Ambergris Caye, Belize
As we walked along the narrow strip of sandy beach, we passed simple homes and exclusive resorts. Some of these were beautifully maintained and inviting, others were overrun with brush and foliage, the jungle taking over what had once seen better days. The beach itself was choked with seaweed. Workers were tirelessly trying to keep it cleaned up in most places but, other areas had just been given up.
The Palapa Bar & Grill
Our destination was a grass roofed palapa at the end of a pier known as The Palapa Bar & Grill. We had passed this several times on the water taxi but no one on board ever requested a stop there.
Lonely Planet calls the Palapa, “The #1 Bar in Ambergris Caye.” Many visitors have called the Palapa, “Their Favorite Bar in the World.” It is easy to see why! With an extensive list of exotic drinks and a menu brimming with fresh seafood, BBQ pulled pork, chicken ,and burgers; there is something for everyone! We had the fish tacos and shrimp burritos.
Guests can sip on a bucket of ice cold Belikin beers as they float the warm Caribbean Sea on the tubes beneath the bar. Or, just sit in the bar and enjoy your own Caribbean concoction in the ocean breeze and marvel at the memorabilia covering the walls and ceiling in the Palapa.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
In July of 2015, our search for an overseas retirement location took us to Ambergris Caye in Belize. Here we found The Palapa, learned about sargassum seaweed, the Blue Hole, and the excitement of the Chicken Drop. But, more on those in a bit.
Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”) is the northernmost island of the string of Cays in the Caribbean off the coast of Belize. Other islands are Cangrejo Caye, Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel, Long Caye, Hicks Cays, Half Moon Caye, the Drowned Cays, and Turneffe Atoll.
Interestingly, Ambergris is not actually an island but the southern tip of a peninsula off the Mexican state of Quintana Roo located on the Yucatan peninsula. It is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) long and 1.6 km (1 mile) wide and is part of Belize.
We began our visit by flying into BZE, the Belize City airport on the mainland. From there we took a taxi to the port and boarded the ferry (www.belizewatertaxi.com) to San Pedro, the largest (pop. 13-14K) and only city on Ambergris Caye.
Travelers can fly into San Pedro from BZE but we decided the ferry, which was cheaper, would be a better adventure. It also drops off and picks up at Caye Caulker.
Captain Morgan’s Retreat
We had booked a timeshare condo at Captain Morgan’s Retreat about 3.5 miles up the coast from San Pedro. The Coastal Express Water Taxi delivered us and our luggage directly to Captain Morgan’s dock. We used the water taxi to get to and from San Pedro each day.
Captain Morgan’s is an older beachfront resort condo. It consists of several thatch roofed beach cabanas and three 4-story condo buildings housing one to three bedroom villas and condos. We were on the top floor in a one bedroom villa. All the buildings are a thatched roof palapa style. We toured one of the condo units that was for sale, much nicer than our villa!
The retreat had a hot tub and two pools, each with its own bar. However, only the bar at the main, smaller, pool near the office was open regularly. The restaurant is located here as well. The food was great but expensive. The exchange rate for Belize dollars to US is 2 to 1. We initially assumed the menu showed Belize dollars but no, it was US dollars, so prices were twice what we expected.
There is also a small casino on site, one of only two casinos on the Caye. It consists of a single room housing a couple dozen older slot machines and poker/blackjack machines. Not much for excitement but we made a small contribution to the establishment.
For our stay, it seemed we had adopted a pet. Although we were four floors up, there was a rather large iguana living somewhere around our balcony area. It stayed outside and would not let us get too close. He just sat and watched us as we sat and watched him. He did take some fruit we left out for him when we were not watching.
So, what about that seaweed clogging up the beaches? Sargassum is a free floating seaweed usually found in an area of the Atlantic ocean known as the Sargasso Sea. But, during our visit, the Sargasso Sea had come ashore! Every beach was choked with the foul smelling brown-
green stuff. The city and the resorts had trucks and workers constantly raking up the stuff and hauling it away. It was a futile battle against the sea as more rolled in as fast as it could be cleaned up. This made for an unpleasant beach experience to say the least. In addition to the seaweed, we found the beaches in the town of San Pedro to be littered with broken glass, cans, and bottle caps.
