Madonna sings about Belize island in La Isla Bonita.
BY DALE MANSFIELD
“UnBelizeable.” A catchy marketing slogan seen around the tourist areas. And actually, the colour of the water is just that, an unbelievable aquamarine blue I’ve only ever seen in the Caribbean.
Disembarking from the ferry at San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, the largest island, from Belize City on the mainland, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Hemingway’s haunts in the Florida Keys.
Casual and relaxed, stress-free. There is the promise of a few days or weeks on this island. No big hotels, crowds, hawkers, nor a hundred things that you must see and do before you leave.
Ambergris Caye is one of the foremost scuba diving and snorkeling spots on the planet.
It is 6 pm and dusk, the string lights visible on approaching the pier. Island music wafting over the water and the wonderful aroma of capuska (a small stuffed pancake) from the kitchens. Open bars, heavy on character, are just a few feet from the water on the beach.
Walking from the dock across the sand to the hotel, I am delighted I only had to drag my luggage those few feet; the stress of the long day’s travel melts away with every step.
Tio Pil’s is a very basic, scruffy little hotel, wonderfully located between the beach and downtown, smack out its back door. It’s a family run establishment. The staff are extremely helpful and accommodating, the air conditioning works well, hot showers for the most part, comfy beds—what more could you want when you’re rarely in your room—but it is basic. Great if you’d rather spend your money on activities that take you out in the sunshine. Their rooms are all second-floor level. The ground floor area is vacant with plans to transform it into a hostel, befitting the casual air of the island.
If it’s an elegant, all-inclusive resort you’re after, you’ll not likely find one in or around San Pedro. But if you’re looking to immerse yourself in a warm, friendly, casual lifestyle, you’re in the right place.
Walking up and down the beach with a drink in your hand is quite OK as is wearing nothing more than a bathing suit all the time. As a fairly well-travelled American man from New Mexico kept repeating, “This is THE best vacation I’ve ever had,” sunburned though he was.
Families with kids demanding a lot of high-end activities may not find a good fit here, but children old enough to do some snorkeling or fishing, even petting the rays ankle deep in the water, are in for a memorable time.
A fisherman cleaning his catch on the dock while standing calf deep in the water had several rays wrapping their graceful wings around his legs begging for stray bits of fish. I counted 12 of them.
Ambergris Caye is the “Isla Bonita” Madonna sang about and it is certainly that.
One day I would like to explore the interior, where land is supposedly very reasonably priced, co-op farming is becoming very popular and the landscape is as beautiful as the island.
I took a bike ride all along the beach area and downtown. There are no cars allowed on the island, which I found appealing. Renting a golf cart or bicycle for $10 (US) is the way to get around. Conveniently, Belize is an English-speaking country.
The food was good, though Belize doesn’t have a strong culinary presence. Seafood is plentiful, of course, and prices are reasonable. Attached to one of the restaurants is an art gallery showcasing the vibrant hues depicting the people, flora and fauna of this lovely land.
If you go:
There are daily flights from Toronto Pearson Airport to Belize City.
The country of Belize is located on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America. Formerly known as British Hondurus, the country shares a land and sea border on the north with Mexico. It is about two hours by air from Miami, Florida or Dallas, Texas. It is an easy two-day drive through Mexico from the Texas border.
The island of Ambergris Caye was a favourite hiding place of English pirates during the 17th century. In the mid-18th century fishing and coconut production were key to its economy until the 1960s when tourists started to visit. Tourism has been growing steadily since the 1980s. Since 1989, archeologists have been studying Marco Gonzalez, a Mayan ruin site located near the southern tip of Ambergris Caye.