Caye Caulker, Belize
The taxi driver offered us a joint. Seriously, he just passed a fat one back to us in the rear seats of the rickety minivan he's swerving around in the traffic. One of the girls squashed two to a seat in the middle, of some sort of nebulous relationship to the driver or the Canadian guy with a backpack and a ratty blond ponytail up front who'd also mysteriously ended up in the car, helpfully hands back a lighter. We raise our eyebrows at each other and try to figure out how one politely refuses the offer without damaging the Caribbean goodwill.
Fortunately we arrive at the water taxi terminal in one piece (well, four) and take the boat to Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker is amazing, the sort of place that manages to be an island paradise with an extensive (if funky) tourist infrastructure without actually seeming to lose a semblance of authenticity and sincere friendliness. It's a tiny island, you can walk from one end of the tourist area to the other in five or ten minutes, and from one end to the very other in less than an hour. There are no cars to speak of, just golf carts and bicycles swerving around on the sandy roads. We were told the cayes to the north had problems with golf cart traffic jams, but there was none of that on Caye Caulker.
Our hotel was minimalist: a room with three beds, bathroom with cold-water shower down the hall, $25 a night for four people. We found it by wandering around for a morning. If you're staying for longer with more people, you can rent a house for less. You can rent a bike to explore the island for $7 a day. All the restaurants we ate in were charming, tasty, and cheap. There's a bar where the upstairs terrace has swings for seats.
The houses in the village brightly colored and picturesque, a small power plant in the middle producing all the power and quite a bit of noise to boot, men swerving around at high speed on bicycles far too small for them, little kids and dogs playing on the street until late at night, girls on sundresses on bicycles in the dust looking ever so much like Burning Man, palms bent against the ever-present trade winds.
In short, the kind of place that twenty-somethings trade amongst each other. "It's cool, man. Check it out."
For our part, we spent a lot of time on the porch of the house that the Livejournal team was occupying for the week.
We paddled around and snorkled at the "split", a channel ripped between the north and south pieces of the island by hurricane Hattie in the 60s. When Sam gashed himself open on something in the water, a bouncing rasta-man with long dreads brought a first-aid kit, then bounced nearby as we mopped up the blood. He had ugly scars across his stomach, he told us, from getting robbed at knifepoint in Belize City. "I don't like it there, much better here." he told us.
He bounced away and was later seen being thrown off the dock into the water by blonde girls in bikinis that he'd tried to throw in first.
I swam across the split to explore the other side of the island, consisting largely of mud, aggressive mosquitoes, a handful of houses, a few more houses under construction, lots for sale.
We splurged on a trip to the Mayan ruins at Lamanai. We were picked up at the water taxi terminal by the taciturn brother of the normal guide and his girlfriend who ferried us awkwardly and wordlessly across the country, stopping at regular intervals to pour water on the engine. We were then loaded on a speedboat full of other tourists and followed the speedboat trail up the river at high speed. (Any stories we were told about seeing "animals" on this "jungle tour" were greatly exaggerated. We did see the Mennonites, though, who were fishing on the river in the afternoon and sitting in their finery in a horse buggy on the shore.
Our guide for the ruins themselves recited the stories of the ruins and their excavation with great gravitas, often repeating several synonyms of a word for greater effect. We were told how the Maya civilization collapsed in the middle ages, but Lamanai was inhabited long enough for the Spanish and the English to find people live there, and remains one of the only Mayan sites to retain its original name. We were told how Dr. David Pendergast began excavating the jungle-covered mounds at Lamanai and uncovered the stone buildings layer by layer, the top layers destroyed by jungle, but the deeper ones perfectly preserved. We were told the buildings rose tall in layers as each new ruler erased the memory of the old one by building a new majestic layer of building over the existing structure.
On the way home, we skipped the water taxi experience a last time and took the $50 small plane ride direct from the island to the airport instead. The Caribbean is very beautiful from the air.