. That night I stayed in, swinging in a hammock and chatting the evening away. Among other things, I had my spelling corrected, was encouraged to swear more, garnered dating advice, listened to stories, tipped a cheeky Brit out of a hammock leading to another injury (I’m telling you people, for all their easy-goingness, hammocks are dangerous!), drank Belikin stout with cookies, had a memorable Star Trek discussion, and stayed up respectably quite late for a last night.

The water taxi porters just outside the hostel fence call out the departures every few hours, marking the course of the day like a call to prayer. “Belize City guys!” That’s my cue. See you later Caye Caulker, surely. It’s been grand.

Erin’s Caye Caulker food scene manifesto

Caye Caulker has felt more like a home than any other place on my journey yet. Something that surprised me: a thriving cheap food scene. And, as I would with any home town, I have the food beat down. It is of course small, but just big enough to give a medium-term traveler the perfect amount to wrap her head/mouth around. I was there for two weeks–that’s over 50 meals and snacks. And I have opinions. Take a deep breath; I hope you’re hungry. Here we go.

BREAKFAST

There are many excellent options for the budget traveler to start the day with. I’ll start with the classic and cliche Belizian delicacy, the fry jack. A savory fried dough stuffed with eggs, beans, cheese, ham, chicken, and any combination thereof, it is a filling and cheap ($2-4Bz; the exchange rate is $2Bz::$1USD) way to start the day. Many restaurants serve fry jack as a side like toast, but if you’re serious you need to head to Get Hooked Up, a bait and tackle stand that serves fry jack out of their back window in the morning. Join the cult. It’s on Middle Street across from the bank.

NOM!
Get hooked up with fry jack!

But say you get sick of fried dough. I did. My fave pre-dive breakfast: Glenda’s cinnamon rolls. Perfect for take away and just $1Bz each, so what if they are kind of wimpy? Two do the trick and keep you fueled through a morning of diving. If you want to kick it up many notches in deliciousness, get their breakfast sandwich ($7Bz), so worth it! Seriously. On the love child of a bun and a biscuit, it’s a tasty morsel with egg, fresh tomato, fried cured meat, melty processed cheese, and hot sauce. DELISH. Find Glenda’s on Back Street, one block past Sid’s. (Caye Caulker Bakery is another possibility for breads and pastries, but IMHO they are not as good.)

Glenda’s bakery.
Glenda’s breakfast sandwich, a mouthful of yum.

Another option, for a moderate step up in price, is Amor y Cafe. With a chill open-air coffee house feel, they serve up a tasty tomato and cream cheese on toasted multigrain toast-biscuit-bagel ($8Bz) and a good unsweetened ice tea ($3Bz). Yeah, I said it, MULTIGRAIN. Whoa…

An odd breakfast phenomena are the taco trucks ($1Bz corn, $1.50Bz flour) that come out early in the morning on the south part of Front Street. I’ve looked for them later in the day but they disappear. Haven’t tried too hard to track them down though, as I have heard rumors of food poisoning.

For all you health nuts, there are plentiful fruit and vegetable stands around the island. Fresh juice is the way to go (1L for $5Bz). I recommend pineapple, lime, or grapefruit. Stay away from the watermelon juice–it all tastes funny. Quality of produce does differ from stand to stand however. I found the stand next to Get Hooked Up to be consistently overripe on the border of going bad. My favorite was the stand just across from the basketball court.

Pick the pineapple juice!

LUNCH

Lunch tends to be significantly cheaper than dinner, so if you are on a budget I recommend eating out during the day and cooking at night. I preferred Belizian stewed chicken dishes because they were tasty and usually the cheapest plate meal. I always strayed from Front Street, which can be more than double the price than a comparable dish just a few blocks down on Middle.

Hot sauce galore.

Meldy’s on Middle Street serves a solid plate of stewed chicken with rice & beans and coleslaw ($7Bz). Watch out for the habanero pickled onion condiment on the table; not only is it way spicy but also inedibly overly salted. Use the ubiquitous Marie Sharp hot sauce instead.

