An Island Paradise- An impromptu solo trip to Ambergris Caye Belize
By Ashton Stockwell
“Whatcha mean ya don’t know where you goin?”
The immigration officer looked at me a bit skeptically as I handed him my arrival document with no information filled out for the hotel or resort I’d be staying at — apparently not as common as I assumed.
The truth was, I had no idea where I was going once I arrived in Belize – my initial plan was to just wing it, a solo trip to Belize.
It was September, and this was my first solo trip abroad. I decided to take a chance on this small Central American country wedged between Mexico and Guatemala that I knew little about.
The only research I had done was a quick Google search on my way out the door once my ticket was booked.
Forgot to Call the Bank
How impromptu was my trip? Let’s just say in my rushed excitement to head to the airport I never called to let my bank or phone provider know that I would be leaving the country -rookie mistake.
Once I arrived, essentially stranded in Belize City (the only international airport in Belize), fresh off the plane and ready to explore this lush tropical paradise, I found myself with no money or phone access. Not the best start, but lessons learned.
“Everything aarite” a broad grin greeted me at the Tropic Air counter – Belize’s largest airline – “I help ya”.
The blend of English and smooth Belizean Kriol from the friendly woman behind the desk put me at ease as she helped me get back up and running.
The silver lining – I had a moment to glance at a map of Belize the grinning lady handed me and decided it would be an island adventure for me.
I would head to Ambergris Caye, the largest of more than 200 Cayes in Belize.
A round-trip ticket cost approximately $75 USD. I hopped in the tiny Tropic Air plane next to the pilot, and within twenty minutes over turquoise Caribbean waters I touched down in San Pedro Town.
Golf Cart Get around
Ambergris Caye is approximately 25 miles long and a little over a mile wide with San Pedro Town being the island’s only inhabited area. Lucky for me, the airstrip is located in the middle of town which made for an easy transition to my next step – find a way to start exploring my new island home.
You won’t find bustling streets of cars and trucks anywhere on the island, the preferred means of getting around are bikes and golf carts, the latter the most popular. Right outside of the airstrip I found Boaz Golf Cart rentals where I got set up with a cart and tore off into the sandy streets of San Pedro.
It only took me one block to conclude I had made an excellent choice. I found myself on Barrier Reef Drive (the locals know this as Front street) clustered with artisan boutiques, laid-back restaurants, cafes and bars with barefoot patrons happily sipping beer seemingly without a care in the world.
As I proceeded North down the oceanfront path I came across Caye Casa, a quiet two-story boutique hotel with thatch roof porches and incredible views of the sea and reef. Another lucky break, I had come in the low tourist season and most hostels and hotels would be completely vacant.
I settled into my colorful casita, propped my feet up with a Belikin (Belize’s own domestic brewed beer) and with the sounds of waves softly crashing against the reef stretched out before me I smiled knowing I was now on Island time.
Shark Alley, Ambergris Caye
About four miles South East of San Pedro is the most popular snorkeling site in all of Belize — Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley.
Once a depleted fishing area where fisherman would clean their catch attracting numerous nurse sharks, this now protected refuge has regenerated into a thriving section of the Barrier Reef teeming with vast marine life from sea turtles to sea cucumbers. They had me at sharks. I had to check it out.
My guide for this excursion would be Blinkey, a friendly Sanpedrano who worked at a dive shop that was closed for the low season.
We happened to meet at the Sandbar Beachfront Hostel and Bar (which became my go-to breakfast spot that I still daydream about) where he pointed out his boat docked at the pier across the Palm dotted beach and cheerfully offered to take me.
After grabbing some fins and masks we struck out headed South to Hol Chan.
We soon arrived at Shark Ray Alley where only three or four tour boats were anchored. We were swarmed with schools of jacks, rays and soon the slow gray shadow of the first nurse shark appeared.
I plopped into the shallow water over the side of the boat and followed Blinkey to “the cut” with a depth of 25 ft, where he would point out the species of fish (over 160 species have been identified at Hol Chan), corals and sponges.
As a new boat approached and anticipating bait being thrown in the water, the nurse sharks began schooling nearby. These creatures move seamlessly by snorkelers without hesitation which offers an excellent up-close experience with some sharks as large as 7 feet and rays which are known to swim straight toward you in hopes of a scrap of fish.
…And shark bait
Belize is known for being a mecca for fishing enthusiasts – which I would consider myself – thanks in part to the Belize Barrier Reef, so I knew while I was there I had to get offshore with a rod in my hand.
My new friend Blinkey had a captain that would take us to the other side of the reef where the dark royal blue water drops off hundreds of feet.
Since blue water is so close to the island, fishing charters are much cheaper with plentiful opportunities for a great catch. For just $275 USD for a half-day charter, I had an entire boat and an incredibly accommodating crew to myself. It was time to go catch dinner.
Within minutes after setting off from the Tackle Box dock we were across the Barrier Reef trolling for Tuna, Wahoo, Dorado, and the elusive Billfish. It wasn’t long until we heard the scream of the reel — we were hooked on!
I grabbed the rod and got to work cranking down as I could hear the captain from the top deck yell down to his deckhand something in his Spanish/Kriol, then “Shark, shark!”
Right as I understood what was happening, I saw Bonita (a medium-sized member of the tuna family) on the end of my line leaping frantically toward the boat just as a massive blacktip shark launched himself out of the water at my fish.
The fight for dinner was on. I was quick, but Mr. Blacktip was quicker. I may have lost that battle, but somewhere between our exhilarating shark attack and the sunset, we managed to catch our fair share of barracuda and Dorado to bring back.
