Family of Four’s First Time On Ambergris Caye: Tips, Favorites & Recommendations

The SanPedroScoop is a one-woman operation – my viewpoint all the time – but yesterday I received a detailed trip report from a recent visitor.  And since I’ve been on the island for 12 years – I am completely UNABLE to see Ambergris Caye for the very first time.  That seems obvious but it’s really hard not to compare everything now – the changes, the progress, the crowds – to my very first visit here.  The magic time when everything was ABSOLUTE perfection.

So here is a First Time Visitors’ First Time Trip to Ambergris Caye. They have a great open attitude and are willing to try LOTS – a mix of tours and adventures and relaxation. I especially like that there are plenty of specifics, tips and details.  And many things that I’ve never done and places I’ve never been!  Thanks so much Dane for your report!  (I will not lie…his original planned trip sounds like HEAVEN to me but I’m very glad they picked Belize!)

Trip Report:

The end of July into August is hot pretty much everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. I recently got a note from someone who told me ALASKA is unseasonably warm this time of year! So why would I cancel my family trip (that has been planned for many months) to Europe and head to south towards the 18th parallel into Belize on short notice? Two reasons: Poop and people.

Me, my wife and my two kids (age 11 and 13) were planning on flying to Malaga Spain, driving down the coast, taking the ferry to Morocco for a day, and continuing our drive to Portugal and up to Lisbon before flying home, about 13-14 days. As we got closer to leaving however, I read several news stories that were very disconcerting, about poop. It seems that many restaurants and businesses along Spain’s Costa Del Sol were dumping sewage directly into the sea at many popular beaches. No thanks!

Then I started reading about the coming ‘heat wave’ this summer and the ‘record number of tourists’ that were planning on descending on southern Spain and Portugal!  Another ‘no thanks’ from me!

At this point, I started looking at Central America and British Virgin Islands as alternatives. My wife and I have sailed the BVI several times, and although it’s one of our favorite places, it’s expensive! My process is to start with a place to stay, then decide on how to get there, after finding activities everyone will enjoy. From ATM cave tours, to jungles, beaches of Placencia and all the magical places available on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, Belize was an easy choice!

Where To Stay:

I searched online sites such as TripAdvisor and Hotels.com for a place to stay, but ultimately had the best success with VRBO and Airbnb. I eventually found a villa/condo at Tres Cocos on Airbnb that had 2 bedrooms (3 beds) and a full kitchen and housekeeping for a very reasonable price. I recommend searching using the map feature. Do you like to party, you’ll probably want to be in San Pedro. Do you want to avoid people at all costs, book in far north or far south. I wanted to be close to town without being ‘in town’. We ended up being 2 minutes from town, 2 minutes from Truck Stop, and about 1 minute from a grocery store. We had a bar/restaurant on either side of us, a pool, and a great waterfront location, perfect for us!

Our Arrival:

When you get to Belize City, I’m sure you know by now that you can fly or water taxi. My kids LOVE boats and my wife is terrified of flying in little planes, so we chose the taxi. Whew, what they don’t tell you is that it’s HOT until it gets moving. Buy some water before you board, and try to be one of the last, unless you want a specific seat. Also note that alcohol on Ambergris Caye is somewhat expensive, so hit the duty free liquor stores at the airport – you can put them in carry-on on the ferry.

Upon our arrival in San Pedro, we were all a little taken aback by the sheer beauty of the water, the waves cresting over the reef (clearly visible from almost everywhere in Ambergris Caye) and the central park area of town. Getting off of the water taxi drops you into a pretty typical ‘tourist’ scene: cabbies clamor for attention and business, a few hustlers approach with promises of the best tours, golf carts and illegal substances if you’re into it, and lazy dogs check out the new smells and retreat back to the shade of a palm tree or building. Keep your wits about you, choose a cabbie, and hand them your luggage tickets so they can load you up and take you to where you’re going. Enjoy the sights, and ask questions en route. The cabbies I met loved talking about their little slice of paradise and had great knowledge.

A note on Golf Carts:

For us, taxis weren’t practical. We wanted the freedom that you can only get with a golf cart. We initially booked one through our resort, but it didn’t feel solid, fast, or well maintained, so I called Roadrunner (a golf cart company) and negotiated a price for a week that was well below published rates I found anywhere else. Everyone and their brother will be able to ‘get you a golf cart’ but do some research, they’re not all equal.

