What do you do when a destination doesn’t impress you as much as you hoped?
If you have the time, of course.
You leave and go to the place feels like it’s calling your name, especially when its only 30 minutes away.
DITCHING SAN PEDRO FOR CAYE CAULKER
After only 3 days on the island, I ditched San Pedro, Belize(Ambergris Caye). Other than a Belizean meal I had at Briana’s Food Place, the island itself didn’t draw me in. I was itching to get a feel for the culture and connect with the people, but it never happened. While the turquoise blue waters impressed me, San Pedro itself felt more like a miniature city than a small island. It turns out that San Pedro is actually a top retirement spot and it shows. There were golf-carts and retirees everywhere - not exactly my cup of tea. I was grateful to be there, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit off.
Deep fried dough pieces served as a breakfast item in Belize
The main memory I have is my final night on the island. I moved to a new hostel for a change of pace and I met a Venezuelan traveler that I really clicked with. We were able to enjoy a night out and discuss the current crisis in Venezuela over Fry Jacks(A traditional Belizean breakfast dish) at a small breakfast shack the following morning. Even then, the experience wasn’t about San Pedro itself, but who I met. I didn’t know at the time, but this would become a reoccurring theme throughout the rest of my trip.
My Venezuelan friend helped me carry my bags out to the island dock to depart for Caye Caulker at dawn the following morning. I sat on the crowded boat from San Pedro to Caye Caulker with high hopes that CC would redeem my experience in Belize. The boat bounced on the waters for nearly 1.5 hours before slowly approaching the island with nothing but crystal clear water and pastel-colored homes in sight. I didn’t even need to step off of the boat before knowing that I liked this place.
A STRANGER INTRODUCES ME TO CAYE CAULKER
Somehow, I was the last person to depart the boat. I spent a few minutes snapping photos near the dock before finally grabbing my bag. A worker on the boat then offered to take my photo. As a solo traveler, I happily obliged. We had a quick exchange before he noted that he was headed to lunch nearby. He invited me to walk with him and show me around the island. I was only two weeks into my solo travels so I definitely felt hesitant, but we were at the front of the island near plenty of people. I lied & told him I was meeting people there - a necessary evil when traveling alone. I proceeded, but told myself I’d make a swift exit if I felt the slightest bit uncomfortable. I opted to walk alongside this worker who was born on the Island, questioning him about the ‘Go Slow’ signs plastered to everything and life on Caye Caulker. After only a few minutes, we made a stop at his favorite restaurant on the island- Mama Liz. He pointed to all of the food on his plate and proudly explained how each side was complimentary of the other - the Creole red beans & rice, the perfectly fried chicken with a side of slaw all slathered in Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce. He then handed me a fork and said “You wan try, gyal?”. I courteously rejected his offer before eventually accepting. Before returning back to work, he talked about childhood & family as he showed me around all 4 miles of the island. I apologized for making him 30 minutes late, but he said this didn’t actually matter. After all, the motto on the island is ‘Go Slow’ so they’re running on island time. As he ran off, he thanked me but I had to thank him for giving me the best introduction to his island.
I was checked into my hostel by a sharp-tongued, dreaded, self-proclaimed Rastafari. Upon arrival, he welcomed me with Caribbean rum, fresh cantaloupe, plantain, and Chicken feet. Yes, chicken feet. What a welcome, right? I’ve never been, but the Caribbean ‘vibes’ on Caye Caulker made me feel like I was on a smaller version of Jamaica. The creole language, reggae music, and people walking around with dreads to their bare feet. Life on this island might have been slow, but it was certainly vibrant. This was the change of pace I needed after visiting San Pedro.
BARBECUE WITH A STRANGER
I put my bags away and greeted the other travelers in my room. I specifically connected with a Moroccan traveler, who invited me to join him for a walk around the island & a swim at the Split - a narrow channel that splits the island in half. As we were walking around, a local stopped us in our tracks to invite us to a barbecue....? Yes, a stranger stopped us on the street and invited us to eat with him & his friends. He said they lived on the island and they would be barbecuing Sere - a fish soup grilled in a blend of fried fish, coconut milk, plantain and cassava. It sounded good, but once again... I was hesitant. Normal people don't invite strangers for barbecues. I’d only been on the road for 2 weeks at this point, but I quickly learned that there was a fine line between meeting the perfect stranger and placing yourself in danger - especially as a solo traveler.
