Found: The Weasley Family’s vacation retreat in Belize

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Amazing what you will find when you grab a pair of bikes and just get lost on the rutted back streets of San Pedro: The Weasley Family vacation home.
Amazing what you will find when you grab a pair of bikes and just get lost on the rutted back streets of San Pedro: The Weasley Family vacation home.

After a grueling year  at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the kids and Arthur’s  ever-more-challenging role  in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office at the Ministry of Magic, do you really think the Weasley family spent holiday in soggy old Ottery St. Catchpole, outside Devon?

Of course not!

The Weasleys were featured on “House Hunters International” back in the early 1980’s,  as they went in search of a vacation home in sunny Ambergris Caye, Belize, where they could enjoy sun, surf and sand — and still find a touch of Merry Old England in the former colony known as British Honduras.

As the HGTV program put it at the time: “Can the Weasleys find a rambling quirky structure that complemented the Burrow and their own eccentricities — without all that English fog to thwart their attempts at tanning freckled skin? Will a summer home in Belize put that old magic back into the lives of these hard working wizards and witches?”

You bet.

These days, locals say, the beginning of high season is marked by the sudden influx of carrot-topped, freckle-faced Weasleys in San Pedro.

Some say that, in recent times, even a paunchy, sun-burned Harry Potter could be seen tooling about in Arthur’s 24-foot fishing boat, here cleverly and magically disguised as a sunken derelict while the home awaits the coming of the Weasleys during high season.

Locals recall one gift shop that tried to market “Weasley Belizely” T-shirts back in the early 1990’s, but most people didn’t get it, mainly because J.K. Rowling hadn’t yet published the books that splayed open the secret life of magic. Way ahead of their time, the shirts were eventually discontinued.

I really, really think this is it, a Weasley vacation home if ever there was one, on the lagoon side of San Pedro.

What do you think?

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Globe-trotting cyclist’s take on San Pedro: Not cheap

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Frank E. Briscoe, the "old guy on a bicycle," told us a bit about his bicycling adventures before dashing off to catch the air taxi to Belize City.
Frank E. Briscoe, the “old guy on a bicycle,” told us a bit about his bicycling adventures before dashing off to catch the air taxi to Belize City.

Rose and I bicycled over to the Ambergris Brewing Co. for lunch today. It is on the water, next to the Blue Tang Inn where we stayed when we first arrived in San Pedro.

The intent was lunch and to thank Don, the owner for referring us to Bob Hamilton a straight talking, bare-footed, ponytailed ex-Canadian who now sells real estate. Bob spent a lot of time with us, giving his perspective on Ambergris Caye real estate and he suggested some folks who handle long-term rentals who might also be able to help.

The million dollar view from the "curb" tables at the Ambergris Brewing Co. in San Pedro, mbergris Caye.
The million dollar view from the “curb” tables at the Ambergris Brewing Co. in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

While waiting for our lunch a cheerful, slightly rotund but clearly energetic fellow appeared from nowhere like Alice’s rabbit and with a hearty handshake to Don said he could only stay for one beer because his flight was leaving in an hour.

The energetic character Frank E. Briscoe, freelance writer, motivational speaker and super-enthusiastic bicycle rider.  He pedaled from the San Juan Islands to the Florida Keys, all around Holland, and enough other places to log more than 30,000 miles since 2005. Did I mention he turns 67 this year?

He has a website about his adventures in cycling at www.oldguyonabicycle.com.

Frank had just spent the last 29 days in Belize, mostly on Ambergris Caye and was leaving the country by bus only an hour before the 30-day limit which requires you to renew your visa for $100. Frank is taking a Belize City-to-Cancun bus. There, he’ll be house-sitting for about six week.

He was planning to bicycle from Chetemul, at the Mexican border, to Panama City but his bicycle companion backed out on him. Frank said he just wasn’t up to making the trip alone. And that sounds more than reasonable. That’s a 1,500 mile cycle through mountainous terrain in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Hey, Frank. Maybe I should go with you!

Anyhow, Rose and I were so disappointed to catch only the fleeting last few minutes of this most gregarious fellow’s time on Ambergris Caye. He reminds me a great deal of my old airborne globetrotting friend Bob Gannon who has a knack for making lifetime friends where ever he lands his airplane.

Frank did say before he left that he was not crazy about San Pedro, mainly because prices for everything are pretty much what they are in the U.S. “On the other hand,” he added, “Caye Cauker is my kind of place. The pace is slower, the prices are lower and it is just more relaxed.”

Caye Cauker is on our list of places to visit before we leave on Saturday, perhaps a day trip by water taxi. It is just south of Ambergris Caye and much smaller, but its quiet barefoot village charm appeals to many whom we’ve met.

After Frank wraps his house-sitting project he’s returning to Belize, possible to bicycle the 60 miles or so to San Ignacio from where we have recently returned. It’s a good bicycle ride – decent roads for Belize, interesting and undulating landscape out west but without steep mountains.

When he gets to San Ignacio, by bus or bicycle, the first person he’s going to look up is Ginny Ophof our dear friend from Rainforest Realty who spent half a day showing us the town. Apparently they have been corresponding and she’s promised to show him a good time in San Ignacio. We know from experience, Frank is in for a real treat.

Funny, sometimes I feel that Belize is just one big neighborhood in which your friends are no more than two steps removed from other friends, no matter where you are in the country.

Uh, oh ….

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According to the National Hurricane Center, there is a disturbance directly over Belize which has a 40 percent chance of developing into a tropical cyclone within the next 48 hours and that probability can increase to about 70 percent within the next 5 days.

This system is the cause of the heavy rains since yesterday; and today, we can continue to experience more heavy rains and strong winds,although here in San Pedro it has been breezy and cool with the slightest hint of drizzle.

