Due South

From Seattle, Belize Is Barely Off the Beaten Path

A new nonstop flight links Seattle to a small Central American country south of Mexico—but it isn’t as remote as it feels.

By Allison Williams September 12, 2022

Not all of Belize’s wonders lurk below the surface.

When travelers dream of a trip off the beaten path, they imagine something like this. It’s after sunset at an out-of-the-way locals’ bar in San Pedro, Belize, where an entire wall is decorated with the words “Hello!!! It’s after 5, let’s not talk.” Hot air hangs in the small room, interrupted only by the bartender reaching into a refrigerator for chilled bottles of Red Stripe and the local Belikin lager.

We often say we want to get away from crowds to see the “real” place—though increasingly that very concept has come into question. If tourists come in and “ruin” a place with their colonial-tinged presence, why should anyone venture past those spaces to similarly ruin the places where locals still hold a majority? 

A friendly Belizean brought us to this bar—we never even got the name—and as we lean against wood chairs on the rooftop, we briefly savor this taste of life beyond the tourist throng. This little Central American country, newly connected to Seattle via an Alaska Airlines nonstop flight, excels at small moments like this. The pleasures of coastal Belize lie in how it bridges the ease of an on-the-grid vacation with the bustle of a destination not yet taken over by branded resorts and insular, prepackaged experiences.

We’re a few blocks from Robin’s Kitchen, the perfect encapsulation of San Pedro’s easy authenticity. The roadside stand boasts no real menu, just a small shack topped with a thatch roof and a grill out front for crisping the skin of the jerk chicken just so. Run by Belizean Jamaican couple John and Angie, the stand’s eager customers are almost perfectly split between chatty locals and grateful tourists; all are directed to the bodega next door for cold Fanta to pair with the subtle spice.

Rental golf carts fill the streets of San Pedro.

The long, skinny island of Ambergris Caye has grown into Belize’s foremost tourist destination, a tropical paradise that Madonna memorialized in 1986’s “La Isla Bonita.” (The earworm “Last night I dreamt of San Pedrooooo…” is hard to shake here.) Hotels and dive shops crowd the central town, then peter off in both directions as the outskirts of San Pedro turn more to private homes. American reminders abound, from the ski-themed bar named for a Colorado area code to the hipsterish Truck Stop, an outdoor drinkery that screens Disney movies and hosts trivia.  

Given the dearth of sand—the shoreline on the ocean side is prone to piles of seagrass—Ambergris feels marine but not particularly beachy; this is a place for over-water bars and hammocks, swift winds often keeping the equatorial temperature below scorching. On the western side of the island, the paradoxically well-known Secret Beach has shallow water over soft-white sand that seems to stretch waist-deep all the way to the mainland in the distance—but the prevalence of bars blasting party rock tunes means it’s the one place that feels like an MTV Spring Break outtake.

Most of San Pedro is committed to a gentler vacation, one with meals of fried snapper, spiny lobster, and a thousand different takes on ceviche. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve protects miles of coral reefs, the stage for a dramatic show of multicolor fish and lazy turtles; at nearby Shark Ray Alley, boat guides chum the water to bring the non-aggressive sharks to close range. Northwest environmentalists cringe to see wild animals bribed into showing up for tourists—but once they thrust their snub-nosed faces just inches away from snorkelers, it’s hard to feel anything but awe.

Colorful fish put on a show at Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

Belize was once part of the Mayan civilization, the area invaded by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century before being colonized by the English in the nineteenth, who dubbed it British Honduras. At less than 9,000 square miles—slightly smaller than New Hampshire—the country long flew under the radar between the larger Guatemala and even bigger Mexico. The official language of English remains, a remnant of the colonial regime and current bulwark of the tourism industry, though many Belizeans also speak Spanish or a local creole.

In 1981 the country gained independence and its current name. That same year Ambergris Caye, about 15 miles off the coast, was largely jungle and marsh, but a collection of 14 Texans and Canadians scored a cheap plot of land south of burgeoning San Pedro. They pictured a quiet fishing camp on what had been a coconut plantation, constructing 10 casitas and naming it Victoria House.

Back then Belizeans got to Ambergris by sailboat; a ferry and regular Cessna air service would follow. Victoria House staff would bring guests through the jungle in a pickup truck. Today they use golf carts to traverse the two miles from town. Other resorts would come—a Hilton, a Wyndham, and a Margaritaville full of condos—but Victoria House grew into only 42 rooms, most of the original casitas and some villa rooms.

Victoria House’s teal roofs hide behind beachfront palms.

Down the road, the ultra-modern Alaia Belize opened, a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel with all the luxe furnishings that entails. Some 150 rooms circle cabanas and a swim-up bar, and the rooftop infinity pool has peekaboo windows to the ground below. It boasts a decidedly resort feel, a sumptuous escape overlooking pristine blue-green ocean waves; such luxury is, perhaps, the future of San Pedro.

“Belizean people are just some of the nicest darn folks in the world,” says general manager Brent Kirkman of keeping Victoria House small in the face of bigger resorts. “We need to maintain that Belizean feel.” A San Pedro craftsman uses only local wood for all the furniture, and the restaurant decor features a giant dug-out Mayan canoe. Kirkman brings a young Venezuelan consultant, one who once served as George H. W. Bush’s personal chef, to freshen the Victoria House menus. But still owned by Texans, is this older hotel more Belize—more genuine, more local— than the fancy Alaia a few doors down? Not particularly. 

Alaska’s new seasonal nonstop is its first foray from Seattle to Central America. Beyond Ambergris the country is best known for Mayan ruins, and its existing tourism infrastructure (and currency pegged to the American dollar) makes it a remarkably easy getaway for Seattleites. 

The knot of authenticity in travel is more like a giant tangle of Christmas lights, never to be fully unwound. In Belize, that big knot—a local beer here, a fruity cocktail in an infinity pool there—is the unquestionable treat. 

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