The last time I visited Belize, my son was a toddler, and death by coconut was the joke that kept on giving between me and my husband. Don’t be horrified. The likelihood of injury by coconuts is apparently minimal. It was just that the idea of falling coconuts underlined the exotic nature of where we were – a small Caribbean Island, aqua-marine seas, coral sand, and waving coconut palms.
Twenty years later, we were back. Two sons now. Both tall, deep-voiced, and fond of any joke that might mention nuts, balls, or, it seems, coconuts. They nearly wet themselves over a sign that read: ‘No tocas los cocas.’ (Don’t touch the coconuts). Some things, it seems, never change.
But others might. Like Belize itself.
Ambergris, the largest island off its Central American coast, was a sleepy place with no cars or roads when we visited it all that time ago. There was a collection of houses on stilts, as is the Caribbean style, pathways made of sand on which bicycles and the odd golfcart trundled, a few restaurants, shops, and one resort.
It was also a nightmare to get to, especially with a bad-tempered two-year-old. Today there are direct flights from several American cities to Belize International, and ten-minute hopper planes out to the islands.
Given that the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world after the Australian one, runs off the coast of Belize, its tourist industry was always destined for growth. We had never expected it to stay undiscovered. The question for us was, would it be spoiled? Sometimes, it’s difficult to return to a place where tourism has expanded.
I braced myself. But flying in over the hundreds of white sandy atolls and low-lying islands in a sea of astonishing blues and greens, I realized that I needn’t have worried. That kind of beauty doesn’t simply vanish.
We didn’t stay on Ambergris this time, only visiting it briefly to discover it still has its lazy Caribbean charm, but it has definitely been developed. There are paved roads there now, hundreds of resorts, and seemingly more tourists than locals.
Instead, we stayed on Caye Caulker, a little further south, joyously finding it to be as Ambergris was twenty years before. No cars. No big resort. Fresh fish to be found in tiny, homespun family restaurants, a few shops, one bakery, coconut palms that wave in a breeze, and with a population of 2000, a sense of real Belize island culture, a mixture of Mestizo, Maya and Garifuna.
During the day, we snorkelled – the reef is a five-minute boat-ride away – discovering, when we met nursing sharks and sting rays, who in my family really does have the balls he claims. And by night, we sat on a dock, watching more stars than I can ever remember seeing before. It’s a truly beautiful spot.
And it’s not the only one. Jaguar and howler monkeys are still to be found in dense rain forest on the mainland here, also Mayan ruins, extraordinary waterfalls, and spectacular caves.
Like anywhere beautiful in the world, tourism is expanding here. From where we stayed, we could see Caye Chapel where The Four Seasons are currently building a resort that will be exclusive to the island with a golf course. Turneffe Atoll has an exclusive resort too. Belize needs the tourist income. Tourism is their second largest industry after agriculture now.
But there does seem to be sense of keeping a balance here, ensuring its beauty is not destroyed at the expense of tourism. Twenty-six percent of Belizean land and sea is protected in a total of 96 conservation reserves, winning the praise of environmentalists and conservation groups. That’s hopeful.
My takeaway was that although parts of Belize have been developed, there is still much remains as I remember it – unpretentious, unspoilt, and where death by coconut is still a possibility.