The largest of the 200 plus islands of Belize, Ambergris Caye is a twenty five mile long island made up of three main areas. Mangrove swamps, lagoons, and sand. The lagoons are to the western (leeward) side of the island. The Barrier Reef lies about a half mile to the east of the island, running the entire length, the reef and the land touching at the northeast of the island at Rocky Point.
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The sand reaches a height of three to five feet above sea level, to a maximum of 10 feet at San Pedro Town.

Ambergris Caye has a long dry season that extends from March through May. The other 9 months average 50 inches of rain. Average temperature is 89-94 degrees during the summer and 70-85 during winter. A few hurricanes have hit the island, but the reef offers sturdy protection, and no lives have been lost.

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European contact with Ambergris Caye settlers is documented from 1508. At that time, the area was populated by the Maya. An incredible people, the Maya lived throughout Central America, flourishing from 250 A.D. to 900. Many Maya settlements were still thriving when contact with europeans was made.

Very scientifically advanced, the Maya had a system of mathematics more advanced than Europe. They had a detailed written language, and a very accurate calendar. Farmers, they raised corn along with tobacco, cacao, cotton, and other vegetables. Around 800 A.D. the Maya began to abandon their cities in Central America. Various causes such as lack of water, disease, poor soil, or class uprising are suspected. Click here for tours to the Maya world.

When Europeans arrived on Ambergris Caye, the island was ruled by the declining, but still functional Maya principality of Chetumal. There was a trading system throughout northern Belize, especially between the Chetumal and the Ulna regions. Trade was based on cacao, with canoes travelling south from Yucatan with fish, cloth, clothing, slaves, and other items, then returning home with cacao. Ambergris Caye was a hub of a this activity. Centrally located in the trading web, it was a rest stop for traders headed north or south on the route. All the Chetumal traffic came by Ambergris Caye. The local economy was thus based on fishing, providing foodstuffs for the northern Belize logging camps as well as large parts of the Maya area. Boat related industry, due to the significance of the trade route, were also important to the island.

The island was also important for its abundant seafood supply and it strategic military position at the mouth of the Bay of Chetumal.

There are numerous ruins on the island, though not of the large-temple type that you see on the mainland. The locals islanders were fisherman, and their camps when discovered are lower to the ground, with pockets of conch shells and pottery pieces. Tending to be marked by black or dark colored dirt, sites such as the one at Tres Cocos are just beginning to be full explored.

The island served as a hideaway for the ships attacking the Spanish fleet during the 17th century. The remote locations and safe harbours offered a haven for the English, French, and Dutch pirates of the day. The village of San Pedro was founded by Mestizo refugees from the wars in the Yucatan area. English officials allowed them to settle hoping they would help to feed the workers in the wood-products camps. The first big migration was in 1848-1849. Thus the English became landlords over the farmers and fishermen of the area.

Various wealthy English men passed around title to the island until James Hume Blake bought nearly the entire island for $625. His family and heirs controlled the island economy from 1869 until the mid 20th century.

The economic base of the island has switched between fishing, logwood, chicle, coconuts, lobster, and tourism.

The logwood on the island was useful to the European wool industry to make dies, so about 1890 contractors employed San Pedranos to fell the huge logwood thicket on the island. Difficult work, it wreaked a toll on the workers. Market forces served to kill this industry around 1910.

The base for chewing gum, chicle, was derived from the juices of the sapodilla tree, which were bled to get the raw material. Around the turn of the century, Ambergris Caye began to derive income from this industry. Still the hub in the area, San Pedro became a growth town overnight as the huge new fields in the Quintana Roo area were opened up for production.

Wealthy individuals provided funds to hire workers to bleed chicle in certain areas. Groups of three to four men would bleed and cook the sap. They then sold the chicle to the contractor. Effectively, it was the age-old system where the worker works all day and owes the boss at the end of the day. And a class of involuntary servitude was created.

Eventually, by the Depression of the 1930's, the chicle boom collapsed as a result of the general economic malaise plus the development of synthetic substitutes for chewing gum base.

The coconut industry was central to the island economy from the 1880's through the 1930's. Brought by the Spaniards, this crop thrived in Ambergris Caye. The Blakes, Alamillas and Parham's, the most influential families of the times, also owned most of the coconut plantations that were established on the island. The work was capital intensive, and San Pedranos served as the workers, not as farmers. Sometimes having to wear nets over their entire bodies while they worked, the insects were a bad problem for the working crews. The nuts were picked, peeled, then delivered to storage sheds where they were shipped to Belize City.

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The indentured system continued to flourish, as many of the cocals, or work areas, were too far away for workers to get home at night. Thus the bosses built sheds for the workers, and charged them to live there, for food and provisions, and the same old story was repeated.

Since the Blakes and the Alamillas owned the entire island, they were able to prevent any competing businesses on the island. Their ownership of most of the boats travelling to and fro the island completed their hegemony of the island's trade.

Workers were paid very poorly in the early 1900's, around $12 a month plus a few rations. The coconut farms were heavily hit and eventually destroyed by a series of hurricanes between 1942 and 1955. By then lobstering was on the upswing, and labor for coconuts became scarce. The farms were abandoned in the 1960's when speculation made the land worth more for real estate than farming.

Prior to the 1920's, lobsters were considered "trash fish," more likely to be swept off the dock than harvested. The waters were "infested" with them, and got caught in the fishermen's nets. A few years later, the spiny lobsters were being herded like cattle onto the beaches, the clear waters turned red with the herd. By the 1950's, the "trash fish" were the base of the islands economy.

The lobster export business is highly dependent upon freezer storage. The lack of competitors to sell to hindered the price for years. Most freezing equipment was based on the mainland, and the attempt to get good equipment onto the island of Ambergris Caye was fought for years. The arrival of the freezer vessel Betty Jean marked the introduction of the island to the market. No money was paid to the islanders until the lobsters were sold, and once a shipment of 4,000 pounds was never paid for.

20-30 foot boats carried the men to the lobster grounds, which began to encompass Turneffe, Lighthouse Reef, and the Blue Hole as the closer grounds became fished out. This required longer trips, and the method of catch became skindiving to catch lobsters in the deeper waters. Skindiving is now the hallmark method of the San Pedrano lobster fisherman.

An attempt to eliminate the middleman was behind the rise of the co-operatives in the 1950's and 1960's. Hard bargaining and the last minute help of an American freezer company saved the day when the two major buyers attempted to bust the co-operative in 1960. One company, Del Caribe, announced they would pay a penny a pound. The fishermen, stuck with a huge opening day harvest, thus with their backs to the wall, had to boycott both buyers. Butcher Scott held the lobsters in his cold storage long enough for the negotiations to occur. By late 1960, the co-operative was able to sell the 4,000 pounds held in storage. They did better and better each year.

Attempts to organize a co-operative in San Pedro began in late 1961. Every fisherman was contacted, but many were skeptical. Twenty men finally agreed to join, and letters were filed to begin the process of legality.

In March 1963, the San Pedro co-operative was registered under the name Caribeña Producers Co-operative Society Limited. Some had to use their homes and property as collateral.

The Caribbean Queen Company agreed to purchase and export the lobsters under the co-operative's quota. The co-op received lobsters from the members on the beach in front of the village. After learning from this initial arrangement, the co-operative attempted to get a freezer plant on the island. When this fell through, and for other reasons, the co-operative decided to stop selling to Caribbean and begin to deal with a company headed by Apolonio Alamilla.

Through 1964, the co-operative exported through local agents. This kept the price down, and the market was $1.04 a pound, despite rising prices in the U.S. These years also brought the beginnings of the export of conch and scale fish as well, providing an alternate product for the fishermen of Ambergris Caye to sell. A four month lobster season was also mandated.

In 1964, negotiations for a freezer plant were finally completed. Thus plant allowed annual production to hit 179,132 pounds in 1965. The record high of 184,000 pounds was in 1984. The co-operative and its 217 members were then the backbone of the community, which nearly put a halt to coconut farming and work in the bush.

A growing scarcity of product and the growth of tourism have resulted in a decline in the membership of the co-operative today. Production in 1992-1993 was an annual low of 18,000 pounds. Today, tourism is the economic heavy. Beginning with the Holiday hotel, started by the Grief family in November of 1965 and built with a foundation of ground conch shells, began attracting the tourism that is the mainstay of the economy now. In 1967 the Paradise opened, and by 1970 the Coral Beach Hotel had established the first dive shop. Tourist accommodations started popping up all over the place, and some local folks converted rooms or build small guest houses on their land. Visitors remember this personalized atmosphere and laid-back style. It became a trademark for San Pedro.

More and more fishermen began to add to their income by serving as fishing or diving guides for tourists. Guiding came naturally to them, as it involved things that are important to their way of life- fishing, snorkeling, sailing. As fishing declined, tourism increased.

The ways of the Maya who had settled here was quiet and unpressured. The villagers fished, farmed their milpas and tended their animals without interference. The unexpected advent of the Blake dynasty overnight turned the San Pedranos without any legal right to the land they had occupied for generations. From fishermen to farmers they became labourers working for a triumvirate of ruling families in a succession of new industries- logwood, chicle, coconut- their lives transformed into grinding monotony, guided only by their employers' need to accumulate more wealth.