Once back to San Pedro, I dropped my catch off to the chefs at Blue Water Grill (Beachfront at the Sunbreeze Hotel on Barrier Reef Dr) where they told me to come back at 6 pm and my dinner would be cooked and waiting for me — how can you beat that?
In the meantime, it was time to explore the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. Approximately half a mile south of San Pedro is the island’s own Mayan ruins known as the Marco Gonzales archaeological site. This is no easy to access to the site, however; surrounded by dense jungle and mangroves, the only way to get there is by a makeshift over-water walkway that winds through the mangrove thickets. Visitors are rare to the site, especially during the rainy season.
Center of the Mayan World
Wanting to get the whole experience of Belize, the epicenter of the ancient Mayan world, I trekked the path until I came to the site littered with piles of conch shells, broken pottery, and even some human bones. Besides the roaring buzz of millions of mosquitos, I was completely alone — a very eerie experience but one not to miss out on. One very important tip: bring mosquito spray!
On the dusty road back toward San Pedro to enjoy my fresh-caught dinner, knowing that my stay at Caye Casa was coming to an end, I went in search of new accommodations and found a lush beachfront resort that resembled a Tahitian jungle more than a hotel.
I wandered down the tropical garden of Royal Palms and manicured sand pathways of Ramon’s Village and knew this is where I would spend the remainder of my stay in San Pedro.
With Polynesian-style cottages, lagoon-style pool, thatch-covered hammocks on the beach, and even their own dive shop you are completely immersed in a true island oasis at Ramon’s. If you are a scuba enthusiast, you are in luck.
Ramon’s Village has been managed by Ramon Nunez (Belize’s first certified scuba diver) since the 1980s. Swap stories if you spot him at breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant Pineapples on the Beach.
Greeted by the staff more like family than a guest truly makes you feel at home, especially going out of their way to make sure I was comfortable at all times knowing I was traveling solo for the first time.
September happens to be a special time for Belizeans. Celebrating their independence from the British in 1964 and then finally attaining full independence on September 21, 1981.
Every day I was delighted with musical performances of barefoot school children practicing down the beachfront streets for the San Pedro independence parade. Bystanders would join in, too, with songs and dance as the performers paraded down until the music could barely be heard any longer.
There are plenty of celebration events you can catch in San Pedro such as the Miss San Pedro competition where you can find everyone rooting for their favorite girl or the Uniform Parade of school kids, police, town officials and firemen. On September 20th (Independence Eve) head over to the Old Football Field for a huge ceremony of music, fireworks, and food.
The celebrations continue on into the night as locals gather together in the streets under strings of bright blue Belizean flags where they laughed and came together in what is undeniably a favorite time of year.
On my last full day in Belize, over breakfast complete with locally grown pomegranate margaritas, with an ex-pat couple I met during celebrations, they recommended I hop over to Caye Caulker before I left.
Measuring only five miles long and less than 1 mile wide with little to no beaches, Caye Caulker had not even been on my radar during my stay on Ambergris Caye.
But I was curious about this tiny island’s reputation as a laid-back alternative to Ambergris where you can “borrow” a shelter dog to walk around or hang out with backpackers at The Split.
After I finished my second or third margarita with my new ex-pat friends I checked the ferry schedule and realized I had 20 minutes until the next ferry to Caye Caulker departed. I decided to island-hop and jetted off toward the ferry dock.
There are daily scheduled ferries back and forth between San Pedro and Caye Caulker at a cost of $9.50 USD each way.
After a scenic 11-mile water taxi ride we arrived at the little isle.
It doesn’t take long to explore the island once you arrive. The motto here is “Go Slow” and you can’t help but feel the welcoming free spirit vibe. I made my way down to the local and tourist hangout known as The Split.
The Split is a channel that separates the island into the more developed southern portion and the northern swampy mangroves. One of the most popular gathering spots on the island is here due to crystal clear deep water for swimming and the landmark Lazy Lizard Bar that serves up plenty of libations including the super-strong Green Lizard Juice.
There I met other solo travelers from all over, including Oliva from Australia who was also on her first solo adventure.
We decided to swim together to the other side of the split to the hidden rope swings tied into the tall mangroves.
Fighting the current together was not as easy a task as we assumed, but we made it across and it was worth it.
With the setting of the sun, it was time to board my taxi boat back to San Pedro for an early morning flight home.
Thanks to the help of easily made Belizean friends I knew my first impromptu trip would not be my last.
In the words of Madonna “This is where I long to be, La Isla Bonita”.
- Boaz Golf Cart Rental – Coconut Drive San Pedro Belize Open 8 am – 7 pm
Telephone: 011-501-226-4466 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily rates $120 BZD
- Caye Casa – Oceanfront San Pedro Belize
Telephone: 1-888-480-4535 Email: email@example.com
Daily rates: Casita $165 USD
- Sandbar Beachfront Hostel & Bar – 7 Boca del Rio Drive, San Pedro Belize Open 11 am – 12 am Telephone: 011-501-226-2008 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org * Bar menu with everything from lobster ceviche to hand-tossed pizzas.
- Blue Water Grill – Barrier Reef Drive San Pedro Belize Open 7 am – 9:30 pm
Telephone: 501-226-3347 *Diablo Alfredo was to die for
- Ramon’s Village – Coconut Drive San Pedro Belize
Telephone: 501-226-2071 Email: email@example.com
Rates: start at $175 USD
Ashton Stockwell is a freelance writer, outdoor photographer, conservationist, and commercial real estate agent from Louisiana and based in Madison, Mississippi.