Activities:

This is how I begin when planning a vacation. I know that my kids and wife and I won’t want to be bored, but we also don’t want to have a rigid schedule while on vacation. I chose a sailing/snorkel day, a SCUBA day, and a fishing day. Other than those 3, we didn’t have any set times we had to be anyplace. I planned a down day after arriving, then sailing, then a few empty days, and SCUBA, then fishing 2 days before we head home, because I was planning on freezing the catch and bringing it back to the US.

Some of SanPedroScoop’s Suggestions for Budget Activities with Children : Kids in Belize: Stuff for Children Of All Ages to Do On Ambergris Caye that Won’t Break The Bank

Some more on those:

Sailing/Snorkel day. We booked through Catamaran Belize, and I honestly can’t say enough great things about these people and their company and service. It’s amazing. Even while in Belize, I told everyone that would listen to book with them. The level of customer service is truly ‘concierge’ level, and you can customize your trip however you’d like. We snorkeled Hol Chan, then Shark Ray alley…

…hit Koko King’s north of the split on Caye Caulker for lunch, and then Caye Caulker for a stroll and then more snorkeling on a wreck before sailing home under the stars back to San Pedro.

They bring a GoPro and video your group snorkeling as well! This was everyone’s absolute favorite thing we did on vacation! We saw sharks, rays, turtles, eels, numerous fish and plants, and just had a great day overall! Also, we had the best ceviche we’ve ever had in 40 years, on this boat, prepared while we sailed! (cocktails and juice/water included!)

SCUBA Day was a few days after sailing day, and we booked a resort course or ‘discover SCUBA’ course for the kids with Seastar Belize. This is another company I will use again and again. This is part of the Dive Bar in the Tres Cocos neighborhood, and wow, what a crew! Chino was an amazing teacher and I tagged along to snorkel and take pics as the kids took their first breaths underwater.

Fishing Day was a letdown. We booked through Catamaran Belize, but wish we had booked through the Dive Bar/Seastar Belize. We saw many people come and go with Seastar and they all had great fun and success. Our trip was less so, on a boat that wasn’t great, with a guide that was filling in for someone else. Just bad luck, it happens… but I believe that with Seastar, they have enough crew and equipment to always give an amazing experience even if someone is out sick for a day, so I’ll be booking with them next trip. Although Catamaran Belize has just purchased thier own boat for this purpose and so will be able to offer fishing in-house in the near future.

When we go fishing in the Florida Keys, we usually freeze it and bring it home in our carry-on. I didn’t know this beforehand, but if you’d like to bring your fish home, you’ll need a permit. Ask about that during booking, it should be about $50US for the permit to be secured and delivered to Ambergris Caye from Belize City. We didn’t get one in time, so I wish we had fished earlier in the trip to have fish to cook/eat while there.

So what did we do the rest of our days? Whatever we wanted! Usually, my daughter and I would get up and get coffee going for mama while she and my son slept in, and then we’d sneak off in the golf cart to Estel’s for breakfast. Sit outside and people watch, talk to your neighbors and by the end of the trip, be treated as locals and friends.

SanPedroScoop was invaluable for these days. I recommend poking around the entire site (use the ‘Random Favorite’ button!) as well as asking people you see posting on Instagram.

Here are some highlights from our recent trip in no particular order.

Truck Stop was popular because of Pizza and Ice Cream. I wish I had remembered trivia night, so check their schedule and put it in your phone! Great pizza but they’re on the small side, so order accordingly. Other options include Asian and Mexican fare. Not on the water per se, but they have a dock for sunset watching if you take the path next to the pool they use for movie night.

(From SPS:  Trivia is Thursday nights!  Here’s my post about Trivia Night)

John’s Escape, this is quite a haul north on a golf cart (north of secret beach), but totally worth it. Say hello to Javier (Lolly) and swim off the dock and in the pool. Great food, great people, and they have an ice-cream shop next door.

JetSkis – they offer them quite a few places, but many machines I saw looked old and poorly maintained for the most part. The exception we found was ‘Wakes’ in San Pedro. Great condition, friendly staff and inexpensive day. We booked a half-day and my daughter and I picked up the ski and drove it north to Secret Beach to meet my wife and son. It’s only about a 5-7 minute trip on a 45mph jet ski, and we took it out to the Sandbar as well.

