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CAYE CAULKER, Belize (AP) -- A small, brown shark slipped through the placid Caribbean waters of the cove. Moments later, a ray whisked beneath my kayak like some underwater prehistoric bird.

Schools of juvenile fish surged and stopped, surged and stopped. Young barracuda, nearly transparent but for their black eyes, lurked in the sea grasses.

If asked to choose a favorite moment on Caye Caulker, it was in that calm, uninhabited inlet on the western side of the island, immersed in wildlife. My girlfriend, Sabrina, and I sat in our kayaks, floated and stared.

We came to Caye Caulker, a diving and snorkeling paradise set amid the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, in search of warm water and relaxation. We also longed for some place cheap and relatively undeveloped to spend a quick vacation.

Five nights of lodging, the flight from the United States and shuttle flight from Belize City to Caye Caulker cost $600 apiece, so the price was right, although a student backpacker could stay for weeks with that amount of cash.

Looking for Wayne
We realized it would be a low-key vacation immediately upon landing on the small airstrip, the only pavement on the island. An old woman approached as we stepped from the rattling single-engine airplane and grabbed our bags as we got our first look around. A diver snorkels in the barrier reef area off the coast of Belize.

The airport terminal consisted of a small plywood shack. Coconut trees twisted in the distance. Most notable was the lack of people: There were no haggling taxi drivers vying for our fare, no other tourists. Just us and the old woman.

Often upon landing in low-rent, international destinations, I've had to fight through gaggles of locals selling overpriced tourist junk. It was calming to land unannounced and anonymous.

The woman pointed us down a sand road toward town, population 1,000. We removed our shoes and set out in search of the Trends Hotel, where we were expected. Or so we hoped.

We stopped a kid on a bicycle and asked for directions (since English is the national language of Belize, it's easy for Spanish-challenged United States citizens to get around).

"It's far," the boy said, waving his arm vaguely in the direction we were headed.

Since I knew the airport was a mile tops from town, I wondered whether the boy meant it was far for lazy Americans or whether, when living on an island, distances become distorted.

Another passer-by also gave lousy directions, at which point we laughed and concluded the locals probably have little practice giving directions because it's impossible to become lost here.

We soon found the Trends office.

"Are you looking for Wayne?" a man asked as we looked around. Assuming Wayne was the proprietor, we replied yes.

"Wayne!" he yelled.

Our Spartan but clean room cost about $30 per night. It's possible to pay $100 or more per night for air conditioning and more amenities, while bargain shoppers can get a place for $10.

Like nearly every structure on the island, the hotel was made of brightly painted plywood elevated several feet by stilts. When the seas get rough or the big winds blow everything away, they just rebuild atop the stilts. There's something refreshing about a place where none of the structures is permanent.

Snorkeling side trips
After walking the town -- two parallel streets with small stores, a couple of groceries, and local and tourist restaurants -- we sized up the shops offering snorkeling excursions. We signed up for several half-day snorkeling trips that cost $20 to $25, gear included.

During one of these ventures our guide-boat captain-cook took us through a manatee preserve about an hour's ride away on another cay (the word is synonymous with island here). He cut the engines and pushed the boat by pole. Since the coral reefs break the waves farther out to sea, the water around this island and Caye Caulker is usually gentle.

We gawked at the lugubrious, bottom-feeding manatees -- hippos with flippers. Mayans hunted them for ages and used their tough hides to cover shields. Unfortunately, motor boats, hunting and habitat loss have killed off most of the gentle herbivores.

We then proceeded to Goff's Caye, an island about 100 yards (91 meters) across with a dozen coconut trees, white sand and coral reefs. As we snorkeled, our captain lit a fire and cooked foil-wrapped packets of snapper, onions and potatoes and a pot of coconut rice. If only I had packed a few cold Belikins. The local beer, it comes in stout or lager in thick, recycled bottles.

Our second snorkeling excursion brought us to the Hol-Chan Marine Preserve, an underwater park of extensive reefs where colorful fish, rays and grouper are plentiful because no fishing is allowed. A park ranger in a motor boat collected our admission and handed us tickets to this underwater park.

"Hol-chan" means deep channel, said our guide, a native of El Salvador with vacuum cleaner bag-sized lungs that allowed him to hold his breath for long periods. We soon found out why.

