by: Coleman Warner
The fishing village of San Pedro, on Belize's Ambergris Caye, retains its friendly character and some of its lushness remembered from a summer 25 years ago. But 'progress' and spikes in tourism and development have brought unsettling changes, too.
Sunday August 24, 2003
SAN PEDRO, AMBERGRIS CAYE, BELIZE -- Glimmering in the midday sun, turquoise waters beckoned a few thousand feet below as our plane droned northeast out of Belize City. A finger-shaped mass of green loomed on the horizon.
I strained for a better view of the island I recalled as my own Caribbean paradise, a place of sandy streets, warm people and spectacular reef diving.
My return was belated; 25 years had passed.
It was thrilling to travel again to the village where I had worked and played at a small beachside hotel for most of one college summer.
But I was uneasy, too, wondering just how much San Pedro and its lush surroundings, on the island of Ambergris Caye, had changed. Had a quaint fishing town, one that made room for adventuresome divers, become a victim of a rush for the tourist and development dollar? Would it be thoroughly Americanized?
I've seen too many times how unbridled tourism can alter and ultimately taint lovely places closer to home; Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Gulf Shores, Ala., come to mind. Mexican beach communities, such as Ensenada near San Diego, seem overwhelmed by visitors, myself included, from the north. As years passed after college, I guarded my vivid memories and resisted traveling to San Pedro.
But earlier this year my father, who began visiting Belize in the early '70s, when it was still called British Honduras, suggested we see the island again. The idea appealed to my wife and daughter, who had never been.
Relenting, I made reservations at Ramon's Village, a beachside resort run by Ramon Nunez, a former dive guide and beloved San Pedro personality. As a favor to my father, Ramon let me work there in that summer of 1978 when he ran a more modest lodge.
We flew to Belize City, the mainland staging point for island trips, by way of Houston, since there no longer are direct commercial flights from New Orleans.
Raking the beach at dawn
It would be difficult to match impressions from a summer when I briefly qualified as a San Pedro local, helping an old man named Gabril (Ramon gave him a place to sleep, too) rake the beach at dawn, and joining afternoon dive trips to the reef, where I explored coral forests and deep canyons, often chasing nurse sharks. In the evenings, after kitchen duty and a simple meal that invariably included lobster, I'd walk down the beach and mill about the unadorned town square.
If a band happened to be playing, I'd ask the muchachas to dance, using broken Spanish that amused the girls greatly. Sometimes a few British soldiers were on hand, taking an R&R break from deterring an invasion by Guatemala. Children played barefoot in the street and elderly women sat quietly on porches, murmuring buenas noches -- good evening -- to those who walked by.
As our Tropic Air plane approached and landed at San Pedro, it appeared this visit would be bittersweet for me; change had swept the place.
Rows of tract homes replaced what had been an impenetrable thicket of growth. A pothole-scarred airstrip with little more than a shed for waiting pilots or passengers has been transformed into a bustling airport, complete with an air-conditioned waiting room, even a ticket counter.
The road serving the airport 25 years ago amounted to ruts in the sand, shaded by coconut trees and frequented by a few rundown Jeeps. It was now clogged with midday traffic, mostly golf carts (available for rent by the hour or day) and lined with condos and small resorts. Part of the street has a brick base and speed bumps.
New buildings and improved roads are needed to manage a burgeoning population of some 10,000 people, not including tourists, in which native Belizeans, who typically speak Spanish and English, blend with Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Guatemalans, among others.
There were 1,500 residents in the late '70s. The population numbered in the hundreds when Ramon was a child.
Internet bar, T-shirt shops
The new San Pedro includes an Internet bar, a cell phone company office and T-shirt shops. One sign advertised a pet grooming service.
As thefts and drug crimes have increased over the years, Belize authorities added dozens of officers to what once was a one-man, Mayberry-like San Pedro police force. There is a relatively new fire station, and talk of building a bridge to replace the ferry across a channel that slices through Ambergris Caye on the town's north side. A bridge would pave the way for more hotels and houses, which already stretch several miles up what previously had been a virtually deserted beach.
