Journey to Dangriga and South Water Caye: Bliss in Southern Belize

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One of the few Belizean towns I have yet to explore is Dangriga. It’s ironic because it’s known as the “culture capital” of Belize. But it’s also the forgotten town of Belize when it comes to tourism. Few people stay here more than a day or two – most are either here for business or on their way to the islands that are close to the southern coast.

It’s a real shame, because there’s a lot to Dangriga – especially for learning about the Garifuna culture. As an African it bothers me that I haven’t yet spent even a full day here seeing the town, talking to people or even taking part in some of the cultural activities. It’s just been one of those circumstances where I never get there on time or I head there at the last minute.

The last week of January, I had every intention of spending a full day there but I left Belize City pretty late. I had to renew my immigration entry stamp (here in Belize, you only get one month>>  upon entry; after that you have to get an extension from the immigration office at the cost of US$25 for an additional month).

By the time I headed to the bus station in Belize City, it was already 3:45 p.m. With about 2.5 hours’ ride, I didn’t reach there until nightfall.

By the way, the bus stations in Belize amuse me. They make me feel like I’ve stepped back in time. Forget the snazzy motor coach buses… or electronic departure screens or even staffed ticket booths. You just wait on your bus outside by the gates and every time one arrives the attendant yells out the destination. You rush to get on and find the best seat possible (on an old Ladybird bus, which is what these are, everyone gets a stiff seat so no worries). You pay for your fare at some point during the ride when the attendant comes to find you, and find you they will.

A roundtrip from Belize City to Dangriga cost me BZ $10 one way (or US $5) on the James Bus Line (I’m told some of the other lines may charge more so this one is best).

Pelican Beach Resort, Dangriga

When I reached Dangriga, it was well past night fall, but early enough to get dinner. I hopped in a taxi – they were all waiting for passengers as we got off the bus.

Five minutes later and BZD $5 later, I was at the Pelican Beach resort. It sits on its own on the north end of town, and is right on the beach. The first thing I remember is the smiles that welcomed me – even when I arrived pretty late and everyone was busy with serving dinner or tending to the bar. “You must be Lily!” said one staff member. I knew I’d love this place, besides the fact that the sea was right by me while I walked to my room.

After a cozy dinner on the beach – the menu had some awesome local dishes with a twist like the Stann Creek curried shrimp that I washed down with a Belizean mama (a local rum cocktail with pineapple, orange and grenadine). I counted the hours till morning. That’s when I would head to the sister resort on South Water Caye. I’d heard that it was one of the most beautiful Cayes or islands in Belize but I don’t think I was warned adequately. I expected pretty waters and some beach and probably a tiny bit of island to play on for a day and a night.

Discovering South Water Caye

A Staff member taking our luggage to the dock, to prepare for our departure to South Water Caye.An island or "caye" in the distance. Belize has hundreds of them.

By nine o’clock all guests heading to South Water Caye were seated in the boat, life jackets on and ready to escape the mainland. We had a lively bunch too – besides the manager, Theresita, who is a ball of energy.  I met two young professors from Georgia State University – a Geography professor and a Geology professor who were in Belize to arrange for their first “study abroad” opportunity being offered to their students. They plan to split their time between Dangriga for some cultural activities (which I thought was awesome), one night on South Water Caye and the rest of the time exploring the Mayan site Xunantunich in the Cayo District. Besides us three, the rest of the group were all couples.

About 40 minutes later, and after passing a few islands on the way, we were approaching South Water Caye. I’m pretty sure that within two minutes everyone was standing and speechless. I think I even did a 180, excited at the photo possibilities. The best surprise was seeing how much bigger the island was than I expected. Where has this place been this whole time I’ve been in Belize?!

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Belize has hundreds of these little offshore islands or “cayes.” Most of them are small, others uninhabited and two of the larger and inhabited ones you already know about – Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Still others are privately owned, and big enough to stay on – like South Water Caye. Here’s a little map to help you figure out where I was.

