San Pedro

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.

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Finding the rhythm and beauty in San Pedro

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San Pedro transportation consists mainly of bicycles, golf carts and taxi  vans.
San Pedro transportation consists mainly of bicycles, golf carts and taxi vans.
The golf carts in particular are everywhere in San Pedro. Sometimes parking can be a challenge....as is staying our of their way as  pedestrian!
The golf carts in particular are everywhere in San Pedro. Sometimes parking can be a challenge….as is staying out of their way as a pedestrian!

On the water there are boats taking people everywhere -- off to other islands, over to the barrier reef for diving and snorkeling, to the mainland and up and down Ambergris Caye to homes and resorts in more remote sections.On the water there are boats taking people everywhere — off to other islands, over to the barrier reef for diving and snorkeling, or fishing, to the mainland, and up and down Ambergris Caye to homes and resorts in more remote sections.

Selling fresh caught fish on Back Street for $5 BZ a pound (That's $2.50 US)
Selling fresh caught fish on Back Street for $5 BZ a pound (That’s $2.50 US)
A majestic old house, a survivor of the faded glory of the British  colonial era, on Back Street.
A majestic old house, a survivor of the faded glory of the British colonial era, on Back Street.
Terrell is a street painter working on Barrier Reef Drive this morning. He'd just finished this painting of the corner directly behind him on which sits the Caribbean Connection Internet Cafe.
Terrell is a street painter working on Barrier Reef Drive this morning. He’d just finished this painting of the corner directly behind him on which sits the Caribbean Connection Internet Cafe.

In Belize, ‘What do you recommend?’ opens doors

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Rose and Monkey Bob enjoy some sauvignon blanc from Sonoma, of all places at Wine de Vine
Rose and Monkey Bob enjoy some sauvignon blanc from Sonoma, of all places at Wine de Vine

Can I get a recommendation?

On Ambergris Caye you only have to ask and people come forth with all kinds of great stuff.

The other day over breakfast with English expats John and Rose East, we learned that Friday night’s must-eat dinner is the Mayan buffet at Elvi’s Kitchen. And, holy cow, was that a great recommendation. Later this morning we’ll line up for the soup at Briana’s on Back Street, a Saturday-only experience that lasts only as long as the soup. And according to John and Rose, you get there early or you don’t get any at all.

Part of the buffet table at Elvi's Kitchen.
Part of the buffet table at Elvi’s Kitchen.

Over breakfast yesterday at the Melt Cafe, owners Mark and Michelle tipped us off to what sounds like a pretty good rental — two bedrooms fully furnished on the ocean in one of the nicer condo complexes south of town. We’re going to grab a golf cart or bikes and check it out later this morning, after Rose is done with yoga.

A glimpse of the interior of Elvi's Kitchen
A glimpse of the interior of Elvi’s Kitchen.

Yesterday afternoon we grabbed a light lunch at the Ambergris Brewing Co., which as yet does not brew any beer. But they do offer good sandwiches at a cheap price and they are right next door to out Blue Tang Inn. The owner, Don, stopped to chat after picking up his son at school. When he learned of our intent to move to Belize, possibly San Pedro, he immediately recommended talking to Bob Hamilton, a former Canadian, now Belize citizen, who owns Coral Beach Real Estate.

IMG_1984

Dinner at Elvi's
Dinner at Elvi’s

Another great call. Bob — or Barefoot Bob, as he’s beginning to be called — turns out to be an incredible resource. Even though we just sort of popped into his office yesterday he gave us as much time as we wanted to talk real estate, local gossip, the trials and tribulations to migrating to Belize — he knew it all. And he hardly cared if we were interested in buying property.

He calls it good karma. When we’re ready, he said, he’ll be here. Meanwhile Bob recommended a couple of property management companies that could set us up in a long-term rental while we decide the next big step.

After leaving Barefoot Bob’s — he does work barefoot and in shorts, with a graying ponytail, we headed for the social hour at Wine de Vine, a high end wine, meats and cheese bar. That was another recommendation, from Rose’s yoga instructor. Lots of expats flock to the wine bar on Fridays.