Well….we accepted his unusual invitation.
We figured that we were together, we were in a public area, and we were on an island where word got around very quickly. So, we decided to proceed with caution.
Well, let me tell you. This night ended up being one of the most memorable nights during my entire trip. They cooked such an unforgettable meal as the sunset right behind us in a place we’d only known for several hours. They stood around the grill with their feet in the sand and they cracked jokes as reggae & dancehall tunes played from a speaker hanging in the tree above. They explained the process of cooking Sere and explained to us that it would be the best we'd ever have. I don't know if I'll ever eat this again, but man....was it good! After scarfing down the first serving, they insisted that we have seconds. In that moment, I remember thinking how unreal this all felt. Strangers were voluntary cooking a meal for us - the ultimate ‘welcoming’ in every culture. This was a big deal.
Here’s the thing, though. We didn’t ask them to cook for us. They had no obligation to do such a thing. Nothing odd or creepy happened. This wasn’t a set up. There was no catch. They didn’t expect anything from us. They simply wanted to be kind. Most of us have been taught that people like this don’t exist.
It hadn’t even been 24 hours and I was loving my experience in Caye Caulker. I loved the energy on that colorful, tiny island. On that day, I learned 2 lessons:
It’s okay to move on. I felt off in San Pedro, but that changed as soon as I switched things up. You won’t love every place or person, but that’s okay.
Most people are kind. These kind people make a place really special.
GOING SLOW ON CAYE CAULKER
My time on Caye Caulker was only a snippet of what was to come over the next 6 months: Special moments with special people.
I spent the next few days exploring Caye Caulker - spending more time with people that lived there as they ran around barefoot, being scolded by them for apparently walking too fast, eating freshly caught fish, and snorkeling with sharks. It was all fun, but none of my experiences could compare to my first day on the island. There wasn’t a lot to do, but Caye Caulker seemed like the perfect place to do absolutely nothing. This place was the definition of chilllllllllll and I never wanted to leave.
CAYE CAULKER VS. SAN PEDRO - The final verdict
- 4 miles long
- Population: 1500
- Lodging includes small hotels, vacation rentals, and hostels
- tends to attract a younger to middle-aged & backpacker crowd
- The largest and most popular island in Belize, 25 miles long to be exact
- Population: 20,000
- Lodging includes resorts, hotels, vacation rentals, condos, etc.
- tends to attract a middle-aged & older crowd
While San Pedro offers more restaurants & shops due to its size, there isn't a ton to do on either island. Snorkeling Hol Chan Marine Reserve & Shark Ray Alley is the main activity and can be done from both islands. Though, it seemed to be slightly more pricey on Caye Caulker due to distance. It's important to know that other adventure activities such as hiking and caving are mostly on the mainland. I'd recommend visiting both islands since they are so close to each other. You could see all of Caye Caulker in an hour, so you should have plenty of time to see both if you choose to visit either.
HOW TO GET THERE
I took the San Pedro Belize Express from Belize City to San Pedro(90 minutes) after catching the bus from Tulum, Mexico into Belize. The water taxi will transport you from between Belize City, San Pedro, and Caye Caulker. You can also take the water taxi directly from Chetumal, Mexico to avoid a long bus ride between the countries. An alternative method of transportation $50, 20-minute one-way flight from Belize City to either of the islands.
If you only have time to visit one island, I probably don't even have to tell you that I'd recommend Caye Caulker. The experiences I had with the people that live there left such good impression of what life is all about on the island. I met so many people that said Caye Caulker was the ultimate highlight during their travels in Central America. We're all different though, so you may love San Pedro. Thankfully both islands are small enough for you to enjoy both if that's what your heart desires.
Which Island do you think you'd love? Have strangers ever made a place special for you?
Stay tuned for more posts from Belize!
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many thanks to San Pedro Belize express for providing me complimentary transporation between the islands.