<Excerpts from More Rambles on the Cayes and Coast, July/August 2004>
Over the years I have been visiting San Pedro, the face of the island has changed dramatically, and the psychological tenor has changed, too. Until the early 1990s, Ambergris was still a sleepy island, with the flavor of both Mexico and Belize. Even then its fishing village days were past, but the style and pace of the old times remained in evidence.
Most anyone who came in the early to mid-90s and has revisited San Pedro recently well knows the physical changes. San Pedro town proper, if we ignore the new bank buildings and other developments along Front Street and don’t look too closely, still resembles its former self. The big changes have come south of town, where Coconut Drive has lost much of its open space and, with the condos and fences abutting the roadway, is beginning to look closed in. And on North Ambergris, where the number of new homes on the beach amazes me. I can’t imagine what North Ambergris will be like when a bridge is finally built across the river channel.
To me, however, what has changed more is atmosphere of the island. The pace of daily life is faster. People walk faster. Drivers of golf carts and the ever-multiplying cars seem more intent on getting to where they’re going. I’ve even seen a few mild instances of road rage.
How many people are on the island? The population was 4,499, according to the 2000 Belize census. But surely the number is much larger, especially if you include construction workers, folks from the mainland living with relatives, and part-time expats. Closer to 7,500, I’d say, and growing every day.
A lot of Sanpedranos are making money. Most hotel owners and tourism operators are doing well. Annual occupancy at some popular resorts is 80% or higher, an unheard-of rate in Belize, where 40% used to be considered great. Business people are flying in and out. They’re e-mailing right and left. San Pedro has always been one of the most prosperous places in Belize. Now the money that’s starting to pour into the island is showing up in tangible ways. In new boats and cars. In US$400,000 and US$500,000 condos and houses.
Real estate prices like these aren’t even remarkable any more. They’re just accepted, as they are in Atlanta or Ft. Lauderdale. Tourists shop for real estate, and there’s an edge to their looking. “Are we coming in too late? Are there still some deals on beachfront? Have I missed the boat?”
And the visitors to San Pedro are changing. Most of the tourists I see remind me of the ones I used to see in Sint Maarten or Anguilla in the 1970s and 80s. They expect to pay a couple of hundred bucks a night, maybe more, for a hotel room. They expect to dine well, and they don’t mind paying twenty or thirty bucks for dinner. They drink tequila or vodka, even though imported booze costs several times what a local rum costs. Most of them are snorkelers, not divers. They’ve been to St. Thomas. They’ve been to Cozumel. They’ve been to Key West. Now they’re trying San Pedro.
San Pedro has not one but two wine stores -- Wine Devine, in a new location at Vilma Linda Plaza on Tarpon Street, and the new Premium Wine & Spirits at AquaMarina Suites shops. Plus, Rendezvous restaurant makes and sells wines. A bottle of Beaujolais-Villages from Georges du Bouef goes for around US$11, just two or three bucks more than in North Carolina. Groceries are well stocked, too. You can buy almost anything you can back home, but on the other hand very few items on the shelves are unique to Belize or anywhere in the region.
I’m not saying all these changes are bad. The booming tourist economy has provided a lot of decent jobs. Not a few Sanpedranos have become wealthy from real estate, contracting or running a business. Some of the old time Sanpedranos can buy and sell most tourists who come here. For visitors, the island offers a lot more of everything -- more and better restaurants, a much wider choice of accommodations, and plenty to do, whether partying or touring. Ambergris Caye remains a very special place, and comparison with so much of the world, it is still relatively uncommercialized and undeveloped. The beauty of the reef and the sea will never fail to amaze me.
What I do think, though, is that San Pedro has already reached the threshold of major change. There’s no turning back. Barring an economic slowdown in the U.S., we’re going to see an acceleration of growth on Ambergris Caye. While we’ll continue to see some new resort development, and perhaps a casino or three, the driver will be real estate, with hundreds of new condos, vacation homes and retirement homes going up over the next few years. The key is whether local government and local business leaders can manage that growth and provide for infrastructure, or whether the island will turn into a smaller, sprawling version of Mexico’s "Mayan Riviera."
