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On Ambergris Caye, Belize


Blowing palms

Local fisherman

Kayaks on the shore in San Pedro
by Melissa Cicci

[From Spring/Summer 2009]

The azure coastal waters of Belize are shallow and are sheltered by a line of coral reefs, scattered with small islands called 'cayes,' running almost the entire length of the country. The barrier island of Ambergris Caye lies just off the northeastern coast, separating the mainland from the Caribbean Sea.

Relative to its size (the population is around 300,000), Belize is an unexpected melting pot. Ethnic groups include Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna (Black Caribs), Ketchi, Yucatec and Mopan Mayas. Interestingly, a small and industrious group of Dutch and German Mennonites settled on mainland Belize in the late 1950s. This community still speaks an archaic hybrid of German and Dutch. On Ambergris Caye, the population is largely Mestizo and Creole. Although English is spoken fluently, Creole is the language of laughter, family and friendship.

For our family, every leg of the journey to Ambergris Caye felt like a giant step further away from daily life and its stresses. Most international flights to Belize land in Belize City. From there, a 12-seat, wide-windowed Cessna Caravan makes the 15-minute hop to San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye. The airport's grassy landing strip ends at a tiny whitewashed terminal. Playing children and dogs are shooed off the runway to make way for landing and departing planes.

San Pedro is bustling. Tourists, divers, anglers, uniformed schoolchildren and local officials walk the streets. Soccer players congregate at a dusty field in the center of town. Many of the islands restaurants, groceries and businesses are located here. If you are staying in a rental condo on another part of the Caye, provisioning in San Pedro is wise. Traveling out of San Pedro usually involves boat travel along the coastline or a very bumpy ride in a golf cart (common transport here) on washed-out roads.

We stocked up on water, wine, cheese, bread, milk, beer, eggs and fresh fruit before making our way to the town dock. Once there, we loaded into a small outboard motor boat for the short ride to the condominium resort we had booked for the week. The friendly owners - and their 7-and-counting family of dogs - met us at the hotel dock. A wheelbarrow transferred our belongings and our food to a spacious and clean 2-bedroom apartment. The front door and porch opened straight onto the sand. Shoes and street clothes were put aside for the week. Along with a few other families and couples, we shared the pool and a friendly beach bar. Next to the small front office, pool and foosball tables provided ideal distractions during late-afternoon showers.

Because Ambergris lies between a barrier reef and the mainland, it does not have traditional, wide beaches. In fact, the island is essentially all sand. Development lies close to the shoreline, with a narrow bicycle and footpath separating homes and hotels from the water's edge. Long wooden docks jut out at intervals along the coast. Development here is modest. Height ordinances restrict buildings to no more than four stories. Undeveloped stretches of coastline are often littered with debris washed ashore or left by passing people. This troubled me at first (a blot on Paradise?), until I reminded myself that regular trash service is a luxury of a first-world economy.

Belize is a magnet for anglers and divers. In San Pedro, dive shops and fishing guides are available at every turn. Most of the hotel and small condominium resorts have on-site dive shops, or can make arrangements with a local dive master. For anglers, booking in advance or on the Caye is easy and straightforward. For those who love to fish there are reef fishing for snapper and sea trout; deep-sea fishing; and flats fishing for tarpon and bonefish. My husband and daughter are avid anglers. One windy, pre-dawn morning, they ventured out in a small boat with two sturdy guides. Several hours later, with the hot morning sun overhead, they returned with enough fish for that night's meal. The guides expertly filleted them right on the dock and tossed the bones and innards back into the sea. We fried them up that evening. White wine and steamed rice rounded out the meal.

Although my son and I enjoy the freshest fish, we don't have the patience for the sport. Instead, we signed up for a resort scuba course with a local PADI dive shop. PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) is the world's leading scuba diving training organization. I had taken a resort course 10 years earlier on St. Lucia, but my son had only snorkeled. With what seemed like minimal instruction, we headed out in a boat with the dive master, Tony. Crossing the reef in high swells, we struggled with the gear and took Tony's advice to get in the water as quickly as possible. The wild rocking of the boat over the reef was a sure recipe for seasickness. We strapped on the gear (with much help) and tipped backwards off the rim of the boat. Once below the surface, any sign of seasickness was quickly dispelled by the counter-intuitive act of breathing under water. We dove much deeper than we should have that day. For resort course novices, the depth limit is typically 25-30 feet. At one point, I glanced at the depth meter and saw that we were at 60 feet. We loved Tony, and trusted him, but clearly he was playing a bit fast and loose with PADI rules. All was well of course, and the experience was exhilarating.

I made a vow on Belize to become a certified diver. It's easy to make promises when the biggest decisions of the day involve which book to read; whether to take a jog along the shore or go for a swim; or when to drink a beer. But like a similar promise made on St. Lucia long ago, I may not keep this one either.

Details:
Getting to Ambergris Caye:
Non-stop flights to Belize City on American Airlines from Miami and Dallas-Fort Worth; and on Delta Airlines from Atlanta. In late April 2009, round-trip coach fares begin at about $570. The 15-minute flight on Maya Island Air to Ambergris Caye (San Pedro) is $120, round-trip.

Where to Stay/What to Do:
Sadly, the resort where we stayed on Ambergris has closed. For lodging information and an excellent resource on fishing, diving and other activities in Belize, go to www.travelbelize.org.

Belize is rich with Mayan history and ruins. We visited Lamanai, one of the lesser known of the Mayan ruins. It is possible to arrange excursions to small sites like Lamanai or to the larger sites, such as Tikal in nearby Guatemala. More information is available at www.travelbelize.org.

- For U.S. travelers, visit the U.S. Department of State website for travel alerts, health information and entry/exit requirements.

Photo Credits: preview and middle above: Melissa Cicci; top: Eric Hinson/Fotolia; bottom: Image Copyright 2008 - Demian Solano Photography.