Let’s see,  we leave Saturday morning …

Here’s Belize, circled in orange on the NOAA map:

Awful lot of weather squiggles going on around Belize ....
Awful lot of weather squiggles going on around Belize ….

Belize-weatehr

A rainy day in Paradise

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It has been raining all day in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, drowning out some Independence Month celebrations in the town square and dampening most everyone’s enthusiasm for being out and about.

These are some photos taken today, Sept. 10 as Rose and I tried to move among the raindrops. Today is a national holiday in Belize  to commemorate the Battle for St. George’s Caye  in which the Spanish were defeated by the British, civilian loggers known as Baymen, and slaves in 1798.

These guys were just wrapping up a successful morning of fishing when we cam along the shore of San Pedro.
These guys were just wrapping up a successful morning of fishing when we came along the shore of San Pedro.
Here's the view from inside Fido's, a popular bar and restaurant along the San Pedro beach.
Here’s the view from inside Fido’s, a popular bar and restaurant along the San Pedro beach.
Today, Sept. 10, is a national holiday in Belize and, rain or no rain, kids and water must mix,along the San Pedro shore.
Today, Sept. 10, is a national holiday in Belize and, rain or no rain, kids and water must mix, along the San Pedro shore.
You'd hardly know it was a national holiday in Belize as the rain kept all but a few golf cart drivers and taxis off the streets of San Pedro today, Sept. 10, 2013.
You’d hardly know it was a national holiday in Belize as the rain kept all but a few golf cart drivers and taxis off the streets of San Pedro today, Sept. 10, 2013.
Tuesday night there was lots of noise coming from  Carlo & Earnie’s Runway Bar and Grill, next to the airport. We stepped in out of the rain to see that the US was playing Mexico in a World Cup qualifying game. There at the bar were our friends John and Rose East who are building a house on Ambergris Caye, on the north side of San Pedro. We had an unplanned and delightful evening of soccer and companionship. If we move to San Pedro, John and Rose will be a big reason why. OH, and the US won 2-0! The bars is a favorite of locals and it sounded as if most were cheering for the US. Except the bartender above whom I am told bet heavily on Mexico to win, as you can tell by the look on his face.
Tuesday night there was lots of noise coming from Carlo & Earnie’s Runway Bar and Grill, next to the airport. We stepped in out of the rain to see that the US was playing Mexico in a World Cup qualifying game. There at the bar were our friends John and Rose East who are building a house on Ambergris Caye, on the north side of San Pedro. We had an unplanned and delightful evening of soccer and companionship. If we move to San Pedro, John and Rose will be a big reason why. Oh, and the US won 2-0! The bars is a favorite of locals and it sounded as if most were cheering for the US. Except the bartender above whom I am told bet heavily on Mexico to win, as you can tell by the look on his face.

My friend John East has a blog about the construction of his home and he sometimes writes commentary on life out and about in San Pedro. It is called “Belize – Building A New Life.” Check it out!

Foot-dragging from village to village through Belize

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Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway, bracing for the rain.
Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway, bracing for the rain.

There’s one phrase we’ve learned to toss out, here in Belize: “We’ll get an early start.”

Each place where we have spent a few days manages to find its own way of undermining our Western “go-go-gotta-go” mindset.

And so we linger.

Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway.
Heading north on the Hummingbird Highway.

For just another view of the beautiful flowers and plantings around Orchid Bay in Corozal; and we travel more slowly down the rutted Chunox and San Estevan roads  that runs beside Progresso Lagoon and leads back to the paved Northern Highway.

In San Ignacio, we pause for one more view of mist rising above the rainforest across the valley; and we drop into the New French Bakery for another delicious cup of coffee and pastries. All the time hoping someone would appear and say, “Wait! You don’t have to go. Stay and join us. Make your new life here.” (Perhaps our car and its stone-dead battery were also trying to tell us something on that morning ….)

Banana plantations and rainforest contribute to the Hummingbird Highway's  reputation as the most beautiful road in Belize.
Banana plantations and rainforest contribute to the Hummingbird Highway’s reputation as the most beautiful road in Belize.

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But they are only imaginary voices. Nobody appears. In our heads, many Belizean voices in so many Belizean places clamor for our attention. Picking a home will not be easy.

At Turtle Bay in Placencia there were more reasons to linger yesterday than I can begin to recount. Certainly the breathtaking beauty of the place, especially after a long night’s rain, keeps us in our seats. The complimentary breakfast overlooking the Caribbean Sea definitely demands our attention for longer than it needs to.

And the people who make Turtle Inn the preternaturally charming oasis that it is — how hard it is to say goodbye to them.

Front office manager Terryann Emmanuel and I must share one last passionate conversation about Belize and conservation. We must make sure that our waiter and friend Victor gives us a call when he visits the Coppola winery in Napa later this month, so that we can share a drink and hear about his first commercial airplane ride.

We search in vain for Ivan, the beach captain, who has also been a terrific guide through the many layers of Belizean culture and who patiently drew a map in the sand to objectively show me how the proposed cruise ship terminal on Harvest Caye would fit, or not fit, into the local ecosystem.

On board the Belize Express water taxi to Caye Cauker and San Pedro. The 4:30 pm boat, second last of the day was jam-packed. The young man to Rose's left is a student who commutes from San Pedro to Belize City by boat every day to attend school.
On board the Belize Express water taxi to Caye Cauker and San Pedro. The 4:30 pm boat, second last of the day was jam-packed. The young man to Rose’s left is a student who commutes from San Pedro to Belize City by boat every day to attend school.

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And of course, how can we leave without saying thank you to our host, the dashing general manager Martin Krediet, who sent Rose an excellent bottle of Coppola’s Diamond Collection Pavilion Chardonnay for her birthday dinner?