Most visitors are probably pleasantly surprised to find so many good restaurants on one little island. Belize doesn't have a rep as a great eating destination, but I can easily gain 10 pounds per visit to San Pedro. Most of my old favorites are still well worth revisiting. Elvi’s is as busy as ever. Many probably miss Clarence and Annabelle (who returned to Africa, I’m told, and bought 20 acres on the ocean), but the food at Capricorn seems to be as good as ever. Jam-Bel still serves hot and tasty jerk in that incomparably funky rooftop setting. Blue Water Grill still draws big crowds.
Some of the new places are packed, too. We had to wait 20 minutes on a weeknight for a table at Caramba! Restaurant. No wonder Rene Reye’s place is popular -- the food is well-prepared and well-priced, and the service is fast and friendly. A whole grilled snapper with rice and beans and salad is US$7.50, fried chicken is US$5 and a rum and tonic is US$2. Wow!
The list of good places to eat at fair prices goes on and on: Casa Picasso, Caliente, Papi’s, Tastes of Thailand. And there are still plenty of cheap places where you can fill up for very little -- Antojito’s Santelmo, Ruby’s (for breakfast), the vendors at Central Park (now there’s a little row of takeout places.) You’d need at least two weeks on the island just to sample them all. Even the hotel restaurants on Ambergris are usually pretty good. Cases in point: the restaurants at Victoria House, Mata Chica, Banana Beach and Caribe Island, among others.
This trip I stayed at two hotels on Ambergris Caye, Banana Beach and Mata Chica, and revisited a number of others. I’ve had the pleasure of staying at Tim Jeffers’ Banana Beach a number of times, and I’m glad to report that it is as good as ever. The staff is still pleasant perky and professional. My wife and I stayed in a seafront one-bedroom suite in the older section, but my kids tried out the regular rooms in the newer addition. I’m impressed by the value you get with these rooms. Double rates off-season are US$81 and US$114 in high season, and that includes breakfast. The rooms are new and bright, with quality furnishings, either a king or two twin beds, cable TV, phone, safe and of course A/C and en suite bath. The breakfast deal works with way: You get a voucher good for the Banana Beach breakfast (usually scrambled eggs, fresh cinnamon rolls, fruit and coffee, plenty for most people) or if you want extras the voucher is good for US$5 toward anything on the menu. It’s served in the new El Divino restaurant. I didn’t get a chance to eat dinner there, but I can attest to the fact that it has killer martinis.
Mata Chica is a place I’ve visited many times but never as an overnight guest. My family stayed in a two-bedroom villa. Like everything at Mata Chica, the villas have style and, although they are back a ways from the water, a nicely tropical view of the grounds and sea. Staying at Mata Chica was very nice, but what has my motor running is the new La Perla del Caribe, the villa colony Mata Chica’s owners are building a little ways north of their existing resort. These are truly mansions by the sea. They’re expected to open around March 2005.
At the other extreme is what apparently will be called Royal Caribbean Resort, a little south of Victoria House. This is a collection of little thatch huts, all jammed up together in a totally unappealing way. I call it DFC South. Who knows what plans the Wittes have for this place? It supposedly will have 50 units. A casino, maybe?
ODDS AND ENDS
The Belize Social Security Board, already swamped in red ink and bad loans, reportedly is looking at 2,000 acres on North Ambergris. • Barges are still coming in at the municipal pier. The new marina, which was expected to handle barge traffic, apparently has some problems -- it’s not deep or wide enough • San Pedro is trying to clean up its beaches. You’re no longer supposed to take golf carts on the beach, and boat owners are asked to remove their skiffs. But walking up North Ambergris I came across enough old shoes, cans, bottles and other garbage on the beaches to fill a city dump. • The first elevator on the island is now in operation at Corona del Mar. It takes guests up to the third floor rooms. • San Pedro now has a tourism information center -- it’s located on Front Street at the Town Hall.