Construction is altering the landscape, and real estate costs are spiraling. My father was stunned at the march of buildings southward, down the road that skirts the airport; one not-yet-finished condo was advertised for $350,000.
"I don't recognize anything we've seen," he said as we toured in a rented cart of our own. "It used to be a jungle. Now it's all power lines."
Back in town, commercial buildings gutted by Hurricane Keith in 2000 are being replaced by larger ones. A hotel worker I remembered from long ago, a transplanted American, regretted the erosion of rustic charm.
"It's all built up now. I guess that's the way life is," he said. "If it gets any more developed, you might as well live in Palm Beach."
I'm probably unrealistic in hoping for only incremental change in quaint, beautiful places I've enjoyed. Much of what I found troubling about the San Pedro of 2003 would be seen by others as simply progress.
Investors are welcome
Thousands more visitors can fly in and enjoy island life for a few days, and locals reap the economic benefits; no one wants to return to earning menial wages by harvesting coconuts, or to heavy reliance on lobster diving, a more lucrative but physically taxing job. Travelers who insist on a pool, an air-conditioned room, hot water, dependable electricity and a well-stocked bar must be pleased.
Belize, a small, developing nation, welcomes foreign investment.
Ramon's Village, owned by a Laurel, Miss., businessman, certainly illustrates the trends, with a mix of thatched-roof cabanas and cottages in a British Colonial style, charging rates of $130 to $425 a night. The resort has a dive shop, full restaurant, lots of landscaping and a bar overlooking a lagoon-style pool.
My daughter and wife cruised the grounds, including a finely raked beach with hammocks, and announced: "We've got to come back here."
It was indeed impressive, as were a few other hotels and restaurants lining a waterfront more tidy than what I remembered. Aside from the restaurant at Ramon's Village, we particularly enjoyed the Blue Water Grill and Celi's Restaurant, each modestly priced, offering fresh fish dishes and good ocean views. Modernization has had one clear benefit: More and better restaurants.
Restored Catholic church
In other ways, the town is a study in contrasts.
A Catholic church just off the square, reduced to a concrete shell by a storm before my 1978 stay, is nicely restored and in use by parochial students in blue and white uniforms, reminding me of New Orleans. A fascinating old cemetery next to the beach offers glimpses into San Pedro's past. Less impressive was a nightclub in a metal building, painted in a yellow-and-black pattern to resemble spotted animal skin, and a new three-story hotel with a stucco skin. The hotel dwarfed old wood-frame buildings more characteristic of a Caribbean village.
Browsing the mix of old and new shops can be fun, despite the proliferation of tacky souvenirs. Loitering in an art gallery opened by Marcos Larios, a Guatemalan painter, we ended up buying one of his works, a rich depiction of pastel-colored beach cottages and sailboats against a backdrop of blue water. While San Pedro's population is exploding, and becoming more diverse, residents seem gracious and laid-back, just as before.
We enjoyed chatting with shopkeepers, a priest, police officers and the town librarian. A sense of spontaneity and play hasn't abated, as one policeman demonstrated one morning on a busy street.
"Hey, you married?" the officer shouted to a passing woman.
"Yes, married with children," she retorted.
"I like that!" he said. "I like women who are married with children!"
Pausing, she added: "I'm not married."
"I like that even more!"
Ramon, now 62, stays busy directing the hotel bearing his name, selling real estate and chairing an island security committee. He played host when he could, joining us for lunch at a restaurant his wife opened recently. We talked about our families and friends we have in common, about how busy San Pedro has become. Ramon said he is raising donations for the island's first hospital.
Snorkeling along the reef
We visited another old friend during our stay: the barrier reef.
Catching a boat at Ramon's Village with a dozen others, we took a daylong snorkeling trip, stopping at a tiny island laced by reef formations, where guides cooked a lunch of fresh fish as we looked for tropical fish. A visit later to Shark Ray Alley, a popular shallow-water spot, offered encounters with nurse sharks and sting rays that have grown familiar with people. The rays' tails hold barbs that can bring serious harm, but there they nuzzled us like kittens, hoping for a bait handout.
