Underwater Wilderness: Caye Caulker, Belize
Credit: Athanasios Papadopoulos / Imagebrief

Getting to Caye Caulker isn't easy. Leaving with all your fingers isn't guaranteed.

Let us back up a little. Caye Caulker is one of the less traveled Caribbean islands that make up the country of Belize. While the more popular nearby tourist town of San Pedro is ticky-tacky, like a rundown movie set of a Caribbean island, Caye Caulker is a flashback to an earlier, non-five-star-hotel era. Palm trees sway, and locals fly-fish without concern for time or timeliness. It's not a place you go to chill out under an umbrella with a Corona – it's a place you hit if you want to get lost. Shortly after arriving, we headed over to the Lazy Lizard at the end of the Caye and ordered a tall glass of "lizard juice," a drink with a mysterious green hue that quickly put me in my (paralytic) happy place.

You won't want to linger too long, because if you're on Caye Caulker, chances are you're going diving in the morning – and most of the boats leave at zero dark thirty. Caye Caulker is the closest inhabited island to the Great Blue Hole and Turneffe Atoll, dive sites often rated among the world's top 10. The closest, and one of the easiest for beginners, is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, whose nutrient-rich waters wash over reef walls, attracting mega fauna like nurse sharks, eagle rays, and dolphins. Then there's the Turneffe Atoll, where flat, calm waters hide a vertical wall that descends from 15 feet to as deep as you are able to dive. The top prize is Lighthouse Atoll, home to the Great Blue Hole. Here you swim with reef sharks, octopuses, great barracudas, and schools of hundreds of fish in a variety of species. Lighthouse Atoll is also home to Half Moon Caye, where the Belize Audubon Society has successfully created the quintessential tropical island, open for day trips and overnight tent camping, that lets you get in touch with your inner Crusoe. Belize Diving Services is the oldest dive shop on the island (founded in 1978), and is currently the only shop recognized by international Dive Agencies. As the only technical shop in Belize, it offers diver training where you can learn to safely dive up to 200ft. – allowing you to dive much deeper in the blue hole or on the Belize Barrier Reef than the deepest limits of recreational diving.

And now about those fingers. One day, divemaster Eugene Bul returned to the dock with his fingers wrapped in bandages, a bloody mess. He didn't see the four-foot barracuda that had sneaked up behind him while he shook a dead lion fish off his spear. He's lucky that to a barracuda, human flesh tastes like garbage. But Bul didn't mind. A few hours later, we sat at the 88 West bar drinking local beer as he taught me how to play dominoes with his seven good fingers. He raised his hand up and smiled. "This place is the best. You just have to pay attention."

More information: Fly to Belize City catch a 40-minute water taxi to Caye Caulker [$5; cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com]. Caye Reef offers apartment-style lodging equipped with hard-to-come-by amenities like Wi-Fi and cable. There's even a rooftop jacuzzi. Rates range from $120 for a low-season 1BR to $270 for a peak-season 2BR penthouse. Recommended by virtually every reputable guidebook out there, all of the seafood served at Habanero's Restaurant on Front Street is purchased from local fisherman. Call ahead for reservations (501-626-4911) at this popular, finer-island-dining option. Favored by locals and tourists alike, The Lazy Lizard bar can be found at the Split – a docking area in the shallow waters on the northern most tip of the island. Its famous lizard juice has an amphibious green hue and packs a hardcore punch – or relax with a Belikin if you've had enough adventure just getting there. Barefoot Fisherman Expeditions will lead you to the world-class catch and release game in the waters around Caye Caulker. You can cast a line from shore or try your hand at fly-fishing. You can take a short ride out to the sea grass beds where tarpon and bonefish abound, or head for deeper waters in search of something for tonight's BBQ. Fishermen have said you can get a grand slam in a day (permit, tarpon, and bonefish) without leaving the shore.

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