By Dean Johnson, Boston Globe correspondent
A visit to the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich is a day trip from Caye Caulker
CAYE CAULKER, Belize - There is a sign, we were told, near the raggedy old airstrip on this Caribbean island that reads: “Go slow. We have two cemeteries and no hospitals.’’
We never found that sign, but its message permeates every part of tiny Caye Caulker, a 40-minute boat ride from the Central American port of Belize City and one of those rare throwback destinations reminiscent of old Key West, Fla.
Paved roads? None. Cars? No thank you. Beaches? Just one. Galleries and shopping malls? Not so much. As one travel guide recently noted, “Aside from sunbathing, reading, and relaxing, there’s very little to do on Caye Caulker.’’
As if that’s a bad thing.
The island is all about golf carts and bicycles, dozens of inexpensive restaurants and bars, and plenty of street food vendors and outdoor grills. It’s about the occasional open-air movie, exquisitely fresh seafood, and a pace of life just a tad faster than “reverse.’’
Locals, backpackers, expatriates, and the occasional well-heeled tourist intermingle here. Everyone speaks English (Caye Caulker is part of Belize, formerly known as British Honduras), US dollars are readily accepted, and local dollars are half the US value so conversion math is simple.
You can stand in the middle of the island’s main avenue, Front Street, and see water in three directions. Less than 10 minutes from our hotel dock we kayaked through a shallow mangrove lagoon while dozens of 4- and 5-foot-long tarpon roiled the waters around us. The world’s second largest barrier reef is about 15 minutes away in a slow boat, and the windsurfing, sailing, snorkeling, and diving are exceptional.
Then again, so are the hammocks that seem to be hung nearly everywhere. “Laid-back’’ and “casual’’ define life here. While ordering drinks at the Rainbow Grill, one of several restaurants that seemed to have been assembled by whatever had washed ashore after the last hurricane, my wife asked the server what kind of vodka was available.
He gazed over her head to the bar and said they did not have any vodka at the moment. But if she really wanted a vodka drink he would run across the street to the convenience store and buy a bottle of the local brand: Arctic Vodka. We stuck with rum that night.
Our Rainbow Grill experience also introduced us to how well and inexpensively one can dine on the island. The night’s special was lobster with a choice of either shrimp, chicken, or the catch of the day. The meal included potato salad and rice with red beans (both national dishes), cole slaw, two rum drinks, and dessert. The tab was $12.50.
Street food and takeout shacks are everywhere and they are good and cheap. The homemade meat pies at Mom’s, for example, cost 50 cents. Yet we were also able to sample something as exotic as a superb blue hibiscus mojito at the more upscale Habanero’s for $8.
Bikes, surfboards, and boats are among the main types of transportation on the island.
As we walked toward Rose’s Grill & Bar we saw a table and grill on the street by the front door. “Pick what you want off the table,’’ we were told by the gent working the grill. “We’ll find you inside.’’ The table had two kinds of live lobsters, barracuda steaks, and assorted fresh fish. Most dishes were under $20, with the lobster price changing daily. “Inside’’ was under a combination of palm fronds and corrugated tin. We ate at picnic tables and walked on a sand floor. Dinner was terrific.
The most popular daytime hangout is “The Split’’ at the northern tip of the main part of the island. The Split, formed in 1961 when Hurricane Hattie literally split the island in half, is the site of the one real public beach area.
There is also a ramshackle bar-cafe just a few feet from the water that specializes in burgers, fried seafood, and cold drinks. Care to sample a frozen mudslide with plenty of ice cream and Bailey’s Irish Cream? That will be $5.
We dove into a platter of fried shrimp, cole slaw, and the ubiquitous red beans and rice and sat in the outdoor “dining’’ section: picnic tables plopped in knee-deep tidal pools.
If, despite the overwhelming “do nothing’’ atmosphere, you still feel the urge to do something, there are several options.
