Caye Caulker is a small limestone coralisland off the coast of Belize in the Caribbean Sea measuring about 5 miles (8.0 km) (north to south) by less than 1 mile (1.6 km) (east to west). The town on the island is known by the name Caye Caulker Village.
Caye Caulker is located approximately 20 miles (32 km) north-northeast of Belize City, and is accessible by high-speed water taxi or small plane. In recent years the island has become a popular destination for backpackers and other tourists. There are over 30 tiny hotels, and a number of restaurants and shops.
Caye Caulker is popular with backpackers and budget travellers for its (relatively) cheap prices, laid-back vibe, and abundance of restaurants and bars. There aren't really any proper beaches to speak of, but plenty of docks are spread around the island where you can pull up a plastic chair and get your sun on, or hang out at one of the ocean front restaurants or walk down to "The Split" which is a popular swimming area and if you're feeling a bit thirsty, The Lazy Lizard Bar is just couple steps away from the water.
There are only three roads in town, all sandy. Front Street runs along the east coast, Back Street along the west coast, and Middle Street exactly where you'd expect it. The vast majority of places of interest to a visitor will be found along Front Street and the west coast.
The local cultural influences are Mestizo, Garifuna and Creole.
The island is basically a sand bar over a limestone shelf. An underwater cave named Giant Cave is found below the Caye in the limestone. In front of the village, a shallow lagoon, between 6 inches (150 mm) and 14 feet (4.3 m) deep, meets the Belize Barrier Reef to the east. In front of the village, the reef is known as a dry reef with the reef exposed at the surface, while further north the reef is a deep reef and lies under 2 to 8 feet (0.61 to 2.44 m) of water. This area is popular with windsurfers.
A narrow waterway known as the Split divides the island in two. Some people state that the Split was created by Hurricane Hattie in 1961 which devastated Belize City, however that is a myth. Villagers who actually hand dredged it maintain that it is largely a man-made feature. The Village Council Chairman at the time, Ramon Reyes, recounts that he and others dredged the waterway by hand after Hurricane Hattie opened a passage a few inches deep. This made a practical water way between the west and east sides of the island, intended at first for dugout canoes. The increased flow of tidal water has naturally dredged the opening to 20 feet (6.1 m) deep until larger boats can now easily pass. The natural erosion continues to this day and threatens the soft sand banks of the waterway.
The main industry on the island prior to tourism was fishing. The island sits in the middle of natural migration routes for fish, and feeding grounds for conch and lobster. During World War II, fishermen living on the island also collected debris from torpedoed ships in the Caribbean that came floating ashore. The most lucrative were bales of rubber. The fishing industry is thought to support about 80 families on the island.
The growth of tourism on the island
Tourism first started on the island around 1964, with only a few visitors on weekends from the mainland Belleview Hotel, brought out by a local boat called 'Sailfish', built by a schoolteacher beside the then Teachers House. The early tourists were mostly people working with the Belize Government. Around 1969, Dr. Hildebrand of the University of Corpus Christi started visiting each winter with a Marine Biology Expedition of around 24 students. Backpackers also found their way to the island at this time, but transportation was only by fishing sailboats and there was no accommodation. The Alamina, Reyes and Marin families pioneered the tourism industry and the first scuba diving lessons and trips were started around the late 1960s.
As speedboats came into use in the 1970s tourists became more regular. Hippies following the so-called "Gringo Trail", of Isla Mujeres, Tulum, Caye Caulker, Tikal and Lake Atitlan in Guatemala passed through the island (many of them making use of the easily available marijuana). The reputation spread by word of mouth.
Today, the diversified economy of the village still includes lobster, fish, and tourists. Internet e-commerce is growing in a small way. Recent hurricanes had a major effect on lobster fishing as well as dramatically affecting the vegetation. The island ecology is slowly returning to that prior tto he storms. The island is now becoming a center for many painters and some musicians. There are also a few up and coming lyrical artists on the island, prominent among them include Alexander Joseph, otherwise known as "Bobbo youth" and ILYA Rosado a.k.a. "ILLA-G" who have developed a local islander fan base with their rap and reggae style music.
