Spellbinding may seem like hyperbole, but it is the only word that seems to do Caye Caulker justice. Beyond the dazzling speedboat journey from neighbouring San Pedro, or the honeypot diving location amongst one of the World's most biodiverse marine reserves, or the heart-droppingly slow and rich pace of life running through the veins of the island; there is still something unknowable and bewitching about Caye Caulker, Belize.
Landing in Caye Caulker is like walking onto a child's vision of a pirate's treasure map: it has a unique geography that almost seems conjured up by a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. During a Hurricane named Hattie in 1961, the island was fiercely split into two, leaving the Island' s intriguing secrets separated on either side of this 'split'. Though you can now travel by boat from one side to the other - it is likely you will spend most of your time on the main split, where most honeymooners and visitors congregate: a frisky mix of fresh lobster grill restaurants, colourful diving centres, a heady local disco, several playful bars, lush natural pools and coral-coloured residencies. The other split is worth visiting if you have an extra half day, and has just been bought by a resort hotel, but will provide you with merry cocktails in their inflatables.
On one complete circuit of the main split, which can be accomplished by foot in under 90 minutes, you’ll be enchanted by the ‘Go Slow’ signs, the otherworldly pastel-painted huts and shacks, populated by women in headwraps carrying baskets of laundry and tropical fruit. There is a sense of freedom to be yourself here: men hold hands with men, women with women, and no one bats an eyelid. Although Caye Caulker may not be the first place you think of as a ‘gay destination’, the liberal nature of the island is visible as far as the eye can see. It's a tiny island existing as a co-operative, and peace seems to be the ingredient that glues this extended family together.
Good fortune followed me on this solo journey throughout Central America. I bunkered down at Bella’s guesthouse, run by an eccentric and dry-humoured Dutch woman busy making glasses from sawn wine bottles; and found it conveniently placed at crawling distance from the all-day swinging beach bar - The Lazy Lizard. I befriended a cheerful cohort of travelers: an Australian coffee chain owner, a Colombian writer, another gay (and slightly gorgeous) solo traveller, and an American psychologist, providing excellent company for my five days on the island, as we searched under every pebble for new experiences.
Food is as quirky as the restaurant owners here, and an essential ingredient in the Caribbean cocktail of Caye Caulker. On every couple of blocks you’ll find a ‘fry jack’ shack - a Belizean specialty of fried dough stuffed with your choice of all manner of local ingredients, providing a hearty breakfast for under $1. For dinner, we paid a visit to a notorious islander's seafood restaurant: ‘Wish Willies’. After ordering and paying for just one main each, we were subject to the infamous Caribbean hospitality, where Willie came and sat down with us, regaling us with stories of his travels and time on the island, while he ‘cleared the barbecue’ for us, laying down plate after plate of smoked sea bass, lobster, tiger prawns, jerk chicken, curried conch, and jugs of electrifying Rum punch - all very generously on the house. With heavy stomachs but light hearts, we prize ourselves off the plastic chairs to head down to the one club in Caye Caulker - Island Sky - dancing off our bellies with an eclectic but up-for-it crowd, shimmying under a limbo stick.
Hungover days were spent waist deep in bath-warm waters, soaking up the atmosphere, clutching at some hair of the dog via a piña colada, and watching the boats fly past from The Lazy Lizard. As a solo traveller, I didn’t mind too much being on my own, but peppered around me were couples of every flavour and sexuality: some honeymooning, some travelling through, some planning on an epic dive. Though the diving here is nothing short of spectacular, contentment could also be found simply sitting in the natural whirlpools off the tip of the north end of the main split, where the water shimmers in opal and iridescent colours - more crystalline than a typical Caribbean azure or turquoise. Coupled with the naturally flat topography of the island, you can spend hours gazing, or stone-skimming, watching every ripple ricochet off the glasslike surface into eternity.
If you manage to drag yourself away from sunsets and sunbathing, Cay Caulker is also the home of the Blue Hole - a massive underwater sinkhole - named one of the greatest wonders of the marine world, attracting adventure-seekers from around the globe. I used to scoff at the idea of snorkelling, much preferring the weight and depth of serious scuba, but since I was on a budget, and also had ears that were being particularly sensitive, I decided to snorkel the Hol Chan Marine Reserve - housed only minutes away by boat from the split. I was astonished to find that this was better than the majority of deep dives I had already experienced. The visibility is crystal clear, and the vibrancy of the coral, even at surface level, are more photogenic than a page out of National Geographic. As you float on the surface looking down, effortlessly being carried by the gentle Caribbean current, be prepared to be taken breathless by underwater trenches covered in rainbow marine life, and teeming with large green turtles. As for recommendations, I’m happy to mention ‘Frenchie’s’ - one of the island's oldest scuba and snorkelling providers, who consistently send out experts to guide you on your dive.
After satisfying myself with physical activity, as well as evening hours on the local (and potent) rum, I found myself on a couple of nights stealing myself away from the fizz and buzz of the island, and hunting down one of the many secret, isolated decks or beaches from which to gaze at the setting sun. Picture a cinematic horizon on the scale of the images in ‘The Lion King’, with pink and tangerine brushstrokes that feel almost too neon to be real, and you’ll get some idea of what it’s like to be beneath the Belizean skies. After a year of solo travel, and becoming a bit of a numbed beachbum, I must admit, I’ve never felt such escapism, such a sesnsation of ‘I got away from it all’, as I did on Caye Caulker.
A version of this article appeared on Mr Hudson Explores: