Three things you should do as quickly as possible once you move to San Pedro

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Watching the sun rise over Lake Bacalar on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They say every morning the colors are different because of the unique reflective qualities of the pristine lake waters.

The three best things you can do once you move to Ambergris Caye in Belize involve getting off the island. One means getting out of the country. None of them includes the Blue Hole or the “Chicken Drop.”

This sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

I mean, here you are, newly landed on one of the great expat destinations in the world, and this guy who is moving away shortly is telling you to get off the island for your own sake.

Hang in there. I in no way intend to burn Ambergris Caye, a place I love above all others on this planet. Follow my steps through these three adventures and I promise you’ll return to Ambergris Caye with a deepened love for the island and a profound appreciation for the beauty that surrounds it. The real estate won’t expand, but your world will grow bigger.

Welcome to San Pedro, now go and explore the rest of Belize

My brother Jim and I stand atop El Costillo at Xunantunich, just west of San Ignacio. Guatemala is in the background. We did a busy two-day tour of Belize mainland, from Belize City to the Guatemala border and back.

The first trip is pretty common and the most obvious: Visit the rest of Belize.

If you go all the way back to the very start of this column, August 2013 and September 2013, you will see mapped out a three-week discovery tour.  That’s simply how we came to the decision to live on Ambergris Caye, by process of elimination.  Everybody tells you to tour Belize before moving here but a lot of people simply land in San Pedro, get loaded on Boca del Rio, and then say “I’m selling everything, moving here and buying a bar, and never ever have to work for a living again!”

Sure, you laugh. (And I hear you laughing the hardest, you bar, restaurant and hotel owners.)

But that is not what we are here to talk about today.

After doing lots of research (See “quick aside” below),  Rose and I settled on an itinerary that began with a week in San Pedro at the Blue Tang. Back then, the Palapa Bar and Grill was called Wet Willie’s and it had clearly run out its string and Boca del Rio had only a couple of bars, one of which served the most disgusting BLT I have ever tasted in my life.  We rented a golf cart and got as far north as the original Palapa Bar before the horribly rutted road and mosquitoes on steroids drove us back. Driving south was easier because, well, there was hardly anything there and nobody seemed inclined to pointlessly drive ruts into the road that lead to nowhere.

Ok, quick aside here, Research does not mean posting on local help sites things like “I’m coming to Belize in one week on vacation. Where should I go? What should I do? Begin!” Look, you are an adult. Adults do as much as they can for themselves before reaching out to others. People can be more helpful if you ask questions like “Xunantunich or Lamanai? If we can do only one, which do you recommend?” People will, of course, come back with “Tikal!” But, yes, research first!

Your moment of zen. Carp gather beneath the dock at Akal Ki Holistic Center on Lake Bacalar in Mexico.

We split up the rest of the trip into three-day lots — Corozal, San Ignacio, Placencia and back to San Pedro. As best we could we tried to capture the flavor of each.  (Corozas was bland, San Ignacio was savory, Placencia was cotton candy sweet, and San Pedro tasted like an ice cold Belikin.) There are numerous ways to get around Belize but, come on, renting a vehicle is the easiest. And you don’t need a four-wheel drive behemoth SUV to do it. We went to Budget and got a sporty little Kia and it did just fine.

Speaking of “fine,” the fine print on the contract said this Budget has absolutely nothing in common with the international rental agency — except maybe its color scheme and logo. Still, it worked just fine. Since then, we have always gone with Crystal Auto because they are good service-oriented people who rent you good reliable vehicles with a smile and I like that their website looks like it was made in 1999.

I won’t belabor this tour as you can look it up online (aka, research).

Most recently, I did the modified version of this with my brother Jim. In two days, we hit the Belize Zoo, San Ignacio, Spanish Lookout, Cahal Pech and Xunantunich before I dropped him off at the airport. You can read about it here.  I would call this two-day excursion when combined with Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker, “Belize 101.” It is a brief survey course on Belize, hopefully, tantalizing enough to make you want to come back for the upper-level courses. At later dates you can add museums in Belize City, cave tubing, zip lining, mountain hiking, river canoeing, and so so much more. Yes, Belize is amazing. Embrace that fact.

Sail away almost as soon as you land

Pirates of San Pedro! Our last moments aboard the Ragga Queen — 13 friends and three crew — all family!

Which brings us to Belize 301, and our second thing you should do as soon as possible — hook up with a sailboat for a tour of reef and cayes that are not named Ambergris or Caulker.

We started off last week with a three-day sail aboard the 40-foot, gaff-rigged Ragga Queen, a single-hull, all-wood Belize-built charter from Raggamuffin Tours out of Caye Caulker. The crew took 13 of us south along the reef with occasional stops for snorkeling. Two nights were spent on little spits of sand and coconut trees that look pretty much like every castaway island you’ve seen in a movie. One of the crew was an excellent galley wizard who gave us fabulous three-squares each day.
The dining hall on Ragga Caye, our last stop on the sailing tour.

This was a side of Belize we’ve never experienced before and even though all but one of our group were long-time expats there was a general agreement that we needed to get out more. Touring through the islands gives you a greater appreciation of what it means to be Belize. There are more than 400 islands and atolls out there, and the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is always in sight.

Do you remember the announcement recently that scientists have discovered scores of planetary bodies out in space that could conceivably be habitable by humans?
Yeah, it is a lot like that.
This is exactly how Tobacco Caye feels as you walk around the tiny, densely-packed  and overwhelmingly calming caye.