Ambergris Caye has a past full of contrasts. The Maya who settled throughout the island and developed an economy based on trading and exploitation of the marine resources had practically nothing in common with the pirates who succeeded them, or with the British agriculturists who marshalled their slaves in a futile attempt to convert the island into a cotton plantation. And, of course, all these were distinct from the Mestizo refugees who fled the war in Yucatan for the tranquility of the caye.

Conditions in the island have also differed greatly from time to time. The way of life of the first permanent residents of San Pedro was quiet and unpressured. The villagers fished, farmed their milpas and tended their chicken and livestock with almost no outside interference. They had brought with them their Yucatan culture and customs, their diet of beans and tortillas, their simple homes of thatched roofs and walls plastered with white lime and mud.

Then the unexpected advent of the Blake dynasty radically changed the life of the San Pedranos. Overnight they found themselves without any legal rights to remain on the land they had lived on and farmed for several decades. From independent small fishermen and farmers they became wage labourers working for a triumvirate of ruling families in a succession of new industries - logwood, chicle, coconut - their lives transformed into a grinding monotony, guided only by their employers' need to accumulate more wealth.

This was a time when ownership of almost the whole island was concentrated in the hands of a few people. Virtually any person on the island could be orders to vacate, for the flimsiest of reasons and at a day's notice, the house in which he or she had been born, raised and lived all their life. This was the case of the local midwife, Desideria, who was ordered to dismantle her home because its rustic condition detracted from the elegance of the Casino which was being built on the lot next door.

Those were the days when a desperate bachelor such as Natividad Guerrero could get a bride from the transient Maya settlements at Basil Jones in exchange for a box of groceries from Belize City.

Life is no longer this way on the island, of course. The absolute power which the Blakes exercised over almost every facet of the villagers' lives has long gone. The erosion of this hegemony began in 1943, when the Colonial Government initiated the forerunner of the present day village council by appointing a small group of villagers to make recommendations on plans and projects for the caye. In the 1960s, it continued with the acquisition and redistribution by the government of large portions of the village to San Pedranos. Finally, it culminated with the growth of the fishing and tourism industries which allowed the villagers to break the Blakes' economic stronghold.

The growth of the fishing co-op had a profound effect on life in Ambergris Caye. The establishment of the co-op's headquarters and processing plant on the island kept the maximum amount of money circulating in the community and therefore significantly contributed to the overall increase in the villagers' standard of living. San Pedro, which was abandoned by several residents during the 1940s as a result of the economic depression which followed the devastation of the 1931 hurricane and the decline in the coconut industry, was by the mid-1980s one of the most economically affluent communities in Belize.

Today the island's prosperity is dependent on tourism. Innumerable job opportunities created by tourism and related activities have attracted people from throughout Belize and new immigrants from Central America mix with the island population. Although official figures reflect a population of about 1,200, it can be estimated that close to 4,000 people reside on the island, half of whom are new arrivals.

San Pedro's education system includes two primary schools, a private school, three pre-schools and a high school established in its own new building. At the latter, training for the tourism industry is offered, as well as ample preparation for higher studies. San Pedranos can also receive medical care at the recently established clinic.

In line with world trends in communications San Pedro now boasts a TV station, cable network with 22 channels, fax machines and a telephone exchange system linked by satellite. A new desalination water system has been installed and will soon be followed by a second one. The island is extending a complete water and sewerage service, which will reach the new areas of San Pablo and San Pedrito.

Tourist accommodation is provided by over 50 hotels, ranging from small pensions to luxury resorts which can double the island's population during the high season. With the only hyperbaric recompression chamber in Belize Ambergris Caye keeps up its reputation for being a diver's paradise.

What used to be a simple airstrip located at the south end of the town has grown to a small yet busy airport surrounded by houses and tourist establishments. Frequent flights from three airline companies link the island to various destinations in Belize~e, Guatemala and Mexico. The government has recognized the urgent need for a new airport outside the inhabited areas and plans are under way for its relocation The island is also accessible by sea by the many boats which provide regular ferry or special taxi services to and from Belize City, a ride of about one hour through the numerous neighboring cayes.

One of Ambergris Caye's most pressing concerns is the availability of lots for houses. Real estate has been subject to high speculation and prices for lots have become unaffordable for most Belizeans. Foreign ownership has helped to complicate the problem, making it difficult to obtain good lots for the future expansion of the town and to accommodate its growing population of 800 young people. In an effort to find solutions the Town Board has set up a development project known as San Pablo. Some 200 lots have already been issued and sold at affordable prices and some 600 more are available for distribution and sale. An additional 250 lots will be distributed, mostly to young people whose needs are immediate, through a reclamation project spearheaded by the government.

With the continued development of the tourism industry, San Pedro and Ambergris Cave must carefully chart the course of its development. Close attention must be paid to the protection of the environment: the land and beaches, the sea and the reef, as well as the air. Ecology is threatened and it is urgent that San Pedranos develop an increased appreciation of the island's fragile environment and learn to respect and protect it in their daily lives. The passing of laws and development of conservation measures is also necessary. One step in the right direction is the creation of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Following its success, Ambergris is considering other reef reserves, beach reserves - as in the case of turtle nesting grounds - and bird sanctuaries. The reef and its underwater beauty must not be taken for granted. Development and sea dredging can result in damage to the reef. Moreover, the water table on the caye flows out into the sea so that waste water and sewage disposal must also be considered carefully. future.

Ironically, it is the very vehicles of emancipation, the development of the fishing and tourism industries, which pose the most serious threats to the island's future. The caye's fragile ecology is threatened by massive and uncontrolled expansion; the resources of the sea are being rapidly exhausted; the village's sense of community and cultural identity has been altered.

Pparadoxically, it is by turning back to their past that San Pedranos can find solutions to their problems in the future. Today, as tourism takes an ever increasing share of the caye's economic and human resources, as the villagers are submitted to increasing bombardment by foreign values, ideas, and influence, it is important that San Pedranos have a strong sense of their history, their identity and self-worth. A people cannot choose the circumstances in which they make their history, but they can become conscious of themselves and their past, and from that font they can attempt to draw the confidence, discipline and ideas to deal with their potential problems in the future.

In the past, San Pedranos have proved that they are resilient, resourceful and courageous. The problems and challenges that they face in the future are no worse than the problems they faced and partly overcame in the past. Given a continuing commitment on their part to finding workable solutions to their problems and a continuing belief in their own dignity and value, there is no reason why they should not succeed and no reason why the island should not remain, for many years to come, a paradise with a future equal in richness to its past.

The above was
Paraphrased from the book
"Ambergris Caye, Paradise with a Past"
by Glenn Godfrey
Cubola Productions

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for more information about this excellent book.

Click here to go to Angel Nuñez' column "25 Years Ago on Ambergris Caye"

Today, Ambergris Caye has some 13 dive shops, offering complete rental and services of qualified instructors and guides. Three day courses provide the novice diver with a complete course on the safety in lessons in a safe underwater environment. And the sights offered inside the reef, in six foot deep water, offer the casual swimmer and life-jacket floater with a mask access to more incredible views than divers in most places in the world....

Other attractions include para sailing, glass-bottom boats, jet skiing, hydro sliding, beach combing, horseback riding, bicycling, bird-watching, basking in the sun, riding in golf carts, or taking a day-tour to one of the many sites on the Belizean mainland.

Over 800 rooms are available on the island, in absolutely any price range, and all expenses are moderately priced. My first time there, I was amazed at how many places I could eat really inexpensively. Definently cheaper than at home, in Eugene, Oregon- not exactly a high-priced area. I spent much less money than I thought I would. Many fine restaurants are available, with exquisite tastes for your taste buds to savor. The night-time boat rides are a dream, the sky ablaze with stars. You can swim 24 hours a day. The world of beauty in the water both animal and plant life is of a color and diversity unforeseen. Truly stunning, and peaceful.

Lots of night-time music mixed in a family-type atmosphere make for a incredible place. No sex industry in sight, a welcome relief from the bombardment of images in many cultures and vacation spots of today. A quiet and charming little town.

In one short afternoon, I saw the incredible world of the Ambergris Caye barrier reef. In a mere six feet- eight feet of clear, warm water, wearing only goggles, I was able to sit on the bottom of the ocean, inside huge schools of wondrously colored fish. Friendly sharks would come cruising by, stingrays that you could feed if careful. I had never snorkeled or gone diving. I was a total rookie. Yet I got a never-to-be-forgotten first view of wonderland. I swam around for hours, sometimes with a snorkel, but I most preferred it with mask only. The silence that allows you to close with the beasties is so peaceful and beautiful.

I will be back many times to that world, but I will always owe Norman Eiley my birth into it. Just as I cherish the midwives that bore my children. Marriage, kids, Ambergris Caye. That about sums up the big moments...

Marty Casado, webmaster,

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