It was a rainy day in Oct when we arrived from Houston to Belize City. This was my first time there. The locals jokingly call Ambergris Caye “Southern Texas” because apparently, we Texans visit frequently. The flight is only 2.5 hours and very affordable.
As soon as we arrived, we were ushered to the official taxi stand and taken to the San Pedro Belize Express Water Taxi port. We bought our round trip ticket to Ambergris Caye, via Caye Caulker. It was about $68 BZ ($34 USD) and they accepted credit cards.
The port has a few small cafes with folks peddling “happy hour” 2-for-1 drinks as we walk past. Since we had to wait for the next taxi departure, we settled into one of the cafes and ordered a few snacks. I was immediately introduced to “Fry Jacks” which is a fried puffy dough, very similar to a Mexican Sopapilla, served with honey or stuffed with savory meats.
A one-way ride on the Belize Express water taxi is 90 mins: 60 to get to Caye Caulker (the first stop) and another 30 to Ambergris Caye. Being excited to see things, we chose to sit up top and in the front right by the captain (Roger). We asked him all kinds of questions, while he flirted with one of my friends, and we were all pelted by winds and on and off rain. We decided the next time we rode the taxi, we’d not sit here again because it was really windy.
When we arrived in Ambergris Caye at the water taxi port, we were again inundated (more like swarmed) with taxi drivers, golf cart rental services, restaurant promoters, and excursion salespeople. It was a little overwhelming. We made our way (after many polite “no thank you”s) to the street curb to find an “official taxi” stop and hopped in with Raul, who took us to the Isla Bonita Yacht Club, about 7 mins south of the water taxi port.
At the yacht club, we were greeted by Harry. A young man working at the hotel who is originally from San Ignacio. Harry made us feel welcomed, secure, and patiently answered our flurry of questions. He became our most trusted source for suggestions and what to do and NOT to do. (“I don’t recommend you walk along the beachside at night. Stay to the streets.”)
As we got settled in and looked around the grounds of our hotel, (which were gorgeous) we discovered we were the only guests. It had been closed during slow season and only reopened the day before we arrived. So we had the place to ourselves, except for a few long-term renters.
The island has two tourist “seasons” and we were at the very beginning of their winter season which doesn’t kick off until around mid-Nov. The other busy season is summer. So the whole island was less crowded and even a little sleepy. Places we researched before that said would be packed, such as the “Secret Beach” hardly had anyone there, which was perfect. The flip side is that because it was slow, the local businesses and street vendors pushing things felt more concentrated.
Harry helped us arrange a snorkeling excursion, had our golf cart delivered ($35 USD/day), directed us to places to eat (“You must try Elvi’s”) and essentially helped us plan our entire stay. Being our first time there, and traveling as a trio of 40 something women, his help was invaluable. I’d recommend you check with your hotel staff to get assistance with your excursions too.
In total, we spent 4 days on the island (before heading inland to San Ignacio for a few more days). I definitely know there is a lot more to see and experience. But based on my short time there this first visit, here’s my list of things I loved… and things I didn’t love about visiting Ambergris Caye.
WHAT I LOVED
Neri’s taco stand. This little off the beaten track cafe with 3 tacos for $1 BZ was our favorite breakfast stop. From what I could see, the locals love it too! Their pork tacos are amazing and I opted for the single tacos on homemade flour tortillas. WARNING: They offer a green salsa on the table. That sucker is HOT HOT HOT. Seriously, it needs to come with a warning.
Wayos Bar and Grill. Pronounced “why-os” this palapa themed bar is owned by Whyo, a super friendly man who loves his life and his customers. It’s right on the water and has such a great welcoming vibe. Marshall, one of the bartenders, is a hoot and happy to contribute to you having a good time. His Cocojitos (blended coconut milk mojito) are huge and delicious. We loved this place enough to go back multiple times and I came home with one of their branded tanks. I will never forget how much fun there. The food is also delicious.
Poco Locos Food Court. Their colorful lifesize San Pedro sign is what drew us in (#forthegram) but their sincere interest in providing a welcoming experience is what made us go back. The owner made a point of telling us the little improvements he and the chef made to the menu and you could just sense how much care they put into all of it. They took pictures of us in front of their sign, made us special drinks, and the tacos were the best and prettiest ones we had the whole trip. Everything was fresh and delicious, albeit a little more expensive than Nery’s. The ambiance was relaxed and it was smack in the middle of downtown.
