As I stepped off the plane in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize, I knew that this is the sort of island that Tom Hanks wished he was stranded on. Life in this lush, tropical paradise moves at a slower pace. In place of automobiles, there are golf carts. Jungles of concrete are replaced by coconut trees, and instead of smog-filled skies, your view is of the emerald-green Caribbean Sea and multi-hued crimson sunsets.
Unfortunately, this relatively small country is still a mystery to many Americans who don’t know much about it. With a population of 300,000, Belize is nestled in Central America between Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. It is easily accessible from many cities in the U.S. and just a short flight from Miami or Houston.
After arriving at Belize International Airport in Belize City, I hopped aboard a short puddle jumper flight via Tropic Air en route to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. The flight was quite spectacular with vistas of turquoise-green water, numerous small islands and coral reefs. I couldn’t wait to check in to my room and explore the island.
Accommodations on Ambergris range from modest to luxurious with many overlooking the sparkling Caribbean Sea. My pink cottage at Ramon’s Village Resort was clean, cool, and quite comfortable.
Each morning I had breakfast at their beachside restaurant starting with fresh watermelon juice and then trying some local specialties such as rice and beans, fried plantains, and fry jacks — sort of like a Mexican sopaipilla without any sugar added.
With the second longest barrier reef in Central America, Belize has done an admirable job of conserving these natural wonders. In fact, this is one of nature’s best shows and not to be missed.
Our guides at Seaduced by Belize took us to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley where we could witness close up what I would call controlled underwater madness. Schools of small anchovies were everywhere, parting to let me glide by and revealing coral reefs and multi-hued fish with all the colors of the rainbow, including brilliant yellow, hot pink and luminescent green.
The main event, however, was the sting rays and nurse sharks that are docile and used to human contact. Guides hold them and allow visitors to pet their skin — an experience that most never forget.
Upon my return, I rented a golf cart and headed north along the coast, ending up at the Palapa Bar and Grill. While enjoying a cool drink out over the reef, I met Scott, a retired Florida firefighter who chucked the city life in favor of living his dream. “My son turned 18 and I handed him the keys to my pickup truck. I told him I bought a bar in Belize and he was now on his own.” Such is the lure of the island as it works its magic on your soul.
On the way back to my room, I stopped by a little frozen custard shop called DandE’s. “What makes your custard different?” I asked Eileen, the owner. “Taste it,” she said, offering me a sample. If there is such as thing as being hooked on frozen custard, then I am guilty as charged. Chocolate, coconut and mango sorbet are all on my must have list and I am already plotting how to get back for another fix.
As it turns out, both Eileen and her husband Dan are expats from the states, and when they initially moved here, they bought the local newspaper and ran it for six years. After Dan could not find a chocolate malt he liked, they both decided to rectify that problem forever and opened their own shop.
If your ideal vacation is to visit a place with friendly smiles, where English is the official language, where your dollars go farther, and where nature is on display with tropical breezes and beautiful sunsets, then Ambergris Caye, Belize is your logical choice. Come and see if it will work its magic on you.
A version of this story was originally published on iseeigo.