By Anne Jones
The cabanas of Tranquility Bay Resort
Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, so it’s no surprise that diving connoisseurs found this place long ago. But the country – like all inexpensive, tropical beauties – is becoming a fast spreading secret. You can spot the signs from an airport. The Belize City airport is relatively small and the food stand is a modest shop peddling empanadas and ice cream and a grungy bar. But next to the requisite duty free shop is an overpriced sundry shop with Rastafarian hats with attached dreadlocks and t-shirts stating “You Better Belize It.” Get ready for a McDonald’s invasion.
With the downward economic spiral, American tourists are looking for cheaper alternatives to their European vacations and honeymooners are foregoing Hawaii for less expensive alternatives. Central America has come to the rescue of our weak dollar. Mexico was once thought to be the only option. Acapulco laid the ground work in the 70′s with a cult celeb following, Cancun has since stamped itself the spring break hot spot, hosting week-long wet t-shirt contests and foam parties for underage students. On my last visit to I barely recognized the place. A Sam’s Wholesale Club now stands on the highway that was once a dirt road and there’s a Senor Frog’s on the corner of the main town square.
Street vendors cook up delicious, inexpensive meals
Belize is also experiencing a boost in tourism dollars and while it’s showing in road infrastructure and resort development, the area of San Pedro (which is known to be one of the more built-up areas) was nowhere near being invaded by Sam Walton’s crew. The town itself is fairly spread out and many people get around on fast-moving golf carts. Restaurants and bars are abundant, but some of the best food is found in the town square, where you’ll find Belize’s version of street vendors. Each evening they set up grills with tacos, hot dogs, burgers and cook it to order. This is where the locals eat and where you can get away with a superb meal for under $5. A bartender told me that the burgers had recently went up 25 percent. Fresh fruit stands are also set up along the roads and fresh fruit is chopped to eat.
On Wednesday night there is the infamous Chicken Drop. The town of San Pedro has become famous for this event. Squares numbered 1-100 are sold for one Belize dollar each. Once sold out, a lucky lady gives the chicken a gentle shake and a blow on the rear. After the crowd goes wild in hopes that their square will be shat upon and her spot has been chosen, the lucky winner of the $100 has the privilege of cleaning the drop. This beats a wet t-shirt contest any day of the week.
Tranquility Bay Resort in Ambergris Caye
We chose to rent a house while in town but after a few days, we moved to a remote resort that truly represented the natural beauty of the country. Tranquility Bay Resort in Ambergris Caye is a rather long boat ride away from the main area of town. They picked us up in a small fishing boat and when we arrived, we were greeted with a cool towel, a cocktail and a snack. The property has only 11 individual cabanas, each carefully reconstructed from the ground up by the property’s resident inn-keeper and trusty guardian, Pany. He is a Belizean and knows everyone on the island. Pany’s been a part of Tranquility Bay since the idea came to fruition. He tells me that when the owners approached him to build the place, he knew exactly where and how. The breathtaking over-water bar and restaurant (that serves the evenings fare fresh from the waters below) and the lodging are both constructed from Belize’s finest natural materials. Rooms feature lofts with heavenly beds, and since tranquility is key, televisions are non-existent. While most resorts in this country offer guests only docks to lounge over the sea grass, this resort has constructed a man-made beach that is pristine as the ocean that meets it. But it’s not hard to see that most guests and visitors to the country are here to dive. Tranquility Bay has even built a full service dive shop on the modest property and diving tours are done from day break to night fall. After a day or evening of that, your free to just relax and be, well…tranquil.