As we flippered through the shallows, dazzled by the parrot fish nipping at the coral, we suddenly came to the edge of a shelf that dropped into a 30-foot (nine-meter) channel. Feeling bold, I followed the guide as he plunged to the bottom and swam through a small cave -- a major no-no among safety-conscious divers, but what the heck.

Later, we motored to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, the best-known of Belize's islands and also the most developed. Compared to better-known and overbuilt Caribbean resort islands, San Pedro is still small. Nevertheless, it held none of the charm of Caye Caulker. College kids looking for an exotic spring break drinking destination would probably love it.

The lack of a big beach is likely why Caye Caulker has kept its charm, although it's just a matter of time before a developer brings in some barges of sand and builds a beach, as has been done on some of the other cays.

Most of the small cays have no beaches because of the way they were formed, by mangrove trees. Mangroves knot the shorelines and spread by dropping 6-inch (15-centimeter) pods that float until they strike ground in shallow water. Then they set out roots and begin the process all over. Over the ages, islands form.

Resort developers consider the mangrove forests as nothing more than swamplands, and they've chopped away great swaths of the trees in parts of Belize to create golf courses and hotels for the rich and famous. But without the mangroves, there would be no islands, no manatees, fish or wildlife.

On the north side of Caye Caulker is a 105-acre (42-hectare) forest preserve, a littoral forest that was a coconut grove before Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Here can be found abundant wildlife, some species rarely seen elsewhere.

Among the wildlife is the keel-billed toucan -- locals call it the "bill bird" -- noted for its enormous beak and bright coloration. It's the national bird of Belize.

Locals say an occasional crocodile can still be spotted among the mangrove thickets. It sounded dubious, but they were insistent. Dogs, they said, occasionally disappear in the night; since they don't swim for the mainland, said the locals, the dogs must provide an occasional midnight snack for crocs.

How could I dispute this?

Dining at Wish Willy's
The islanders are a mix of Mayans, ex-patriate Americans and Europeans and others of Afro-Caribbean descent. The food is part Central American -- beans, tortillas -- and part Caribbean, with coconut appearing in many dishes. We ate fish every day, and after some snooping, found which restaurants cooked local food and which served tourist junk.

Lobster, shrimp, barracuda, snapper (curried, barbecued or fried and served with piles of coconut rice) could all be had for $5 to $10.

For our money, the best food on Caye Caulker was served at Wish Willy. Wayne introduced me to Wish Willy, a mellow, dreadlocked, ex-patriate American.

Wish Willy's real name is Maurice -- I didn't ask -- and says he lived for 25 years in Chicago before moving back to his native Belize to escape the American hustle.

For lunch, he says he had prepared himself Boil Up, unappetizingly pronounced "Bile Up."

Good enough for the chef, good enough for me. I told him we would be back by 7 p.m.

Boil Up consisted of poached snapper, plantain and dense, potato-like root vegetables such as yucca and some others I had never heard of. We washed it down with several Belikins and lingered in the warm night listening to jazz under the coconut-frond roof that covered Wish Willy's outdoor restaurant.

The next morning I bought a ripe papaya the size of a football, sliced it and squeezed a fresh lime over it. Sabrina and I feasted on it while sitting on the hotel porch. Nothing like a papaya to clean the system.

Drinking in ginger ale, 'Rum Punch'
Of all the beverages I consumed, the homemade ginger ale in a restaurant called Martinez was one of the must-do gustatory experiences on Caye Caulker. The owner, a tiny man who spoke broken English, was so pleased with our fancy for his ginger ale that he gave the recipe: Shred a heap of ginger, boil it and strain out the shreds, leaving a concentrated ginger water. Stir in some sugar and squeeze as many limes as possible into the sweetened ginger water.

The resulting drink is a cure for whatever ails you: It puckers your lips, cleans your nostrils and clears your throat all in one.

My one unfulfilled craving on the island was a newspaper. As a journalist and news junkie, my morning cravings are coffee and a newspaper. Coffee was easy. The Sand Box restaurant beside our hotel on the beach offered free refills for $1 a cup. That fact made the restaurant a primary gathering spot.

When I left the United States, NASA was awaiting word from the Mars lander. Had it crashed? Was it space flotsam? I had no idea. None of the shops sold newspapers. I could have brought my laptop and logged onto the Internet -- but I was on vacation, after all.

