Paddling in a floating jungle.
In the heart of the Caribbean Sea lies a small English-speaking country that hosts various adventures, from the jungles to clear blue waters surrounding the world’s second-largest reef. Belize comprises four indigenous groups, Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, and Mayan, and clenches a world of culture. Just off the mainland shores of the sparsely populated country lies some of the most beautiful islands the Caribbean Sea has to offer. Many of the 200 cayes that dot the sea are unhabituated but display white sand beaches, green vegetation, and turquoise waters. Those inhabited have most essentials of living, some more modern than others, but one particular island is set with the backdrop of something you would read in the novel Treasure Island; this island is Caye Caulker.
My wife (Alicia) and I arrived on Caye Caulker via water taxi for a two-day stay and then had planned to move on to a more significant island called Ambergris Caye, but we were quickly won over by the small island and its slogan, Go Slow. On the island, you will find no cars or trucks and no pavement but a hand full of golf carts and tons of bikes. The populated part of the island was a mile long and easily traveled by bicycle. Amble palm trees shaded the sandy roads lined with shops, restaurants, and street vendors. Being no stranger to island life and having lived on Wake Island (Mid Pacific) for two years I found the locals and pace of life much like I had experienced on Wake and decided to dig in, cancel our trip to Ambergris, and stay for a while longer.
During our time on Caye Caulker, we learned that the street vendors offered the freshest food, fruits, and vegetables. A local favorite was a juice bar serving the best pineapple and orange drink, which we frequented often. One afternoon, we were sitting under a couple of palm trees drinking our juice and receiving much-needed relief from the heat when I noticed a sign that read paddle boarding & surf station. After further investigation, I learned of Contour’s unique paddle board tour in the Mangroves on a nearby floating island; needless to say, we jumped at the chance.
There we met Shar, a native of Caye Caulker, and within minutes she explained the tour that Contour offered. After paying for our trip, we had time to pedal down one of the beaten paths to another roadside shack, pick up a couple of famous Fry Jacks, and then head back to the dock to meet with our guide. After parking our bikes in the bike stand and scarfing down our food, we were greeted by a dark leather skin man with a huge smile and firm handshake introducing himself as Zac. Once we introduced ourselves to Zac, a descendant of the Mayan tribe from Punta Gorda, we were taken to a picnic table to start our tour.
After a 15-minute meeting over a map of the floating island, we found ourselves shuffled to a 22’ center console boat with three paddle boards strapped overhead, three paddles in the rod holders, and motoring out to sea. We glided through the split that separates the north side of Caulker from the south and into calmer waters on the leeward side of the island that blinded us with its emerald waters. Zac quickly began teaching us the history of Caye Caulker when a pod of bottlenose dolphins caught his attention. For the following thirty minutes, we played with the majestic animals and took more pictures than we had since we had arrived on the island. Finally, excited to get in the water ourselves, we jetted toward the mangroves on a smooth ride across the tranquil waters and a warm wind on our faces.
Zac didn’t wait around dropping all three boards in the water, handing us cold water bottles, and jumping in with paddles in hand. We started our three-hour tour (no puns needed) with a lesson on how mangroves grow and how the seeds are as tough as any linebacker in the NFL. He pointed out the different color sponges attached to the mangroves’ roots and the marine life that seemed to parade under our boards. With eagle rays, barracudas, and snappers more than abundant, we pushed through narrow openings, under low-lying branches of three different species of mangroves, and over crystal clear waters with Zac continually educating us on his passion.
Before we realized it, an hour had passed, and we were back on the boat, taking a break and being treated to fresh pineapple, cold rice water, homemade banana bread, and goat cheese, all while asking questions to our guide and his life on Caye Caulker. After learning that he was a passionate Maya descendant and a father to three boys, we jumped back in the water and headed back out with masks and snorkels. We continued our tour with a long cruise along the island and diving under the roots finding angel fish and other species that called the island home. At the end of the tour, we helped secure our boards to the rack overhead, tried the best we could, and again surprised with rum punch to wash away the salt that rested on our lips.
Back at the dock, we received a southern welcome from the owners of Contour, Henry and Steffi Lopez, who are just as passionate about their ocean as Zac. I left my wife visiting with them long enough to collect a couple of Belikin beers brewed and bottled on the mainland, and for the next thirty minutes, we visited as if we had been best friends for years. Indeed if one is looking for a jungle tour on a paddleboard in the Caribbean Sea, it exists and is only a short flight away. So when you visit the laid-back island, keep the attitude of go slow and visit Contour for one of the best SUP tours in Belize.
A year after visiting Caye Caulker I wrote a novel based on the island. Click the cover below to order your book today and thanks for supporting starving writers like myself :).