Now, two years later, it is reported the tide carries in far less of the stuff making the beaches a bit more inviting, at least at the resorts. I expect the litter in town has not changed.
The narrow streets in town are lined with restaurants, bars, store fronts, and real estate offices. The main modes of transportation are bicycle, golf cart and ATVs, which are parked on both sides of the streets and clogging the road. We noted that when locations like this are shown on the house hunting and travel shows on TV, the streets have been cleared of traffic. I guess it sells better that way.
If you want to rent a golf cart to get around; we did for one day; the best price we found was from Cholo’s Sports Bar. This is a bar in front with cart rentals in the back. Note that they place a limit on how far north you can take the carts. Fortunately, our villa was within this limit, handy for hauling groceries for the week.
What is there to eat?
The grocery stores are small and sparsely stocked with a mix of US and Mexican brands. The prices seemed high. The food to be found in town is very good and more reasonably priced than at the Retreat. Mostly seafood, pork, and chicken but other entrees can be found.
Our favorite was probably the lobster burrito at Waruguma Restaurant. It was huge, stuffed with lobster chunks and the sauce ladled over the top was full of more lobster and, yes, that is whole lobster tail on top!
The biggest problem with the restaurants in town was the flies. These are all open air kitchens and dining spaces. The flies are attracted to the tantalizing aromas just as we are. Bottles of soda and beers are served with a napkin tightly wrapped around the top to keep the flies out.
The bars range from holes in wall serving Belikin Beer (the stout is actually quite good) to full bars mixing up the exotic colorful boat drinks. For beers, you can also find Red Stripe from Jamaica, Carib from Trinidad, as well as Heineken and Guinness, both brewed under contract by brewers in the Caribbean. Belikin also brews Lighthouse, a light lager and some special seasonal beers.
The Chicken Drop
And speaking of bars…this brings us to the Chicken Drop…every Thursday night at 7PM at Wahoo’s Lounge, right in the center of San Pedro. This is the most popular and biggest regularly scheduled attraction in Ambergris Caye. It is also probably the strangest!
This is sort of like bingo…sort of…but not really. Tickets are $1 BZD (50¢ USD) and the winner receives $100 BZD. They play five rounds and you need new tickets for each round.
This is played on a board about 8’ x 8’ with numbered squares 1-100. The tickets correspond to the numbers. The game begins with the dreadlocked Master of Ceremonies calling, “Chicken Security, bring me my chicken!” With much fanfare and crowd hootin’ & hollerin’, security personnel bring out a live chicken.
A volunteer is chosen from the crowd and is given the chicken and instructed to gently shake the bird forward and back, side to side, and in a circular motion. They are then told to blow on the chicken’s rear end and gently drop it on the game board. Thus the game is on…to the tune of some loud Reggae music.
The chicken wanders about the board enticed by the crowd to go to the numbers on their tickets. Scraps of food are tossed out on the board to draw the chicken. Now, this chicken has been thoroughly fed prior to the game, so is likely not hungry at this point. The point is for the chicken to drop, yes, poop on your lucky number.
Occasionally, the chicken just isn’t feeling it and doesn’t do its duty. If so, a substitute chicken is brought in to continue the game. I wondered how many chickens they had out back of Wahoo’s. Rest assured, no chickens are harmed in the playing of this game. I can’t vouch for what happens when it is their turn in the kitchen…
Well, we didn’t win the drop, but watching the chickens and the crowd was worth it. The drinks and tacos were good too!
What else is there to do?
Aside from this sporting event, the biggest tourist activities in Belize are deep sea fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Divers are drawn here by the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the western hemisphere, and the Blue Hole, a massive almost perfectly round undersea cavern. All areas are teaming with an endless variety of marine life.
So, what did we decide about San Pedro and Ambergris Caye as a retirement home? On the plus side, it is an English speaking country, the people are friendly and the food is great. Medical care is cheap and there is a 24 hour clinic on the Caye, although there is no hospital. Nearest hospital is in Belize City on the mainland.
But, on the negative, the condition of the beaches was definitely a put-off. The crowded streets and swarms of flies also were a no-go. The selection for shopping is very limited and can be expensive.
We enjoyed our visit but, it was not what we expected. We will pass on Ambergris Caye as our expat home. Unless, could I possibly live at the Palapa Bar & Grill…?