Aaah… la isla bonita!
Ambergris Caye is Belize’s most visited spot, accounting for almost 50% of all tourism. It’s not hard to understand why – turquoise sea, the best of water activities, a buzzing social scene and just steps away from the world’s second largest Barrier Reef.
But wait – that’s also true of Caye Caulker, la isla cariñosa. So, what’s the difference?
It wasn’t too long before I picked up on the amusing island rivalry between the two islands.
Ask Ambergris Caye residents and they’ll complain about how it’s “slow” on Caye Caulker, there’s “not much to do” and how only “backpackers and rastas are there.”
Ask Caye Caulker residents about San Pedro and they’ll tell you how “noisy and crowded” it is.
The truth is, the two islands do feel completely different from each other. But it’s not about which has the best water activities, because they both offer amazing trips to the Barrier Reef and to other cayes, whether fishing, diving, snorkeling or sunset-crusing.
And it’s not about backpackers versus high-end tourists.Or about who has the best views, because they’re both stunning in their own way.
It all boils down to the size and vibe. Each island has its own “beat” and it all depends on what kind of pace you prefer.
Ambergris Caye is bigger and has lots more restaurants and bars, more beachfront hotels, great service and lots of gas-powered golf carts zooming around town. The island also has more of a “latin” culture – people speak mostly Spanish and English here and in the background you’ll often hear salsa, merengue or bachata. Some people say it reminds them of Miami, but I strongly disagree. I still get a good feel for Belizean culture in San Pedro, and it’s not that developed yet that it would remind me of Florida.
On Caye Caulker, you’ll find a “Caribbean” vibe. Everything feels a little slower and more laid back. Creole is the default, followed by English. Reggae often plays in the background. There is just as much, if not more, interaction with the locals and everyone you pass says hello. It’s one big community on a smaller island, yet it doesn’t feel that small. On Caye Caulker, I forgot to change my shoes and went to dinner in flip flops (a first for me!), only to find out I was in good company. On Ambergris, it’s more of a “big social island” feel and I wouldn’t dine in slippers at a nice restaurant nor bike around town in a bikini.
Two different islands, two different beats. Each deserves a visit.
Places to stay
Ambergris has a wide range of accommodations. Everything from budget to high-end luxury like Victoria House. Here are the places I either visited or stayed at that I loved.
The Palms is a small boutique hotel in an ideal location on the beach in San Pedro. It’s close to all the restaurants and bars and an easy walk around town. The pool is small but well kept and shaded, and the staff is super nice. My two-bedroom suite was so cozy that at times I didn’t want to leave. Oh and I had wi-fi in the room, set up with my own password: Road Warrior. Now that was nice. I would stay at the Palms again without hesitation.
Xanadu is farther down the “center” of the beach, about a fifteen minute walk away, but it’s on a quiet and beautiful stretch with lots of breeze. Xanadu’s one and two bedroom condos have kitchenettes and are beautifully furnished. The pool is gorgeous and overlooks the sea. There’s no restaurant on site but if you need coffee first thing, there’s a coffee maker in the condos with small supplies of coffee and sugar in the fridge. Definitely a place for the more independent traveler. The owners are also super nice – and hail from South Africa and France.
I only walked through Victoria House quickly, but heard it was one of the popular spots for upscale lodging, and even for weekend getaways for the wealthier Belizeans. There’s no doubt the place is absolutely gorgeous – with its own beach stretch, two different pools with fountains and views to die for. I wouldn’t mind testing it out myself. I’m also told that the food and service are excellent.
The Phoenix offers beautiful individually-owned luxury condos that are rented out. The architectural design of The Phoenix is amazing – with staircases that remind you of Mayan temples and an infinity pool. There’s also a restaurant on site and a spa, where you can get a “Maya abdominal massage” – word is if you’re trying to get pregnant, you might want to try one of these! (one of those mystical things so don’t hold me to it!)
Places to Eat
San Pedro is a foodie’s paradise. Seriously, I had to think hard about which place I’d try or go back to in my five days there. So many choices, so little time! And they’re all good. For a rather small island, I was surprised at how great the food options are. Here are my picks.
For local Belizean food: There are three local restaurants that everyone loves and that are a constant in terms of their food quality and their service. They’ve been on the island for many, many years and have become an institution.
Elvi’s Kitchen: I had the most unbelievably delicious coconut curry shrimp at Dona Elvia’s restaurant. Elvi’s Kitchen is known for its all you can eat Maya buffet night on Fridays. They also have lots of delicious appetizers like the cheese-stuffed jalapenos. One thing that caught my eye: Wasabiche….wasabi in your ceviche? Pretty creative stuff. I met Dona Elvia after my dinner there and she’s the most adorable lady. She oversees the place but her daughters help run the restaurant. I really could go for one more Elvi’s meal, just one more.
