Caye Caulker, located 21 miles northeast of Belize City and 11 miles south of Ambergris Caye, is the second largest of the Belizean cayes. The island is about 4 miles long, but the town is only about a mile long. Like Ambergris, Caye, Caye Caulker was primarily a fishing community; but its economy has become increasingly tourism-based. Caye Caulker is a popular destination for scuba divers, snorkelers, anglers, and tourists who just want beach-oriented relaxation at budget prices. Although in the past it was a sleepy fishing community, this fun loving isle is today known more for its party and night life than diving or fishing.
The caye offers nearby Barrier Reef diving and is well-known among the backpacking community as a low cost island destination. Hostels and affordable lodging are one of the mainstays of tourism activity in Caye Caulker. The Caye Caulker Marine Reserve is available for diving and snorkeling – the Belize Barrier Reef is but one mile from the island. Marine and ecotourism fans can do manatee tours from Caye Caulker. Swimming with these peaceful mammals is not allowed but juvenile manatee often swim right up to boats to satisfy their curiosity and delight visitors.
The island has been described as basically a huge sand bar over a limestone shelf. Underwater caves are found in the limestone. A shallow lagoon sits in front of the village. The lagoon, between 6 inches (150 mm) and 14 feet (4.3 m) deep, meets the Belize Barrier Reef to the east in front of the village. Further north the reef is a deep reef and lies under 2 to 8 feet (2.4 m) of water. This area is popular with windsurfers.
Caye Caulker was uninhabited until the middle of the nineteenth century, when a small number of the refugees fleeing civil war on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula ended up there. The settlers planted coconuts and eventually developed a profitable fishing industry based on cooperatives. The demographics generally reflect that of northern Belize – mostly Latino / Mestizo. But in recent years a small Creole community, mainly immigrants from Belize city has developed. Beginning in the 1960’s, small numbers of tourists began visiting Caye Caulker. Tourism has increased substantially since then, especially since the new airstrip was built at the outskirts of town in 1992. But Caye Caulker is still quiet, unhurried and relaxing beach town. Caye Caulker is locally known as the poor man’s Ambergris Caye, and still retains the cachet of a place for backpackers and budget travelers and those seeking high times.
Caye Caulker And The Split
Caye Caulker island is divided into two by The Split that separates the more developed southern portion from the north side that partly because it is a swampy mangrove area, has so far had little development. But this is changing as more folks are discovering the area and demand for land has led to dredging and a few homes springing up. The Split started off as a channel which was widened by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, and now serves as a central gathering point for locals and visitors to congregate and socialize along the sandy beach lining this natural divide. Locals say that the hurricane created a channel a foot or so deep. The islanders then dug by hand to widen the channel to allow small boats to pass through. Over the years tidal forces took over and created the 20 foot feet channel that is now today’s Split.
Because of the currents and the traffic of boats through The Split, you should observe caution when swimming in the area. Your tour guide or locals can show you the safe area to recreate which is the the western section of The Split.
Caye Caulker Hotels and Restaurants
Over the last ten years, the population of Caye Caulker has doubled (from 1,000 to approximately 2,000) and there are now approximately 25 hotels on the island. Caye Caulker has a couple luxury condominiums, but the island is still seen as a destination for budget travelers and the ambiance continues to be “laid back”. Hotel accommodations range from very low budget (US $10-20 for rooms with shared bath at local hostels to low ((US $25-35) for rooms with private bath at small hotels to moderate (US $65) for air-conditioned studios with color TV and refrigerator. Campsites are available for US $6 per night per person. Caye Caulker has several good restaurants offering a wide variety of choices (fresh lobster and seafood, typical Creole spicy stew chicken, Mexican and Chinese food). Some local residents offer home cooked meals at reasonable prices.
This nugget from travel writer Lan Sluder:
“While it is gradually going more upmarket, Caye Caulker remains a budget island. In the 1960s and 1970s, the island was on the “backpacker trail,” a cheap place for long haired visitors to relax, and smoke a little weed or sip a beer. Today, the most expensive hotel on Caulker goes for around US $160 a night, and most of the 40 or so hotels charge under US $75 double, with some as low as US$12. Most older hotels, like the houses that are on the island, are wooden clapboard, often painted in tropical colors, but more recently constructed hotels are of reinforced concrete. Rooms are usually small, often with a fan and simple furnishings and foam-mattress beds.
“Only a few of the hotels on the island have swimming pools. Newer ones offer cable TV and air-conditioning. The official view of the island, though, emphasizes Caulker’s new emphasis on middle-class tourism. Mo Miller, chair of the Caye Caulker Village Council marketing committee, says “Although Caye Caulker had been known for a backpacker’s paradise, it is now an up and coming upscale charming island with a fishing village ambiance. Except for the Euro tourists in August, the island usually accommodates middle-class tourists.”
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
Caye Caulker has several dive boats that offer dive excursions from two hours to a full day. Visitors can dive and snorkel at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and other nearby reef locations; some trips include a lunch stop in San Pedro. (Visitors staying on Ambergris Caye can preview Caye Caulker by signing up for an all-day snorkel cruise that includes a two-hour lunch stop on Caye Caulker.) Several dive operations offer certification courses and trips to the nearby Turneffe Islands. Cave diving is also available close to Caye Caulker; but should be explored only by experienced divers accompanied by a local guide familiar with the cave system. Most hotels can arrange for dive and snorkel trips, as well as fishing excursions. Inexpensive fishing experiences can be obtained by accompanying local working fishermen; several small boats are available to rent by the hour.
Swimmers can enjoy the clear water off the piers on the reef side of the caye, the calm water on the backside, or the sandy white beach on the “split,” a channel dividing Caye Caulker in half that was created by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. The beach near the split also has a small cabana hotel and a snack bar. Visitors can take ecology hikes, guided boat tours to mangrove lagoons (Caye Caulker is home to over 120 species of birds), and guided snorkeling excursions. The island features many small gift shops that sell arts, crafts, hand painted and printed T-shirts and colorful, traditional Guatemalan and Mexican clothing and accessories, as well as photographs. Also available are T-shirts and paintings by local artists.
Getting To Caye Caulker
Flights to Caye Caulker are available on Tropic and Maya Island Air to and from Belize Municipal and International Airports; daily flights to and from San Pedro are also available. Visitors on a budget can travel between Belize City and Caye Caulker by boat for US $10. one way. Most boats leave Belize City for Caye Caulker around 11 AM from the docks near the Swing Bridge. Caye Caulker boats to Belize City generally depart at 7 AM. Once on Caye Caulker island, the easiest mode of transport is simply walking. The streets and paths are well defined, and crossing the island takes 20 minutes at most. Bicycles and golf carts are widely available and can be rented.