Sun & Sea on Ambergris Caye, Belize
by: Chelle Koster Walton
Caribbean Travel and Life, July-August 1995
My clothes were all wrong for Ambergris Caye. I needed that dressy black number like I needed a down parka. Should have brought my BC (scuba buoyancy compensator) instead. I had packed quickly; the trip was one of those last minute things. I guess I had forgotten how Belize's cayes are. It had been seven years.
Back then, my husband and I had just bought our first house- a small fixer-upper, but in our price range. To thwart buyer's remorse before it hit, we booked a flight to Belize, headed for the offshore cayes. So a week after we moved into our ball-and-chain with a roof, we departed for our last fling with youthful irresponsibility.
Caye Caulker a short hop south of Ambergris Caye- was the perfect antidote to entering the "real world." The dress code was barefoot, back packed, and BC'd. The speed limit was in the negatives, and the only decisions we had to make regarded how we would like our lobster prepared that day. When we returned, we had adventure tales enough to rehash through a year's worth of home improvements.
"Caye Caulker is like this island was 20 years ago," a man from Ambergris told me this time around. Both cayes (pronounced "keys") have "progressed" in the interim since my last visit, but they're still more about adventure than fashion statements. That came back to me as I zoomed in on the world's second largest barrier reef from a kneehugging flight in a Cessna six-seater. Photographer Bob Krist and I had wondered why the man at the Belize City airport looked at his watch when he boarded us, and mumbled something about only having four minutes. As we descended upon Ambergris's sandy airstrip, along with the darkness, it dawned on us. No runway lights.
No stoplights. No paved roads. No casinos. No duty-free shops. Only a few cars.
The cayes of Belize are best described by what they're not. Or not quite.
Politically a part of Belize (formerly British Honduras), they are not essentially Central American, although Guatemala has tried to claim the country since 1965. (Belize actually gained its independence in 1981, but the British didn't pull out until last year.) To be truthful, the cayes are quite separate from Belize itself- by some 12 miles of water for starters. And while mainland Belize is made up of Creoles (African-Europeans), Brits, Maya, Mestizos (Spanish-Maya), and Garifuna (African-Caribs), on the cayes, it's Mestizos, Creoles, Americans, and other foreigners predominating.
Though quite Mexican in flavor (many of the locals speak Spanish among themselves), one cannot truly associate Ambergris and Caulker with Mexico, even though Ambergris is separated from the Yucatan by only a slip of nature's knife. Nearly everyone speaks English, the official language of Belize.
Nor can you pigeonhole them entirely into the Caribbean slot, despite the fact that the tropic sea laps at their eastern shores and West Indian influences surface in their food, architecture, and music.
They are none of these places, and all of them.
A tagline from an Ambergris Caye resort brochure describes it as a place where "dreams and reality fuse." Like a dream, the cayes flicker a montage of disjointed images, shrouded in the fantasy of vacation vision. Like reality they, too, have their worries. About growing up. About responsibility.
As Belize's first tourist destination, Ambergris Caye (named in colonial whaling days for the whale substance used to make perfume) suffers anxiety over unguarded development. The largest of the more than 200 cayes that dot and dash Belize's Caribbean coastline, Ambergris was first settled in modern times. Prehistoric Maya inhabitants managed to keep the caye clean of Spanish conquerors. Some believe Ambergris was an important rest stop for Maya traders. Archaeological digs at the caye's southern end have yielded proof of their erstwhile presence.
The caye's first permanent residents migrated from Mexico during the Yucatan Caste Wars of the mid-19th century The Mestizos farmed and fished in peace until James Blake bought Ambergris for 650 Belize dollars in 1874 at a bankruptcy auction by the British Government. Blake charged the residents rent and generally ruled the caye with tyranny and tawdriness. The Blake family's oppressive rule finally ended nearly a century later when the Belize Government made a "forced purchase" of the island, selling lots back to the islanders.
Fish and coconuts drove the cayes' economy for several years, especially after fishermen discovered a market for spiny lobster, which they previously had considered a net-tangling nuisance. The cayes' stately wind-tossed coconut trees remain their trademark. Lobster, until the last couple of years, was also a trademark, served cheaply and abundantly in local restaurants. Today the supply is stressed by the usual environmental and commercial pressures, and fishing is limited to specific seasons.
