IntroductionWe had been going to the same resorts/destinations for several years and after our last trip to Bonaire in January, we decided we should visit somewhere else for a change. We looked around a little and considered Belize as a reasonable destination. A little research suggested that the barrier island of Ambergris Caye would probably be a good destination for a first visit to Belize. We looked at resorts, worked through a travel agent and the trip described below was the result.
Note that there is a fairly comprehensive photo album at the end of this report. The photos will reinforce the commentary and vice-versa.
Getting there and BackDelta has non-stop flights to the Belize City International airport so that was the logical choice for us in the Atlanta area. The main problem was that, without any frequent flyer priority, Delta assigned us two middle seats, about 10 rows apart. That would not do. The day before the flight Delta opened up a lot of much better seats, but they required a fee ($29 per seat). But, to get out of a middle seat and into decent exit row seats together, the $29x2 was worth it. On the return trip we also had separate middle seats but the counter agent was able to find two seats together with one being a window seat, for no charge.
One interesting aspect of getting to Ambergris Caye is that it is about 40 miles from the International airport and the Ambergris Cay (city of San Pedro) airport is only 2400 feet long. (Most airports for normal jets have runways at least 7500 feet long.) The standard aircraft for flights within Belize is the single engine, turbine powered (propeller), 14 passenger Cessna Caravan. I was amazed at the number of flights run by the two local airlines: Maya Air and Tropic air. There was a Caravan landing or departing the international airport, going to or from airports all over Belize, about once a minute. The ground/counter operations of Maya Air, the one we used, were a bit confused on a busy day, but they were moving a lot of people. As a pilot myself, I was especially interested to note that, despite the normal 10 - 15 MPH wind blowing right down the runway at San Pedro, the Caravans all landed into the wind (normal) and took off with the wind (not normal!). Using this unconventional approach reduced the flight distance and reduced the noise over the populated areas of Ambergris Caye, so I guess it makes some sense.
Ramon's Village ResortRamon's deserves quite a bit of discussion; hopefully it will be interesting. We looked through the list of resorts on Ambergris Caye; some looked very nice (like Victoria House) but also had a high price. It looked like Ramon's was located in a very convenient area, was highly rated, and had lots of activities (they listed activities including sailing, windsurfing and kayaking) so we decided to give it a try and made the reservations. The travel agent used a local "Travel Coordinator" company, "Elegant Adventures" which specializes in Central America, to make some of the arrangements. Elegant Adventures is owned by a couple who lives in our neighborhood (the plot thickens). A couple of days before we were due to depart the owner/neighbor, Dan, saw my wife and mentioned to her that "Ramon's is a bit Funky." We thought that an interesting comment, but it turned out to be somewhat true.
The location of Ramon's is just about ideal; right on the edge of San Pedro and convenient to almost everything you would be interested in. It is only a 3 minute golf cart ride from the airport (golf carts are the standard transportation in San Pedro). They have a very complete dive and snorkel operation with multiple boats and complete facilities. I would guess that most of the guests at Ramon's were either divers or dedicated snorkelers. Ramon's has one of the few sections of sandy beach in the area, although the sand only extended 20 or 30 feet into the water. We quickly found that there are a group of four "village cats". They are not fully tame but generally came when called, especially when they figured out that sometimes we had food. Apparently Ramon (yes, there is a Ramon) takes care of them and didn't mind us helping to feed them.
There is a restaurant on site that is reasonably good, but not great. Breakfast was included with our room rate and it was generally pretty good. Our favorite was probably the fresh fruit plate, although the other dishes were good also. The landscaping is beautiful; very lush and well maintained. They even rake the extensive sand areas occasionally. The pool is curved and surrounded by landscaping although the water was somewhat cold for my tastes. The best part is probably the staff; they are all very friendly and try very hard to take good care of the guests. Sometimes the resort's "procedures" get in their way; one evening we just wanted a couple of cups of coffee and it took them 10 minutes to go through the process to charge it to our room.
