Destinations – Belize It! by Frank Pond

The dock of a room at Casa Estrella, Cayo Espanto ResortI am not sure why it took me so long to go to Belize.  Perhaps, like most travel addicts, when I think about going international my mind takes me far, far away.  But, I should know better since some of the most amazing places are ever so close to the US (I am thinking about Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal in Canada and many more).  Perhaps it is because that, while foreign, we don’t think these exotic enough a destination for travel adventure.  Well, I told myself to “get over it” and put together a quickie and last minute trip to beautiful, blessed, bountiful, breezy (am running out of B’s) Belize for Presidents’ Day weekend.

First, where is Belize for those who haven’t given Central America a thought re vacation planning?  It is below the Yucatan of Mexico, East of Guatemala and just North of Honduras on the Caribbean.  It is definitely a Latin American country but also has a Caribbean spirit and a distinct Mayan heritage.  The coastline is gorgeous and abutting the country is the second largest Barrier Reef in the world (second only to the creatively named “Great Barrier Reef” of Australia).  More on the reef in a minute.  The food is fresh:  think the freshest and most bountiful seafood going; the breeze is blowing so that the heat of the sun nearer the equator isn’t overpowering but it is still beautifully warm; the people are beautiful in and out–there is joy in Belize and a smile on almost everyone.

Sunset in Belize

Belize was an English colony and is still part of the Commonwealth.  Because of that, almost everyone is bilingual in Spanish and English (with some Belizean slang thrown in).  This makes it an incredibly easy destination for those of us who are sadly monolingual.   The Belizean dollar is pegged to the US dollar at a set 2:1 ratio and frankly most places my friend and I went accepted US dollars (which was good as my only real problem in Belize was getting an ATM to accept my Debit Card–none did–so very glad I brought cash).  Prices are good (a bit higher if eating at one of the resorts or nicer hotels) with most nice dinners with drinks and/or wine at well under $100 US for two (and we had some amazing ones for about $30 USD for two).  Belize is less than a two hour flight on Continental from Houston and about a two hour flight on American from Dallas.  For East-Coasters, Delta also serves Belize (about 3 hours) from Atlanta.  Amazing and truly right on our doorstep.  Prices for the flights were also great.  Even at last minute, one could price a roundtrip for around $500 USD in Economy or $1200 in First Class.  Since this was a long weekend trip, we did the overnight flight from LAX to Houston and then got to Belize International at 11:00 am.

Belize City (which we did not visit except to fly over in a small plane) is on a peninsula surrounded by the Caribbean.  I read in travel books and websites that it isn’t the great destination of Belize though cruise ships port offshore weekly.  But, Belize City is the gateway to phenomenal zip lining over the rain forest, cave tubing (rafting through amazing caves–think Carlsbad caverns but floating!), spectacular Mayan ruins and some of the best diving, watersports and fishing possible.  Now, since my friend and I only could squeeze 5 nights away (or six if you count the overnight flight but no work was missed for that as the plane departed LAX at 12:30 am), our focus was on scuba diving the reef.  And dive we did–some of the best diving I have ever experienced and I have been blessed to have gone diving in some of the most amazing places on the planet including the Maldives, the Seychelles, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean, Polynesia and Hawaii.  Really, this diving was awesome from start to finish.

Diving Dock Ramon's Villiage

To dive, we flew a short 17 minute flight on Maya Air going and Tropic Air returning to San Pedro on the island of Ambergis Caye.  Ambergris Caye is well offshore of Belize and is an island of about 27 miles in length which at its northernmost point meets Mexico separated only by a canal purportedly dug by the Mayans.  On a map, it is parallel to Jamaica, Dominican Republic/Haiti, and Puerto Rico.  The town of San Pedro is cute, large enough to accommodate hundreds of great restaurants and a beautiful coastline.  The reef, for spectacular diving, extends from Mexico to Honduras and all along the Belizean coastline.  The biggest surprise is that we were able to get to some of the most awesome of dive sites in less than 2 minutes by boat from one of our resorts.

Because we booked at the last minute, we found that the ultimate splurge resort had one room available for only two nights–it is Cayo Espanto and I can’t speak highly enough for this place–it defines luxury living.    This was good news in that Cayo Espanto is full almost all year and certainly now in the high season and room charges generally extend from around $1000 per room per night to $3500 per room per night.  Because of the odd two day availability, we were able to knock off a large percentage of the bill (which was good since the only available room normally was the one for $3500 per night!  I hear it is a regular celebrity haunt).  To say nothing, it was beyond a splurge.  The hotel took all of our likes and dislikes into account and planned meals for us (all meals are eaten in your room–though from pictures you can see it is more than a room) and took better care of us than any hotel or resort I have ever stayed in previously.  It was awesome.  If you have the green (or the luck to find a unique situation as did we), I would argue that Cayo Espanto may be one of the best luxury options going today.  The resort is its own small coral caye island and arrival is by seven minute boat from San Pedro.  There are only 7 houses/rooms on the island and every whim you might have will be greeted with a smile.

Casa Estrella Cayo Espanto Resort

For our other three nights, we moved to Ramon’s Village in San Pedro itself.  It was also wonderful and a heck of a lot less than Cayo Espanto.  Rooms were more plentiful (71 of them) and the tiki theme of the resort might be a bit dated.  But, the scuba, snorkeling, fishing, tours available at the resort more than make up for a bit of dating (rooms are generally under $200 and I would vote for a seaside room and pay less than oceanfront room as there isn’t really much difference between these other than more privacy in the seaside rooms).  The dive pier is a 1 minute walk from the rooms and with the reef at about 2 minutes by boat, diving or snorkeling is beyond easy.  We dove 3 times per day and it was awesome.  The bar at Ramon’s is a hoot though I might vote on eating out rather than at the resort restaurant (which was fine but the food was toned down a bit to be somewhat too accessible).  Guests were a mix of US, Canada, and Europe (France, England, Germany were all represented).  Brazilians and other Latin American countries were also represented.