Wine, by the way, is a bit of a luxury here — very expensive by US standards. After a couple of glasses of chardonnay from Chile and sauvignon blanc  from back home in Sonoma we felt it was time to get back into island life and head for the Mayan buffet.

Good citizens: Carlo & Earnie's (to the left) gave up part of its parking lot for a detour around a road construction project.
Good citizens: Carlo & Earnie’s Runway Bar and Grill (to the left) gave up part of its parking lot for a detour around a road construction project.

But first we had to check out another recommendation: Carlo & Earnie’s Runway Bar and Grill, an open air bar right next to the airport landing strip. John East had noted that it was one of three very inexpensive bars worth visiting.

We thought it was pretty decent of Carlo and Earnie to donate a big portion of their parking lot for a detour around the town’s one major street rehabilitation project. Otherwise traffic would have been routed around the far side of the airport, a major inconvenience to all.

And what do you know? We ran into John there, picking up fish and chips for him and Rose, who’d taken a bad fall at their home construction site yesterday. She was home recuperating as he ran errands. (We send our thoughts and well wishes to Rose, a lovely woman, our first friends on the island.)

The Mayan buffet was every bit as good as John and Rose said it would be. Starting with a shrimp bisque, the fare was familiar — rice, chicken, pulled port, tortillas, refried beans and more — all with unique twists to flavoring and preparation. Desserts included a very dark papaya, chocolate bread pudding and strong Mayan coffee.

Elvi’s Kitchen is a cavernous space with a packed sand floor and a huge tree decked in twinkling lights. Great atmosphere.

For the moment we’ve run out of recommendations but I’m pretty confident that as soon as we strike up a conversation with the next local we’ll be off on our way to the next great discovery.

Working in the ‘office’ today – Belize-style

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Looking back at the Blue Tang Inn this morning just before our walk down the beach to yoga class for Rose.
Looking back at the Blue Tang Inn this morning just before our walk down the beach to yoga class for Rose.

This morning we walked down the beach to the Exotic Caye Resort so Rose could attend a yoga class. A nice breeze kept the temperature cool and activity on the island seems to be picking up with the weekend.

As luck would have it, there is the Melt Cafe downstairs from the studio with a very strong WiFi signal.

So I ordered up some WiFi, fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and a bagel.

My "office" this morning, an outside table at the Melt Cafe in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize. A gentle breeze kept me cool and the view kept me distracted -- my kind of office.
My “office” this morning, an outside table at the Melt Cafe in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize. A gentle breeze kept me cool and the view kept me distracted — my kind of office.

Mark and Michelle, both retired from the Air Force, recently took over the Melt and are working hard to make a go of it. Yes, working hard is not a foreign concept in the island.

As Michelle pointed out, there is hard work and there is working hard at something you enjoy. And they clearly enjoy their cafe.

This is their first go at a restaurant — in the military, Mark was in telecom and Michelle was in operations. They are emphasizing fresh and local with a nice dose of warmth and personality.

That cool breeze brought with it some dark clouds from the northeast and with it, some rain. So I moved my office in under the protective palapa covering as the rain came down for about 20 minutes.
That cool breeze brought with it some dark clouds from the northeast and with it, some rain. So I moved my office in under the protective palapa covering as the rain came down for about 20 minutes.

This is a slow time on Ambergris Caye for any business, said Mark. Come October and the high season, everybody starts making a living. “You make your year from October to April,” he said. “After that it is all profit.”

Mark and Michelle took a year off after spending time in Afghanistan as consultants and moved to Las Vegas. When considering their next move they looked at a lot of countries but settled on Belize, specifically Ambergris Caye.

They are avid divers and love fishing and some day in the future there will be a boat of their own. Meanwhile they are working from 6 a.m to around 3 p.m. at the cafe and are thinking of eventually adding dinner to the menu.

They’ve got their two-bedroom oceanfront condo, their business and their dream and they sure seem to be enjoying all of them.

Move over, buddy, I have a golf cart and I’m crazy!

