Those romantic destinations that linger in our minds often have a hard time measuring up to the vision we remember, when we return decades later to find them.
“Ciao bella,” was not my most original pick-up line, but I figured my American accent would give me an edge on the island I found myself on just off the coast of Mexican mega-resort, Cancun. Mesmerized by her long, curly black hair and the signs of hippie-ness (beaded and macramé necklace and bracelet, hairy underarms and hoop earrings), I’d been staring at her for an hour as she lounged with two friends on the beach. I overheard them speaking Italian and considered this a good omen since Italian is one of three three languages I mangle on my foreign trips.
She smiled at me and said, “Grazie.”
I tapped deeper into my limited Italian vocabulary. “Come ti chiami?”
Dusky eyes stared at me for a long 30 seconds and she laughed, “Delia. E tu?”
And so began my first Belize adventure and a transcontinental, summer romance. It was 1979. The magic was on; me on the rebound from a devastating break-up and she a free spirit wandering through Central America on the “hippie trail.” Although we were from different countries, culturally we matched; both members of a distinct cohort of that era; disappointed political and cultural radicals, or as she said, i frustrati (the frustrated ones).
Belize is a Central American country bordered by Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. As the only English-speaking country in the area, it attracts a lot of American expatriates due to its tax-friendly laws that among other things, exempt pension income. To encourage development and avoid the occasional hurricane, Belmopan, the capital, was established in the interior in 1970, but the major city is still Belize City. Once ramshackle, dangerous and tourist-free, Belize City is now on the cruise ship circuit, offering the typical Caribbean port experiences, complete with horse-drawn carriage tours of sanitized tourist attractions.
Those with a more adventurous bent still head for the outlying cays or islands on the barrier reef a dozen miles off-shore. There’s Placencia Peninsula in the south and San Ignacio, a town near the Guatemala border. Placencia had been on my short list to explore for years, so in 2015 when Lynn, an ex-girlfriend, now friend, said she needed a getaway, I suggested Belize, which offered relaxing on the beach, caving, and exploring Mayan ruins.
As we swooped down to the landing field pasture outside Placencia in a 6-seater prop plane, my mind flashed back to that first trip to Belize thirty years earlier and the jaw-dropping beautiful Italian girl on the beach. It all had a kind of bizarre déjà vu as I remembered how I met Delia after taking a trip to Mexico with a couple of guy friends. That trip was supposed to help heal my broken heart, the result of the same woman who, decades later, was sitting next to me on the prop plane.
Delia and I met on Isla Mujeres, part of Mexico, a couple days before my flight home to resume my job as an inspector with the United States Immigration Service. We squeezed a lot of fun into those two days; discovered an isolated beach and rolled in the pebbly sand (crushed coral), drank margaritas at the beach bar, and discussed the future of former radical youth like us.
I fell in love. She and her two friends, another single woman and their older, male friend (who served as their porter in exchange for the privilege of traveling with two attractive women) were leaving the same day as me, but they were headed overland to Belize.
Infatuated with Delia, I woke up at my hotel in Cancun and totally out of character. I telegraphed my boss at LAX to say I missed my flight and would return in a week, then raced down to surprise my new love as she arrived on the ferry from Isla Mujeres. She cried in surprise and joy.
I joined their trek and off we went to Belize. My rudimentary Italian provided less than first grade communication, but the language of love sufficed for our week together. I served as the Caribbean-English interpreter on the hippie trail to our destination—Caye Caulker. As youngish, ex-hippie radicals we traveled on the cheap. When we couldn’t get a bus or taxi, we hitch-hiked. Imagine two young white women with their thumbs out, with two scrawny guys lurking with the backpacks in a culvert. But somehow we got to Orange Walk Town, the fourth largest town in the nation of Belize, and my first experience of local Caribbean-style accommodations—bare planks semi-separated “rooms” where one bare bulb flickered off and on and the bathroom was an outhouse. After the sunset, the mosquito coils came out. I later learned that faint incense-like smoke was toxic.
In those days, Caye Caulker was the archetypal, untouched tropical island. The only way to get there was by hiring a motorboat, which dropped you at a wooden pier. Our party doubled the number of travelers on the island and this was the summer season. In those days, there were only five choices for accommodations: four luxury condos and two rooming houses (neither of which had air conditioning or window screens).
We rented a couple rooms that faced the wooden pier with the outhouse perched at the end. A couple of local women served meals on order: you would place an order at noon for dinner. Every meal included some form of fresh lobster. Entertainment was limited in those days on Caye Caulker. We couldn’t even find a rum shop. In the evening, the locals walked around the square and ate ice cream. We enjoyed a few bliss-filled days, before the Italians continued to the next stop on the hippie trail—Tikal, Guatemala, and I returned to my job at LAX.
That old story was the farthest thing from my mind in 2015 as we embarked on this escape without itinerary or reservations, except the first hotel. I looked forward to seeing caves, ruins, and Placencia and having an old-school overland travel adventure, like back in the old days. Caye Caulker was NOT on the itinerary. I knew you couldn’t go home again.
We collected our bags and the two other passengers disappeared into the mangroves. I breathed in the moist air and relaxed.
She was a bit antsy and called the hotel, “Where is our ride?” A middle-aged guy with a four-day growth of beard and a scruffy baseball cap rolled up in a beat-up van. Out of the corner of his mouth with eyes barely open, he slurred a few words inviting us to get in. I figured the proprietor of the hotel hired a fellow American who was down on his luck. I was wrong. He was the owner of the place and that was his normal condition.
Placencia straddles a twenty-mile long lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. On the seaside, before you see it, you smell it—the stench of decomposing kelp or seaweed. The smell and the debris keep most people from sunbathing on the beach, but the gusty wind attracts avid kite-boarders and windsurfers.
