Coming at number 11 on the list is Ambergris Caye, Belize. One of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, its white sand beaches, the sense of a vibrant tropical paradise, and the natural beauty of the nearby Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, all have helped Ambergris Caye earn its nickname, La Isla Bonita (Beautiful Island).
Ambergris Caye is not only the largest island of Belize, it is also one of the only parts of the country not connected to the mainland. The Mayans who settled here, some 1500 years ago are believed to be responsible for digging the channel that resulted in separating the island from the rest of Belize. While no one is sure as to the reason why, it isn’t difficult to imagine that these pre-Columbian residents saw something special in this location that merited keeping it apart from the rest of the area. In a real sense, this same essence is what makes this tropical destination so popular today.
The name “Ambegris Caye,” itself, has a romantic origin. In the 1600s, British privateers (today they’d be known as pirates of the Caribbean) found the calm waters behind the reef a perfect place to rest, resupply and (perhaps) bury the valuables taken during their raids. By deepening the existing Mayan channel, their larger vessels were able to enter the area.
Being enterprising individuals, whaling and logging were added to their job descriptions of raiding and plundering. Collecting the waxy substance secreted from the intestines of sperm whales that washed up on the beaches of the caye was especially lucrative since perfume makers in Europe utilized it to make their high quality merchandise. The name of this substance? Ambergris. Hence the name.
While fishing was the primary industry until the 1970s, the rapid growth of the tourist trade and the influx of US and European expats, has resulted in tourism being the principal economic engine. The village of San Pedro has been transformed from a humble fishing community to the main commercial center on the island. Resorts, residential properties, shopping and dining options are in abundance here.
For all of the 21st development, there is still a relaxed, island vibe that makes Ambergris Caye so popular for those seeking a place where time is not such a commodity. The main methods of transportation, aside from just walking, are the ubiquitous golf carts that can be found everywhere.
As might be expected, there are lots of ocean-related activities that can be enjoyed. Scuba diving enthusiasts can explore the underwater wonders of the coral reef. The local dive shops offer all levels of certification from both PADI and NAUII. For non-divers, there are snorkeling expeditions that will reveal the marine paradise through the crystal blue prism of the Caribbean.
Participating in the traditional occupation of Ambergris Caye,fishing, is easy. Whether fly fishing, in-shore casting, or going after a deep sea game fish, the numerous charters that can be arranged at the hotels or through local guide fisherman can satisfy the most ardent angler. The opportunity to catch the evening meal and then have it prepared in front of you can enhance the island experience like little else.
Sunset cruises are a popular feature on the Caye. Enjoying the beauty of the late afternoon on the water is a great way to get ready for the myriad of nighttime activities that can be found. There are two major dance clubs in San Pedro as well as smaller, more intimate and, in some cases, funky seaside bars.
Nature lovers have the opportunity to indulge themselves at a number of locations in and around Ambergris Caye. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve contains a great selection of both coral and marine life. Divers and snorkelers enjoy discovering this area. Just south of the Reserve is Shark-Ray Alley. This is a great spot to get have close encounters with these denizens of the ocean. There are many tours to both spots that are easily arranged.
Little Iguana and Rosario Caye are good locations for bird watching. Many unusual species, such as frigate birds, blue herons, and roseate spoonbills can be observed in their natural habitat. Another, smaller location for birdwatchers is the privately owned, Lalas Sanctuary. It has a unique, multi-level “people perch” that enables visitors to better observe these winged wonders.
History lovers can satisfy their interest by visiting three prominent mainland Mayan sites: Xunantunich, Altun Ha and Lamanai. Tours to these locations are also easily arranged. Both Lamanai and Altun Ha are reached by taking a boat to the mainland and then a vehicle to the sites. Xunantunich is a bit more complicated as it involves a plane to Belize City and then a vehicle to the site. An additional benefit is a stop during the trip at the Belize Zoo.
Belize, in general, and Ambergris Caye in particular, has continued to grow in popularity as a tropical location for retirees, expats, and investors. Perhaps one of the major factors is that English is the official language. For many considering a life outside of the US, not having to learn a new language is an important plus.
Since Belize was once a British colony, the property laws (much like the US) are based on English Common Law. Being able to understand the legal ramifications involved in buying and selling property on Ambergris Caye certainly makes the prospect of becoming a property owner here less daunting.
It is true that the prices for property on Amergris Caye are far different than the $625 Magistrate James Hume Blake paid for the entire Caye in 1869. For investors, this promises a good return on any initial cash outlay. For retirees, it means that the money spent on this island escape will not lose its value.
Perhaps the single biggest reason that Ambergris Caye is growing in popularity is the simple fact that there is a sense of community that welcomes expats. Being able to rediscover the simple joys of a morning sunrise over the ocean, a relaxing day at the beach, and the serenity of a sunset stroll are just some of the intangible and rewarding benefits of life on the Caye.