Tourism started developing on Ambergris Caye in the mid-1960s as one hotel and local seafarers began accommodating the few intrepid divers who found their way to the fecund waters of the almost 175-mile-long Belize Reef. Evidence suggests that slavery never happened on the cayes. The 2,000 residents of Ambergris, as a result, are more open and less race-conscious than on Caribbean islands where enslavement has cast its long shadow.
Because Ambergris is a latecomer to the Caribbean island tourist market, it maintains a charm and character of times gone by When I first read about the cayes, I was intrigued because they sounded like the Negril, Jamaica, and the Isla Mujeres, Mexico, I remembered from a decade earlier. They were and still are. They carry off an affordable, undiscovered demeanor that makes you feel you've been let in on a secret. In fits of nostalgia for the good old island days, I'm always happy to find a place with at least one foot entrenched in the intrinsic simplicity of island living.
As Belize becomes more recognized in the travel market, the effect on the undiscovered status of the cayes grinds a double edge. The upside: New mainland resorts share Ambergris's tourism load. On the downside, despite Belize's intentions to resist negative impact on its environment, the appetite for ecotourism and unspoiled reef life puts Ambergris, Caulker, and a handful of other cayes in the loot-'em-up limelight. A new pro-development government isn't helping, according to locals. Neither is foreign involvement.
On Ambergris Caye, newer resorts stray from the pack of traditional barebones, diving oriented, native-run guesthouses found in San Pedro, the main town and heart of the 25-mile long island. Three sandy streets traverse the length of downtown: Barrier Reef Drive (along the Caribbean waterfront), Pescador Drive (center), and Angel Coral Drive. A rare taxi or other gas-powered vehicle travels the streets. Most of the traffic is by golf-cart, bike, and foot. Thick ship's ropes embedded in the sand constitute speed bumps. Potholes are nature's way of keeping the pace slow.
Many of the small hotels and guesthouses occupy wooden colonial buildings. No building is higher than three stories by law. Every third storefront is somebody's grocery, like Lima's Store, which advertises pig tail for $3.25 a pound, ribblets [sic] for $3.25, and snout for $3.00, all handwritten on scraps of cardboard box. A store named Rocks threatens to supplant the mom-and-pop groceries with super market slickness.
Locals sell gifts, books, and clothes in tiny, sand-dusty shops, and religiously rake the streets. Stores and restaurants reflect the many cultural strains on the island. Sand Castle Gift Shop has the best selection of T-shirts. "Sometimes we wish we had a bridge to the mainland," the owner told me, "but then just anybody could come over. The gangs could come over." She refers to crime in downtown Belize City. "Here I can walk the street at night, no problem."
Richard Zetina, owner/craftsman at The Little Old Gift Shop, offered a friendly lesson on black coral, brown coral, cerecote wood carvings, and Belize style. One statuette with a totem quality reflects Maya inspiration, he said. Of another depicting a Creole woman's face: "Now this is Belize." Belize carvings are a bargain, he explained, because labor is cheap. He offered to polish my black coral pendant for BZE $1, the equivalent of 50 cents.
At Island Kids, the owner bemoans problems of getting enough Power Rangers toys. Cottage Gift Shop carries mostly Guatemalan goods as well as some local, such as Marie Sharp's hot sauce, which comes in mild, hot, or fiery hot versions. The same company makes tropical jams of mango, coconut, and papaya. Belikin Beer makes a good locally produced souvenir, better than the Caribbean Rum from Belize.
Rainforest Rescue, with environmentally aware apparel and gifts; Iguana Jack's pottery and art; and Coffee House's cappuccino and baked goods lean toward Americanization. Other restaurants specialize in Belize's unique Mexican West Indian style of cuisine: eggs rancheros, jack bread (a light and puffy sweet treat), rice 'n' peas, stew chicken, burritos, grilled skewered seafood, conch ceviche.
