Caye Caulker sunset

Belize, I Like You, But…

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After a quick side trip to Tikal, we returned to Belize and headed for the coast. What it lacked in jungles and ruins, it seemed to more make up for in beaches, and that was just fine by me. Plus, with distances being so short, we figured it was relatively easy to get from one place to another without taking all day to do so.

Apparently, we figured wrong. The 200km trip from San Ignacio to Placencia ended up taking over nine hours, involving three buses, a long and miserable wait and a kind-hearted water taxi driver who saved the day.

I’ll admit that wasn’t quite how I’d imagined things would go when I’d woken up that morning… but on the upside, there were fewer dead bodies this time around.

Bus rides in Belize aren’t renowned for their comfort or speed, but the trip to Belmopan was about as good as it ever got. Clattering into the bus station late morning, though, I was struck by the number of people crowded inside the terminal. It was a Saturday, and it seemed as if everyone in Belize had decided they needed to be somewhere else that day. With buses running south only once an hour, it seemed as if we could be in for a long wait.

We were. Four and a half hours, in fact, as buses pulled up, offloaded half a dozen passengers and departed again with the few lucky souls who had managed to fight their way to the front of the line.

We finally made it onto the third bus to arrive, only to be kicked off again because police just up the road had decided to clamp down on standing passengers. It hadn’t been a problem on any other trip, but now it was, and we were unceremoniously pushed back inside the terminal once again to sweatily wait another hour.

This hadn’t been a great travel day, and it wasn’t about to get any better.

Placencia bus

To get from Belmopan to Placencia required another change of buses, this time in Dangriga. From there, occasional buses ran down a peninsula and direct to the town, while others stopped in Independence and required a short water taxi ride across the lagoon. We’d already missed the last direct bus, and the water taxis ended with the daylight.  The final scheduled service left at 6pm. We eventually rolled into town at 6:15.

A nearby taxi driver suggested we’d be able to pay a fisherman to take us across, so we piled into his dilapidated Toyota and bumped our way down to the docks. The skipper of the water taxi driver was sitting down chatting to his friends, but when I apologetically interrupted to ask whether he knew someone that could help, the reply was quick and unexpected.

“I can take you”.

As it turned out, he had to return to Placencia to pick up a few local workers, and had no problem with us tagging along for the ride. We’d struck our first piece of good luck for the day, and ten minutes later we were walking up the sandy main street towards our guesthouse.

Tomorrow really had to be a better day.

The next day was indeed much better, and our struggle to get to Placencia turned out to be worth the effort. It was my favourite spot in Belize, all white sand beaches and laid-back vibe. As with everywhere else in the country neither food nor accommodation were cheap, but I didn’t mind quite as much when our room was a few feet from the ocean and my office looked like this.

Dave on laptop in Placencia

When I wasn’t working on my laptop I was working on my tan, and our four nights in Placencia quickly fell into a routine. Try to find somewhere affordable for breakfast, lie on the beach, try to find somewhere affordable for lunch, lie on the beach, try to find somewhere affordable for dinner.

You might be sensing a theme here.

Still, despite the costs, I was sad to leave Placencia – particularly because the only direct bus option to get to Caye Caulker left at the unpleasant hour of 6.15am. At least it went straight to Belize City, mind you… if I never saw the inside of Belmopan station again, it would be too soon.

We’d allowed ourselves five nights on the caye, mainly because it was our final stop in Central America for a while. While we’d heard that it had barely any beaches, friends had raved about the chilled-out bars and fun atmosphere, and we were looking forward to a bit of laid-back island life.

Caye Caulker, Front Street

I wanted to love Caye Caulker, I really did… but for some reason I just didn’t get the appeal. In the absence of beaches, everyone seemed to congregate at ‘the Split’, a gap between the two parts of the island that’s about the only good swimming spot. I’m not sure exactly what I expected as I walked down there – but it wasn’t a hundred backpackers lounging around on broken walls and a concrete slab while thundering dance music boomed from the nearby bar.