Eventually we exhaust all excuses to linger, knowing that we have a long drive to Belize City to drop off the Suzuki Jimny. The rain pours down and we press on through the day. Our only stop is in the Stann Creek Valley for fresh pineapple and grapefruit drinks from the front of the citrus factory  in Pomona, just off the Hummingbird Highway; and for lunch in Belmopan.

The ride up the 53-mile-long Hummingbird Highway is a feast for the eyes. We join it just north of Placencia, in Dangriga, and travel through coastal pine and scrub, through the heart of banana plantations and citrus orchards, and through lush and hilly rainforest before reaching the capital Belmopan.

From there, a sharp right turn on to the east-west George Price Highway puts us 60 miles from Belize City in a flat and nearly straight blur of farmland and scattered forest growth. We take a shortcut through Hattieville, past the sprawling Belize Central Prison, just missing Burrel Boom as we aim for Ladyville and the International Airport.

At the airport, the rental agent tells us it will be a $25 US taxi ride to the water taxi in Belize City – or we can drive the car to their Belize City office (less than five miles away) and pick up a free shuttle to the water taxi.

Done.

Except that as we are driving to Belize City from the airport, the shuttle driver, Giles,  is en route to the airport to drop off a customer.

Giles is worth the short wait. Belize City is a bewildering maze of small and very crowded streets and even more crowded thoroughfares. School is getting out and the streets are jammed with parents picking up their kids at the many public and religion-based schools in the city.

There is a shoulder-to-shoulder festive air to it all. Every student wears a school uniform of prescribed colors and every school has its own colors, so the sidewalks are an undulating rainbow of energetic children with classes behind them and a national holiday ahead.

All the streets, traffic circles and parks are decked out in Belize national flags and red, white and blue triangle flag bunting. (The Belizean red, white and blue are softer, less-aggressive shades than the red, white and blue of the US.) September is Independence Month in Belize, Giles explains, and Sept. 10 celebrates the Battle of St. George’s Caye, in which slaves on the island defeated the Spanish.  There are celebrations all over this young nation this month, and we seem to be missing every single one of them.

Our home in San Pedro for the rest of this week, the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. This is the view from the front porch, looking toward the Caribbean Sea. Rose takes yoga 100 feet from here and I take coffee directly under the yoga studio. Works really well.
Our home in San Pedro for the rest of this week, the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. This is the view from the front porch, looking toward the Caribbean Sea. Rose takes yoga 100 feet from here and I take coffee directly under the yoga studio. Works really well.

At the moment though, we are concerned about missing our 4:30 pm boat but Giles smoothly guides his Ford Explorer down alleyways that seem to materialize only for him, and like a Harry Potter porthole, we pop out right in front of the entrance to Belize Express with five minute to spare before boarding.

The porter tags and stows our backpacks, the clerk takes our $60BZ/$30US for the watertaxi and we join the last remnants of a line of people entering the craft that looks slightly like a Buck Rogers rocketship.

We think we’re the last. People keep boarding after us … and keep boarding … and keep boarding … and then the crew asks all of us seated on the center bench to stand so they can add more baggage into the hold. And then they keep boarding … until every square inch is filled with tropic-warmed flesh. I counted close to 100 people in the belly of the rocket, including one brightly colored and feathered Carnival costume for a lady getting off at Caye Cauker.

What a relief when the taxi finally hits the open water, rises up on hydrofoils and sprints across the blue-green surface to Caye Caulker and its citrus-colored fishing and party town. About half the passengers get off here and only a few board, so the balance of the trip to San Pedro is – dare I say it? – a breeze.

It is dusk when we dock in San Pedro and Rose and I take a leisurely hike down the beach to our new digs – the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. The front desk is already closed but the security guard is expecting us and leads us to our room where we find handwritten greeting from Alfredo and some vouchers for dinner and breakfast. Dinner is fish and chips at a place upstairs from  Crazy Cannuck’s, a legendary San Pedro beach bar.

But we’re as sleepy as off-season San Pedro tonight, so there’ll be no late-night carousing for us. It is home to read and to bed. In the morning Rose has yoga only steps from our front door and I know I have a cup of hot coffee and a WiFi connection waiting for me at Melt’s, the café just below her yoga studio.

In some ways it is beginning to feel like we’re coming home to San Pedro, where our Belizean adventure began, seemingly ages ago.

Monkey Bob bets on Belize

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Such an imp. It was just like Monkey Bob to climb atop  one of the many helpful maps in San Pedro and try to tickle the underbelly of the fish who stands guard over it.
Such an imp. It was just like Monkey Bob to climb atop one of the many helpful maps in San Pedro and try to tickle the underbelly of the fish who stands guard over it.

It is with some sorrow that we announce the departure of Rose’s constant traveling companion, Monkey Bob.

Somewhere, most likely at Orchid Bay in Corozal, northern Belize, Monkey Bob decided to remain behind. Our guess is that, as we packed for the journey to San Ignacio, Monkey Bob remained asleep under the covers.

Always one to seek out the positive, Rose is hoping that Monkey Bob finds his way into the arms of the one little child who currently lives at Orchid Bay year-round. If so, he will make her delightful companion until other children arrive, likely in the High Season, starting in November.

We held out hope that Monkey Bob would hop aboard one of the many colorful and inexpensive buses that crisscross this little nation, tying together Belize City, Corozal, Belmopan, San Ignazio, Spanish Lookout, Placencia, Punta Gorda, Dangriga, the Guatemalan and Mexican border crossings, and all points in between.

But he didn’t.

