Most people visit Belize and only experience two sides of the country—the resort-lined Ambergris Caye/Placencia and the interior Maya ruins. And this is if travelers venture to the country at all; many opt for neighboring Mexico for boutique adventure or resort travel. Having spent time in each of Belize’s four principal regions, I got to experience the small nation’s diverse sides, and I always urge travelers to choose Caye Caulker as their mainstay while visiting the northern Cayes. Here, embedded in the largest reef system in North America, is where you can find unplugged adventure surrounded by a community of hospitable ex-pats and locals. Get the full experience by including these must-sees and must-dos while living the island mantra, “Go slow.”
1. Street Meat
A lap on Front Street is where you’ll find the best Belizean jerk meat. It’s braised and stewed with achiote, a peppery nutmeg-flavored spice, giving it a bold and hot taste that coats the tongue. You’ll be able to spot locals stirring giant silver bowls of the stuff any time after noon, and odds are they’ll be sipping on Belikin beer or the Belizean favorite, 5 Barrel Rum.
2. 5 Barrel Rum
The liqueur is made from local sugar cane and aged in Kentucky oak barrels to achieve the golden amber color with brown sugar and vanilla aromas. The taste delivers a mix of sweet vanilla and a lingering caramel finish. Buy it at Chan’s on Calle del Sol, take a sip or two, and walk down the two-mile island into deep forestry keeping an eye out for toucans.
3. Little Kitchen
It can be a challenge to find Little Kitchen on the south-side interior of the island, but it’s worth the hunt. Little Kitchen serves a conch ceviche and coconut snapper with heaping portions of coconut milk, jalapeño, fresh cucumber, and a whole lot more. Their fried coconut shrimp makes the perfect afternoon snack. It’s all grown locally and made by a mother-daughter pair that’s cultivated one epic family recipe. Follow the signs down the main dirt road—Caulker law forbids roads from being paved on the island—and climb the stairs to the treehouse-style dining room.
4. Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Photo by Nick Pachelli
All year, marine life flocks to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve for the preserved feeding grounds. Here, you can spend an afternoon coddling the nurse sharks at shark alley and gliding through the tame waters with stingrays and sea turtles. While you may think guided trips tamper with the ecosystem, locals and government in Belize are extremely conscientious of interference and preservation. Companies now coordinate hunting efforts for tourists to help manage the invasive dragonfish population that is devastating the reef.
5. Ocean Academy
A trip to Caulker is no doubt an immersive experience. Walking the few roads on the island you’ll hear someone playing drums or reggae music and people chatting in English, Spanish, and French-creole. But a truly immersive way to get to know Caulker, and Belize at large, is by spending the day at Ocean Academy, the only school on the island. The school expanded to include high school 2008—up until that point education on the island halted at seventh grade. Connect with Heidi Curry, the school’s director who also operates the Sea Dreams Hotel, for an afternoon volunteering with the children at the academy. No where else will you learn more about what life on a two-mile island is truly like in all it’s dynamic dichotomies: land and sea, local and foreign, sustainability and climate change.
There’s no shore-break on the island as the reef protects the land from the gulf’s currents, leaving straight-up surfers will be disappointed, but there’s plenty of wind, so strap up, hop in the warm water, and get a crash course in the winds. You’ll be navigating the coastline in no time, staring up at your azure blue kite blurring into the color of the sky.
While Caye Caulker is home to primarily traditional Caribbean restaurants serving lobster and snapper, chefs are slowly incorporating foreign influences with modern perspectives. Habaneros is the product of countless cultures from around the world visiting Caulker and leaving a bit of their flavor behind. Chef Roy Hinks marries these flavors with surprising takes on Asian, Brazilian, French, Hawaiian, and Latin cuisine all served in striking arrangements.
Nick Pachelli is a writer based in Los Angeles, California but is more likely to be found on the road. He’s only here to swim and eat