Elvi's Kitchen excels in the local food genre. A flamboyant tree grows out of the sand floor and a barefoot trio known as Wil & the Outlaws entertains on Caribbean Night (Thursday) with Mexican-spiced ballads. On weekend nights, locals congregate around the seaside city park and Lions Club arena. Chicken barbecues on oil-drum grills envelop the lively village in a heady cloud of smoky sweetness.
The most celebrated entertainment in town is Wednesday's Chicken Drop at Spindrift Resort's Pier Lounge. Once covered by Time magazine, this weekly high point involves a $100 prize, heavy betting, a numbered gambling board, a chicken, and its droppings. Though it's hard to beat entertainment like that, several other downtown bars and resorts sponsor theme nights. At Purple Parrot, Dennis Wolfe, described to me as Ambergris's Jimmy Buffett, sings his own ("Just Another Gringo in Belize") and others' songs. Purple Parrot is tucked into an offstreet arcade called Fido's Courtyard and Pier. Here you'll find one of Ambergris's patent wooden piers, which, same as on Caulker, substitute for beaches. Daytime life mills around the piers, where you'll find any combination of diving charter or instructor, fishing guide, sightseeing tour, bar, and sunbathers.
In Fido's Courtyard, Belizean Arts carries the premier selection of fine arts and native crafts. Visitors are invariably captured by the work of Walter Castillo, a Nicaraguan-born artist discovered by, and now married to, studio owner Lindsey Hackston of England. His paintings-high-energy oils with the intensity of Haitian art-are in great demand. Castillo, who embraces the principles of the Carib-descended Garifunas, has shown his work in Houston and London. When we visited him at his rough-hewn, tin-roofed studio north of San Pedro, he was preparing for an exhibit in Japan.
Walter was bewildered and humble about his local celebrity. Orders arrived weekly for his work, plus he was dealing with the pressures of foreign negotiations and an upcoming show. With a wide smile, he shrugged it off and said, "I have to keep my balance. I have to keep from being materialistic."
Like the Garifuna race of Belize, which descended from immigrants from Dominica and St. Vincent, Walter subscribes to a theory of spiritual energy, laughter, and joy His paintings project it with dancing, drumming figures that celebrate life with flailing arms. This spirit also surfaces in the popular punta rock music that blends traditional drumming with amplified reggae.
"I call my art more like primitive Caribbean," he said. "I paint the joy that the Belizean people have. It flows from them. My pictures show that, people working together and happy. I feel free here. I feel simple. This is my promised land."
Overlooking coconut tree tops onto the lagoon north of town, away from the relative hubbub of daily activity in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye indeed holds the same promise of freedom that it must have more than a hundred years ago when its first settlers fled class persecution. So far, this part of the island, separated from the central zone by a river, escapes commercialization. To get there, you take a boat to one of the outthrust piers. Or you can get there by cart, bike, or foot, if you follow downtown roads through a shabby residential part of town. At the river, you board a small wooden platform, which the ferry man maneuvers across the river using a rope and pulley system-a delightful throwback to old island ways.
The only true beach lies at the caye's south end. It's the best at Ramon's Village resort, which also boasts a 600-foot-long pier. Development at this end of the island caters to travelers looking for a measure of comfort with their roughing-it vacation. Victoria House offers the plushest accommodations in its villas. Its casitas are modeled after Maya architecture. Ten years ago, all the buildings had this thatched, Polynesian veneer, the general manager tells me. Ramon's Village adopted the style at its modern, full-service resort. The new Belize Yacht Club effects more of a hacienda style, but the focus is the marina.
No matter how it develops, the wonders of its waters anchor Ambergris Caye securely in the travel market. It started out attracting live-to-dive types, and it still does, although fishing and birding enthusiasts have added to the demographics. Every hotel, no matter how small, has dive charter connections. They cater to divers and snorkelers of all levels. And no wonder, since underwater visibility can reach a coveted 200 feet. The latest thing is swim-with the-manatees charters. We were steered away from those, told the likelihood of getting close to the shy, bulbous creatures was slim.