All the way from San Ignacio to Placencia and, yesterday, from Placencia to Belmopan and Belize City we searched the windows of passing buses in hope that Monkey Bob would be peering out a window, searching for us ...
All the way from San Ignacio to Placencia and, yesterday, from Placencia to Belmopan and Belize City, we searched the windows of passing buses in hope that Monkey Bob would be peering out one of them, searching for us …

Monkey Bob had a talent for amusing Rose when she was bored, distracted or lonely. He would pose almost anywhere in an attempt to make her smile at his antics.

The little monkey.

Monkey Bob’s favorite past-time was photo bombing. He loves the camera and the camera, in return, loves him. Not since Marilyn Monroe has a face been so naturally drawn to the lens, and drawn by the lens.

We carry on, now back in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye for five days. Yes, without Monkey Bob, but still very much in love, even more so, with this spectacularly diverse and welcoming country.

All this means is that Monkey Bob is moving here permanently, months ahead of us.

We will meet again, Monkey Bob. On a beach or in the jungle, somewhere in Belize, we will meet again.

Rose, without Monkey Bob to amuse her, took to isolated activities, like paddleboarding off the beach of Turtle Inn in Placencia. When she discovered she wasn't alone -- that there were many jellyfish out there to keep her company, Rose set a sea surface record paddling for shore.
Rose, without Monkey Bob to amuse her, took to isolated activities, like paddleboarding off the beach of Turtle Inn in Placencia. When she discovered she wasn’t so alone, that there were many jellyfish out there to keep her company, Rose set a sea-surface speed record paddling for shore.

Placencia is still quaint and funky but there’s drama on the horizon

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Welcome to Placencia. Now, relax.
Welcome to Placencia. Now, relax.

Yesterday was Rose’s birthday and, Rose being Rose, she started the day with yoga on the end of a pier here in Placencia. Just Rose and the deep blue sea. Nobody else.

Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!
Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!

I say Placencia but we’re here at Turtle Inn, full name Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn, which is a few minutes north of the town by bicycle. I wouldn’t be the first person to call the Turtle Inn one of the most incredible experiences ever. And I won’t be the last.

This is a photo by Rose of our cottage near the sea.
This is a photo by Rose of our cottage near the sea.

With its intimate Bali-Indonesian setting … well, we’ve been living a fantasy existence for the past few days. Our two weeks at Anse Chastanet on St. Lucia, where Rose taught yoga, is the only thing that comes remotely close to this experience. But I think we both agree, Turtle Inn is tops.

Everyone we have met assures us that Francis and Eleanor Coppola take great personal pains to be involved in every detail of this resort’s presentation, from the decor, to table settings, to the food that is served to the way the staff dresses and relates to guests.

We have a spacious cottage with thatch roof and a large screened porch, local hardwood floors and a lush view of the ocean through the foliage. At the back of the cottage is a walled courtyard with Zen-like garden and outdoor shower. Throughout the cottage and the grounds are original Balinese furnishings, statuary and art and even the pathways through the sand are paved with Indonesian stone. There are 25 such residences, two swimming pools, two bars and three restaurants and a large reception area — and all are integrated into this carefully cultivated environment.

Placencia still has a funky, sun and sea drenched quirkiness to it, like its signs for various bars and restaurants.
Placencia still has a funky, sun and sea drenched quirkiness to it, like its signs for various bars and restaurants.

Rose and I have spent the past few days talking extensively with the staff and we are greeted by name by many whom we may have met only once. Last night after dinner chef Edwin Alvarado joined us at our table in the Mare restaurant and spent more than an hour sharing wine and great stories, including the time that Coppola, on two weeks’ notice, summoned Edwin to accompany him to Italy on his private jet so that he could work beside the Coppola chefs and learn their craft. Edwin didn’t even have a passport but the mad scramble was worth it, he said.

Edwin is a talented woodcarver in Placencia and also has property for sale, if you are interested.
Edwin is a talented woodcarver in Placencia and also has property for sale, if you are interested.

After yoga and a continental breakfast, Rose and I borrowed a couple of the hotel’s bicycles and pedaled into the town of Placencia. There was a bit of trepidation on my part over what we would find. On the trip down from San Ignacio, along the stunningly beautiful and appropriately named Hummingbird Highway, we experienced lush tropical growth, fruit tree and banana plantations and the occasional small village.

We even detoured to a primitive coastal village called Hopkins.

None of it prepared us for what we encountered as we turned south and headed down the narrow peninsula toward Placencia. I can only describe it as steroidal development gone wild. On both sides of the only paved road that travels the spine of the peninsula there were enormous houses, even more enormous condo projects and even more insanely enormous resort/condo developments. A lot of the lagoon-side development was on land that was clearly filled-in lagoon.

Dodi creates beautiful tapestries on her loom. Each takes 6-8 hours. She did not mention having property in Placencia for sale.
Dodi creates beautiful tapestries on her loom. Each takes 6-8 hours. She did not mention having property in Placencia for sale.

It is the Cancunization of Belize. I think both of us were a bit deflated. This was not what I was expecting. For all the multi-million dollar properties, there was a bland international anonymity to the architecture. Nothing says “Belize.” A lot of it screamed “Miami” and “big money.”

What I had been focusing on was the fact that Placencia until recently was in the Guinness Book of Records for having the narrowest paved Main Street in the world. It is little more than a raised sidewalk fronting the beach-side buildings and it really is used as a street.

Several miles before arriving at Turtle Inn, the land began to calm down. We passed through Seine Bight and Maya Village, a couple of older small fishing villages and noticed that parcels of land were actually filled with lush growth instead of gated mansions.

If you think Rose has her birthday bliss on here -- that is my beer by the way -- you should have seen her after her 90-minute Thai massage at Turtle Inn later in the day.
If you think Rose has her birthday bliss on here — that is my beer by the way — you should have seen her after her 90-minute Thai massage at Turtle Inn later in the day.