Stella’s Sunset: One driveway north of the Truck Stop. Boyd and Kelly are expats who bought this gem a few years ago and run their backyard restaurant like pros! Kelly is also a vet-tech in her former life, so a good person to know if you’re moving down with pets! They even invited us back on their ‘closed’ day to enjoy the sunset from their dock, what a view! Great food, nice wine and amazing company.

Best meal: Mambo at Mata Chica Resort (a spot for celeb-sighting see here: Best places for Celebrity Sighting.) We didn’t spend much time here, but wish we had, it’s gorgeous. I had a birthday, so my wife made reservations here for supper and it didn’t disappoint. Filet Mignon, pasta and beef carpaccio were all top-notch, and they surprised me with a delicious caramel flan for dessert with my name on it!

Best pool: We went from place to place trying all the pools that we could. Usually if you order a drink or food you can take a dip. By far the best pool we found was in the north at Coco Beach. They have several pools and offer ‘swim-up’ service.

Secret Beach: I’m going to go against the grain here. Secret Beach was a huge disappointment. I suppose if I was in my 20’s and wanted to ‘party’ it might’ve held more allure? Upon arrival, you’re immediately approached by hustlers telling you where to park and offering ‘free’ drinks – which turns out to be a bit of a scam. We went to them all.

All have great water, poor customer service, and hustlers selling bracelets, junk, or other more illicit/adult offerings, and crowds of locals of all ages enjoying the water with their families. The place I found best was Blue Bayou, which was farthest to the south.

I tried jet-surfing at Secret Beach, and it was a blast. Fairly easy to do and inexpensive too! Just sign up at the kiosk in the center of Secret Beach. Several developments are planned for Secret Beach, and I think it’s a huge mistake. There is already a problem with trash, bathrooms and hustlers, I can’t imagine what it will be like in 2-3 years. 🙁

Go check it out though, it’s a must-see, it just wasn’t appealing to our crew. Please be respectful with trash and keep the Caye clean!

Dive Bar: This was, as I mentioned, next to where we were staying, and amazing. We ate several meals here. Breakfast is good, lunch is great, and after our fishing trip, we gave all of our fish to them and asked for them to be made however the chef felt. He cooked everything in three different ways, each more delicious than the last.

We are all up in the air as to whether this or Mambo was the best meal, it was THAT good! We shared our catch with the chef, the bartenders, waitstaff, and everyone else in the restaurant and had a great evening! Will definitely book our next fishing trip with them, and have them cook it up three ways again!

Grocery: We used the little market north of the bridge near our resort mostly, but not for everything. We also brought Kraft mac n cheese with us, because we have a picky eater, as well as dry pancake mix in zip locks. Lino’s Meats for… well, meats in San Pedro. The Greenhouse in San Pedro has all your fruits and vegetables that are in season. For more selection, you can hit any number of roadside stands. Tan’s Mart was our pick for buying beer and alcohol during our trip.

Our Travel tips:

  1. Download Belize, the whole country, on your phone via Google maps offline mode. This will let you use your phone for directions even when it’s in airplane mode. It’s only a few MB and totally worth it for finding a place to eat or directions to the gas station to fill up your cart.
  2. Take pictures of your passport, credit cards and license and email it to yourself prior to leaving, this way if anything should happen to them, you’ll always have a copy.
  3. Get an international plan for your phone, or when you arrive, grab a pre-paid sim card from Digicel, and pop it into your unlocked cellphone. You’ll have access to data, can call local numbers and text without worrying about outrageous charges when you get home.
  4. Get reef-safe sunscreen. The reef is a major reason people visit Belize, and we need to protect it. We used SunBum 50SPF as it’s hypoallergenic and reef-safe, and available on Amazon.

I’m so glad we didn’t spend our summer with throngs of people on an overcrowded, potentially sewage-filled beach in Europe. With a little research and an open mind, we were able to discover an amazing new place and make amazing new friends. We are already planning our return to Belize, next time we plan to do a few days in San Ignacio, followed by a few in Placencia, and then Ambergris Caye.






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