I traveled to Belize in October 2011 with a buddy on a dive trip and would like to offer a straight forward, no BS travel guide for your review and knowledge. I am writing this while actually here and will edit and post when my vacation is over, please pardon the length but my goal is to give you information that I wish I had but did not have before coming. I hope my efforts will teach a few things that will make your trip more pleasurable and hopefully will be entertaining reading.
First and foremost… Currency. The American Greenback is accepted everywhere, but they will give you change in local currency. At the time of this review the exchange rate is 2 for 1 so if something is $20 Belize, it is $10 US. It has been recommended before you leave, find some American tourists who have more time on the island and exchange as much Belizean currency for Greenback as you can before you leaving the country. When tipping a $5 US bill is a HUGE deal since the average person here makes $18 a day (Belize currency, $9 US) and you just tipped them $10 BZ for a few minutes of whatever service they provided… so bring a band of $5’s and you will be all set for any tipping that you do.
Travel… When you read other travel reviews from people that say “get out of Belize City as fast as you can and get to San Pedro”… PAY ATTENTION they know what they are talking about. My dive buddy and I didn’t heed that warning because we wanted to “see it all”. Belize City has rampant unemployment, horrible slums, boarded up buildings, massive crime and is in general a very dirty, unsavory place. The top ranked hotel in the city had huge pot holes in the parking lot, a metal detector as you entered the front door and we were the ONLY tourists in the only local casino and clubs. The worst economy hotel I have ever seen in the far superior to this place. We felt VERY unsafe and we walked from one “club” to the next while getting the hairy eyeball from the locals after being told “this is the safe part of town”, only to find no nightlife at all . When your international flight lands… clear customs and get on a Tropic Air plane and get to San Pedro as fast as you can. The difference between this island and the mainland is day and night… San Pedro is bustling with and warm and friendly faces and activity that goes on well into the morning hours.
…of course just like any of the islands I have visited, some of those warm friendly faces have ulterior motives as they have learned from years of experience how to “milk the tourist”. When I get home I am going to have to recheck my birth certificate because I think my name is really “Buddy”. If I had a US dime for every time I heard “hey buddy” while driving the cart or walking, my trip here would be free. Everyone wants to “show you how to get there” or has something to sell… local food, carved sea creatures, fish, lobster and a variety of adult recreational activities. Everyone claims to be able to “give you the best deal” and “best in San Pedro” but please BUYER BEWARE… set the price and see what you are getting BEFORE you give them money. Some new friends we have met here near the end of their week have been “had” a few times and gave us the wisdom before we had to learn it the hard way, like they did. If you ask for a “sample” of whatever you are trying to buy they will give you a sample out of one source and sell you something completely different, make sure your “sample” is from the same package you are buying because here “bait and switch” is the norm. When you hear someone calling out for you with “hey buddy” the best thing to do is to pretend you didn’t hear them because if you stop you are going to be delayed and propositioned for one thing or another. Since you are on vacation isn’t this the last thing you want to put up with? If you are going to buy something from a street vendor, ask them their price and then simply tell them up front what you are willing to pay for the item. When (not if) they balk… walk away. My friend purchased a hand carved wooden shark that the vendor started at $90 US, he said “I’ll give you $25 US”. Of course the guys first reaction was “I can’t do that” but after saying “Ok, well thanks anyway” and starting to walk, he took the $25 and now he has a really cool hand carved shark to remember his trip. Do it right and up to a 75% discount is yours just because you knew how to negotiate.
Transportation… when here the main mode of transportation is golf cart… yes, golf cart. Recommend Monchos Golf Cart right next to the air strip so very easy to get to once you have landed. If you are staying outside of town any regular golf cart will do but would pay extra to get a newer one that has not been beat up yet. The paved roads have large speed humps to keep the few cars that drive here (mostly taxi’s) at manageable speeds but a byproduct is that some vacationers will hit those humps at high speed when not paying attention in their golf cart (guilty as charged). Over time it takes its toll on the golf carts thus getting the newest one you can get will turn out to be beneficial. If you are able to find an actual Polaris ATV with independent rear suspension… regardless of the cost, would be worth every dime. You would think a golf cart would be economical but in our 7 days visit have spent $80 US in gas for the golf cart. When doing your vacation budget this is an important element that is often overlooked as gas is very expensive here. So the further from town you are, the more it will cost to keep running back and forth. The unpaved roads look like a cross between the Ford truck test track and the lunar surface of the moon. It is possible that after riding in a golf cart over these roads I made be able to hold my kidneys in one hand before getting on the plane. I have been told that the dirt roads north of town are far worse than the one we have to negotiate south of town. It was also mentioned by an Englishman that we met that the “roads are graded all the time” and that we were here just after they were graded and then it rained a lot which put them in the shape they are in. Another VERY important note is to bring bungee cords, rope or other methods of securing your luggage in the golf cart. We have heard several stories how tourists will drop a suitcase off the back of the golf cart on their way to the villa or hotel and not know it is gone until they get to their destination. Of course when they go back it is gone and will never see it again, this could be a very expensive mistake that can be avoided with an inexpensive bungee cord. Another mode of transport here is the Water Taxi, we took it once after we walked the 3 miles into town on the beach only to discover we didn’t have it in us to walk back in the heat. It was $20 US for a “private charter” 3 miles by boat, but depending on where you are and where you are going it is a viable option.