I laid my towel down on the gritty surface, drank a watery fruit cocktail and hung around trying to read a book for an hour, before wandering back home and wondering what all the fuss was about. To be fair, things did improve as I walked around the back section of the island in the evening – if you want a peaceful spot to enjoy the sunset, that’s the place to do it.

In a country that was already expensive, island prices were even higher. Caye Caulker has long been known as one of the more budget-friendly places in Belize, but we still struggled to find a double room under $50 USD/night there. There were a couple of decent food options for around ten US dollars (a good pizza joint just beside our little hotel, and Fran’s seafood bbq on the front road), but alcohol was pricey, and overall there was nothing you couldn’t find in many other parts of the world for a lot less.

Caye Caulker pier

I think that was my problem with Belize in general, really. It was undoubtedly a beautiful country, with dense jungles and well-preserved ruins, some great beaches and, in the main, friendly and helpful locals. The language, culture and food are different to its neighbours, which is always something that interests me. But… and it’s a big but… it’s a difficult place to be a budget traveller.

I understand that Belize is a small nation, with little economy of scale and a need to import much of what it consumes. When basic infrastructure like roads, buses and internet is so limited, though, it’s hard to get excited about paying as much for a room as I would in central Europe or the touristy parts of Mexico, and more for food than I would in the US.

Wherever I travel, there’s a basic value for money equation that subconsciously runs through my head. “Is this place worth it for me?. Am I getting good value for the money I’m spending?”. Sometimes I’ll be dropping $100 a day and saying “yes, definitely”, other times I’ll be spending a quarter of that and thinking “no, not at all.”

Unfortunately, for me at least, Belize fell into the latter category. I liked it, but I just couldn’t love it. I know I’ll return to Mexico and Guatemala, and plan to travel extensively through the rest of Central and South America in coming years. When it comes to Belize, however? Sadly, it’s not somewhere I feel much of a draw to return to any time soon.

You can’t win them all, I guess.

Where I Stayed

In Placencia we stayed in a “seaside room” at the SeaSpray Hotel, and liked it. The room was (just) big enough for two of us, with hot water, fan and refrigerator, and only a short stumble to the beach. The restaurant served up decent meals at similar prices to most others around town, and the manager was knowledgeable and helpful. We paid $46/night, which was fairly typical for Placencia – it was worth getting a room closer to the ocean to catch the ever-present breeze.

On Caye Caulker we stayed at Axios Condos. Our room was spacious, with a small dining area and kitchen separate to the bedroom, hot water and a/c, and we were more than happy with it. We paid a little over $50/night.

Have you been to Belize? What did you think of it? Do you agree with my assessment of budget travel in the country, or think I couldn’t be more wrong? Let me know!

Bus image via WHardcastle

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  1. The Belmopan bus station is my idea of hell. I JUST posted last week how it made me feel murderous…and I only missed one bus. Someone may have lost his life if I was in your situation. It must be avoided like the PLAGUE. DESPISE!

    1. It really wasn’t somewhere I’d have chosen to spend 4.5 hours of my life. The jail-like cage that holds back passengers until the bus arrives was a particularly nice touch, I thought.

  2. Hi, we (family of 4) were in Belize in April for 2 weeks after travelling Mexico and central America for 5 months. We avoided it at first because all reports suggested expensive but we had to come back that way so we gave it a go and really enjoyed it. We started at the bottom in Punta gorda which was nothing special but found cheap accommodation afod and cf ngle and cave trips. Next was Hopkins which we loved. Found a big beach cabin for 20 dollars a night and the restaurants were good quality and comparable to Mexico and Nicaragua in price. After that we did orange walk and lamanai ruins which were great. We avoided caye caulker as we had been to the corn islands which were fantastic .

    1. Good info Donna, thanks! Sounds like there are a few cheaper options away from the popular destinations, which is good to hear — I was starting to think that everywhere in the country was uniformly pricey.

