Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Caye Caulker

One of the reasons I chose Caye (pronounced: key) Caulker as our first destination in Belize, is because it was the only island I really remembered anything about from my Fodor's book. I knew it was small and there were no cars on the island (which makes it seem not quite so overwhelming on arrival) and that it was less expensive overall. Since it was the first stop on the Water Taxi it also seemed to make sense to visit here first.

There are three "main" streets to the island, appropriately named: front (or beach street), middle and back. The front and middle are the only two that you really need to worry about as a tourist because the back part of the island is more housing for the locals and as far as I could tell there weren't really any restaurants there. Our summer is their rainy or green season which means mosquitoes, humidity and not many tourists. Their main tourist time is christmas through Jan. although in talking with a few locals they said there hasn't been many tourists visiting with the economy being in a downslide. Bad for business but good for us looking for a deal.
(picture: conch ceviche)
One of the most popular dishes in Belize is conch ceviche. You can get it as an appetizer at any restaurant and it was even given to us free for one of our meals (as a way to lure the tourists in I'm sure). It's basically conch, peppers and lime juice and I'm sure a few other spices depending on who makes it and tastes like a salsa. Conch is a little chewy but fairly tasteless (I'd compare it to a scallop) so it takes on the flavor of whatever it's prepared or cooked with. We grew very fond of conch and really hated to have to come home where we knew there would be a fat chance of finding it in your local restaurant. What impresses me about conch is that the whole thing can be eaten and then they use the shell for decoration, sell it whole or carve the pink inside out for jewelry. Since conch shells are illegal to bring into the united states I opted for a nice necklace made from the pink part of the shell.

The best meal I had on Caye Caulker was at a place called Rose's (we were told if you miss eating here you miss the best part of the island). They had fresh caught snapper, barracuda fillets, conch kabobs, chicken kabobs and pork chops laid out and before you entered the restaurant you picked what you wanted and the guy threw it on the grill. Then you got to pick your side items to which I had mashed potatoes and gravy and cole slaw. The kabob was excellent (as was Chad's snapper I might add) because it took on the smoke flavor of the grill and there was really almost too much for me to eat.
(picture to left: dinner at Roses)

This picture of Pirates of the second best place we ate at on the island. I have learned through my travels that hole-in-the-wall places are some of the best kept secrets and serve, often, better food than sit down restaurants. I think because they don't have to pay waiters and have all those operating costs they can better focus on the food. We decided to order the fried chicken here for lunch and opened our to go box at the hotel to find half a fried chicken. I was a little skeptical at first. I don't like the drumstick and pulling chicken apart and all that mess. But this chicken was amazing. All white meat and almost a tempura fried quality so it wasn't super greasy but perfectly crispy. These people know how to do chicken at this place. My best advice, if you see locals eating there, then follow suit.

The best part of our stay on Caye Caulker and especially for my birthday (to which I had no birthday cake but I did have ice cream) was snorkeling. If you visit here I highly recommend using Carlos as your tour guide (located on middle street he runs a hotel too). What we learned in Thailand about these snorkeling tours is this, most of these guys you see set up with their shops boasting about taking you snorkeling, diving, whatever, all work together. They have too. There aren't enough tourists on these small islands to just take one or two people out alone (Carlos will take a minimum of two) daily so they will group you together. You sign up with one group because you like the guy standing there telling you about the tour, etc. and end up getting handed off to a bigger group once you show up. A good snorkel guide will only take out 8 and have at least another person with him to split the group up. If you have more than four in a group you end up on top of one another kicking each other in the face with your fins. Carlos will actually get in the water with you as well, something I had never heard of. You snorkel as a group and he shows you the fish, tells you their names and points out things you would otherwise miss. We saw lobster, angel fish, parrot fish, and even a moray who he made mad so the thing would come out of his hiding spot!
On our snorkel adventure we went to three spots with the first being the deep part of the reef (Belize has the second largest in the world next to Australia) and then to stingray alley which was my favorite and finally a shallow part of the reef where he lets you swim the channels by yourself as long as you want. Stingray alley has turned into such because it's where the fisherman go to clean their fish and the stingray caught on and started breeding there and so now they just hang out there all the time. I was a little nervous getting in at first, the water is really shallow, but there were about 30 of these stingrays swimming around and I didn't want to have a Steve Irwin type accident or something! They were curious about us of course so they would come up and touch you and one even nibbled my leg. Carlos was cutting up fish in the water for them to attract them closer to us which is how I got the nice picture above of me touching one. The area also draws barracudas, which in reality are probably more terrifying to see up close than the stingrays but Carlos said they would only try and go after you if you were wearing shiny jewelry which they might mistake as a fish. I have heard that it isn't a good thing to touch the string rays because it rubs the mucus off their body and can cause infections so I just tried to let them swim around me and do their thing. I highly recommend doing the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and their stingray alley (which we thought we did but apparently it's another separate part of the reef) with Carlos because there are sea turtles and nurse sharks there as well as the stingrays.