Island Divers Belize. Harry from our hotel arranged our Hol Chan Reserve and Shark Ray Alley snorkeling excursion with Island Divers Belize. We picked a day when the weather forecast said there wouldn’t be any rain. It lied. It poured and poured. We were picked up at 8am and didn’t get out onto the water until around 1:30. (That’s how we found Wayo’s next door while waiting out the storm.) Once we were out at the reserve and in the warm Caribbean water it was a whole other world! Adrian and Chris were our guides and really turned a wet and dismal day into something I’ll remember the rest of my life. This is a must-do when visiting Belize.
Secret Beach. If you plan to go here, you must get a golf-cart. In fact, a golf cart on Ambergris Caye is pretty necessary in general. The not so “Secret Beach” is about a 45-minute golf-cart drive north of San Padro. For the most part, you’re going past resorts, the famous Truck Stop and a lot of construction. The last 15 mins of the drive feel really isolated and the road is rough. We packed some snacks and Belikin’s (the Belizian beer) and just enjoyed the drive. Once there, it’s lovely!
There are a few different bars to chose from. We settled into Pirates, which is the one directly behind the famous Secret Beach life-sized sign. There’s innertube floats, picnic tables out in the water, lots of loungers, a pier with people offering massages, and a bar and grill. You’ll want to make sure you pay attention to the time so you avoid driving back in the dark, as there are zero lights on the road and part of the way you’re driving through lagoons.
*Note: We were told by locals to visit the Blue Bayou which is down a road to the left of the main “Secret Beach” sign. We never did because the area we were wasn’t crowded. But if you’re going during a busier time, I’m told the Blue Bayou is a wonderful alternative.
Aba Isieni Arzu Kitchen. This literal hole in the wall homemade fast-food eatery was some of the best authentic Belizian food we had while there. I ordered the fresh red snapper fried with red beans and rice and coleslaw. The other ladies ordered stewed chicken and curry chicken. We loved every bite. And the only people we saw ordering at the window were other locals. I was told later that they sell out every day and that we were lucky to be able to eat there.
Isla Bonita Yacht Club. I already raved about Harry but the entire staff at Isla Bonita Yacht Club was so attentive and helpful. Anthony (goes by Tony) is the night security and knowing he was there, helped me sleep better. They have a beautiful pool that overlooks the water and our room was a full suite with a mini kitchen. We had an issue with our mini fridge not cooling down and he brought one in to replace it for us after hours. I found out the next day that he took the front staff’s refrigerator to use as our replacement! We were so impressed with the effort he made to ensure we had a good experience. Tony is the man.
The Truck Stop. If you’re researching Ambergris Caye, you’ve likely already read up on this cool tourist stop. The Truck Stop hype is real. It’s very charming, right down to the clever signs on all the bathrooms. They have a few eateries and a bar, all built from shipping containers. My favorite was the insanely delicious gourmet ice-cream shop, Cool Cone. There’s a colorful “Belize” mural on the side of the bar for selfies. If you walk past the containers toward the water, there’s a pier with a perfect sunset vista. It was exactly the little stop we needed after a day at the Secret Beach.
WHAT I DIDN’T LOVE
World Famous Chicken Drop. If you’re in Ambergris on Thurs night, you’ll have people telling you to go to the chicken drop at Wahoo’s Lounge. From the second we walked in, the vibe felt shady. Drug deals, working women, shifty-eyed men walking around, and “friendly” guys who lingered around you trying to start conversations and asking “where are you staying?”
We bought our “bets” and stayed to watch 4 rounds of chickens pooping on numbers, hoping our number would be the lucky one. The whole time, I wanted to just wisk away the poor chickens being subjected to very loud music pulsing 3 feet from her out of giant speakers, while people screamed. The whole thing is a spectacle, as you’d expect. The chickens were so frightened, they would just stand in one place paralyzed.
The worst part is that the whole thing is a bit of a scam. I know this first hand because my friend actually won the $500 round but walked away with only $79 USD. She was told it was because “all the bets weren’t sold” so she only gets a percentage. The whole thing felt depressing and wasn’t my scene at all. But there were plenty of people having a good time. To each their own.