Beginning underwater sportsters get their fins wet at Hol Chan or Rocky Point. Hol Chan, a five-square-mile national underwater wildlife reserve, encompasses a channel through the reef. A short ride from the caye's south end, the protected reef hosts an unusually large variety of fish. And unusually large fish: Huge hogfish, Nassau groupers, cubera snappers, permits, nurse sharks, and French angelfish hang out under dive boats, waiting for handouts. Spiny lobster and green moray eels hide beneath heads of brain coral. Swarms of damselfish and blue tang flit among slo-mo waving finger coral and sea fans. Thick-upped conch hop along a sandy bottom at 30 feet deep. At Rocky Point, a popular destination for north-end operators, island meets reef.
The most experienced divers aspire to the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, one of Belize's three atolls. (There are only four in all of the Caribbean.) Plunging to about 130 feet in the 480-foot-deep pit; divers witness primeval underwater sights in a cavern. The ride to the Blue Hole, Belize's most famous dive site, from Ambergris Caye takes two-and-a-half hours by boat.
On Caye Caulker and the smaller cayes, the emphasis on diving is even stronger because there's precious little else to do. I learned the value of a paperback when I last visited. New to the island, you were immediately asked what book you were reading, at which point you began entertaining offers for trade-offs when you were finished. Used books were more precious than lobster, and about the only store commodity for visitors.
San Pedranos told me nothing had changed on five-mile-long Caye Caulker since I had visited. Some warned against crime-petty theft stuff, they said. Kind of a counter-culture thing going on there, is how they put it; pseudo-Rastafarians befriending unsuspecting tourists.
I was anxious to see it. I had idealized it in my mind to the point of sybaritic perfection: carefree heaven at down-to-earth prices.
My first inkling that things had indeed changed was that I was flying in. When we first visited, we rode for two hours in a boat to get there. I understand a great deal of controversy preceded plans to build a landing strip. Caye Caulker residents aren't receptive to the change that is bringing Ambergris Caye into the present.
We easily walked the shoreline from the airfield to the business part of the island. A rack of rickety piers (called bridges) still reached into shallow aquarium-like waters. Coconut trees still shook their manes in the near-constant breeze and threatened us with their artillery of dangling cannonballs. But the changes began to make themselves gradually apparent. Natives still labored over the maintenance of their boats, but their boats, for the most part, now transported water-sports enthusiasts instead of catches. Some fishermen did dock as we walked. We watched as they skillfully filleted their cargo of hogfish, their wives chatting among themselves in the shade, their children splashing in the bathlike waves.
We witnessed no signs of the dangers of which San Pedranos had warned, and chalked it up to inter-island rivalry. Word is Caye Caulkerites are trying to change the island's recent reputation as a haven for backpackers, rowdies, and pot-smokers.
More restaurants had sprouted along the waterfront, some with an American backbeat. Whereas the center of activity was once midisland, focus had shifted to the Caribbean shoreline and the north end around a channel where we used to snorkel among mangroves. The jungle had been pruned back at this once undeveloped point and Caribbean music blared from an outdoor bar. A charter boat bobbed at a new wooden dock that hugged the channel.
Chocolate's shop was once the boundary of commercial enterprises at that end of the caye. Chocolate Heredia is still there, an island guideboating legend, but gift shops, hotels, and restaurants now huddle 'round.
I felt as though I were in a dream. One of those dreams where everything looks kind of familiar but not in the right place. Not totally unpleasant, just ungraspable. I searched among the wooden Caribbean style houses "downtown" for the little blue house where the lady had sold us lobster patties from her window. No luck. At least Glenda was still in business, with her best-ever cinnamon buns.
I wandered around until my sandals began rubbing raw the space between my toes. Alas. the wrong wardrobe again. Caye Caulker, with its soft sand streets and anything-goes bars, is still made for bare feet.
So I got back on a plane and returned to Ambergris Caye. I shook awake that dream that over the years had been polished to a glossy fantasy. Had Caye Caulker changed that much, or had I? I pondered over a day's-end cocktail at the rooftop Sunset Bar back in San Pedro. My eyes selectively skipped over the tangle of electric and telephone wires and ramshackle rooftops to focus upon the beauty of San Pedro Lagoon ablaze in twilight afterglow.
Perhaps, I decided, we had both merely fused with reality. And I silently toasted the end of another adventure in this illusive island at the edge of somewhere.
Used by permission
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