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The view from the pool at the Blue Tang Inn in San Pedro. At the left is Wet Willy's at the end of a pier. My friend Kevin Brass says Jerry Jeff Walker ("Mr. Bo Jangles") used to give an invitation-only concert out there. You can read Kevin's story here.
The view from the pool at the Blue Tang Inn in San Pedro. At the left is Wet Willy’s at the end of a pier. My friend Kevin Brass says Jerry Jeff Walker (“Mr. Bo Jangles”) used to give an invitation-only concert out there. You can read Kevin’s story here.

After experiencing a genuine San Pedro traffic jam this morning, Rose and I naturally went out and rented a golf cart for the afternoon. At least we went north of San Pedro, away from the traffic.

Even then, the clerk was horrified when I told him we were headed to the north end of the island.

“You know its been raining,” said Allen.

Rose posing at the Ak'Bol Yoga Retreat just north of San Pedro. Morning yoga classes are held at the end of the dock directly behind her.
Rose posing at the Ak’Bol Yoga Retreat just north of San Pedro. Morning yoga classes are held at the end of the dock directly behind her.

My blank face gave nothing away. So he continued, “The road is filled with potholes and ruts and big puddles. If you get the motor wet, it is a long way to push it back here.”

Point well taken.

He recommended going no farther than the Palapa Bar, about a half mile north of the toll bridge. We did make it a little farther, to the Grand Caribe resort.

And Allen was right to be concerned. “Washboard” doesn’t begin to describe the rutting of these dirt roads in the rainy season. My teeth and kidneys couldn’t have taken another half mile of it.

OK, if we rented this place ... the upside is I wouldn't have to mow the lawn. The downside is we'll never again own dry clothing. Still ...
OK, if we rented this place … the upside is I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn. The downside is we’ll never again own dry clothing. Still …  To the right is the Palapa Bar, on the end of a short pier. OK that’s another plus: The bar is a short row from your front door.

Seriously though,  worse than the road is the mosquitoes.

Every time we stopped to look a a house behind a for sale sign they would swarm the cart and try to tip it over. Only the most reckless swerving on my part kept them from getting a good grip on it.  Unfortunately a few thousand got through and attached themselves to  major parts of my body.

So proud to be giving blood in Belize. Wish it were for a greater cause.

As everyone knows, it is not the bites, it’s the itching.

A second view of the beach at Ak'Bol Yoga Retreat. Really lovely and lovingly maintained grounds.
A second view of the beach at Ak’Bol Yoga Retreat. Really lovely and lovingly maintained grounds.

Then there’s the Dengue Fever epidemic. Apparently 19 people on the island have contracted Dengue in the past couple of week. The culprit is a small black and white striped mosquito. Frankly I didn’t look at their markings as I squeegeed them off my arms and legs. I’ll let you know if I begin to ache in my joints, contract fevers and acquire headaches.

The best antidote for a mosquito attack is a Belikin beer out in the Palapa Bar. II think the mosquitoes are either afraid to swim or can’t fight the headwinds coming off the water. At any rate, they didn’t follow us down the pier to the bar.

Rony provides service with a smile at the Palapa Bar. The bar has Jimmy Buffet photos posted allover the place. I'm sure he is a god to the patrons of this way laid-back place.
Ronny provides service with a smile at the Palapa Bar. The bar has Jimmy Buffet photos posted allover the place. I’m sure he is a god to the patrons of this way laid-back place.

Like most places we’ve visited so far, this place was nearly deserted. In fact, while my burger was cooking, the few remaining guests got up and left.

That left bartender Ronny, a native Belizean, time to tell us about the enormous New England Patriots logo tattooed on to his right forearm. Seriously, why not a soccer team, like Manchester United or Chelsea? He’s just always been a fan, well, at least since his high school football coach told him about the Patriots.

Coolest feature of the Palapa: There is a cluster of inner tubes gathered in the warm Caribbean waters below the bar. You can lounge on them and the bar will lower drinks to you on a rope.

Since we had the golf cart for four hours we decided to see how far south we could go. Answer: Pretty far. It’s not like the cart has an odometer. It does have a turn signal which I was forever leaving on thus instantly becoming the old man in the gold cart you hate to drive behind …. The normally cheery Belizeans apparently are easily pissed off by tourists who forget to turn off their turn signals.

