From: The Sunday Times, UK published on March 7, 2010
In the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, I find myself in some difficulty: on the one hand, I feel professionally compelled to lift myself from this wooden bench-seat, leave this tiny open bar, with its wooden jetty reaching out into the tranquil, turquoise sea, and head off down the sandy street in search of the essential Belize.
On the other, I feel personally compelled to have another beer. This place seems to have that effect.
Belize sits below Mexico, to the right of Guatemala and to the left of the Caribbean, which here, now, is a balmy 26C and contains one of the most glorious sets of islands and atolls in the western hemisphere. It’s a former British colony, it’s the only Central American country that officially speaks English and, of course, it’s where Lord Ashcroft may, or may not, be domiciled.
So far, so Wikipedia; what’s harder to explain is why so few people in the UK know it, or why so many of those who do — often ex-servicemen or diplomats who’ve been stationed there — have a habit of making it their home. Okay, so there’s the white coral sand, the tropical jungle, the sea life — but there’s something about Belize they really like.
First off, it’s not large. The vogue for describing land areas in terms of Wales works perfectly here: it’s about the size of Wales. Yet the population is only that of Cardiff, so a lot of the country has nobody in it. Culturally and ecologically, it’s both Central American and Caribbean, so, given its diminutive size, there’s a great variety of easily accessible experiences on offer, from the rainforests, caves and Mayan remains inland to the coast and islands in the east.
The great inescapable presence off shore is the magnificent coral reef, the largest in the world except, you know, that Australian one, and it’s peppered with hundreds of islands (or cayes, pronounced “keys”). Only one has what you could respectably call a town, and that’s Ambergris Caye, for many their first stop in the country.
San Pedro sprawls along the reef side of the caye and is reached from Belize City by a short ride in a small boat or a shorter ride in a smaller plane. Both are a blast.
The plane deposits you on a scrubby airstrip that is both at the edge of town and 500yd from the centre (get the picture?). At this point, you’d be well advised to do what I would have, had I known — march straight out of the airport and into Limey’s Bar, across the road.
Sharon and Tracey, who run it, seem to know everyone in San Pedro, and everything about having a good time there, perhaps because Limey’s is also a tour centre and can arrange anything from diving, snorkelling, fishing, sailing and mainland excursions to accommodation, local transport and golf-cart rental.
Yes, golf carts — the main mode of powered transport in San Pedro, and not just for tourists: you can tell a local-owned one because it’s travelling at twice (or in Sharon’s case three times) the speed of the others.
Personally, I didn’t bother: nothing here is more than walking distance away, and if you find yourself in a hurry to do anything, you’re seriously missing the point. But keep an eye out — being mown down by a golf cart is not something you want to have to explain to your mates.
What is there to do here? Well, San Pedro is trying hard to catch up with the rest of the Caribbean, with bars and nightclubs along its beach and all three of its main drags — they do have names, but everyone calls them Front, Middle and Back streets. But it’s still all about the sea: being on, under or above it, gazing at it or eating things that until recently called it home.
If you dive, you’ve arrived: I went out with Ecologic Divers, and, although I’d never met sharks before, after one morning I was getting blasé about them. And the rays, the groupers, the morays… and that wasn’t even at a marine reserve site such as Hol Chan.
If you snorkel, the water is warm and clear, and you can expect to see similar things — Shark Ray Alley is exactly what it suggests, and only 8ft deep.
Though Ambergris Caye is fringed with sand, the beach is narrow, and busy near town, so swimming is usually off resort jetties or on nearby islands — Goff’s Caye, for example, provides a manatee-watching snorkel site and a beautiful sandy beach. For a unique view of the Caye, Toucan Fly, at the airstrip, will take you up in a microlight for an unforgettable wind-in-the-teeth experience.
The next largest island, Caye Caulker, is another short boat or plane ride away. Twenty years ago, when I first came here, it was so quiet that, after a week, I got itchy for burgers, freeways and someone to get annoyed with.
Now, the northern end of the island is aiming to become a mini San Pedro, and where once nothing moved on wheels, there are now a few golf carts — even more pointlessly, as it takes all of 20 minutes to walk the populated part of the island.
