I had long ago heard about the great barrier reef in Belize, and although I am not a scuba diver nor snorkeler, I couldn’t pass up a one-week time-share trade on the beach in San Pedro. For the cost of the trade and airfare, I got to spend 7 nights in a spacious bungalow on the beach with a rack rate of 225 US dollars per night. Moreover the dates, December 29 to January 5, meant that I might be less bored than usual on New Year’s Eve.
I did have second thoughts after booking the trade when I discovered the outrageous airfares from Mexico City, the closest airport to my home in Cuernavaca. All the flights from Mexico City go via the U.S. or Central America, and economy fare quotes were over 800 dollars to Belize City, plus another 125 dollars for a small plane to San Pedro. But I remembered that there was access to Belize from the border city of Chetumal Mexico and I found a great fare with Interjet for 317 dollars round trip. A web search turned up a water taxi from Chetumal to San Pedro claiming a 90 minute voyage for 75 dollars round trip, which I booked on line at http://www.sanpedrowatertaxi.com/index.html.
After getting settled, I walked a little over a mile into the town center reading beach-front restaurant menus and checking out the town, returning with a few bags of groceries. Alas, it was so hot and muggy my shirt was soaked and sticking to my body, discouraging any thought of taking excursions to some of the Mayan ruins. But then I have led tour groups on multiple occasions to more than a dozen much better-known Mayan ruins. The climate discouraged any daytime activities other than the beach. The next disappointment was the pool which was too shallow for water aerobics, and the resort has no gym. While there are gyms in town, I decided I could take a rest from my usual daily workouts.
Now for the good news. The local people are delightfully friendly, cheerful, and anxious to please. Having been a former colony, British Honduras, the population speaks fluent English and all but a few are bilingual in Spanish. I only met a few staff members who had no Spanish, and a few immigrants from Guatemala who had little English. Overwhelmingly they could switch back and forth between the two languages with ease. And I loved the racial diversity with a preponderance of blacks, a sizable Hispanic group, and many comely mixed bloods. Unlike Cartagena, San Pedro does not appear to be a sexual-tourism destination, so the Secret Service could probably avoid a scandal there. For those seeking night life, there are many choices including discoteques and sports bars, but an internet article indicated there is nothing for GLBT travelers.
I had a list of excellent restaurants from Trip Advisor and the New York Times, but ended up going only to those I could walk to of which there were several near the hotel. I found the restaurants more expensive than those of comparable quality in Mexico, with the exception of lobster which is always pricey in Mexico. Two lobster tails of about 7 ounces each cost 70 Belize dollars, or $35 U.S. I especially liked Pineapple’s in Ramon’s Resort. My starter of coconut-battered shrimp was a huge platter of 7 jumbo shrimp with a lemony dipping sauce, followed by two lobster tails one night, and two lobster tails thermidor another night.
Most of the locals drive golf carts or ride bicycles. The cab driver told me that golf cart rentals are very expensive, 70 U.S. a day, but I did not verify that. There are few cars and most of those are taxis charging between five and ten dollars U.S. depending on the distance. With taxi prices that reasonable you’d have to use more than half a dozen a day to make a cart rental pay off. Some restaurants on beaches out of the town center advertise that they will send a boat to pick you up and locals highly recommended Portofino.
The reputation of San Pedro is that it is a paradise for diving and snorkeling, and that may well be. Every resort along the beach seemed to have boats and oxygen tanks with signs luring aficionados. Sorry I can’t report on the main activity on the island, but it’s just not my cup of tea. In keeping with that theme, many of the streets are just packed sand and the locals are mostly barefoot even in grocery stores and bars. Dressing up means changing into sandals or flip-flops. And the foreign visitors get into that mood quickly. I think I was the only tourist in long pants in Fido’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Almost all the guys were in shorts and tee-shirts, and flip flops were the main footware except for a few in tennis or boat shoes. Some of the foreign women did dress up in stunning outfits, but other nights they reverted to shorts. It gives the island the appearance of having an unsophisticated hippie culture, apparently what foreign residents and repeat visitors like. Arms and legs decorated with tattoos were very common for both locals and tourists.
Overall I enjoyed a quiet restful week but would not likely return to San Pedro. I prefer the more developed and sophisticated Mayan Riviera of Mexico which is also much more easily accessible. My return to Mexico from San Pedro was a nightmare. The water taxi left an hour and twenty minutes late and the inefficiency and confusion with luggage and boarding were stressful. I had booked my return flight calculating the 8:00 AM departure would get me to Chetumal by 9:30 for my 11:20 flight to Mexico City. But local staff told me they never depart on time and I would get into Chetumal closer to 10:30. With the port just ten minutes from the airport, I could still make my flight if the crew cooperated with my luggage and I raced through immigration quickly, which I was able to do. Alas, the boat arrived at 10:50 and my flight boarding stopped at 10:55. I arrived at the airport to find the plane still on the tarmac but boarding closed. Worse still, there was no room on the evening flights with either Interjet or AeroMexico, and all flights sold out for two days since Mexican vacationers were returning to the capital at the end of their holiday vacations.
So anyone interested in using the San Pedro Water Taxi between Chetumal and San Pedro needs to be aware of the inconvenient and inefficient service, and especially that they are unlikely to be able to make any morning flights out of Chetumal. The unattractive choices are either to come into Chetumal the night before the flight, or arrive at 10:30 AM or later and sit in the tiny Chetumal airport for 8 or 9 hours for the 8 PM flights. Of course that could all be avoided if the water taxi operated on time, a possibility as likely as the Pope dating Madonna.
The convoluted ending of the story: I bargained with a cab driver for an expensive four-hour drive to Cancun where I knew at least a half dozen airlines had multiple flights to Mexico City. Alas they too were all sold out for a few days due to the holiday rush except for a few seats that night on a red-eye. After sitting in the Cancun airport for ten hours, I boarded a 1:50 AM flight with no leg room for anyone taller than five feet, arriving in Mexico City at 4:00 AM only to wait aboad another half hour because the workers hadn’t arrived to place the jetway. I had to be grateful to get back home that day or I’d have petitioned Amnesty International to condemn that flight as a violation of human rights. A driver/friend I had phoned awaited my arrival and I was at home in Cuernavaca at 6:00 AM, 23 hours after leaving the hotel in San Pedro. Obviously the nightmare return took any glow off a relaxing week on the beach, but I learned to hold my travel in Mexico until after the holiday vacationers have all returned.
Do I recommend a San Pedro vacation? Yes if you are a water sports aficionado and can find a convenient airfare at a decent price. Unlike Mexico, there are numerous non-stop flights to Belize City from U.S. hubs. For Mexicans, the only reasonable route is via Chetumal, hence my warning on the perils of the water taxi. There are so many choices and travel packages to the equally beautiful Mexican Riviera that one should weigh the trade-offs carefully before booking Belize.