That is the good stuff, now for the "funky" or not so good stuff. Our biggest complaint was the lack of the advertised activities. They advertised and even had printed rates for sailing, windsurfing, and kayaking but the single sailboat was busted with no outlook of being fixed and there were no windsurfers or kayaks. We could, and did, walk about a half mile south to rent sailboats and windsurfers, but that is not the same as having them on-site.
The room left something to be desired. It was advertised as a "Beach front guest suite"; as a suite I expected a slightly larger than average room, but it was actually pretty small. It did have a nice, but small, balcony where we spent quite a bit of time and the view of the palm trees and beach from the balcony was nice. The bathroom had a fiberglass tub/shower insert which had been refinished in the past and the refinished paint was peeling off. Oh, and the shower head was about 5'8" high: I am 6'2" tall. That height might be fine for the resident Mayans, but it was a real inconvenience for me. The shower curtain was also hung too low so there was a couple of inches of curtain laying in the bottom of the tub. Yes, a small thing, but easy to fix and irritating. The toilet would "gurgle" loudly occasionally. I suspect a plumbing problem so that whenever anyone in the room below us flushed their toilet, ours burped loud enough to wake us up at night. There were no bedside lights, only the lights in the middle of the room high above the bed. This makes it difficult or uncomfortable to read in bed. A simple light at the head of the bed would help a lot. Since we were on the second floor we had a very tall thatched roof above us for our ceiling. It was unique, perhaps "funky", but did result in some trash on the bed and when the music at the nearby bar got loud we discovered that thatched roofs provide almost no sound insulation.
Walking aroundWe generally like to walk quite a bit so we covered a lot of territory, mostly along the beach. We walked both north and south several times, enjoying the scenery and all the people. It is not much of a "beach scene" in the traditional sense; there are virtually no white sand beaches and the multiple docks and lots of boats make it look more like a fishing harbor than a resort beach. Walking north from Ramon's we found a number of restaurants, which I'll cover in more detail later. This part of the beach is along the main part of San Pedro, so it is relatively densely populated with buildings and businesses. Probably a mile and a half north of Ramon's is a bridge that gives access to the northern end of the island. Powered vehicles pay a toll which I think was $5.00 (USD) roundtrip for a golf cart. On one walk we went over the bridge and maybe another mile north, checking out the resorts and other facilities up there. During this time we were adopted by a local dog. She seemed friendly and after she had walked with us a while we stopped for water (we had a plastic bottle of water) and found a "dish" for her and gave here some water which she seemed to appreciate. After that I was afraid that we really did have a dog! She stayed with us until we went back over the bridge and apparently thought of someplace else she wanted to go.
Walking south there are mostly resorts and some open land. Some of the resorts, such as Victoria House, are very nice and there are some others that are somewhat lower rent. The scenery is prettier in this direction with fewer docks and boats and more open beach areas. On our first walk south we found "Sail Sports" which rents sailboats (Hobie Catamarans) and windsurfers. They only have two Hobie Waves (typical 14' resort boats) and two larger Hobie "Getaways" which are essentially a larger Wave with a jib sail. We waited for a day with decent wind and rented a Getaway for an hour and had a good sail. We never did get any windsurfer gear because there was not good wind most of the time and the conditions really were not that good anyway. (We're spoiled by windsurfing in Bonaire.)
Along the beach in both directions, but especially north, there are a lot of vendors selling things, either as they walked or from temporary tables and displays. Common things for sale were very colorful cloths and carved fish, both really beautiful but of limited usefulness. There were also people selling simple jewelry, lightly roasted cashews (cashews are one of the main crops of Belize), and even banana bread and hot(?) tamales. Unlike other places we have been though, the vendors were all pleasant and friendly; if you said "no thanks" they would smile, say "thank you" and go on their way. Some vendors use gimmicks to attract attention. One family (adults and a 4 or 5 year old girl) had a baby raccoon that the girl carried. She would put the raccoon on the handlebars of her bicycle and it would hang on as she rode. Another vendor had a coatimundi (looks like a long nosed monkey) tied to a table and was asking for $$ to allow you to take photos of it.
