MORE RAMBLES IN BELIZE
By Lan Sluder
Copyright 2001, All Rights Reserved
This is the first of several reports on my recent rambles in Belize. My family -- wife Sheila Lambert, son Brooks Lambert-Sluder, 17, and about to go off to college at Harvard, and daughter Rose Lambert-Sluder, 12 -- and I spent part of July and August 2001 rambling around Belize, covering almost 1,500 miles by car, boat and small plane, from Consejo to PG, Cayo to the cayes. This was my family’s fourth or fifth visit to Belize, and my 437th, or something like that. Least, it feels that way. As always, things in Belize were the same as ever, and very different.
Regardless of what the newspapers say or the statistics may show, Belize simply looks more prosperous than ever. New homes and commercial buildings are going up, people have money to buy things, from sodas to new cars, many of the resorts and restaurants are crawling with tourists, and a lot of dreams are being dreamed. Roads are being paved and improved, road signs are being installed, and even gas prices have declined a bit, down to US$2.80 or so a gallon in some areas. Americans are buying land in Belize hand over fist, especially on Ambergris Caye, around Hopkins, in Placencia and south around Punta Negra. Perhaps the bubble is due to burst, but for now things are still pretty good in Belize.
Hotels in San Pedro, Cayo, Belize City, Hopkins and Caye Caulker report strong bookings. In part, I think this is because Belize hotels are finally getting their act together. Some of the better ones are doing a great job meeting guest expectations. The days of overpriced hotels with linoleum on the floors, three inches of foam on the bed, and Tang and white bread on the breakfast table are about over. Even in the off-season some hotels are full, and several hotel owners said they had just had the best July in history. Summer in Placencia, though, remains pretty slow, except at a handful of well-marketed resorts such as Robert’s Grove. Despite improvements to the Southern Highway, Punta Gorda is still dead for tourism, and Corozal Town isn’t much better off. Tourism has been on a roll in Belize ever since Keith, though hotel owners are seeing a bit of a slowdown for the fall and early 2002 season. The weakness in the U.S. economy may finally be kicking in for Belize.
Though the newspapers are full of crime reports, and more hotels are hiring security guards, we had not a single concern about safety. The only small problem we had was that someone broke a door handle on our Suzuki Grand Vitara, trying unsuccessfully to break in. It apparently happened in a remote area near the Macal River, when we left the car parked overnight.
The weather was excellent, with barely one day of rain the entire trip, though a few nights there were storm squalls. It was seasonably hot and humid, with a few still days on the coast and cayes bringing out the bugs in force. We had just one flat tire, nobody got sick despite eating and drinking in the best places and worst dives we could find (except toward the end of the trip I came down with what was either a mild case of dengue or a nasty case of flu), and we spent only a small part of our children’s inheritance.
We got to meet a lot of old friends and made a few new ones, I hope. Unfortunately, we also missed seeing some of the folks we'd have liked to meet in person, including several on this board.
Corozal Town and indeed all of Corozal District remains one of my favorite places in all of Belize. It’s friendly, safe, cheap and comfortable. I could spend weeks here, just knocking around Corozal Town or exploring the Sarteneja peninsula. While the area is becoming recognized for as one of the best places in Belize for retirement or relocation, it still has a long way to go in tourism. Off-season, hotels remain mostly empty, with only visiting mission groups and enrouters from Mexico keeping the cash registers ringing. This may all change, though, with the development of the Galeria Maya casino complex ... but somehow we doubt it. Here’s a bit of what we found new or different:
New Ferry Between Corozal Town and San Pedro. The Lady Lowe ferry service began in June 2001 and is already proving popular with both locals and tourists, with as many as 40 passengers. Currently it runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday but likely will be expanded to daily. Departure from Corozal is at 6 a.m. sharp, from the Corozal Bay Inn/Tony’s pier, arriving at the Texaco dock on the back side of Ambergris Caye. The Lady Lowe, owned by an American who lives in Copper Bank, returns from San Pedro at 4 p.m. Fare is US$32.50 round trip, or US$17.50 one-way. The open boat, with two 200-horse outboard motors, makes the trip in about one and a half hours. Hotels in Corozal and San Pedro sell tickets, or you can purchase them at the departure piers. Word is that another ferry service may soon begin operation between Corozal and San Pedro.
