B-B-B-brrr! Belize was a bit chilly on the Saturday of our arrival. It was early November, 2010- an overcast, windy day. But hey, it was better than the chill and the rain we’d left back home in Atlanta. And when the sun came out, things tended to warm up quickly!
Robin and I had planned this trip over a year ago and by the time it arrived, we were both more than ready to chill on a beach somewhere. I had been home for three days from a week-long business trip to San Diego. The days at this major annual conference and trade show (where my employer featured prominently) were lengthy, fun, and energizing, but I was plumb wore out by the time I got back home. Plus, the 3 days at work in-between trips proved to be lengthy and chock-full of meetings. My battery was running seriously low.
On a Saturday, we made our way to the Atlanta airport for the direct flight to Belize City. From there, we caught a quick 20-minute flight in a small plane to the island of Ambergris Caye, “la Isla Bonita”. I was looking forward to my third trip to Ambergis Caye and Robin was looking forward to her first exposure to the Belizian culture and to experiencing another tropic vacation in the Caribbean.
The interested reader can find, elsewhere in this blog, tales of two previous visits to the island, and the adventures therein. This visit was slated to be laid-back, with emphasis on much-needed rest and taking advantage of the opportunity to snorkel the fabulous reef just offshore of the island, when weather permitted.
Kenny, the erstwhile, if practically useless, property manager of the condo we rented met us at the San Pedro airstrip. We quickly piled luggage and ourselves into the golf cart we had rented for the week and headed up-island. Threading our way along the crowded, dusty streets of the town of San Pedro, we made a quick stop at the market for snacks and drinks, and within minutes we were over the bridge that spans the “cut”, a narrow inlet that separates the north end of the island from the south end. Shortly afterward we pulled into Bermuda Beach, the beachside condo complex that was to be home for the next week.
After a perfunctory review of the obvious by Kenny (“Here’s your balcony, this is the living room, there are the two bedrooms, each has a bath, this is the kitchen, here is the washer and dryer”), we kindly demurred over his offer of “making arrangements” for our reef trips (he wanted cash, up front—not the typical arrangement on Ambergris Caye. Or anywhere else in the Caribbean, for that matter. I sniffed a hustler). We shuffled Kenny off to Buffalo, unpacked, and had a drink on the balcony. The view from our second storey balcony was lovely- looking over the pool surrounded by tropical plantings and out to the nearby reef.
It was time for a mid-afternoon lunch back in town, so we jumped in the golf cart, tooled over the bridge and ended up at Fido’s (Fee’-do’s), a fixture of San Pedro eateries on the beach, its high and massive thatched roof towering over the town. I had been looking forward to reacquainting myself with Fido’s signature Kalua Colada drink, the Purple Parrot, and was not disappointed when it quickly showed up at our table. Yummy! Unfortunately, the food wasn’t terrific, and in fact by that evening I was sick. What a drag, to spend the first night and next day feeling sick. Same thing happened when we vacationed on the island of Anguilla in the spring. I wondered if this was becoming a habit.
Anyway, Sunday was windy, cloudy, and cool, with intermittent light rain, so we passed on the snorkeling in rough seas and instead found Ak’ Bol, a cute, scenic and low-key beach-side bar/eatery near our digs, just a few minutes of B-B-B-banging in the golf cart down the rutted, deeply and amply potholed sandy track that serves as the “road” for the northern portion of Ambergris Caye.
At Ak’ Bol we discovered terrific food, great drinks, and good prices. This yoga-retreat featured several low, thatched-roof cottages snuggled among lush, tropical trees and shrubs. A long dock with a large, thatched-roof open pavillion on the end extended into the quiet water in the lee of the fringing reef. The beach bicycle path ran through the property near the water, framed by large sea grape trees and gracefully curving coconut palms. There was nobody on the path, no nearby buildings, little golf-cart traffic out on the road at the back of the property, and only two people sitting on the high stools at the bar. Perfect! Just our kind of place.
The owner, a somewhat dyspeptic aged hippie ex-pat Gringo, compete with lengthy, dusty grey dreadlocks and a leathery tan, turned out to be a kind and handy source for expeditions to the nearby reef. We easily made arrangements with one of his employees to take us out on the reef, and availed ourselves of the inexpensive, private trips on several subsequent days.
The reef just offshore of Ambergris Caye is part of the fringing reef that runs down the coast of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size, this magnificent coral garden has been (mostly) protected by the government and the citizens of Belize for decades. As a result, the coral is in terrific shape, with a healthy population of tropical fish and visits from large schools of ocean fish and predators. It is not unusual to spot turtles, sharks, large sting rays, spotted eagle rays, and even green moray eels as one tours popular snorkel spots like Mexico Rocks, Tres Cocos, the” cut” and of course the marine park Hol Chan. We drank it all in during the week, and with the exception of one day when the wind was too high, we managed to snorkel on four different days.
At Hol Chan, Robin got to see a giant grouper and many of its smaller cousins, clouds of snappers, a 6-foot, free-swimming moray eel, magnificent spotted eagle rays, sting rays, and nurse sharks in the depths of the shipping channel that cuts through the reef, allowing large boats access to the insland. We swam within touching distance of numerous turtles that were feeding in the shallows on the back side of the reef. I was heartened to hear our vigilant guides warn neophyte snorkelers to avoid chasing the turtles, as doing so would stress the animals and keep them from breathing when they needed to the most.
This time of year the water was cool, so we wore our skins and rented shorty wet suits to allow us to stay a few more minutes in the water on each dive. Our captains and guides eyed our warmies with envy- poor guys, they had to snorkel in swim trunks and t-shirts, quickly bundling up in hooded jackets after each dive. While we were warm in the water, we got more than our share of goose bumps during the boat rides back to the dock. We often donned our windbreakers, but still, B-B-B-brrrrr! We’d sit in the sun out of the wind when we got back to warm up, just like the rock iguanas that hung out around the condo sea wall.
Evenings we would drive over the bridge and into town to grab a bite, which was more often than not street food, which was plentiful, fresh, yummy and inexpensive. BBQ chicken, rice, beans, and some plantains were the mainstays and suited us just fine. Sometimes we ate fish and we enjoyed the papusas made famous by the fabulous ladies at Waraguma, a hole-in-the-wall eatery on the main drag in town. Passing golf carts stirred the dust that wafted in the window openings of Waraguma’s. As indeed the dust wafted everywhere in the town, settling thick on countertops, chairs, tables and on the collection of paperbacks at the tiny used book store we frequented. All part of the atmosphere. When inclined, we would escape the noise and bustle of the narrow town streets by hanging out at the bar of any of the restaurants that line the narrow beach of the town.
Several times we B-B-B-banged the golf cart from pothole to pothole, threading among palms, scrub and construction that, these days, makes up the northern end of the island. Three years ago I observed the beginnings of many construction projects, private homes, condos and resorts. The development is marching inexorably north of San Pedro, with a temporary slow-down caused by the Great Recession. But the signs are there, and I saw more new construction on the northern part of the island during our stay than what I’ve seen in the communities around our home in suburban Atlanta in the past 3 years. Unfortunately, Ambergis Caye is faced with the same dilemma that bedevils most Caribbean tourist destinations; rapid overdevelopment, precariously perched on inadequate and poorly-funded infrastructure. Fresh water, sewage, solid waste disposal and the taxed and aged electrical grid all vie for attention and go unheeded as more ex-pats pour into the country, looking to “live the dream” with their vacation home or retirement condo. Magazines, online articles, blogs and travel forums trumpet Paradise! Those who get the real story from the locals or ex-pats apparently haven’t paid a lot of attention to the many vacancies, unfinished and abandoned construction projects, and foreclosed and sadly untended properties that are now on the market for dimes on the dollar and remain unsold. Meanwhile, AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other tropical delights confound the poor, (and I haven’t even broached the topic of abandoned and stray former pets) who make up the vast majority of islanders who live in the hot, airless lee of the island, their tiny, tilting wooden homes perched on rotting stilts over brackish and sluggish water. Healthcare is hardly universal. Education is improving, but statistics like high infant mortality, unemployment, children borne out of wedlock, alcoholism and an average annual income of $1200.00 US (not a typo- that’s twelve hundred dollars) tell the real story of this former “banana republic”.
Anyway. There we were, spending our hard-won dollars, doing our best to support some economy, somewhere. We could sink into despair over the plight of a third-world country, or revel in the “great deals” we secured for a just-off-season vacation. But we did neither. We mostly lived in the moment, taking and giving and enjoying what, for us, was a much-needed break from work and a wintery Atlanta.
All in all we had a fine time, even though we had to deal with Kenny-the-wanna-be-grifter. The story of Kenny would be fun to tell if it wasn’t such a sad reflection of a person who (sometimes?) works hard for very little, and who clearly saw us as easy targets for his sad but rather lame schemes. Suffice to say we dealt with him firmly, and without rancor.
The sun broke out hot and welcoming, promising a fine, flat day on the reef. But of course it was Saturday, time for us to head home. Oh well. We did enjoy our rest, the atmosphere of the island, the quiet and bucolic surrounds of the as-yet-untrammeled areas north of the cut, the warm and friendly people of San Pedro and of course the snorkeling.
The relatively quick trip from San Pedro to Atlanta (about 7 hours total travel time) had us home on Saturday evening in time for me to unpack my dusty carry-on, repack it with business attire, pack the laptop and Blackberry, catch a few hours of sleep, then head back to the airport for a week of business meetings in Las Vegas.
As much as I enjoyed meeting with and getting to know co-workers, the rapid change of pace, time zone and atmosphere resulted in jarring, noisy, and smoky culture shock. Under other circumstances I might have enjoyed the trip, but the contrast between what I had just left to long hours in recirculated hotel air and the man-made, manufactured, heavily populated, noisy casino bustle was, at best, off-putting. In any event, the days and nights I spent in meetings with (delightful) co-workers were lengthy and tiring. Late at night, when I laid awake, still on Belize time, I found myself drifting back to Ambergris Caye, to a quiet afternoon spent soaking up the sun at the Palapa Bar, sipping a cold concoction, eating fish tacos and listening to the sound of the ocean breaking on the reef, while waiting for the perfect moment to click a photo of that stunning sunset over la Isla Bonita.
Belize City airport (BZE) is hot at 11am on a Saturday morning in May. After a direct flight on the big Delta bird from Atlanta, we get in line to catch the 30 minute Tropic Air flight over to Ambergris Caye. Some 25 miles long, Ambergris Caye is the largest and most developed of about 200 small islands off the coastline of Belize. Most of the island’s 7,000 inhabitants live in the town of San Pedro, located in the southern part of the caye. San Pedro has the cosy, laid-back atmosphere of a small village with its wooden houses and sand streets.
We buzz over to Ambergris Caye, enjoying the views of the shallows between the reef and the mainland. Spotted a group of 3 sharks swimming in the shallows off an islet and a Mayan Air flight headed back to BZE.
We find ourselves standing out in the hot sun at Ambergris Caye airport, getting windblown and dust-coated and grinning stupidly while waiting for luggage to be brought out of the plane’s belly. Grab a cab and off we go to the Super Mart to get water and beer and other goodies. Back in the cab for a very short ride to entry of Xanadu, our home for the next week. We’re here! Alex meets us, grabs our luggage and, after we check in at the desk and chat with Susan, we chill at the pool for a bit while our room is prepped. Soon we’re unpacked and organized in our lovely, comfy and cool digs. Let’s go make arrangements to get on a boat for snorkeling tomorrow!
The week flies by, each day taken up with activities. We snorkel Hol Chan preserve, visit sharks & rays at Shark Ray Alley, snorkel Mexico Rocks (our fav spot), where we swim with spotted eagle rays and a couple of large, curious barracuda. We spot a sleeping nurse shark and get eyeballed by a passing loggerhead turtle.
One day we trip over to Lamani ruins on the mainland, a highlight. We’re accompanied by a group of middle-school age kids, who are on a romp. One poor soul, Carlos, gets motion sickness at the drop of a hat and between the fast boat from AC to the village of Bomba in the jungle, he’s pretty green with the twists and turns as we zip along up-river in that fast craft, banking crazily around tight turns in the mangroves, throwing up a 10 foot wall of rooster tail off the lee chine.
We get to Bomba mid-morning, where it is hot, still, dusty. Some avail themselves of the “one star” el banyo while others poke their heads into dim, hot huts sporting local crafts that are, IHMO, overly priced and not particularly unique. A local boy is walking around with two orphaned baby parrots on his shoulders. People take pix and chat with the young man, who explains he found the birds in the nearby jungle and is taking care of them. They seem perfectly content to be perched where they are.
We hop aboard the dust express, where, after about 10 mins of roaring down a dusty track, zigzagging potholes, we screech to a halt to let Carlos rush down the steps and outside to lose his breakfast. The other kids peer curiously out the widows at Carlos then, all together, go “ughhh! Argh!!” and make faces. The adults roll their eyes and speculate on what can help settle his stomach. He will keep this up all day, on the bus, on the boat, back on the bus, back on the other boat… it will be a long day for poor Carlos.
The bus arrives at our mid-way point, where we break for the “two star” el banyos, baking in the heat. A large, open pavilion next to the New River gives some shade and catches fitful breezes as we await the signal to hop aboard the next boat and another fast, windy, twisting and high-banking ride 25 miles up river to where Lamani ruins perch on a high hill overlooking a large lagoon.
Gee, we’re here just at noon, when the equatorial sun is at its zenith. We wilt in the heat under a pavilion, eating a nice, hot meal (!) of BBQ chicken and rice and plantains and oh-my-God I just want a frozen drink. Water and soft drinks are disappearing fast from the cooler. We soon make our way up to the airless museum, where we politely swelter and drip while our extraordinarily knowledgeable guide and boat captain attempts to hold the kids’ attention while pointing out certain artifacts in the glass cases. Most folks wander outside to catch a breeze.
