Rambles Around Belize, Part 2 (of 2)

By Lan Sluder

Up-and-Coming Sarteneja
We arrived by car in Sarteneja on a rainy, cold day. A norther had swept in, causing heavy rains and chilled temps. For a while, I put on a cotton sweater. But when the sun came out, the little village of Sarteneja came to life. Kids play on the dirt streets or swim off the docks. Villagers hang out on the porches or yards of small, plain, but well-maintained houses, speaking Spanish, or stroll down for a cheap bite to eat at Robie’s.

This is Belize like it used to be. Safe. Friendly. Inexpensive. A picturesque setting on the water.

There’s not much to see or do here, except for the Shipstern Reserve. The crocodile crčche has closed, due to the death of its founder, and the baby crocs have been released. Sarteneja is a place just to hang and maybe finish that novel you’ve been working on.

Sarteneja has only a few small guesthouses, a handful of restaurants. We stayed this trip at Candalie’s Sunset Cabańas (email candaliescabans@yahoo.com [email protected]), next door to Krisami’s Guesthouse and owned by members of the same family. For value and comfort, you can’t beat Candalie’s. A roomy cottage, perched just a few feet from the sea, with cable TV and A/C, is only US$40 double. The owner of Fernando’s Guesthouse, down the street also on the water, has done some upgrading of the rooms there. Backpackers Paradise (Backpackers Paradise www.cabanasbelize.com) has funky little cabins for budget-minded travelers. The double beds take up almost all the space, and the baths are outside and shared, but they’re a deal at US$10 double. The owners are a Canadian-Swiss couple.

In my opinion, Sarteneja is Belize’s next Hopkins. It’s already attracting attention from real estate buyers. The only thing that’s holding it back is that it still takes a little effort to get there. The route from Corozal Town is a little faster these days, now that there is a second hand-pulled ferry over Laguna Seca, but it’s still a long sloshy drive, especially after rains. There are several buses a day from Orange Walk Town, and one from Chetumal and Corozal Town. Tropic Air has a scheduled flight (if there’s demand) to Sarteneja’s airstrip, and the twice-daily Thunderbolt water taxi between San Pedro and Corozal Town stops, on request, at Sarteneja. You can also take a skiff from Chetumal to Sarteneja, and have your passport stamped at the police station.

Tiny’s is the new Internet café in Sarteneja.

PG Is Peachy
Peaches may not grow in Toledo, but nonetheless Punta Gorda is peachy. The town has such a lovely waterside setting, comparable to Corozal Town. It’s small, it’s friendly, it’s safe, it’s pretty. There’s so much to do around Toledo – caving, hiking, visiting the many Maya sites – and offshore, where the permit and other fishing is world-class, and where the reefs and water are virtually pristine. It’s a shame more visitors don’t come down and discover it.

Blue Belize Guest House ( Blue Belize Guest House www.bluebelize.com) is a welcome new addition to the list of PG hotels. It has views of the water, and rates are an affordable US$55 (plus 9% hotel tax) for a double. There’s also a new small guesthouse on Front Street next to Beya Suites. It’s called Tropics Inn B&B, but it was never open when I went by. Another guesthouse is opening in town soon. If you can believe it, it combines guest rooms and a pit bull kennel. Yeah.

My favorite hotel in PG proper is Coral House Inn ( Coral House Inn www.coralhouseinn.net) You’ll recognize it by the vintage VW van parked in front. Americans Rick and Darla Mallory renovated this 1938 British colonial-era house and turned it into one of the best small guesthouses in the country. It's near the sea at the end of Front Street. The four guest rooms – rates US$82.50 to $100 -- have tile floors, excellent beds, A/C and Wi-Fi. There's a small pool, recently upgraded. Breakfast is included in rates. The owners also manage a nearby, newly renovated private rental home, available for US$100 to $125 nightly, depending on length of stay, plus tax.

For those driving down, work on preparing the last 9 miles of the Southern Highway for paving has actually begun.

Don’t Cry for Me, Placencia
Those of us who have been going to Placencia for 15 or 20 years, who remember when the peninsula was a little bit of the South Pacific in Central America, the changes in Placencia are disconcerting. Everybody and his brother have plans to build condos or sell building lots. But, with the best beaches on the mainland, it had to happen. I just hope that development occurs with sensible, long-range planning for reliable infrastructure, building codes and restrictions, tasteful signage rules and limitations on how the lagoon and sea beaches can be developed.

A model for this is Stewart Krohn’s Coco Plum development. It’s a blueprint for what a well-conceived and well-executed development should be. The paved roads are amazing. There are only a few houses built there as of now. Katie Valk ( Katie Valk's Belize Trips www.belize-trips.com) just moved into her stunning new beachfront house, and Krohn has a new house farther inland.

Unfortunately, on most of the peninsula I don’t see this kind of project being repeated. There is a hodge-podge of development. There is no master plan. It’s a free enterprise free-for-all.

As to the infamous Placencia road, every year the word is “we’ve got the money, we’re letting bids, work will start later this year.” Yep, that’s the word again in 2008. Maybe it will actually happen this year. But don’t hold your breath.

San Pedro Sizzles
I’ve written a guidebook to San Pedro and have been reporting on Ambergris Caye for 15 years, but I can’t keep up with all the changes on the island. New condos are going up everywhere you look. Dear old Front Street and also Coconut Drive, down to Victoria House, is now paved with concrete cobblestones down. There’s a brand new gas station south of town – a gas station, just like in the ‘burbs! Driving past the airstrip and the high dark walls Ramon’s Village has put up to shield the resort from street noise and up the drive, the traffic is terrible, and I feel like I’m in the middle of a concrete canyon.

But there’s an energy in San Pedro that’s missing in most other tourist destinations in Belize. Every block there’s a new shop or a new bar or a new restaurant. Not everything works, but a lot of people are making money.

Of course those timeshare assholes are trying to ruin the island. Captain Morgan’s is the worst. They send out young kids in golf carts to hit on tourists. They should be ashamed of themselves. And Reef Village stops tourists in golf carts. That place is so ugly that anybody who buys a timeshare there deserves it.

Handicap Access
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m not as young as I used to be. (I know it surprises me.) Neither am I exactly a poster child for the South Beach Diet.

On the positive side, this gives me a new insight into the issues of handicap access in Belize. On this trip, touring hotels and moving from one hotel to another every day or so, it seems like I spent half my time climbing up and down stairs. Steep stairs. Stairs up four or five stories, in some cases. Steps up the side of hills. “Easy” hiking trails that rise and fall hundreds of feet in a mile or so. Boats that dock three feet below the level of the pier. Little airplanes that require you to bend double to get down the aisle.

The fact is, most of Belize simply isn’t accessible for people with limited mobility. Or just for those of us who aren’t as spry as we used to be.

Hotels almost invariably are built elevated from ground level. Walkways at jungle lodges or even at regular hotels are cobblestone or rough boards or loose gravel. Often the best rooms, those with the views, are on the top floors, up several flights of stairs.

I can count the number of hotels in Belize with handicap-accessible rooms on the arthritic fingers of one hand – Calico Jack’s in Placencia, the original SunBreeze in San Pedro, Hok’ol K’in in Corozal Town, and maybe a couple of others. Aside from elevators in the high-rise hotels in Belize City, the Radisson Fort George, Renaissance Tower and the Princess, and the little one at Corona del Mar in San Pedro, here are almost no elevators anywhere in the country.

Even the new condo developments in Placencia and Ambergris Caye are going up two, three or four stories without elevators. (Surely, developers will figure out the average buyer of a US$600,000 condo is not going to be a 20-something marathon runner, but more like a retired couple with a hip replacement or two?)

I understand the problems of building in a hurricane- and flood-prone environment, on sand, on remote hillsides. I realize there are no laws requiring access for those with less than perfect mobility.

In today’s world of aging Baby Boomers with bum knees, though, there’s a market for hotels and condos with easy access. Somebody is going to figure out that wide doors, access ramps and elevators sell. (In one of the guidebooks I write, Fodor’s Belize, a standard requirement now is to state whether or a not a listed hotel has an elevator.) Even if it’s not mandated by law, it can make good economic sense to make new construction in Belize accessible to everyone.

Election: Fi U, Fi Me, Fi All a We
My rambles around Belize coincided with the run-up to the general election, and to the election itself on February 7, which saw the United Democratic Party sweep back into power, winning 25 of 31 House seats. As I’m not a Belizean citizen, I stay out of Belizean politics, but I have to congratulate Belize and all Belizeans on the election. It was peaceful, fair, well run and as full of political vim and vigor as any election I’ve ever seen. This was an election run by and for Belizeans – no need for a bunch of outside political consultants. It’s a sign that Belizean democracy has matured. Almost three-fourths of registered voters participated, an involvement rate that Americans and many others should envy.

As I traveled around Belize before the election talking to both Belizeans and expats, I did hear a lot of nonsense – about how it was going to be a close race, about what the PUP would do or the UDP would do, about how violence would rip through the country after the election. But one guy who had it all figured out was Stewart Krohn of Channel 5 TV. Three weeks before the election, over dinner one night, he quietly explained what would happen in the election. He said flatly that the PUP at most might win six or seven seats, and he was dead right. Hey, Stewart has his own Wikipedia entry – I’m impressed!

