If you long to witness the clean white light of a fresh dawn as it breaks across the water of the open Caribbean or experience the vibrant amber glow of the sun's final rays setting in a lagoon, there is a place I'd like to take you. Like the song says, "La Isla Bonita" is a place for lovers and families alike, and it's within a two-and-a-half-hour, non-stop flight from Houston.
Belize is a country of barely 400 thousand tucked beneath Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Off its coast, in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean, is its largest atoll island, Ambergris Caye. This once-fishing village turned vacation paradise threads the needle between the modern world and something left behind. It is a lovely place to set up your base camp while exploring this Central American gem. My family has been coming here for almost 20 years. Our favorite resort is Coco Beach Belize, located three and a half miles north of town, facing the island’s reef side. It has fantastic pools and a swim-up bar with the best frozen coconut mojitos on the island, or anywhere else for that matter, and the ocean views from the front condos are picture-perfect.
Life moves at its own pace here. A place where your primary form of transportation is a golf cart, and dinner reservations can include a boat ride along the world's second-longest barrier reef. The food offerings on this tiny island are diverse and delectable. The local cuisine has plenty of seafood, plus the staple of stewed chicken with creole spiced rice and beans. To experience the local favorites, Elvi's Kitchen in the heart of San Pedro is a sure bet. If you need to satisfy multiple pallets for a casual lunch or dinner, try the Truck Stop, where you'll find Pizza, Southeast Asian, Latin Fusion, and Ice Cream, each served out of their own shipping container/kitchen. Or, for a special evening out, we usually take a nighttime boat ride to the Matachica Resort to enjoy Mombo’s award-winning menu that seamlessly blends globe techniques with local flavors. An emerging favorite is the Purple Pelican. Built out over a lagoon you can watch for tarpans and crocodiles as you await your food in posh surroundings.
In a place where corporate chains have yet to really take root, shops and restaurants are locally owned, and the proprietors welcome you. San Pedro’s population has grown dramatically from 5,000 to 20,000 since we first started coming, but its charm remains. Walking the three bustling streets that run north to south in town, you will hear languages from around the globe. Spanish, English, Mayan, Creole, or Pidgin (a combination of all these) are all local here. However, I've also heard Polish, German, French, Lebanese, Chinese, and various dialects of the King’s English (Canadian, UK, and Australian). While this gives the island a cosmopolitan flair, it is not a place you come to go clubbing or dress in designer evening wear and heels. Here, it is more of an early-to-bed, early-to-rise, casual kind of scene, with many of the best tours departing at dawn and returning at day's end. You can join tours to the mainland to see some of Belize’s renowned Mayan temples, hike the rain forest to go cave tubing and zip lining, or go four-wheeling or horseback riding in the jungle.
One of my favorite Mayan tours takes you by boat up Belize's meandering New River, where you can see exotic plant and animal life along the way to the Lamanai Archaeological Site. That translates to the Submerged Crocodile, and the temple complex is surrounded for miles by a jungle filled with howler monkeys, toucans, and jaguars and steeped in centuries of history and lore. When going to the mainland, we usually take tours with flights included, but if you are going to take a boat, do it for this one. It is an extremely long day, but arriving by water showcases the site's remoteness, and following the traversing ribbon like an explorer upriver is half the adventure.
After a mainland trip, snorkeling, diving, and fishing are just offshore, with the white line of waves breaking on the reef clearly visible from our balcony. Jet skis and parasailing are available with a call from the dock, and drinks ordered from the bar are brought to you poolside while you bask (with sunscreen) in the white-hot rays. I suggest alternating between active and lazy days if you have enough time.
Remember to venture north to Secret Beach on the lagoon side of the island. Or perhaps, if you are an absolute adrenaline junkie, jump out of a plane into the Great Blue Hole, or visit a neighboring island like Caye Caulker. You need more details? Don't worry, Secret Beach isn't really secret, the Great Blue Hole is world famous, and Caye Caulker is the next island over. Oh, and when you snorkel, go to Shark Ray Alley! Yes, you'll do what the name implies: swim in relatively shallow waters with nurse sharks, rays, turtles, jacks, blue tangs, and the occasional barracuda. No matter your speed, Belize has it, and the wonderful, hard-working people of Ambergris Caye have your every desire covered. Just ask them, or me, the next time you see me around town.
Xunantunich sits on a ridge above the Mopan River about seventy miles west of Belize City. This site served as a Mayan civic and ceremonial center to the Belize Valley region in the Late and Terminal Classic periods and is home to El Castillo, the second-largest structure in the country.