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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Belize: Caye Caulker

A 'go slow' sign in Caye Caulker
'Go slow' is the unofficial motto of Caye Caulker

The unofficial motto of Caye Caulker, one of the many small, sandy islands off the north coast of Belize, is 'Go Slow', and it's obvious from the moment you step off the ferry that this little corner of the Caribbean Sea dances to its own relaxed rhythm. The traffic here is all about golf buggies, bicycles and pedestrians, rather than cars, lorries and buses, and there are no traffic jams to speak of; the Rastas that look after the handful of trinket stalls along the northern beach are so laid back that their sales pitches are hard to tell from genuine greetings; and even the nightlife winds down at a civilised hour, so the nights are refreshingly quiet under the starry skies of the tropical moon. Caye Caulker is, without a doubt, a little slice of paradise, managing to retain a charm that its busier and more popular neighbour, Ambergris Caye, is in danger of losing with its busier roads and larger hotels.

The view north from the Split
The view north from the Split

Paradise Found

Piers stick out into the sea along the eastern edge of the island
Piers stick out into the sea along the eastern edge of the island

Caye Caulker is a tiny sand island, perched on top of a reef. This kind of island is called a caye (pronounced 'key'), and most cayes are fairly small; Caye Caulker is one of the smallest, at only five miles long and a mile wide. The island is split in two by a water channel called the Split, which the islanders dug out after the storm surge from the 1961 Hurricane Hattie cut across the island and created a small breach. The Split is now a wide channel that cuts across the island from east to west: north of the Split the island is almost uninhabited and is smothered in mangroves and forest, though parcels of land are currently up for sale in the windows of the local estate agents, so you can expect the northern half to change rapidly in the coming years; meanwhile the southern half is home to the island's main settlement, which consists of three parallel roads – known as Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street, though they do have more formal names that nobody seems to use – each of them lined with relaxed restaurants, small shops, diving and snorkelling operations, and locals cycling gently along the streets, saying hello to each other in lilting Caribbean accents as they gently weave left and right to avoid the dips in the road where the puddles form after the rains. The language here is English, but even if you didn't understand a word – which is quite often the case, as the English spoken here is as much Creole as it is Commonwealth – you'd still know that the vibe was relaxed; it's all in the intonation.

The Split
Relaxing at the Split
Belikin Beer bottles
Belikin Beer is a refreshing brew

Paradise Lost

Looking towards Ambergris Caye from the Split
Looking towards Ambergris Caye from the Split

There is, though, a slight crack in the façade, and every now and then real life spills through. Pretty much every day, we saw someone somewhere lose it. One night we had a Rasta lying on the beach outside our window, smashed out of his brains on weed and local rum, calling out bizarre non-sequitur obscenities into the night before passing out in a haze of red, rolling eyes; another night one of the Chinese men from the local supermarket made a phone call in the middle of the street in which he completely lost it and shouted piercingly scary Chinese threats into the handset for a good ten minutes, while his business partner tried to coax him away from the red mist and back to sanity; another night one of the other shopkeepers had a stand-up row with a sloppily dressed local whom he'd kicked out of the shop, following it up with, 'Come back here now you coward and let's sort out this man to man, you fucking scum, you don't come round here no more, I sort you out good and proper'; and then there was the black guy shouting, 'I'm not racialist or anything, but it's like you're a monkey and I'm a gorilla.' It's like lying under a picture-perfect palm tree and hearing the faint creaks and rustles from the fronds above that indicate a coconut might fall down at any minute, breaking the tension and possibly someone's face, too.

A colourful boat at the Split
A colourful boat at the Split