“I’m just a beach person,” says Debbie Cooper, 63.
With that attitude, it’s no wonder that she and her husband, Bruce, 66, have called the tiny Caribbean isle of Caye Caulker 12 miles off the coast of Belize home for the past 13 years.
There are no cars on the island, and it receives a fraction of the tourists that Ambergris Caye, 11 miles to the north, does. Homes and restaurants on the beach face an impossibly blue sea framed by windswept palms. Lobster is a specialty when it’s in season.
There are a few stores with clothing, household goods, souvenirs, and groceries. Docks at regular intervals provide places for fishing and sunbathing. Access to the mainland or Ambergris is by water taxi or small prop plane.
There’s plenty of time to take it easy. A favorite hangout is the beach and the famous Split, a narrow channel at the north end of the island popular for swimming and just floating while enjoying a beverage. The infamous Lazy Lizard bar and grill provides food and drink—and tropical rhythms via prominent speakers that carry the sound far and wide.
“I was in Las Vegas for a trip once, and when you come back to something like this you realize how special it is,” says Debbie. “It’s slow. Nothing happens fast.”
The couple does stay busy, however. Debbie has an art gallery on the main street in town—you can’t miss it, it’s a small island.
A hairdresser and photographer back in Montana, Debbie picked up the brush for the first time after being inspired during one of their frequent visits to the caye to scout it as a place to live.
“Bruce said, ‘You need to figure out a way to make a living down here.’ So I started painting in Montana and sending art down here to sell,” explains Debbie. “We started selling art before we moved to see if it would sell, and we could make money.”
Her pieces took off and currently Debbie sells mostly her own work in her gallery, along with work from other artists. Hers are colorful works inspired by the animals, culture, people, and landscapes of her adopted country, as well as scenes from her time living in Hawaii. Her main market is the tourists who stroll by her shop on the way to dinner or a snorkeling excursion.
Tourists from a dozen-plus nationalities can be found here most days—as Caye Caulker is a popular destination. This is Debbie’s customer base.
All in all, the couple has seen a lot of changes over the years. When they first arrived 13 years ago. There were only 500 people on the island. Now there are 2,000.
“It’s still small enough that everybody knows everybody,” says Debbie.
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