CAYE CAULKER, Belize — On this island off the Caribbean coast of Belize, you'll hear it almost as soon as you step off the water taxi dock: "Go slow."
Stride too purposefully down a sandy street, as if you actually were headed somewhere, and someone will toss a "Go slow, mon" from a doorstep or window, busting you for being wired into some far-off, faster-paced place. All mechanisms of life on Caye Caulker have but one gear: slow.
Like during breakfast at an open-air beachside bar. At 10 on a brilliant morning, nothing on the menu was available. No beer, no bread, no fish, no lobster, no pastries. "Staff didn't show up this morning," the owner said with a shrug.
Caye Caulker is an anachronism in the world of slick, want-it-now Caribbean mega-tourism. Veteran backpackers compare it with Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancun, about 20 years ago or Cancun itself 25 years before that.
"Caye Caulker? There's nothing there!" sniffed a bow-tied bartender at a white-tablecloth brasserie in the town of San Pedro on nearby Ambergris Caye. San Pedro is big enough to have cars, fancy resort hotels, villas and the feel of Puerto Vallarta's old town.
Caye Caulker, by contrast, is so low key as to be subterranean. It has no cars; just bicycles, a few golf carts (but no golf courses) and a collection of weathered low-rise buildings lining its sand streets. Its 2,000 permanent residents oppose construction of anything more than two stories high. In groceries, bars and restaurants, they freely admit their dilemma: how to profit from tourism without being consumed by it.
Physical constraints have helped. Caye Caulker is only a mile-and-a-half long and a few hundred yards wide at its widest point, room enough for a few hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars and dive and snorkel shops. Three days is enough to see everything on the island, including the crocodiles that live at the landfill. If you're not into water sports, bring plenty of e-books.
Bordered by Mexico on the north, the Caribbean on the east and Guatemala on the west and south, Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America. Formerly known as British Honduras, it gained independence from Britain 32 years ago, long after its mahogany forests were denuded of timber for English sailing ships. Its people are descendants of African slaves, Mayan natives and Spanish, with a sprinkling of Brit ex-pats and Chinese.
A series of barrier islands, or cayes, of which Caye Caulker is just one, runs along the Caribbean coast. Transportation is by scheduled high-speed water taxi. The 220 miles of paved roads on the mainland that converge near Belize City, the country's main port, are primitive but navigable. A worthy inland destination is San Ignacio, a thriving commercial center on the Mopan River near the Xunantunich Mayan ruins, close to the Guatemalan border.
Near the ruins, an adventurous diner can choose from entrees featuring lamb, chicken or gibnut, also known as paca, a nocturnal jungle rodent. If eating Alvin the chipmunk isn't weird enough, the prison near Burrell Boom, which you pass on the road from Belize City to San Ignacio, has a gift shop.
Back at Caye Caulker, the laid-back beach life has drawn barefoot aqua-tourists since the 1960s, about the time Jacques Cousteau brought the Great Blue Hole, a popular dive site off the Belize coast, to American TV. The world's second-largest barrier reef protects Caye Caulker from the open waters of the Caribbean, its snorkel-friendly coral shallows teeming with fish, eels and rays.
On Turneffe Atoll, an even smaller island beyond the reef, several high-end fishing lodges offer all-inclusive packages. For purists, the draw is stalking bonefish for hours through the shallows in a flat-bottom boat and landing them on light tackle. Most Belizean fishing is catch and release, an acknowledgment of the national importance of ecological tourism.
Variations on conch and lobster populate every Caye Caulker menu, and there likely is no better or inexpensive ceviche in the Caribbean. Spiny lobster dinners are less than $5. Stone crab claws are available in season for alfresco beach dining for as little as $7.50. The national beer, Belikin, is cheap, but the real alcohol bargain is Belizean rum, little of which is exported.
Late in the afternoon on Caye Caulker, tourists and locals alike convene for happy hour at The Split, where Hurricane Hattie gouged a channel across the island in 1961. A tin-shack beach bar, the Lazy Lizard, lubricates the assemblage to the Caribbean beat of Tittiman Flores and Alpha Blondy.
During one especially glorious sunset at the Lazy Lizard, I came to understand the meaning of "Go slow, mon," which translates roughly into "Grab a beer and let's watch the sun go down together."
I posted a Lazy Lizard video, CayeCaulker Sunset from GolferVuke, on YouTube.
If you go
American, Delta and United fly to Belize City through Dallas, Atlanta or Houston. Tropic Air, the Belize national airline, offers service from Belize City to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye via light aircraft. Water taxis serve all populated islands from Belize City's water terminal, a 15-minute cab ride from the international airport.
When to go: January through May is the driest time. June through December is the rainiest. Temperatures average highs in the mid-80s, lows of about 70 year-round.
Currency: The Belizean dollar is permanently pegged to the U.S. dollar at $1 U.S. to $2 BZ. U.S. currency is universally accepted. It's not uncommon to pay or receive change in a combination of the two currencies.