Sunday, March 9, 2014

Travel notes: Ambergris Caye, Belize

 A few weeks ago, J and I got to take an honest-to-goodness vacation on an honest-to-goodness tropical island - Ambergris Caye, off the coast of (and part of) Belize.

Oh. My.

We're talking swaying palm trees, turquoise waters, quiet beaches, and drinks with tiny umbrellas. Where the schedule for the day consists of: sleep until you wake up, lazy coffees under those swaying palm trees, read a book, take a nap, get a suntan. When your most pressing decisions are, do I get the snapper or the grouper? and, is it a beer, wine, or cocktail kind of evening?

You should do this. I fully believe that everybody should experience this kind of lackadaisical bliss at least one time in their life, and it should definitely take place on what at times felt like a deserted island.

And actually, you should do this sooner rather than later. In all honesty (and if you'll allow me to get serious for a second here), I fear for the future of Belize's islands. While we were able to enjoy seemingly untouched waters and walk-up bars that made little distinction between the sand and the barstool, we also got a more than a glimpse of what one day could be a very real case of overdevelopment - high-rise condos, massive all-inclusives, beach entrance fees, and overpriced prix fixe dinners, just to name a few. Case in point: on our second-to-last day on the island, we passed a billboard stuck in the sand of an empty lot that advertised a coming hotel described to be "the Venice of the Caribbean"- multiple rooms and suites all connected by freshwater canals, complete with gondolas and a Bridge of Sighs!

But I digress. Though the island as we saw it was far from undiscovered (there were plenty of American and a handful of European tourists, mostly older and on 2-4-week vacations), it was still one of the most stunning places I have ever visited.

The majority of people who visit Belize tend to turn it into a two-part trip - they spend the first half of their vacation trekking through the jungle on the mainland, staying at eco-lodges, visiting zoos and nature conservatories, and hiking up Mayan Ruins. Then, they hop a flight over to the islands that lie between the mainland and the barrier reef for a week of scuba diving, parasailing, boating, and sun bathing. J and I didn't have two weeks to devote to this vacation so we opted for the latter half of the itinerary, spending 5 nights/6 days on Ambergris Caye.

We made the right choice for us. While I usually operate on a "let's-conquer-all" travel setting (I think I saw more of Paris in four days than most Parisians see in a lifetime), J and I both had been burning the candle at both ends for quite some time, and we were exhausted. Scaling ruins would have been a really fun experience, but I think we would have come back more tired than we already were.

So we chose to take the path of least activity - and exceeded our own expectations ;) Other than a half-day "Snuba" excursion (something that warrants it's own post, so more on that later), we. did. nothing.

Ok, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. We did spend an afternoon wandering around the tiny town of San Pedro, but weren't too impressed with anything we saw there - like a lot of major island cities it was cramped, crowded with day-trippers from the cruise ships that dock in Belize City, and had far too many souvenir shops for my taste.

But we mostly spent our time lounging by the pool and ordering from the bar. I drank my weight in Belikin Beer, which is brewed and bottled in Belize, and J discovered the Mudslide, which turned into one of the more endearing moments of my life.

If you go:
*We inadvertently booked the trip over Valentine's Day, and as a result couldn't find one hotel for all five nights. We ended up staying first at Caribbean Villas (located in the southern part of the island with slightly more rustic rooms (i.e., I found a few lizards in the bathroom), decent pool, fantastic beach, great bar/restaurant on premise) and then headed north to Coco Beach Resorts (spacious rooms, massive pool with a swim-up bar, decent restaurant, complimentary water sports). We chose not to stay "in town" (in San Pedro proper) and I'm so glad we didn't. Though cheaper, I think the ambient noise from nearby bars would have been a huge problem.

*Food was in the moderate-high price range. I think we could have chosen some cheaper dinner options, but we were on vacation. Some favorites:
Blue Water Grill - fantastic sushi!
Caliente - mai tai's as big as your head
Hidden Treasures - on the far south end and great for a quieter, more romantic evening; offers complimentary pick-up/drop-off services to and from your hotel
Mambo at the Matachica Resort - closer to town but also offers a pick-up/drop-off service, and is one of those stunningly beautiful open-air, candle-lit-dinner under a thatched roof experiences

*We found the island to be pretty safe, even when walking back to our hotel after dinner in the dark. Obviously every traveller should take caution while visiting unfamiliar areas (each of our hotel rooms had safes in which we locked up our passports and most of our money), but Ambergris Caye is a great destination for anyone looking to branch out from domestic and/or all-inclusive resort vacations; I also wouldn't hesitate to recommend this area to a solo traveller - on the puddle-jumper from Belize City to San Pedro, I sat next to a woman roughly around my age who was on her own for the week. We happened to run into her a few days later and she reported that she was having a fantastic time.

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