Sailing the Belizean cayes, with plenty of reef, rice ’n’ beans and rum

“Shark, there’s a shark! Get out of the water!”

Ellis’s deep voice booms above the stillness of the afternoon. A seabird launches from the water, as if it understands the warning. Despite an almost perfect blue sky, several clouds turn to black and pass in front of the sun, casting dark shadows across the sea’s surface. Panicking, I glance around, pulling off my mask. I’m the only swimmer left in the water. Where. Is. That. Fin?

The first rule when being approached by a shark? Do not panic. Rule number two? Leave the water in a swift but smooth manner. In a split second, both impossible-to-follow rules have gone out the window, and I manically splash and swim my way towards the speedboat.

Desperately, I grab the side of the boat and hurriedly hoist my legs up, my bottom suspended in the swelling tide. Gritting my teeth, I try to heave myself up and into the boat, gasping in salty sea air. Where is Ellis? Why isn’t he helping me? Why didn’t I swim to the ladder? My knuckles whiten with the strength of my grip. Eyes glazed from memories of bloodthirsty scenes from Jaws, I kick my legs up and fling myself up and over, collapsing in a heap on the deck.

As I look up, I know the joke’s on me. Lying back with a beer and a beaming smile, Ellis lets out a gruff chuckle. “Cheers, Hels,” he nods his bottle towards me. “Only kiddin’, man!”

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Utter ‘Belize’ to anyone who’s travelled here and watch as a Cheshire Cat grin spreads across their face. It’s not just the bewildering Belize Barrier Reef — one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, running for 190 miles along the coast — and its gin-clear seas, where, on my first day, I snorkel alongside shivers of nurse sharks, giant stingrays, an aged duo of turtles and swarms of parrotfish.

It’s also the tangle of rainforest which smothers more than half of the central American country, the extraordinary Mayan ruins, the fresh barbecued lobster, and the laid-back lifestyle and joie de vivre that’s as heartwarming as the local’s chilli sauce I douse over every meal.

The only nation in Central America with English as the official language, it’s the Caribbean without the all-inclusives. And for those on the cayes — of which there are more than 200 — it’s all about the good life, from larks on the beach to the reef, rice ’n’ beans and rum. Plenty of rum.

“Can I get you a corkscrew?” Ellis winks as I board my home for the next three nights: the lagoon catamaran, Aubisque. He hands me the iced cocktail (rum and pineapple with a shaving of nutmeg) as I step down, barefoot, onto the deck and shuffle beside the dining table.

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“Without the nutmeg, it’s called a panty ripper,” laughs Cliff, our skipper, handing over a fantastic plate of conch ceviche, thick with coriander, lime and black pepper.

“OK, so here’s the plan.” Ellis perches himself next to my husband Adam, unfolds a map, and smooths down the edges while I shovel up chunks of conch with tortillas. “We’ll head north and anchor close to some mangroves to shelter from
the winds tonight,” he taps his finger at a speck of land. “Then, we’re going home — to my home, Caye Caulker. I’ll show you a good night out,” he beams, revealing his perfect set of teeth. “Finally, we’ll stop by Tobacco Caye — it’s so chilled there, man.”

Cliff, Ellis and the rest of the Belize Luxury Sailing team have a sweet, sweet life. And they’ve got it prepped down to a T — from breakfasts of banana pancakes to barbecued seafood dinners, and an enduring love of the ocean that’s as infectious as Cliff’s excitable laugh.

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It’s mid-afternoon as we approach our stop for the night: a tranquil lagoon enclosed by several small cayes, where the afternoon’s shadows crawl across the bobbing waves. I’m lounging near Aubisque’s bow, nursing another rum and pineapple, the sun searing down on the azure waters, the smell of suncream sticky in the air. I screw up my eyes against the sea’s glare and spot a lone dolphin breach the water and glide towards the cat before it disappears into the depths.

Cliff pulls out the two-man kayak and Adam and I hop in, stroking our oars in half-hearted unison. Not that it really matters — the current carries us to a nearby channel and a tiny, deserted beach pops up behind a muddle of shrubbery and creeping mangroves. We float until the vessel stops abruptly on the sandy shore, jump out and spend the next half hour skimming stones and white shells. Specks of rain halt us in our tracks, however, and we leap back into the kayak for a five-minute slog back to Aubisque as the sea’s placid surface transforms with a thundering downpour.

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“It’s crazy! The weather changes in a second in Belize,” says Cliff over a dinner of barbecued lobster, steeped in garlic and lime butter.

“But the rain quickly blows out and the sun’ll come straight back out. Apart from during hurricane season, August to October. Then it’s a whole different matter,” says Ellis.

“You’ll see tomorrow on Caye Caulker, where Hurricane Hattie gouged a channel across the island in 1961. We call it The Split. You’ll love it.”

He wasn’t joking, I think as we sail into Caye Caulker the following afternoon. The Split is beautifully clear with frothy, intensely blue water; and local haunt, Lazy Lizard, where we head to with its low-key reggae beats, rum cocktails and traveller-types blowing smoke spirals into the afternoon breeze.

I run and hurl myself into the Split, only to come up and spot a dog on the bow of a boat, its head held high, its fur tapered back in the wind. I pull myself out of the sea, and start wrangling the saltwater out of my hair. I order a rum punch. “Go slow, man — you’re moving too fast. If you wanna be a local, just stick to this one and only rule: No Shirt, No Shoes… No Problem,” smiles Ellis.

Just a mile-and-a-half long and a few hundred yards wide, Caye Caulker has a clutch of hotels, restaurants, bars and dive shops, housed in the pastel-shaded, low-rise buildings, where the phrase ‘no shirt, no shoes, no problem’ is the local motto. There are no cars — just bikes — and life is, as Ellis said, super slow. That is, until we head out for the night, knock back several drinks and wind up in the local reggae bar, waxing euphoric with locals and excitedly dancing to Ace of Base and Shabba Ranks’ Mr Loverman.

 

Several days later, I hear the unmistakable croon of Shabba once more, playing from a makeshift beachside bar on tiny Tobacco Caye, some miles south of Caye Caulker. It takes me five minutes to circle the entire island on foot, where travellers come to snorkel the reef, pad about the beaches and bed down in modest over-the-water huts for less than $30 a night.

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“Can you take our picture?” A twentysomething Finnish girl, juggling her backpack, a beer and a headtorch, hands me her smartphone and pulls her friend in close for the shot.

“We’re just waiting for our ride.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“We came to Belize to stay on a deserted island for a week. We’ve packed water, mozzie spray, rice and yoga mats to sleep on. And rum. Wish us luck.”

With that, the duo — all harem pants, beads and bare feet — sling their bags over their shoulders and hurry over to the small speedboat that’s pulled up beside the jetty.

I never did find out how their Robinson-Crusoe style adventure panned out. Nor if they stuck it out for the full week. But I did think about them the following day as we bid farewell to Cliff, Ellis and Aubisque from the marina, and dashed towards a 4WD in the pouring rain — wishing for their sake they’d manage to collect and store some dry firewood.

This has been adapted from my original piece in National Geographic Traveller (UK)