We got out of the boat and were told to head to the main restaurant deck where we’d have an “orientation” of the island.

I felt like we were winners of some amazing travel contest, learning about our little piece of paradise. The staff explained that the resort uses solar energy only and to turn all our lights off when not in use. We were even told about the proper use of our toilets – for number one and two’s (ha!). Most amazing was the compost toilet that’s close to the restaurant, I’d never seen one of those before. I loved that the owners were environmentally-conscious folks. I wanted to hear more and yet it was so hard to concentrate. I felt restless and kept looking around. I wasn’t the only one. I could see cabanas and small wooden homes – just a few of them and at a fair distance from each other. And sand, lots of fine, fine white sand. Everywhere I turned, I could see water. I wanted to wander off and get lost.

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I’ve spent days trying to think of ways to tell you how I felt walking around the island the first time and getting to my designated room.  When Theresita pointed and showed me where I was staying – my heart sunk. A cute wooden casita above the sea – and right by the beach. I know, I should be used to this as a travel blogger but on South Water Caye it meant pretty much heaven on earth (and yes I know that’s cliché, but in this instance it’s justified).

Here’s my little casita (ask for the Osprey’s Nest), the beach and my views.

My porchMy casitaThe beach just by my room

I had neighbors, but could barely hear them or see them – we had a nice little wooden wall separating us. Below me, a deck where I could plunge into the sea. Or a beach  just downstairs and to the right.

When we all met up on the beach, in disbelief, we agreed. This is a place where you could write that great big novel. Or get married. Or honeymoon. Or just figure out your life. We asked each other, how long would you be able to stay here? A week or even two for me, which is saying a lot given that I like to move and explore.

The amazing thing about South Water Caye? It sits right on the Belize Barrier Reef (like Tobacco Caye). I could see the reef from my porch.

I think I sat on my bed looking out at my view for a good 15 minutes, until I heard my name being called. It was Theresita.“Miss Lily, are you okay over there?”  OKAY?! More than.

We had about an hour and a half for lunch and exploration before heading out on one of the many snorkeling trips and excursions. You’re probably thinking “how many could there be?”

Enough (besides not needing to do anything in a place like this). Here’s what the activity board looked like when we arrived.

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And here’s what we did on one of the afternoon snorkeling tours.

We stopped by Man-O-War Caye, a bird sanctuary just a few minutes away. It's mating season so there were hundreds of birds flying all over and above us. Pelicans, boobie birds and frigate birds.We then stopped by Tobacco Caye, another beautiful and smaller island where you can stay overnight. Also home to locals and to the South Water Marine Reserve.The back side of Tobacco Caye is just gorgeous. You can see the reef right in front.Tobacco CayeWe then went snorkeling on Tobacco Reef (just by Tobacco Caye). We saw stingrays, tarpons and other colorful fish.DSC_7901 copy.jpg

After sunset and before dinner (when I tasted some delicious rice wine and cassava bread chips with a cheese dip), I had a nice chat with the manager, Theresita, about Dangriga and Pelican Beach. The next time I’m in town, I’m checking out the drummaker she told me about, the art studios as well as the cassava-making farms. She can arrange anything you pretty much want to know about the Garifuna culture – she’s not only a long time resident but she also used to be the Deputy Mayor of Dangriga. Pretty fabulous. She’s worked at Pelican Beach Resorts for decades and gets to spend part of her year on South Water Caye (so jealous!).  She shared with me that owner, when hiring her, let her know his dream – that visitors should come and discover the south of Belize and that this should become a place for them to do so in comfort, and that the hotel represents a sort of legacy to the people of Dangriga.

The most spectacular scenery on South Water Caye? Sunsets are incredible, but so are the nights. I gasped when I walked back to my room at close to 11 p.m.  There were stars everywhere. I mean hundreds and hundreds of bright dots all over and above my casita. It was surreal and I wished I had a video camera right then. But it’s one of those things that you have to experience for yourself.

