“Ciao bella.” Not my most original pick-up line, but I figured my American accent would give me an edge on this off-the-cruise ship route island just off the coast from Mexican mega-resort, Cancun. Mesmerized by her long, curly black hair and the signs of hippie-ness (beaded and macramed necklace and bracelet, hairy underarms, and hoop earrings), I had stared at her lounging with two friends on the beach for an hour. I overheard them speaking Italian and considered this a good omen, since Italian is one of the three languages I mangle on my foreign trips.
She smiled and said, “Grazie” and I tapped my limited Italian vocabulary. “Come ti chiama?” Dusky eyes stared at me for a long 30 seconds and laughed, “Daniela. E tu?” And so began my first Belize adventure and a transcontinental, summer romance. The magic was on; me on the rebound from a devastating break-up and she a free spirit wandering through Central America on the ‘hippie trail.’ Although from different countries, culturally we matched; both members of a distinct cohort of that era; disappointed political and cultural radicals, or as she said, i frustrati (the frustrated ones).
Belize is a Central American country bordered by Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. As the only English-speaking country in the area, it attracts a lot of American expatriates due to pensioner attractive laws such as tax-exemption. To encourage development and avoid the occasional hurricane, the capital Belmopan was established in the interior in 1970, but the major city is Belize City. Once a ramshackle, dangerous, and tourist-free backwater, and now on the cruise ship circuit, Belize City offers a typical Caribbean port experience complete with horse-drawn carriages tours of sanitized tourist attractions.
Those with a more adventurous bent (or not as we’ll see) head for the outlying cayes or islands on the barrier reef a dozen miles off-shore, to Placencia Peninsula in the south, or to San Ignacio near the Guatemala border. Placencia had been on my short list to explore for years, so in 2015 when an ex-girlfriend said she needed a getaway, I suggested Belize (which I had first visited in 1979), which offered beach-chilling, caving, and Mayan ruins. I didn’t plan to visit Caye Caulker.
As we swooped down to the landing field/ pasture outside Placencia, in a six-seater prop plane with my 1970s soulmate Lynn (not her real name) and now fellow sixty-something retiree, my mind flashed back to that first trip to Belize over thirty years before and the jaw-dropping beautiful Italian girl on the beach. I had traveled to Mexico with a couple of guy friends, heart-broken from ten months of emotional roller-coaster break-up with the same woman sitting next to me on the prop plane.
Delia and I met on Isla Mujeres, Mexico a couple days before my flight home to my job as an inspector with the United States Immigration Service. We squeezed a lot of fun into those two days; discovered a secret, isolated beach and rolled in the pebbly sand (not like California sand, it is crushed coral), drank margaritas at the beach bar, and discussed the future of former radical youth like us. I fell in love. She and her two friends, another single woman and their older, male friend (who served as the two girls’ porter in exchange for the privilege of traveling with two attractive women) were leaving the same day as me, but they were headed overland to Belize.
Infatuated with Delia, I woke up at the hotel in Cancun and totally out of character, I cabled my job at LAX that I’d missed my flight and would return in one week. I raced down to surprise my new love arriving on the ferry from Isla Mujeres. She cried in surprise and joy.
I joined their trek and off we went to Belize. My rudimentary Italian provided less than first grade communication, but the language of love sufficed most of our week together. I served as the Caribbean-English interpreter in on the hippie trail to our destination—Caye Caulker. As young, ex-hippie/ radicals, we traveled on the cheap. When we couldn’t get a bus or taxi, we hitch-hiked. Imagine two young white women with their thumbs out, with two scrawny guys lurking with the backpacks in a culvert. But somehow we got to Orange Walk town and my first experience of Caribbean local-style accommodations—bare planks semi-separated ‘rooms’ where one bare bulb flickered off and on and the bathroom was an outhouse. After the sun sets, then the mosquito coils came out. I later learned that faint incense-like smoke was toxic.
In those days, Caye Caulker was the archetypal, untouched tropical island. The only way to get there was by hiring a motorboat, which dropped you at the wooden pier. Our party doubled the number of travelers on the island, and this was the summer season, With only three choices for accommodation in those days: four luxurious, new, and empty condos, and two rooming houses, neither of which had A/C or window screens. We got a couple rooms that faced the wooden pier with the outhouse perched at the end. A couple of local women served meals on order: You would place an order at noon for dinner. Every meal included some form of fresh lobster. Entertainment was limited in those days on Caye Caulker. We couldn’t even find a rum shop. In the evening, the locals walked around the square and ate ice cream. We enjoyed a few bliss-filled days, before the Italians continued to the next stop on the hippie trail—Tikal, Guatemala, and I returned to my job at LAX.
That old story was the farthest thing from my mind in 2015, as we embarked on this escape without itinerary or reservations, except the first hotel. I looked forward to seeing caves, ruins, and Placencia. An old-school overland travel adventure, like back in the old days. Caye Caulker was NOT on the itinerary. I know you can’t go home again.
We collected our bags, the two other passengers disappeared into the mangroves, I breathed deeply of the moist air and relaxed. She was a bit antsy and called the hotel, “Where is our ride?” A middle-aged guy with a four-day beard, a scruffy baseball cap, rolled up in a beat-up van. Out of the corner of his mouth with eyes barely open, he slurred a few words inviting us to get in. I figured the proprietor of the hotel hired a fellow American who was down on his luck. I was wrong. He was the owner of the place and that was his standard look and condition.
Placencia straddles a twenty-mile long lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. On the seaside, before you see it, you smell it—the stench of decomposing kelp or seaweed. The smell and the debris keep most people from sunbathing on the beach, but the gusty wind attracts avid kite-boarders and windsurfers.
