Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beautiful Beaches of Belize and the Perfect Proposal

The stars aren't really visible in Chicago, with the exception of one or two super bright ones, and even those are tough to see most nights. But on this night in Belize, on the tiny island of Caye Caulker, the whole universe appears before our eyes. Tiny white specs pierce the deep purple sky and we sit back in awe, gazing up at the endless collection of stars. The sound of the soft waves brushing against the sand is calming, and I close my eyes and begin to drift off, when Steve reaches over and grabs my hand. It's the perfect evening...

We had arrived on Caye Caulker a couple days earlier after driving to Belize City from San Ignacio. After dropping off our rental car at the airport, we hopped a ride with one of the Budget Rental employees, who took us to the ferry. I bought our tickets as Steve ordered a quick lunch and a couple beers, which we gulped down before the boat departed for the island. Forty-five minutes and a head of windblown hair later, we stepped onto the white sand beach of Caye Caulker, a small limestone coral island that measures about five miles long and less than a mile wide. We could literally see from one side to the other, talk about tiny. But certainly not secluded. The island is bustling with dozens of hotels, restaurants, shops and bars.

Our hotel, Seaside Cabanas, was a quick walk from the dock. We checked in, dropped off our luggage and took a walk down the beach, stepping briefly into the clear sapphire blue water as we meandered on the coast. Despite the size of Caye Caulker, we still managed to get a little lost among the dirt roads and houses. We had walked south, and then turned west, but didn't account for the fact that the island curves enough that we couldn't turn back north without going back east--is your head spinning yet? We managed to make our way back to the hotel, noting a few places we needed to visit a little later.

Someone we met in San Ignacio had told us we had to watch the sunset at The Split, the waterway that divides the island in two. We thought there was a nice restaurant there where we could relax with a drink and watch the sun go down. Once we got there, however, we soon learned it was a party hangout spot for young travelers and locals. Most of them were lazing on the dock right next to the water, guzzling colorful drinks and dancing to the loud music blaring from the two-story bar that was surrounded by even more people screaming for drinks. It took a good ten minutes for me to get a bartender's attention. We ordered some fruity concoction and made our way upstairs to see if we could find some seats. No such luck. We stood by the bannister and watched as the sun slowly crept towards the horizon.

The excitement and noise from the bar was wearing on me, so we finished our drinks and walked along the west side of the island to find a quieter spot. There were a few small docks where other groups were enjoying the view, so we watched from there until the sun went down--or until our stomachs started grumbling uncontrollably, not sure which one happened first.

We ate dinner at Rainbow Grill, located right on the water. Service was super quick and we got our drinks and food pretty much right away. The jerk fish was delicious, and very spicy, which of course, I loved. After dinner, we decided it was way too early to head back to the hotel, so we stopped into a nearby bar called Barrier Reef Sports Bar & Grill. It was very lively inside and we soon found out it was trivia night. We met a nice guy from Canada, who recruited us to be on his team. We actually did surprisingly well, and would have won had we not wagered most of our points on the final question (which we got wrong). Despite our loss, we had a wonderful time meeting some interesting folks and throwing back some beers.

We decided to spend most of the next morning relaxing by the pool, since our whole trip so far had been go-go-go. Like I've said before, I usually don't eat much in the morning, but breakfast looked so delicious (and it was complimentary). I devoured the ripe fruit, yogurt and freshly baked pastries, and then we splayed out on lounge chairs and got some sun.

When lunch rolled around, we made our way down the beach and found a spot right near the water called Brisas del Mar. Unfortunately, the location was the only good thing about this place. It was super overpriced and service was very slow. I ordered the fish tacos, which were basically a wrap cut in half. Steve's fish sandwich was soggy and fell apart the minute he unwrapped it. We were disappointed in our decision, and promised ourselves to think before picking a place based solely on location.

We spent the afternoon shopping, but it was a lot harder than I anticipated finding good gifts for everyone. Each vendor had the same stuff, and nothing really stood out to me as being uniquely Belizean. Thinking back, I'm not really sure what that means. I think what stopped me from buying more was how cheap most things looked, and I couldn't bring myself to spend money on something that seemed mass manufactured for tourists. I did buy some traditional coffee beans at Ice and Beans Coffee Shop, a super cute shop that makes delicious gourmet donut holes, which they let us taste for free!

Since it was our last night on the island, we decided to get dressed up and go to a nice dinner at this place just down the road from our hotel. Habanero only has seats on the porch, and it was pretty busy when we got there. We lucked out, though, and snagged the last table. It was much more romantic than we anticipated, but it was a nice surprise. I ordered a snapper salad and Steve got the Rainforest Snapper. Normally, I would try to order something completely different than him, but the snapper just sounded too good to pass up. And I wasn't disappointed. The restaurant was a little pricey, but considering how much food we got, it was very reasonable, especially compared to prices in the U.S. As we dined, a guitar player serenaded everyone with classic and popular songs. It definitely added to the ambiance.

When we finished dinner, we took a short walk around the island before heading back to the hotel and relaxing out by the pool. As Steve held my hand, I kept thinking how incredible Belize is and how lucky we were to experience as much of it as we did. I was ready to call it a night, but Steve pleaded for me to wait a little longer. This was such a perfect night, and he felt we had to soak as much of it in as we could. It was a little suspicious, but I went with it. A few minutes passed, and I started to fall asleep. I sat up and told him I was going to the room, but he held onto me. He was shaking and tripping over his words a little, and I suddenly knew what was happening. He didn't get down on one knee, he didn't even have the ring, but the night was too perfect, he couldn't plan anything better at home, and so he went for it. He proposed right there next to the pool and I accepted. The perfect end to an already unforgettable evening.

The following morning, I was still in a post-proposal haze when we went downstairs to grab some breakfast before checking out of the hotel. We still had a snorkeling excursion planned that afternoon, so we left our bags at the front desk and headed over to pick up our gear. A small group of us boarded the boat and headed over to the barrier reef. At our first stop, we followed the guide around the reef for about an hour as he pointed out coral residents and various sea creatures. We ventured over to another part of the reef, where we were allowed to explore on our own. Then, we ended our trip at Shark/Ray alley, which is exactly like it sounds. A spot in the reef brimming with Nurse Sharks and large stingrays, all swimming within inches of us. I managed to stay in the water for a few minutes, but a close encounter with a ray made me scramble back to the boat.

When we got back to the island, Steve and I grabbed a quick lunch at an open-air restaurant called Roses Bar and Grill. We got there just in time, as it started to pour once we sat down, the first time it had rained the whole trip! The seafood ceviche I ordered was super fresh and delicious, but Steve's Hawaiian Sandwich was a little lackluster. Still, it was a nice final meal on the island. We picked up our luggage and caught the ferry, but not before buying some homemade banana bread from a local vendor.

We arrived back in Belize City and made our way back to Villa Boscardi, the same bed and breakfast we stayed in our first night. Looking back on it now, we should have stayed one more night on the island, and then taken an early ferry in the morning to catch our flight, but you live you learn. We kept it simple our last night, ordering some pizza from a local shop nearby and enjoying some wine as we relaxed in our room and nursed our sunburns (didn't realize how much sun we got while snorkeling).

As we packed our bags the next morning, I was sad to leave Belize. We had such an incredible time and created so many memories. It was truly one of the best trips I've been on, and I know we'll be back. There's so much we didn't see, and I want to explore more of this beautiful, friendly country. I'll keep Belize in my heart, always.

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