I can only hope that the U.S. presidential election turns out half as well. George W. Bush and his incompetent pals have done their pathetic best to destroy the economy, the military, the moral power and the great democratic traditions of America. After near eight years of Bush-Cheney, the dollar is the world’s 98-pound weakling, the trade and budget deficits are at historical highs, the housing and credit markets are in tatters, the stock market is tanking, the economy has entered a scary recession, we’re in an energy crisis, we’re trapped in an endless three trillion dollar war, and most of the six billion people in the world are disgusted with the U.S. Bush doubtless will rank with Buchanan and Harding as the worst president in U.S. history.

Trip Advisor: Power and Problems
Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) has become a force in the hospitality industry. A series of top reviews of a hotel can boost its occupancy considerably; several bad reviews can really hurt it.

While Trip Advisor is a great resource for travelers, there are problems with it. It’s no secret that some, perhaps many, of the reviews are spiked. Some glowing reviews are put by the hotel owner or by friends of the owner. Hotel operators take pains to encourage happy guests to post reviews, which skews the statistics. Owners of units in condotels juice their investment by posting anonymous glowing reviews. On the other side of the coin, some negative reviews are posted by competitors. Sometimes, a bad review is just the way a vindictive guest has of getting back at a hotel that didn’t live up to perhaps unrealistic expectations.

But aside from these issues, you have to take some of the reviews with a grain of salt. Many are extremely detailed and helpful. But others show a total lack of knowledge about the area. If anything, many of the reviews are overly positive. Guests ooh and aah over the view of the barrier reef, say, or the fact that the hotel puts decorative flowers on the bed. The reviewer may not know that scores of hotels in Belize put fresh flowers out (it’s still a nice touch, of course), and that nearly all the resorts on the northern cayes have views of the reef. But it’s the lack of comparative knowledge and lack of context that makes many of the reviews less valuable than they otherwise would be.

Look at the hotel properties that are currently (the popularity index does change frequently) listed as the “most popular” on Ambergris Caye. The top three in “specialty lodging” of 17 properties are, in this order, Pedro’s Inn, Belize Tradewinds Paradise Villas, and The Palms condotel. Wow, what a group! I don’t know what “specialty lodging” actually is, but I can’t imagine comparing Pedro’s and The Palms.

In a different category, of Ambergris Caye’s 45 hotels reviewed, White Sands Cove and Xanadu both receive # 1 ratings for popularity. Not sure how that’s possible, as they’re not shown as tied, just both # 1. Not to be picky, but why wouldn’t Paradise Villas, The Palms, Xanadu and White Sands Cove all be in the same category? They’re all properties that have individually owned condo units, managed by a management company. Both White Sands Cove and Xanadu are excellent, well-run properties, but if you were betting on the “most popular” hotel on the entire island, would you say it was White Sands Cove? In Trip Advisor’s Ambergris Caye B&B category, Salamander Hideaway, Caye Casa, Blue Tang Inn, Changes in Latitudes and Turtleman’s House are the five listed B&Bs. Huh?

Bottom line for me: Trip Advisor is a powerful tool, but it is run by people who know almost nothing about hotels in Belize or how to group them. The reviewing process is inherently skewed by competing commercial interests and by the self-selected nature of the reviewers. As more and more people do reviews, Trip Advisor will become more valuable and reliable. You can throw out the very negative and very positive reviews, along with the obviously naďve ones, and get a good feel for the sense of the majority of guests. But judging hotels based on a handful of reviews (most Caye Caulker hotels, for example, have fewer than 10 reviews and three of 18 hotels listed have only one review each) is not necessarily a good idea.

Andy Palacio
I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at the outpouring of feeling of so many Belizeans at the untimely death of Andy Palacio. Thousands came out to mourn him, and at his funeral the population of Barranco probably tripled.

Astrum Helicopters (www.astrumhelicopters.com), based at the Cisco Yard at Mile 3 ˝ of the Western Highway, is run by a hard-working family from Guatemala. They are making this business work, offering transfers to resorts like Cayo Espanto and Azul Resort (US$1,200 to $2,250 for four to six people), real estate tours, and sightseeing tours for cruise ship passengers and tourists. They operate dependable Bell 206 equipment, including a new 7-place Bell 206 L Long Ranger.

Value Rant
Pardon me while I rant for a moment on the problem of value in Belize tourism. Belize has a reputation, partly undeserved and partly deserved, for being an expensive destination.