But if, when you get off the wooden jetty, you turn south, or left rather than right, within a few paces strange things happen: your pace slows, you squint into the sun, you see a bar and, before you know it, you’re getting round a beer, watching pelicans diving for fish, or kids throwing themselves off the jetty, and falling into conversation with someone who seems to want nothing more from life than to do the same. Hours may pass.
While visitors have undeniably had an impact in some places (including the Placencia peninsula, further south), in others they seem to have had almost none.
Staying at Hamanasi resort, just south of Dangriga, I found everything the well-heeled holidaymaker could desire. But cycle down the, er, charmingly rural road to Hopkins village and it’s as if none of the resorts existed: clapboard houses, derelict cars and excellent food in simple surroundings. Fancy lobster at £10? Go to Iris’s. Beer, stew and drumming? King Cassava. Just ask.
That’s how I eventually found Driftwood, an excellent pizza bar on the beach, run by Ollie from Manchester. I passed it twice before I asked someone, who pointed to a building 50 yards away. I mentioned to Ollie that a sign might have helped, and he pointed to one behind the bar: “I’ve been meaning to put it out for a while now.” He’s only been here for a few months, but it’s happening already…
The resorts here, as in San Pedro, will organise any activity for you — or, for less money, you can ask in Hopkins where you see a sign. Either way, do it: inland, there’s river kayaking, “tubing” (floating through the rainforest in an inner tube), caves, ruins and hiking through nature reserves with a guide. Off shore, there’s diving, snorkelling, kayaking, sailing and fishing. And some of the cayes are idyllic, for day trips or longer:
Tobacco Caye is a tiny patch of palm-covered sand and simple cabins, right on the reef. Many of the cabins are partly over the water, and if the idea of chilling out, getting wet and eating and drinking under palms, in perfect peace and for £27 a day does it for you, look no further.
Of course, this may not be your thing — you might be from Mars or something — or you may want more luxury, in which case check out the equally idyllic Southwater Caye, St George’s Caye or some of the atolls further out — Turneffe, Lighthouse or Glover’s Reef.
There’s a range of accommodation, from posh to primitive, and reputedly awesome sea and bird life. The Smithsonian Institute has an island base nearby, where a handful of scientists conduct research into, ooh, lots of really important things that leave them very little time for relaxing on the sand between cooling dips or sipping beer while watching the sunset.
So it’s hard to believe there’s not something here for you. But even that’s not the point. I’m not sure quite what is, though, because, whenever I settle down to work it out, within a minute I’m wondering whether a palm tree bending in the breeze is the most evocative sight I know; or how seagulls feel about being pushed off their perches by pelicans (although it makes me laugh every time); or whether I prefer grouper or lobster, either on my plate or in the sea. Maybe another beer will help…
Getting there: there are no direct flights to Belize from the UK or Ireland, but Continental (continental.com), American Airlines (020 7365 0777, americanairlines.co.uk) and Delta (delta.com) have flights via their American-hub airports. Returns start at about £700; allow extra for an airport hotel on the way out because of the connection times.
Where to stay: in San Pedro, Portofino (portofinobelize.com) is calm and beautiful, with beach cabanas from about £150. Like most resorts, it’s a short boat ride out of town. At Banana Beach (bananabeach.com), doubles start at £63.
On Caye Caulker, try the impeccable Tree Tops Guesthouse (00 501-226 0240, treetopsbelize.com), which has doubles from £33. Around Hopkins, the excellent Hamanasi (520 7073, hamanasi.com) has doubles from £130. On Tobacco Caye, the prettiest rooms are at Tobacco Caye Paradise (520 2742; doubles from £51).
For more options, visit travelbelize.org.
Tour operators: several specialist firms can organise a tailor-made trip to see the country’s highlights, ending with a beach break. Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has nine days in Belize, staying at the Hamanasi, in Dangriga, and the Portofino, on Ambergris Caye, from £1,868pp, B&B, including flights from London, domestic flights and transfers. Or try Reef & Rainforest (01803 866965, reefandrainforest.co.uk) or Veloso Tours (020 8762 0616, veloso.com).
When to go: the high season is December to April, which is drier and cooler, although the temperature still ranges between 28C and 35C.
Bernard Lyall travelled as a guest of Journey Latin America