Galeria Maya. The hoopla surrounding the announced six-story hotel, casino, marina and shopping center, Galeria Maya, announced in mid-2001 for a site just south of the Corozal Free Zone, reminds some in Corozal as a grand example of smoke and mirrors. Some locals, reluctant to be quoted by name, are saying that they believe the complex, on 55 acres on the Four Mile Lagoon about a mile south of the Mexico-Belize border, will never actually get off the ground. It is, they say, a way for some people to rack up fees and enjoy expense-paid trips. Others think the heavy hitters involved with the project, including Glenn Godfrey, will make it work. Many are taking a wait-and-see attitude. “I’m neutral,” says Marti Conway, who with her daughter and Francisco Puck operates the Hok’ol K’in Guesthouse in Corozal Town. She says she is waiting to see if it will in fact be built as scheduled and if so how if at all it will benefit the tourism industry in Corozal. There does seem to be some dredging going on now in the Four Mile Lagoon, though nothing actually has been built on the site. The idea apparently is to bring in cruise ships through the Bay of Chetumal, and to draw tourists and Mexican gamblers in from the Yucatan. Does that strike anybody else as blue sky dreaming? High rollers are going to come down to a little casino on a small lagoon in the middle of nowhere? Guess that’s how Las Vegas got started, but I’m like the guy from Missouri -- you’re gonna have to show me before I’ll believe it. Belize is no stranger to blue skies projects. Numerous plans for major hotels developments have been announced with great fanfare for Ambergris Caye. Most of these plans are now defunct or in limbo, having faded away without even a trace of public relations. Galeria Maya has a bit of that same feel. Only time will tell.
(New) * * + International Cozy Corners Guesthouse, 2nd Street North (P.O. Box 283), Corozal Town; e-mail and telephone should be available soon. This new guesthouse in Corozal Town looks like a winner. When renovation of the first level of a large yellow concrete house at the north edge of the main part of town is completed in late summer 2001, the hotel will have three good-sized guest rooms, each with private bath, air conditioning and tile floors. There is a small swimming pool in front and attractively landscaped gardens in back, adjoining a small restaurant and bar. The guest floor also has a large commons area. This place reminds me of the Aguada Hotel near San Ignacio, a popular place with similar amenities and similar value pricing. If this new guesthouse sticks to its planned pricing, it will be the clear value leader in Corozal Town, just as Aguada is in Cayo. Daily rates are expected to be US$25 plus for two of the rooms, and US$32.50 for the master room. Weekly rates starting at US$157.50 and monthly rates starting at US$525 also are available. It is owned by Darlene Bartlett, an American who has lived in Corozal for three years, and her husband, Mario Bovio, a Mexican.
(Update) * * - Corozal Bay Inn, Corozal Bay Road, South End (next to Tony’s), Corozal Town, tel. 501-4-22691, www.corozalbayinn.com.
I was disappointed in the accommodations here when I finally got to stay overnight in them in late July 2001, though I was impressed by the bar and restaurant. The four two-bedroom suites, in a pink building across the road from the bay but within view of it, are spacious and have a lot of potential, but they need serious upgrading and a thorough makeover. The kitchenettes were particularly unappealing, with sinks that had stained tiles and rusty fixtures; the gas stoves had obviously been around a long time. The beds (one double in each of the two bedrooms) have inexpensive mattresses, and mine creaked loudly every time I turned over. Even with a good sea breeze and several fans, in July the rooms were extremely warm. In winter they would be more pleasant. All the suites do have color cable TV and are fully furnished down to the tableware. The helpful owners, Doug and Maria Podzun, say they are planning to air condition at least two of the suites, which would help. On the positive side, the new pool, just steps from the hotel’s pier, is a nice addition. Someplace Else Restaurant & Poolside Lounge, the bay front thatch bar, cooled by the bay breezes, has become a popular meeting place, and the restaurant downstairs below the owners’ living quarters is attractive, with tasteful furnishings from Mexico, and, thankfully, it’s air conditioned. Local residents seem to like the food here, especially items like the shrimp basket (USS$10 for one-half pound of fried shrimp with fries and salad) and fish and chips basket (US$8). A grilled T-bone steak is just US$7.50. There’s live music by the Mahogany Chips every Sunday. The lounge and restaurant are closed Mondays. We are sorry that we can’t been more positive about the accommodations here, as the large house-keeping units are much needed for weekly or other longer-term rental by retirees and others making the move to Corozal. However, until we see some major improvements here to the suites, we have downgraded the rating to two stars minus.
