In my 30s, I dreamt of living on a romantic Caribbean island, surrounded by the aquamarine Caribbean Sea… I wanted to swim to my heart’s content in clear, lukewarm water, surrounded by vibrantly colored tropical fish, corals, and sponges. In 2008 my dream became a reality when I moved full-time to Ambergris Caye.
My husband, Mike, and I first visited Belize in 1999, on an International Living tour, and we bought our first property on Ambergris Caye. Since then I’ve indulged in all of the water activities I’d yearned for, and many more besides. Snorkeling and scuba diving top the list. But I’ve also danced to live rock bands on the beach under a full moon, with a brisk sea breeze keeping me cool and my husband and I have regularly indulged in a delicious meal at a café on the beach, with the sea but a few steps away. We’ve spent many lazy Sunday afternoons at popular beach hot spots, socializing with friends while listening to live bands, and we’ve walked miles of publicly owned beaches, on the south and north sides of Ambergris Caye.
After a few years of indulging in all that this small island has to offer, most expats turn their gaze towards the mainland, ready to seek out new adventures. Fortunately, Belize is so small that it’s easy to fly to other regions of the country within a few hours, for a change of scenery. The Cayo is a favorite spot for a total change of pace from the Cayes, located in western Belize, in the Maya Mountains.
In the Cayo, in place of the sea you’ll find rivers, ruins, waterfalls, jungle, and caves. Instead of walking on the beach, you can hike a jungle trail, or climb a classic Maya temple at one of the country’s mysterious archaeological ruins. On the cayes, you will most likely try snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, fishing, kayaking, wind surfing, or paddle boarding. In the Cayo, you can canoe or kayak in the rivers, or simply float in a river current through a cave, while relaxing in an inner tube.
Our favorite adventure to date was the day we spent exploring the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. We hiked for an hour through the jungle until we reached the mouth of the cave. Then we swam through a pool at the entrance and waded through the river until we reached its inner chambers. We climbed up ledges and explored the chambers where, centuries before, Maya priests had sacrificed people to appease their rain god, Chaac. Some of the skeletons remain, crystallized into the cave floor.
The Cayo has indeed come a long way since we first toured Belize on that International Living trip, over 15 years ago. It’s now a recognized eco-tourism destination. And since the Maya Calendar ended in 2012, many more people have come to experience Belize’s Maya ruins, archaeology, and culture.
In spring of 2017 the Belize Tourism Board opened an attractive Welcome Center in downtown San Ignacio. This new office is a perfect starting point for visitors to learn about the history and culture of the region. Several trendy restaurants have also moved in. Although still unpretentious, the Cayo is offering increasingly upscale options to please a broader range of visitors. These days you can choose a simple jungle hut, or a trendy jungle lodge with a fancy spa and gourmet restaurant. Every time we visit we find more interesting options. But the old Belizean standards of San Ignacio, such as Pops café, remain. They continue to provide tasty, filling meals priced for a thrifty pocketbook.
Belize may be small, but it’s jam-packed with interesting options, for tourists and expat residents alike. This spring I’ll return to the Cayo, to update expat lifestyle options for our readers and I’m certainly looking forward to enjoying the Cayo’s rivers and ruins again.