Another afternoon, my daughter and I took a boat out to Hol Chan, a wide cut through the reef where deeper water and strong current add to the diving challenge. There we observed parrot fish, a spotted ray, a large nurse shark, angel fish, snapper and other creatures I couldn't name.
The scene reminded me of why people are drawn to Belize, and I was glad to learn that Hol Chan is a marine reserve protected by law. A young guide warned us: The coral is to be seen but not touched, and nothing can be taken from the ocean floor. The coral forest is impressive, but has suffered at the hands of earlier divers, he said.
"It's beautiful, but not like it was before."
IF YOU GO TO SAN PEDRO . . .
Getting there: Direct commercial flights from New Orleans to Belize City are no longer available. We flew Continental Airlines, through Houston, to Goldson International Airport in Belize City for about $500 round trip. American Airlines, US Airways and TACA also have flights to Belize, traveling through Houston or Miami. Hopper flights from Goldson to San Pedro are available several times a day; we flew Tropic Air for $93 each round-trip. For reservations, call (800) 422-3435. The trip takes roughly 20 minutes and offers a panoramic view of reef formations, tropical waters and islands.
Where to stay: Hotel rates vary by season and are subject to change. Calls to Belize often require an international code of 011 before the business number.
I would return to Ramon's Village Resort, filled with nice amenities, with nightly rates from $130 to $425; for reservations, www.ramons.com, (800) MAGIC 15 or (601) 649-1990 (a Laurel, Miss., agency). Other attractive hotels include the Paradise Resort Hotel, with rates of $67 to $112, at www.ambergriscaye.com/paradiseresort/, (501) 226-2083, and the SunBreeze Beach Motel, with rates of $110 to $160, www.sunbreezehotel.com, (800) 688-0191. The Victoria House resort is a favorite with many New Orleanians, some of whom remember when a former New Orleanian was one of the owners, with rates of $135 (low season) to $455 (largest suite in high season), (800) 247-5159, www.victoria-house.com. The TV reality show "Temptation Island" was shot at Captain Morgan's Retreat, www.belizevacation.com, (888) 653-9090. For an overview of accommodations, checkvwww.ambergriscaye.com/pages/lodge/lodging.html. Magnum Belize Tours represents 45 hotels, www.magnumbelize.com.
Where to eat: Good restaurants are plentiful, serving fresh seafood, often with a view of the Caribbean. Favorites include Blue Water Grill, Celi's and the restaurant at Ramon's. Modestly priced restaurants with excellent food, such as Mickey's, are scattered along streets away from the beach.
Diving: The reef that parallels and protects Ambergris Caye, about a half-mile offshore, is the biggest reason for San Pedro's tourism boom. Despite reef damage from past visitors, snorkeling and deep-water diving are spectacular. Snorkeling trips cost about $30 each, and a double-tank dive is about $65. Full-day diving and fishing trips, including lunch on an island beach, are more expensive, but memorable.
Side trips: Caye Caulker, an island just a short hop from Ambergris Caye by boat, has a tiny, rustic village that hints at what San Pedro was like decades ago. Check out the outdoor bar overlooking a water channel that cuts through the island, at the end of Caulker's main sand road. Tourism companies and hotels can arrange a one-day trip to the mainland to see Mayan ruins, and multiple-day visits to rain forest sites.
Other details: Connected to Mexico at its northern tip, Ambergris Caye is the most developed of roughly 200 islands off the Belize mainland. English is the official language of Belize, but most San Pedro residents also speak Spanish. January to April is peak season; summer can be sultry; and hurricanes pose a threat in fall. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
More information: Call (800) 624-0686 or check www.travelbelize.org. Among New Orleans area wholesale travel agencies that specialize in Belize are Sea & Explore Inc., 366-9986 (or for those out of town, 800-345-9786); also Nature Tours, which has a package for Ramon's, www.naturetoursinc.com, (504) 895-0092, or, if you live outside New Orleans, (800) 895-0092. Any travel agent can arrange a trip.
Click here to return to the main articles page.