Up until now I’ve always been the type of person to criticize those who spent their hard earned dorras to fly to a country to not to immerse themselves in a culture and not do a whole lot of anything else. Well I just became that guy in Caye Caulker and I loved it. It had felt like the pace in my stride had becoming slower and slower and since Merida, then Playa and Tulum and by the time we hit Caye Caulker, I was really finding my groove to this his slow travelling thing.
I met Jane, a Brit on two weeks holiday while I was passing through Tulum and we decided to travel to Caye Caulker together and eventually to Guatemala. After what felt like a 4 hours bus ride in a dead straight line, we arrived in the Chetumal bus terminal. There we get abused by a cab driver for attempting to negotiate a cheaper fare to the ferry port resulting in no tip, got slugged by immigration with some mystery departure tax and finally had our luggage checked for drugs by the Mexican army sniffer dogs. After that ordeal, we were on our way to Caye Caulker on the water taxi and after a short stop at San Pedro island, we arrived at Caye Caulker and found a nice place literally across the road from the beach with the help of a friendly local. Sensational!
Caye Caulker is a pretty tiny island (you can circumnavigate the island in under a day by foot) about 30 km from Belize City and is home to a few thousand people. Originally it was a fishing village but like most places has mostly succumbed to the lure of the tourism dollar. That said, it’s still been able to retain its local village charm whereas the neighbouring Island of San Pedro attracts most of the tourism.
Life on the island is pretty slow and suited me perfectly. Motorised vehicles are banned from the island so you see most people zipping around in golf carts or bicycles. For speed humps they use thick cuts of rope laid across the road. Although considered as paradise, conditions were quite unpredictable while we were there as it was approaching hurricane season. One minute it would be sunny with a few clouds around and then the next, a storm would roll in that would last just 10 minutes providing much relief from the heat of the day.
The daily routine was pretty much as follows: Sleep in, grab breakfast at one of the street shacks, explore the town via foot or pdeal power, catch up on the blog, siesta, eat more and have a drink at the bar down at the Split, north of the island. At the end of the day we’d walk four blocks from coast to coast, marvel at the sunset, count how many times we’d let out a sigh of relief and yell out ‘How’s the serenity?’ and down a six pack of beer by the wharf. Life really couldn’t have gotten any better than this.
The local cuisine is executed fairly simply but packed full of flavour. There are plenty of places to eat and drink at varying costs. Where ever you go, there is the evident laid back caribbean attitude in both the food flavour profiles and the people’s interaction with diners. Every menu would have chicken, fish, prawns, pork, rice and beans. The primary cooking methods were either slow cooked in a stew or grilled on one of the converted barrel drum BBQ’s showcased at the front of most establishments. I never had a bad meal in Caye Caulker. It’s hard to mess it up, cooking in jerk seasoning and over coals or slow cooking cheaper and delicious cuts of meat in a curry sauce. We had a good chat with a gentleman who ran a grilled prawn stand on the northern end of the island. He had been doing the same thing for 4-5 years and pretty much at the same location. It was a case example of doing few things but doing it well: Prawns with a choice of four seasonings and at $2.50 for each skewer. Like with the island life, why over complicate the the food?
We also tried the “higher end” seaside restaurants as well. As nice as they were, I felt that those places lacked personality and warmth that we had at the other street side establishments. Being able to strike up conversations with locals, random strangers or other travellers on the typical gringo trail that I have met to date. Also, there’s something satisfying being able to chat to the actual person who owns the stand, or personally cooks the food. Somebody who has poured everything into making ends meet and build something from nothing. To me that’s why I love the food experience. A deep dive into the place and people who buy, cook and plate up the dishes (and drinks) and seeing why they love doing what they do each day without anything else to complicate their life. I guess that’s why it’s called soul food here.
Caulker isn’t an expensive, nor is it a cheap place. It didn’t break the bank but I still felt like I got more value through those money can’t buy experiences mentioned above. I felt like it was the perfect time to arrive. It was bang on a full moon the week we arrived. Where else could you witness the most intense sunsets in the west and see the full moon rise in the east in all of her glory? It would also be one of those times when everything just falls into place and you meet the right people to join up with on the next leg to Guatemala. By now, all plans I had plotted on my monster excel spreadsheet had pretty much been scrapped and I had learnt to live day by day and in the moment. No longer do I feel the need to tick off a thousand things on the ‘to do’ list as an accomplishment.
So my friends, are you an agenda driven kind of traveller or do you wind down and let things take care of themselves?