Ambergris Island vs Caye Caulker. Which island is better?
We were undecided between Ambergris Island (San Pedro) and Caye Caulker as it’s the eternal debate. Both islands are easily accessible from Chetumal and only a 20-minute boat ride apart, so we thought what the heck, let’s just do both!
Which island is better?
The biggest shock for us was that the islands were completely different, in every way imaginable. From the people, the tourists, to the food and atmosphere.
For us, we found it difficult to enjoy San Pedro and really wished we went straight to Caye Caulker as it was more laid-back and backpacker friendly – and it seems like this is the general consensus (see Full Time Gallivanter’s blog post).
We know it can be tight on a backpacker budget, so we thought we would summarise our island experiences, as this may help you make your decision, particularly if you’re strapped for cash or only have time to visit one island (spoiler: just pick Caye Caulker!).
Ambergris Island – San Pedro
Ambergris Caye has a population of roughly 14,000 people and is the larger of the two islands. It’s far more developed than Caye Caulker so it’s only natural for one to assume it is the ‘bigger and better’ island.
But I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. The island was very dated, overpriced, and completely lacked in vibe. There wasn’t a single backpacker in sight.
We genuinely tried really hard to find something to like about San Pedro.
The most off putting thing was the American tourists/expats whizzing around town on golf buggies. It was too resorty, and everything was catered to the Americans.
The biggest disappointment was no public beach access. And by ‘beach’, I mean a sandbar with surmounting seagrass that needs to be cleared daily to stop the foul stench drifting through the resorts. The kind of beach where you don’t go for a swim.
Needless to say, the biggest ‘saviour’ (and I’m eternally grateful for this) was staying at a hostel owned by a resort. This meant we were able to access the resort facilities and ‘beach’, free of charge #luxuryonabudget.
As for the accommodation, there isn’t a lot of choice for backpackers. We settled on Pedro’s Inn, and to put politely it was very basic – no aircon, no hot water, tiny rooms and loud reggae music which made for sleepless nights.
The food was severely overpriced. I’m talking $28-38 BZD for an average dish. We pounded the streets daily in search of cheap eats but there was limited choice, so we found ourselves returning to the same eateries and restaurants.
When we arrived at Caye Caulker we were so relieved. We felt like we were ‘home’. We immediately sensed a more laid-back vibe. The streets were filled with colourful beach shacks, good bars, friendlier locals and lots of backpackers.
We could walk from the bottom of the island to the top (The Split) in about 40 minutes, regularly bumping into other backpackers we met along the way. The entire island is easily accessible by foot, so golf buggies are not required!
Although the ‘Split’ technically isn’t a beach, we found it far more enjoyable than San Pedro, and we actually got to go for a swim without being dredged by the seagrass. Plus, there are loads of bars surrounding the Split – not quite the swim-up bar kind but still close enough that you can chill on the sand with a drink.
As for the food, there were a lot more options from tacos, jerk chicken to vegan-friendly dishes. The food was significantly cheaper compared to San Pedro ($10-25 BZD), and better quality. We could finally enjoy a meal without breaking the bank!
The standard of accommodation is mostly on-par with San Pedro, but there are definitely more options for backpackers, particularly if you’re one for ‘party’ hostels.
As for activities, you can do snorkelling/day tours from both islands but we were told to wait until we got to Caye Caulker as it’s much cheaper – which it was.
You can read the full blog post here about our Shark Ray Alley tour. That’s right, we went swimming with sharks and rays, eeek!
How to get to the Cayes
It wasn’t easy trying to research how to get from Mexico to the islands of Belize. I searched the internet high and low but all I could find was a bus timetable to Chetumal, so we ended up just winging it and hoping for the best.
We heard stories from other travellers that the ferries aren’t very reliable and breakdown from time to time, so we had a few doubts but in the end we didn’t have any issues. It was fast but smooth sailing for two hours – I even feel asleep!
Here’s our ‘how-to-guide’ for getting to the islands of Belize.
First things first – take a trip to Bacalar
If you’re heading to Belize from Cancun/Playa del Carmen/Tulum, we highly recommend stopping overnight at Bacalar en-route to Chetumal.
While there isn’t a lot to see and do in Bacalar, it’s a great place to chill overnight. I would highly recommend staying at The Yak Lakehouse. It’s one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed in.
From the moment you step inside, you feel like you’ve entered an eco-lodge with its rich chocolate wooden floors, clean white walls and serenading music. Plus, it’s right on the lake so the views are incredible.
While you’re there, head to Mango y Chile for a nourishing feed. Order their vegan-friendly supershake (you ‘eat’ it with a spoon!) and a burger – everything they serve is 100% plant-based, organic, biodegradable (and super tasty!). Pretty cool, huh?
Set your alarm early and head to the lake at sunrise. You can hire a kayak or go paddle boarding, and take an insta-worthy photo that will have your friends wondering if you’re in the Maldives with those turquoise waters and bungalows. Pure bliss.
Take the bus to Chetumal
Now back to the trip…
You can take an ADO bus from Bacalar to Chetumal ($66 Pesos). At the Bacalar bus stop you’ll need to cross the road (so you’re opposite the ticket office) to get the bus. Be sure to keep an eye out, as our bus arrived 20 minutes early.
Once you arrive at the ADO terminal in Chetumal, look inside the foyer for a tour stand. We purchased our water taxi tickets here in Pesos to avoid being slogged the $USD exchange rate at the ferry terminal.
From the ADO terminal, you can take a five minute taxi ride ($30 Pesos) to the ferry terminal. It’s worth paying for a taxi, as it’s a 20-minute walk in the heat.
Take a water taxi to Caye Caulker / Ambergris Island
Now, there are just two companies that operate between Mexico and the islands of Belize. From Chetumal, San Pedro Water Jets departs daily, and Belize Express Water Taxi runs every alternate day (check website for calendar) at 3.30pm.
You don’t need to book in advance, you can just turn up. From Chetumal, it costs $55 USD to San Pedro and $65 USD to Caye Caulker. They don’t accept credit card so make sure you withdraw money in town before heading to the ferry.
Once you’ve been given your tickets, you’ll need to proceed to immigration so make sure you have your Mexican tourist card with you or you won’t be allowed to exit the country.
If your visit to Mexico was more than six days, you’ll have to pay ‘tourist tax’ ($500 pesos). This tax may have been included in your airfare, so check your airline receipt for tourism tax (must have code ‘UK’) and present this to immigration as proof.
Tip: Line up early so that you can choose your seat on the water taxi. We sat at the back to reduce bumpiness, and were lucky to have a small fan and window beside us.
On arrival you will be greeted by Belizean immigration and you’ll need to pay a small tourist tax ($3 BZD). If you’re heading to Caye Caulker you’ll need to get off at San Pedro and go through immigration before taking another water taxi to Caye Caulker.