A scruffy little town with a few hide-away resorts, Francis Ford Coppola owns the most upscale hotel in town, the Turtle Inn. A few restaurants, an outdoor beach bar, a couple juice bars, dive shops, general stores and banks comprise the business district. The tourist shops feature over-priced Mayan woven goods, which enticed Lynn with “fantastic” deals. As the owner of a women’s wear boutique she was in heaven until a week later she discovered the same items at half the price in Mayan country.
Placencia reminded me of many tropical resorts around the world. It has a scruffy business district with half-finished mini-malls and guesthouses coupled with a nearby marina with boat slips, boats and villas. Ninety percent empty, it waits for the tourist throngs that have yet to arrive. A few miles farther out of town, several beach resorts provide 5-star comfort for a few upscale visitors. Being an adventure traveler for over 45 years, I go for comfort and soul. Although I’ve moderated my style a bit, to me the higher the star rating, the more insulated from the local vibe and less appealing.
After a few days lounging around, we took a day tour to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, known as the only jaguar preserve in the world. Set in a virtually pristine forest we hiked a while and rode inner-tubes on the meandering stream. Strangely, no one, not even our guide, has ever seen a live jaguar in that park, so they have a life-sized plaster replica in a cage. It reminded me of a tour in Namibia, when we hiked a couple miles into a rocky canyon to see an ancient petroglyph, among the oldest in the world we were told—maybe 3,000 years old. Outside, unprotected, easily touched, well-preserved drawings of cattle and people glistened with paint that couldn’t have been over 10 years old. But the guide shook his head several times, “No sir, this is the original paint.” Tourists are known to be gullible. Most people tend to see what they’re looking for, but in Belize, no jaguars.
Fully rested after a week in Placencia, we hit the road to adventure. We planned to travel to San Ignacio to see the Tikal ruins and the myriad of caves in the vicinity. To really see a place, overland travel is critical, and even better on local transport. En route to San Ignacio we took a ferry across the lagoon to the mainland, a taxi ride to the bus stop and public buses. On the bus we saw real people doing their life, from the police chief in full uniform to the white, German-speaking Mennonites with long beards and hats, to the indigenous Mayans in traditional dress.
On that first trip with Delia and her friends, the two-lane, often unpaved highway impressed me with the re-purposed American school buses as the primary transport. This time, I expected the bus would be like overland transport in every other country I’ve visited in the last 10 years, from Mexico to South Africa to Turkey: their version of a modern Greyhound. Not in Belize, the Bluebird converted school buses still prevail. How could that be in a country where a two-star hotel room runs $125 per night? I later learned that a certain family has the monopoly and has no motivation to upgrade—take it or leave it.
Heading north from the low-key tourist zone of Placencia, fields of mango, corn and sorghum are interspersed with faded bus terminals, mini-marts, rum shops, and the ubiquitous rebar poking out of half-finished houses. At Dangriga, we jumped off to go the restroom. When we returned, the bus had left with our bags on board! We asked the station’s various fruit vendors and lotto sellers, “Where’d they go?” Jumping in a cab we caught up with them ten miles ahead.
San Ignacio borders Guatemala and functions as the Belizean gateway to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. A calm and prosperous city of 20,000, its nearby attractions include numerous cave systems and the Mennonite town of Spanish Lookout. We took pleasant day trips to the ruins and the caves with our amiable Rastaman guide, David. Satisfied with traditional tourist excursions, Lynn wanted to rest at a beach, and the Barrier Reef and Caye Caulker beckoned. A two-hour bus ride to Belize City followed by a one-hour ferry ride across the channel, and I was back in my 1970s paradise.
But paradise no more, Caye Caulker is now like the old prostitute who still wears hi-heels, short skirts, red lipstick, but isn’t even a shadow of her former self. The difference being, Caye Caulker prospers financially, but its hippie trail days are long-gone. A big sign at the police station at the ferry quay announces severe penalties for possessing cannabis. Still, stepping out to the sandy street in front, a guy brusquely offered to sell me some herb. I was not surprised. Bars line the sandy main street, dozens of restaurants hawk their happy-hour specials and barkers pitch boat trips to outer cays and the divers’ mecca, the Blue Hole. Across from our hotel, a makeshift Starbucks pimped tropical frozen coffee drinks.
Determined to see if there was any remnant of the old Caulker, we rented bikes one day and rode around the island. Except for the airfield, mangrove swamps and residential neighborhoods cover everything not in service to tourists. On the leeward side, fishing boats no longer efficient for catching lobster, decay on the sand. At one end of the island, a beach bar provides the obligatory cheap rum drinks and opportunity to people watch.
My 21st century trip to Belize seemed destined to close that circle opened almost forty years before. Like young adult visions of becoming the president or selling a million records, a dream left unexplored will linger to haunt us until it is acknowledged and resolved. For me, the tropical idyll of the old Caye Caulker, was one of my fantasies—a place at the end of the world, where love prevailed.
Yes, Caye Caulker still has its merits, but it isn’t what it once was. What made it special for me is gone. Few places even honor their simpler past; much less preserve its soul. At least Waikiki has a statue to Duke Kahanamoku next to the luxury shops but Caye Caulker doesn’t even have lobster on the menu.
To paraphrase Bogart in Casablanca, “I’ll always have Isla Mujeres.” That’s one island I won’t return to.
Copyright © 2018 RW Klarin
RW Klarin recently retired from a 30-year career as a teacher and administrator in public education. After an extended vacation he rediscovered his love of writing. Blogging on the inner and outer journey freedom and possibility of this next stage of life, RW compiled and expanded the essays into his 2015 book–Living the Dream Deferred. Part memoir, part travel, and part self-help, he invites the reader into his inner world while offering insights into the challenges and rewards of the last chapter.