The small airplanes and asphalt-paved airstrip of Caye Caulker Airport may appear small to visitors accustomed to jet airliners and long concrete runways, but the system of barrier islands support a lively network of air transportation with an array of travel times. For those passengers preferring a route more commonly adopted by locals, there is a regular water taxi service providing transportation to and from the island. Taxi service is available from the main Belize City airport. The speedboats used are capable of carrying around 50 people. The watercraft typically sport two or three large motors and make the journey in about 45–50 minutes.
Once on the island, the main mode of transport is simply walking. The paths are well defined, and crossing the island takes 20 minutes at most. Bicycles and golf carts are also common and can be rented. Visitors prone to sunburn should take precautions, as the island is entirely white coral sand, and reflected sunlight can cause mild sunburns even in the shade. The Island is also used as a popular launch off for scuba diving the Great Blue Hole, with several expeditions per week.
Caye Caulker has internet access, but the island is served by a single hard line to the mainland and is therefore prone to bandwidth problems and interruptions.
There are a few internet cafes and WiFi hotspots on the island.
- Cayeboard Connection is open from 8AM-9PM.
- Caye Caulker Cyber Cafe open from 8AM-10PM.
- The Island Link Internet Cafe & Ice Cream Parlor is open from 8AM-9PM. They also have delicious ice creams and is owned by a local Caye Caulker native.
- Young's Internet Cafe on the back street
Transportation - Get In
Caye Caulker Airport (IATA: CUK) is located at the southern end of the island. Belize is served by both Maya Island Air [www] and Tropic Air [www]. Flights leave hourly from Belize City to San Pedro, and will stop here if there is demand. These local planes leave from the international airport and the cost is approximately US$75 one-way and about $45 from the municipal airstrip, and takes about 10-15 min. These planes also leave from the Belize City Municipal Airport (IATA: TZA) and the cost is less.
If you're coming in from Mexico you can fly from Corozal, 20 minutes from the Mexican border at Chetumal. The flights stop in Ambergris and Caye Caulker if there's demand, and will save you the more than 4-hour bus ride to Belize City.
Catch a Water Taxi in Belize City or Ambergris Caye to Caye Caulker and they have frequent runs to the island everyday rain or shine. The ride takes about 45 minutes, and then continues on to San Pedro. On windy days the trip can be a little rough, but most times is smooth. Sit towards the back of the boat for a smoother ride.
- Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association - BZ$20 one-way, or BZ$35 round-trip. (Check their website for departures). Caye Caulker Water Taxi is located at the foot of the Swing Bridge in Belize City.
- San Pedro Belize Express - BZ$20 one-way and BZ$35 round-trip. (Check their website for departures). Boats leave Belize City from the Brown Sugar Marketplace at 9AM, 11AM, 12PM, 1PM, 3PM, 4PM and 5:30PM to Caye Caulker and from San Pedro on the beach behind the town council every hour and a half starting at 7AM.
If you are coming from Mexico you can get a boat directly from Chetumal to San Pedro and then to Caye Caulker, it runs everyday, leaving at 3PM and 3:30PM, US$35, 2.5 hr. While twice the cost, this route is a much better option than trekking down to Belize City and getting the boat there. Tickets can be bought at the Maritime Terminal or Muelle Fiscal itself or from a slow speaking large friendly dude at Chetumal ADO terminal.
Transportation - Get Around
There are only three main streets on Caye Caulker - Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street - none of which are paved. Front Street, the easternmost street, is the busiest and has almost everything for tourists on it. Everything is within walking distance, it takes approximately 20 minutes to slow-walk from the Front Pier to almost anywhere.
There are few cars on the island, so everyone gets around on golf carts, bicycles or on foot. With a golf cart, you can go around the entire island in 30 minutes.
There are many places on the island who rent bicycles.
For golf carts check with C&N Golf Cart Rentals and Caye Caulker Golf Cart Rentals.
On early British maps the island's name is spelled "Cay Corker." Known historically for its plentiful supply of exposed fresh water at La Aguada, one theory holds that this island was a favourite stop for sailors to replenish and cork water bottles. The Spanish name of the island is Cayo Hicaco, which means "the island of the cocoplum." "Caye Caulker" could be an anglicised pronunciation of Cayo Hicaco. Another theory is that boats were caulked in the protected bay, La Ensenada, on the western side of the island leading to the "Caulker" name.
Recent history of Caye Caulker began when Mestizo refugees from the Mexican Caste Wars arrived. With few inhabitants, food could be grown with sustainable methods of agriculture. The coconut and the fishing industry became important economic staples of the island. Even today a few of the older women continue to process coconut oil for their own use and to sell, although generally the coconuts themselves are harvested and shipped to the mainland.
