I swore 2015 was the year we wouldn’t buy into the New Years Eve hype. We’d ring in our ‘Year of Saving’ (um, hm) with a leisurely (aka cheap) evening at home. That proved to be a nice, yet short-lived notion. When we discovered we had 600 bucks in airline credit to use ASAP, New Years Eve all the sudden became the perfect opportunity for one last getaway of the year.
Setting our sights on Belize thanks to the enthusiastic recommendations of friends, we pulled the trigger on our first tropical vacation in years. After booking we went from feeling ‘pretty pumped’ (and still a little guilty) about our upcoming trip to outright giddy as Team Belize expanded from two to four with the additions of our friends Del and Anthony.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, we had ZERO snafus traveling internationally. No 40 hour itineraries, no lost bags, no significant delays, no airline incompetence. Getting in and out of Belize is actually a breeze – it’s a quick, direct four hour flight from Chicago. The country is relatively small and from Belize City, most visitors either drive a couple hours west to the jungle or head east to the islands by way of ferry or flight. We opted for the flight (and might I add – VERY SMALL flight) since the teeny Tropic Air transfers were quick and frequent, continually flying the 15-minute route to and from San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye. And I knew I could expect this view:
The flight was a little unnerving, but doable. I busied myself taking about a dozen pics of the back of Jake’s head and counting down each and every one of those fifteen minutes. And before we knew it, we were in San Pedro. My first take? The place has got character.
In San Pedro, cars are scarce; golf carts are king. The town itself is small – you could probably walk the whole thing in 30 minutes flat – but jam packed with bars, restaurants, and more tourism centers than we could count. A cart isn’t needed if you’re staying in town but since we were heading 3 miles north to our hotel, it was a must. Lookin’ good Jake…
I think he was actually driving when I took that shot. Our cart maxed out at oh, I’d guess 10 mph judging by the leisure bikers on beach cruisers whizzing by us. Even so, what a way to travel – a nice breeze (remedy for Jake’s excessive sweating) and no rules on the road. (Alluding to the built in cup-holders that you can fill as you please…)
The single paved road that leads north from San Pedro actually resembles more of a wide sidewalk with a growing number of hotels, condos, and incredibly unique food/drink spots popping up amidst the wild vegetation and turquoise backdrop. One of which was Captain Morgan’s, our home (or I should say, casita) for the next week:
Three days before we left for our trip, I happened to stumble on a House Hunters episode where the couple was relocating to, whaddya know…. Belize! I eagerly tuned in to get an idea of what the island would look like on film, and found out the couple had opened one of the only wine bars on Ambergris Caye. RIGHT up our alley. Even better? Stella’s Smile is less than a mile from our hotel and has crepes with bottomless mimosas on Sundays. SOLD!
The people in San Pedro: Wonderful. Our little charmer of a waiter Shawn at Stella’s clued us on in a ‘secret beach’ that was a bumpy 30-minute ride away via gravel roads. Secret… not so much. Beach… no, not that either. We were two of dozens of people there but luckily, we were able to claim a pier as all ours…
(Ever the explorer.) All ours that is, until we had company…
This slightly camera shy local family and their dog. Imagine if this was how you spent your Sundays growing up… Makes all my past wasted Sundays lounging in bed look prett-y pitiful!
We found Belize to be a place where you want to get out and do things. (Hence the necessity of a golf cart!) There was never day we didn’t leave our hotel multiple times to go explore. Why?
a) Belize is not a place with large glorious beaches on which you can plop yourself down for the week. (See that small spanse of sand above? That was about the extent of the ‘beaches’ we found.) The country’s islands are unique in that the barrier reef is just a short distance from their coastlines, which is AMAZING for snorkeling but stops much of the wave action from reaching the shores and causes buildup of seagrass. However – the water is absolutely EXQUISITE (I’m going to venture to say the brightest and clearest I’ve ever seen) and just because you may not be able to access a beautiful beach right in front of your hotel, doesn’t mean there aren’t countless places to hop in the water.
b) The accommodations in Belize are not large, five star resorts where you pay an arm and a leg to enjoy a stunning space with a plethora of amenities and dining options. Instead, they’re comfortable, really reasonably priced home bases from which you’ll want to get out and enjoy the island. (Although full disclosure – it may be different further north on the island, where the rates seemed to be higher and accessibility to town much more limited.)
c) There’s a lot to do on the island (particularly if you love aquatics and sipping drinks in the sun), all of which is made infinitely better when you have some of your favorite people to share it with. Which is why Jake and I anxiously awaited the arrival of other halves on Day 2 when island life got WAY more interesting.