Pineapples restaurant at Ramons Resort. This was the first place we ate. We were hungry, didn’t have a golf cart yet, and it was getting dark. The food was fine. The atmosphere was even really nice. But it is 100% tourist with high prices to match. Not one plantain to be found on the menu. The fresh fish I had for $5 USD at Aba Isieni Arzu Kitchen, was a whopping “Market Price” of $60 BZ here. It was basically a very upscale restaurant which is fine, except that’s not what we were there for and prefer to eat as the locals eat. Hands down, this was the most expensive meal of our entire visit to Belize.
“Don’t trust anyone.” I had at least 4 different locals tell me this. This contributed to feeling just a little on edge. I have traveled a bit to other places, but here I could feel my guard up and on alert. I’m not saying I was “afraid” for my safety at all. But I was very conscious of how I was paying, who I told where I was staying, or sharing other personal info.
For example, one of my friends paid with her card and later that night she started getting facebook messages from someone she didn’t know. She realized it was our waiter. She never told him her name, but he had seen her name on her card when she paid and found her to ask her out. It was a little creepy.
After a mere 24 hours there, it was obvious to me that the “hustle” was people being friendly. “Hey let me show you something” “Come to this after-party” “I can help you with that.” It’s a sad realization because I’m a sucker for friendly people. It’s not to say there aren’t some genuinely friendly people because there definitely are. But I quickly began to only trust people that were vouched by someone else who I knew wasn’t trying to hustle me.
Drinking on the streets and while in a golf cart (as long as you’re not the driver) is all acceptable. If you want to save a few dollars, go to the grocery store and buy your Belikin beer and rum and coke. You’ll save a lot of $$$.
I felt completely safe during the day. However, once it’s dark, the shops downtown all shutter. The grocery stores, bars, and restaurants are the only things that remain open. It starts to feel a little abandoned. Again, this could be due to the time of year we were there. But from talking to the locals, the suggestion was to not spend too much time out past dark bar hopping or looking for a party because the shadier side of the island tends to come out at that time. We hung out until about 10pm some nights but remained in one place and everything was fine.
The whole country is half-off. The Belizian currency is exactly 50% of the US dollar. The default is the Belizian price on all menus, signs, etc. So you get used to cutting everything in half to calculate what you’re actually spending. For us, we came to Belize with US dollars in cash to start. But after a few days, between ATM stops and getting back change, we eventually transitioned to using just Belizian currency.
Other recommended restaurants. Every. Single. Person. we asked about a restaurant said Elvie’s. Unique flavor combinations, fresh fish, and modern take on Belizian dishes. The vibe was nice and the prices were reasonable. I really loved breakfast right on the water at Estele’s. Luis was our waiter and he helped make us feel like queens. Very attentive and a wealth of knowledge. The prices were great and you couldn’t beat the view. We were told D’Family and Carumba were also must visits, but we never did get around to them. They remain on my list for another time. Also, if you’re up for cooking your own fresh seafood, I was told the Greenhouse Market was the place to go. It was lobster and conch season when we went and I had visions of grilling some fresh lobster but that didn’t happen.
We rented our golf cart from C&S Golf Cart Rentals. It was arranged through our hotel and delivered an hour later. Compared to many of the carts we saw on the island, I think we had a pretty swanky one. It was practically new, had a built-in ice-chest under the back seat, and was very reliable.
What I’d do differently next time
All in all, I found the country, the food, and the island beautiful. Would I go back? Yes. I would absolutely go back to Ambergris Caye. But I’d do things a little different.
Personally, I’m not a big party person. So I’d chose to stay on the north side of the island away from the noise and hustle of downtown.
I’d chose to spend more time and resources out on the water. Probably even doing multiple Hol Chan Reserve excursions just to see more of their amazing reef system under different conditions.
I’d find a spa and get a massage, and a lounge chair under the sun and curl up with a book with only the sound of the water.
I’d plan the night before for visiting Secret Beach and get an early start. Between buying snacks, getting gas, and making a side trip to the artisan market, we didn’t arrive until 2pm. This left us only 2 hours to spend there, before heading back before dusk. The drive is 45 mins one way, and that’s not including stops along the way like the Truck Stop and other cute areas worth exploring. So give yourself a full day and get started early so you don’t feel rushed.
Lastly, I’d eat some conch, which was in season but I never got around to trying. Lobster season is at the same time and I’d definitely find a way to enjoy more of that too.
Now that I know what to expect, I’m sure I’d feel less on edge and more comfortable overall. It’s a place worth visiting and I hope to do it again.
Been to Ambergris Caye? I’d love to hear your best tips and suggestions in the comments.