(New) * + Marvirton Guest House & Lounge, # 16, 2nd Street South, Corozal Town, tel. 501-4-23365, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. This new budget guest house in downtown Corozal has eight rooms, four with private bath. There’s no A/C but rooms have ceiling fans and cable TV. The 1960s vintage house has been charmingly renovated by the Belizean couple who own it, Anthony and Virginia Bradley. They provide what they note is a family atmosphere. A new pool, tiny but doubtless big enough to do the job on a hot day, is in a garden area behind the house, next to the restaurant and lounge. Rates are reasonable -- US$25 single or double in rooms with shared bath, and US$27.50 with private bath.
(Update) * * * + Casablanca by the Sea, Consejo Village, Corozal District, tel. 501-4-12018, e-mail email@example.com. If you usually end up needing a vacation from your vacation, consider this little inn at end of the road in Consejo Village, about 7 miles north of Corozal Town on the bay. Corozal Town is a delightful place with not that much to do, and Consejo Village (Consejo is Spanish for advice) is Corozal in slow motion. At Casablanca, there’s almost nothing to do, which at a certain time in one’s life is just the thing. There’s no pool, so you don’t need to feel guilty about not getting in your laps. There’s no beach (though local residents swim in the bay), so you don’t have to worry about getting the perfect tan. There are no phones in your room, and the TV, when I was there, got only a few fuzzy Spanish language channels from Mexico (though Casablanca does promise satellite TV and HBO.) You can just sit under a little palapa on the bay all day long and read, or retire to your room, air conditioned or not, as you please, and relax on a comfortable bed. At night, watch the twinkling lights of bustling Chetumal, capital of Mexico’s Quintana Roo state, across the bay. The staff, headed by manager Irvin Wade, who recently was voted head of the Corozal chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, Belize’s top hospitality industry group, is friendly but not at all pushy. The prices are equally unprepossessing, at US$55 double off-season for a cozy, stylish room with and air conditioning, or $10 less for a room with fan and bay breezes through the windows. All the rooms feature saltillo tile floors, custom-made furnishings of mahogany and other tropical woods, and stunning hand carved mahogany doors featuring Mayan themes. If you get bored, you can drive into Corozal Town for shopping (bananas, 16 or more for a buck) or for dinner (tacos, two for US 75 cents at Cactus Plaza) or a surprisingly fine French dinner for under US$10 at Café Kela. Or take a hike around Consejo Village, which takes 10 minutes. We don’t particularly encourage this sort of thing, but Type As can take a boat across the bay to the ruins of Cerros, or a shopping trip into Chetumal. A multi-million dollar six-story hotel, casino and shopping center, Galeria Maya, has been announced for a site on the Four Mile Lagoon near the Mexican border, about 16 miles from Casablanca by road, and another casino has been rumored for the Consejo area, but locals are taking bets the complexes never open. Owners, John and Beverly Tempe, the American couple who own this inn, might disagree, but the saving grace of this inn at the end of nowhere is its ability to put you to sleep, and to put the cares of the world behind you.
Dining in Corozal: We really enjoyed Cactus Plaza (# 6 6th Street South, tel. 501-4-22004), a couple of blocks from the bay. Service was friendly, the tacos, salbutes, tostadas and other Mexican dishes were absolutely delicious, and the prices were right -- from US 25 cents for a salbute. Most menu items are under a dollar. Four of us ate a big meal, with beers and soft drinks for under US$15. The seating is at the counter and at outdoor tables (protected by canvas). This was one of our best meals in all of Belize, and the cheapest. Café Kela remains the top nice place to eat in town. The seafood is fresh and cheap (most dishes under US$5) and the pizza is the best in Corozal. Prices are extraordinarily low for what you -- we had five entrees and sides plus lime juices and the total with tip came to US$22. Tony’s is still good, though Corozal Bay Inn’s lounge and restaurant may have taken some of Tony’s regular business. Most meals except breakfast are now served in the lovely palapa on the water (it replaced the old palapa which had seen so many enjoyable nights.) We especially recommend the fajitas. Dinner for four with a few drinks here came to a little over US$45, pricey for Corozal but affordable for most visitors. The market is a good place to pick up inexpensive fruit and vegetables (bananas eight for US 50 cents, star fruit US 50 cents a pound) and Reyes grocery has, as claimed, the best selection and lowest prices in town, including “strong rum 55 Belize dollars a gallon.”