Kitty-corner from Meldy’s, Sid’s is famous for their plate-o-fried chicken ($9Bz). A massive crispy half chicken with two sides, it is a huge and cheap meal good for lunch or dinner. I also had some pretty good conch fingers ($12Bz), but goodness-to-price wasn’t close to the fried chicken. Follow the signs to find them on Middle Street, mid-town.

On my first day in Caye Caulker, my friend Gina and I were walking town hunting for an early dinner. Everywhere seemed closed or way too expensive. Until we found a shabby looking house with a handwritten menu on a piece of cardboard posted outside. We wandered through the open front door into the living room and begged to be fed. Our hostess/cook looked at the pots on her stove and told us she had one dish ready. We enthusiastically agreed to whatever she was serving. I received a ginormous plate of hearty stewed chicken and meatballs ($8Bz). Gina got heart, liver, and a foot. We couldn’t decide which of us she liked more. On the way out, I asked what johnny cakes were (listed on her breakfast menu). She proceeded to give me a demonstration, make us a pack for take away, and would not accept any money. They are essentially breakfast sandwiches on a dense, dry biscuit. I was initially intrigued but later found they fell flat. (Could be excellent drenched in honey and butter though…) Still, I greatly appreciate her generosity and the gesture.

Knock knock? Feed us please!
Hungry Gina happily digging in.

Fast food Chinese restaurants litter downtown Caye Caulker. The one favored by my hostel mates was Pirates, across from Chang’s grocery on Middle. But I have to say, Chinese restaurants are not my pick in general. (Tyler, I hope we can still be friends!) Plus, no coleslaw!? In my book, coleslaw is a key component in a Belizian meal, lack of which is instant grounds for restaurant rejection. I do however respect their legit panko-breaded chicken fingers ($13Bz).

Going diving to Turneffe Atoll or Lighthouse Reef? You’re going to be gone all day and get lunch on the boat. Belize Dive Services provides a delicious sweet and spicy stewed chicken lunch. I asked if we could have second lunch on the ride back from Turneffe and kicked myself later when I realized I forgot to take home the leftovers.

SNACKS

What about happy hour snacks? Very important when day drinking at the Split. If you see a dude wheeling a cart down the street with industrial looking containers, 50% it’s construction supplies and 50% it’s tamales. Ask. On the street and at the Split you’ll find dudes with carts or coolers filled with tamales ($5Bz), beef patties (2 for $6Bz), curry chicken pies ($4Bz), cashews ($10Bz), or coconut tarts ($4Bz). Most of these I think are a rip-off. In Belmopan the same coconut tarts are sold at the bus station for $1Bz. $4-6Bz for a few bites? Come on! I can practically get a full plate of stew chicken for that. Unless you smile real pretty and bargain down to half price for the broken ones! 😉 (Pro tip: smiling real pretty AWAYS helps! As does saying please and thank you. Take it from a development professional.)

Another good spot: 88 Degrees West, the restaurant at the Belize Diving Services dive shop. Their food is high quality and, if you catch the right time, not too expensive. I recommend their Taco Tuesdays ($2Bz). I also had celebratory conch curry ($18Bz) there on my first day of dive class that was the best conch I had on the island. They also have a great blackened chicken sandwich ($20Bz). Wing Thursday is okay but the meat wasn’t as tender as it should be; after all this stewed chicken, I like my poultry falling off the bone please. Dry just doesn’t cut it.

DINNER 

For dinner, even though it is killer touristy, it is super way fun to do a barbeque crawl down Front Street. Saturday night is the night to do it; that’s when the most bbq outfits are set up and grilling for anyone who wants to come by for a bite. My friend Ryan was game enough to go halfsies with me and we did very well if I do say so myself. Our crawl began with a bbq chicken plate ($10Bz) from Otis and Paula’s bbq stand (only there on Saturday); I thought this was the tastiest bit of the lot.

Super delicious, plus a little toe action.
Mmmm… barbeque.

We moved on to bbq and spicy garlic shrimp skewers ($5Bz each) from a man up on Front Street near the Split whose sign says he is there “most days from lunch til dusk”. I saw him this one time in all of two weeks and I walked that drag constantly. But he serves up a tasty little morsel when you can find him.

Our third plate was the most disappointing: King Kabob. Don’t be fooled. He overmarkets himself and has a skimpy overcooked product. He charges an outrageous $10-15Bz for one skewer he has cooked the shit out of and pithy sides. His sign says “with vegetables!”. Yeah, that  means the two pieces of bell pepper on your lonely miserable single skewer. We had one lousy conch kabob. Apparently the key to conch is tenderizing it before cooking; I think he neglects this step because it was like eating an old tire. In the end, we had one last piece and no one wanted it. Sad face. Really his claim to fame is that he is devoted to being open for business always so gets customers who want bbq but have no other option; I give him props for this. Just don’t you be the one to take the bait and eat his overpriced unsatisfying food.

Rawr, conch!! Chewy to the max.
Watch out for this dude…
Even eating mediocre food is damn fun if you’re doing it on the end of a dock.

After sunsetting at the Split (of course), we finished the night off with the rest of our group at Fran’s “we do it with love” bbq stand. The grilled snapper ($20Bz) was the most challenging fish I have ever eaten in my life! Eating such a bony fish in the dark while drunk (complimentary rum punch = dangerous) took all of my concentration not to choke. The meat was good, but I had a severe lack of brain power to savor it. Whatever way you want to slice it though, I considered our crawl a fabulous success.

Grilled snapper and free-flowing rum punch.

Don’t want to walk and eat? Here’s a meal that is practically a bbq crawl in itself that comes to you. When my adopted tour group from the Split invited me to join them for dinner, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. We gluttonously feasted on a smorgasbord of grilled meat at Wish Willy ($30Bz) of shrimp, conch, snapper, pork, steak, chicken, and all the sides you could want. Also served with free-flowing rum punch, I must have eaten parts of a dozen different animals and they were all delicious.

Looking for someplace to impress a date? A charming spot a little different from the typical fare: Sandro’s Piccola Cucina. I split lamb shanks (decadent!), risotto, and penne amatriciana with a cute Scottish man from Aberdeen. Really a lovely place for a meal, especially with the right company.

Another unusual restaurant I would like to recommend is Freinds, serving Lebanese food. They are conveniently located mid Front Street, have good food at reasonable prices, yet their dining room always seem to be empty. We must change that, people! I had some killer babaghanoush ($7Bz) and a tasty falafel plate with hummus and tabbouleh ($10Bz). Nice to eat some fresh vegetables for a change.

Sports Bar is a fun option for trivia three nights a week. I had the cheapest thing on their menu: the hot dog with relish ($4Bz). My kick-ass team “I Can’t Belize it’s Not Butter” won first prize that night and knocked $30Bz from our bill, so I was pretty thrilled with my free hot dog and two beers. Now, how to make this into a real money-making venture…

Oh, and every single place that says it sells pizza by the slice doesn’t actually btw.

DO-IT-YOURSELF

Cooking for yourself is also an option, one that I favored to off-set the pricier dinner costs. Yuma’s has truly great kitchens and it was such a boon to be cooking for myself again. As I have mentioned, there are a handful of produce stands in downtown Caye Caulker, but you’ll find most of your pantry staples in the many Chinese groceries. They may all look similar, but in actuality have shockingly different inventories. Some specialize in cooking staples or spices, some have Latino or Asian flavors, beauty supplies, arts and crafts, gardening tools, computer accessories, etc. You can probably find whatever item you are looking for in one of the groceries if you look hard enough, but more often than not your request for a specialty item will be met with “try next shop!”.

Fresh fish is best either caught yourself (fishing poles are for rent and fishing tours happen daily) or purchased directly from a fisherman. Head to the docks in the afternoon and try to make friends; you should get a deal easy enough. In the off chance you’re unlucky there, head to the fish co-op near the power plant on Back Street.

DESSERT

Cake Lady doing her thang.

