Who Needs Beaches? (Or, Why I Live In Cayo)
The sight of sparkling, turquoise water makes me want to jump in instantly… I love to swim with dolphins, and snorkeling is the closest thing I have experienced to heaven on earth.
Ambergris Caye and its main town, San Pedro, have all this to offer in spades. An island floating among breathtaking clear waters, its beachfront walking path is as close to being a main street as it gets on this sandy, laid-back little caye. Ambergris also probably gets more press than any other Belizean locale, being home to the biggest expat community in the country.
Why, then, am I living in Cayo District… as far inland as you can get without crossing the border into Guatemala?
One of the things that struck me on my first visit to Belize was the sense of space.
Except on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, there’s open land here—everywhere you look. This country is the size of Massachusetts, with a population of 320,000 people. The silence left by that lack of maddening crowd roar brings peace to my soul. There’s more of this in Cayo than anyplace else I’ve been in Belize.
While the cayes get the most headlines, Cayo is actually the second-most-visited tourist destination in Belize. It offers the unique Belizean activity of cave-tubing—floating on inner tubes on rivers that flow through caves naturally formed out of the native limestone; exploration of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, perhaps the most dramatic of caves in the world with swimming, rock climbing, hiking, and en route to crystalized remains of Mayan sacrifice victims; hiking in the cooler area of Mountain Pine Ridge; plus, horseback riding, canoeing, and other more mainstream activities.
Cayo is more convenient in many ways, as well as less expensive. The only international airport in Belize (near Belize City) is less than a two-hour drive from Cayo.
Once you’ve arrived in Belize, getting to the cayes from the mainland is a hassle, requiring an exciting but expensive hop on Tropic or Maya Air (at a minimum cost of US$200 per person, round-trip) or getting between Belize City and the airport by ferry. Caye Caulker is then 45 minutes by boat, with Ambergris Caye another 30 minutes beyond that.
Belmopan, the capital and home to government and administrative offices as well as embassies, is in the eastern part of Cayo District, and Santa Familia, where I live, outside San Ignacio, is in the far west. It’s still less than an hour to Belmopan.
Trips to the rather charmless metropolis of Belmopan can be necessary on occasion (or even regularly if you’re living in the area). Anyone staying longer than 30 days on a tourist visa must make the trek to the immigration office to renew it every 30 days—if you’re in this part of the country, Belmopan is your office.
Other reasons I have had to go to Belmopan include to replace my temporary U.S. passport after mine was stolen (in London, not Belize!), to apply to the Ministry of Health for permission to work as a chiropractor here, to get a police report required for a work permit, and to talk to both the income tax office and the immigration office about my work permit. Obtaining the police report required hanging out in Belmopan all day; the others errands involved two to three trips to drop off documents and pick them up later after the required processing period.
A further convenience comes from Cayo being the commercial center of the country. If you can get something in Belize at all, you’re likely to find it in Cayo.
That’s due in large part to Spanish Lookout, a Mennonite community that could be confused with central Ohio if it weren’t for the palm trees. It’s home to Midwest Steel, an American-style hardware store (or as close as you get in Belize), car dealers, appliance dealers, and suppliers of all kinds of construction and industrial materials from windows to cement.
My builder husband and I stopped at Benny’s, the largest hardware store in the country, located in Belize City. To our surprise, we learned that most everything is imported through Cayo, which has the biggest selection of manufactured (that is, imported) goods. Delivery prices to our construction site here, only 7 miles from Spanish Lookout, are substantial. If delivery were required to Placencia (three hours from here), or Punta Gorda, even further, the costs of everything would be even higher.
San Ignacio, 7 miles from Spanish Lookout, is home to the country’s largest farmers’ market on Saturdays. Here you will find a dizzying array of familiar and unfamiliar produce, all of it fresh and in season, as well as local crafts and the products of expats’ enterprises, from homemade soap and herbal bug repellent to remedies and local wines. The freshness and organic quality you’d pay a premium for at Whole Foods are taken for granted here. The milk and cheese you buy from the Mennonites are organic, raw, and unpasteurized… guaranteed.
While Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker offer relatively affordable oceanfront living—certainly compared to waterfront property elsewhere in the Caribbean and the world—my husband and I prefer the far more affordable Cayo.
We are building our own custom house here in the Cayo, right on the Belize River, for less than the price of an ordinary one-bedroom condo on Ambergris. And we don’t have homeowners’ association charges of hundreds of dollars per month added to our expenses.
Basic living expenses also tend to be far less in Cayo. The cost of a restaurant meal at the area’s best restaurants, for example, comes to half what you would have to pay on the cayes.
Besides convenience and affordability, I prefer the climate of the Cayo District to that of areas nearer the coast. Nestled on the edge of the Maya Mountains, Cayo is slightly higher than the coastal swamps and keys. It tends to be just a bit cooler, which is a good thing from my point of view. The cayes are beautiful to visit, but I think I would get tired of the unyielding, buffeting of the wind, the salt in the air, and the unrelenting, sticky humidity.
While all of Belize is in hurricane territory, Cayo’s inland location means that a category 3 hurricane arriving here would be a 1,000-year flood. By the time storms arrive inland, they’ve calmed down to bring only strong winds and flooding—nothing like the extreme destruction that can occur on the cayes.
A major part of the atmosphere here is that commodity known as peace and quiet. Increasingly rare in the world, it is present in the Cayo (outside the towns) in abundance.
Who shouldn’t live in Cayo? If you’re a city guy or gal, dependent on social or cultural happenings every weekend, you would probably get bored rather quickly. Bar hoppers might run out of sophisticated enough spots to land, and social butterflies might find the expat community too small and the locals too insular and family-oriented. Shopping ‘til you drop is not likely to be very rewarding here, though Cayo does boast a few upscale shops, namely the Art Box outside Belmopan and the Orange Gallery between Belmopan and Santa Elena (both on the main Western Highway).
Cayo invites me to spend time in nature, getting to know its rhythms and seasons. This slow immersion leads far beyond mere lip service to the green movement; it’s a sense of gratitude and being in harmony with nature that is hard to find in the city.
Hardly a day passes that I don’t see some amazing natural phenomenon—huge flocks of parrots squawking overhead… a river otter 10 feet away from me during my noon-time Belize River dip… a tortoise slowly making its way across the road to town…
As a life-long student, I delight in learning about the flowers, trees, and animals of my new home. Almost 600 species of birds make their home here in Belize at some time of the year, and some of them have an astonishing variety of calls.
If you’re someone who can take advantage of the wealth of information and opportunity (including money-making ones) on the internet, you can make your entertainment and income from anywhere, including Cayo. While the internet wouldn’t be suitable for a die-hard, type-A day trader, for research and writing and other copy-oriented activities, it’s quite adequate and constantly being improved.
And when your eyes start to turn rectangular and glow in the dark from staring at your computer screen, you can go outside, take a seat in the shade, and watch the puffy, white clouds scoot by as birds land right outside your door, serenading your evening cocktail hour.
Why would I not live in Cayo?