Now it was really time to start checking things off our Belize Bucket List. Or in our case, check off the same things over and over again. (What can I say?! You find something you love, you stick to it.) It’s not surprising that the new Palapa Bar kept us coming back for more: stunning views, floating inner tubes and crave-worth skinny vodkas and fried mozz sticks (you know, to balance each other out). It was a stroke of luck that the bar’s new location in San Pedro town opened just days before we arrived…
Yup, we had to do it. (Which Fuller, Del?!)
I would describe Belize as an international lite destination. The predominant language is English, US dollars are accepted (and the exchange rate is an easy 2:1), and Americans are EVERYWHERE. Not only did it seem our fellow US citizens made up 99% of the tourists, but we also met a surprising number of Americans who moved to Belize and opened up hostels, boutique hotels, wine bars, and our favorite, the Truck Stop:
I can’t even count how many times we frequented the Truck Stop. Every day, twice a day? Sounds about right. The concept is simple but brilliant – an outdoor courtyard featuring four shipping containers turned food ‘trucks’ serving Southeast Asian and Latin American cuisine, along with local ice cream and all sorts of spirits and specialty shots. (You can guess where we posted up.) Food and pepper-infused rum aside, what kept us coming back for more was the owner and his staff. Just amazing… we’ll continue to stalk them, if only on social media.
The avid marine life nerds we are (as long as we remain near the TOP of the water, with a life vest), we were excited to see what the Belizean waters would have in store for us. Located off the southern tip of the island, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most popular dive and snorkel site in Belize and brings in tens of thousands of visitors every year. The entire reserve focuses on a cut in the reef where fishing is now banned, allowing a diverse array of species to thrive. In short, the snorkeling was INCREDIBLE. Our trusty guide navigated us through the waters…
And right to the sharks. Ok well truthfully, this was the second stop on our excursion but since my iPhone took such mediocre pics of the fish underwater (yes, I had a waterproof case on it!), I won’t bother to post those. But these guys – they were too amazing not to share. Even better was when we got in the water with them….
Now for the prom pose pics.
And let’s not forget the occasion we came to Belize to celebrate. HAPPY 2016! Taken at our favorite Belizean semi-dive bar with Chicagoan owners – Lola’s. (Those were NOT our beers.)
Jake and I had one last look at Belize’s version of a toll bridge (really) the next morning… and before we knew it, we were on a boat headed back to Belize City to fly home.
A few pics of the southern island, Caye Caulker….
And Belize City.
And with that, we were homebound to catch up on a week’s worth of sleep. But with such happy hearts. <3
Check the weather. Belize is located below the equator, so their seasons are opposite to ours. That’s a bonus when its cold at home: our winters are ideal for a Belizean getaway.
Get a golf cart! And book early – they sell out fast in the high season. There are a number of places that rent them in town. We lucked out with Moncho’s – they were literally a one minute walk from the airstrip (so no lugging bags around town!).
Go snorkeling (or diving, if you’re that cool). And again, book early in your trip in case windy or rainy weather delays your excursion (happened to us…twice). You can snorkel off some of the piers (Secret Beach!) but to go to the marine reserves, you’ll have to book a half day or full day tour. This is where all those tourism centers in town come in handy! We snorkeled Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Alley, and found pricing for a half day (which is really more like 2.5 hours) to be between $45-60 a person including the park fee. Other nearby snorkel or dive destinations include Caye Caulker and Bacalar Chico Marine Reserves, but we didn’t have time to check these out.
Visit our favorite places on the island. Namely the Truck Stop, Palapa Bar and a restaurant right next to Palapa called Melt. We discovered Melt later in the trip but had we had the opportunity, I’m pretty sure we would have been there every day around 11 am. They had the perfect mix of greasy and green with an extensive list of grilled cheese sandwiches and big hearty salads. (And trust me, after a week in this town, you’ll be dying for some greens.)
Take a flight in and a ferry out. Or vice versa. Tropic Air offers dozens of flights between San Pedro and Belize City every day and for about $90 a person (which includes baggage), you get a unique experience and an incredible view. And you can’t beat the 15 minute journey. We took the ferry out, in all honesty, just to save a few pennies, but we actually ended up being really happy we did. It takes about 1.5 hours to reach Belize City, and from there, another 25 minute taxi ride to the airport, but taking in that stunning turquoise water with a breeze in our hair was a good way to pass the time.
Consider Caye Caulker. We had every intention of taking a boat ride to check out Ambergris Caye’s smaller neighbor to the south, but time got away from us. We made a brief stop there during the ferry ride back to Belize City, and it looked COOL! By all accounts it has a more relaxed vibe and attracts more of a backpacker crowd. There’s … the split.. better beaches. no cars. backpackers
And a few more ideas that we’ll have to save for next time – seeing the ruins (there are various sites on the mainland), cave tubing in the jungle (Cayo district), going deep sea fishing, and taking a sunset cruise.
Til next time, Belize!