I didn’t want to go back to Belize.
You see, back in the 1980s, I had come here as a newlywed from Chicago, seeking a post-honeymoon escape from the freezing Midwestern USA. What we got in Ambergris Caye: nonstop rainstorms, an overpriced beach bungalow and a scuba diving operation that consisted of a teenager with a snorkeling mask and a rickety outboard skiff. There were stray dogs sleeping on the runway of San Pedro Sula’s airport. And the only cool thing was a bar — once frequented by military officers in this former outpost of the British Empire — boasting live sharks in a pool surrounded by barstools.
Fast forward to the present day. Ambergris Cay has way more condos and a lot more bars. A travel blogger friend recommended that we skip the Ambergris resort developments and try Caye Caulker as a place to find a more authentic Belize, with just the right blend of luxury and laid-back, relaxing vibes. My PADI-certified scuba-diving family of three decided to check it out. Here’s what we loved and how it helped us check a major dive spot off our bucket list.
Where to stay: Caye Reef
There are plenty of backpacker/budget choices, but If you want to experience the laid-back vibes of Caye Caulker without giving up the luxury mod cons, Caye Reef is the place. These six condos have a pool, a roof jacuzzi with a 360-degree water view and air conditioning that’s almost TOO powerful. This comes at a price but we felt it was a good value for the money. Eating out is fairly cheap on the island, so you won’t cook much, but drinks can really add to your restaurant bill. You save a lot by visiting the nearby supermarket, buying local rum and mixers, and enjoying your drinks on the condo balcony or roof. Most of the time we had the roof or pool to ourselves. Two bed/two bath arrangement perfect for our family of 3, but could sleep up to six. Bedrooms were very quiet and comfy. Showers had plenty of solar-heated hot water. We stayed for one week in Penthouse #5 and after a day of diving, we enjoyed happy hour while watching the shrimp stick man, assorted stray dogs and other reality shows unfolding on Front Street beach. Sunrises were awesome with morning coffee and cinnamon rolls bought from the nearby bakery the day before. We had a couple of stormy days which knocked out the internet, but the manager and her crew quickly got it back on. They are just a phone call away if you need anything and they give you a local cell phone to reach them. Every room in our condo had a view and the location on the nicer end of the island is great, not far from the main hangout for sun and fun, known as the Split.
There’s a small private beach and our son took out the building’s kayak. We didn’t want to leave. A perfect stay! You should plan to reserve in advance. This has been one of my all-time most viewed stangersblog reviews on Trip Advisor.
If the Blue Hole is on your Bucket List:
It’s worth seeking out Belize Diving Services, away from Front Street on the less busy side of Caye Caulker. It’s one of the best dive operations I’ve experienced. These guys do it right from the minute you check in until they line up to say goodbye. Rental equipment and wetsuits are in top shape. You can relax during the interval while the crew sets up your next tank. The 3 dive trip to the Blue Hole was unforgettable. It’s easy to see why this is often said to be the #2 dive experience in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef. But every dive here was great.
Sobre Las Olas Our go-to spot for breakfast on the water. The Belizean breakfast with fry jacks (sopapillas) and veggie frittata were worth staying for. Very laid back service gives you plenty of time to enjoy the view.
Terry’s Grill (aka Dee & D’s) Imagine you have a buddy in Belize who invites you to his house for grilled seafood and chicken. Your buddy knows how to cook and his front yard has the best sunset view around. Welcome to Terry’s grill. When we visited, he greeted everyone with a big smile and when I told him my name was also Terry he told how he would be teased in the Army for having a girl’s name. He opened the restaurant after 19 years in the military.
There are only about four tables, so get there quickly at 5:30pm or reserve. Deserves its high ranking on Trip Advisor.
The Rainbow Grill is literally right ON the water. The location was better than the food. Locals recommended the lobster here, but I was disappointed that my lobster tail was a bit dry and tough. Non fish eaters will enjoy the jerk chicken and quesadillas. Along Front Street, a place called Enjoy has a friendly atmosphere and swings at the bar. The “fine dining” place we liked has closed. At night, people set up grills on the beach and boast that their tropical street food is better than what is served in the restaurants. Let me know if you try it.
Terry’s Travel Tips:
Getting here: We flew on Delta from Los Angeles through Houston to Belize City. We took a land taxi to the water taxi station, and waited for the crew to fix an engine problem. If you’re in a big hurry, this is not the trip for you. But if you want to unplug and slow down, you’ve come to the right place. Don’t forget to bring a good book to read on your Kindle.
We enjoyed wandering the back streets, buying freshly made snacks from local bakeries and vendors, and smiling at the hand-lettered signs. It’s a tropical climate, and we encountered a snake or two in some of the streets on early morning walks to the dive shop. A few guys offered to sell us drugs — right in front of the police station. Don’t be stupid.