Restaurants and eatingI had done some research and gotten some suggestions for places to eat, but we mainly walked along the beach area of San Pedro and decided what looked like interesting places to eat. I think I can honestly say that we did not have a bad meal although, of course, some were better than others. I'll try to do very quick reviews of the restaurants we visited. With one or two exceptions, I won't bother covering restaurants where we ate lunch. This will be somewhat in the order in which we visited them.
Blue Water GrillOur first night on island we didn't bother walking too far. Blue Water Grill is only a couple hundred yards north of Ramon's. BWG turned out to be probably the largest restaurant we ate at and one of the most "traditional" from our viewpoint. We both had seafood, of course, and the food was all good. The prices were reasonable (we were still getting used to the use of both BZ$ and US$, with 1 US$ = exactly 2 BZ$) but the wine seemed relatively expensive. This was consistent at all restaurants and the local stores. Anyway, BWG was good, seemed pretty consistent, and probably a "safe" bet for someone just finding their way around. We would definitely return on another visit.
Celi'sOn Sunday evening we visited Celi's, only it wasn't really Celi's.... Turns out that Celi's was moving next door and changing the name. When we visited the food was still being prepared in the old Celi's. Later in the week when we walked by (about 1/4 mile north of Ramon's, along the beach) there still was not a name on the new part of the restaurant. So if you go looking for Celi's, it may not be there. Check the photo album in this review and there is a photo of the new Celi's, or whatever the name is. The food was good, service was mostly good but with some hiccups. Our waitress was obviously new; when we ordered glasses of Chardonnay she replied by asking "red or white?". Worse, at the end of the meal we had the waitress box our leftover fish in a to-go box (for us to take to the cats at Ramon's) and when we asked for that box, they could not find it and did not offer a replacement of any kind. So, good food, but a bit to learn about customer service.
Red GingerRed Ginger is somehow related to Blue Water Grill and they (and a 3rd related restaurant) have various specials during the week. Monday night was half-price wine night at Red Ginger and since we had found wine to be expensive in Belize, we thought we'd take advantage of the special. Red Ginger is located in the Phoenix resort, which is one of the nicer resorts close to San Pedro. We assumed that Red Ginger would be very casual as all the other restaurants we had seen, but instead it was very nice and upscale. I felt a little out of place in my very casual cloths but the staff welcomed us warmly. The service was excellent and friendly, putting up with our rather extended decision making process on what we would have. The food (and half price wine) was very good and the price for all this was actually very reasonable.
Pineapples (at Ramon's)Tuesday we did the all-day snorkel trip to Caye Caulker (details later) and were a bit tired so we just went to Pineapple's at Ramon's. As usual the staff were friendly and the food was good if not outstanding. We did note a common problem at Pineapples at this meal and most of our breakfast meals: the food was not hot when it got to us, like it had been sitting a couple of minutes before the server brought it out to us. I can understand that people who live in Belize might not have the same expectation of hot food as someone from cooler climates, but it was a bit irritating after a while.
Wild MangoWe had walked by Wild Mangos a number of times and since we love mangos (the fruit) we had to give them a try. This was a bit more of a "local atmosphere" than the other restaurants we had been to and the menu reflected this with plenty of "Rice and Beans" items along with the normal fish and other main courses. As usual, service was friendly and the food was tasty. We were a little disappointed that there were no mangos on the menu; out of season I guess.
Lily'sIf Wild Mango had some local flavor, Lily's had it in abundance. There were local families eating there, with the kids running around and playing. Again, service was friendly and the food good. The local restaurants were so consistently good that it was almost boring.
Hurricane'sWhenever we go to a different destination we tend to think of one meal and restaurant as something special. To me anyway, it was Hurricane's on this trip. We had spent the day on a long excursion to Lamanai and had already had quite a bit to eat and drink during the day. We just wanted something simple. We had noticed Hurricane's on previous walks and they generally had an interesting special each day. Of course, this day the special really didn't seem that interesting, but we decided to give Hurricane's a try anyway. Good decision. If we saw a place like Hurricane's at home we probably wouldn't consider going in as it looks a bit "scruffy". But, in Ambergris Caye it was perfectly normal. We looked at the menu and decided to have several appetizers rather than normal meals: we ordered some Conch Fritters, some very tasty Papaya Bruschetta, and a large bowl of conch ceviche and corn chips. We had already had conch ceviche several times, but this ceviche was especially good, the fritters were surprisingly light and non-greasy, and the bruschetta disappeared quickly. A simple but memorable meal at Hurricane's, sitting out over the water off the beach at Ambergris Caye.