 

Life along the cayes — both above and below the water — is a stunning revelation. In a really positive way, you can learn early that Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are not the center of the Belize universe, just its most popular spots. And the stars shine brighter above a lampless caye hanging on to the very edge of the reef.  There are people out there at tiny little resorts who have never ever been to San Pedro.  We slept in tents on Rendezvous Caye and were shooed out in the morning by the arrival of a boat filled with cruise ship staff, food, beverages, a pop-up restaurant, sun mats, beach toys, life preservers and playthings for daytripping cruise ship passengers.

 

It was like striking one movie set, Scene 1: Escape of the Pirates of San Pedro,  and then dressing up for Scene 2: Attack of the Boat People.

We wandered about Tobacco Caye and snorkeled along the reef before landing for our second night, this time at Ragga Caye. Our third day included hunting for manatees among the mangrove islands and observing bird-saturated cayes before snorkeling off South Water Caye. A motor launch took us to Dangriga late in the afternoon for a final night, at the Pelican Beach Resort where I had the pleasure of meeting the gracious Alice Bowman who ran this charming old place with her husband for decades. Her maiden name is a venerable one in Belize history, Usher, and her father built the hotel and the airport and was a founder of the Belize citrus industry. She’d recently turned the reins of the hotel over to the next generation. She is a treasure, to be sure.

 

Last moments aboard the Ragga Queen at the pier on Ragga Caye.
The Pelican, by the way, has a sister resort out on South Water Caye — now there is a one-two punch vacation!
Raggamuffin’s tour is a terrific deal — $400 US per person for three days and two nights of sailing, all meals and beverages included. And the crew we had was like family. And yes, there are plenty of other sailboats for charter. Do some research. Seek them out. Four friends recently chartered the catamaran Felicity out of San Pedro under Captain Horace Bladon. They charted their own course — hitting the Blue Hole, Half Moon Caye,  and the major atolls Turneffe and Lighthouse.
The crew of the Ragga Queen as we headed out for Dangriga, our final overnight stop before heading back to San Pedro.

There are a hundred ways to sail the coast of Belize and I haven’t met a soul returning from a sail who did not have a higher appreciation for the nation.

And if you are planning to spend your life on one island, it is always good to know there are options nearby when island fever hits. It is a thing, island fever.

Just got here? Leave the country!

Images of my son Brendan and grandson Brody making the most of Lake Bacalar, just north of the Belize border in Mexico. The color of the freshwater lake is just what you see here.

And finally, the third excursion away from Ambergris Caye that will bring you closer to your life on the island: Bacalar, Mexico.

 

Lago Bacalar is 42 kilometers long and no more than 2 kilometers wide, just about the same dimensions as Ambergris Caye. The lake is also known as the Lake of the Seven Colors — all of them brilliant shades of blue. The water is crystal clear, pure enough to drink, and has a mostly sandy bottom. It is teeming with aquatic life and shore birds. On the surface there are swimmers, kayak and stand-up paddlers, windsurfers, touring boats, wakeboarders — it is a glorious playground. Below the surface, there are three massive cenotes which feed fresh spring water into the lake.
And it is only about a half-hour drive north of Chetumal, a $25 taxi drive from the border.
Restaurant La Playita under the canopy of a single enormous tree in Bacalar, Mexico.

Seriously, it is that close. You can leave San Pedro by watertaxi and be on the lake before lunch.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I love to float and snorkel in salt water. But floating in what looks like a gigantic, warm, fresh-water Swarovski crystal? Man, that is something altogether different.
And that’s the point.
If I were to remain in San Pedro, I would take vacations in Bacalar, perhaps two or three times a year. It has some very charming lakeside restaurants which serve delicious fare. Nice bars, a growing art scene, spectacular sunrises over  the lake, and — it is not Belize.  It is the Yucatan Peninsula, for sure, but probably one of the least-developed communities between Cancun and the Belize border. There is a nice balance of New Age, artistic, backpacker, family, and high end living that all work well in the community along the shore. I can’t give you hot tips on hotels, as we booked a whole house on the water through AirBnB.
A meditative moment at Akal Ki resort in Bacalar, Mexico. Perhaps the Buddha is contemplating the question “Why do doves cry?”

We did have an excellent breakfast at Akal Ki Centro Holistico, a very zen-like resort at the south end of the lake. Its beautifully cultivated grounds and pleasant staff reminded me of Francis Coppola’s Turtle Inn in Placentia. Everything about the place points to the sort of calm centeredness that you find through a steady meditation practice. It was as if every rock, every blade of grass, every flower was put there specifically for your contemplation and pleasure.

For other waterfront restaurants, two stood out La Playita with its massive tree canopy roof and Kai Pez with its sweeping lawn and garden-like setting.
More sunrise from Bacalar, in Mexico.

My son Brendan hooked up with Steve, one of the lake’s three wakeboard boaters and we spent half a day out on the water soaking up the sun, the views and some of the colorful geologic and pirate histories of the area. Like Campeche, on the Yucatan’s western coast, Bacalar was a popular plundering and pillaging site for pirates back in the day. Bacalar, too, built a fortress and mounted cannon in response. (There is actually a circuitous waterway from Chetumal Bay to Bacalar. Pirates came up the route and lumber floated down. Pretty soon, the pirates discovered the lumber, pound for pound, was worth more in Europe than their plunder and booty.)

I wish I could say we tapped the best of all Bacalar has to offer, but we left feeling that we’d only grazed the surface of this intriguing community.
Like I said, it is so close for San Pedranos and well worth exploring — over and over.

 

 

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