by Brie Cokos
Have you ever woken up on a Tuesday and had the distinct feeling that it very well may be a Sunday? Have you ever had to shake the dust off your shoes before wearing them for the first time in weeks? In Caye Caulker, where the days meld together, shoes and shirts are optional attire, and a magenta house is perfectly normal, these experiences are commonplace. In this land of simplicity, the clock has been drowned in the sea and all worries have been denied access. Caye Caulker has grown into one of the top tourist destinations in Belize as people as far away as Thailand and as close as Belize City flock to this oasis to sample what the residents have known and cherished for years, La Isla Carinosa- the friendly island.
When travelers discover a paradise and spread the word, the uncovered locality quickly loses its origins. Foreign entrepreneurs close in on the property, exploit the area for its beauty and allure, and hoard the revenue. The destination loses its identity in a stew of tequila shooters, street performers, and neon lights and the original inhabitants fade into the giant tourism shadow. Was Cancun ever anything more than a non-stop party town?
Evolution and Adaptation
For an island inundated with tourists on a daily basis, Caye Caulker has preserved the integrity of its original community and environment by adapting and sharing, but never compromising. Caye Caulker began its saga as Cayo Hicaco, Coco Plum Island. Named for its vast fruit tree populations, the island was first inhabited by Spanish and mestizo families fleeing the Caste Wars in Yucatan Mexico.Here, the story begins for most present-day land and business owners like Ms. Ilna Alamina. Ilna's grandparents, Luis and Isabel, came to Cayo Hicaco to escape the violence in Mexico and utilize the pristine island environment to support their three children. This first generation sold fish in Belize City for three cents a pound after an eight-hour boat trip from the island. The women would work in their small wooden homes under thatched kitchens while the men would fish, the children would lose themselves in the bush in search of coco plums, coconuts, and seagrapes, and just about anyone in need would head to the dock to use the seaside outhouse. As the fishing and lobster export industry exploded, the standard of living for residents of Caye Caulker slowly increased, giving the residents more mobility to fish, harvest lobster, and communicate with the mainland. Luis and Isabel's two sons, Valentin and Marcial, acquired the island's first boats with inboard engines, thereby making Caye Caulker more accessible to the residents of the mainland who were not interested in fishing enterprises. Merchants, plumbers, masons, boat builders, and bakers started businesses on the island to accommodate the growing population.
Valentin had eight children, Ilna among them, who became integral members of the Caye Caulker community. As business opportunities expanded on the island, women who had left the island in pursuit of secondary education were able to return and partake in the new industries of their home environment. Ilna became the first local resident to become the principal of the Caye Caulker School when she returned from her studies in Belize and abroad. The population of the village was still small, only about 400 residents, and the island only had a mile and a half of development. Entertaining themselves in the absence of television, Ilna's children played in the dense bush on either end of the settlement, collected fruits, and bathed in the turquoise waters every day. In this community, everyone attended church on Sunday and spanking the neighbor's kid for getting out of line was perfectly normal and expected.
About thirty years ago, the first hotel, El Pescador, opened its doors to guests and an outside world eager to live the island life. Marine biologist guests slowly transformed into hippy backpackers looking for a sleepy village in which to camp. Electricity soon followed and the island began its expansion and development. As visitors started to flock to Caye Caulker, residents stepped up to host their guests and built or acquired facilities to accommodate the masses. Fishermen turned to ferrying guests to and from the island, lobster harvesters began showing off their expertise to captivated tourists, and newly introduced golf carts helped to shrink the caye. Still, even with the influx of visitors from all corners of the world and budgets, the caye has remained in the hands of its founding families. Native-owned mom-and-pop guesthouses, restaurants, bars, ice cream parlors, travel agencies, and dive shops have opened on inherited lands. Few of the families from the three-cent lobster days have chosen to leave, and those that have for educational purposes have come back to the only place they would ever want to live.
Ilna retired after over thirty years of teaching and educational administration in Caye Caulker, Belize City, Jamaica, and the US. She has since entered the tourism industry through beach property rentals while her four daughters, the fourth generation of Alamina's, now own their own properties and businesses in connection with tourism on the island as well. From the very beginning, the inhabitants of Caye Caulker coexisted with each other as comfortably as they lived within an environment that provided them with their livelihood, even when the sources of income shifted from generation to generation.
Passion and Pride
Even with a shift in business trends, the mentality of the residents toward the surrounding environment has never wavered. Today, the passion and pride has been transformed into a genuine love to educate. One such educator, Ras Creek, teaches his guests about his world and proves that the inhabitants of the environment around him, both human and animal, can live harmoniously and complement one another. Ras begins his daily tours with a trip to Shark-Ray Alley, one of the newest tourist attractions at Caye Caulker. At this shallow water portion along the barrier reef, he has fed, trained, and earned the trust of dozens of southern stingrays and a variety of species of shark for the past fifteen years. The creatures now flock to the area and swim fearless around the doubtful legs of guests on his trips. As he jumps into the water, they rush to brush against him in anticipation of a snack he may have brought for them. He has named most of the rays, and easily picks up his favorite, "Twisted Spine", to give the guests an up-close glance at a ray and maybe even an opportunity to hold one. The docile Twisted Spine allows Ras to manipulate him and basks in the attention she receives. The amount of rays that come to Ras's park is astounding and definitely intimidating at first glance, but by the time the guests leave Shark-Ray Alley, each has touched a ray, has learned of their behavior, and has lost his fear.
Before moving to the next point of interest, Ras dives in the water and grabs a live lobster from the reef. While guests in the boat munch on fresh coconut, he whips up a batch of lobster ceviche to pass around... a perfect island indulgence. Ras then takes his group to the western side of Caye Caulker where he has gained the trust of another animal. Here, he brings out a ripe banana and offers it to a large iguana on the island's edge. The animal has already seen Ras coming and has climbed along an outstretched branch in expectation of a treat. The iguana approaches and grabs the banana bite by bite as the passengers blink in astonishment. No one on the boat has ever seen a human actually feed a live iguana. Have you?
Sharing his stories, his drumming, and his environment, Ras gives Caye Caulkers' guests new perspectives on seemingly intimidating creatures and the relationships that can be forged between man and beast. Ras interacts with his rays, iguanas, seahorses, sea slugs, or any other island inhabitant and proves loyal and compassionate coexistence can exist-a concept already proven by the residents and visitors of the caye.
Caye Caulker village has expanded its boundaries and modified its businesses, but has never compromised the original pride of its residents. As if inviting a friend for dinner, villagers treat visitors to a dose of island life. Guests fall in love with the simplicity and residents nod in acknowledgement that their home is a magical land. Preserving the beauty of the land and charm of the lifestyle, villagers share their world, but still spank the neighbor's kid when he gets out of line and pick a ripe coco plum while strolling home in two bare feet.
For More Information, click on the links below:
Special Thanks to:
Diane Kuylen for accommodations & hospitality
Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association