SAN PEDRO, BELIZE — The cobalt blue waves fanned out in dazzling pools below the tiny plane. I peered out the window and gawked at the famous Great Blue Hole, a giant sinkhole that glistened off the coast like an otherworldly marine planet. The 14-seat plane landed on Ambergris Caye and I stepped out into rays of Belize sunlight and the old school charm of the 40km-long island.
When I arrived in Belize City and hopped into the tiny Tropic Air plane for the 15-minute flight to San Pedro, I expected an uneventful jaunt to the island. I didn’t consider Ambergris Caye’s position on the coastline overlooking the wonders of the Belize Barrier Reef. Gliding over the Caribbean Sea, the shades of water shifted from cobalt, to teal, to turquoise. The low-flying angle really supplied a special perspective. I caught glimpses of coastal lagoons and even splashing manatees as we neared San Pedro Airport. Climbing out of the plane and watching golf carts roll down the narrow streets was my first introduction to the singular appeal of “La Isla Bonita.”
The lyrics to the Madonna classic song inspired by the island ran through my head as I took in the local scenes from the Victoria House Resort golf cart: “tropical the island breeze/all of nature wild and free this is where I long to be/la isla bonita.” Candy-coloured wooden buildings filled downtown San Pedro and vendors selling coconut water and mango slices under coco plum trees lined the dusty road.
The only cars allowed on the island are delivery trucks, taxi vans and government cars, so the low rumble of golf carts and motor bikes whizzing by blared out as we approached Victoria House Resort on the southern tip of the island.
Above: Hotel properties in Belize pamper their guests with some unusual service.
A thicket of palm trees and shiny-leaved bushes framed a simple white sign that announced Victoria House Resort. The property is located just two miles south of downtown San Pedro but it looked like a small private island; an emerald carpet of grass unfolded around thatched roof huts and chirping birds were the only sounds I heard. Rueben greeted me with a glass of a fresh ginger beverage and led me through a stone pathway past a shimmering infinity pool to the Infinity Suite. Polished mahogany doors opened to reveal two floors of airy wicker furnishing and terraces with views of the pool and lush landscaping.
I kicked off my shoes and headed to the private beach dotted with coconut palms and covered with pale sand. Sliding into a hammock, I leaned back and watched iguanas scamper and pelicans frolic in the waves in front of me. It seemed like the time just melted away and by the time I finished sipping a cocktail, the sun was going down. Rushing back to my suite, I changed for my evening reservation at the resort’s Palmilla Restaurant.
Framed by a veranda overlooking the main pool, the restaurant exuded a quiet gentility with crisp white linens topped with bouquets of crimson ginger plants. Palmilla is noted for its fresh and sophisticated dishes, I ordered an arugula and watermelon salad and cashew-encrusted snapper. Both were well-prepared and filling but the highlight was the rompopo that Raul searched out for me. Rompopo is a traditional, creamy rum drink that’s similar to egg nog. Since it was February, I wasn’t sure if they would have the festive drink but Raul found a bottle and served me two glasses to top off my excellent meal.
Above: The food culture in Belize is amazing and colourful restaurants serve up lots of traditional fare.
Belize Garifuna culture
The history of the Afro-indigenous Garifuna people dates back 400 years, when Kalinago and Arawak people intermarried and settled on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In 1635, two Spanish slave ships shipwrecked on the shore and the kidnapped Nigerians that survived found refuge with the Kalinago-Arawak population. The growth and strength of the Garifuna threatened the British colonizers so they were deported to the Honduras island of Roatan in 1796. The Garifuna people and culture flourished on Roatan but a revolt pushed them to flee, this time to Southern Belize in 1832.
Garifuna culture is an integral part of Belizean culture and there’s no better place to experience it on San Pedro than the Black & White Garifuna Restaurant. The striped black, white and yellow Garifuna flag waved over the covered outdoor seating area accented with plants and traditional tapestries and wood carvings. Julia, the restaurant’s owner, greeted me with a smile and explained the traditional dishes on the menu. I ordered hudut, a beloved dish featuring coconut milk, fish and a habanero pepper and served with coconut rice, cassava bread and pounded plantains. As I slurped up the savoury stew, she explained that the restaurant was also a cultural centre that hosts drumming, dancing and a buffet of Garifuna dishes on Thursday evenings. The rhythms of the drums streamed from the restaurant and thumped through my brain as I realized that the eatery is cash only. True to Belizian hospitality, Julia shrugged her shoulders and told me to just bring the money tomorrow. Not only was I humbled by her trust, but I had the chance to again see the dancers whirling away to the spirited drumming when I returned to pay her the money the next day.
Secret beach and Belize eats
Ambergris Caye may be a small island but that doesn’t mean it’s sleepy. I witnessed snarls of golf cart traffic as visitors headed to the bars, shops and restaurants in downtown San Pedro. A trip to Secret Beach, on the west side of the island, is an essential excursion to really experience the natural beauty of Belize. No, it’s not a secret at all and it also required an hour trip along a long, bumpy road but it was so worth it. The scenes along the way include a lagoon filled with frigates and gulls and crocodiles sunning themselves on rocks. An armadillo ambled across the road as we rolled by, not impressed with the golf cart’s noise at all.
Pulling up to Secret Beach, you only see a line up of restaurants and bars. But after taking a few steps onto the sand, the panoramas were heart-stoppingingly beautiful. The water was shallow and a crystalline blue and palapas with benches dotted several areas so that guests could eat, drink and never leave the water. And who would want to? The sea was warm and refreshing against the blazing tropical sun. Servers waded out to serve me and a host of giant inflatables in the shape of swans and ducks offered other ways to lounge. There’s a restaurant/bar for every kind of taste, from rowdy to laid back, so I roamed the beach until I found one that had soothing strains of reggae playing with few crowds. I collected shells, drank, ate and floated in the water until my skin was as salty as a pretzel.
Heading back into town, I stopped at Juice Dive, San Pedro’s first vegan and cold-pressed juice spot and downed the spicy melon, a flavourful blend of watermelon, beet, lime, mint green apple and jalapeño juices.
From there, I strolled to El Fogon, which means fire hearth. The Belizian creole restaurant features an outdoor oven and wooden benches to enjoy traditional meals like chilmole soup (spicy chicken) or pig tails with with split peas. I ordered fish in lime and garlic sauce with rice and had to roll myself away from the wooden table after stuffing myself with the tasty dish.
For my last night in Belize, I made my way to the beachside Wahoo Lounge to buy tickets for the famous "chicken drop game." Held every Thursday night, the game is similar to bingo, except with live chickens.
Squeezing my way into the crowd gathered around a fenced board with numbers, the DJ announced the start of the first game.
A handler brought out a speckled rooster and a volunteer was instructed to gently raise the chicken three times around her head and then blow on its poop hole. The chicken was then plopped onto the board and the crowd yelled for it to poop on their numbers. But the chicken wasn’t particularly full, so corn was sprinkled onto the board. And more corn. And more.
After about 35 minutes, the chicken finally pooped on the number I clutched in my hand. Except it was the number for the next game. A lucky winner claimed the cash prize and I decided that I didn’t have the energy to wait for another chicken to poop. As I walked along the beach and watched the crowd yell at the next chicken, I knew that there was truly no place like “la isla bonita.”