Every travel adventure is unique and successful travel is usually based on minimal expectations. Just go with the flow. As such, my 1st adventure (and, not my last) to Belize and San Pedro island exceeded all expectations. How? I realized that when traveling the more difficult aspects are language, culture, currency exchange and staying connected. Belize, unbeknownst to me has mastered those hurdles in spades and has created the easy way to travel internationally. Belize it or not!
Unfamiliar with the country’s heritage, I asked a local how the same photo of a pretty hawt Queen Elizabeth is still on every printed Belizian dollar bill regardless of the denomination. He said because it used to be a British Territory and then blamed the rest on politics.
In 1847, Mayans in neighboring Mexico rebelled against Spanish rule and refugees (Mayans, Mestizos and dissident Spaniards) made their way into Belize, a migration which set up new tensions. In an attempt to resolve the situation, the settlement, at its own request, became a British colony (supervised by the Governor of Jamaica) in 1862 and the country took the name British Honduras. It became a Crown colony in 1870. In 1884, it was detached from Jamaica and given its own governor.
Belize has a system of local government comprising four types of local authorities: city councils, town councils, village councils and community councils. The two city councils (Belize City and Belmopan) and seven town councils cover the urban population of the country, while village and community councils cover the rural population.
The Belize Defence Force (BDF), established in January 1973, consists of a light infantry force of regulars and reservists along with small air and maritime wings. The BDF, currently under the command of Brigadier General David Jones, assumed total defence responsibility from British Forces Belize (BFB) in 1994. The United Kingdom continues to maintain the British Army Training Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) to assist in the administration of the Belize Jungle School. The BDF receives military assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom.
With that history lesson behind us, the net effect was that for a visitor to San Pedro island, the locals were consistently friendly and interactive. Not just placating the almighty tourist dollar. The majority of everyone speaks American English as a primary, then a version of Creole and maybe Spanish. I tried to throw around my Spanish showing respect but everyone would answer in English. And, when people speak the native creole, it is not out of disrespect, it is really just convenience. I have never experienced such easy flow of currency from US dollars to the local currency. In Mexico, I always feel like I miscalculated on the fly and I got ripped off. In Belize, everything is 2:1. You can pay in US and get US and some Belizean curreny as change. It is simple and everyone operates on the same exchange rate. Lastly, EVERYWHERE I went that had WIFI, had GREAT WIFI!
TEN FACTOIDS ABOUT BELIZE
What is there to do as a first-time to Belize?
After doing a ton of research, whereas most of the websites for the resorts in Belize do a good job of telling some of the story but not all of the story. I ended up booking my room via Hotel.com at the X’Tan Ha Beach resort which is 7 miles north from downtown San Pedro. Their color scheme was fun and their private beach looked great. They had reached out to me prior to my arrival looking for explicit details of my arrival and my Mexico travel-suspicions made me think I was better off being just confirming my arrival. I left Las Vegas @ 7am, was routed to Denver and then the flight was to Belize City.
I was due to arrive in Belize City at 4pm local time which would allow me to catch the last 5:30pm 90-minute ferry to San Pedro island and arrive after 7pm. My cab driver from the airport to the ferry terminal ($25US one way) informed me that rice and beans were the staple of choice for the locals. So, once I got to the ferry terminal and had some time, I ventured into The Last Drop Cafe for a plate of rice and beans with chicken. Diet Coke is not imported into Belize so, Coke Zero it is! Super friendly staff (and cute!) and the food was great with free WIFI! Ask to speak to “James Bond” and you will know why soon enough! I purposely planned my lunch here on the way out as well!
Tired after a long day of travel, the cool-warm air that flowed through the open-air ferry was relaxing. Everything was dark with very little light pollution except the 30+ souls focused on their smartphones.
When we arrived at San Pedro, there were just a few hawkers trying to sell you something but a nice looking gentlemen actually called my name and the hotel had arranged for transportation from the port to the hotel. I was quite impressed. Downtown San Pedro cannot really accommodate a full-sized van-in-waiting so we walked to the van a few blocks away and hit the road.
The young van driver was very professional and pleasant and pointed out various popular spots along the 7 mile trip. I arrived to the resort after 8:30pm and it turns out I was probably one of maybe 15 hotel guests and the staff were gracious to get me checked in and up to my room.T he resort has someambient lighting but since I was tired, I unloaded my camera gear, fired up my laptop and connected to the wifi and answered a few work emails. Tuesday would come soon enough.
Good Morning San Pedro!
I normally awake around 6am at home and even though I am out Mountain Standard Time (equiv), I opened my doors around 5:30am local time and was pleasantly surprised with my room view. A gorgeous sunrise beckoned my 1st efforts to make my own coffee and figure out the plan of attack for the day. I would soon realize that all resorts in this region make a commitment to keep the beaches looking tidy.
All Belize beach-front properties are faced with this daily challenge of removing the Sargassum or seagrass. The seagrass is an important part of the eco-system but not visually attractive. So, at our resort, I would see the guys every morning at 5:30am loading up wheelbarrows of the seagrass and then then raking the beach for that best first morning impression. One of the resident co-owners would also casually remove the grass in the afternoons as well. I cannot say enough nice things about the X’Tan Ha Resort where I stayed. I just happened to be staying there during a low occupancy period but they were due to be sold out through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
I ate several times at the resort cafe and outdoor bar but due to the low occupancy rate at the time, the vibe was not really happening. The food was good but I would venture out to eat other places if I had not grabbed a PB&J in my room. These rooms are setup to be full stocked with your own food and utensils and no one would give you stink eye about being self-supporting. I met one retired couple that brought out their entire extended family for the Thanksgiving holidays and I noticed they would have their own plush meals on their patio deck every morning and evening.
The Golf Cart Lifestyle
Tuesday morning I ventured down to the Resort lobby and inquired about taking a water taxi into San Pedro town. My primary goal was to rent a golf-cart for the week. My van driver the night before had given me the scoop that $200US for the week was a good rate for a decent golf cart. $175 is the low bottom price but you then get a crappy machine. It turns out the first taxi would pick up at the resort at 7am which was great. Manuel was the skipper and a super fun and funny guy. It turns out this particular time-frame, we were also the school bus for many children going into San Pedro. The water was smooth that morning and approximately 45 minutes we tied up to the dock and I was ready to get the local vibe.
Turns out more times than not, even with my experienced pre-trip packing procedures, I always forget CORDS. I mean, I have handfuls of them in my studio but I had not brought ANY USB-C cords to charge my LG G8X and I was out of power. Trying to find a cord in town was quite the challenge but also afforded me the opportunity to walk around town, meet some people and grab some shots of the gut of San Pedro. I finally found the “video” store where a very attractive Chinese woman that owned the store, sort of scoffed at none of the other stores not carrying this standard cord. She was very friendly and we talked about her family moving here to San Pedro and managing a business here. BTW, my price for the cord was not a tourist price like everything in San Pedro. You never felt like you were getting jacked as tourist and that really makes international travel memorable and pleasant. I do not remember the name of the store, and it might be called The Video Store but it was just next to Manelly’s Homemade Ice Cream store.
Across the street from the cute-chinese-lady-video-store I saw some cooler looking golf carts for rent so I struck up a deal for $200 for the week. Turns out the kid was Arab working for Arab guys and he did not speak english, spanish, creole – only Arabic. After we inked that deal, I drove over to meet Calvin the Shaman who lives behind the police station. I learned of Calvin from my van driver and he told me about his iguana sanctuary and that he also sells cannabis (I guess is legal – not sure of all the ramifications since I do not use or smoke) and manufactures his own herbal medicines as well.
As I stepped through the crude mangrove limbs bridge, there were some local guys hanging around and I introduced myself as a photographer. I met Calvin and he was quite gracious and explained that he was a single parent getting his two sons ready for school. He allowed me to follow him upstairs and we chatted as he ironed his boys clothes for school. Hey, I iron my own clothes and I told Calvin I was pretty impressed with his pretty pimpin’ iron! We chatted for an hour or so and then I needed to head out and go pick up my golf cart. I returned a few days later in the afternoon and his magnificent iguanas were basking in the sun and showing off their colors to a potential mate. Please visit and support Calvin on your trip to San Pedro. Right behind the gas station!
After doing my initial tour of downtown San Pedro and successfully starting to charge my phone, I picked up my golf cart and headed north towards the resort I was staying at. I enjoy being independent in unfamiliar territory and sensing I will figure it out somehow. On an small island, it is pretty difficult to get lost and I easily found my way to “the bridge” that gets me the rest of the way. I was stopped for a $5Belize toll charge and I suspected this was a tourist grab but it turns out everyone has to pay. BUT, because this is the island of cool people, as I was almost driving into town everyday and giving hitchhikers rides, the sentries seem to recognize me and on occasion they would give me an undated receipt that allowed me a free pass next time. Very chill.
Well, my 1st summit crossing of the bridge went well but as I completed the downslope, my golf cart quit on me. I had a slight panic not knowing what to really do and some local guy pulled over on this motorcycle – super friendly and helped me push it out of the way of traffic. Fortunately, with AT&T I had enough signal to call the various numbers on the contract and finally connected with someone. Even though this particular area looked ghetto, it felt safe and I enjoyed the “texture” around me. I walked over to the local market and got a cold Coke Zero and waited by the golf cart. The local wino came over to solicit some funds…but, he was like so respectful about it. He probably had not showered in weeks and his eyes were bloodshot. I don’t give money but I asked him about his family, if he had any Mayan in him, etc and we stuck up a friendly convo for 10 minutes. Once he realized I was not going to cave on the lifestyle donation, he moved on to talk to the local talking dog.
Finally, my replacement cart arrived and the non-english speaking Arab boy conveyed that the owner of the company was lending me his personal golf cart and it was noticeably nicer. Better for the photo op!
I was instructed to return the following day to swap out my original golf cart that I had filled up with gas. But, I had a full day to cruise the island with this PIMP MY RIDE golf cart.
I fell in love with the golf cart lifestyle. No real top speed since you are always dodging potholes. No seat belts, no speedometer and no blaring THUMP THUMP of auto car stereo flexing their bass to the music. And, from a humanity standpoint, it removed the status element….you could be a gillionaire or a day laborer…..basically all golf carts were the same. Also, the golf carts took me back to a friendlier day as a kid when I used to hitchhike and pick up hitchhikers. I met some cool local dudes that I picked up especially if I was heading into town.
Part of my success as lifestyle travel photographer is the ability to blend in quickly. I think one trick of the trade is the two-finger wave from one hand on the steering wheel. Whether a rental car, a truck or a golf cart. I would acknowledge all oncoming traffic. After a couple of days riding around, then people would recognize me and then even do a 3/4 arm wave. Whoa….I am LOCAL NOW! LOL
Now that I had the freedom of movement with a golf cart, I was able to drive and take mental notes of outdoor cafes, markets and other resorts. Just after you pass a somewhat garish Captain Morgan’s Retreat & Casino (it looks like Laughlin, Nevada quality), I pulled over and parked the golf cart for lunch. There were three small cafe’s but it seemed the Tipsy Lobster was serving food so I sat down. High marks for the customer service (not just tourists) with mosquito candles EVERYWHERE. The short, squatie but cute girl (owner) brought me a menu but I was on a mission for fresh grilled fish tacos. She said no problem and the snapper fish was great. I can confirm it was! I actually returned that evening for lobster. The fish tacos costs $25Belize with soda and the lobster that evening cost $35Belize. Divide those costs in half for US$.
A third night after a luxurious day of just swimming off the dock from my resort, I came back and had fish tacos and CHEESE CAKE and it ran $35Belize. My last night in San Pedro, I took some other resorts guests out to Secret Beach for sunset and then we came back here as well but the Tipsy Lobster was closed on Sundays so I ate a snapper fish burger at Enell’s Grill which was a great experience as well. Big Mac open this cafe in honor of his moms and there was exceptional vibe by these cats!
On Tuesday, my 1st day with a golf cart, I headed out to “Secret Beach”. Grand Belizean Estates and a few other “developments” are large tracts of land on the basically undeveloped, unelectrified West Side of Ambergris Caye. I think the Secret was that unless someone really pointed you in the right direction, you would not know where this newest and now exploited westside of San Pedro island was.
Just saying the words Secret Beach to locals conjures up wild orgies and drunken stumbling but my mission since it was the westside of the island was to capture a killer sunset photo. This Tuesday I went out midday and as I was driving into the center of where are the bars are located, several young guys were trying to get my golf cart parked at their bars. At first I thought you had to pay a fee to park your golf cart or something but once I told them I am photographer just looking for shots they left me alone.
The crazy but friendly guys who had no beach location wanted me to stop by their place first but I told them “YOU GOT NO CHICKS HERE”! On my way out just before sunset, a golf cart with four friendly girls showed up and we did an impromptu photoshoot. It was really funny!
I had gotten some good shots that evening but but I realized the next day and it turned out I would return every late afternoon just before sunset for unique sunset shots every time. And, even though the skeeters and sand gnats came out in force at sunset, the drive back after sunset would always have some version of this:
The other to-do item on my list was to drive to Rocky Point. Rocky Point is the furthest north you can drive on San Pedro Island and, in fact, if you were to hike a couple of miles you would then be in Mexico. It was about 1.5 hours each way and about an hour of driving un-eventful beach trails I almost turned around. The end of the road is an un-glamorous collection of pitted rocks that looks like old Mayan skulls. The one visual that was surprising was The Margaritaveille Resort. It seemed like it belonged in Miami somewhere and probably had an occupancy potential of hundreds of guests. It got me wondering who would drive the road I am driving to get there and then I found out these types of resorts of full self-contained and accessed by private boat charters. It looked pretty fantastic actually. No one would even know of this location unless you had a plane or your were a curious golf cart traveler such as myself.
Was the drive worth it? I am glad I did it and the views were serene. Would I do it again? No. But, I got ‘er done!
The pretty Belizean girl with the pink t-shirt proclaiming “Peace, Love & Chocolate” sums up my experience in Belize. Usually, I can pump out a trip report within 48 hours upon my return. But, this Belize trip was different. A week later I can still feel the afternoon breeze, the silky smooth ocean water as I swim and the subtle roar of my golf cart as I put my foot on the gas and head out for my next adventure.
Very few destinations that I have traveled to, I feel the need to return. But, Belize is different. The Belizean people really, really make it a special lifetime experience.
On my next visit, I will probably return without all my camera equipment and just bring my little waterproof pocket camera. Like so many Americans and other Ex-Pats, Belize and especially San Pedro make you feel right at home –Belize it or not!