Belize has many great tourism buys. I’ve mentioned a few in this Ramble – places like Candalie’s Seaside Cabanas in Sarteneja, where a big cottage with A/C and cable TV is just US$40 for two. Or many of the budget hotels and B&Bs you’ll find in Caye Caulker, Placencia, Belize City, Corozal Town, Orange Walk Town or downtown San Ignacio. Or little local restaurants, such as Patti’s Bistro in Corozal Town or Anijitos Santelmo on Ambergris Caye, where you can get a tasty full meal for a few bucks.

But to prospective visitors and to those who come to Belize, some costs stand out like an ugly sore thumb. Examples: US$200 for a one-way transfer from Belize City to Cayo. Sure, it’s for up to four people, which on a per-person basis isn’t bad, but the fact is that most come to Belize as a couple, so they’re pay US$200 round-trip just to get to a lodge.

Or the jungle lodge that charges US$35 to $40 for dinner, plus 10% service and maybe 10% tax. The dinner might be great, or it might be mediocre. The guest without a rental car really doesn’t have an option, and so feels ripped off. The guest-focused lodge would provide an alternative, much as concessionaires at U.S. national parks do, with a snack bar or other less expensive option for those that don’t want to pay US$100 a couple for dinner and drinks.

Too many Belize hotel owners figure if they’re not making money, they’ve got to raise rates and prices. Every year, I look at hotel prices, and rates at many spots go up 5, 10 or 15%. The operators complain about the high cost of food, the high cost of gas, the burden of social security taxes. So, start your own organic gardens and get a hybrid that gets 50 miles per gallon. Belize labor costs are still dirt cheap compared with the developed world, so don’t complain about that.

For too long, when the question is value, the answer has been to raise prices instead of finding a way to cut costs and to become more competitive. The result is Belize’s current reputation as the most expensive destination in the region. Increasingly, even in comparison with the U.S. and Canada, Belize is seen as expensive. Hotel rates, meals, gas, groceries and car rentals are viewed as MORE EXPENSIVE than in the average U.S. destination. That, my friend, is not good!

On the other side of the coin, if a hotel operator can’t or won’t cut rates, at least he or she should try to offer a real differential advantage. Too many Belize properties are “just good enough.” They don’t offer something unique and special, in place, people, price or product that is totally superior to that the guest can get anywhere else. Chan Chich, to use an obvious example, is expensive, yet due to its location, its setting, its unique style, its unmatched birding and animal spotting, guests feel they get value for the money.

Wild Creatures in Cages
I finally had a chance to see Croc-O-Dile Isle, which is a few miles off the Southern Highway, on a dirt road near Silk Grass village. Although I had a pleasant meal at the Snap Jaws restaurant there, I was a little taken aback by the crocodile displays. The whole place reminded me a little of some roadside alligator zoo in 1950s Florida. A few pathetic-looking small crocs lay in the sun in small ponds of muddy water. I don’t recommend it.

In late January, I also stopped at Indian Creek Lodge and met Ken Karas, who runs this and the other Belize Lodge and Excursions’ three lodges in Toledo. That’s another story, but Mr. Karas did show me Balaam Na, which means “House of the Jaguar” in K'etchi Maya. It is about a 10-minute drive from Indian Creek. Balaam Na has attractive, upscale suites in a lodge that is built over a fenced enclosure where, I was told, two jaguars would be placed. The idea is that guests can look down from their suites or the raised walkway and see the jaguars. When I was there construction was still going on in at least one of the suites. Supposedly, according to the web site, this place has been open for a while, but it obviously wasn't open when I visited.

When we finished the Balaam Na tour Ken Karas asked if my daughter and I wanted to see the two jaguars. We said yes. The jaguars, beautiful young males, one black and one spotted, are being kept in a small cage at Indian Creek Lodge. So far as I can see, they have no place to exercise, no way to be out in the open. Now, I understand the idea is that at some point they will be put in the fenced enclosure at Balaam Na. When I don't know. But even to be kept in such a cage for a few weeks or few months -- I have no idea how long they've been in there, but it hasn't been just a few days -- is disturbing.

Lan Sluder is the author of more than half a dozen books on Belize, including Fodor’s Belize, Living Abroad in Belize and San Pedro Cool. He also has done other travel guides for Frommer’s and Fodor’s. His travel articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including Caribbean Travel and Life, The New York Times, Where to Retire, Globe & Mail, and the Chicago Tribune. He founded Belize First Magazine, now available as a free Internet magazine at www.belizefirst.com. Sl

Lan Sluder/Belize First