COPPER BANK AREA
(Update) * The Last Resort, Copper Bank Village, Corozal District, tel. 501-4-12009. Donna Noland and Enrique Flores run this little budget lodge in Copper Bank Village, at the mouth of Laguna Secca and the Bay of Chetumal. Nothing is fancy here, but the nine little cabanas are clean, cheap and cheerful. Prices start at US$12.50, or the best deal you can negotiate for a longer stay. The lodge now has electricity and some units have private baths. The setting on the water is peaceful, Enrique keeps the grounds well chopped, and you’ll really like Copper Bank, a friendly and prosperous mostly Mestizo village. There’s a library with a large collection of paperbacks (we promised Donna we’d send her some back issues of BELIZE FIRST, which she knew about from travelers bringing it with them but she doesn’t have any copies in library). You can get inexpensive food (including rare root beer Fantas) in the lodge’s palapa. The Cerros ruins are about three miles away by road and trail, or a short ride by boat.
Mayan Sands. We had a look-see at this real estate development near Cerros ruins. It’s about three miles from Copper Bank Village on a road that is best described as a seasonal trail. Once there, a road has been cut parallel to the water, allowing access to the lots, of which reportedly about eight or ten have been sold. The road and some partially cleared lots are all you’ll find here right now. George Russell, a dry cleaner from the U.S., is aggressively marketing these lots on the Internet. He claims they are on the “best beach in Belize” and promises a golf course and other amenities. Right now, these lots are just limestone, scrub trees and mangrove. There is no real beach and won’t be any unless you remove the mangroves (generally illegal in Belize) and any golf course is years if not decades or centuries away. The water is nice though in places the bottom is icky. We actually kinda like this remote area, but then we don’t mind being in the middle of nowhere, which is where these lots are. Caveat emptor, baby.
Cerros, on the shores of Corozal (or Chetumal) Bay, is easily reached by boat -- on a good day just 20 minutes and US$20. Of course, we went the hard way, by road and foot. From Corozal, it’s about 9 miles to Copper Bank village, and then almost 3 miles on a seasonal road, at which point you need to walk on a cut trail about 25 minutes to the ruins, which occupy a stunning sites on the water. Begin by driving to the hand-pulled ferry over the New River. Look for the ferry symbol just south of Tony’s on the road to Orange Walk Town. Drive several miles on this well-maintained limestone road. The hand-cranked free ferry will hold three or four cars. It runs continuously during daylight hours. At most, you’ll have to wait 15 or 20 minutes. Any passengers must “alight” before the drive puts the vehicle on the ferry, which can occasionally be a bit tricky. Once aboard, sign the book, giving your name and license plate number (watch out, grease from the cable used to pull the boat can get on your clothes). The river crossing takes a few minutes. Then continue driving until you reach a T intersection with the Copper Bank-Progresso Road. To the right takes you to Progresso, Chunox and, some 30 miles away, to Sarteneja. To the left takes you to Copper Bank. In Copper Bank, it’s best to ask for directions -- Enrique Flores at The Last Resort can provide good directions -- as otherwise it is unlikely you will be able to find the ruins on your own. After driving on a rough trail, impassable after heavy rains, you’ll end up in a cane field. From there, walk a cut trail through rough bush about 25 minutes to Cerros. Bring plenty of water and bug juice (the mozzies are fierce). Also, consider bringing a picnic, as there are many lovely places to sit and eat lunch overlooking the water. As long as the usual breezes blow, the mosquitoes won’t bother you when you are near the water. The excavated area of Cerros is to your right as you exit from the trail. There are three notable mounds, with some excavation, but don’t expect Tikal. Also here is a small visitors center, which wasn’t open when we were there. Cerros’ position at the mouth of the New River allowed it to control trade in the area, and beginning about 2000 years ago it had a period of explosive growth and power. Today, relatively little has been excavated. The highlight of the visit is climbing the 70-foot high temple, with views of the water. In theory admission is US$5 per person, but there was no caretaker around when we were there. In fact, we were the only people at Cerros, and probably the only people within a mile or two. Yet we never felt concerned about safety, as Copper Bank and environs is a friendly, safe area.
MORE TO COME ... on Crooked Tree, Belize City, Cayo, Hopkins, Placencia, PG, Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker