Belize is a country perched on the edge of the shelf of land separating the northern American continent from the southern, and the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean Seas. Nudged southward by Mexico and crowded out eastward by Guatemala’s generous spread, its hold on terra firma spans a mere 110km; the bits and pieces that would not fit on dry land are set afloat to congregate offshore in a series of cayes.
As the guidebooks would have it, each cay was as wondrous as the next, and our time felt limited for so beautiful a place. The cayes had tantalizing names like Ambergris, Half Moon, Silk and Laughing Bird. For reasons I can no longer remember, I hedged my bets on Caye Caulker, part of the Northern Cayes. In old English maps, the name of this island is spelled Corker. Some say it actually originated from the native name Hicaco, for the palms that eventually grew there. S confused travelers and locals alike by insisting he went to Keekaka.
In my mind, however, a different name altogether kept lingering on the edge of everything I saw. I couldn’t help thinking how similar Caye Caulker was to another Caribbean island called Utila in Honduras, where I had spent about 6 weeks in a semi-charmed limbo, putting my medical training on hold in favor of the sun and the sea. I had uprooted from a country where I had lived for 6 years to a job I hadn’t yet secured halfway across the world, left behind friends whom I have never replaced, and wasn’t entirely sure about most of the big topics in my life at that point. What I was certain of beyond anything, was a need to lead a life that enabled me to be outdoors. During those days, I sacrificed my limbs to sandflies and mosquitoes, my skin browning again and again like a shoulder of lamb being turned over a cooking fire, while my hair frizzled and bleached into a desiccated mess. A mild state of disrepair in exchange for a gladdened heart.
And so it was that I saw Utila in the blueprints of Caye Caulker. From the same sandy streets that harboured milky puddles whenever it rained to the painted signs of the local businesses. Picturesque sunsets day after day and the lilting melody of spoken creole. The airstrip set at the edge of the village, the scarcity of motor vehicles, the endless stream of backpackers from around the globe, even the mazapan which lent its name to the cabanas where we lodged.
It was the ideal setting for a simpler life, where, like on islands everywhere, we were comforted by routines and repetitions and kept our needs to a minimum. And then of course, there was the diving.
We dived with Belize Diving Services which was recommended by Louise, the owner of our cabañas. The winds were strong on that first morning, and though the northern dive sites which we went to were reasonably sheltered, the seas were whipped up nonetheless into a gentle flour-coloured silt. Against this dust-milled backdrop, a thousand tiny goldface tobies swam in all directions, filling up the ocean in Brownian motion as it they had been spawned overnight. They looked to me like miniature wind-up toys tattooed in luminous paint, lips in a constant pucker.
The corals impressed us with a myriad of textures – fronds, fans, undulating fingers, branches, mazes, tubes, hollow gourds, spirals, grooves and flowers. Nurse sharks glided gracefully over this magnificent garden, possibly delighted by the feel of soft ferns against their gills.
Meanwhile, a turtle plonked itself onto a rocky coral and had a good belly scratch as we hovered nearby, eventually pushing off towards the surface for a quick breath and a lick of sunshine.
There were more treats to be found hiding under the rocks – giant lobsters gesticulating with their antennae, resting rays, crocodile fish in camouflage and a damselfish guarding her nest. Here, a grouper and an eel confer on some matter and there, an infamous lionfish spreads its spines daringly in unfriendly waters.
Soon I spotted my personal favorites – the unmistakable schools of creole wrasse in a stream of torpedo blue. There is hardly a dive you could make without seeing them, and I always told my fellow divers to wave at them as they passed. I like to imagine that we were friends, those blue creole wrasses and I…
Once the diving was done, we returned to island life . Like the local geckos, we shopped around for a perfect spot in the sun. Caye Caulker is not famous for its beaches as the waterline is dominated by seagrass, but there were plenty of sights and sounds around the little island to keep us occupied. We strolled up and down the streets for some grub, passing fish traps stacked high outside the houses of fishermen. More often than not, we’d end up at Rose’s, where the catch of the day were deliciously grilled, and then to the main strip to have an obligatory ice cream cone.
I was reading a book under the mazapan tree when I heard the manic flutter of tiny wings. I looked up and saw a darting figure among the branches of a bean tree in Louise’s front yard. A gorgeous little hummingbird making the most of the evening light, oblivious to the girl watching it with her jaw dropped in wonder.
Photos by author
*** Maxhapan cabañas ***
Run by Louise Aguilar and her husband, a lovely mom-and-pop establishment which is clean, pretty, comfortable and comes with an amazing front yard with pergola and hammocks, and bicycles free of charge.
*** Belize Diving Services ***
Professional team with good equipment and large dive boats. Also does packages to the Great Blue Hole … next post!