Sorry, my new friends. I’ll do better.

Hello, Belize, you beautiful, colorful, complicated thing you!

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Rose and her longtime companion, Monkey Bob, at a BART station in San Francisco. Making our way to San Francisco International Airport. Monkey Bob was around in various forms before I was, apparently. Some attachments are hard to let go of!
Rose and her longtime companion, Monkey Bob, at a BART station in San Francisco. Making our way to San Francisco International Airport. Monkey Bob was around in various forms before I was, apparently. Some attachments are hard to let go of!

A couple of flights that can only be described — thankfully — as “uneventful” have brought us to Belize.

More specifically: the Blue Tang Inn at 1 Sandpiper Lane in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. (I’ve suddenly begun misspelling the caye as “Amberguis” on Facebook. What’s with that? Sleep deprivation?)

So, words fail me just now — hey, it is sleep deprivation!

Until the brain re-engages, here are some early photos.

Suddenly we're at the Belize International Airport, boarding a Tropic Air puddle jumper for the 15 minute hop to Ambergris Caye. Miami's airport was a brief and anonymous blur, notable only for the bowl of grits I age at 6 a.m.
Suddenly we’re at the Belize International Airport, boarding a Tropic Air puddle jumper for the 15 minute hop to Ambergris Caye. Miami’s airport was a brief and anonymous blur, notable only for the bowl of grits I ate at 6 a.m.
The view out the window as we flew to Ambergris Caye from Belize City.
The view out the window as we flew to Ambergris Caye from Belize City.
The view out the window as we flew to Ambergris Caye from Belize City.
The view out the window as we flew to Ambergris Caye from Belize City.
Wheels dowbn, landing strip ahead. The view out the window as we flew to Ambergris Caye from Belize City.
Wheels down, landing strip ahead. The view out the window as we flew to Ambergris Caye from Belize City.
Classic view at the Blue Tang Inn. Every photo album I've seen has this shot from the entrance looking out toward the sea. Big difference is, mine has Rose Alcantara in it!
Classic view at the Blue Tang Inn. Every photo album I’ve seen has this shot from the entrance looking out toward the sea. Big difference is, mine has Rose Alcantara in it!
Jesus Anthny cleans a fresh caught baracuda. Dinner for the family tonight, he said. He also cuts up coconuts for tourists to drink, for a slight charge. "Very healthy for you" he adds. What you don't see is the very large "pet" ray that swims up as soon as it hears water splashing around the cutting table. Scraps have conditioned it to know when the dinner bell rings.
Jesus Anthony cleans a fresh-caught barracuda. Dinner for the family tonight, he said. (He was also smiling every second except the one in which I snapped this photo!) He also cuts up coconuts for tourists to drink, for a slight charge. “Very healthy for you,”  he adds. What you don’t see is the very large “pet” ray that swims up as soon as it hears water splashing around the cutting table. Scraps have conditioned it to know when the dinner bell rings.
Monkey Bob's first exposure to the national beer, Belikins. Very tasty but the bottles? Very small. Even at $2.50 US a beer. Shot taken at Estel's on the beach where we'll be meeting some recent ex-pats, John and Rose East, for breakfast tomorrow. Can't wait! They are building a home just north of the town of San Pedro.
Monkey Bob’s first exposure to the national beer, Belikin. Very tasty but the bottles? Very small. Even at $2.50 US a beer. Shot taken at Estel’s on the beach where we’ll be meeting some recent ex-pats, John and Rose East, for breakfast tomorrow. Can’t wait! They are building a home just north of the town of San Pedro.
Rose looking so much warmer than when were were sitting in the BART station. Here at Estel's, where we grabbed our first Belikins and fish tacos shortly after chacking in at the Blue Tang Inn.
Rose looking so much warmer than when we were sitting in the BART station. Here at Estel’s, where we grabbed our first Belikins and fish tacos shortly after checking in at the Blue Tang Inn. Monkey Bob did NOT get a fish taco.

As we walked back to the inn we met our first San Pedro real estate agent, who naturally offered to help us find a home. We may drop back to chat with her.