I spent my birthday (which, coincidentally, is Belize’s birthday as well) on the tiny island of Tobacco Caye about 10 miles off the coast of Belize.
We drove up to Dangriga Friday night and stayed at Ruthie’s Cabanas on the south side of town on the sea. I had been to Dangriga once before to purchase our Isuzu Rodeo, but Lori hadn’t been. Most foreigners don’t seem to like Dangriga much, but I have a soft place for Belize’s Second City, which like few others has a distinct Caribbean aire to it. Perhaps it’s the predominately Garifuna makeup of the population or sandy seafront. Perhaps it’s the loud music and smell of jerk chicken on a Sunday afternoon. Either way, it’s an evocative place and very different from Punta Gorda, which has a bit more jungle/frontier town feel in my opinion.
After checking in with Ms. Ruthie, we headed to the center of town to sort out transport to Tabacco Caye the following morning, which was far less difficult than we had thought. Basically, there was a guy who knew a guy who had a boat that leaves at 9:30am. Cost to get out to the Caye (as with most cayes except perhaps Ambergris and Caulker) is pretty steep — $20 US per person. But fuel is pretty steep too ($6 US per gallon) and very few people make their way to Tobacco from Dangriga this time of year (there were four of us on the boat plus the captain and two of his buddies/crew).
The map above shows Tobacco Caye (far right) in relation to Dangriga (10 miles / 45 minutes), Punta Gorda (~2 hours by car from Dangriga) and Belize City (~2 hours by car). One of the many things that make Tobacco Caye unique is that it is one of the few inhabitable islands that lies directly on the reef. Other islands such as Caye Caulker lie just off of the reef and a boat is needed to get between the two — but not on Tobacco.
Tobacco Caye is also notable for its size, just over three acres, with a length of just over two football fields and a width of just over one (240m x 125m). The island has a permanent population of around 20 and 3-5 guesthouses depending on the season.
This satellite view shows Tobacco Caye (center) on the Belize Barrier Reef. A shallow portion of the reef is submerged, separating the island a bit from the rest of the reef. Just south of the island, there is a rare split in this stretch of reef where the warm waters of the reef shelf (left) mix with the cooler waters of the open sea (right) and you feel the difference the second you round the corner of the reef.
The waters are some of the clearest I’ve seen anywhere, especially in the early morning when the glare of the sun is less intense and the water is calm.
The image above also shows the location of the main dock where boats from Dangriga tie up, Tobacco Caye Lodge on the east side of the island (where we stayed) and Tobacco Caye Paradise cabanas (northern side — refer to first photo of post). I had seen a photo of one of the cabanas jutting over the water in a magazine a few weeks prior and wanted to stay in one, but the cabanas are closed at the moment for renovation.
Approaching Tobacco Caye by boat (actually this was taken leaving Tobacco Caye, but same view).
Welcome to paradise!
The barrier reef in the distance divides the crystaline waters around the island with the deep blue open sea.
We were actually a bit surprised at the number of structures (mostly dilapidated ones) covering the tiny caye, as there isn’t a quarter acre not developed in some way. We were also a bit surprised at the sad state most of the buildings found themselves in (some appearing to be abandoned). Apparently the island was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, but that was 15 years ago. Then again, if a building gets old and needs to be torn down, what would you do with all of the scraps? Probably more trouble than it’s worth to haul it off the island, so they sit swaying in the wind, occasionally catching a cool breeze, like many of the residents here i suppose.
Our cabana with front porch and hammock facing the sea. Unfortunately, despite the look of the photo, there aren’t any great sandy beaches on the island, but plenty of places to swim nonetheless (piers and rocky banks). The majority of the eastern shore of the island is off-limits to swimming/snorkeling/etc. as it is part of the protected Marine Reserve, but the rest of the island is fair game (though fishing restrictions do apply).
We were just two of four guests staying the night on the island on this particular weekend (though we also ran into a couple who was on their way out and a few others who had come for the day). However, we’ve heard that the island can get pretty crowded during high season and feel somewhat claustrophobic. For example, there might be 20 people sharing only a handful of cabanas at T.C. Lodge, and given the island’s size, it might be difficult to find peace and serenity. But in late September, we had nothing but peace and serenity and, what felt like, a whole island to ourselves.
We enjoyed our time at the Lodge and found it very clean, tidy and free of critters. Meals (lunch, dinner and breakfast) were included with the price and were generous and very tasty. However, we did find it hard to get a beer or even a coke in the afternoon as the little general store was closed, the other restaurant on the island was out of food/beverages, and everyone else had gone to Dangriga to get provisions. Such is island life I suppose. Lori and I did come prepared (at the suggestion of someone in town) with a small bottle of rum, but weren’t able to get our hands on some Coke until after dinner.
Also worth noting is that the electricity runs from roughly 5:30pm to 5:30am, which really isn’t a problem but for the fact that the fans in the rooms shut off at that time and the room got very hot and stuffy very fast. But who wants to sleep-in in paradise? You’ll be napping half the day anyway, right?
Saturday night’s sunset over the mainland — somewhere out there, there’s a party going on for Independence Day, but on Tobacco Caye you’d never know.
No, he’s not peeing off the dock (that’s a fishing line he’s holding) — men from the village working on catching and cleaning our evening meal.
We had run into a cluster of three Spotted Eagle Rays while snorkeling off the south end of the island and were a bit taken aback at first, given their size (a few feet across) and long and menacing tail. But we were later informed that they aren’t really a threat to humans as long as you don’t accidentally step on one (or one doesn’t jump into your boat, which actually happens and almost happened to us). They’re generally fearful of snorkelers and will keep their distance. Still, I couldn’t help but look around every now and then while snorkeling to make sure that one wasn’t passing close behind. It’s funny how vulnerable you feel swimming or snorkeling with the knowledge of something that size in your general vicinity. I’ve done it with diving, but all of the gear somehow makes you feel a bit more protected I think.
Water clarity early Sunday morning off the main dock. We spotted needlefish, sergeant majors and groupers right from the dock, and …
… Spotted Eagle Rays!
Believe it or not, the bottom is about 6 feet deep here.
Despite what you may think, the photo above was not taken with an underwater camera, but actually high and dry on the dock above through about two feet of water — the visibility was phenomenal to say the least. In this cluster we see Sergeant Majors (the striped fish) and some sort of parrotfish I believe.
Oh, not to mention a fairly large Southern Stingray which enjoyed circling the island (we would see this guy at various points cruising along)
I’m not really sure what to make of this dilapidated stilted structure with what appears to be a dive flag painted on its rusty roof, but it certainly is a prominent feature of the island.
It appears that at one time a long pier extended out to meet the abandoned building. There are many mysteries on Tobacco Caye.
By 2pm Sunday, it was time to head back to the mainland. Doggy (our boat captain) had shown up a bit early and was ready to go. It appeared that a storm might be fixing to pass through in another hour so we thought it might be a good time to head out anyway. But I have a feeling we’ll be back soon. I often can’t get over the fact that we can be on our own remote island paradise in just a few hours drive/boat from home. However, the Sapodilla Cayes are only a 1.5 hour direct boat ride from Punta Gorda, which we hope to check out very soon as well.
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