May 29, 2005
New York Times
A Belize Hideaway, Even for the Fish
By DANIELLE PERGAMENT
HE boat ride can be a little rough, though some might argue that's part of the appeal. The destination is a three-acre spit of floury white sand called Ranguana Caye, 18 miles off the coast of southern Belize. Local residents have intoxicated me with stories of fishing and of snorkeling alongside dolphins in the world's second largest reef.
I have visions of grabbing snapping sea lobsters out of the coral and throwing them on the grill. Or of wrestling a 50-pound marlin. I've heard tales of polka-dotted rays, stoplight parrotfish with their tie-dyed-looking scales, skin-singeing fire coral, and whale sharks feasting on guppies.
But first I have to get there. To do that, I board my ride from Placencia, a peninsula in the south of the country, on a postcard-perfect January day. Imagine a slab of wood with a blender fastened to the back navigating 10-foot swells for 45 minutes. O.K., maybe it's not that death-defying, but nevertheless, all I have to protect myself is the giant Hefty I'm wearing and the assurances of the gangly teenage captain.
I remind myself of what I've been told dozens of times since I got here: "You just gotta Belize."
This tiny country, a little smaller than Massachusetts, has caught the collective eye of vacationing hordes for years. In about a week, I've come to realize what travel agents have long known: Like every nation between Mexico and Colombia, Belize has been sucked into the Central American marketing machine and churned out as "the next Costa Rica," a sobriquet that's worked. The tourists have swarmed like locusts to Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, islands in northern Belize.
There was a recent hiccup in the booming tourist business in April, however, after word got out that striking telecommunications workers had caused rioting, the closing of borders and an airport shutdown. In truth, the two major political parties in Belize's parliamentary government are feuding over when to hold elections, and strikes by teachers, customs workers and telecommunications workers in Belize City disrupted phone lines (and credit card transactions) for a few days. Also, two airlines canceled one flight each into the country.
"My, how rumors run rampant," wrote a Belizean hotelier, Risa Frackman, in an e-mail message last month. "During the phone strike, some of the credit card machines didn't work, but other than that it is business as usual - we are 95 percent full at the moment."
Her hotel is in the village of Placencia, on the end of the peninsula and my point of embarkation to Ranguana Caye. It has gone undetected by the trampling, sunburned masses, basically because it's a bumpy, bruising, hours-long car ride from anywhere else.
"The average life of a car in Placencia is two years, and I wish I was kidding," said Mrs. Frackman's husband, Robert, who with her owns the Inn at Robert's Grove and lease my destination, Ranguana Caye. "There's one road in and the big news recently is that it was just paved, at least partially. San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is 30 years ahead of us. That's the Belize the tourists know; that's where the travel agents send them."
As a result, Placencia is a place few know. "There are only 700 residents in the town and a couple thousand on the whole peninsula," said David Vernon, co-chairman of the Plancencia Chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association.
Placencia is how Hollywood would do a laid-back Caribbean hamlet. (Interestingly, the ritziest place in town, the Turtle Inn Resort, is owned by Francis Ford Coppola.) The set would include the wooden fishing boats painted primary colors moored along the beaches, thatched-roofed bars with sandy floors, and smiling Belizeans in colorful sarongs selling hand-carved salad tongs.
"Placencia will never be Cancún," said Mr. Frackman, who first visited Belize with his wife eight years ago and stayed. "There's no risk of overdevelopment because the infrastructure, hell, even the electricity, couldn't handle it."
For all the charm of the mainland, however, the real action takes place several miles out to sea. A few days into my vacation, it became increasingly apparent that what I was looking for could only be found offshore, on the Belize Barrier Reef - the world's second largest - which brings me back to the sad, little boat and small mountains of waves that pummeled me nearly senseless.