A scruffy little town with a few hide-away resorts, Francis Ford Coppola owns the most up-scale hotel in town. A few restaurants, an outdoor beach bar, a couple juice bars, dive shops, general stores and banks comprise the business district. The tourist shops feature over-priced Mayan woven goods, which enticed Lynn with ‘fantastic’ deals. As the owner of a women’s wear boutique she was in heaven until a week later she discovered the same items at half the price in Mayan country.
Placencia reminded me of many tropical resorts around the world. Like many it has a scruffy business district with half-finished mini-centers and guesthouses coupled with a nearby marina with boat slips, boats, villas. Ninety percent empty, it waits for the tourist throngs. A few miles farther out of town several up-scale beach resorts wait provide five-star comfort for a few upscale visitors. Being an adventure traveler for over forty-five years, I go for comfort AND soul. Although I’ve moderated my style a bit, to me the higher the star rating, the more insulated from the local vibe and less appealing.
After a few days lounging around, we took a day tour to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, known as the only jaguar preserve in the world. Set in a virtually pristine forest we hiked a while and rode inner-tubes on the meandering stream. Strangely, no one, not even our guide, has ever seen a live jaguar in that park, so they have a life-sized plaster replica in a cage.
It reminded me of a tour in Namibia, when we hiked on a couple miles into a rocky canyon, to see an ancient petroglyph, among the oldest in the world we were told—maybe 3000 years old. Outside, unprotected, easily touched, well-preserved drawings of cattle and people glistened with paint that couldn’t have been over ten years old. But the guide shook his head several times, “No sir, this is the original paint.” Tourists are known to be gullible. After all, we all have a confirmation bias according to research psychologists. Most people tend to see what they’re looking for, but in Belize no jaguars.
Fully rested after a week in Placencia, we hit the road to adventure. We planned to travel to San Ignacio, a town near the Guatemalan border, and check the myriad caves in the vicinity and the Tikal ruins. To really see a place overland travel is critical, and even better on local transport. En route to San Ignacio we took a ferry across the lagoon to the mainland, a taxi ride to the bus stop, and public buses. On the bus we saw ‘real’ people doing their life, from the police chief in full uniform to the white German-speaking Mennonites with long beards and hats to the indigenous Mayans in traditional dress.
On that first trip with Delia and her friends, the two-lane, often unpaved ‘highway’ impressed me with the re-purposed American school buses as the primary transport. This time I expected the bus would be like overland transport in every other country I’ve visited in the last ten years from Mexico to South Africa to Turkey, their version of a modern Greyhound. Not in Belize, the Bluebird converted school buses still prevail in Belize. How could that be in a country where a two-star hotel room runs $125? I later learned that a certain family has the monopoly and has no motivation to upgrade—take it or leave it.
Heading north from the low-key tourist zone of Placencia, fields of mango, corn, and sorghum are interspersed with faded bus terminals, mini-marts, rum shops, and the ubiquitous rebar poking out of half-finished houses. At Dangriga, we jumped off to go the restroom. When we returned, the bus had left with our bags on board. We asked the station’s various fruit vendors and lotto sellers, ‘Where’d they go?’ Jumping in a cab we caught up with them ten miles ahead.
San Ignacio borders Guatemala and functions as the Belizean gateway to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. A calm and prosperous city of 20,000, nearby charms include numerous cave systems and the Mennonite town of Spanish Lookout. We took pleasant day trips to the ruins and the caves with our amiable Rastaman guide, David. Satisfied with traditional tourist excursions, Lynn wanted to rest at a beach, the Barrier Reef and Caye Caulker beckoned. A two hour bus ride to Belize City followed by a one hour ferry ride across the channel, and I was back in my 1970s paradise.
But paradise no more, Caye Caulker is now like the old prostitute that still wears hi-heels, short skirts, red lipstick, but isn’t even a shadow of her former self. The difference being, Caye Caulker prospers financially, but its ‘hippie trail’ days are long-gone. A big sign at the police station at the ferry quay announces severe penalties for possessing cannabis. Stepping out to the sandy street in front, a guy brusquely offered to sell me some herb. I was not surprised. Bars line the sandy main street, dozens of restaurant hawk their happy hour specials and touts pitch for boat trips to outer cayes and the divers’ mecca the Blue Hole. Across from our hotel, a Starbucks pimped its tropical frozen coffee drinks.
Determined to see if there was any remnant of the old Caulker, we rented bikes one day and rode around the island. Except for the airfield, mangrove swamps and residential neighborhoods cover almost everything not in service to tourists. On the leeward side, fishing boats, no longer efficient for catching lobster, decay on the sand. At the point at one end of the island, a beach bar provides the obligatory cheap rum drinks and people watching.
My 21st century trip to Belize seemed destined to close that circle opened almost forty years before. Like young adult visions of like becoming the president or selling a million records, a dream unexplored lingers to haunt us until it is acknowledged and resolved. For me, the tropical idyll of the old Caye Caulker, was one of my fantasies—A place at the end of the world, where love prevailed.
Caye Caulker has its merits, but it isn’t what it once was. Not even a shadow remains, that’s not just my fantasy, but what made it special is gone. Few places even honor their simpler past, much less preserve its’ soul. At least Waikiki has a statue to Duke Kahanamoku next to the luxury shops; Caye Caulker doesn’t even have lobster on the menu. To paraphrase Bogart in Casablanca, ‘I’ll always have Isla Mujeres.’ That’s one island, I am NOT returning to.