Navigation… There are three main roads in San Pedro, Beach Street, Middle Road and Lagoon Road. This is very complicated and hard to figure out for people new to the island. The secret is… the Beach Street is closest to the beach on the east, Middle Road runs down the middle and yep, you guessed it… Lagoon Road runs along the west side of the island along the lagoon. The real names of the streets have been changed to protect the innocent... and the fact the names are out of my pronunciation ability and even the locals call them what I did. The roads are not straight and have sharp turns often but the streets stay the same. I have not counted but the Beach Street going south has no less than a dozen 90 degree turns between town and our Casa so pay attention when you first arrive.
Lodging… My dive buddy and I took the deep plunge and stayed in a high cost, extremely nice Casa 2.5 miles south of town that was advertised as 1.5 miles from town. That extra mile is the hardest part of the trip and with any Real Estate it is location, location Advantages privacy, space, dock, and the ability to have guests overnight if you were so lucky to be able to do so. The dock is hugely important as the dive shop has picked us up at the end of our dock for every dive that we have done. I will go into more detail about dive shops and diving later. Even with a huge, fully stocked kitchen we have not yet cooked a meal here (could have something to do with the pancake mix mentioned later). The further you go out of town (north or south) the more privacy you get, but the longer it takes to get into town for anything. If I ever come back would lean more towards staying in town where walking to anything you would like to do is easily done. Another downside of being outside of town are the mosquitoes that come out of the Mangroves. They are nasty and had 6 of them on my leg at one time after bring outside near the Mangroves for less than 30 seconds. This is not a problem in town as there are no Mangroves and mosquitos do not travel very far from their origination. Another rethinking moment as to where to stay came after getting caught in one of Belize’s rain storms while driving the golf cart with no sides on it. When the rain is blowing horizontal and from the side with no protection, you are dryer after jumping into the pool. On the down side of staying in town, our new best friend and dive buddy Canadian Dave is not allowed to have overnight guests in his hotel/suite so if you might have the opportunity to have an overnight companion while here, check the rules of the hotel before you book.
Internet… Many of the hotels, suites and villas here advertise “free high speed internet”… hopefully you don’t have any large files to download. The best speeds I have encountered here are .58 download and .25 upload so the term “high speed” is subject to one’s own interpretation.
Food and water… I went to one of the local markets and purchased some food to make in the villa. One of the basics I purchased was a box of pancake mix. As I was pouring it into the bowl to start mixing it this morning I noticed a black speck in the mix… and then it starting moving. On closer inspection he was not the only one, a few hundred of his friends were in the box as well. We were also told not to “go to the markets with automatic doors as the prices are twice as much than the other markets”. Not sure how much more cooking I am going to attempt while here but will update this as the week progresses. The tap water is good and safe so no reason to fear as if you were going on a trip to Mexico. First and foremost…when in Rome, do as the Romans do. There are no McDonalds, Burger King or any other chain restaurants here but the island does offer a large variety of “fast food”. Residents will have stands where they will sell food such as tacos, burritos or red beans and rice. Every place we have stopped at has had awesome food at local prices. Being from the states sanitation was an initial concern of mine but have had no issues after eating at several of them. While I am on the food topic there are several restaurants that stand out as having very good food, they would be (not in any specific order) Hurricanes, Lilly’s, Elvi’s, Sunny’s Fast Food (Chinese) Banana Bay Resort Restaurant and The Road Kill Bar/Cafe. Another must stop are the local fruit vendors on the side of the street, I have been stopping at the very last stand on the extreme south end of town. The locally grown pineapple is the absolute sweetest I have ever had in my life and is reasonable at $2.50 Belize each…and she cuts it for you while you wait.
Dive operators… The management for the Casa we are staying in told us that we would get “deep discounts” if we used the dive shop they have partnered with. This will remain to be seen because as stated earlier, believe nothing you hear and only half what you see” on this island. My hunch is they get a commission for every customer that comes from them to the dive shop. We have compared prices of several dive shops and Amigos del Mar seems to be in line with the others AND they pick us up at the end of our dock and drop us back off after the dives. Another bonus is the dive shop rinses and stores our equipment for us so we don’t have 20 minutes of additional work when we get back to the dock. Every dive here is a boat dive so be prepared to pay the piper for diving. A local 2 tank dive is $75 and the Blue Hole excursion runs $250 (total of 3 dives) because it is so far off the coast (42 miles if memory serves correctly). Every Divemaster we have had has been professional, meticulous and extremely good at what they do. If I had to rate the diving here on a scale of 1 to 10 I would give it a solid 7. It is a few steps above my experience in Jamaica and a few rungs down from the diving in Bonaire. Another interesting note… for all of the diving here we can’t seem to find anyone with accessories. You would think that every dive operation would have a semi stocked store where items could be purchased but that is not the case. My buddy and I went to no less than 5 dive shops before we could find him an octopus clip for his BC.
