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Any trip to Belize is sure to include a stay on Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker – or both. Both a part of the Northern Cayes, or islands, of Belize. Although only a twenty minute boat ride separates them, these two Cayes are worlds apart in terms of the travel experience available on each island.
For long-term travelers, backpackers or digital nomads, a trip through Belize on a tight budget can be a challenge and a choice might need to be made about which Caye to choose if a visit to both is impractical for budget or time purposes. Read on for a summary of the two Cayes to help decide which of these two strikingly different Cayes might be more your style.
Ambergris Caye vs Caye Caulker
Ambergris Caye, population 10,500, is the larger of the two islands by far and is much more developed than Caye Caulker. Also referred to as San Pedro, Ambergris Caye is more upscale than Caye Caulker – not only are there more than 50 hotels on the islands, there are also dozens of new condominium buildings which serve as retirement homes for American expats. The roads are paved and the island is big enough to use golf karts as their main means of transport, in such numbers that they can even cause traffic jams in San Pedro. There are several supermarkets in San Pedro including the large Island Supermarket, which, with its (overpriced) food and drink from the States, caters mainly to the American expat population.
The main reason that people visit is to go on diving or snorkeling trips, as the Mesoamerican reef is only half a mile from the West side of the island. There are beaches around San Pedro stretching along further south, and the town has several beach side restaurants.
We found that the tourists on Ambergris Caye were older and mainly American; there were hardly any backpackers – which might be due to the higher prices on the island (in comparison to Caye Caulker) for both accommodation and food. If you’re trying to decide between Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker and you’re looking for a backpacker vibe, we don’t think you’ll like Ambergris Caye a lot.
Where to stay on Ambergris Caye
- Sandbar Beachfront Hostel is a decent hostel, offering dorm beds (in a 10-bed dorm) for US$20 per night
- Hotel Royal Blue is a small budget hotel right by the beach and close to restaurants and bars in San Pedro, but on the quieter end of town. Rooms are around US$50 per night.
- Royal Caribbean Resort is a nice resort with an outdoor swimming pool and a private beach in San Pedro. There’s a restaurant and a bar on-site. Bungalows start at US$100 per night with fan, or US$125 per night with AC.
Where to eat on Ambergris Caye
- Elvi’s Kitchen in San Pedro has Central American food and a big Maya buffet on Fridays
- Caramba has cheap Mexican and Caribbean food
- Latitudes Café has great breakfasts and smoothies
Caye Caulker is considerably smaller than Ambergris Caye, with a population of just 1,300. It has always been the backpacker destination of the Cayes, but the number of more expensive hotels is growing, including the brand new Caye Caulker Plaza. There is still plenty of budget accommodation, including one hostel – the Go Slow Guesthouse, which has dorm rooms starting at US$14. Restaurants and hotels are cheaper than on Ambergris Caye though, and the feel of Caye Caulker is much more laid back – ‘Go Slow’ is not without reason the island’s motto. Whereas San Pedro is busy with the whizzing of golf carts, on Caye Caulker most people are out and about on foot or bicycle.
The three unpaved roads are aptly named Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street. Front Street is on the west side of Caye Caulker where the ferries arrive and where most of the hotels and restaurants are located. The village measures not even one kilometer north to south, you can explore it in its entirety on a two hour walk.
Not surprisingly, infrastructure is limited, leaving tourists with very little choice. The lack of a swimming beach (lots of sea grass, no beachfront chill spots), leaves visitors the option of sunbathing and swimming at the Split on the north side of Caye Caulker, where a hurricane literally split the island in two.
The best thing to do on Caye Caulker is snorkeling or diving – there are various tour operators that offer boat trips to the Reef where snorkeling is excellent. Snorkeling is fine, no need to dive really, as the water is very shallow.
If you’re traveling on a budget, the answer to the question if to visit Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker is easy: Caye Caulker is definitely cheaper than Ambergris Caye.
Where to stay on Caye Caulker:
Jeremiah’s Inn – Rooms between US$15.00 (shared bathroom) and US$20.00 (private bathroom) in low season
Caye Caulker Plaza – Rooms are between US$49.00 and US$69.00 in low season
Where to eat on Caye Caulker:
Happy Lobster Big breakfasts (with strong coffee and free re-fills) and cheap food
Sandro’s -Very good Italian food, eat-in and take-away
Glenda’s – Long-established economic breakfast place on the island (apparently the best)
Lonely Planet has more restaurant suggestions for Caye Caulker, and a full list of accommodation can be found here.
Verdict: Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker
We enjoyed Caye Caulker much more than Ambergris Caye. While Ambergris Caye was mainly filled with American expats and tourists, Caye Caulker attracted a much younger, more laid-back kind of traveler. It is on Caye Caulker where you meet other backpackers and because the island is so small, you meet people quickly as you continue to bump into each other frequently strolling up and down Front Street or in one of the restaurants. The locals are also much friendlier, starting a conversation with you and living the ‘go slow’ lifestyle and telling you: “Smile, you’re on vacation”. If you’re still unsure if to visit Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker – why not visit both? If money and time aren’t an issue, it’s well worth seeing both islands for yourself and get a feel for how different they are, despite being right next to each other.
How to get to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye
The Marine Terminal in Belize City has ferries running to both islands every 30 minutes.
How much does it cost to get to Caye Caulker / Ambergris Caye
US$10.00 Belize City to Caye Caulker
US$15.00 Belize City to San Pedro
US$10.00 Caye Caulker to San Pedro
Ambergris Caye has a small airport which is served by Tropic Airline and has hourly flights from Belize City.