You can take a guided swimming-snorkeling tour of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark-Ray Alley ($45-$120 depending on the specific tour), both located just a few minutes offshore. We snorkeled among brain coral and spectacularly hued tropical fish.
The water was only about waist deep at Shark-Ray Alley. The guides began feeding the fish and dozens of large rays and harmless nurse sharks converged on the boat from all directions, many of them swimming around and even under us to get to the grub.
There are also plenty of off-island activities. Most begin with a 40-minute boat ride back to the mainland and Belize City. Don’t waste time there. The only decent shopping you will find is at the cruise ship shops on the waterfront where you will pay inflated prices.
Instead, before you step on the commuter boat, make arrangements with your hotel or a tour operator to pick you up on the mainland for any number of activities.
Several Mayan ruins are within a day trip: Altun Ha, Lamanai, Xunantunich, even Tikal. Jungle zip lines? A zoo? Tubing through immense limestone caves? All are very doable.
We opted for a full-day tour that took us to the Xunantunich ruins near the Guatemalan border, lunch, and then cave tubing at a national park in the Caves Branch region of Belize. The fee per person, booked through our motel, was $125.
The two-hour van trip to Xunantunich was in some ways as exciting as anything else on the tour. As our group approached the vehicle, we all did the math in our heads and knew we were one seat short.
At Rose’s Grill and Bar, patrons choose their entrees from a streetside table.)
Not a problem. A plastic step stool was inserted in the space usually used for getting in and out of the back row. Once we got started I made the mistake of glancing at the driver’s console, and every light was on - oil, seat belts, electrical, door ajar, tire pressure - and they stayed on for the entire trip. Nevertheless we made it through the day without incident.
Though Xunantunich cannot match the majesty of Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza or Tikal, it has some impressive structures. The main temple is 13 stories tall and open to the public. “Open’’ is the key word, because an open, narrow stairway at the rear of the temple is the only way to get to the top. There are no ropes or safety barriers or even a banister.
The view from the top was nothing short of spectacular. Not only could we take in the lush rolling hills of Guatemala, we also had a stunning overview of the entire Xunantunich compound.
Our next stop was a national preserve that included a zip line, well maintained jungle trails, and the shallow Sibun River. We lugged big inner tubes through the rain forest during nearly 45 minutes of walking along the well-maintained main trail. Our driver-guide pointed out various plants and animals along the way, and at one point he even broke apart a nearby termite nest and suggested we sample some.
The general consensus: They tasted minty.
When we finally reached the point downstream where we were ready to hit the water, our guide made us put on our forehead flashlights, climb into our inner tubes, and lock hands and feet so that we became one big mass of rubber and limbs.
The reason? Shortly after we lazily drifted into a long series of interconnected limestone caves, we were in near total darkness. The only way to see some of the spectacular formations was by focusing our lights on them, and it was not a good place to get separated from the pack.
Once we cleared the cave system we had a leisurely half-hour drift back to the main trail area. After a quick ride back to Belize City and the mandatory shuttle to the island, we were ready for a lot of little to do. That’s a mandate on Caye Caulker.
If you go...
Where to stay
The Iguana Reef Inn
A clean and modern spot with a swimming pool (a rarity on Caye Caulker) and free breakfast, kayaking, and Wi-Fi (but no phones or television), $145-$425.
What to do
Front Street, Caye Caulker
One-stop shopping for almost any water-related activities on the island, including snorkeling and sunset cruises.
273 Los Lagos, Ladyville
A locally owned business that can take care of most mainland tours, from zip-lining and cave tubing to Mayan ruins.
Where to eat
Front Street, Caye Caulker
An upscale restaurant offering fresh seafood and international cuisine with an emphasis on Caribbean dishes. Dining is inside or on an elevated outdoor porch. Entrees $20-$25.
Don Corleone Caribbean Trattoria
Front Street, Caye Caulker
This Italian-Caribbean eatery features a nice mix of pasta, seafood, and Mediterranean dishes. Entrees $15-$25.