Blue Hole… If you are going to San Pedro for diving the Blue Hole is a MUST do dive, and deserves its own section in this review. There are several important things you need to know before embarking on the journey. The Blue Hole is approximately 42 miles off the coast so the boat ride is in excess of 2 hours each way and includes a total of 3 dives at different locations. We did our trip with Amigos Del Mar since we had such good experiences with them all week and they did not disappoint. It’s starts very early as you have to be there by 6am, the cost is $250 US and you return about 5:30PM. They provide a continental breakfast on the boat which was perfect just before a deep dive. The dive is done extremely well, even for beginners who by basic open water certification should not go deeper than 60’. Each small group has 2 Divemasters so every diver is watched carefully and we felt very safe even though neither of us had ever been at that depth before. Total dive time with safety stops is about 30 minutes with actual bottom time being only about 10 minutes. The next dive on the trip is called Half Moon Cay since it is just off the coast of a bird sanctuary island also called Half Moon Cay which describes the shape of the island. They then feed you a very tasty hot lunch on the boat as you make your way to dock at the island. If so inclined you can take in the beauty of the island for an hour or so. BRING CASH because they don’t tell you that the dive trip is actually $210 and the “park fee” is $40 due on the boat. Half Moon Cay t-shirts are also sold by the government on the island and are very unique. The last dive of the trip is called Aquarium because of the abundant sea life just as you would see in an aquarium. This was by far the most impressive dive I have done while here and was an awesome finish to the day. Bring dry clothes for the trip home, sunscreen and a camera.
Beaches… you will see a copious amount of trash washing up on the beaches of San Pedro. My first thought was “don’t the locals have any more pride in their island than this?” As it turns out all of that trash comes from Honduras where the locals there throw their trash in the rivers which wash out into the ocean and currents carry it to San Pedro. A must do event on Thursday evening, the “Chicken Drop” where they have a grid on the beach with numbers which match the tickets for sale. If the chicken poops on your number, you win $100 Belize. In such a poor country this is their version of the lottery and is very popular with the locals. We were told to “buy your tickets early because they sell out quickly”. Because of the second largest barrier reef in the world off shore, no waves make it to the beach. All of the beaches are public even with a house on the beach so walk to your heart’s content there aren’t any “no trespassing” signs.
Night Life… there is something to do here every night of the week but from what we have been told the main “party nights” are Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The rational for this is actually pretty simple. Most tourists arrive on Sunday and dive every day until Friday when they chill out, party and prepare to go home on Sunday. So the last three days of their trip are spent throwing down and recuperating from diving.. so they can go home to recuperate from drinking. We are here during the slow season and either due to the warm weather in the states or the world economy in general by all accounts it is a much slower “slow season” than usual. From what I hear the place to be on Tuesday and Thursday nights is The Tackle Box, a bar on a pier that is owned by an American named Joe from Illinois. On Wednesday nights start off at the Road Kill Café & Bar owned by Matt (a Brit) and Robbie (a Scotsman), awesome guys and an incredible atmosphere. At 11pm get in your golf cart and amble up north to Wet Willies, another bar on a pier. Friday & Saturday nights it has been said that the places to be are Big Daddy’s and Jaguars (in sight of each other near the town park). Every night of the week, the big tourist hang out is called Fidos (pronounced Fee-Doo’s).
Women… If you are a male on a diving trip with the boys, a word of caution… Apparently many of the poorer local female residents are amateur “women for hire”. Some advice from an American living on the island now said “be careful as disease is widespread and they will steal from you in a New York minute”. They are also almost always sponsored or “owned” by someone who gets a percentage of what they make (or steal). It has also been suggested by some that in some clubs the manager is also paid a cut to let the working girls in to work the tourists so don’t be surprised if you are propositioned in a club. From our nights out on the town here in San Pedro (and have been early nights) it appears that during the slow season there aren’t very many single female tourists on the island. You learn very quickly here to take personal recommendations with a grain of salt, so with that said a couple of locals have told us about a place called “The Boathouse” on the Lagoon Road by the airport. From all accounts it is “high end professionals” that make you feel welcome, do their job and send you on your way with a hug. With no personal visit to the establishment I can’t say for sure but I would assume that “high end” is by San Pedro standards and not US standards. Another piece of information that was passed on is the going rate is approximately $100 US but have no idea what that includes or the time limit of the visit.
Other miscellaneous notes, random thoughts and useful information… More must bring items… bug spray and a flashlight. The bugs here are horrible and my ankles have at least 20 bites on each of them, and didn’t even feel myself getting bitten. If you smoke bring your own… if you don’t smoke, bring some anyway. Genuine American cigarettes are highly sought after and cannot be found anyplace I have looked on the island. We brought 3 bottles of liquor because it was said that alcohol is “very expensive” and would agree that if you want your own cocktails at your place, BYOB. If renting a Casa ask directions before you get here, we thought ours would be easy to find but it took us over an hour to find.
I hope this unfiltered guide was informative and will in some small way help you on your trip… I only wish I had known many of the things that took us half the week to figure out. Please leave comments as I would like to know if my labor of love was helpful to you on your trip.