By Karla Huesner Vernon
Edited by Naturalight Productions Ltd.
NB: Remember to click on the links in the article to see all the images.
A common question asked of parents when school is out or about to let out for summer is: "So where are we going on vacation?" Whether you live in Belize or are here for a visit, you might want to consider saying, "Caye Caulker". The island, less than a mile from the barrier reef, was established as a fishing village and it retains the charm of a small, family-oriented village. Over the last three decades, as the fishing industry has declined many fishermen have switched to tourism to help supplement their incomes and be able to support their families. Even with its increasing popularity with visitors, the village still has an authentic and appealing "Belizean" kind of feeling.
This child-friendly destination has long been a favorite of ours for Easter weekend and the Annual Lobsterfest, the most recent of which was held June 30 - July 2 (Yummy- I LOVE lobster!). It is close enough to home in Belize City and to Ambergris Caye for us take a quick run up just for the day but there are over 50 small hotels and guesthouses to choose from when we want to spend the night or a even week.
As many times as we've been there, the journey there is still exciting for us all. I personally kind of enjoy the wind whipping through my hair on the water taxi ride and the children love it too. It's a forty-five minute water taxi ride from the Marine Terminal in Belize City at the foot of the Swing Bridge, home to the Maritime Museum adding an educational perspective while you await your boat. The boat ride is reasonably priced, only BZ$30 per person, round trip and kids under age five, ride for free. Taking the water taxi is also interesting because so many people who live on Caye Caulker ride it back and forth to access products and services only available in the City. It's a real eye-opener to see the kinds of things people are carrying - small pets, bouquets of flowers….
A few times, when we've had a more elastic budget, we've opted for the fifteen minute plane ride aboard a Maya Island Air or Tropic Air's fourteen passenger airplanes. On most days the trip is spectacular - offering a seagull's view of the sparkling, multi-hued coastal waters, string of islands, occasional dolphin and manatee sightings, and the white breakers of the reef. During the peak season (November through April) the trip runs about BZ$120 for adults and BZ$88 for kids up to age 10. We tend to take this route when airlines offer weekend specials or significant discounts for cash purchases during the slower months.
Each time we arrive in Caye Caulker, the first--and perhaps only thing-my children and most children want is to find the beach and go swimming. There are several options including hanging out on the private piers of one of the beachside hotels and guest houses if you are a registered guest. But when we make day trips or stay somewhere on a back street, our favorite spot is known as "The Split".
The Split is actually a channel created many years ago when a hurricane divided this five mile long island in two. There is another local legend which says that The Split was man-made, ordered by a local politician to curry favor just before a local election. I'm not sure if he won the election but it does save time, energy, and fuel for the fishermen and guides not to have to go the entire way around the island to get to quieter moorings on the west side of the island. But regardless of whether it is man-made or nature- made, one of the benefits of The Split is that it has a nice shallow, sandy bathing area that's perfect for children and toddlers running along the sea wall near the Lazy Lizard Bar.
Every time we go to Caye Caulker, we see new things that have popped up on the island. On this recent trip, while strolling down the main on the way to The Split, in addition to the usual hair-braiders, and local vendors selling handmade jewelry, there were a few entrepreneurial young children who'd decorated shells they found and were selling them.. Another usual detour for us is a small playground where the children can slide or swing and play "pirate" on the brightly painted wooden structures.
We tend to arrive at The Split early and find a coconut tree for shade. From here, we have a great spot to supervise the youngsters as they splash around, play in the sand, and examine tiny hermit crabs on the shore for several hours until the sun passes overhead, (or they get hungry). On the weekends or late afternoon, there are lots of local children in this area so they are sure to make friends. Sometimes we carry our own lunch and picnic right there, and other times we stroll back towards the center of the village where most of the best restaurants are located.
The "Sandbox" (near the water taxi cooperative pier) is a good choice when traveling with kids because as the name implies, the floor is covered in sand, so they can sit right down and continue their play, allowing the grownups to order, and eat, in peace. Sandbox also offers outdoor dining under shady trees with long tables convenient for large groups or big families. If your kids are not into fresh fish or shrimp and lobster (when in season) not to worry, they have many choices from burgers to burritos and of course, Belizean rice and beans.
Other eateries that come highly recommended by those who live on Caye Caulker include Tropical Paradise, Rasta Pasta, Habaneros, The Happy Lobster, Rainbow, Glenda's and Rose's Café. One of my personal favorites is Martinez's fast food (next to M & N Bike Rentals) where an order of rice and beans, and chicken is just BZ$5, definitely one of the best deals on the island.
If they are dying to get back to the beach, Anda de Wata tours rents rubber inner tubes (14 minutes for $40), including a family-sized inflatable. (holds up to four people - all ready for launch into the water right on the front of the caye).
And while many kids are not big on shopping, most do like some little souvenir or t-shirt. Caye Caulker does not have as many gift shops as San Pedro, but Toucan Gifts is a great choice for small goodies kids will like and beautiful shell jewelry and beach cover-ups for mom, sandals and caps for dad.
Of Course, by mid afternoon it's ice cream time. Ice cream stands are fairly common or you can pick up tubs of it or ice cream sandwiches at little mom and pop grocery shops, but for exceptionally nice, cold tropical fruit drinks, stop at Femi's Coffee Shop next to Tropical Paradise hotel and restaurant. Kids and teens love this place and parents will appreciate the caffeine injection, either hot or cold "Cholis" with whipped cream and ice cream.
Afterwards, a great way to release that sugar inspired, energy rush is by renting and riding bikes around the island. Rates vary by the hour ($4-5) or day (around $15). Adult and child sized bikes are available at most outlets and some have bikes with baby seats. A ride along the eastern path is scenic with men cleaning fish, shore birds fishing in the shallow waters, and land crabs scurrying off of the path as you cycle by. The Caye Caulker Mini-Reserve is a small forest with trails ideal for learning about the island habitat including patches of mangroves vital in the protection of the island during hurricanes.
Clearly there are lots of family friendly activities right on Caye Caulker, but if you have the time, or would like to get out on the water, there are quite a few licensed tour operators offering both full and half day trips to visit nearby islands or see marine life. Most take "walk in" business, with options such as: a full day trip which takes in manatee watching at Swallow's Caye, lunch and stop at the Belize History Center at St. George's Caye, snorkeling off Caye Chapel and snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley; a half day party adventure which includes time at Shark Ray Alley, fishing, and a beach barbeque on the west side of the island.
Whatever activities you choose, or even if you just decide to let the kids splash around in the sea for most of the day or the week, all too soon it is time to catch the plane or boat and leave.
The question from my own kids on our journey home this trip, "How long is summer vacation anyway, do you think we will have time to go to Caye Caulker again before school starts?"
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography