I'll soon be putting up a rather lengthy report about my latest rambles around Belize, this trip mostly on the cayes and coast, along with new photos. But a few folks have asked me specifically about my visit to Corozal, so I thought I'd post an early version of this part of my travels.
--Lan Sluder www.belizefirst.com
There are two ways of looking at Corozal Town and environs: Either it’s still a sleepy small town, where very little has changed in the past 15 or 20 years, or else it’s a place about ready to take off, at the edge of the booming Yucatán, with big-time gaming on the way and a bunch of new retirees moving in. You can argue either side, and in Corozal you do get both views, and sometimes from the same fellow.
On the surface at least, not a lot has changed. True, a couple of new hotels have opened (see below), but some of the other hotels in town are either for sale or barely have their doors open. One of the biggest changes, in 2003, was that the new Gabriel Hoare Market replaced the old vegetable market. I sorta liked the old one, myself. On the other hand, some things are definitely moving in Corozal. The Free Zone is still rolling along. It consists of more than 200 acres, with another 200 acres available for development. There are over 250 businesses in the Zone, including five gas stations, employing over a thousand people. One small casino is open, and the new Las Vegas Hotel & Casino (architects Lee & Sakahara, contractor El Dorado Investments, Ltd.) adjoining the Zone is supposed to eventually have 300 hotel rooms. How much all this has benefited local residents is hard to say. It has generated jobs, but as one Corozaleńo put it, “Pumping gas in the Free Zone is not a career.”
One reason Corozal may rock ‘n roll, if it does, is its next-door neighbor, Chetumal. The Mexican government and private investors have poured billions into development along the Cancun-Tulum corridor, and now they’re moving farther south. Cruise ships now dock several times a week at Majahual.
Chetumal, a city with a population nearly equal to that of the entire country of Belize, may at long last get an international airport. Already, it has a U.S.-style shopping mall, La Plaza de las Americas, which sports ultra-chilled air and a 10-screen cineplex (most movies are in English with Spanish subtitles.) The mall is anchored by a large Chedraui store and by Liverpool department store.
Supposedly, Wal-Mart will also open in Chetumal. You can get a Big Mac at one of the McDonald’s in Chet and buy your office supplies at Office Depot. If you need to see a doc, you can get first-rate medical care. Dental, too. All at very reasonable prices. Of course, for non-citizens and non-residents of Belize, the Belize government’s US$18.75 exit fee is a deterrent to crossing the border. Which I guess is the idea.
One expat couple who retired to Corozal, Roger and Deema Kay Thompson, make this point, however: “We used to do a lot more shopping outside of Corozal----Belize City and Orange Walk along with Chetumal and even vacations to Cancun to pick up some items. But Corozal now boasts three new fully stocked, locally owned grocery stores. Also, back in Corozal after an absence of one year is A&R Variety Store. With these stores close at hand there is no need to go out of Corozal for more than a couple of items.” They note that as residents they don’t have to pay the exit fee.
On another front, the area is also generating more interest from would-be retirees. The authors (under pseudonyms) of Belize Retirement Guide still live in Corozal. In my own guides to living and retiring in Belize -- Adapter Kit: Belize and my new eBook, Easy Belize -- I’ve always touted the Corozal area as the best place in Belize for affordable, safe and comfortable living. Despite what you may have heard, there’s plenty of real estate still available, at relatively inexpensive prices, compared both to the rest of Belize and certainly to the U.S. and Costa Rica, though Nicaragua and parts of Honduras and Panama are far cheaper. The road to Consejo is still lined with undeveloped land. Granted, though, a few places have actually been selling lots. Smuggler’s Den reportedly has only one seafront lot left (contact Ray Wagner at email@example.com or call + 501-614-8146). Art Higgins’ Mayan Seaside next door has sold quite a few lots. Lots (not on the water) there have been offered for as little at US$9,000 to $10,000, with financing. There are a couple of little houses already built. Higgins was in Houston when I there, so I didn’t get a chance to talk with him. You can probably reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. 281-497-7797.
I did get to see Bill Wildman, Belize’s best surveyer, real estate guy extraordinaire and overall fine fellow who developed Consejo Shores many years ago. Bill, by the way, is recuperating from some serious surgery, which was done in Belize City at the Universal Medical Services hospital. He raves about the people and medical care there. Jenny Wildman is in Placencia handling real estate sales on the peninsula. They have a new address in Placencia: Bayhore Limited, 100 Embarcadero Rd., Maya Beach, Stann Creek District, tel. 501-523-8019; www.bayshorebelize.com,
e-mail email@example.com. There are three or four houses under construction there now at Consejo Shores, to go with the several handsfull of homes that are already there. There’s even a new little 9-hole golf course under construction at Consejo Shores. The only beachfront lots remaining are a couple of re-sales up near Consejo village, but there are some lovely big lots with water views in the US$20,000 range. I think of all the places I’ve seen in Belize over the years, I still like Consejo Shores the best. I don’t know why I’ve never bought a lot there. Maybe I will, one of these days.
Next to Consejo Shores, at the site of the old Don Quixote Hotel, a new fertiliity and genetics clinic, Reproductive Genetics Institute, is being built. It’s one of some 20 clinics in the U.S. (Chicago, Boston, Denver and elsewhere) and around the world (Russia, Cyprus, Belarus and elswhere). RGI performs in vitro fertilization and embryo transfers, preimplantation and preconception genetics diagnosis for families at high risk for producing children with genetic disorders and other testing for genetic disorders. A principal of RGI is Uri Velinsky, based in Chicago.
Charming Charlotte Zahniser at Charlotte’s Web cybercafé and used book exchange on Fifth Ave. (which is for sale, by the way, if you’ve ever wanted to own an Internet café in Belize) runs a little side business locating rental houses for expats. She says the cheapies, US$200 to $300 a month, are the most in demand, and that such places are still available, at least off-season. And there are plenty of more upmarket houses in the US$400-$700 range.
The food scene in Coro hasn’t changed much. Café Kela on First Ave. across the street from the bay is still the best in town, although this summer, due to an addition to the owner’s household, hubby Stefan is holding down the fort and the restaurant is open only by advance reservation. You can eat well there for under US$10. Tony’s is still pretty good (fajitas are the way to go here), and the seaside setting is pleasant. We arre saddened to hear of the death in August of long-time owner Tony Castillo. Next door, Corozal Bay Inn’s outdoor restaurant gets a good bit of business for drinks and meals, and there’s a new waterfall backdrop for the restaurant. One of my favorite joints, Cactus Plaza, on 6th St. South is renovating and adding another floor and appears, unfortunately, to be moving more towards being a bar and nightclub than a restaurant. TJ’s restaurant wasn’t open when I stopped by, but I’m told it serves breakfast and lunch six days a week and attracts a good number of foreign retirees for morning coffee. The guesthouse and restaurant are for sale.
My family and I had a huge, filling dinner with multiple appetizers, drinks and main dishes for almost nothing at Patti’s Bistro, next to the undertakers. But don’t worry -- the food is good and a real bargain. Out in Consejo, Smugger’s Den still gets some activity on weekend nights.
Yes, you’ll find a few changes in the lodging end in Corozal Town: Central Guesthouse has closed. Hok’ol K’in Guesthouse, TJ’s and the Hotel Maya are up for sale, most at what I consider somewhat unrealistic prices. TJ’s is asking US$650,000 (on a cash flow basis, probably worth one-third to one-half of that), and Hok’ol K’in has been reduced to US$760,000. With the death of Tony Castillo, I don’t know exactly what will happen with the estate, but Tony’s Inn has been at least informally on the market for several millions. Rosita May of Maya’s also has a campground now. Nestor’s has changed hands again, and the rooms are undergoing a major renovation. I’m told a nice young couple now owns it, and we wish them well, but frankly, I don’t quite get it. You’re not going to be able to ask much more for rooms at that location in the middle of town, away from the water. But the renovations will be an improvement. I also don’t get the upscale B&B at the South End, Villa Americas, with rates of US$315 a night in-season -- who in the world would pay prices like that in Corozal?!
Also in the same South End area asTony’s, (sometimes called Gringo Trail), there are several welcome additions to the lodging inventory in Corozal:
Corozal Bay Inn, Almond Dr., P.O. Box 1, Corozal Town; tel. 501-422-2691, fax 800-836-9188 in the U.S. and Canada; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.corozalbayinn.com.
Rates: US$80 double (with possible discounts off-season) plus 7% tax. V and MC accepted.
Corozal Bay Inn has been around for several years, but owners Doug and Marie Podzun sold their original funky units (now renovated, called Hotel Paradise, and offered up by the new owner, locally known as “Herman the German, as mostly weekly or longer-term accommodations, at affordable rates) and have created a charming new cabańa colony by the bay. Doug and Maria -- she’s originally from Mexico, and he’s a Canadian by birth of German heritage who moved to Belize with his family when he was a youngster -- have built 10 attractive cabańas on the water. The cabańas, painted in colorful tropical pastels, are surprisingly spacious and have bay thatch roofs. While most of them are situated to catch the breeze from the bay, they do have air-conditioning (though on a hot day the A/C units may struggle to cool all that open space under the thatch), tile baths, two comfortable beds in each cabańa, and 27” TVs with cable. Two units at the back connect, making them ideal for families. Doug had several hundred dump truck loads of sand brought in and created a tropical beach on the bay. There is a seawall, but you’ll love the water view and the concrete pier. You can sit by the pool, sip something cold in the redone outdoor restaurant and bar and, if you have a wireless laptop, check your e-mail, as Corozal Bay Inn boasts one of the only hotspots in Belize. All in all, the Podzuns have turned their place into one of the nicest spots to stay in northern Belize.
Copa Banana Guesthouse by the Bay, 409 Corozal Bay Rd., P.O. Box 226, Corozal Town, tel. 501-422-0284, fax 422-2710; e-mail email@example.com; www.copabanana.bz.
Rates: US$55 double/US$350 week, plus 7% tax. V and MC accepted.
If you’re in town shopping for property around Corozal, or staying awhile enroute farther south, you couldn’t do much better than this guesthouse, new in early 2004. The rates are affordable, you can cook meals in the common kitchen, complete with dishware, stove, coffeemaker, microwave and fridge, and the owners even run a real estate business, Belize North Real Estate Ltd. Connie and her partner, Gregg, have done up two banana-yellow one-story, ranch-style concrete houses, with a total of five guestrooms (some with queen beds, some with two twins) across the street from their expansive home on the water. The house where my family and I stayed had three bedrooms, each with en suite bath and cable TV, plus a modern kitchen, dining area and living room, so guests have private bedrooms but share the common space. As it happened, there were no other guests when we stayed there, so in effect we had our own private house. It would be a little different if there were other guests. It would be a little like spending the night at your counsin Joe’s house, sharing a hallway and living area with other folks who happen to be in town. They also have a car or two for rent for US$70 a day, and scooters for US$8 an hour. There’s no pool, and you’re not directly on the water, but there is a view of the bay, and the owners are bringing in sand from the bay for a beach area. Water toys such as boogie boards, rafts and innertubes are available for guests.