Farther down, the municipal airport forces the road to take a sharp U-shaped turn around the eastern end of the landing strip, nearly putting cars on to the beach; it is so tightly wedged into the land.

Very quickly after that you reach Turtle Inn, an oasis, for sure.

So, what did we find in the village of Placencia?

Well, they now have a paved road that runs all the way to the end of the peninsula. And there are some signs of big-testosterone development but mostly it is still small tropical-fruit-colored restaurants and beach bars, coffee shops, markets, cottages, bed & breakfast inns and real estate businesses.

Some views of the village of Placencia from the very end of the Peninsula. It still has loads of charm.
Some views of the village of Placencia from the very end of the Peninsula. It still has loads of charm.

IMG_2161 IMG_2153 IMG_2154If anything, it has the quaint air of the beach bum-and-fishing village that San Pedro on Ambergris Caye might have been 20 years ago.

It only seems like every piece of property has for sale sign on it.

Indeed, I met a quiet-spoken local named Evan, a woodcarver with a head full of Rasta braids. He was sitting beside a humble shack trimmed in yellow, black, red and green — working on a sign for a couple with a new home. He showed me some of his driftwood carvings and they were intricate and beautiful.

“I also have a beachfront lot,” whispered Evan, tossing his head back over his left shoulder toward the sea. “It is for sale if you are interested.”

Jeesh.

Placencia still has its charm but everyone seems braced for the coming boom – either in dread or anticipation. Not only will the development to the north bring spending customers and pressure for growth to the village but so will the cruise ship industry which is positioning itself just off shore.

Norwegian Cruise Line has purchased Harvest Caye, south of Placencia and has plans to develop it into a self-contained Disney-like cruise ship destination. Inevitably some of those thousands of people who drop anchor at the caye will want to load into launch boats for a taste of the authentic Belize in Placencia and Big Creek on the coast. They’ll take river cruises and cave tours and visit Mayan ruins and zipline adventures and, some say, generally overrun the carefully calibrated eco-tourism industry that exists today.

This is serious ecological drama, folks.

As far as living there, we get the feeling that that ship has already left port. The most livable places seem to start in the high $400,000’s and rise rapidly into the millions of dollars. This time of year, Placencia is delightfully quiet and low-key but clearly when high season arrives the beach bars and restaurants will be jammed with the manic, sun-toasted tourist crowd — cramming a whole lot of local rum and good times into their one-week vacation.

Massage in progress: The shot I missed was the glow on Rose's face after 90 minutes under the practiced hands of a masseuse from Thailand.
Massage in progress: The shot I missed was the glow on Rose’s face after 90 minutes under the practiced hands of a masseuse from Thailand.

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Not what we want.

San Pedro has that, too, but it also has room to get away from the touristy and beachy craziness. Of course, so does San Ignacio far to the west in the jungle river regions, which is also in full contention for home.

I think I’m going to be a little sad when we leave Turtle Inn tomorrow. This has been such a special treat for both of us – and we really like hanging out in Placencia like it was 1980 all over again. Only it isn’t.

Tomorrow we drive back to Belize International Airport, drop off the Suzuki Jimny that has been sitting silent since we arrived and grab a boat taxi back to San Pedro for five more days. I wonder if we will see San Pedro differently, the second time around?

Especially after this time we have spent in the remote Corozal region and bustling San Ignacio and the funky island-like Placencia.

Seeing San Ignacio through the eyes of its people

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The open air marketplace in San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize.
The open air marketplace in San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize.

I learned something about myself today and learned how to begin loving a town that is pretty much foreign to me in almost every respect.

When we rolled into San Ignacio, the other day I was bewildered by how taken Rose was with this western Belizean outpost, close to the Guatemala border.

At the market in San Ignacio.
At the market in San Ignacio.

She started uttering “Beautiful!” shortly after we left the nation’s capital, Belmopan, and kept it up pretty much until we passed through Santa Elena and drove across the one-lane bridge into San Ignacio.

Where she was seeing beauty, I was seeing dust, dirt, decay, traffic and chaos. San Ignacio and its people look nothing like anything from my past. It was all so … so … so … foreign.

Imagine that. We go to Belize to find a place to live and I’m struggling with the fact that it seems foreign to me. Maybe I am the Ugly American after all.  Maybe I’m not the easy-going, adventurous, intrepid traveler that I thought I was.

Rose was San Francisco born but has roots in the Third World. Her father was Philippine and her mother came from Mexico. She’s an all-American girl but well-traveled around the world. She even carries a British passport, as well as her American one. She once lived in Western Africa for two years. She’s traveled in more countries than I can find and name on a map.

Me? I went to England once, as a pampered travel writer. Then there were two weeks on St. Lucia where Rose taught yoga as a guest at an absurdly upscale resort. (Anse Chastanet. Look it up, and drip with envy.) Real easy to be a world traveler when you are traveling first-class on somebody else’s dime.

But being of the world? More challenging when you are not wrapped in the high-walled comfort and exclusivity of a five star resort that has carved out its own self-contained space in a foreign country.

I wasn’t digging San Ignacio and I was liking myself less, for the only reason I could come up with was that I was “uncomfortable.” This wasn’t a place or culture that I was familiar with.

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The New French Bakery in San Ignacio.
The New French Bakery in San Ignacio.

So Friday morning we got up, skipped breakfast at the place we were staying – Ok, a resort … but  slightly threadbare and time worn one! – and walked down the steep hill to downtown San Ignacio. We passed a hotel where the Queen of England has stayed not once, but twice. Could we afford a room there, I wondered?

We grabbed some pastries and coffee at a place called the New French Bakery — which used to be called the Old French Bakery before it recently moved — where we heard numerous accents, none of them French. I think the total cost for three fresh-baked pastries and three cups of coffee was around $5 US. Best coffee I’ve had this whole trip, too.