El Fogon is everyone’s number one pick for authentic Belizean food –not just in dishes but also in setting. Walk in and El Fogon is the most basic set up you’ll find – a few benches, a menu on a chalk board and in the back, the centerpiece: pots on a wood fire grill. El Fogon is also family-run. Every Sunday they do a pig roast.
Caramba is the third of the best Belizean restaurants in San Pedro. I had a jerk lobster fajita for lunch and only wish I’d had more time to try other dishes. You’ll find mostly locals eating here.
For a nice dinner out
The Blue Water Grill is the island’s busiest restaurant, literally. It ‘s a great choice for a nice dinner out by the water and the seafood ceviche I tried was phenomenal. It was also voted Best Restaurant of the Year in 2010.
Hidden Treasure is s exactly that – at the risk of sounding cliche – hidden and a great find! It’s set in a residential neighborhood, close to Xanadu, but the setting is beautiful, and the food delicious. And though it’s not on the menu, they do offer lobster, served three different ways, so make sure to ask the server. They also offer discounts for locals. When I got my dinner check, I saw a line that said “Good customer discount, 10%” and was so puzzled I had to ask what that meant. Turns out, they thought I was Belizean and gave me the local discount! So next time you go, throw out some Kriol and maybe it’ll work, you never know.
Caliente has some delicious, affordable Mexican dishes. It’s also a popular spot on Fridays among locals, because of the half-price tacos and Margaritas.
For a taste of a Belizean breakfast, stop by Celi’s Deli. There’s not much room to sit but you can go across the street to Celi’s hotel and sit on the patio with the food you picked up at the deli. The menu is quite extensive for breakfast – from johnny cakes to tamales – but make sure you get there before 9:30 as everything runs out very quickly, as I found out the hard way. For some banana pancakes, a safe choice is Ramon’s Village on the beach (this info is for my Jamaicaholic friends!).
Wild Mango’s has great salads (a rare find in Belize), and some humongously yummy burritos.
For an afternoon fresh fruit smoothie, a cappuccino or some iced coffee Starbucks-style and free wi-fi, head to Sail Away Café. They also serve paninis and various cocktails.
Places to Drink and Be Merry
Let’s face it, Ambergris’ social calendar is serious business – you’ll need a pen to write down what day is what. Everyone knows where the “party” is from Monday to Sunday and they love it that way. I won’t list them here, you can easily ask someone when you’re there and trust me, they’ll list it all for you.
There are popular bars among locals and return visitors that are always packed, like BC’s and Crazy Canuck’s with their Sunday and Monday live punta band. But there are other interesting places to check out for more than a drink.
The Chicken Drop at Spindrift Hotel is a tradition on the island. Every Thursday from 7pm till about 10pm, everyone flocks to play the Chicken Drop. You buy a lottery ticket for $1 and that ticket has a number. Once enough tickets have been sold, a live chicken is thrown into a square with numbers. If the chicken poops on your number, you win. The funniest part is watching grown people scream and talk to the chicken to move to this or that square. Definitely worth a try. You win drinks or some small cash if I remember correctly.
For wine lovers, there’s a wine bar called Wine de Vine. Every Friday there’s a “wine social” from 6pm-8pm, with not only wine tastings but also cheese. It’s mostly the professional crowd that gathers here after work, but it’s quite a change from the typical beach bar scene – a great pre-dinner stop.
To watch sunset and have some fun feeding the tarpons by the dock, head to the Sunset Grill & Bar. Sure it’s a little touristy of a spot but the view is definitely worth it. So might as well have a cocktail while you’re at it!
Every Friday is bingo night on the island, and it’s held at the Lion’s Den. The Lion’s Den is also headquarters for the local Lion’s Club. The place is packed with serious bingo players – word is that waiters are always hoping not to get scheduled for work on Friday nights. It’s not open to tourists but it’s fun to peek in on this local slice of life.
The Lion’s Club also holds local fundraisers and plays a big role in the community.
Things to do
I did all of my water activities from Caye Caulker (stay tuned for that post, it was amazing), but both islands offer some of the same tours, like the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, or diving in the Blue Hole.
Aside from the known water activities, a must-do on Ambergris Caye is visit the Marco Gonzales archeological site with Jan Brown. Seeing a Maya archeological site that is still in the rough is something that you can’t do anywhere in the world.
And, if you’re based on la isla bonita for most of your vacation but are curious about Caye Caulker, you can always hop on the Caye Caulker water taxi one morning and have lunch or spend the day there. You’ll get the feel for the island and make up your own mind about it.