There are many fabulous places on this earth to escape to during cold, dark wintry months, but our favorite is Belize. And our favorite place in Belize is San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, an island about an hour boat ride (or 15 minute plane ride) northeast from Belize City.
Why is this place our favorite?
Like a good novel, the best travel is full of flawed characters placed in complex and puzzling situations. Likely the novel’s setting is gorgeous, but perhaps drippy with fog or rain, and the protagonist is endearing, but fatally flawed. In this case, Belize is palm trees, blue waters, and a reef that is so close you can see it from the shore. The reef supports hundreds of different kinds of colorful fish, sea turtles, rays, and sharks that you can snorkel and dive with. The weather is warm and humid with cool breezes. Belize has interesting things to see and do, and the country is steadily improving life for its citizens, along with being excellent hosts to tourists. And people are kind. Kind strangers are important. More about this later.
Is it perfect? No, but we love that Belize is a developing country in Central America that is gorgeous and complex enough to engage most sophisticated travelers. Read on.
As the former British Honduras, Belizeans speak Creole, which is English that sounds like some of the ending letters are dropped from words. It is understandable and charming.
Their currency is easy to work with, especially if you are American. A Belizean dollar (BZ$) is twice the amount of the US dollar, so if the purchase is BZ$16, it is US$8. Merchants accept either Belizean or US dollars. Credits cards are accepted, and we found conveniently located 24-hour ATMs.
Things to do
There are lots of things to do starting with sitting on chairs looking at the palm trees and blue waters while holding onto a cold drink. After you rest up from that, you can, say, scuba dive.
We used Ecologic Diver Shop because we like their environmental practices, but there is much available expertise and most of the dive shops are flexible enough to schedule something for the next day. You want a place that has good equipment and skilled dive masters, so be sure to use a shop that is PADI or SSI certified because of their stringent standards. For convenience, ask if the dive shop can pick you up at the dock closest to your lodging.
To make the most of your time in the water, become a certified diver before you get yourself to San Pedro. Or do your class and pool work ahead of your trip so you can do your referral open water certification (or refresher course) there. If this is not possible, then get certified in Belize. The water is warm, the classes are engaging, and diving is an activity you can do for the rest of your life. You don’t need a partner to dive. If your traveling companion is a landlubber, go ahead and sign up for a dive excursion anyway. There are plenty of friendly groups to join. We dove several coral canyons and experienced gentle, nurse sharks swimming with us while they hunted lionfish (poisonous!) hiding in the coral formations’ pockets. Sometimes a sea turtle or curious fish came up to us and hung around. Pretty cool!
If you have no interest in diving, but want to see the coral, fish, turtles, rays and sharks; snorkel or snuba, or get yourself on board a glass-bottom boat. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are world-class places to snorkel. These locations are shallow enough to see all the ocean life you could hope to see.
We are not into fishing, but there are opportunities to cast your bait into the sea. Dive or adventure shops offer one-day excursions or multi-day trips on catamarans or other nice boats. One can also paddle board (SUP), kite surf, kayak or take a sunset cruise around the caye.
Ambergris Caye, however, does not have endless, white beaches that gently slope from the shore into the briny sea. There are two somewhat reasonable places to swim, at The Cut and at Ramon’s Beach Resort. At both places, especially at the resort, be careful of boats.
Day excursions are a great way to enhance your visit. We recommend two.
Take the water taxi to Caye Caulker, a pretty, quiet island with a backpacker feel. For a relatively good place to swim, walk five minutes north to The Split, a waterway created mostly by hand after Hurricane Hattie (1961) carved a few-inches deep passage across this sandy island. Subsequent storms deepened the waterway. The Split is also the location of a party bar with the same name. Be sure to watch for boats, but if you can swim across the strong current to the north side, you may find a rope swing that hangs from a tree over the water. By the way, crocodiles habit much of the mangroves that line Belizean islands and brackish rivers. Alternatively, you can stroll up and down the few streets, shop, read a book or–if you want a longer visit–declare it a retreat to finish a project you set for yourself.
Be sure to reserve a spot for touring the Lamanai Mayan Archaeological Site, which is an all day excursion. We went with Searious Adventures, but other shops can arrange a trip there. The tour will pick you up at the dock nearest to your lodging at about 7:00am and deliver you back about 5:00pm. In between, you will go by boat and bus and boat to the amazing archaeological site; along the way, you may see crocodiles, bats, iguanas, monkeys and other wildlife living along the rivers.
San Pedro is a lovely tourist destination with comfortable lodgings and resorts; and a developing-country vibe. We eschewed the all-inclusive resorts for the opportunity to stay in one of the Sea Pearl Vacation Suites, an apartment in a small residential area just a 15-minute walk south of the square. When we travel, we prefer to interact with locals, instead of tourists who are just like us. We loved it! Going to grocery stores, roadside markets and bakeries got us locally-made food recommended by our neighbors, and a chance to interact more with residents. At the apartment, for example, we met a couple building decorations for their primary school’s entry in the annual holiday boat parade, which is a big deal. With a strong sense of community, local dive and adventure shops support organizations by providing boats for the competition. The night of the boat parade, we secured a spot along the sea wall with good visibility of the waterway and cheered lustily when the school’s entry sailed by.