We strolled across the street to the open-air market where fresh fruits and vegetables were going for a fraction of what we pay in the US. I was told later that on Saturdays you can get almost anything you need at the much expanded market, including jumper cables for your dead car battery …

The market lead to a stroll along the muddy and rain-swollen Macal River and across two one-way, single-lane bridges, one of them Belize’s only suspension bridge.

A funny thing happened as we walked through parks and markets and the town. I started picking up on the rhythms of the street and the smiles and greetings from perfect strangers. I was growing comfortable with San Ignacio. Well, a little.

We dropped in on Ginny Ophof at Rainforest Realty. She and Rose had been keeping up an e-mail conversation since Rose heard her program on Belize Talk Radio. Ginny knew of our plans and was totally onboard with the idea of trying out a place for six months before making a permanent commitment.

Rose and Ginny Ophof prepare to sit down for lunch at the Corner Cafe in San Ignacio.
Rose and Ginny Ophof prepare to sit down for lunch at the Corner Cafe in San Ignacio.

We talked about San Ignacio and expats – Ginny is Dutch but has lived around the world – and a bunch of other topics. She told us about her feisty 86 year-old mother who is an artist and has lived 30 years in San Ignacio, lately in what she called a “tree house.”

Ginny rang up Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank and got them to hold off on lunch so we could get down there and open a bank account.

Our new bankers! Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank.
Our new bankers! Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank.

Amalia walked us through the paperwork and Lovelia explained the finer points of the Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program (QRP) which provides me with all sorts of financial incentives if I commit to depositing a minimum amount of cash in a Belize bank each year.

When we were done, Ginny picked us up and showed a sampling of what’s available on the local market, even though she knows we won’t be returning until next year and might not even decide to move to San Ignacio. We saw riverfront houses for $600 and $700 a month and a brand new two bedroom house filled with native hardwoods going for $139,000. The builder was onsite and beaming with pride. “I just get better and better with every house,” he said with a broad smile.

Over a delicious lunch at a little street corner kitchenette in a tiny shack that could barely hold the three women cooking inside, Ginny told us stories of expats and family and the ups and downs of being a stranger in a strange land. The lunch, by the way, consisted of two delicious quesadillas and a burrito and three all-natural fresh fruit juice drinks and the bill was less than $12.

She told us about the  La Ruta Maya Canoe Race down the Macal and Belize rivers. that starts in San Ignacio and ends in Belize City on the coast. Thousands of people join in the race and turn it into a four-day celebration. Her mother became a local celebrity after she painted the first map for the race, which many people laminated and still use.

Once she learned that Rose once danced and taught ballet professionally she stated, with mock insistence, that we MUST live in San Ignacio. The town, she said, hasn’t had a ballet teacher for the school kids for two years. Many ex-pats, she said, are coming up with after-school programs to keep kids involved and away from trouble.

Back at her office, she marched me down to a small brightly colored shed — a very bright tropical green — in which a Scottish (I think) fellow named David sometimes sells fish but mostly decimates other ex-pats at cribbage, exchanges gossip  and witty retorts and runs a paperback book exchange. An American couple, Mike and Judi, from New Jersey and North Carolina respectively, were hanging out, playing cribbage.

David was in high spirits because the couple had brought him a large pouch of dark pipe tobacco  to replenish his nearly depleted supply. “In the nick of time,” exclaimed David, holding up the pouch. He was tossing off one-liners like Billy Connolly unleashed.

Mike and Judi had lived in several places in Belize before settling on San Ignacio. It is, in their term, “the most normal city in Belize.”  They’re very happy and offered us the sum total of their experience so far, including impressions of various Belizean towns and their experience shipping furniture and goods through an Alabama firm. Naturally we exchanged phone numbers.

As we were sitting around the cribbage board,  Hector Mar pulled up in his pickup truck for our trip to Xunantunich, which I wrote about yesterday. As we left with hearty handshakes and well-wishes all around, David flashed an impish grin and said, “Remember, when you come back: dark pipe tobacco!” He held up the over-sized pouch from Mike and Judi for emphasis.

I got a funny warm feeling, just knowing that someone expected us back – and in time to refill his cache of tobacco!

Much of the road to Xunantunich is lined with eco-lodges and large houses with stately well-kept lawns. It felt like an upscale Western-ish suburb compared to the urban chaos of San Ignacio.

Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That's our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.
Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That’s our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.

Hector, who had once been vice-mayor of San Ignacio filled much of the drive to and from the Mayan ruins with stories of his family and life. When Hector’s turn to become mayor came up in rotation, he deferred to a “younger and smarter” council colleague “with better ideas.” The older politicians weren’t having it and crushed the young man with the bold ideas and drove him from politics and San Ignacio.

Here's Johnny! He's a Mayan slate carver with a spot along the Mopan River near the ferry to the Xunantunich archaeological site. He does great work. If you go, buy something from Johnny. He's a really nice guy.
Here’s Johnny! He’s a Mayan slate carver with a spot along the Mopan River near the ferry to the Xunantunich archaeological site. He does great work. If you go, buy something from Johnny. He’s a really nice guy.

Hector quit politics but not before working with “the people” to drive out the leader of the older politicians, after first coming to the man who had been a mentor and giving him a chance to resign with dignity. “Because I spoke with him first and acted like a man and told him exactly what I intended to do,” said Hector, “we are friends to this day, even though he had to leave politics.”

Hector left politics for another reason, too. His wife, a Guatemalan who had paddled across the border into San Ignacio at 14 to find work, was dying. Hector made a promise to God to serve him alone if his wife was spared.

