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.....

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