Caye Caulker: Go Slow, Keep Moving

After a fantastic time in Mexico, it was time for me to head south for a couple of weeks to the tiny country of Belize. English-speaking and with a much more Caribbean vibe than its Central American neighbours, Belize would be an interesting change from quintessentially Spanish Mexico. My aim was to arrive on New Year’s Eve, heading to the famed island of Caye Caulker, a relaxed carless paradise. As is so often the case though, getting to paradise proved to be a little stressful.

I was starting in Bacalar, rather than the border city of Chetumal, which made transport slightly more difficult. However, fortunately, ADO have put on a bus running from Cancun all the way down to Belize City (Belize’s biggest city, though not the capital) which stops along the way in Bacalar. On the main road in Bacalar, there is a ticket office where it’s easy enough to get a ticket, even on New Year’s Eve when I expected it to be quite busy. The bus arrived and departed Bacalar in the early afternoon. There’s a great website here which has more information about transport between Mexico and Belize.

My destination… Caye Caulker

I had, however, made a bit of a rookie mistake in thinking the journey would go smoothly. Nothing went catastrophically wrong but I had banked on the bus arriving in Belize City roughly on time so I could catch one of the last ferries over to Caye Caulker. Of course, bus times are somewhat flexible in this part of the world anyway and, when you add in a border crossing, it makes things worse. Plus, there was an additional complication at the border. The Mexico/Belize border crossing is notorious for trying to get all travellers to pay a 575 MXN exit fee to leave Mexico. If you have arrived into Mexico by air, it is highly likely you have already paid this fee and showing an itemised receipt which breaks down the taxes (you can request this from the airline) should be enough to exempt you from paying this… emphasis on the ‘should’.

When I presented my receipt, the border guard said I still needed to pay the tax, even though I highlighted the exact tax on the receipt. When I didn’t immediately give up, they told me to wait at the back of the queue for them to process all the other travellers on the bus – nobody else seemed to be having this problem so I assume they weren’t as tight-fisted as me or none of them had arrived by air. After making me wait for ages, they finally called me back in and said ‘just this once’ they would let me off and not make me pay the tax (which of course I’d already paid). The moral of the story is stand your ground if you know you’re right.

SPOILER ALERT: I made it.

This whole debacle took quite a while and then over on the Belize side everybody had to disembark again to get stamped in. As such, time was pretty short and it was looking increasingly unlikely I would make even the final ferry over to Caye Caulker which departed at 5.30pm. Adding to the pressure, the ferry terminal was a few blocks away from the bus terminus, meaning I couldn’t simply hop across. Plus, I didn’t have any local currency. It was slightly worrying that I was facing the prospect of being stuck in Belize City (not the nicest of destinations) after dark on New Year’s Eve with no accommodation.

Typically, the bus pulled into the BC bus terminal at pretty much 5.30pm on the dot. My safest bet was to grab a taxi to the ferry terminal but I had no money and possibly no time to reach an ATM. As with so much of travelling, it ended up coming down to pure luck. As the bags were being unloaded from the bus, I overheard a couple talking about taking the ferry to Caye Caulker. Overcoming my introvertedness in a crisis, I asked them if they were planning to head there tonight. It turned out they had no idea of the ferry schedule and when I told them the last ferry was leaving right now, they were pretty shocked. Cue a mad dash to grab a taxi which I also jumped in (I’m not sure they actually invited me) which sped us to the ferry terminal.

Of course the good thing is that, whilst you can always rely on the bus to arrive late, similarly the ferry was inevitably going to depart late and we couldn’t believe our luck when we pulled up and found the ferry hadn’t left yet. With all of their little money spent on the taxi, I grabbed the ferry tickets on my card and they located an ATM to withdraw cash as the queue gradually began to meander on-board. We even just about had time to smuggle on some sneaky bottles of beer for the journey. A combination of teamwork and pure luck had somehow ensured I would actually make it to Caye Caulker for NYE.

I typically ended up celebrating a little bit too much with my new friends and actually didn’t even make it to midnight, waking up the next morning (probably afternoon) in a very sorry state. Caye Caulker is one hell of a place to be hungover though. The motto ‘Go Slow, Keep Moving’ is taken very seriously. The mood here is chilled – service is slow, everyone is laid-back and the stresses of life have been well and truly left behind. I stayed at Pause Hostel, a pretty shabby place with a ton of cats and an amazing sunset view – plus free kayaks. It was pretty low on amenities/comfort but had a nice vibe and it was easy to meet people. The sunset view is really spectacular and the clear water makes it easy to spot fish, crabs and even stingrays which swim worryingly close to your feet.

Caye Caulker is interesting because, despite its relaxed vibe, it doesn’t have a proper beach to speak of. The Split is more of a picnic area, with walls around it providing many jumping-off points for the sparkling blue water below. In addition, there is a nice little walk around the southern point of the island, which zips past the teeny-tiny airport where you can watch the planes land. There is a wealth of small cafes, restaurants and bars to chill at. Belize, and specifically Caye Caulker, is quite a bit more expensive than Mexico. The food scene isn’t as established either, though jerk chicken is always a safe bet.

There’s just something about the vibe of Caye Caulker which is so soothing. I was slightly worried about what I would do when I found out there was no beach here, but even after 4 or 5 days here, I was sad to leave. This is definitely not an island to miss.

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