BC's (lunch)BCs is really more of a bar than a restaurant but they sometimes grill up some basic burgers and hot dogs. Several days we had gone by BCs and seen signs about how on certain days they would start the BBQ grill at noon. When we walked by later it did smell inviting and the sign at the front designating BCs as a "Husband Day Care" attracted our attention. We finally had the need for lunch on a day when BCs grill was in operation, so we stopped for a beer, burger and fries. It was a very conventional lunch, but all good and great atmosphere.
SnorkelingBelize and Ambergris Caye are known for diving and snorkeling so we had to give it a try. Ramon's offers snorkeling trips and some snorkeling excursions leave from Ramon's dock, so it was very convenient. After taking a walk Sunday morning we checked at Ramon's dive shop about snorkeling trips that afternoon. There was one possibility, a small group trip to sites called Mexico Rocks and Tres Cocos, both north of Ramon's just inside the reef. Only catch was that they needed 6 people for the trip and they said to check back about 1:30 for a possible 2:00 departure. At 1:30 the staff started calling other docks to see if other places had anyone wanting to go snorkeling. Apparently no one else wanted to go and as of 2:00 it was still just the two of us. Someone decided that we could go anyway, so we had a very private snorkel trip with just the guide, Will, and the two of us. We got in the boat, Will pointed it north and opened the throttles and we headed toward the snorkeling sites FAST! We arrived at Mexico Rocks and jumped in to find coral heads (the "rocks") scattered around on the otherwise sandy bottom. Will was snorkeling with us to point out interesting sights and soon pointed to a large, and I do mean LARGE Leopard Ray that was circling us. It was the largest ray I had ever seen in person and it circled us twice before heading off elsewhere. We saw numerous other smaller rays, plenty of fish and some interesting coral. After a while we loaded up again and headed to Tres Cocos which was closer to the reef and the transition from fairly deep water and the very shallow top of the reef. We made our way in and out of the shallow areas for a while, observing numerous fish and lots of staghorn coral then loaded up and headed back to Ramon's.
One of the standard snorkeling excursions is an all-day trip that stops at a marine reserve called Hoi Chan, then a stop to swim with rays and sharks, followed by a sail to another small island, Caye Culker, for lunch and self-guided touring before heading back to Ambergris Caye. We signed up for the Tuesday trip and we piled on the "SEAduced" large catamaran sailboat with about another 20 people and three guides and headed out. The Hoi Chan marine reserve was interesting, mainly for the number and variety of fish. As soon as I got in the water I spotted a large grouper just hovering under another nearby boat. It and all the other fish we saw here have learned to not fear people and they mostly ignored us. Turtles are usually very wary of people but one we saw here just went about its normal business, ignoring us. A Tarpon just hovered in place as a group of us paddled past. Large schools of fish swam through the coral seemingly showing off their colors for us to see. After a while we loaded up and headed for the next stop.
Shark-Ray alley is a gathering place for rays, apparently after fish scraps from when fishermen used to clean their catch here. As we pulled up to a mooring, one of the guides threw pieces of fish into the water that soon boiled from a lot of large fish charging after the food that they had learned to expect. Being in the middle of these fish was a bit more imposing than just the rays; they were quick and big enough to hurt if they ran into you. Rays soon showed up for their share of the food and after a while a nurse shark appeared. One of the guides got hold of the shark and turned it on its back and, as most sharks will do in this position, it went completely limp and placid. After showing this to everyone he turned it right-side up and released it and it slowly swam off.
