When it comes to underwater attractions it’s hard to beat the biggest and most well-known reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. If I hadn’t traveled I wouldn’t have even heard about the second place holder Belize which squeezes itself below Mexico in the Western Caribbean. This definitely isn’t because of the quality of the reef, more due to the loud shouting of the Australian tourist agencies about our own piece of paradise.
The reef in Belize if famous for having some seriously beautiful attractions like the Blue Hole so after a quick stop over in Panama I decided to make my next stop the tropical island of Caye Caulker in the middle of the reef.
Belize was an English colony until the 70’s so I was really expecting to see a smaller more chilled out version of the UK when I arrived. What I found was a little different. Walking out of the airport I was greeted by a line of old cabs, mostly Pontiacs, which looked pretty beat up and long past their useful life. The driver spoke to me in English in the classic Rasta/Creole (accent probably the coolest English accent there is) as he explained that after the English left the economy went to shit. Now they almost totally reliant on tourism to make any money they can.
He wasn’t exaggerating either. Driving along the road into Belize City I was immediately reminded of New Orleans. High set houses in various states of disrepair but exuding their own version of Caribbean charm while they baked in the sticky heat. Just driving down the streets staring out the window you feel the tempo of life slow down and the Belize motto of ‘go slow’ starts to make a lot more sense.
Once in the city it’s a really easy process to jump on a water taxi and go across to the island. Caye Caulker is the best place to visit for a few reasons. It has easy access to some incredible diving and snorkelling spots, it has some great spots to chill out if you are after some relaxing, it has some great spots for après scuba and you can easily move to Mexico if that’s the next destination. Finally it’s just paradise. Jumping off the boat you’re greeted with lazy palm trees, sandy roads and turquoise water.
There are a lot of places to stay in but it’s a really popular place so instead of being dictated by budget you will probably have to pick somewhere based on if they have space. Almost as soon as I arrived true to form I met a great group of travellers and we became a sweet crew. Again, I didn’t know it at the time but we would end up traveling together for a long time.
We got ourselves organised and then got stuck into the most popular thing to do on the island, beers and cocktails. Luckily before we got too carried away we remembered to book ourselves onto a snorkelling tour the next day. If you have ever been to the GIli Islands in Indonesia this island is almost exactly the same. Chilling on the front deck of our hostel we joined up with a few other groups and then sometime around 11 it’s time to go to one of the islands two clubs. One is a beach bar and the other is more of a bar with club music.
With sore heads we wake up the next day in the already killer heat and wander down to where we are starting the tour. Cohan, Blair Blake and Noa from the crew are joining me and after fitting our equipment we jump in the boat and head off to the snorkelling area. The tour also has free rum punch so I guess you can tell where this is heading.
Arriving at the site and jumping in the water the first thing that happens is that you are blown away by how good the reef is. There are so many different species of coral and around all this is the number of fish and animals. Within the first 5 minutes most of us see turtles, manta rays, manatees and dolphins. The visibility is also incredible. I’m not sure how deep the water goes but the visibility is right to the bottom.
We swim around following the guide and exploring by ourselves until after half an hour or so we are called back to the boat to move onto the next stop. Shark Alley. Again this name isn’t an exaggeration. When we drop anchor at the spot the crew throw bait over the side and then tell us to jump in. We go over the side and then as the bubbles clear we realise we are completely surrounded by a (school, pack, murder?) of sharks and rays. Luckily they are completely harmless and we swim around with them like we’re all mates.
For the next few hours we motor to different spots and have time to explore around the boat. We realise just how unfit we’ve become by the last stop and I think the crew can read our minds and keep the rum punch flowing. By the end the punch is gone and we are drinking pure rum. The tour becomes the best thing we’ve ever done.
For the next couple of days we follow the rhythm of the island. Wake up late already sweating, complain about the heat, go eat some seafood, watch the sun set over the ocean, begin drinking at the Lazy Lizard, party and repeat. During one of these cycles on the second last day Cohan, Dave and I discover that it’s possible to charter a small plane and fly over the blue hole. We call up every company possible and eventually give up and decide to find an agency. I don’t know how but the agency we find manages to get a pilot to come out at 7am the next morning on a Sunday to fly the three of us over the hole.
The Blue Hole is exactly what it sounds like but is one of the most beautiful natural wonders in the Caribbean. Hundreds of meters across and well over a hundred meters deep the hole was formed when the sea level was lower and is actually an underwater cenote. When you find a couple of other people who are looking to make it rain with a couple of hundred dollars you can hire a 4 seater plane to fly over the wonder. It’s without a doubt the best way to experience it.
So we pile into the plane, meet our pilot who is so cool we don’t feel worthy to be flying with him and then take off in the direction of the reef. The flight is half the experience as the pilot takes us just below the cloud level so we can take in all of the different reefs and islands we fly over. I can’t really describe how many different shades of blue there are. Maybe in another language you can but it’s not possible in English.
Finally after 45 minutes in the sky we can see it on the horizon and even from the air it’s immense. Because of it being the early morning we have managed to arrive before the swam of diving boats and there is just one lone charter boat sitting over the hole when we fly over. We have the sky to ourselves as well so the pilot does a few laps going one direction and a few more going the other way so we can see it perfectly. Finally, just to make the divers regret their decision he does one last fly over the hole, passing just above the boat.
On the way back he’s nice enough to show us a ship wreck and a couple of other islands before doing a loop around Caye Caulker. We could have been the last people to see the island in one piece before a Hurricane destroyed at lot of it a few days later. Hindsight, aye.
Back on land I need to get to a bus so I say goodbye to the others and run to the water taxi. We are all going to meet up later in Guatemala and if this is just the start who knows how great things will be getting later.