“No shirt, no shoes, no problem.” A refrain you see all over Belize, it’s nearly a mantra on the island of Caye Caulker. It’s a great notion, and I love the sentiment behind it. But as someone who can’t stand sandy bare feet and who has to bathe in sunblock to avoid crisping like bacon, it’s not a refrain I can really get behind. What can I say? I’m the kind of scandalous girl who needs a shirt, shoes, and sun protection. Lucky for me, you don’t have to be near-naked to enjoy Caye Caulker, particularly in June, the start of the lobster fishing season.
Visit the isle, and you’ll understand tiny. Surrounded by swaying palms and rustic boat docks and home to a Mestizo-Creole-Garifuna mix, it’s five miles from end to end and so narrow and flat in spots that you can see the blue-green Caribbean if you look both east and west. Golf carts, bikes, and barefoot pedestrians (there are no cars) share a handful of sandy streets lined with simple but colorful wood houses, many on stilts. Front Street is the busiest thoroughfare and runs down the eastern side of the island. Along it are a ramshackle mix of open-air bars, tee-shirt shops, ice cream stands, and boat tour operators hawking sunset sails and scuba dive trips. The island’s western side, dotted with fishing boats, is more local and lived in. Piles of wood lobster crates fill many front yards.
Caye Caulker is not an off-the-beaten-path destination. Cruise ship crowds, Ambergris day-trippers, and Lonely Planet-toting travelers descend on the island to enjoy its laid-back vibe, easy access to snorkeling and diving, and budget-friendly prices. Visitors head to Front Street and to “the Split,” a narrow channel that slices through the caye and serves as the island’s primary swim spot. They hang out in hammocks. They nurse rum punches and Belikin beers. They go shirtless and shoeless without a problem. Though none of that is what brought Shon and me to Caye Caulker last June.
No, we came for its spiny lobster. Each June, the island hosts a weekend-long party to kick off the beginning of the lobster fishing season and “to commemorate the fishermen who have made Caye Caulker what it is today.” Known as Lobster Fest (2014 will mark its 19th year), this delicious event features a biggest lobster contest, a Miss Lobster Fest pageant, and plenty of other entertainment, including music, games, and a “greasy pole climb.”
We enjoyed all of these diversions, though none more than the simple act of savoring the sweet meat of the main attraction itself. Smaller than its North American counterpart and entirely clawless (its meat is in its tail), the spiny lobster is found throughout the Caribbean, in reef caves and crevices, and is collected by Belizean fishermen from mid-June to mid-February. Over the course of Lobster Fest, grill masters set up on Front Street and serve the crustacean piping hot from hulking barrel grills. The lobsters are seasoned with curry, garlic, or butter and accompanied by hearty portions of beans and rice, creamy slaw, fresh flour tortillas, hot sauce, and cold cups of Belikin beer.
Under a brutally hot Belizean sun, we used our fingers to tear into our lobsters and devoured their succulent, snow-white meat in a matter of minutes. By the end of each meal, we smelled of smoky seasonings and the sea, and we rinsed our hands and face in the Caribbean’s warm waters.
It was always then, with lobster-laden bellies, that we would explore Caye Caulker. We swam, we snorkeled, we sipped Belikins and swung in hammocks–but always in anticipation of our next meal. We appreciated the island’s “no shirt, no shoes” policy, but it was the spiny lobster that really had us smitten.