The rest of the trip was really a sailing/motoring sightseeing trip, which was pleasant enough. From Shark-Ray alley we sailed to Caye Caulker, getting there about 1:00. We were free to have lunch and look around until the departure time of 2:45. We had a nice but rather slow paced lunch adjacent to the dock then walked around the town some. We got some laughs watching someone apparently getting beginning sailing lessons in a Laser; definitely not a good beginner's sailboat. As usual in such excursions, some of the people were late getting back to the boat so we were late getting started "home". We had a pleasant 2 hour cruise back to Ambergris Caye (during which time a significant volume of beer and Rum Punch was consumed) and arrived back at Ramon's dock about 5:30.
We had heard a number of people talk about snorkeling off the docks along the beach. We had some concerns about doing this, both because of the considerable boat traffic and because we had not seen any fish when walking on the docks. Despite our misgivings we figured we'd try swimming out and snorkeling around the end of Ramon's dock. There were several boats coming and going that we had to keep an eye on but nothing serious. To our surprise, there were fish! There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of fish hanging around under the dock where you could not see them from above. We were amazed! The water was not real clear, but there were so many fish and they were so close, it didn't matter much.
I'll try to make some general comments about snorkeling in the Ambergris Caye area. The Hoi Chan Marine Reserve was truly interesting, perhaps amazing, for the number and variety of fish and their seeming disregard of the people all around them. There were quite a few rays in the area, including at least one very large Leopard Ray, if you are interested in them. I am not sure how representative the conditions during our visit were, but we have been to several other islands where the water was clearer with better visibility. For anyone really interested in snorkeling I think Bonaire offers more interesting sites and better visibility. For anyone wanting nice beaches and good snorkeling, Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos offers a great beach and very good snorkeling, albeit at a somewhat higher price. If snorkeling is just one part of your interests and you want to partake of the other assets of Belize, that is where Belize does very well.
Excursion to Mayan RuinsWe have been to other Mayan ruins in the past, including Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza, so we had not intended to visit the Mayan ruins in Belize, but we realized that we had a day to fill with some activity so we decided to take the all day tour to Lamanai. We were instructed to be on Ramon's dock at 6:45AM to do the "paperwork" for a 7:00 departure. We decided stop at Ramon's restaurant for an early breakfast and took some of the fresh fruit with us to enhance the breakfast we were to have on the trip. At 7:00 no one had shown up to do our paperwork so we started to wonder if something had gone wrong. At about 7:05 the Ramon's person appeared to do the minor paperwork at the same time as the boat appeared to pick us up. After only a minor delay we boarded the boat and headed out to pick up some more people. After picking up the last of the 13 people (4 couples and 5 young women) our guide/captain, Allen, pointed the boat toward the mainland and opened the throttle. We quickly discovered that the ride would be a little rough. The wind had been blowing strong for the past day or two and even inside the protection of the barrier reef, there were pretty good sized waves and the boat, while perfectly seaworthy, it could not smooth out the choppy waves on the bay. We had some of the most forward seats, which of course feel the full force of bouncing through the waves. It took about 75 minutes to get to the mainland with a couple of smooth stretches of water when we could relax some.
As we pulled into a canal off of the bay I noticed a fairly large boat moored along a seawall ahead. My first thought was that it looked a lot like the boats that Club Med uses for their SCUBA diving at Club Med resorts. Surely just a coincidence I thought, since I'm sure there are a lot of boats that look like that. Then I saw the name on the front: "Angle Ray". Club Med always named their dive boats after kinds of rays, such as "Eagle Ray" or "Leopard Ray" so this was getting to be more than a coincidence. Sure enough, as we cruised slowly by, the Club Med Trident logo was still painted on the side of the boat.
We soon pulled into a marina with a dockside restaurant, the "Oar House". There we had a breakfast of Tamales enhanced by our fresh fruit that we had brought with us. After breakfast we all boarded a barely air-conditioned van for the trip (almost) to Lamanai. It was about 60 minutes to the next stop and some of the sights along the way, reinforced by Will's commentary, were interesting. We then boarded another (different, but similar) boat for the trip down the New River. Our new guide, Carlos, first took us up river about a half mile to an island where there are several Spider Monkeys. Only one monkey showed up, but he did a good job of posing for pictures, for which he collected several bananas. We then headed down the river at a good clip, slowing for various sightseeing opportunities along the way. It took about an hour to get to the sight of Lamanai, alongside a wide section of the river.