I spotted Wayne, so I asked him where I could get a newspaper. He didn't know, but suggested I ask Skip, a bartender at the Sand Box.

Now we were getting somewhere.

Skip wasn't there, but a young bartender did offer this much: "Newspapers come in on the boat on Friday."

Friday? It was Tuesday. I asked if Skip had left a copy behind.

He glanced around and shook his head. "I think Skip took it home."

I considered asking for directions to Skip's house, but decided instead to just deal with it. I settled down in a hammock with Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch."

As I read, coconut clusters creaked and clacked ominously above my head. Engrossed, I'd failed to notice that my head was in the flight path of any coconuts that decided to give up the struggle with gravity. Every morning, coconuts that fell during the night littered the waterfront like bowling balls from the gods.

I shifted my position. Considering the gentle life on the island, noggin injuries caused by falling coconuts are one of the greatest dangers.

Meeting the other visitors
In destinations such as Caye Caulker, the acquaintances one makes provide as much amusement as the geography and food. Here's a sample:

Lyle, a widower from Las Vegas who toured the country playing trumpet in big bands during his youth, didn't care much for the local food. He said the spaghetti with meat sauce was "dynamite" at a restaurant I immediately vowed to avoid. Although he got my name wrong every time I saw him and his wife, Lyle redeemed himself by telling me about a woman who made tamales every morning for 50 cents apiece.

Larry was on his third or fourth Belikin when we struck up a conversation at the Sand Box, aptly named because it has a sand floor that is occassionally raked for cigarette butts. He was a mason from the United States who was spending the winter traveling and fishing in Belize. Larry once worked for two months on a remote atoll in the Pacific where he built bunkers to store leftover Agent Orange for the U.S. government. It's best not to question such stories.

Michael, a bearded, 20-something sandal wearer who lived on a commune near Olympia, Washington, was visiting an American man and woman who spent the winter months in San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border, making and selling hibiscus and lemon grass wine.

Crazy for kayaks
But of all the activities, food or people, the kayaks provided the most fun on the island. We rented them for four hours for $15 apiece and paddled along the town's waterfront of coconut trees, fishing piers and plywood hotels.

We planned to slip through to the other side of Caye Caulker by floating through a channel that sliced through the narrowest section of the island. Having kayaked in the sometimes-treacherous Atlantic, we approached the inlet cautiously in case there was a current.

We realized there was nothing to worry about when we spotted an Italian woman in a bikini, her hair still dry, doing the breast stroke across the channel.

Her laughter faded as we emerged on the landward side of the island and paddled into a wide inlet to the north. The inlet was sheltered from waves and wind and the water was clear and gentler than a lazy lake.

Initially, we "ooh'd and ah'd" at the fish but soon stopped speaking because our voices broke the solitude. Fish splashed as they broke the surface to avoid predators.

We explored several narrow channels crowded with overhanging mangrove trees, then tied our kayaks to a fishing shanty on stilts about 100 feet (30 meters) from shore and ate lunch.

Cormorants so well-fed they had time to relax and digest lazed in the mangrove trees, whose finger-like roots knotted the shoreline. Pelicans, the belly floppers of the diving shorebirds, plopped into the shallows and gulped fish by the gullet-load.

Eventually, the blazing sun began to cook our Yankee flesh and we decided to paddle home. A young Australian couple sat on a storm wall near the channel and asked where we had rented the kayaks.

Still dazzled by the wildlife, I shouted across the water to them: "Do not leave the island until you go over there. It's beautiful."

Then I wondered whether it was a mistake to share that information.

If you go ...
Getting there: American Airlines and Continental fly to Belize City, and shuttle flights to Caye Caulker depart regularly on Maya Island Air. A passport is required for entry but U.S. citizens don't need visas.

Language: English is the national language of Belize, so English-speaking travelers will have no problems communicating.

Accommodations: Rooms range in price from $10 for the modest to more than $100 for air conditioning and other amenities. The Web site www.travelbelize.org has an extensive list of cottages, hotels, and private homes for rent.

Taxes: There is a departure tax of $10 and an airport security fee of $1.25 collected in Belize City.

Currency: The Belize dollar has a fixed exchange rate of 50 cents. Most hotels and restaurants will take U.S. currency.

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