The one downfall to having a reef is that it doesn't make for a good beach. Since the reef catches all the waves and protects the island, there isn't much sand on the waterfront and a lot of sea grass. A hurricane came through several years ago and split the caye into thus giving a deeper area off shore to swim. This area known simply as
"The Split" is pretty much the only place to swim on the caye and as a bonus they have built a bar on the end which makes for a great relaxing, apres snorkeling afternoon. Hotels down by the split are a little more pricey as well and you will hear locals or websites referring to it when referencing areas (as in: oh yes that hotel is down by the split). I wish we had taken advantage of the swimming here more because there is no area like this on Ambergris Caye.

I'd have to say overall I enjoyed Caye Caulker and think it's a good introduction to island life. There aren't any hagglers here trying to sell you things on the beach meaning you can take a nice walk and enjoy yourself and everyone on the island is friendly and helpful. The food we had here was excellent and there were some good drink prices like 2 for 1 beers and pina coladas and half price pizza. No one rushes you in or out the door at the restaurants so you can stay as long as you like (half the time we just had to go up and ask for the check or we'd have been sitting there all day!). I would definitely recommend a second level room at any place you stay to avoid bugs and the only drawback to staying directly on the beach as we did was our room flooded one really stormy night. It was nice to have a fridge in our room to keep drinks in although we did discover that beers (which aren't sold in 6 packs only individually) are cheaper not bought in bulk and better off left to be bought at the bar to get a real deal. There are little grocery stores all over where you can buy whatever you need and don't ignore the guys riding around on bikes selling meat pies and banana bread in the morning, those are a specialty and delicious. There's also one gift shop on the island so you can buy whatever souvenirs you need and they happened to be cheaper there than Ambergris.....which leads us to our next adventure.....

Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't Stop Belize'in

This picture of my husband and I should have a background of Machu Picchu seeing as that's where we were headed a week ago yesterday. However, the life of a standby is an unpredictable one at best and the one direct flight a day from Atlanta to Lima, Peru last Sunday was full. Since I had bought plane tickets from Lima to Cusca to get to Machu Picchu it was pretty pointless for us to try and go if we couldn't get there by Tuesday. The flight Tuesday looked oversold as well and being that it left at 5pm we decided we were done wasting time in the airport. It was time for a backup plan. So we chose the somewhere else on our never ending list of places to visit and that place happened to be Belize.

For my birthday two years ago we had gone to Costa Rica and after we got home I started researching other places in Central America I wanted to go. Belize, with it's laid back people and Caribbean waters and "go slow" attitude on it's cayes seemed like a perfect fit. I even bought a Fodor's book on the place and started saving money for the trip which I planned to take that September. However, my husband asked me, would I rather get engaged or go to Belize? Because we didn't have the money for both at the time. So I put Belize out of my head and never imagined going there again until last Sunday. After talking to customer service and seeing that Peru wasn't an option I had them list us for the flight to Belize City. I hadn't paid for anything but the Taca plane tickets in Peru so we weren't really going to be out any money by switching destinations.

We showed up at the airport Monday morning and were given our boarding passes for Belize City. The sane logical side of my brain was screaming, "What the hell are you doing! You are going to a country you've never been too and have no idea what to do when you get there!" Chad and I had no place lined up to stay and no plans upon arrival except get the hell out of Belize City and head to Caye Caulker. If you have never been to Belize City it's basically like Detroit or a slum of New York City. It's poor and there's a lot of petty crime and it's not a place you dare walk around by yourself at night. While the government says they are trying to clean it up, it still looked pretty bad to me and I was glad we weren't spending any time there.

Upon clearing customs there was a travel center in the airport and Chad went and talked to the lady and asked her about Caye Caulker and where we should stay and if we needed reservations, etc. The lady told Chad that since it was the off season (read: rainy season) that we could walk around the island and have our pick of a place to stay. So we hopped in a cab and headed for the San Pedro Water Taxi pier. Here you buy tickets for $10 per person us one way to Caye Caulker. We were fortunate our plane arrived in enough time to take a cab and get us on the noon boat so we didn't have to sit around until 1:30pm. We boarded up and said goodbye to Belize City and headed out on the water. It was raining when we arrived and I hoped that wouldn't be a sign of the weather for the week to come but at least it was warm!

On Caye Caulker there are no cars, only golf carts to get around. You can rent a golf cart or bike or take a golf cart taxi but the island is only 5 miles long and about 2 miles wide so that's pretty pointless. We declined a golf cart taxi when we arrived because well, we didn't even know where we were going to end up.
(picture: Chad upon our arrival at Caye Caulker)

There are multiple Cayes off the coast of Belize but only Caye Caulker and Ambergris are inhabitable for tourists (there are some smaller ones that have dive huts where avid divers can stay but the water taxi only goes to Ambergris and Caulker) and Caye Caulker is the smallest of the two and also the cheapest. We were told that heading left from the pier we would find cheaper rooms while to the right, down near the Split (pretty much the only area to swim on the island) were more expensive. So we walked all around the island checking out spots that looked suitable until we found The Popeye. The Popeye was right on the beach and looked like a big safe place to stay. It was also close to the pier so when we had to leave it would be a short walk with our backpacks. The cool thing we found out on our travels down here was that the hotel staff always show you the room before you have to buy. So the guy showed us a few rooms and we ended up getting a discount of paying $50us for a waterfront room. This is the bonus to traveling in the off season and also for waiting in person to pay. If you suggest you might look elsewhere they are more likely to bargain with you. Then when you agree to the room they hand you the key, let you get settled in and then you get to go down and pay. A great system for travelers if you ask me!
(picture: the popeye hotel)