Have a sweet tooth? You’re in luck. The Cake Lady is roaming the streets from 3-9pm every day with a flat truck of, you guessed it, cakes. The first one I tried from her is by far my favorite: rum cake with a super sugary glaze ($4Bz). The coconut, chocolate coconut, and key lime pies are mediocre, as I think her other cakes might be too. She does have competition: a Cake Man who comes by earlier in the day selling pineapple cake, banana bread, and meat pies. I think his banana bread beats hers; it’s fluffier and more flavorful. He came by my hostel daily in the morning when it’s fresh and extra tempting. So I guess he counts as a possible breakfast option too! 😛

Coconut pie and PADI homework, not a bad combo.
Cake Man on his daily morning rounds past Yuma’s.

A somewhat socially sketch option that I did indulge in occasionally are bags of crazy sweet coconut fudge (more like a soft caramel sugar brittle) sold by young kids supposedly as a fundraiser for a school trip–leaving tomorrow!–that they never seem to go on…

Silly faces for ice cream!

But perhaps you need to cool off with your dessert. There are a number of ice cream stands in town. They all serve virtually the same menu, from the same ice cream maker, at the same price. I have yet to find one that is special. I mean, it’s ice cream, and it’s hot out so it is good, but not nearly as good as ice cream should be. Funny though that they are *always* out of flavors, even if you know they opened up a new tub of pistachio yesterday. Suspicious… And P.S. watch out for the rum cake at Lighthouse Ice cream. It may look moist, but there is actually shockingly little rum in it.

A menu with tons of flavors they never have in stock. I am in love with the poorly Photoshopped pic in the bottom right. Totally necessary because there aren’t *any* other pictures of kids eating ice cream ever.

LATE NIGHT

After dinner, you may take in a movie at the town’s Outdoor Cinema. If you do, I recommend bringing your own snacks as they do let in outside food (not drinks) and the popcorn they sell is crazy expensive ($6Bz).

For hanging back at the hostel, the nearby convinience store is open very late and has a good supply of frozen candy bars. In the tropics, as a chaser to my pineapple and rum juice dark chocolate Mounds bars ($2Bz) are my favorite! Cadbury dairy milk and Dove dark are close behind though.

Need a second-dinner bite while out dancing your butt off at Oceanside? There’s a solution right next door: hamburgers ($6-10Bz). Decent fast-food style, they’ve got all the hamburger bases covered and hit the spot late at night.

—————–

Whew, you made it through! There are of course a number of higher priced places targeted at tourists and other budget spots that I did not go to. Good luck, and enjoy getting to know the food of Caye Caulker for yourself!

A whole row of restaurants I never visited.

Exploring Caye Caulker’s quiet side

Not too many people branch out off the main drag of Caye Caulker, but biking the south end of the island makes for an excellent change of pace. We rented bikes ($5Bz for one hour, 10Bz all afternoon) from the shop just to the right of Cayeboard Connection on Front Street. They were the highest quality rental bikes I have seen in Central America. Full tires, a smooth ride, and my handle bars were tipped by metallic skulls with flaming red eyes. Sweet.

Off we go.

Tyler brought along a portable speaker, popped it in his basket with an iPhone, and played us a chill island soundtrack. We took a gentle path past the airport down to the south end of the island. Past a few beautiful secluded homes we found beautiful inlets, crab colonies, rickety docks, and beautifully blue yet far too shallow water. Conch shells littered people’s yards, making for prettier debris than old tires perhaps but with a more pungent smell.

“I think something died back here…”
On the side of the road. Who could be on the other end?
The 1:30pm flight from Belize City coming in for a landing.
 Kickin’ back on docks, blue as far as the eye can see.

Getting to the end doesn’t take as long as you would think; we made the whole loop in just over an hour and road down every path possible. On the way back to town we headed through the more populated back side of the island through local neighborhoods where chocolate bananas were sold from porches and there was a surprising amount of construction happening. I think Caye Caulker is on the rise…

Diving school: Day 2 and 3, Open water

On day two of my dive course I took a choppy one-hour boat ride with ten-foot swells to Turneffe North. The thought of being at depth gave me butterflies. During the ride, I took the opportunity to relax and practice breathing slow deep breaths. I had a new instructor who was an older ex-military Belizian nicknamed “the Legend”, seemingly stern at first but warmed to me over time.