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Back on my terrace, I lay in my hammock and watched in wonder at all the nature that surrounded me. I didn’t even plan it that way, but it felt like I was meant to be in this peaceful place on the eve and morning of my birthday. All I could think of was how I could return and actually stay for a week, this time with my significant other.

Dawn in front of my casita | (c) LebawitGirma.comSunrise on South Water Caye

The next morning, everyone at the resort was wishing me a happy birthday – it was as if we were a small family after discovering South Water Caye.

And then they asked me how old I was now. Theresita turned to me and said, “You know what I answer when people ask me that question? I am island age. Because out here we may be 50 but still look 30!”

Everyone laughed. It reminded me of how my girlfriends and I used to say “African age” growing up in Côte d’Ivoire, whenever a guy would tell us how old he was and we were skeptical. Because you can rarely tell the age of an African by just looking.

So there you have it – I turned island age on one of the most beautiful islands I’ve stayed on to date.

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My overnight stays at Pelican Beach in Dangriga and on its sister resort on South Water Caye were sponsored by the Pelican Beach Resorts, including the afternoon snorkeling trip. This review fully reflects my opinion, which is never for sale. I don’t write about any activity or place that I wouldn’t recommend wholeheartedly.

For more info on Pelican Beach Resort please check out their website.  Rates in high season start at$325 per couple per night on South Water Caye, which includes all meals for that day.

Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma has contributed writing and photography to CNN Travel, New York Magazine, AFAR, American Way, Travel Channel, BBC Travel, and others. She’s the new author of MOON BELIZE for Moon Travel Guides, and is completing a second title, MOON BELIZE CAYES. A serial expat, Lily’s lived and studied on three continents, including Africa–from her native Ethiopia to Côte d'Ivoire––and Europe, and is fluent in four languages. A former attorney who ditched the office for the road in 2009, she favors all things culture, adventure and storytelling, and escapes Washington DC’s winters every year. Lily also runs her award-winning travel and photography blog, Sunshine and Stilettos.

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7 Comments

  1. Joanna 10 February, 2012 at 10:33 PM #

    I might not get to visit SWC soon, but your photos made me want to plan that trip TODAY. :D

  2. Beulah 11 February, 2012 at 7:50 PM #

    Love the report and pix. My family and I spent many beautiful days at swc. I especially hangings out with young Bowman kids on the pier fishing late into the evening. Great Fun!

  3. Lebawit Lily Girma 13 February, 2012 at 11:00 AM #

    Thanks, Joanna! You should start planning ASAP! :-)

    Beulah, thank you! Isn’t it magical. I hope to spend “many days” there too, I was only there one night.

  4. Bob Slizeski 14 February, 2012 at 8:24 AM #

    I have been traveling to Dangriga and South Water Caye since 1988. It truly is paradise on earth. I love the diversity. A vacation there can encompass everything from hiking in the rain forest and among the Mayan ruins, to diving and snorkeling on the incredible barrier reef. A vacation there runs the gamut from serious adventure travel, maybe ziplining or rappeling into caves…. to serious relaxation time, laying in your hammock under the palm trees listening to the waves crash on the reef 50 feet away.

    It is incredible.

  5. Beulah 14 February, 2012 at 12:49 PM #

    I totally agree with Bob. I’m from Dangriga but now live in San Francisco, CA. Every chance I get, I go to Belize. Sometimes when I can afford it I go twice a year. I weave in business and pleasure when I go. I’ve gone snorkeling in Caye Caulker many times and hung out in San Pedro. Love the zip lining and cave tubing. At other times, I just chill in my hammock in my house and read in the comfort of the balmy Caribbean sea breeze:-)

  6. Lebawit Lily Girma 19 February, 2012 at 9:59 PM #

    Thanks for sharing, Bob. I agree with you, it has a lot going for it.

    @Beulah, Belize is so peaceful, definitely the place to relax if you choose!

  7. Dm 26 March, 2012 at 9:53 PM #

    for $285.00 per night !! Who can afford this? I have a PhD in live in the US yet I cant afford this!

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