Me and my manatee

David Whitley makes new friends in a backpacker haven in Central America.

If I stretched out my arm, I could give my ugly new friend a pat. But he's heavier than me, so it's probably not a great idea. A manatee would never win a beauty contest but they are adorably cute. Swimming off the coast of Belize, they don't mind company.

The reef that runs parallel to this small Central American country is arguably the world's greatest aquatic playground. It's the second biggest barrier reef in the world. But while the Great Barrier Reef wins in size, Belize has far more crammed into a smaller space. In Queensland you can see more colourful coral and a greater variety of smaller fish but here the big guns come practically guaranteed. On our six-hour jaunt, we swim with sharks, barracudas, eels, turtles and stingrays, leaving the massive brain coral, bright blue tang fish and huge marauding shoals as mere sideshows.

The manatee's home is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, near the islands of Caye Caulker, off Belize City. The crew of our boat, the Ragga King, spot him and drop anchor. Twenty of us pull on snorkelling masks and fins before plunging into the Caribbean in pursuit. He's a big one - 2.5metres long and weighing at least 600kilograms. Apparently, he'll eat 10percent of his own body weight a day.

He stands out like a blubbery beacon in the brilliantly clear water. We all jostle for position. He could leave us for dust at any minute if he chose - indeed, after 15 minutes or so he decides to speed off.

But before that, I get my magic moment. The manatee slows down and starts to turn. He ends up face-to-face with me, inches away from my nose, then flaps his front flipper. It's almost as if he's waving goodbye.

The Ragga King is under the laid-back command of Captain Miguel. It's not his real name but he thinks it sounds cooler so he's sticking with it. "Miguel" isn't from Belize - he arrived from Nicaragua in the 1990s and decided to make Caye Caulker his home.

The same applies to Ali, the tour guide-cook-sail hauler. Originally from Canada, she decided Caye Caulker had the lifestyle she was after. It's a familiar story around the island. Sailing tour companies will be run by Brits, hotels and bars by Americans and shops by Chinese and Indians.

Most probably didn't intend to stay long but Belize is the sort of place that sucks people in. Anything beyond shorts and thongs is overdressed and it's fast becoming the independent traveller's hang-out of choice in the region.

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Caye Caulker is a small island - or rather two, as it was split by a hurricane in 1961. It's a 45-minute ferry ride from Belize City. Everything here obeys island time; visitors can feel things slowing to a crawl the moment they step on the jetty.

The main street is lined with brightly coloured restaurants, bars and clapboard hotels. Each has its own happy hour but, again, things are flexible. The Bamboo Bar on what passes as a beachfront says that happy hour lasts "until everyone is happy". Given that it can take about 25 minutes to rustle up the half-price cocktails, this is probably a good thing.

Nearby shacks serve as open-air restaurants, where seafood is cooked on oil-drum barbecues. Shuffle along to the top of the island (no one walks; shuffling is the only acceptable form of transportation) and you reach the Lazy Lizard. It's the sort of place that really sums up the island.

Most of the bar's tables are in the water - they've created their own sheltered swimming area and guests wade out to the picnic tables with a beer in hand. Guests stay until well after the sun sets and the tide has come in, covering all but the top of the table.

The boardwalk surrounding the pool is the closest the island gets to a sunbaking beach.

The big hotel chains aren't likely to buy the land here if their guests can't lounge around on the sand all day, so the area is left to the locals, the almost locals (who have come from across the world) and independent, budget travellers. Bonds are formed in the water as people discuss snorkelling trips, sink a few rum and cokes - and decide to stay for a few more days ...

The writer was a guest of Gecko's Adventures.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Caye Caulker is a short ferry ride from Belize City. Return flights to Belize City via Los Angeles or Miami, flying with American Airlines, cost from $US2979 ($4495).

Phone Flight Centre, 131 600.

Gecko's Adventures, see geckosadventures.com or phone 1300 854 500, has a 10-day Central American Trails tour of Cancun, Mexico, Antigua and Guatemala, which stops at Caye Caulker for two nights. The tour costs $895 plus a $US200 local payment.

Staying there

Rock up and choose what you like the look of, or try De Real Macaw, a character-packed guesthouse on Front Street where air-conditioned rooms cost from $US30 a night. See derealmacaw.biz.

Tours

The one-day sailing and snorkelling excursion to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve costs about $68. See raggamuffintours.com.

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