We started with a simple fun dive to a depth of 30 feet. I descended slowly using a rope line, equalizing my air spaces for the very first time by holding my nose and gently blowing. The surface shimmered above me. To be surrounded by and part of the reef was amazing! This dive made me “get it” and taste what a real dive could be. Checking out parrot fish and giant sea sponges is so much more fun than simulating equipment failure!

On the second dive we descended and knelt on a sandy bottom to work through skills. First up, my nemesis, clearing a flooded mask. I found this to be quite scary to do under three stories of water, but it is a very useful, common, and important skill to master. The full flood was the worst. Nervous, at the end I took a little water up my nose and choked. I had the powerful instinct to head for the surface, but my instructor made me stay under and resolve the problem. Learned how to cough it out into a regulator and regain calm.

Day three was the final day of the course: my last two open water dives and taking the written exam. We headed to the nearby Belize Barrier Reef. Finished off my skills at Spanish Bay with a navigation test and full mask removal. At Dolphin Point, we had a victory lap fun dive. The reef is so spectacular. We glided through canyons of coral. My instructor scared up a huge turtle from the sea floor. As she rose, another turtle came out of the deep blue and snapped his massive jaw at her tail. The two began swirling around each other locked in what I thought was a dual but I learned later was probably sex. One of the remora suckerfish riding on her shell was knocked free and followed us around for the rest of the dive.

Happy new diver’s id photo!

While waiting at our final three minute safety stop at 15 feet, my instructor gave me a double high five, a double fist bump, and then shocked me by busting a move. I happy danced along with glee; a great final dive. Back at the dive shop, I took my written test (much like a drivers license exam) and passed. They took the picture for my id card before they finished grading my test. Achievement unlocked: PADI open water diving certification!

Next up, another dive day in the Belize reef. I think I am going to pass for now on the Blue Hole and whale shark diving until I have more experience; I want more normal dives under my belt first. The plan: head to Utila where I can actually afford to dive dive dive.

Go slow, the rhythm of Caye Caulker

Yuma’s, home sweet home.

Some tourists/travelers get antsy in Caye Caulker after a few days, wanting a faster pace of travel and more accomplishments. I am not one of them. I love it here, “go slow” motto and all. My stay has evolved from three nights to over two weeks now, with room to grow further or come back later or both.

I like the small town (population: 1,600) feel. I find there’s always something to do, a different way to relax. I am getting to know some people who live here. I know which night of the week stuff happens–outdoor movies, trivia (which I won last week btw), when certain food carts are out, and more. I like wearing colorful beachy clothes and am getting a tan for the first time in my life. My hostel feels like home. Looking out at the beautiful blue ocean, just at the horizon waves crash over the reef as far as the eye can see. I’m cooking again every day. I stay out late with friends drinking Belikin stout and get up early to watch the sun rise. I play in the water often. My feet are perpetually covered in sand. I enjoy exploring the cheap eats food scene and knowing the scoop. I make new friends easily every day. I spend a lot of time sitting on the end of docks. Everywhere is walkable and it’s a pleasant way to travel, sauntering slowly down the street, smiling and greeting everyone I meet.

I’ve figured out how to live relatively cheaply here, aside from picking up an expensive new hobby. (As I keep diving, my lazy rest days help keep my average day cost down-ish. Without diving, I am under $30USD/day.) Wish I had more money so I could dive more often because it is so freakin’ awesome. I can see myself continuing to be happy here for the near term future, so I think that’s what I am going do.

