The last time I visited the Belizean island of Caye Caulker was in the 80s. Back then it was a laid back backpacker Mecca with crystal blue waters and cheap lobster. I decided it was high time I went back.
I wasn’t sure how tourism might have impacted this pristine island and how it might have changed decades later when I revisited, but the truth is, it really hasn’t. There’s a few more hotels, golf carts are a thing and the ferries are bigger, but somehow, the Caye has kept its charm.
Ambergris Caye is a 45 minute ferry ride from Caulker and considerably larger, so it only made sense to visit both and pose the question that soon-to-be visitors want answered. Which is better? The answer is simple; They’re both the same, yet different and the only solution is to visit both.
There’s 3 ways to visit the islands; you can catch a ferry from Chetumal Mexico for around $120 round trip, or from Belize City or Caracol for about half that price. Coming from Mexico, there’s a departure and entry border fee of $50 total, so that the money you save with the cheaper Mexico flight is spent on additional transport and fees, but you can visit the beautiful Bacalar and take in some amazing ruins. There’s also an option to fly directly into San Pedro or Caye Caulker from Belize City for about $100 RT.
If you’re trying to maximize your time, I recommend flying round trip to Belize City, taking the ferry to Caye Caulker, then the ferry from there to San Pedro, then flying back to Belize City and exploring the mainland (or Guatemala) for a few days before catching a flight back home. If you have more time, do the Mexico stopover.
Belize City is a frantic town that is the hub of the country, a cruise ship stop, and probably the least desirable destination in the country. Most visitors opt to leave as soon as they’ve arranged their transport, since there’s so many more exciting options nearby. Ferries run 5 times a day to Caye Caulker and are $33 round trip. This 45 minute ride whisks you through blue waters to the dock right in the main tourist area of Caulker.
Although the island is nearly 6 miles long and divided in 2 parts, most travelers find themselves in the northern half of the southern section that is less than a square mile. Most of the bars, hotels and restaurants are here and everywhere is very walkable. You can rent a golf cart by the hour or for around $60/day, but the roads don’t extend much past the tourist area. There’s a real charm to Caulker. In spite of its popularity, it doesn’t feel crowded and the restaurants have a nice intimate vibe. One of its most popular options, Steve’s, is nothing more than a few tables on a porch with Steve himself grilling seafood and steaks on the street below. There’s 75 choices of local restaurants, so you won’t get to try them all, but lobster is the main event on the island and you’ll be able to dine on succulent tails for a fraction of what you’d pay at home. Between March and June, the famous crustacean is out of season, and is impossible to find until the lobster festival kicks off in July.
There’s no museums, archaeology or factories to explore, so you’ll just have to spend your days snorkeling, bar hopping and being lazy. It’s hard, but someone has to do it. The Lazy Lizard (speaking of lazy) is at the tip of the southern island, just a 10 minute walk from the center and a popular spot to put down a few rum punches.
Two or three days in Caye Caulker is enough time for most visitors to discover its charms. San Pedro water taxis leave from the same dock as the Belize City arrivals/departures and you can buy tickets anytime prior to your journey.
San Pedro looks like a a colorful Caribbean cruise port, but with golf carts wheeling around the one way streets and lots of action at the marina.The Blue Hole is one of the most famous dives in the world and divers from around the world make the pilgrimage to dive to it’s turquoise depths. Everything seems very walkable, but the town extends much further than you’d expect. We accidentally booked a hotel an hour north. That’s an hour by golf cart, but it’s still an hour. Most of the action is in town, but there’s some primitive ruins in the south if you’re feeling adventurous and are immune to ravenous mosquitoes. The Truck Stop might not ever have any trucks ever stop at it’s tongue-in-cheek-named location, but it’s a cool diversion if you’re heading up north. Our favorite spot on the island is Ramon’s, a resort a little south of the center, on the beach with grass thatched huts, it’s own mini-jungle and a great restaurant with a view.
Regardless of where you go, there’s sunshine, beautiful water, and you’re unlikely to make a wrong choice. Make sure you do a boat trip to catch the beautiful Hol Chan reef. Our favorite spot was the very touristy, but extremely fun Shark Ray Alley. This spot guarantees a shark encounter in every visit. These are nurse sharks looking for a handout, not deadly maneaters. The stop is long enough to jump in and watch a huge group of them feeding on fish scraps provided by your captain.