After a relatively unscathed comfortable coach ride from Tulum to the non-descript coastal town of Chetamul, we were sat drinking a couple of brewskies, our legs overhanging the white mottled jetty, the sun shining on our backs and our heaving backpacks within viewing distance ready to be loaded onto a boat. We were chatting with Monty and Lindsay, two new travelling friends we had jumped into a taxi with to the port, and life seemed good.
We were waiting, along with a host of other backpackers, to jump on-board the jet powered water taxi that would be our means of transport to either San Pedro or Caye Caulker, both islands based in Belize just a mere 90 or so minutes away. We had paid our departure tax and as the army arrived along with their semi-automatic guns, over zealous jeep hoisting a massive artillery piece along with metal shielding, and sniffer dogs to go through all the bags, we made our final toilet stops and jumped on-board.
Caye Caulker, a small coral island off the coast of Belize, measures a mere 5 miles long by 1 mile wide; although the length is halved due to Hurricane Hattie that came through the area in 1961 and split the island into two. The Northern end is now for all intent and purposes the hub of the island, with the South rarely being visited except by some high end hoteliers and Caribbean island getaways. As we went through customs in a typical Caribbean fashion; slow, relaxed, humorous and colourful, we embarked at our slice of Caribbean paradise and lumbered our backpacks to Yuma’s House, the hostel we had reserved days earlier.
We threw our packs on our beds, showered, changed, got a beer in a hammock listening to the evening waves splashing by and breathed a proverbial sigh of relaxation with some quiet time before meeting up with our new found travelling duo for some seafood affair.
The island is made up of a few main sand paved ‘roads’ that run the length, with a multitude of smaller open air palm tree lined ‘alleys’ that lead off the main drags. Chain shops, restaurants, or common retail names or non-existent and no cars are allowed on the island (only golf buggys and bicycles are allowed). Hand painted signs in colourful Jamaican-esque colours are thrown at you, and indeed the slurred Creol-English of Jamaica is prevalent on the tongues of all the locals – our meagre Spanish would not be tested in this predominantly English speaking country.
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As we wandered down the road, obeying the island mantra of ‘Go Slow’, we found Monty and Lindsay, had some warming, welcoming, this-is-normal-for-a-backpacker shots of Mezcal and jumped at the chance to have fresh lobster, red snapper and crab. To wash it all down with we had free homemade rum punch, and sat chatting at the cute wooden bench, sand underneath your feet restaurant overlooking the ocean.
As the food was washed down again with happy hour Caipirinha’s, we made our way to a local bar where we soon bumped into other backpackers who were on the original boat over, and the 10 of us stumbled into the islands ‘sports bar’, emptied our wallets into the bar and drank the night away. Opening up conversations with the standard ‘Where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where have you been?’ before putting the world to rights and delving deeper into irrelevant prevalent topics, the night flowed by with the warming air allowing sandals and shorts to be worn until bed.
With monsoon season still at its tail end, and local knowledge that the next day was to be warm and sunny with only a small chance of showers before an arc of high pressure was to hit the island with its intermittent weather patterns, we decided to book ourselves onto the full day snorkelling adventure the next morning with the locally run ‘Raggamuffin Tours’.
We met a New Zealand couple, discussed hangover cures, and swayed off on our little 40ft Belizean built wooden boat with a gaff type rig, reggae music blasting in our ears and the sun blasting on our skin. Only ten of us were on the boat, and the group size was perfect as we undertook one of the highlights of our adventure so far.
With 4 core stops on the tour, we first jumped into the idyllic crystal clear ocean an hour from the mainland at the edge of the worlds second largest coral reef, and had a guided tour off all the animal and plant life that was in the area. As we slowly flippered and snorkelled our way around the reef, our guide would pop up, tell us the name of the coral or the fish, some informative facts and knowledge on the species, before allowing us to swim, dive down and carry on the tour. 40 mins later and we were back on the boat, mesmerized and in awe of the magical underwater kingdom that holds fort mere metres from the surface.
Fire coral, brain coral, sea plumes, sea fans, polyps, yellow tails, trumpet fish, porgys, blues, yellows, greens, deep reds, light reds, royal reds, aquamarines that shimmered and changed colour as the light caught it …. the adjectives and species were vast yet never overwhelming. Magical and entrancing, fantastical and otherworldly, the 40min dive was to be just a taster as we moved further into the reef to experience larger game and grander beasts.
Once small incident though marred the otherwise tranquil experience; as I dove down to the bottom to capture some camera footage of the reef I grazed my back against a brace of fire coral. Named so for its excruciating painful defense mechanism, and as our guide quoted ‘touching the coral will feel like 1000 bees are stinging you simultaneously for 40mins before it starts to calm down’, my back felt like it was on fire where I had touched it. I was sure I had sliced open my back and sleuths of blood was pouring out into the shark infested waters. Luckily there were no cuts, but for the next few hours my back was on fire. I put on a brave face, wiped it down with some alcohol wipes and ‘manned up’.
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Our next three stops showed us and allowed us to swim with swarms of plant-eating nurse sharks, stroke and pass by dozens of mantra rays, watch and observe the grand loping sea turtles and flipper through schools of fish faster than you would think possible, and larger than the water at first optically confuses you to believe they are.
As we sat on deck 6 hours later, full from our earlier lunch of roast chicken with rice, followed later by amazing fresh prawn ceviche, the motors turned off, the wind literally in our sails, reggae music pumping from the speakers and rum punch in hand, once again we felt lucky to be on this trip, and sat back and dozed as the sun drew our strength and ability to do much, reflecting on the well-worth-every-penny tour.
Later that day, as we started to make some dinner back at our hostel, I was wearing my green Boundary Bay Brewing Company t-shirt when another guest asked me about the t-shirt and which brewery it was. It turned out that Bev and Richard, two travellers who were on a 3 year backpacking adventure, were from Vancouver and also incidentally were trail runners who had competed at a number of ultra’s that Han and I had competed at too. We got chatting and soon found ourselves at a pub quiz together taking second prize, winning ourselves some free beers in the process. It’s amazing what a simple t-shirt choice can do!
They also told us about a marathon in Guatemala in a few weeks time at Lago de Atitlan that they had entered, which put a small seed of thought in my head – a seed that would grow to fruition to a tree that I would curse at and swear profoundly with. However, on the island as we all went on a small 10k run around the paths, we chatted away and got on really well, exchanging blogs and emails addresses and promising to meet up in the future.
The next couple of days on the island were spent in typical relaxing Caribbean Island time fashion; we lazed about at ‘The Split’ (the divide in the two islands), drank some cold beers in the sun, read books, updated photos and blogs, and caught up on sleep that we hadn’t lost. It was with a sad farewell that we departed the cayes shores, as we boated and bussed our way Westwards through Belize, out the other side and into Guatemala to the small lake island town Flores where we were to visit the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal.