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The second half of our trip to Belize was spent in the Cayes (pronounced ‘keys’). We spent three nights on Caye Caulker and a last spontaneous night on Ambergris Caye.

To get to the Cayes from Belize City you have two options: water taxi or tiny airplane. We chose water taxi due to cost and time, and were pleased with our decision. The ride between the two cities is gorgeous, with clear blue/green water and tiny islands dotting the horizon. There are no cars on Caye Caulker, a tiny five-mile island, so everyone walks, bikes, or takes golf-cart taxis. We grabbed a taxi and headed to our cabana home found via Airbnb — it was a beauty and we both highly recommend staying with them.

We spent an entire overcast day snorkeling in the Belize Barrier Reef, one of the highlights of my life. The tour we booked had three stops, one of which was Shark Ray Alley, an area known for its large sting rays and nurse sharks. I’ve been determined to conquer my fear of sharks through education and exposure for years now so this was a huge step for me. Although I was terrified before I entered the water, clutching Cassandra’s leg and half sobbing, as soon as I was under the water with my goggles and could see the beauty of the animals around me, I felt peaceful and calm. We also stumbled upon two giant sea-turtles and I got within inches of one while it swam from surface to sea floor. We finished the day tired, tipsy from Belize’s national cocktail of fruit punch, and marveling at the world under the sea that we know very little about. How mysterious and magical it all seemed.

Other adventures in Caye Caulker: kayaking for a couple of hours early one morning to explore the mangroves lining the island, haggling with shop owners for blankets and bracelets, eating traditional fry jacks stuffed with eggs and cheese for breakfast each morning, swimming in The Split, a lazy afternoon of lying in the hammocks at the end of the pier at our cabana, and unexpectedly hearing my name shouted out as I biked past Chris and Kat (British friends we met in Guatemala; story to be told soon).

We loved Caye Caulker and never wanted to leave. Our last night we had booked an Airbnb in Belize City, but we both decided we’d rather have more island time. We cancelled our reservation, booked another spot in Ambergris Caye, and took a water taxi for our last island adventure. Ambergris Caye is much larger than Caye Caulker — there are cars and paved roads — and we were glad we had chosen to spend the majority of our time in Caye Caulker. We did have a delicious meal in San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye, overlooking the ocean. Fresh fish, a gorgeous kale caesar salad, and the most divine chocolate cake for dessert. A meal fit for foodie queens, but after we went to the restaurant on a recommendation from our Airbnb host and saw only white people around us, we realized it was owned by a Canadian expat and served overpriced food that was nowhere near local.

Cassandra and I realized during our time on the Cayes that it is possible to go to Belize — to go anywhere, really — and have two very different experiences. It is possible to go to restaurants catering to tourists, overpriced and serving non-local food, to buy trinkets at souvenir shops, and to meet and spend time with only expats or other travelers. It’s much harder to find the hole-in-the-wall restaurants with five tables selling traditional cuisine, to go into the dimly lit shops, and to have long conversations with locals about their country and what is really going on. And yet, how much more rewarding is the experience when we as travelers dip deeper and seek a true experience and understanding of the cultures in which we immerse ourselves for a brief time. Our best memories of Belize were the ones in which we were eating traditional food, talking to Belizeans about the hard parts of their history and current living (colonization, heavy logging, the crack epidemic in the 80s, etc.), and taking in the natural beauty of a new landscape. Even with a few missteps and disappointing touristy meals, Cassandra and I left Belize with a deeper knowledge of Belize itself, its people, the earth and its plants and animals, and of life itself, I think. I don’t think there is any better way to leave a vacation.