We have. We’ve gone. And we’ve done it. We retired at the end of April and here we are 8 months later at the cusp of the New Year. In that time we laid our heads down in 16 different places in 7 different states and in 3 different countries, hauling our little dogs as we went. In terms of islands, we’ve visited a couple of barrier islands in Florida (Indialantic & Siesta Key), two islands in Honduras (Utila & Roatan), and now we’ve done a border run to Ambergris Caye in Belize. Yep, we’re knee deep in it now. It’s good though!
Much of this wasn’t even planned as recently as September. If you’ve been reading this blog you know we’ve been re-routed because of a grave family health problem, a couple of hurricanes, and now political strife. As was mentioned in the last blog, the recent elections in Honduras resulted in serious rioting, and that resulted in a quick change to an immigration rule that we were planning on using. That was a 30-day extension that was going to work out just right for us. But lacking that, in order to avoid becoming illegal aliens we had to make a quick unplanned run to another country for 72 hours, to reset our Visa timeline.
That country was Belize because of its proximity, because we’ve always wanted to see it, and because of its relatively reasonable cost for the trip. We considered Panama, Cayman Islands, and briefly the USA, but Belize just made sense to us. But before we could go, we still had a small problem. Actually two small problems, named Kirby and Maxwell. Well, they’re not problems (such a mean thing to say!), but they are a little extra work. So Deb went online and found the pet sitter in Roatán, Marti. We received responses by several friendly pet lovers who could help, but Marti was the only one who does this professionally on Roatán. She stays in the home so that the dogs are comfortable in their surroundings, even when their regular people are gone. And we get house-sitting to boot. For us, this was the perfect solution and she was the perfect sitter.
So it was off to Belize, and we had the rare luxury of traveling light. We each had only a backpack, and in it was our snorkel gear, a couple of bathing suits, a couple pairs of shorts, a spare pair of flip-flops, and a few t-shirts. It was so nice! Our flight was at 7 a.m. the morning after Christmas, and we were advised to get to the airport early for Immigration (but not too early, it doesn’t open until 6 a.m.). So, up at five, taxi driver picked us up at 5:30 and we were at the airport bleary-eyed and bushy-tailed at six. The Roatán airport in Coxen Hole is small and easy to navigate and the next thing we knew they were gathering us together to walk out on the tarmac to the plane. We felt like kids in elementary school being herded together to go to lunch or a school function, “Stay together for your own safety children!”.
We climbed in the plane and sat in the seats right behind the pilot and copilot. The guy helping the pilot with his stairs and door leaned in and said “you're in First Class”! 🙂 This was on Tropic Air based out of Belize, a Cessna 208 Caravan that seats 9 passengers behind the pilots. This flight was just us and a family of five, who were going to Houston through some convoluted path that was going to take them 11 hours to get there. We know there is a big jet airliner to Houston from United that probably takes about 2 hours, but maybe you have to buy the cheaper, much more tortured path when the cost is multiplied by five. In exactly one hour we were landing in Belize City, but not before flying over some amazing atolls and outer cayes well off the coast.
A short taxi ride later (through the run-down small city) and we were getting tickets to board the water taxi that goes to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. This terminal building was filled with shops and a couple restaurants, every one of which had a hawker outside, most of whom were from India. They were all trying to get us into their shops. We were looking at beer in one cold case and the guy was standing there telling us about each one – I finally had to tell them I know about beer. In fact, I know a lot about beer, ha! Anyway, it was a bit of a strange scene just to get a water taxi. I take exception though, with calling it a water taxi. That term to me implies a small boat with just a few passengers. They have many of these in West Bay, Roatán to take people around to other beaches and towns. This boat I would call a “ferry”, because of the sheer size and carrying capacity. There were about 90 souls on board this modern vessel and it cruised along at a good pace, hitting Caye Caulker in about an hour. A short stop there and then another half hour to San Pedro town in Ambergris Caye – it was a nice ride.
We started off on foot, looking for an ATM while we tried to find our hotel. The airport ATM wouldn't give us Belizean dollars (which trade at exactly 2 to 1 with the US$) and our Honduran Lempiras, of which we had lots, did us no good here. Well, the ATM we found in town didn't work either – our hotel manager said it may be due to the holiday, that it was probably just empty. So once again we were on an island with a cash shortage. This was becoming a recurring event – it had happened in Utila, Roatan, and now in Ambergris. We have picked up the habit of getting cash every time we pass an ATM, on any island. In fact, for a while we were going every single day and getting the maximum amount so we'd have a stash for those “ATM is down again” days. The corollary to this behavior is that when you see something on an island that you want, you get it. You don't wait until later because it's definitely going to be gone later. Examples: the special Bloody Mary at the beach bar, the coconut water we liked in the grocery, anything at a restaurant or fruit stand. All of these things disappear and may come back one day, or may not. Cash is important to us because that's how we operate. We only put our credit cards out in limited situations like to pay rent, or at ATMs (and we look for skimmers, cameras, etc). Then we spend cash for everything else, limiting our exposure to credit card problems.