UPDATE: I received a jolt the other day. When hanging out with a bunch of ex-pats around a poker table, I heard about some job opportunities that fit my skill set. Suddenly, it became a realistic possibility to stay. I was surprised how this made me feel: I felt the world shrink. I’m not ready to stop moving, no matter how much I like somewhere. I love being on the road, meeting other travelers, and living the backpacker lifestyle. I’m a rolling stone right now, not ready to settle down even if I do get tempted sometimes. Think this is a kick in the pants I needed to get me moving again. Well, once I get my broken backpack zipper fixed. (Triple UGH!) I can easily see myself coming back though. Blue Hole in July anyone? 🙂

Vice and gender inequality

Walking down the street in Caye Caulker every foreigner gets attention from the locals. But what kind of attention greatly differs based on your gender. As a lady, I receive subdued cat calls every 30 seconds or less along the main drag. Usually these are complimentary (“beautiful” “lady in red” “she’s so dan-ger-ous!”), but the other night when yawning while walking some dude said “you gotta big mouth”. Or, if I am carrying two plates of cake from the Cake Lady, “which one of those is for me, baby?”. Oh no no no, don’t even try to get between me and my rum cake OR coconut pie. Remember that big mouth? Both for me, I assure you.

My guy friends report they get offered drugs just as often as I get harmlessly hit on. And apparently the drug dealer pitches are AWFUL. “I got da best weed, we’ll blaze down the highway” or “I’m 35 and you look as old as I do. Have some of my weed and you’ll look younger and we can play basketball.” Umm, seriously? My friend Mark came back from a two-hour trip to San Pedro and his biggest impression of the place was the fact that there they tried to sell him cocaine instead of weed. I was there four days and had no idea! In comparing notes, we couldn’t decide which sex got the short end of the stick. “Just for variety, why can’t they mix it up? Offer you coke sometimes, hit on me sometimes…”

“I hear the reviews of the jail on TripAdvisor are *all* bad.”

Sunset at the Split

The Split.

Want to hang with the cool kids while the sun in up in Caye Caulker? There is only one place, filled to the brim with beer and bikinis: the Split. Back in the day, a hurricane tore through the middle of Caye Caulker and created a narrow channel called the Split. It’s now the northern most point of civilization on the southern island and the perfect place to while away the daylight hours. Here is the best swimming beach and snorkeling just off the dock where you will see barracudas, octopuses, and sergeant majors. It’s also a great place to sunbathe or bring the kids to frolic in the shallow water. But when the sun starts to go down people are drawn there for the vibe and view. And come on, how cool is it to say “yeah, I’ll meet you for sunset at the Split.”

Chillin’ as the sun goes down. A key part of every day in Caye Caulker.
The infamous Rasta boat, ready for sunset cruises. UPDATE: I hear from locals that the hull is like swiss cheese plugged with rolled up t-shirts and it regularly sinks 3-4 times per year.
The actual split channel, with a wicked current.
Bellying up to the bar…

It’s a small town and if you head to the Split you’ll run into just about everyone. Locals, tourists, it doesn’t matter. Come with your hostel-mates, family and kids for a bbq, or alone because you’ll find company there even if you aren’t looking for it. I’ve come with peeps, serendipitously reconnected with travelers from other stops on my trip, and made new friends (most notably a kick-ass tour group who was always the life of the party and adopted me for two days). On Saturdays, “everyone” also includes one very sociable parrot named Polly who grew up around the bar and loves making new friends. She is an excellent cheek-cuddler.

The bar, the Lazy Lizard, is always hopping, especially during sunset happy hour. They provide ample buckets of Belikin beer (both lager and stout) and rum specials including the girls’ favorite, the panty ripper (ridiculous name, but it’s a delicious mix of fresh pineapple juice and local coconut rum so we suck it up and order them anyways). The house green frozen punch is very mysterious. Oh, and they sell Cuban cigars. Heart. Repeatable trip side quest completed!

Secret ingredient = antifreeze? But then how does it stay frozen?!
Me and Joanne in the aftermath.

P.S. Wondering where to go after sunset? Here’s the scoop: I&I Reggae Bar from 10pm until they close at 12, then follow the mass exodus down the street to Oceanside Night Club for karaoke or dancing away the rest of the night. It’s just that easy.

The decision to dive

Diving was not something I thought I would do. Not on this trip, maybe not ever. Previously, I found the idea of going deep underwater somewhat scary, was under the impression it was an expensive hobby, and just didn’t feel the urge. Snorkeling was something I discovered a love of two years ago and I was satisfied with that being my window into the water. That is, until I saw those divers in Dos Ojos. Add in my increasing attraction to adventure and a longstanding interest in marine biology, and me diving now actually makes perfect sense.

Since Tulum, my curiosity and interest has grown steadily as I met divers and saw diving in action. Each time, I became more inspired and warmed to the idea, to the point of boiling over in fact. The mix of excitement, challenge, and tranquility are intriguing. As a traveler, I know throughout my life I will continue to find myself in places where diving provides another dimension of this planet to explore. Not to mix my Disney metaphores and go all reverse-Little Mermaid on you all but it really does seem like a whole new world. Learning to dive is also a very concrete accomplishment, a skill I would be proud to acquire on this trip especially. It feels part of taking risks to become and be the person I want to be. Symbolic of what I choose and can achieve on my own.

Two days ago I made the decision to do it. I weighed my options for when and how. The big question: to do it here in Belize or go to Utila in Honduras, a dive mecca with rock bottom prices. Nearly everyone on the backpacker beat seems to recommend Utila with an eye to its cheapness. However, when you factor in the money, time, and effort of traveling to Honduras and the fact that Honduras makes me nervous, spending $200 more to just do it here in the convenience and safety of Caye Caulker actually seemed smarter.

Yesterday morning I took the plunge and signed up for an open water course with Belize Diving Services. The price is $450USD, which is more expensive than most places but they have a great reputation and I think it will be money well-spent. I already have my workbook and instructional dvds that I will be studying over the next two days on my hostel’s beach-front porch, then I move into confined and open water training. In less than a week I will be a certified bubble maker, able to go places and do things! I am so very excited. 🙂

UPDATE: I thought Belize Diving Services did a great job. Seems like a well-run shop doing things right. I’ve heard sketchy things about some other diver’s more casual open water education; I like that mine was serious and thorough. Their boats, gear, and lunch aboard were all great. I’d recommend them to any diver headed to Caye Caulker.

Snorkeling Hol Chan: Sharks, rays, and eels oh my

Our lovely boat, the Ragga King.

In San Pedro on Caye Ambergris, I met up with my friend Maggie from San Francisco who came down to spend a few days with me in between her old and new jobs. We spent most of the four days she was here in the sun, reading, and girl talking while generally lazying about the yoga retreat where we stayed (and did zero yoga), but we had one main event: a full day snorkel tour of the Belize reef.

We went with Ragamuffin tours out of Caye Caulker. It is one of the more pricey snorkel tours, but we also had heard it was the best: $70USD each for six hours on the boat, three one-hour snorkel stops, snorkel guides, gear, lunch, and sunset ceviche and rum. (Other half day tours without food cost about $35USD.) After a breakfast of fry jack (savory Belizian fry dough) and beans, we climbed aboard and headed out to sea.

Maggie with hash and fry jack!

The sun was shining bright, the island music was playing, and we were all in fine spirits.  It felt happy-chill in a very Caribbean way. I love when good cliches come true. Our first stop was Coral Gardens way out in the reef, about a hour sail from our home port. We got our fins wet snorkeling among the coral and riding the waves.

Me, joyfully dipping my toes off the Ragga King.

Our second stop was Shark Ray Alley. Our guides tossed some chum into the water and suddenly beside our boat was teeming with four-foot long nurse sharks. We all jumped on in and checked out the docile frenzy, with large sting rays cruising just below on the sea floor. One of the guides grabbed a shark and let us all pet his belly. Smooth and springy!

Swimming with the sharks.

Our final stop was in the Hol Chan reserve, which was very cool. Here we saw all sorts of large marine life; my favorite were the morey eels! Our guide lured one out of his den using a conch shell (don’t ask me why this worked) and we followed the eel as he slithered all along the base of the reef. After we reboarded the boat, Maggie and I sat near the bow and were seen off by a friendly turtle just coming up for a breath. We cruised home tired and happy with chips and shrimp ceviche–very difficult to eat on a windy sail boat without flinging salsa bits onto other people! All in all, a lovely adventure, and I’m so happy I got to share some of my time down here with Maggie. ❤

You better Belize it!