We unloaded and went to an area with some buildings, including small shops, a museum and a picnic shelter where the lunch was spread out and we all enjoyed the simple meal of chicken, rice and beans, salad and such. After lunch we started the tour of the Lamanai ruins. The main sites turned out to be closer to each other than I expected and the first one we visited was the Mask Temple. Carlos used this temple to point out how the Lamanai residents had been great "renovators", frequently rebuilding and enlarging the temples, sometimes covering up much of the work done by previous generations. The next site, the "High Temple" was exactly that: high. It was a little over 100 feet high but sure looked higher than that. Since we had climbed the large pyramid at Chichen Itza we decided we would not get that hot, sweaty, and dirty this time and we only went up to the first platform, about 30 feet up. We did enjoy watching some of the other people climb up and, especially, come back down. The final temple to be visited was the Jaguar Temple which had stone carvings of its namesake. Carlos took a moment here to point out a round stone Mayan Calendar which, of course, ends on Dec 21, 2012. If you are reading this after that date then we will know that the various predictions that the world will come to an end on that date were wrong. Between the High Temple and the Jaguar Temple Carlos pointed out a family of Howler Monkeys in a large tree. They were generally lying on the large branches and were difficult to see.
After about an hour and a half exploring the temples and other ruins, we all headed back to the boat to start the return trip. After loading in and heading out, the beer cooler and rum punch bottle were opened and everyone welcomed the refreshment. We quickly discovered that one had to be very careful when drinking rum punch from an open cup at 30 miles an hour; otherwise the wind effectively sucked the punch out of the cup and sprayed it all over anyone who happened to be downwind. This time it was essentially a full speed trip back to the starting point. At the end of the boat ride we again transferred to the van. We quickly discovered that we were cooler with the windows open and air flowing through. Of course, this also had implications for those who were still drinking the rum punch out of open cups. Some people continued drinking punch and beer and some managed to get in a few winks of sleep. We stopped at the Oar House restaurant again, this time long enough to use the rest rooms, perhaps get something to eat/drink, and to say hello again to the cute little kitten that seemed to be a resident there. After a few minutes, we boarded the original boat again for the trip back across the bay to Ambergris Caye. This time we were going against the wind and the direction of the waves, so the return trip was rougher than the initial morning trip across the bay. Fortunately for some people, the cooler still had cold beer and rum punch and both continued to flow. Of course, after an hour or so of drinking lots of beer and bouncing across the waves, several people were getting somewhat uncomfortable because there was no restroom on the boat. Allen delivered us back to Ramon's dock about 6:00 PM after a long but interesting day.
Time to Head homeThe day after our tour of Lamanai it was time to retrace our steps and head home. We got to the San Pedro airport and boarded the Cessna Caravan for the 20 minute flight to the Belize City International airport. We went through the normal claim baggage, check in at Delta, go through security, and wait for our flight routine. Our flight ended up being about an hour late departing but when we arrived in Atlanta, at least the lines at Immigration and Customs were unusually short.
It was an interesting trip and considerably different from what has become our normal very active/busy trips. It was a good change and we found Belize interesting and fun, but probably not the ideal for how we like to travel and vacation. Actually one of the main reasons we probably will not return soon is the cost of wine. We enjoy a glass or two of wine with meals and like to relax in the afternoons with some snacks and wine but the wine in Belize was very expensive, about three to four times as expensive as the same wine in the US or other Caribbean islands. Yes, its not a big thing, but it just irks me. Alother "irksome" aspect is the "foreign transaction fee" that you get charged for every credit card purchase and which does not appear until you receive your monthly credit card statement. We've visited numerous other Caribbean islands and have never seen this before.
If you look at the photo album below, I suspect much of my commentary will make more sense.
Click on the picture to view the album