Over six weeks, we had traveled over 1,300 miles, ate countless tortillas, and explored dozens of cultural and natural sites that we had previously only visited in our minds. Everything we dreamt of finding in Mexico was there, and it was even more amazing than we could have ever anticipated. With all of the amazing experiences we had over the course of the six weeks, it is crazy to think that we traveled across less than half of the country.
As much as we loved Mexico, we were ready to start crossing borders. After all, we had a handful of countries to explore, and up to this point we were still in the country we had started in. The next country on our venture was the anomalous paradise of Belize, a Central American country, whose official language is English and is culturally linked to the Caribbean, while still containing a Mayan/Mestizo population on the jungle-engulfed mainland.
We had seen most of the greatest Mayan ruins and had plenty of time in the jungle ahead, so we decided to opt for the full Caribbean experience and spend our time on the island of Caye Caulker. From Tulum, we had what was supposed to be, a five hour bus ride ($71.16) to Belize City, with a border crossing near Chetumal, Mexico. Our bus left around 10:30AM, which would deliver us to Belize City with a few hours to spare before catching the last ferry to Caye Caulker.
When we arrived at the Mexico border and were told to have $30 USD per person (!) ready to pay the “exit fee”, we calmly smirked at each other as others scrambled to pull together combinations of pesos and dollars that would total the fee amount. We had done our research and were confident that we did not have to pay.
Here’s the short version...we had flown into Mexico, and the “exit fee”/”tourism tax”/whatever they called it at that given moment was included in our flight costs. While in Tulum, we contacted our airline for an itemized receipt from our flight into Mexico City. We found a nearby internet cafe to print the receipt and were prepared to save ourselves from having to pay the fee twice. We had heard that the border agents would often take advantage of uninformed travelers and make them pay the fee a second time, upon departure. When it was our turn at the customs booth, we handed over our airline receipt and pointed out that we had already paid the fee. The border agent responded by stating that we had not paid the full amount of the fee and presented us with an example of another traveler’s receipt, in which the tourism tax was broken down into two charges, one for entry and another for departure. We immediately noticed that the two amounts on the other receipt totalled the same amount as the single charge on our receipt and both contained the same tax code identification number. The border agent responded by saying that the amount on the other receipt was not in U.S. dollars, which prompted us to immediately point to the “USD” behind the amount. When we pointed out that the sum of the two charges on the other receipt equalled the charge on our receipt, the border agent seemed completely content exhibiting an inability to comprehend a math problem, which would only intimidate the D-average students in every second grade classroom across the world.
We crossed the border into Belize with $60.00 less in our pockets... looks like we’ll be returning home one day sooner than we expected. The fun for the day was just beginning. After a couple of hours into Belize, we realized it was already 4:30PM, and the last ferry to Caye Caulker would be leaving at 5:30PM. It seemed like every ten seconds we were looking at the clock and trying to measure the distance left to Belize City with our fingers on the map on our phone. We had already started to accept the fact that we would have to scramble to find WiFi and a place to stay in Belize City that night and hope they would honor our pre-purchased ferry tickets the next morning.
Luckily, our bus arrived in Belize City around 5:15PM, and a man working for the water taxi caught us and other travelers and ushered us towards a taxi ($10) departing for the docks. Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting on the ferry ($61.60 round-trip) headed towards Caye Caulker.
When we arrived at the island after the 45 minute boat ride, we were greeted with the natural aromas of Caye Caulker, grilled seafood, jerk chicken, ocean air, and the occasional breeze of “medication.” Had our bus burned up in a fiery crash? Did our boat capsize? Had we died and arrived in heaven?
We were also approached by a few friendly locals offering directions to help us find our AirBnB ($299.19 for 5 nights). Having been constantly approached by people trying to sell us nearly everything everywhere we went in Mexico, we were a bit standoffish initially. However, one of the locals reassured us, “Don’t worry, we’re just friendly people here.”
The directions to our stay were easy. There are only three streets on Caye Caulker: Front Street, Middle Street, and Back Street. Not a single car on the island. Only golf carts, bikes, and barefoot pedestrians. The entire length of the town can be walked in twenty minutes, even while adhering to the local motto, “Go Slow.”
After dropping our belongings off, we headed immediately for food. Dinner that night was jerk chicken and coconut rice ($21.72 for 2 meals) at Enjoy Restaurant, a place we returned to multiple times over our five days on Caye Caulker. 12:00PM-8:00PM happy hour with 2-for-1 Cuba Libres ($3.54 for 2) was a good enough reason to return, but the food was also amazing. Was this paradise? We wandered the rest of the island and spent some time staring out at the infinite amount of stars in the sky, eagerly wondering what the waters that surrounded us would look like the next morning.
We started the next day the same way we started most days in Caye Caulker, a short walk down Front Street to Chef Kareem’s for jerk chicken and coconut rice ($16.16 for 2 meals). Along Front Street, there are a number of spots along the island’s edge, which serve up grilled meats and seafood during lunchtime. Nothing pretentious here. A tent, some plastic chairs and tables, and someone cooking your meal on the nearby grill. These guys have the life. Wake up in paradise, spend a few hours grilling meats and seafood while staring out at the open Caribbean waters, close in the early afternoon, and enjoy the rest of your day.
After lunch, we would spend most of the day at “The Split”, a man-made beach area. There aren’t any long white sand beaches in Caye Caulker, the island just drops off into the surrounding waters. From the beach, you can jump off the wall into the waters and swim out to a nearby sand bar. It’s the perfect place to spend hours just hanging out, floating in the clear blue waters waiting for happy hour and 2-for-1 rum cocktails ($6.06 for 2).
That night, the dinner choice was obvious: fresh grilled lobsters (2 lobster meals + drinks = $35.35). The prices in Belize, while still cheap compared to home, were higher than anywhere we had been in Mexico and most places we anticipated visiting over the course of the next few months. Still, the prices on seafood and alcohol here were great compared to the States.
Speaking of alcohol, that night was our first experience at The Sports Bar (yes, that’s its name). Every night around 10:00PM, regardless of the day of the week, locals and travelers begin to trickle into the bar. If you’re awake and under the age of 40, you’re probably at The Sports Bar. It was here that we were introduced to some of the most memorable characters we’ve ever met in our lives. After a couple of hours of too many Belikin stouts and too much rum, everyone migrates to I&I Reggae Bar on the other side of town. Every night at midnight, a herd of people with the wrong ratio of rum to blood in their veins would recreate this scene from the unaired Caribbean version of The Walking Dead.
We didn’t just eat great food, drink cheap alcohol, and float in the ocean. During our second day, we rented kayaks ($25.25 for 2 hours) and spent a couple of hours paddling along the coast of the island. We drifted amongst the giant tarpon fish on the bay side, found a few starfish along the ocean floor, and coasted out into the bay to witness one of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen. Was this paradise?
The activity we were most looking forward to was our half day of snorkeling throughout the Belize Barrier Reef ($60.61 total). Before we jumped on our boat, we made sure to grab a hearty Belizean breakfast of fry jacks ($4.55 for 2). Fry jacks are deep fried hunks of dough, in this case, stuffed with your favorite breakfast foods. We got two with bacon and egg. They were as filling and amazing as they sound.
Our first stop on the snorkeling trip was a forty-five minute swim amongst the reef. During the swim, we saw fish of an array of colors, barracudas, an eel, dozens of conch, and unreal coral formations. This was all just the beginning. We hopped back on the boat for a short ride to Shark Ray Alley. There was no hesitation to get in the water and do something we never expected to do in our entire lives. We were swimming amongst sharks and stingrays!
Before heading back, we spent about an hour swimming around the Coral Gardens, handfed some of the tarpons we had seen the previous day, and searched for mini seahorses at the seahorse sanctuary on the bay side of the island.
We probably could’ve left Caye Caulker that moment and been convinced that we had found the answer to our ever-present question. However, that night we received confirmation that we had in fact arrived in heaven.
Were we dreaming? There is no way this was real…
Not simply a sports bar. Not just a hockey bar. A hockey bar run by a Leafs fan. This was paradise.
After weeks of watching every Leafs game on a phone or our computers, sometimes at streaming quality that resembled a video game from the 80s, we were watching a game in perfect HD-quality, surrounded by Leafs memorabilia. We spent the next couple of hours cheering the Leafs on, laughing with locals and transplanted expats, and drinking too many Belikin stouts.
A couple of days later, we were on the water taxi heading back towards the mainland. Was any of this real? It seemed like we knew half of the island’s residents by first name. One day we were trading rhymes with a local named No Shirt, the next we were swimming with stingrays and watching a game in a bar surrounded by Leafs jerseys. A tropical island with a stout as the national beer. $10 lobster meals. $2 Cuba Libres. Did this place really exist? Whatever catastrophe we had perished in we would gladly relive to once again arrive in this paradise.