Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize and is about a one-hour boat ride from the mainland city of Belize City. Private docks like this one service the many guest houses on the island’s east side.
I had no intention of writing a travel story about our multi-generational family holiday that celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of my in-laws.
Don’t get me wrong. Travel writing is a great gig, and one that has allowed myself, and sometimes my family, to experience pretty amazing adventures.
A helicopter ride over Maui; a submarine trip over a coral reef; zip-lining in the snow over a frozen river. Great memories for us all.
But for this Belize trip, the plan was for all of us to really and truly unplug, to spend a week on an island paradise with no itineraries, no lunches with resort general managers and no arranged adventures of any kind.
Leading up to the trip, my wife caught me a few times surfing “things to do on Ambergris Caye” — the island off the coast of Belize where my in-laws had rented a couple of beachside houses with a big pool to play host to their three grown children and partners, and their six grandchildren. I’d bashfully closed my laptop. Old habits are hard to break.
But break them I did, and apart from a catamaran snorkelling trip, the 13 of us spent the entire trip with no daily plans apart from whose turn it was to cook dinner. And possibly whose turn it was to buy more Belikin beer, a wonderful Belizean brew that went down smooth and often quickly in the shade of a swaying palm,
I didn’t have one conversation with a local restaurant owner, shop clerk or tour operator that veered into what my daughter refers to as my “interview mode.” My iPhone voice recording saw no action whatsoever, and the only photos I took were ones earmarked for a planned iBook to commemorate the family get-together and my remarkable in-laws.
And while the guest houses we stayed at — called the Blue Dolphin and rented out by the owner, a Minnesota dentist — did have Wi-Fi, we soon discovered that Belizean Wi-Fi is, well, hit and miss at the best of times.
My 14-year-old son, for whom a Wi-Fi connection is a close, very close, third behind shelter and food in terms of the bare necessities, announced after he finally connected to the World Wide Web following two days of Internet silence, “the entire Belizian Internet portal has been hacked.”
If he was a little older, I would have told him to relax and have a Belikin.
I’m still not sure if and why hackers would target this sleepy country of just over 300,000 souls, but whatever the cause of the outage, it played perfectly into our stated plan of unplugging. True, there was still the odd World Cup soccer game on the flatscreen TV in the main house’s living room, but as the days went by, the natural beauty of Ambergris Caye took over.
Actually, its stunning scenery had us at hello. That would be when we boarded a motor boat we’d booked to transport us from the mainland to our island getaway, and headed out onto the azure waves for what would be a little under a one-hour crossing. The boat tour company had a representative meet us at the airport, and a short 10-minute ride later we were loading our bags and jumping aboard. The deepest the water got during that boat ride, according to our jolly captain, was about 14 feet. On the ride back seven days later, he cut the engines and pointed into the water as we silently bobbed over a family of manatees.
Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize, and has been inhabited for centuries, first by those making their livelihood from the bounty of fish, coconuts and chicle (gum from trees) that remain on and around the island today. The last few decades have seen tourism become the mainstay of the island economy, with local scuba diving said to be among the best in the world. The Belize coral reef system is the second largest in the world, and is the longest running offshore reef in its hemisphere. The islands, called cayes, are in fact made of coral sand. The reef lies about a kilometre off the eastern shore of Ambergris Caye and runs the entire 40 kilometres of the island’s length.
The Blue Dolphin is on that eastern shore, as are most of the inhabited parts of the island, and we paddled out to the reef break in kayaks, the water never getting much deeper than five feet. Sea turtles and large fish were everywhere.
What makes this place really interesting is its history.
Thousands of years ago Belize was part of the Mayan civilization, and the first recorded European settlement was established in 1636 by a shipwrecked English seaman. In 1840, it was declared the Colony of British Honduras, and 22 years later became a Crown colony. In 1973 its official name was changed to Belize, and on Sept. 21, 1981, it was granted full independence.
So, the main language isn’t Spanish or French as is the case in neighbouring countries — it’s English.
And the local cuisine is a melting pot of Spanish, French and even Caribbean influences.
What makes Ambergris Caye even more interesting is its infrastructure — or rather, its lack thereof.
There are cars and trucks on the island, but the vast majority of the 13,000 people who call the place home get around on either off-road-style golf carts, bicycles or small motorcycles. The roads of the town of San Pedro are paved, but once outside the town, potholed dirt roads make up the rest of the island’s traffic network. Actually, road, as in singular, is closer to the truth, with a spidery and dusty 15-foot-wide dirt path connecting San Pedro in the south to the rest of the island.
We rented a golf cart during our stay, delivered and picked up at our guest house by the rental company, and on a handful of occasions four of us would clamour aboard for the 20-minute bumpy ride into town.
The town has good beachside restaurants, banks, plenty of tourist gift shops and some pretty interesting architecture.
There’s also the main grocery store, a necessity if you plan on cooking your own meals. There’s not a huge selection, but lots of fresh chicken and fish.
Breakfast for most of us each day came to us, in the form of two brothers on bikes delivering hot breakfast burritos wrapped in foil. The only problem was that they make their rounds at about 6 a.m., so one of us would have to trot out to the beach when they rang their bike bells.
There’s also a small store/restaurant further north of the Blue Dolphin, about a half-hour walk or 10-minute cart ride away.
So why, you ask yourself, is this guy who says he wasn’t going to write a travel story about Ambergris Caye now some 1,000 words into one?
Well, I’d recommend a week or two on this island to anyone who likes hot weather, very warm ocean water, night breezes rippling through palm trees, and a decided off-the-beaten-path feel.
There are no all-inclusive resorts, no Hiltons or Fairmonts, no tourist buses rumbling through town.
But that will change.
On our morning stroll along the beach we wandered past soon-to-be complete mini-resorts, and real estate billboards abound.
With direct flights from Houston taking less than two hours, it is simple to get to, there are no language barriers, the place is safe and the people are wonderful.
I’m writing this story for the simple reason that this island, while certainly not untouched or uncivilized, is just the place to hang out with your friends, family or alone to really and truly unplug.
And we all need to do that every once in a while.