BEN LUMMIS discovers the treasure trove of Caye Caulker in Belize, with pristine dive spots and the chance to hang out with friendly locals.

“Go Slow man,” rumbles ‘Big Steve’ in a deep rolling of his Kriol accentuated dialect. His fine and neatly platted dreadlocks that flow behind a lung sized cloud of freshly blown smoke perfectly complete the tropical beach, steel drum beaten surroundings he sits in. Although no-one says it quite like Big Steve, ‘Go Slow’ is a slogan used loosely on the island of Caye Caulker, however for the Belizeans its meaning runs much deeper than another way to say “take it easy,” and more into a mantra for a way of life.

While the Spaniards and their Latin laden culture did a great job of conquering the majority of the Americas, the Queen’s claws of colonisation - along with her mother’s tongue - confidently clung to the sliver of land on the east coast known as Belize. Albeit one of the smaller countries on the Central American strip, its natural wonders are far richer than it is wide and the islands like Caye Caulker that sit off its coast hold treasure in every sense of the word.

Long before British Airways, it was the buccaneers who had this limestone coral island marked as a holiday hotspot, and it seems just as much fun was had in the ‘shiver me timbers’ times as there is today. Throughout the island amidst a barrage of beauty made of serene sea life, colourful coral and sea shells as big as your head, you can find the time-blackened bottles once home to a pirate’s beloved rum. Hundreds of years later and it is clear the bottle still doesn’t fall far from the bar.

Rum still remains the preferred poison of those who frequent Caye Caulker, but thankfully the ability to throw bottles into the recycling has been developed along with an even greater talent of rum’s administration. Sure, nothing gets you there cheaper and quicker than shooting it straight from the bottle, but a vast collection of creamily contoured cocktails served in everything from coconuts to conches now exists for those with a palette a bit more particular than that of a pirate’s. The Belizeans certainly enjoy the taste of life and a bountiful bonanza of beach barbeque bargains also ensures scurvy stays buried with the treasure, which does not have to be dug up to pay for the meal -although you’ll have plenty of calories to burn after eating it.

So whether you’re cruising the shorelines in a golf buggy with sand tyres or breathing the atmosphere in by foot, you’ll find Caye Caulker has everything you could need to get you going so slow you’ll never make it off the beach, however those able to muster the minimal self discipline required will discover that the vibrantly warm waters the island floats in is where the adventure begins.

Within moments, speed boats can have you experiencing first class fishing and awe inspiring snorkelling in what Charles Darwin described as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” Technically the second largest reef in the world, the dive industry has become well regulated so the reef stays protected and the dive shops professional; Divers can feel safe there are no pirates operating in the Caye Caulker’s tourism circuit anymore……well maybe there’s just one.

“People come for the reef but they stay for the reefer,” laughs Big Steve with a cheeky grin – his arms loosely holding the wheel of his 40ft sail boat.

“What’s the rush,” he yells as a pair of speed boats rip by, “Don’t worry there will be plenty of fish at the reef when we get there, I guarantee it.”

Thankfully, it’s Big Steve’s guarantees that hold water and not his boat. Like pigeons to any famous monument, a grey shadow of nurse sharks swarm the boat immediately upon its arrival, hungrily awaiting the free lunch of dead fish they know is coming to them. Getting a good photo is like shooting fish in a barrel and with Steve around perhaps it is even easier.

“Ere’ get a proper look,” he commands, his thick dark arms plunging into the frenzy of feeding before resurfacing with a three foot shark in his clutches, now franticly flailing as Big Steve waves it around in the air. Obviously a lot of Big Steve’s mottos may differ greatly from the ‘take only memories leave only bubbles’ vibe followed by most PADI dive shops.

The resulting swim is so visually spectacular, you’ll be glad you opted with the simple mask and snorkel option and didn’t splash out on the dive tanks, which hardly seem necessary. Sting rays the size of paddling pools sway beside you at arms length, their eyes locked with yours in a staring competition that inevitably leads you into a collision with a brightly coloured cloud of fish, so dense you can’t spot water between them. Eels, 100kg groupers and turtles bigger than a Mexican’s sombrero also complete the cast of an underwater show you might not see in a week’s worth of diving in other spots of Central America. After this much aquatic adrenalin the slow wind driven ride home, fuelled with rum punch, is all that is required to make one wonder just how they can squeeze one more day into the trip. Although everyone is trying to get you to ‘go slow,’ your time in Caye Caulker will go fast.

Sink into the Blue Hole

For the more experienced diver wishing to go a little deeper, both into the ocean and into their wallets, one of Jacque Cousteau’s top five can be found just a few hours further out. The Great Blue Hole has been described as a religious experience by some of diving’s elite and its descent likened to a dive into the geologic past. Almost perfectly symmetrical, this dark pupil in a sea of green that stretches 1000ft wide and nearly 400ft deep was formed after the breakdown of the last ice age, when rising sea levels filled a limestone labyrinth of caves to the point of their collapse. The gaping hole left in the sea bed floor now exists as a home to bull, reef and hammerhead sharks, who cruise the cavernous overhangs and ledges, avoiding the stalactites and stalagmites that have quite literally been drowned by time.

The Price of English

Those of us on a mission through Central America might be happy to bury the Spanish translation books in their backpacks when they hit Belize. However they might not be so happy when they translate the Belizean dollar against their home currency. Of course you are still in Central America so nothing is going to be out of reach, but don’t expect the crippled economy you’ve been riding through Guatemala or Honduras to carry you past the border.

Accommodation will range from $10US to $30US, depending on how many people you share a room with and a night out including food and drink will tally about the same depending on your level of gluttony. A speed boat run with a two tank dive will have you back on the beach in time for lunch at the cost of around $60US and for the best part of about $200US you can take a day trip to the Blue Hole. Alternatively if you want go slow on a sail boat, Big Steve’s reputation is as big as him - which means he is not hard to track down and for about for $40US you’ll be glad you did.