  3. I guess when I travel to the topics, I don’t expect much to be inexpensive. Even though I haven’t been to Belize, I do know it’s an adventure travel haven with the diving. Lots of folks with cash flock there. Thus, even lesser star hotels can charge more.

    1. Totally agree about the diving etc being a big draw, but have the opposite view of travel in the tropics. I’ve spent much of the last few years in South and Southeast Asia, which offers some of the best value travel I’ve ever done. Mexico was cheaper than Belize, but with much better infrastructure and food. Guatemala had a similar level of development, but was dramatically cheaper.

      It really was specific to Belize, unfortunately. There are probably other places in Central America that are similar (anywhere that gets a lot of US vacation tourism, I suspect) but I haven’t yet visited them.

      1. I guess it depends on what part of the tropics. For example, I found Cabo San Lucas in Mexico to be very expensive – like Los Angeles expensive. I am sure there are parts of Mexico not as expensive. Cabo is a tourist draw. I would expect Guatemala to be less expensive as it doesn’t have the same draw.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of people say the same thing about Belize. Since I’ll be backpacking through CA and intend to spend a few nights in every country I’m sure I will be there at some point though I’m not too sure what to do or see yet.

    1. I’d heard similar things about Costa Rica — great if you’re cashed up, not so much if you’re not. I have a feeling I’ll be moving through it reasonably quickly when I do get back to Central America.

  5. @Katie I was just thinking the same thing, we were surprised about how expensive Costa Rica was (not extreme, but in some cases similar to western Europe). But then I talked to a few American visitors and they would typically only stay for a week or up to 10 days. I can imagine that money flows quicker on a short stay where you also appreciate a bit of luxury. We were staying for a month, rented the cheapest (tiniest) 4×4 available and drove around looking for birds on a tiny budget. In our experience, some hotels really cater on pensionado birders travelling in groups, especially in isolated areas that are nevertheless attracting a lot of birders like San Gerardo de Dota (quetzals!). Just a different crowd I guess.

  6. We did a visa run from Guatemala to Placencia, Belize, in August of 2013 and actually stayed a few days at the Sea Spray Hotel, too. We loved the little hotel, the beaches and the sea but, I have to agree with you, we were really disappointed by Belize. The prices were outrageously high and the food was not particularly good, either. Luckily, there are a lot of countries to visit in Central America including our favorites, Nicaragua and Panama, so press on!

    1. Yeah, I’m really excited about the rest of Central America — from the little I saw of Guatemala (and to some extent, the six months we spent in Mexico), I think I’ll probably love it. 🙂 Not quite sure when we’re going to fit it in, but I’m hoping to get back to that part of the world in a couple of years or so.

  7. Uff, so sorry for you…! I’d read that post about the dead man back in the day, and I can’t believe this trip hasn’t been much better than that one! I really hope next post is way more optimistic…

  8. It’s definitely expensive but I did enjoy Belize! I stayed at the belize jungle dome in belmopan for all the jungle/caving/trekking activities and then went to caye caulker for sun and sand. I had a great experience buying a huge lobster off a kid who grilled it right in front of me for $5! so delish! Belize staple: def rice and beans! (with chicken).

  9. We skipped Belize, but I feel exactly the same about Chile. It wasn’t bad, but it was ridiculously expensive and not any better than many far cheaper places. I definitely agree that value for money is so much more important than the dollar figure.

    We were especially gutted because we’d heard Chile and Argentina were on a par pricewise, so we decided to split 3 weeks between the two. We figuring that if we were blowing the budget we might as well see two countries rather than one. Then we got to Argentina and it wasn’t really expensive at all. Gutted.

    1. Ahh, that’s interesting — I’d also heard that Chile was expensive, and that Argentina wasn’t cheap (although not as expensive as Chile if you converted USD on the black market). Still hoping to get to both countries at some point, but prices will have an impact as to how I divide up my time in them!