The friendliest spot in Belize? If you ask me, that’s Ambergris Caye, the little island just offshore from where we’re sitting right now in Belize City.
Ambergris Caye is about 26 miles long and about 1 mile wide at its widest point. You get there from the mainland by puddle jumper (that is, little airplane) or water taxi.
The heart of Ambergris Caye is San Pedro. This is where the expat community is based. It’s a quirky, comfortable little beachside town with open-air bars and restaurants, art galleries, wine shops, bakeries… a lot of infrastructure that has developed over the past 10 years or so, specifically as a result of the big North American presence. More on this in a minute.
Really, San Pedro is three long blocks: Front Street (along the beach), Middle Street (between the other two), and Back Street (along the lagoon). Simple and easy, like everything on this fun little Caribbean outpost that was ranked the number-one island in the world by TripAdvisor for both 2013 and 2014.
Ambergris Caye appeals to the retiree who wants the Caribbean and who appreciates that this classically Caribbean spot is also affordable. But maybe the biggest appeal of this little island is the community that has taken hold here. About 15,000 people live on Ambergris full-time, including about 3,000 expats.
Among those 3,000 are Caroline and Ed, a couple of retirees who, in 2011, purchased a condo, pre-construction, in San Pedro at Grand Baymen Gardens. In 2013, when their condo was finished, the couple moved from their home in Michigan to live on Ambergris full-time. I assumed, when I met Caroline and she explained where she’d come from in the States, that she and Ed had made the move because of the weather. I figured they’d come to Ambergris to escape the cold back in Michigan. But that wasn’t the case.
Caroline told me that what convinced her and her husband to leave Michigan and start over on Ambergris was the experience they had on their first visit to the island. They came for a vacation with no thought of anything beyond that. But during that brief visit, they were won over completely by the people they met. They chatted with the locals and were invited to participate in local events and even to attend services at a local church.
They were so impressed by the openness and hospitality they encountered that they decided this was a place they’d like to call home. The sense of community they found on Ambergris was unlike anything they’d known in Michigan, where they’d grown up. They were so taken by the idea of becoming part of that community that they decided to move. What a thing!
Today they couldn’t be happier. Caroline knows everyone and everything that goes on on Ambergris. She’s a great lady to have around, a great friend. And she’s a great example of the kind of person you meet on this island.
What do Carline and Ed and all the other expats living on Ambergris do with themselves?
They play in the water. This is the Caribbean, after all, and the diving is phenomenal, some of the best in the world. The barrier reef that lies offshore from mainland Belize parallels Ambergris about a quarter-mile out, creating hundreds of great dive sites.
If you’re not a diver, try the snorkeling. If you’re not interested in getting wet, take a tour of Belize’s famous Blue Hole from above; TropicAir offers two-hour aerial tours. Or take a boat out for some fishing; again, it’s among the best in the world.
If you prefer to stay on land, you’ll still have plenty to do. The big year-round expat community means lots of pot-luck lunches and dinners, happy hours, wine tastings, etc. The Exotic Caye beach resort sponsors Sunday-Funday each week. They bring in local musicians and organize horseshoe tournaments and other events. It’s a fun day when everyone comes to the beach and hangs out for a little bit to get to know each other.
The wine shop Wine De Vine sponsors wine and cheese pairings every Friday.
A boardwalk has opened on the back side of the island, and there’s a movie theater now. There are lots of great restaurants—Thai, Italian, French, and, of course, lots of seafood choices.
About 15 minutes from Ambergris by water taxi is Caye Chapel, a smaller island that is dedicated entirely to golf. You can take the water taxi over in the morning, golf for the day, and then return to your home on Ambergris Caye in time for cocktails at sunset.
The island life isn’t for everyone, but if it’s what you think you’re after, I strongly recommend you give Ambergris a good look. Come on down and visit. You’ll be most welcome.