Early mornings on a long boat dock
Drinking coffee as the sun comes up
Lazy days spent napping in a big deck chair
Walking home underneath the stars
~Jerry Jeff Walker
Our dear friends Jan and Eric recently came from San Francisco to visit us. They have been to Playa several times over the years and as it was Jani’s 50th birthday, they wanted to celebrate by doing something different this time. We all decided a trip to the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize was just the thing.
Ambergris is one of the islands, or keys (spelled old English Style as “cayes”), which lay off the coast near the border of Belize and Mexico. A little jewel floating in the Caribbean Sea, it has one town, San Pedro, and a whole lot of natural beauty. It’s a perfect place to get away and relax for a few days.
We began our trip in the Big Bastard, the Chevy Express van which brought us to Mexico, driving four hours from Playa Del Carmen to the city of Chetumal, Mexico which sits on the border with Belize. The border between Belize and Mexico has the feel of a Bogart movie to it with dusty border town buildings on each side of a bridge which crosses a muddy river. Rusty trucks, aged cars and people carrying luggage wander back and forth over the bridge between the two countries, while hustlers and con men looking for a handout or a quick buck wait eagerly on both sides of the border.
Once we drove over the bridge into Belize we hit a snag. Belizean Immigration would not let our van in without the original vehicle title (we had a copy with us and kept the original back home in a safe). At first there was talk of sending us back to Mexico, but after a little bargaining it was agreed we could leave the Big Bastard in the Immigration office parking lot for a “daily fee.” Right. Money changed hands and off we went in a cab to the airport. Well…kind of like an airport. At least it had a runway. Kind of.
Tropic Air (“The Official Airline of Belize”) runs a small 12-person propeller plane back and forth from the island several a times a day. The “airport” is a small hut on the outskirts of a poverty stricken town, Corozal, where you can buy tickets and leave packages for shipping to San Pedro. The “food court” is a wooden stand across the dirt road where you can get a cold beer and maybe some nachos or chips.
In a short time the plane landed on the small runway (at least it was paved…last time we flew Tropic Air it was a dirt road!). The plane pulls right up to the building, people jump on and in a few minutes is airborne over the flatlands of Corozal. Fifteen minutes later the plane is over the blue waters of the Caribbean and heading in for a landing on Ambergris Caye.
Once on the ground in Ambergris we headed for the hotel. We had booked at a Bed and Breakfast called Changes in Latitudes. It had high marks on Tripadvisor and sent us friendly emails in response to our questions. It turned out we had made an excellent choice.
“Changes…” reminded us of our own Luna Blue Hotel in many, many ways. It was very small (only six rooms) with a central common area of bougainvilleas, plants, hammocks and chairs. They even had Radio Margaritaville playing over the hotel speakers…just like home! The rooms were small and tropical island funky which suited all of us just fine. But best of all were the owners. Renita and Cindy had moved to Belize from the States a few years ago to start a new life much as we had and created their own adorable little tropical getaway. They were friendly and welcoming. And it turned out that Renita, who was in charge of breakfast each day, was a fantastic cook. A perfect example of her skills was the banana pancakes made from scratch and covered with a homemade caramel sauce. OH….MY….GOD! We cannot recommend Changes in Latitude Bed and Breakfast highly enough.
The next couple of days seem like a soft and relaxing blur. There was Renita’s breakfast each morning of course. And incredible Cuban coffee espresso shots with sweetened condensed milk at a little place called Mojitos Cuban Café. And as “Changes” offers free use of the pool at the Belize Yacht Club right next door, there was plenty of time spent snoozing on loungers, swimming, or sitting at the swim up bar. We rented a golf cart and cruised San Pedro’s three …count ‘em… three… streets and drove around the beautiful jungle roads outside of town. For three days we wandered about, went sightseeing, shopped, strolled on the beach, swam and ate. Boy, did we eat.
On Renita’s suggestion we went to a number of different restaurants…all them excellent. The favorite of our little group was the Wild Mango’s Café. Remember that the four of us are all from San Francisco, one of the restaurant capitals of the world, and as such we can be pretty demanding about our food. Yet we all agree Wild Mango’s presented as good a meal as we had seen back home, and served on a deck overlooking the Caribbean. Hard to beat. And later in the evening we would take the golf cart and wander down dirt roads to a little place called Casa Picasso for coffee, rum and an unbelievable dessert named “Cracked Coconut,” a molded chocolate shell covered in toasted coconut and filled with coconut ice cream. We might have made that trek more than once.
On Jan’s birthday we went out to the edge of the jungle to a delightful restaurant called Hidden Treasure. And boy, is it. Open air with a palapa roof, it was lit by candles and torches. It was like one of those Survivor episodes where the winner of a challenge gets sent to some exotic place for a banquet. Jan said it was a great way to turn 50.
We had hoped to either get over to Shark Ray Alley, a great snorkeling spot where you can swim among harmless nurse sharks and rays, or maybe get in a dive on the reef while we were there. However the day we planned for such fun ended up being a windy rain day…so it was reading in the hammock instead. Not so bad.
Ambergris was certainly bigger than the last time we were there several years ago. Condos are being built left and right, and the old dirt roads are now paved and have a fair amount of traffic. Yet the island retains its sweet Caribbean charm, and the people are as friendly as ever. Every one seems to say hello; everyone seems to have a smile.
Our last night on the island the four of us went out searching for some Belizean Rum. Belize is very strict about its liqueur. You can only get beer made in Belize (Belikin), and most booze is heavily taxed so that alcohol from other countries is very, very expensive. As one local jokingly told us: “It’s easier to get a brick of cocaine onto the island than a six pack of Budweiser”! However the rum made in Belize is high quality, and Eric, being a bit of a rum connoisseur, wanted to get some of the local hooch.
We went to a store recommended by Renita. When we got there we found the local rum sold in various ages and proofs ranging from a clear moonshine-like form of pure cane alcohol to more subtly aged rum. The good stuff is sold under the name of One Barrel or, if appropriately aged, Five Barrel. The young man running the store that night was named LeRoi and seemed happy for the company. He was anxious to pour samples of whatever needed to be tasted. He chatted with us about where we were from and wanted to know if we liked his island home. We assured him we did.
As we were making our purchases, Tony noticed that LeRoi was wearing a One Barrel Rum baseball cap. He pointed it out to Eric who always wears ball caps. When Tony asked where we could buy one, LeRoi took the hat off gave it to us. Eric immediately put it on and gave LeRoi his own Hermosa Beach hat in exchange. We took pictures of the two guys with their new headgear. Everybody laughed and thought this was great fun. LeRoi insisted that we take his email and send him a copy of the picture so that when his wife wanted to know why he came home with a different hat on than he left with, he’d have proof of his story!
The next day with hugs and promises to write we bid the girls of Changes in Latitude goodbye and headed home. A Tropic Air plane took us back to the mainland where we picked up the Big Bastard and headed back into Mexico.
On the way home we decided to make a stop for lunch at Lake Bacalar, a natural lake next to the ocean about three hours south of Playa del Carmen. Lake Bacalar is known as the Lake of Seven Colors. Its expansive waters contain multiple shades of blues and greens reflecting the sky and the jungle around it. Some parts of the water are deep blue, some are pale, and some contain multiple shadings. Words can’t describe it. We stopped for lunch at the Hotel Laguna Bacalar. Structured like a funky old 50s-style motel, it sits on multiple levels on the hills overlooking the blue water below. We had a great Mexican lunch at a decent price and then wandered the grounds awhile admiring the view before heading home.
When we moved to Caribbean Mexico is was our hope and intent that we wouldn’t be held captive in just one place. We love Playa del Carmen, but the Caribbean Sea is a big front yard and borders many magical places that have a strong draw for us. Last year it was Jamaica. This year it was Belize. And of course there’s still much of Mexico we haven’t seen yet. The journey continues.
Here are a few more photos from our trip:
Some local school girls walking home on the beach
The Mayan Princess, and looking out at the Caribbean
Tony looks amazingly like his shirt, don’t you think?
Renita, Cheri, Tony, Eric & Jan -saying goodbye at Changes in Latitudes
Beautiful Lake Bacalar
The view from the Belize Yacht Club
Changes in Latitudes
San Pedro, Belize, seen from the airplane
The Caribbean reflected in Tony’s glasses
Looking out at the Caribbean
A typical San Pedro view