We strike camp and pack the kayaks, reluctant to leave the luxury of Cocoplum, but eager to experience what comes next. The manager shows up to see us off, friendly but vigilant, and discloses that the original owner of the island was a drug dealer.
The adjoining island to the south is another luxury resort, one less ecologically friendly, built with steel and concrete. During the crossing of a wide expanse of water, Eman, who has adopted the solo kayak, confounds his elders by paddling only with his hands.
Joe discovers that the rudder on our boat isn’t working and we pull in at the first dock on the next Caye to see about repairing it. A young Asian woman approaches and anxiously says that we cant stop here because a guest party is about to arrive. They are paying $3000 per night and want the place for themselves. Joe says we’ll be out well before her noon deadline, and she relaxes a little. She’s from San Diego, and seems just like a Cal Poly student.
He finishes the repair, knotting some rope to replace the broken section of cable.
Back on course, we cross a new expanse of water and pass some less luxurious settlements.
We pause in the lee of another mangrove-bordered island labeled on the chart as Hangman Caye. The small wharf here is flanked by an embankment of conch shells and rocks like that at Tobacco Caye. Three of our four kayaks hover offshore while John palavers with a tall slender young man, who leaves and is replaced by a short round one who must be the boss. I hear fragments of conversation, John asking if we can camp, the man saying something about previous campers leaving a mess and leaving without saying goodbye.
John beckons us over while I grumble about the decision-making process. He says we can camp at this island and for ten bucks the guy will motorboat us over to South Caye where the reef snorkeling is best. I stop grumbling.
He directs us to the northern spit of the island where we pull up the boats as the young man and a man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth follow the boss’s barked orders to rake the coral sand under a grove of palms. This is as comfortable as Thatch Caye yet as genuinely Belizean as Tobacco Caye, except still private–inhabited only by the boss, named Fidel, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and their two little girls, the vaguely related cigarette man, along with chickens and dogs.
After Joe and John converse with him about local fishing prospects, Fidel grows jolly and laughs with a high shriek. The 20 minute ride in his panga fishboat takes us to South Caye where yachts belonging to “the Guatemalans” are moored at a big dock. Fidel guides us along the beach, past a research station associated with Boston University, and around fences guarding a private but modest resort.
The snorkeling here along the barrier reef, like at Tobacco, is amazing.
Two hours later Fidel leads us back to the boat and says he’ll take us to a place we can buy beer that’s much cheaper than at this landing. We are joined by a colorful local inhabitant who asks our new guide for a ride back to his home.
On the return trip to Hangman Caye, Fidel invites us for a fish dinner his wife will prepare.
We leave our snorkeling gear at the campsite and assemble at the picnic table in the front yard enjoying the beer and his local black rum while the kids and animals run around.
The son-in-law is from Honduras and works in the citrus groves on the mainland. Fidel’s brother, who lives in Dangriga and ferries the fish to market for export, owns the island. Fidel is a fisherman and a diver for conch and lobster. He free-dives down 110 feet, stays underwater for two minutes, and doesn’t worry about the bends. For years, he and his brother have been doing the same kind of reclamation with rocks and pilings as we marveled at on Thatch Key. People used to come ashore here and try to steal stuff, but his brother got a gun and isn’t afraid to use it, and now that problem has gone away.
Before long dinner is served by wife and daughter in law: beautifully arranged plates with home baked tortillas, beans, coleslaw, tomato slices and barracuda steaks. The party goes on well into the night.
More photos and movies here