Suzuki Jimny

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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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 ….