Off down the canopied trails to the ruins. This is the fun part, stomping along these high mounds made centuries ago by these ancient peoples, surrounded by jungle growth, bird calls and howler monkey grunts, groans and growls that echo through the trees. We trip over roots as we crane our necks- look, there’s a toucan! Very cool to spot one in the wild. Our guide knows all the critters by their calls and keeps us fully informed about all things Mayan, including trees and shrubs like the “stink toe” root, which, when cut, smells just as you might imagine—really yuk! Soon we approach the first of 4 excavated temples, one of which is a tomb.
Soon we are looking up at the steep stairs of the largest temple, and of course I break my promise to myself that I’ll not clamber up another danged pyramid again, not after doing my share in Mexico but no, it’s mid-day and the sun is baking me while I start up, up those steep and eroded steps to the top, where I doubt there is a stick of shade but where I know I can count on a breeze and a hellofa view across the jungle canopy to the lagoon below. Yep, there’s a view after all, and I perch on about 9 square inches of crumbling limestone, with a sheer drop all the way to the jungle floor at least 8 stories below, where I know there’s shade, if only I can get down these dang steps without falling headlong as my head swims from vertigo. Those dang teenagers are frolicking like mountain goats and I feel every bit of my middle age years. Ouch, that stone is Hot!
Safely back on terra firma, sucking on the warm water bottle like a mother’s teat. We catch our collective breath, round up the stray kids and stumble off to the other temples that have been torn from the jungle overgrowth. We know we are faced with at least 4 more hours of back-tracking, including the flying boat ride down the New River to the bus to the other boat. We run out of water, soft drinks, fruit, food and energy and poor Carlos never gets to keep anything in his stomach, all day. We finally approach the dock at Xanadu just as the sun is sinking rapidly into the sea, tired but happy travelers.
I seem to recall walking up the beach to, I think it was Blue Water Grill, where I intended to slowly sip a frozen Kalua Colada, but which I gulped greedily to “drop my core temperature”. This is critical therapy after a long, hot day’s trek into the jungle, be sure to make a note.
A wonderful meal (vaguely recalled), followed by a leisurely stroll (and a bit wobbly from the boat movement still going on in my head) under the full moon back to Xanadu and oblivion. We enjoyed our nightly walks along the beach under that full moon, in a brisk onshore breeze as we went to and from different restaurants.
The sun comes up and the birds start squawking about 5:30 am, so we were up too, getting an early (and s l o w) breakfast at Coconut’s up the beach. Later, we caught a boat to Hol Chan and snorkeled with the crowds – heaven knows what the place is like on season. It reminded me of cattle boats dumping crowds off at any number of sites in John Pennekamp State Park off Key Largo in Florida, my home. Oh well, it was cool and wet and plenty of fish to see and hear.
Next stop was Shark Ray Alley. If one hasn’t been close to somewhat tame southern sting rays and nurse sharks, it’s a fun stop—perhaps. Personally, I’ve been there, done that after 30 years of diving and I truly don’t approve of grabbing sting rays or any other animal and forcefully holding it and stopping it from locomoting as it will. Much less do I approve of grabbing rays by their sensitive noses, where there are literally thousands of minute sensing cells that they use and need to help them feed. One large female had her tail bobbed off at the root and nobody can convince me that wasn’t done by a human hand—I was appalled to see her mutilation and she was particularly shy of being handled. Good for her!
Subsequent snorkel trips were private charters or nearly so, as we were visiting on off-season. We took a day trip over to Caye Caulker and snorkeled a half day there on broken, beat up, bleached-out reefs lacking the fish life we had seen off AC. Operators on AC told us the business is unregulated on CC and the folks there simply don’t care for their reef as do the operators on AC—I believe it. I’ve seen some pristine reefs in my time and I’ve watched the Florida keys decline from the late 1960s through the late 1990s, when some areas have begun to recover, but slowly. The shape of things to come off CC is not a pretty story- the reef will take decades to recover, if it gets the chance, between storms and being loved to death.
We spent a day sailing and snorkeling up the coast with Steve Rubio, owner of Unity Tours and captain of the No Rush catamaran. Steve is a friendly, knowledgeable and delightful host for an all day excursion snorkeling, fishing and beach BBQ-ing or an evening sunset sail or a ½ day snorkel trip.
Xanadu was our wonderful, relaxing, quiet home, not too far, not too close to the bustle of San Pedro town, which was as close as a walk or a bike ride.
All too soon it was time to retrace our steps, back to Tropic Air at the airport then to Belize City and the shock of arriving back in Atlanta to a cold, dreary, rainy Memorial Day weekend. We couldn’t even show off our tans, hidden as they were under long sleeves and jeans! Wahhh- take me back to Ambergris Caye, “la isla bonita”!
Post Script: We returned for a rainy Xmas week in 2006, where the highlight of the trip was snorkeling Bacalar Chico, a magnificently untouched marine environment up on the north (currently undeveloped) end of the island. If you want pristine snorkeling, get there quick, before the developers do!