On the way back from Xunantunich, we picked up a load of hitch-hiking Catholic high school students and dropped them off in the center of San Ignacio. Seems like the classic posing of high school students anywhere in the world, eh?
On the way back from Xunantunich, we picked up a load of hitch-hiking Catholic high school students and dropped them off in the center of San Ignacio. Seems like the classic posing of high school students anywhere in the world, eh?

She recovered and Hector became a Christian minister. They served their church together until she recently passed away. “God gave her to us for nine more years. How beautiful is that?” said Hector with a slight welling of tears.

He talked a bit about what it feels like to live without her, and I recognized in Hector some of my own older brother, Jim, who suddenly lost his own wife earlier this year.

When we separated, Hector invited us to come stay at his home, become part of his family and enjoy some good local cooking when we return to San Ignacio. And there it was again, “when you return to San Ignacio.”

Friday morning we were planning to leave early for Placencia and make a few stops along the way. One problem: I’d left the lights on in the Suzuki Jimny and over the last two days the battery was completely drained.

That’s when Carlos Panti showed up with jumper cables. Even though he was at our hotel, Cahal Pech Resort, to pick up another couple for a tour of nearby Mayan ruins he took time to charge the battery and make sure the car was running for me.

Carlos told me about recently starting his own tour guide business after working for bigger firms for several years and about his wife who teaches at the local high school and about the great deal he got on his SUV. He gave me some advice on keeping the Jimny running safely after putting it through some rugged roads. And he told me about his father who was caretaker at the Xunantunich archaeological excavation site for 25 years.

He talked about cave tubing, which is one of his tour specialties, and promised us a great experience “when you return to San Ignacio.”

Needless to say, this brief immersion into San Ignacio has left me with a very different impression than the one I started with. It only took getting to know a few people just a little bit to start to liking a lot this city of 9,000 people (20,000 if you count the surrounding “suburbs”).

Like Hector Mar had been saying, “It is through our stories that we learn, that we teach, that we find God. And I have many many stories.”

We may have to return to San Ignacio to learn and record those stories.

But first I’ll need to pick up an extra large pouch of black Cavendish pipe tobacco.

Electrician at work on a future illuminated sign, in downtown San Ignacio, seen just as we were pulling out of town.
Electrician at work on a future illuminated sign, in downtown San Ignacio, seen just as we were pulling out of town.

On top of the (Mayan) world at Xunantunich

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El Capitillo at the Mayan archeological site Xunantunich, close to the border with Guatemala is the second highest structure in Belize. The name of the site is Mayan for Stone Lady and refers to a ghost of a woman in white sometimes seen high up on El Capitillo.
El Castillo at the Mayan archeological site Xunantunich, close to the border with Guatemala, is the second-highest structure in Belize. Xunantunich is Mayan for Stone Lady and refers to a female ghost in white seen occasionally since the 1800’s  high up on El Casitillo.

It was late in the afternoon on Thursday as we stood atop “El Castillo,” the soaring temple at the heart of the Mayan ruins known as Xunantunich. The Stone Lady. From the rainforest and Mopan River below, an ethereal mist was rising to meet the low gray clouds. A slight drizzle and hint of breeze repelled the dank humid air that hugged the ground, some 130 feet below.

Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That's our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.
Taking the ferry across the Mopan River to reach Xunantunich. That’s our friend Hector Mar on the left, talking with the ferry operator.

We were the only three people amid the ruins – Rose, me and Hector Mar, our new friend from nearby San Ignacio and guide for the afternoon. We savored the stillness from atop the second tallest structure in all of Belize. (The tallest is also a Mayan temple.)

Suddenly, from the west, arose the sound we’ve been talking about and aching to hear since deciding to come to Belize – the howler monkeys.

If you’ve not heard them, these monkeys unleash a full, deep-throated roar that sounds like the wail of fresh souls condemned to hell. I’m not exaggerating. Search for “howler monkey”” on YouTube and feel the chills.

For a good ten minutes this band of howlers, hidden in the rainforest just beyond the western edge of Xunantunich, bellowed back and forth. Were they sending out mating calls or challenging each other or defending their turf? Hard to say. But the sound is haunting, even from high above.

The experience at Xunantunich was capping an absolutely incredible day in which we’d taken a full immersion course in the secret beauty of San Ignacio, found an excellent cup of coffee, checked out some great deals on houses and even opened a bank account at Belize International Bank.

More on that later. For now I’m going to share some images from Xunantunich, which is between San Ignacio and the Guatemala border. You can see the border crossing and the Guatemala frontier from atop El Castillo. The site is 80 miles from Belize City.

The core of the city of Xunantunich was about one square mile and it was serviced by many farms in the area surrounding it. So much of the site has still to be uncovered. “It will never be done in our lifetimes,” said Hector.

IMG_2093Hector never mentioned that the name Xunantunich or Stone Lady was inspired by the ghost of a woman dressed in white who is sometimes seen walking in the upper reaches of El Castillo. She disappears into the stone. The woman was first spotted sometime in the late-1800s. Another guide that I met just this morning grew up in a little village beside the entrance to the ruins. His father was caretaker of Xunantunich for more than 25 years.

Did his father ever see the ghost?

“Yes,” said Carlos Panti gravely,  “many times. The story is true.”

Standing up there, listening to howler monkeys and watching the mist rise from the rainforest, it felt as if a thousand ghosts might rise up at any minute from beneath Xunantunich.

 

Views from atop El Castillo.
The view from atop El Castillo, looking north toward the city plaza.

 

Western side of El Castillo.
Western side of El Castillo.

 

The eastern side of El Castillo.
The eastern side of El Castillo.
Rose and Hector climbing to the top of El Castillo on the southern side.
Rose and Hector climbing to the top of El Castillo on the southern side.
Another view from the top.
Another view from the top.
Rose couldn't wait to climb to the top.
Rose couldn’t wait to climb to the top.
View from the top,looking toward Guatemala.
View from the top,looking toward Guatemala.

