Chilling in Placencia, Belize

Five days ago I boarded a crappy bus and headed south from Chetumal to Belize. This Premier company “best bus available” had a broken windshield and ripped seats that permanently leaned back. Though it was an express, it stopped about 20 times. This was my intro and it was prophetic.

Belize is kind of an odd country that I can’t quite get a handle on. It’s more expensive than it should be, especially considering it shares a border with two countries featured in The World’s Cheapest Destinations: Guatemala and Honduras. Both of those places are far cheaper when it comes to meals and a place to lay your head, and in many ways Mexico is cheaper too, even though it’s a far richer country on a GDP basis. Overall the poverty seems more ever-present in Belize, with a smaller middle class.

From this parachute journalist’s view, not too much is getting done anywhere. Chilling out is the main activity here. Work is something that gets in the way of your hammock time and should be avoided at all costs—even if you own a business. No fear of tout assaults here.

The odd element in the mix is the Mennonites. They are the captains of industry in Belize, strange as that may seem. They originally came down to help the country grow food—something the residents were having trouble doing themselves—and they were so good at it that they ended up growing pretty much everything. From oranges to beef to cheese, the men in hats have it down. From what I’m hearing, a few “progressive Mennonites” have taken it a step further, finding oil on their land that the government is really salivating over. “We don’t have any refineries though,” one man tells me, “so we’ll send it all out and then buy it back.”

If you go to the right spots and are on more than a shoestring backpacker level, Belize won’t hit you too hard. Many of the hotels here in Placencia are $30 to $45 a night for two right now, with hot water, a fridge, and maybe a TV showing 40 channels in English. I’m at Cozy Corners, found through the Toucan Trail site I’ve mentioned here before. (Why doesn’t every country have a site like that? It’s a great set-up for both the visitors and the owners.)

There are a few places you’ll get reamed though. Internet access is expensive everywhere, due to a national monopoly that isn’t trying very hard to make Belize a wired nation. It’ll usually be slow and it’ll cost you US$4 an hour to go online at an independent location, more at many hotels. The buses are truly awful converted school buses and are on par with the worst they can throw at you in Guatemala or Honduras—but at double the price. I’m baffled as to why this is true decades after the country got onto the tourist map, but maybe it’s down to a combination of bureacratic roadblocks and a simple lack of initiative. The easy shuttle vans you find all over Guatemala don’t exist here: you have to pay out the nose for a private shuttle. The problem is, you don’t want to drive either, especially if you are going west to where we just came from in the Cayo district. The roads are terrible and few are paved.

The best local bargain is cheap rum. It’s no Ron Zacapa 15-year, but at $8 for a big bottle of the best brand, perfectly drinkable. Happy hour rum drinks with fresh juice are a couple bucks in a lot of places. Food prices are no steal, but better than we found up north in Tulum and with bigger portions.

Not all that much to get excited about with the beaches though. Placencia has the best mainland beach in Belize, but that’s kind of like saying Des Moines has the best nightlife in Iowa.

  1. Drew Travers

    TRULY… TRULY… TRULY… this is a prime example of “parachute” travel journalism.

  2. Michael B.

    Well, I just spent six weeks in Belize and I think he nailed it better than most guidebooks do. You spend twice as much and get half as much in Belize as you do in any neighboring country. A giant rip-off unless you are a diver.

  3. Renato

    Hi Tim

    thanks for giving us as well an overview of countries not covered in your amazing book. I am currently planning my first break in Central America before Christmas and I am still considering if Belize is going to be in the (short) list or not. I guess I will spend a bit more time in Guatemala and Honduras then…

  4. Mike

    “Work is something that gets in the way of your hammock time and should be avoided at all costs—even if you own a business.”

    Sounds like my life in Seattle…

  5. tim

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m having fun in Belize. But that’s partly because I’m able to live beyond my means on a writing assignment. If I were on a shoestring backpacker budget, I’d find it rather depressing, especially if I had just come across the border from Guatemala or Honduras. Between them the two have many of the same kinds of attractions, but at far more attractive prices.

  6. Jean - OurExplorer Tour Guide

    Seems a bit tricky traveling in Belize. It may be better to travel with some professional local guide who is dependable and knows the fun places.
    Travel through the eyes of a local

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