But back to Belize, we found an ATM the next day that gave us Belize dollars so we were good from that point forward. The first thing we noticed there was that the road by the beach is really almost part of the beach. It is made of sand and the beach just falls off toward the water right next to it. So you walk along the road, but really on the beach. On the “land” side of the road are the beach bars and restaurants and they often provide beach chairs, etc. across the road at the water. Or, they are out on a pier over the water, and these are really fun. Like the Honduras Bay Islands, Ambergris has its share of dive shops and fishing guides that will take you out to the reef. There are also jungle tours and other adventures, none of which we wanted to do. We only had 3 days and we didn't want to spend one of them in a long car ride hauling off to some other place for a couple hours of fun. This was a vacation for us, but not in the traditional sense. That's just not how we roll.
Our hotel was beachfront, pretty basic but they had a nice open air restaurant which looked out to the sea. Oddly, our view was over the city park which is a basketball court surrounded by white sand, palm trees, and some playground equipment. I really enjoyed watching the kids play, in most cases without an adult in sight. The boys and girls got together for pickup basketball games, or hot potato, or some made-up game - everybody just played and got along and this went well into the night. It reminded me of when I was a kid – you don't see much of this in the US any more, with every activity being managed by grown-ups and the children always being watched.
Our two favorite places were the Palapa Bar & Grill and Sandy Toes. Palapa was out on its own pier, a big restaurant/bar with good food and drinks. It's best point though is its “swimming hole” with tied off inner-tubes and a sun deck. It was such a great time we went there more than once and met a cool retired ex-pat named Craig, who is from Montana. He was a member of a group called the Walkaholics who get together and walk from bar to bar, wearing matching t-shirts. Deb said that's exactly what we do (except for the matching t-shirts)! These guys get discounts and generally just hang out and have a great time together. Craig really opened up to us, he talked about what a great life he has and if his number is called tomorrow, that's OK. It was hard to argue with his positive outlook on life, and we enjoyed his company quite a bit. Another of the Walkaholics was a musician who plays country music and he stressed that Zac Brown and Kenny Chesney don't count (which made us a little sad). He plays real country music, which to him meant George Jones and Hank Williams, etc. He stays busy playing around town though, so good for him.
Sandy Toes is a different experience entirely. It's a small but busy tiki bar with a swimming beach just across the sandy road. They provide nice quality colorful plastic Adirondack chairs on the beach that often find themselves in the water with a tourist plopped down in them. Cold drinks, food, very laid back, very nice. We went snorkeling off this beach and discovered once again what is becoming a recurring theme in Central America. The beaches, many, many of them, have turtle grass growing under the water, just near the water's edge. It grows really well and as it grows, the sand is trapped around it. Over time, this causes the sea bottom to rise higher and higher. So as you walk out, it could be waste deep water with a sandy bottom, and then you step up to ankle deep water in the turtle grass. I don't like walking through it because I can't see if I'm stepping on something sharp, or stepping into a hole, etc. We worked our way through it and snorkeled around a couple hundred yards off the beach, but there wasn't much to see. Deb spotted a cool starfish but there wasn't a lot else. We'd heard the beach snorkeling would be good, but there really is no reef close to shore like in Utila, so no coral with all the reef creatures. So that was a bit of a bust, but a bad day snorkeling is better than – well, you know the rest. It wasn't so terrible to go back to the shore for a cold beer and a pina colada.
We took some time to walk around town, which can get very busy at times. We found a cool store that caters to men in every way (clothes, tools, electronics, deodorant, shoes, gadgets, etc.), something I've never seen before. We didn't buy anything there because I'm man'd up already, but in another store we did find a flag for our collection. That was the extent of our shopping in San Pedro, we mostly spent our time on the beaches. One day we took a walk down the beach that turned out to be 4 ½ miles round trip. It was nice to have such a long stretch to just walk and walk and see everything on the coast. On the walk home another day an older gentleman was buying a single beer at a small stand. He said hello and as we walked he was picking up empties to return for the deposit money. He asked us if we were having a good vacation; we kind of figured he was going to hit us up for money. We said we'd be there just another couple of days and asked where he lived. “Just over there” he said, and we told him he lives in a beautiful place. That was it, he said goodbye and told us to enjoy our stay. It was very heartening to meet someone who wasn't after us for something, he just wanted to know if we were really enjoying his hometown.
Before we knew it, we were packing for “home” back in Honduras and doing the entire trip in reverse (water taxi, taxi, plane, taxi). At immigration in Roatan, we had a minor delay while they realized what we had just done. They seemed a little bit surprised that we had just left and returned 3 days later, but I'm sure they've seen it before. They discussed us for a while, and eventually we were told that this is the last time we'd be able to get 90 days without leaving the country for 90 days. But he said we could still get a 30 day extension (where was this when we needed it???). But that was it, a successful border run. We'd gone and done it. We're definitely knee deep in it now. And it's good.
Happy New Year to all of you! 2017 has been a crazy year for us, quite an adventure. I don't know about y'all, but we're sure looking forward to see what 2018 has in store for us. We'll keep trying to plan it, but by now we know how that goes!
TODAY'S SPECIAL: None other than Zac Brown singing “Knee Deep”, what else?