Two points of view on San Ignacio

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Miss Rose takes one last walk along the jungle trail in Orchid Bay.  We also took out a couple of paddleboards on the glass-flat bay, between rain storms. As she looked out toward the mouth of the bay Rose said, "Now I know how they came up with the idea for infinity pools."
Miss Rose takes one last walk along the jungle trail in Orchid Bay. We also took out a couple of paddleboards on the glass-flat bay, between rain storms. As she looked out toward the mouth of the bay Rose said, “Now I know how they came up with the idea for infinity pools.”

We stopped in Belmopon for lunch Wednesday on our journey to San Ignacio.

The Belize government was moved to Belmopan after Hurricane Hattie wiped out Belize City in 1961. There are only about 15,000 people there and from everything I’ve read, nobody wants to be there – full-time, anyway.  Apparently it is pretty quiet for a national capital.

Although, the recent opening of a US embassy there was seen as a shot in the arm — you know, free-spending, American party animals and all that …. Except for the various government buildings and embassies and a sprawling drugstore called Brodie’s,  Belmopon didn’t exactly wow us. Frankly, there is no there there – not yet, anyway.

Rose walks into San Ignacio, a town she immediately fell in love with.
Rose walks into San Ignacio, a town she immediately fell in love with.

Well, we did find a decent enough restaurant for lunch, Corker’s, where Rose had a chicken curry and I had a nice beef stew as the rain came down.

As luck would have it, at the next table was a group from Belize Bird Rescue which is located just outside the city. Having recently begun volunteering with Bird Rescue International in Northern California, I was well aware of its Belize sister and was half-hoping to visit.

Just half-hoping. I wasn’t sure how it would fit in with our agenda.

When Rose sees San Ignacio, these are the things she focuses on -- like the yellow house for $600 a month. She sees beauty and function. And a nice place to live.
When Rose sees San Ignacio, these are the things she focuses on — like the yellow house for $600 a month. She sees beauty and function. And a nice place to live.

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The co-founder of Belize Bird Rescue Nikki Buxton popped in as we were talking with her crew.  I think her daughter owns Corker’s. And, yes, she said, she’d love to show us around the facility, although it isn’t generally open to the public.

So we made a tentative date to visit on our way to Placentia later this week.

Funny how those things happen.

Like the night before, as we rolled into the restaurant for dinner at Orchid Bay near Corozal in northern Belize. There was a small group dining, chatting away and half-watching an old James Bond movie. At the center was Tara, who operates the restaurant and her husband who is handling a lot of the construction on the development site. They’re from San Luis Obispo, California.

Tara was giving a couple from North Carolina advice on furnishing their newly purchased Orchid Bay casita, identical to the one we were staying in. So we learned a bit about shipping stuff from the US and also some more about Orchid Bay. Which is lovely and remote and won’t be home for us.

Bob's first impression was different. He saw decay, clutter, stray dogs and things like cow foot soup. He may not be as comfortable in a strange land as he first imagined. But those are first impressions. They can change.
Bob’s first impression was different. He saw decay, clutter, stray dogs and things like cow foot soup. He may not be as comfortable in a strange land as he first imagined. But those are first impressions. They can change.

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One mark against it is the vast acreage of corn and sugarcane that leads up to Orchid Bay. We think that might explain why Rose’s allergies went off the chart there.

With morning came one last trip down the hard scrabble road to civilization. I took it slow and nursed our Suzuki Jimny around the potholes and across the rocks as if it were about to collapse in a million little pieces. There was no avoiding the flooded areas however – wider, deeper and more of them. For the first time there were vehicles on the side of the road that had clearly soaked their electrical systems.

Before leaving I’d written to Cahal Pech resort in San Ignacio about holding a room for us. A couple of people in Orchid Bay had recommended the place. It sits atop the tallest of the seven hills that make up San Ignacio and adjacent to the Mayan archaeological site from which it takes its name.

Somebody at the desk named Lenny wrote back “Don’t panic. It’s the slow season. We have a room for you.”

So we ended up in a hillside cabana overlooking the right lights of San Ignacio and beyond. The resort is a bit frayed at the edges – we were warned of as much – but clean. Its bathroom towels are the thinnest I’ve ever seen.  However, the grounds are beautifully landscaped and the kitchen under chef Jimmy is first rate.

Dodi Guerra, a friendly face at the end of long days, at Cahal Pesch Resort.
Dodi Guerra, a friendly face at the end of long days, at Cahal Pesch Resort.

The place also has a first-rate bartender/restaurateur in Dodi Guerra. Both nights it was Dodi who greeted us with a warm smile, a welcome and a nice cold drink.

After driving most the day, our first night in San Ignacio consisted of a brief walk around the neighborhood, a late dinner, some quiet reading and bed.

Still, Rose is making it pretty clear that San Ignacio was rising quickly to the top of her list. She finds the rolling hills and rivers and mix of jungle and farmland that lead up – and surround — to the city to be most beautiful. I was surprised how quickly she said she could definitely live here.  I, on the other hand, find the heat, dampness and busy city traffic less than appealing. My taste runs toward something oceanfront with sand under my feet.

I think we’re headed for our first disagreement in Belize.

In San Ignacio, Bob and Rose have some talking to do and questions to be answered. And they still love each other madly!
In San Ignacio, Bob and Rose have some talking to do and questions to be answered. And they still love each other madly!

If this were “Househunters International” the questions just before the commercial break would be:

  • Is Bob willing to give up his love of the ocean for an inland dream home with Rose?
  • Is Rose willing to give up her dream home for something smaller and closer to the sea?
  • Can Bob and Rose both compromise and find something that will please them both?

Stay tuned, when we come back to Belize Hunters International ….