Go slow. It’s the mantra of Caye Caulker, a gorgeous coral and sand island off the coast of Belize in Central America.
This ‘go slow’ mantra even applies to when you’re in the water swimming with sharks. Not inside a cage, but just snorkelling beside the coral reef that rings the island. Nobody’s too worried though. “They don’t bite – at least they’ve never bitten me,” says snorkelling instructor Juan in a languid drawl.
Taking his customers to swim with gummy sharks and giant stingrays in a passage known as Shark Alley is a big part of experiencing the largest continuous coral reef in the northern hemisphere. The coral is good (though not as brilliantly coloured as the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, or in Indonesia), but it’s the opportunity to swim among sharks that provides a giddy thrill, although Juan’s heartbeat barely increases. Like all Caye Caulker natives, he goes slow.
The tempo of life on Caye Caulker is set by its modes of transportation. There are no cars, just a few golf buggies that haul luggage. Most locals pedal rusty old bicycles, a few are on scooters, but mostly life slows down to walking pace – although in the balmy tropical heat, it actually ambles to a very slow saunter. If you get too weary walking the 600-metre shorefront that defines Caye Caulker village, you can always stop at Margarita Mike’s refreshment shack for a big cup of frozen cocktail that helps an easy smile return to your face.
The inherent slowness is underlined by an element of Rasta culture that has taken root here – hardly surprising in the far western reaches of the Caribbean. A slow-moving posse of dreadlocked dudes occupies the brightly coloured shanty town of craft shops that have cropped up beside the beach, beside equally langorious ladies at hair-braiding benches. More Rastas are clowning at the desk of Raggamuffin tours, and pouring drinks and driving turntables at the popular I & I Reggae Bar, one of few nightclubs on the island.
The native groove is gentler at Wish Willy’s, a notable backyard barbecue diner named after the local term for a lizard. It’s run by Belize-born genial giant Maurice Moore and his Dutch wife Monique. They arrived on Caye Caulker a dozen years ago after a life of travelling the world. They now consider the island to be home and throw open the gates of their residence each night to serve dinner at rough-hewn long bench tables.
Fresh seafood is sourced daily from the island’s fishermen and cooked by Maurice on barbecues fashioned from sawn-off oil drums, sometimes basted in bourbon, chilli and honey. It’s a long way from fine dining, but it’s fine food in a fun atmosphere, with a string of party lights overhead and the feel of sand between your toes. Help yourself to bottles of beer from the ice chest (Maurice just adds up the empties later), and if you settle in for an especially long night and don’t have an inkling to leave, the host can provide a few simple accommodation options – a one-room shack, or a house on high stilts with views of the ocean. These are far from fancy, with timber walls, floors and furniture all crudely painted in candy-coloured pastels, but it’s the sort of lazy beach house that you don’t need to be so fussy about. Just lay in the hammock on the verandah and go slow.
Alternatively, Sea Dream guest house provides more refined creature comforts, with its cosy courtyard rooms shaded by a huge, ancient Banyan tree, and a rooftop lounge that turns out an impressive repertoire of sunset cocktails. Americans Haywood and Heidi Curry built this hideaway beside their home at the northern tip of the island, where Haywood runs fishing charters for game fisherman, and their daughters attend the local primary school. It feels like you’re included in a very private indulgence, complete with its own private jetty having a thatched roof cabana. When you swim beyond the shallows in this private bay – where you’ll see big Tarpon fish in the water – watch out for the current that can quickly pull you into The Split, a narrow but fast-running channel that divides Caye Caulker’s two islands.
For more lively fun at The Split, head to The Lazy Lizard, a waterside bar that pumps like an all-day backpacker beach party. It’s an ideal place for a burger and a few beers, but it’s more about dangling your toes into the water, listening to the music and striking up a conversation rather than vigorously dancing. That’s the vibe on Caye Caulker. Steady, but always slow.