Shortly after graduating college in 2004, I applied and was accepted to the Peace Corps. On a cold January day in Michigan, I received a large manila envelope with the details of my assignment: Belize. Where the heck is Belize?
I’ll never forget my mom and I spinning the globe in our living room trying to locate this tiny English-speaking country hidden below Mexico and between Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. I packed my two suitcases and headed off on an adventure that would ultimately shape the rest of my life. Fifteen years later, Belize is still home.
My Peace Corps service was in Belize City. While many people have fears and misconceptions about the city, I know it as a vibrant community with a rich history, national pride, and deep family values. It’s the commercial capital of Belize and, if you live anywhere in the country, you’ll have to go there at some point. Trust me, it’s not as bad as you think.
I’ve also lived in Placencia Village in the Stann Creek District of Belize and have spent time on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. All this to say that I know the country well and have had the good fortune of being able to experience its many unique microcultures.
How I Ended Up In Cayo
Two years ago, I became involved with the off-grid, self-sufficient community of Carmelita Gardens in the Cayo District. I quickly discovered what a pleasure this part of the country is and decided to make it my home.
Unlike other popular tourist and expat destinations in Belize, this area is growing sustainably. No condos or high-rises are found here … The development has been more lateral than in other parts of the country.
There is little segregation of social groups. Everyone shops at the same market and visits the same parks. The community has evolved gradually on common and unspoken values that transcend nationality or ethnicity. We all want a simple and peaceful life, respect, and to enjoy the gift of nature, which is evident everywhere you look in Cayo.
Cayo is comprised of many small villages, each with unique characteristics. Its nucleus is San Ignacio—the place to begin for anyone looking to explore the district. From here, you can easily travel to surrounding communities.
San Ignacio And Santa Elena
The twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena are the heart of Cayo. Nestled along the banks of the Macal River, they were only accessible by bridge (the Hawksworth and the Low Bridge) until recently.
Over the past 10 years, the area has seen incremental growth in infrastructure, business, art, and social development. What was once a sleepy, faraway town for most Belizeans and visitors has become the country’s ecotourism epicenter. You’ll find restaurants, small tour operators, cafés, hostels, and hotels … although the crowd remains a balanced mix of locals, expats, and visitors.
In 2014, the International Development Bank funded the renovation of the Cayo Welcome Center, located in the heart of town, and converted the adjacent main street, Burns Avenue, into a pedestrian-only area. The Cayo Welcome Center includes an amphitheater, which is occupied most weekends by students, music and theater groups, art shows, and cultural celebrations.
The highlight of San Ignacio is the market. Unlike most towns in Belize, the San Ignacio market is open seven days a week and is the place to go for fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, and plants. Finding your favorite vendor, learning where to buy the best free-range eggs, and making new friends are part of the experience.
Santa Familia Village
Heading northwest out of San Ignacio, Bullet Tree Road takes you on a scenic journey through a handful of picturesque villages. Imagine the country drives you used to take on Sunday afternoons as a child… wide-open agricultural landscapes against the backdrop of the Yalbac Hills.
Santa Familia is a paved stretch of about 2 miles of Bullet Tree Road. The community is largely Spanish-speaking. Several Seventh Day Adventist churches are here, as well as three small grocery shops, a tortilla stand, and shops operated out of living rooms that sell local snack foods. The entrepreneurial spirit is evident here.
A community soccer game, roadside barbecue, or family gatherings are all common sites as you travel the sections of paved and dirt roads through the village. Life just flows here … The smell of burning brush and fresh, handmade tortillas in the air … the sound of a Weedwacker or rooster somewhere in the distance… Children roam freely, and folks are eager to share local news.
Santa Familia is indeed one of those hidden communities that is starting to capture the attention of foreign visitors. Its proximity to town, peaceful atmosphere, river access, and affordable real estate make it very attractive.
The self-sufficient community of Carmelita Gardens is also here in Santa Familia. Its 98 acres rest along the Belize River and are home to about 20 expats and Belizeans.
The town founder has created an off-grid neighborhood that emphasizes simple living. When asked why he chose this part of Belize, he explained the long agricultural history of the area and the easy access to goods and services in nearby San Ignacio and Spanish Lookout.
He described his vision of a self-sufficient agricultural hamlet that promotes artisan entrepreneurship by helping its residents launch small businesses in the local community. It’s evident that Carmelita Gardens’ residents are vested in this vision and proud of the organic gardens, community events, and local relationships they’ve built. Lots are available in this unique community ranging in size and price.
Just 7 miles past Santa Familia is Spanish Lookout, the country’s chief agricultural center and home to its biggest Mennonite community. Many expats travel to Spanish Lookout to shop at the sizable and well-stocked grocery store, pick up supplies at the hardware store, or to take advantage of one of the many independent service businesses.
It was formed by a migration of Mennonites from Mexico in the 50s and has become the nation’s leading supplier of poultry, steel imports, vegetables, cattle and dairy products. The community is progressive. Many of its residents drive trucks and use modern technologies.
Spanish Lookout looks a lot like a rural agricultural town in Midwest America, with tall grain silos, two-story homes set back off the street, and vast cattle ranges. Visiting feels a lot like stepping back in time …
Benque Viejo Del Carmen
Heading West, 16 miles out of San Ignacio, is the Belize/Guatemala border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen. This community sits along the banks of the Mopan River and is the last stop for travelers heading to Guatemala.
Benque has long been the place where tourists and merchants cross to the Guatemalan border town of Melchor to purchase Maya textiles. It’s an easy day trip, and there are many interesting stops along the way. The town itself has great restaurants, a café, a central market, and a handful of grocery shops.
Benque Viejo is also home to Xunantunich—one of the most impressive Maya ruins in Belize. To reach the archeological site, you must first cross the river on a hand-cranked ferry, which visitors are often encouraged to help operate. The site itself has a well-maintained welcome center and an impressive display of artifacts. Once you have purchased a ticket (US$10), you’re free to walk through the site independently or hire a local guide.
On the nicely paved road between San Ignacio and Benque Viejo are several popular resorts including Chaa Creek, Ka’ana, and Black Rock Lodge. These resorts all have restaurants, which are open to the public. I often take a Sunday drive up to Black Rock Lodge or Chaa Creek to enjoy the scenery and local cuisine made from organic ingredients grown onsite.
Belmopan, the capital of Belize, is located in eastern Cayo. In 1961, after Hurricane Hattie hit Belize City, the former capital, plans were made for the new capital. In 1970, government was relocated to Belmopan.
Since that time, the area has seen unprecedented growth. Belmopan is home to many foreign embassies and government offices. You’ll likely visit Belmopan to renew your visitor’s visa or visit the Lands Department to process paperwork for your new property or the Companies Registry office to record your new business name.
Because many folks make a day trip to the capital to do business or work for government offices, there are lots of great places to have lunch. I always make a stop at the taco shop on the ring road where they serve the closest thing you can get to Mexican tacos with loads of incredible sauces and cold micheladas (a beer with lime and salt). You may need one after standing in a long line at a government office.
Belmopan is also the last town you’ll pass if plan to travel south down the Hummingbird Highway to parts of Belize like Hopkins, Placencia, or Punta Gorda. The capital is an hour’s drive from San Ignacio making it easily accessible to residents of San Ignacio and the surrounding communities.
Jamie Lee Granger