Sun and sea in Belize’s Ambergris Caye—enjoying the aquatic fun and nightlife.

illustration by Danyel Fogarty

illustration by Danyel Fogarty

The adventure began as our six-seater Cessna approached the runway in San Pedro, Belize. Looking out the creaky plane’s window, I prayed for a successful touchdown. As the runway grew closer, there were many sights to take in. Dirt roads threaded their way through beat-up homes teetering on rickety stilts. Most of my attention was focused on the end of the runway, which gave way to a mangrove swamp.

As the sun started to set over the airstrip it dawned on me: there were no runway lights. No stoplights. No paved roads. No duty-free shops. Only a few cars. The cayes of Belize are best described by what they’re not. Or not quite. Stepping onto Belizean soil, I knew it was love at first sight. I am a simple girl who loves simple things, and that is exactly what Belize has to offer.

As my mom, brother and I walked across the tarmac, I was overwhelmed by the smells and beauty of Belize. The pungent aroma was musty and tropical, like nothing I’d ever smelled before. Local residents welcomed us with enthusiasm and hospitality to Belize’s Ambergris Caye (pronounced Am-BUR-grease Key), a 25-mile-long, two-mile-wide tropical island covered in sand, with coconut and mangrove trees swaying in cool trade wind breezes. Golf carts, bicycles and walking are the main modes of transportation on the sand-covered streets of tiny San Pedro, the island’s only town.

We hopped into one of the island’s few taxis and toured the tiny caye en route to our hotel. In broken English, our driver informed us that, until 1981, Belize was under European control. Before then, Belize was called British Honduras.

We settled into our room at the Blue Tang Inn, a 14-unit inn two blocks north of downtown San Pedro. From our front porch we had a spectacular view of the clear, shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea just off the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

San Pedro’s homes are a mix of Mexican, Caribbean and English colonial architecture. Many of the small hotels and guesthouses occupy wooden colonial buildings. No building is higher than three stories by law. Gift shops, boutiques, bars, cafes, and restaurants line Pescador and Barrier Reef Drives, San Pedro’s two main streets. The local residents call themselves Sanpedranos and speak English, Spanish, Creole and Maya, often all at the same time. The result is an island dialect all their own, even though the official language of Belize is English. While San Pedro may be quite Mexican in flavor, one cannot truly associate Ambergris with Mexico, even though the caye is separated from the Yucatan by only a slip of nature’s knife.

In the morning, as a beautiful orange sun rose over the water, we stopped for pastries in a neighborhood bakery, La Panaderia. We noticed, from the front porch, we could see the ocean on both sides of us—the east and the west—a breathtaking sight.

Later, although a huge storm was brewing, we toured a mangrove swamp on rented SeaDoos. The woman who rented them to us called us masochists for going in the water in that kind of weather, but we did it anyway. I rode with a tour guide named Esteban. My mom and brother followed behind. Esteban gave us a brief history of the cayes and took us around one of the cayes where Fox television’s reality series “Temptation Island” was filmed.

After touring the island, we decided that we couldn’t leave San Pedro without seeing its Barrier Reef, which is the second largest reef in the world. The reef lies one-half mile east of the Ambergris Caye shoreline and runs the entire 25-mile length of the island. We went out with Esteban again, who took us to Shark Ray Alley and Hol Chan. Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are approximately four miles south of San Pedro. Hol Chan is a break in the reef that has some amazing marine life, including yellow stingrays, blue tangs, porcupine fish and seahorses, along with exotic corals, sponges, and sea fans. Just off of Hol Chan is Shark Ray Alley, where we saw at least 40 nurse sharks. Esteban actually caught a nurse shark and turned it over, which made it docile.

The night before we left there was a slight haze over the crescent moon as it sat low in the southwestern sky. Life was quietly going on in San Pedro, and I was sad to be leaving the next day, but we were scheduled to visit the mainland for some jungle fun. We hopped on another Cessna for a 15-minute ride to Belize’s main airport in Belize City, which is a whole other story.