How Ambergris Caye Grew Into A Bonafide Expat Enclave

Coming Of Age In The Caribbean

My first visit to the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize, I climbed down the stairs of the eight-seater airplane, grabbed my bag from nearby on the runway where it’d been placed by the pilot who doubled as landing crew and baggage handler, and carried it with me across the dirt road to the hotel where I had a reservation.

There I was met by the real estate agent who had promised to show me around. He wore shorts, a T-shirt, and no shoes. “Welcome to barefooted paradise,” he greeted me. I was 23-years-old.

Ambergris Caye, likewise, was but a young girl. San Pedro town, the fishing village around which development was just beginning, consisted of three parallel roads, all unpaved. The hotel where I stayed that first visit and the several that followed over the next few years, the best on the island, could generously have been described as two-star. Amenities included towels in the bathroom (some days), a telephone at the front desk (that worked sometimes), and a front-line position on the Caribbean Sea.

It was the beachfront situation, of course, that people, including myself, came for. There’s only so much Caribbean seafront, and, as they say, nobody’s making any more of it.

Thus, what there is tends to be pricey. I came, therefore, all those years ago, to Ambergris Caye in search of affordable Caribbean seafront.

And I found it. My first several visits, that same real estate agent (who never did invest in footwear) toured me up and down the coast of the island in his small boat. We had to go by boat, as the single road that continued up the island beyond San Pedro town didn’t continue very far. The only way to see what the island had to offer beyond San Pedro was on foot (tough going, through untouched jungle that grew in most places up to the water’s edge) or from offshore.

I was young and inexperienced, but even I could recognize pristine beauty. The beaches of Ambergris were (and are) far superior to those of mainland Belize. They compete with the best the Caribbean has to offer, and, back then, more than a quarter-century ago now, they were a steal.

They were also utterly undeveloped. If you didn’t bring it with you from the mainland, you likely were going to go without it on Ambergris Caye. I remember a couple of beachfront bars and grills and a single small shop where you could buy cold Cokes and toilet paper. If you wanted to own a stretch of the sandy Caribbean, this was a good place to shop for it cheap. If, though, you were in the market for a Caribbean beach home, you had to be the rugged, self-reliant type to make a happy go of it here.

Three decades later, Ambergris Caye is coming of age. The three original town roads are paved… and a number of others have been carved out. A central island roadway continues nearly from end to end, meaning that, now, you don’t have to travel by boat to see the length of the island. You can go by golf cart (the preferred means of transportation these days).

The hotel where I stayed years ago is still there, but, today, it shows four stars in its materials (probably deserved). These days, the coast is also dotted with five-star hotels and resorts, along with high-end condo communities, restaurants, art galleries, supermarkets, delis, wine shops, and golf cart rental agencies.

The best part is that it’s not as bad as all that might make it sound. Ambergris Caye has grown up, yes, but she’s managed to keep much of the charm of her youth. Ambergris hasn’t matured into a tourist haunt. Rather, this island has evolved into a cozy and welcoming community.

This is neither tacky Cancún nor prim, proper Bermuda. This is a small Caribbean town of expats from all over the world working together to create the life they all came in search of. They’re opening businesses, indulging artistic interests, planning community events, inviting each other over for beach barbecues…

You wouldn’t describe property prices today as a steal, but they can be a bargain compared with elsewhere in the Caribbean. More to my point, though, Ambergris Caye, Belize, today is a place where anyone interested in a new home and a new life in the Caribbean would do well to take a close look.

Kathleen Peddicord