(picture: our room at the popeye which was very pink! It had air conditioning and a fridge which was a bonus. The downside, on a really stormy night the rain flooded our room, not terrible but enough to have water all over the front part of the room)

So that's the start of the story about our week in Belize. I will have to break it up over a few blogs because each caye was so different and had so much to offer and I want to focus on both separately. Check back for more of to come!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Ever since I became a flight attendant I have become an extraordinary packer. Of course, when I first started this wasn't the case. I'd pack extra uniforms (waste: I'd wear the same dress every day), an outfit for every day (wear the same thing over again, no one cares especially not your crew) and a variety of shoes (tennis shoes are all you need). In fact, packing only pj's and workout clothes has often saved me money by giving me a great excuse NOT to go out to dinner with my fellow employees. When I travel for leisure I only take a roller board now and a purse. Checking bags is a waste when you fly standby because if you don't even know if you are getting to your destination chances are your bags may or may not go either. I wear my bulkiest pair of shoes and jacket or sweater and bring items that can be worn over again or layered. I find I rarely change outfits in a day (although somewhere in my subconscious I believe I will which is why I pack multiple outfits for one day thus weighing me down) and a pair of flip flops and ballet flats always work and pack well. I don't bring a laptop, dvd's, dvd player, or anything bulky because really who needs all that when you have the iphone? When we travel to another country, Chad and I always use hiker's backpacks. Trust me you don't want to be schulping through the beaches of Thailand or climbing up a hill to your bungalow in Costa Rica lugging a roller board behind you. The plus of backpacks is they fit easily in overhead bins and all the weight is on your hips leaving you hands free. The downside is, being that we always have to non-rev in business casual clothing, well you kind of look ridiculous. Ever seen a guy in a coat and tie with a backpack strapped to his back? Yeah it sounds about as bad as it is.

I recently rented Up in the Air with George Clooney and was pleasantly surprised at how the movie portrayed the business traveler. After all, even though I'm working the flight per say I consider myself a sky warrior as well. In the movie, Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham travels around the country representing the company that other companies use to fire their employees. Although I don't get the frequent flier and hotel perks his character receives in the movie, I definitely related to the loneliness that comes with traveling and staying in hotels night after night. The movie does offer some good advice to travelers though which I thought I would borrow and post here for all of those out there who just don't get "it."

Rule one: Always carry on your bag. As Bingham says:
"You know how much time you loose checking in? Thirty-five minutes a flight. I travel 270 days a year. That's 157 hours. That makes 7 days. You willing to throw an entire week on that?"
And really you DON'T need 6 pairs of shoes, 2 outfits a day, full size shampoos and lotions, and the various other things you always think you will use but don't. The hotels have hair dryers. Seriously not worth the trouble.

Rule two: Pack your belt; don't wear it. You're holding up the security line for an accessory. The same is true for watches, fancy jewelry or anything else. Pack it and wear it later. Or don't pack it. I always pack jewelry and rarely ever change out my earrings...

Rule three: Please stop waving goodbye to your family as you are going through the metal detector. Say goodbye at the curb and be done with it.

Rule four: Tourists are amateurs. They carry way too much electronic equipment and their brains are on vacation. Steer clear of anyone in a hawaiian shirt or sun visor in the security line.

Rule Four I can attest too first hand. When I travel to foreign countries I try to look as not out of place as possible. This means no camera around my neck, no tennis shoes (in Europe at least because no one wears tennis shoes out or yoga pants for that matter) and of course luggage to match the local. When we went to the Phi Phi Islands from Phuket we had to climb across three ferries to get onto ours. Once we arrived at Phi Phi we had to disembark down stairs then walk down a dock and take a long boat over to our side of the island. Of course if you know anything about long boats you know you don't really dock so when we arrived at our final destination we had to get out in ankle deep water, then walk up the beach to our hotel. From the lobby we had to hike up a hill to our bungalow. Was it worth it? Yes. With a roller board, can you even begin to imagine? I saw several other tourists dragging their suitcases all over the place and as you can guess, wheels and sand don't mix.

When we head to Peru in a few weeks we will once again be toting our hiking backpacks. I have learned to pack all my clothing (which isn't much these days) in ziplock bags then bring extra ones for wet or dirty clothes. I also like to google appropriate clothing before I go so I don't stick out too much. In Peru, apparently the clothing choices for locals is very casual so I'd probably look out of place wearing a fancy dress and the roads and walkways there are rocky which means no high heels. I've learned to love wearing hats as they are always good to cover up bad hair days, block the sun and you bonus you don't have to pack them...they just sit on your head.

A little advanced planning means a restful vacation, and as I've learned the less you bring with you the more you can take home :)