A friend of ours got married in Belize last week and I was excited to visit a new country. For those of you unfamiliar with Belize, let’s start with the basics. Belize is in Central America on the Caribbean Sea. If you travel from Cancun south past Tulum on 307, eventually you will hit Belize. On the west and south its bordered by Guatemala. It is two time zones west of New York. As Belize is a former British colony, the primary language is English. Belize practices the questionable monetary policy of having a fixed exchange rate of two Belizean dollars to one US dollar. In addition, you can pay for everything in US dollars, although you will likely get Belizean currency for change.
Other than being a former British colony, it’s difficult to say exactly what distinguishes Belize from its neighbors. That being said, Belizeans are very proud of their country and don’t hesitate to mention that residents of other Central American countries settle in Belize to have better lives, much like Belizeans settle in the US and Canada.
Of course, like many tropical, less-developed countries, Belize has its share of people from the United States and Canada (and increasingly China), relocating there to enjoy the sun and the more laid back lifestyle. Unlike other countries I’ve been to, Belizeans seem to welcome expats from the richer countries as it contributes to the diversity as well as makes it a more appealing tourist destination. During our visit, my wife and I heard a number of complaints about how the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye had become too touristy, but of course those complaints came from expats who remember what San Pedro was like twenty years ago. No doubt they are upset that the country has gotten more expensive. Caye Caulker is now touted as “what San Pedro was like twenty years ago.” As San Pedro met my minimal standards for comfort while I travel, Caye Caulker does not sound appealing.
In San Pedro and in Belize in general, the people were almost uniformly friendly and always tried to be helpful. For a place that is “too touristy”, we didn’t encounter any of the jaded attitudes of local people who have resigned themselves to taking your money but aren’t happy about it. Although there was an emphasis on friendliness and hospitality, we still had to get used to everything being on “island time”, even when we were far inland. There is never a hurry to take your order and to bring you your food. While sometimes it’s good to get away from the efficient pressure of the American dining experience, it still seems like to would make sense to at least get people their drinks right away. (They may order more.) I guess I should chalk that up to the lack of cynicism.
The food in Belize was generally disappointing. It seems like Belizeans have a bland palate with regard to spice, despite the ubiquitous presence of hot sauces (usually Marie Sharp’s). Even the hottest Habanero sauces are not very hot and without the sauces the food is not very flavorful. If there is a national dish, it’s rice and beans (which is different from beans and rice) and the mixture is too heavily weighted on the rice side. I much prefer Dominican-style moro. On San Pedro we had pupusas which were good but inferior to the ones we can get from the Red Hook food vendors. We also had conch ceviche, which was excellent.
We spent two nights in San Pedro and then four nights at a resort in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. (No, it wasn’t Blancaneaux. I am not naming the resort because I don’t want to give it publicity.) Although weather in San Pedro prevented us from snorkeling, I can only assume that trips to the Belize Barrier Reef or the Great Blue Hole justify a visit to San Pedro. If you are not interested in doing anything in the water, I’m not sure what distinguishes San Pedro from other small Caribbean beach towns.
As for resorts in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, many of them are located an hour away from San Ignacio (the capital of the Cayo District) and the road from San Ignacio to the resorts is unpleasant. This means that you may want to make sure that you will have everything you need at the resort unless you don’t mind spending a lot of time on a windy, bumpy road. San Ignacio itself is a pleasant small city in which you can pass an enjoyable day. Our favorite activity of the trip was visiting the Iguana Project at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. The tour doesn’t take very long and it ends with you having the opportunity to feed adult green iguanas and having adult and baby green iguanas climb on you. From there you can walk up to the Mayan site of Cahal Pech which is not as impressive as Tikal or Chichen Itza but it’s worth visiting if only because you can walk to it in San Ignacio.
I’m glad I visited Belize and I wish the best for the Belizean people, although I doubt I will every visit the country again. In a strange way, the blend of cultures in modern Belize (Maya, Mestizo, Kriol and Garifuna, along with various expats) and its history as a British colony make it simultaneously more like the US and less interesting as a destination. Belize is a melting pot on a small-scale and the enthusiasm of the people for the diversity is admirable but it reduces the “foreign-ness” that makes travel interesting.
If you do travel to San Ignacio and you decide to hire a tour guide, I would like to recommend Miguel “Mike” Aguilar who we had the good fortune to meet. Mike has a great attitude and took us cave tubing for a reasonable price.