Restaurants and Street Food
The national dish is stewed chicken with rice and beans; and you can find it in most restaurants and from street vendors. We liked it so much; we bought it from a street vendor for Christmas Eve dinner. Sitting on a bench in the town square watching local families strolling along and children climbing on the play structure, we nibbled the satisfying flavors of this homemade dish. Seafood is also really popular, and — if you are fortunate enough to be there in the right season (October 1 – June 30) — conch. We had conch ceviche almost daily, sometimes combining it with freshly caught shrimp. For authentic traditional dishes, go to El Fogon, where you can order slow-cooked stewed dishes, exquisitely prepared. It is the only place on the island where you can get stewed gibnut, (the royal rodent) that tastes like ham when smoked. If you like to support women businesses, be sure to go to The Nook, a recently opened restaurant. Sadly we didn’t get there, but it gets terrific reviews.
Tourists could focus only on having a fun time and avoid the developing-country part of Belize, but we love this part of travel! Belize looks like a success story. The citizens seem to live the country’s 8 Millennial Goals. See below. As a result, this is one of the few Central American countries that is clean, environmentally conscious, educated, and healthy.
- Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
- Ensure environmental sustainability
- Develop a global partnership for development
According to the United Nations Development Programme in Belize, maternal mortality has been on a decreasing trend in recent years. In 2010 and 2011 there have been zero maternal mortality deaths, putting Belize well on target on this Goal. Over 95 per cent of births are now attended by skilled health personnel, on track for achieving ante natal coverage (98 per cent in 2008)…. Belize is on track to meet the target of 100 per cent literacy among persons 15-24 years by 2015.
It is fascinating to see for yourself a country progressing towards its goals. The astute tourist can see how this little Central American country does it, community by community. You can see school children in their uniforms walking to school, the public library prominently sited on the street corner, phone numbers for AIDs treatment painted on walls, signs urging people to put rubbish in trash bins, medical clinics with highly trained physicians and newly purchased equipment for advanced medical care. Progress is made locally one conscientious act at a time.
According to the US State Department, the crime rate in Belize is high.
The majority of crimes are burglaries and thefts, often without injuries. In 2014, however, there were a disturbing number of robberies that ended in serious injuries and fatalities. Corruption, human smuggling/trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering, and organized gang activity remain significant problems. Criminal organizations and individuals often operate beyond the ability of the police. Compounding this problem is the very modest capacity to prosecute offenders.
Due to the small population (335,000) and high murder rate per capita, Belize consistently ranks among the top 10 in the world for homicides, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with an average of around 40 homicides per 100,000 residents….
Major crimes remain low around popular tourist destinations including the Mayan ruins but the risk still exists. Several tourist areas along the western border with Guatemala have active military patrols due in part to the several border incidents that are reported each year. Some of these excursions require a military patrol to view ruins located on the border with Guatemala. Tourist attractions, including cave tubing and zip lining, remain relatively safe. While crime against tourists exists on the cayes, it is less frequent and generally non-violent, though murders do occur in these areas.
In 2015 and early 2016, a few tourists were murdered along the western border near Guatemala so take serious precautions if you go there. Also, due to gang violence, avoid the south parts of Belize City. Here is a good summary of travel advice from Belize.com.
Hazards and Kind Strangers
I sit here missing Belize and thinking about my visit, especially one incident where I met kind strangers. As a bit of background, there are no sidewalks so golf carts, bicycles and pedestrians in San Pedro weave in and out in dizzying efficiency. I don’t know how they do it!
One notable hazard, though, is speed bumps–a mixture of officially laid bumps and a few informally laid nautical ropes stretched across the paving bricks. Their purpose is to slow traffic. Additionally, the roads often have dips and cuts across the pavement to let storm water flow across.
On one of the last mornings of our trip, my husband and I decided to ride our bicycles through town and as far north as the road is paved, only a few miles. On our return, I crossed the bridge over The Cut that separates the north from the rest of the island. In a moment of inattention, my front wheel encountered a not-stretched nautical rope. I tumbled onto the road, smacking my head, arm and knee into the pavement. My mistake was not wearing my helmet, which I always do at home. Yes, you can get hurt on vacation, so wear a helmet when riding your bike!
Head wounds bleed profusely and mine seemed to gush. My husband handed his handkerchief to me and a store clerk gave me huge paper towels. I pressed them directly on the wound somewhat staunching the flow. A kind Belizean bystander volunteered to take me in his golf cart to the medical clinic. He said Dr. Daniel, as he is known on the island (Dr. Daniel Gonzales); is the closest and fabulous. From the time I wrecked to being on Dr. Daniel’s gurney was a mere 10 minutes. He and his nurse gave me the best medical care I could have hoped. He stitched me up, and checked to make sure nothing was broken while his nurse cleaned up the road rash. His clinic was professional, utilitarian and reasonable. The care cost BZ$200 and BZ$30 for two prescriptions.
Reading about Belizean medical care led me to believe care would be inadequate, but I unexpectedly got a glimpse of Belizean medicine, and I am impressed. Dr. Daniel is an Ob/Gyn with a general medical practice, who has been providing medical care for 25 years. Born in San Pedro, he trained in Belize, Mexico, US and Germany. Often called on to provide serious trauma care, his clinic has one of two hyperbaric chambers on the island, and he was instrumental recently in getting the island’s first ambulance purchased. Impressive fellow!
Back home, I had the stitches removed. My temple is still sore and the scabs from my healing road rash remind me of the terrific bike ride I had, until it wasn’t so terrific. They also remind me of the kind strangers who helped me just when I needed them.
And when you need warmth and sunshine during a dark winter, the best getaway is Belize.