Just when I thought I could not ingest any more seawater, there was Ranguana Caye. It was gorgeous and small - not quaint little island small, but really tiny: three acres of stunning white sand with a thicket of palm trees sprouting out the middle. Walking the perimeter of Ranguana, which takes all of five minutes, has a post-apocalyptic feel to it. No other land mass is visible, leaving you with the sense that you're the last person on earth.
"On a very clear day you can see Coco Solo," Andrea Villanueva, who used to spend her summer vacations on Ranguana and is now one of its caretakers, told me. "Coco Solo is about 12 miles from Ranguana and only 10 feet wide, but you can see it because it has a tree, one little coconut tree."
Ranguana is perched atop the barrier reef, which acts as a shroud, breaking the surf around island. You can walk hundreds of feet out and the water still feels as calm, warm and shallow as bath water. Underwater visibility can reach 150 feet.
Even the fish know a good deal when they swim in it - they don't migrate from this spot. In practical terms, that means fishing, snorkeling and kayaking conditions that rival the best in the world.
"We customize Ranguana to the guests," Mr. Frackman said. "We've sent out scuba instructors to get guests certified. We've even arranged for a priest to go out there and marry a couple."
Ranguana has four cabanas (three for guests, one for the caretakers) and a restaurant - although the term restaurant is used loosely: a few benches and a grill under a thatched roof is more accurate. The caretakers, who also act as chefs, maids, gardeners, fishermen and repairmen, work on a rotating schedule, a few weeks at a time.
"I don't get lonely out here because there are a few local fisherman who anchor just off the beach and sleep in their boats overnight," Miss Villanueva. "I'm a fisherman's daughter - the sea can't scare me. Sometimes, we fish until past midnight and have fresh barracuda for lunch the next day."
There are no phones, fax machines, or televisions for guests on Ranguana. Outside communication is by marine radio, and everything is solar powered (there's a generator for emergencies).
"No one gets cabin fever out here, not even the Americans," Ms. Villanueva said. "Sometimes the problem is that they don't want to leave. And it's no fun to have to kick someone off the island."
Because it's on the southernmost tip of a long, skinny peninsula, Placencia is miles off the beaten path. Most visitors drive the circuitous - and often bumpy - road from Belize City to Plancencia, which can take three to four hours to cover about 100 miles. For more information, see www.placencia.com
Maya Island Air, (800) 225-6732, www.mayaairways.com,
has several flights daily from Belize City to Placencia. Flights take about 35 minutes and cost about $75.
Where to Stay
The most comfortable accommodations are a short bike ride north of the village. Most places add a 10 percent service fee plus taxes to their rates.
If you stay at Kitty's Place Beach Resort, north of Placencia village, (501) 523-3227, www.kittysplace.com,
try to book a beachfront cabana with a veranda ($149 a night) and visit the bird-watching deck. Budget rooms start at $35 a night .
The Inn at Robert's Grove, north of Placencia village, (800) 565-9757, www.robertsgrove.com,
is home to three great pools, a very popular beachside bar and the most reputable dive shop in Placencia. There are 50 rooms, with doubles from $145 a night. A night on Ranguana Caye on the barrier reef starts at $323 a person, including transportation, meals and drinks.
Turtle Inn, north of Placencia, (800) 746-3743, www.turtleinn.com,
is the brainchild of Francis Ford Coppola. All the 18 rooms and suites are free-standing cabanas, either on or just off the beach, with thatched roofs. Quaint footpaths lead to the beach, restaurant and two bars. The immaculate grounds, Balinese décor and the Mare Restaurant, (501) 523-3244, serving Italian and local cuisine, add up to the nicest hotel in Placencia, if not all of Belize. Double rooms start at $240, with Continental breakfast.
Where to Eat
The Galley, Market Square, (501) 523-3133, has Belizean and Creole dishes like conch steak or spicy snapper (each $9).
The beachfront restaurant DeTatch, (501) 503-3385, has great views and drinks, but the coconut curry shrimp ($10) and fish burritos ($5) are the real draws. http://travel2.nytimes.com/2005/05/29/tr...t&position=