Things to see
- The Forest Reserve covers the northern 40 ha (100 acres) of the island. It's mostly dense mangrove forest. The local Audubon group sometimes organizes morning birdwatching tours.
- Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, also known as the local reef. The local reef is close enough that you can see the waves breaking on it from the island itself.
- Hol Chan Marine Reserve (6.4 km (4 mi) south of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye), . Has been protected for longer than the local reef, and so it usually has more mature marine life (i.e. bigger fish) as well as more people, though it's never terribly crowded. It's further away than the local reef.
- Shark and Ray Alley. Tour operators will toss food into the water in order to attract nurse sharks and southern sting rays. You can swim with them, and even touch them if you're quick. Nurse sharks can bite, contrary to myth, but they are also territorial so these sharks are very used to humans.
- The Blue Hole. This is circular in shape, over 300 m (984 ft) across and 124 m (407 ft) deep, with many fish, sharks, and corals. The Blue Hole is possibly the most famous dive site in Belize, even though it's nearly straight down. It's at least an hour boat ride away from Caye Caulker. The dive depth is normally described as 40 m (130 ft), but you may go a bit deeper than that. The dive shops typically combine the blue hole dive with two shallower dives afterward, so you'll only be able to stay down at that depth for 5-10 minutes. Once you're down there, you'll take a look at the formations and probably see a few reef sharks. There's not much to it other than that, so many divers regard the trip as being overrated. It's just one of those things you'll want to check off your list as a diver. That said, most divers enjoy the two subsequent dives on the trip. Some of the less scrupulous dive shops will allow you to go on this dive if you don't have your advanced open water certification from PADI. It should be noted that this can be dangerous and you should consider the risks involved.
Things to do
Caye Caulker is a small, very laid-back Caribbean island. In fact, its motto is "Go Slow" and that is exactly what you should do. It is an ideal place to spend a few days while taking a break from travelling around the rest of Central America. The Belizean dollar (BZ$) is officially pegged to the US dollar (US$) at a rate of BZ$2 to US$1.
Chill out at The Lazy Lizard located at "the split," a little bar on its own near what can only be described as the island's only beach, however, do not expect Rio or Hawaii - there is no sand here. The "beach" is a sunken area of a picnic area surrounded by concrete seawalls, damage from the hurricane and smartly kept as it was in 1961. On the walls you'll see the young and hip lazing about, catching a tan. When it gets too hot, you can jump into the water and climb back again, or make the short walk to the Lazy Lizard to refresh your drink. If you go into or out of the water using the stairs at the Lazy Lizard, beware underwater metal columns, presumably left over from construction.
Snorkeling and diving
Much of the activity on the island centers around snorkelling and diving (about a dozen operators offering trips) and scuba diving. The prices at all the shops are basically the same. The local diving is at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a 30 minute boat ride away. A little further out is Spanish Bay, Caye Chapel, and some other sites. Long distance trips to Turneffe Atoll and the famous Blue Hole are regularly available.
Short "half-day" snorkeling tours are offered by numerous local businesses for approximately BZ$70 per person (April 2015). They usually leave at 10:30AM (back at 1PM) and 2:30PM. Stops include the local reef, the Coral Garden, and Shark and Ray Alley.
Longer "full-day" snorkeling tours are offered by numerous local businesses, for approximately BZ$140 (April 2015). They usually leave around 10AM and return around 4:30PM. Stops include the Coral Garden, Shark and Ray Alley, and Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Be sure to check whether your tour guide will include lunch, since some only include snacks. Some of them include lunch, snacks, and a rum punch "happy hour" on the way back. With all operators, check to make sure they have equipment that is in good shape.
The creation of Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary - a manatee reserve near Belize City is due to the efforts of a Caye Caulker local named Chocolate. He offers guided tours to the Manatee reserve approximately every other day, as do a few other tour operators. Be warned that you don't get to swim with the manatees in the sanctuary and some days may be more difficult to see them. Most manatee tours include one or two snorkeling stops. Manatees can be seen all year long, and in the summer months can be seen near Hol Chan Marine Reserve as well as other local areas. The younger ones are curious and will swim close to you, unlike the more mature manatees, which generally avoid people (for good reason).
- Chocolate (tours) (at the north end of Front Street, near Ragamuffin Tours). Tours to Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary and manatree habitats, tours are normally run every 2nd day.
- Carlos Tours is located next to Cafe Amore, 1 block south of the Sandbox restaurant. An eco-friendly tour and quite respectful of the reef. The locals living on the island will say that his tours are one of the best. The tour includes 4 stops: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, San Pedro on Ambergris Caye for lunch (not provided), Shark-Ray Alley, & Coral Gardens. The price is BZ$90. Carlos will take underwater pictures during the trip and can supply them on a CD after the trip for BZ$30. This is much better than getting BZ$40 underwater disposable camera.
- Red Mangrove Eco Adventures, Front Street, Caye Caulker. Eco friendly small group snorkel tours to local sites and Turneffe Atoll.
- Seagull Adventures, about a block from the Front Pier, offers snorkeling tours to more distant locations that most other tour guides will only go to for diving. Examples include Blue Hole (about BZ$230 per person), Tourneffe Atoll (about BZ$120 per person), etc. Ask the owner a few days in advance to find out what the schedule is. The best time to catch her is in the evening, around 6PM, during the day she's usually gone on the snorkelling trips.
- Juni's, sailing/snorkeling trips to hol chan marine reserve. Authentic experience on a beautiful self built sailing boat. Small groups to maximum of 6 people. Only for those who respect the ocean, the fish and the locals. If you like drinking and smoking with more than 20 people on a sailing boat, then don't go to Juni. Go to raggamuffin instead. Find Juni in his office behind the police station, best before 9:30AM and after 5:30PM, or at his boat Trinity at the dock. Experience yourself, and direct nice and friendly people to him if you can.
Caye Caulker is popular with divers and there are several dive shops on the island. Contact them a few days in advance to find out what their schedule is. PADI certified dive shops are available offering both recreational diving and open water courses. These courses normally take 3–4 days, providing the weather is fair. The certification includes 2 shallow-water dives, and 4 open-water dives. All dives are done in the ocean.
The local dive shops all offer dive trips to the Blue Hole, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, Spanish Bay, Turneffe North, and Turneffe Elbow, prices vary depending on the dive site.
- Belize Diving Services (near the soccer field in the northern half of the town). PADI Resort facility. Small groups, safety conscious and is the only dive shop to offer technical diving services.
- Big Fish Diving (located at the southern part of the island opposite of Quan's Shopping Center). EXPELLED from PADI.
- Frenchies (located in the northern part of the island towards the Split). Run by a Belizean. Very friendly and laid back. PADI Certified.
- Scuba Sensation (located in the middle of the island before the police station). PADI Certified.
There are also operators on nearby Ambergris Caye that can pick you up if the local shops aren't going where you want.
The cost of various trips varies according to the distance from Caye Caulker. Typical costs are:
- Local dives (Hol Chan, Spanish Bay): US$90 (2 tank dives)
- Turneffe Atoll: US$150 (3 tank dives)
- Blue Hole: US$150 (3 tank dives) plus US$40 park permit
- Tsunami Adventures. Extreme north end of Front St. This is a great way to explore the northern mangrove forest. Head for the leeward side of the island (the west side) for smoother water and to avoid paddling into the wind. Cost for a two-person kayak is BZ$15 per hour for the first hour, then BZ$10 for each additional hour.
You can also book various activities at many places on the island, such as
- Sailing tours. With Raggamuffin [sic] Tours you can do a sailing trip of 3 days (2 nights). Sleeping on little islands, snorkeling, fishing your own meal, a wonderful experience.
- Tours to Maya ruins (on the mainland).
- Cave tubing (on the mainland).
- Manatee watching Tours normally include a snorkeling stop at Sergeant's Caye (on the barrier reef) and a short visit to St. George's Caye. There are many tour operators out of Caye Caulker, San Pedro and Belize City who do manatee watching trips. Visit Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary that was set up by Chocolate Heredia, Belizean native and award winning conservationist. 3,600 ha (9,000 acres) of sea and mangrove became a protected area in July 2002. For more information see the Friends of Swallow Caye. [www]
- Auntie's Fast Food, Middle Street. Delicious Belizean and Chinese take out with a relatively low price. Stewed chicken, baked chicken, rice and bean and cow foot soup.
- The Bamboo Grill, (next to Rasta Pasta). Good fish and shrimp dishes, chicken is also available. Features swings instead of chairs at some tables and the bar. Friendly hostess.
- Glenda's, Back Street, (near the microwave tower). Serves eggs, bacon, a cinnamon roll, and coffee for just US$3.50.
- The Sandbox, (near the Front Pier). Good food at reasonable prices. This is a place on the island where you can get a veggie burger.
- Femi's Bar and Lounge, Front Street, (a little south of the Lazy Lizard). Great lunch, dinner, and drink specials on a pier overhanging the sea.
- Fran's, (across the street from the Miramar Hotel). Roger's sister, her fare is similar to that of Jolly Roger's, for the same price.
- Caye Caulker Bakery, Back Street, (just north of Chan's Grocery). Opens at 7:30AM. Serving a mixture of sweet and savory foods. The ham and cheese turnover (if available) is exceedingly delicious and is a filling breakfast on its own.
- Chan's Fast Food (formerly Pirates), (near the supermarket). Food for the budget traveller. A generous portion of chicken and chips can be had for BZ$7.
- Agave, Front St (north of Dock St). Bar and grill offering contemporary seafood dishes for BZ$20-$40
- Amor y Café. Owned by a Dutch woman, this is a great (though small) breakfast place on Front Street just south of Dock Street. They offer home-made bread, yoghurt and fruit juices.
- Jolly Roger, Front Street. For BZ$25 you can get catch of the day (lobster, snapper, baracuda) with garlic bread, mashed potatoes, rum punch and a small desert. The grilled seafood is delicious (like everywhere else), but the lack of hygiene and running water means you need a robust digestive system and a bit of luck if you want to avoid food poisoning.
- Don Corleone, Front Street. Italian restaurant.
- Habaneros, Front Street. Lunch and dinner. Varied gourmet menu. Beware that prices do not include tax.
There is not much to do in the night in regards to partying. While nearby Ambergris Caye is known for its nightlife, Caye Caulker is more relaxed and most bars shut down before midnight. The I&I Reggae Bar and Oceanside Night Club are the only bars with dancefloors. Holidays and long weekends are when events and dances are held on the island by individual committees of the island.
- I&I Reggae Bar (located on the southern part of the island). Nice vibes and hang out spot to meet with friends or meet new friends. Great place to relax on a hammock or swing with a cocktail. From the top deck you can see the whole island, eerily peaceful at night.
- Oceanside Night Club, Front St. Karaoke nights Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and Ladies' nights. Has dancing and/or live music from time to time, and can be a popular destination on weekend nights and is the only bar on the island with a license to stay open past midnight.
- The split is the place where hurricane Hattie split the island in two in 1961, a bit of dredging and currents subsequently formed the split. There is a bar just next to the split called the Lazy Lizard. Good place for a binch while watching large tarpons and rays just swimming by. Happy hour starts at 5PM and offers two rum drinks for BZ$5; try the "Panty Ripper" included in this deal.
- The Sports Bar, (across from Rasta Pasta and the Police Station). Occasionally has live music, and they have a couple of TVs tuned to ESPN. The food is pretty good and it's a nice place to grab a beer in the shade on a hot day.
- Sunset View. A disco on the back side of the island just north of the soccer field. It is only open from 11PM on weekends (it doesn't get going until 1AM), but you will see a different side of the island. DJs spin reggae, punta, and other caribbean music and the locals cut loose and dance in a surprisingly large room. Be prepared to be one of the few tourists there, but it is great fun if you like music and dancing.
Money & Shopping
Like most of Belize, most shops accept US dollars, US $1 equals $2 Belizian. Prices will be posted in Belizian dollars, but always confirm before making a purchase.
There are two ATMs on the island. One ATM is for local cards only and another ATM accepts foreign cards. Often on weekends, ATMs run out of money, so stock up on your money in Belize City.
Gift shops along the Front Street sell mainly t-shirts, hammocks and souvenirs. Vendors can be found along the main street selling a variety of crafts and jewelry.
- Caribbean Colors Art Gallery, Front Street. Art gallery on Caye Caulker.
- Chocolate's Gift Shop, Front Street near the split. Sells beautiful sarongs and clothing from Bali. Nice sarongs and silver jewelry.
- Chan's Mini Mart, Middle Street. For your grocery needs during your stay in Caye Caulker.