One of those laid-back Caribbean towns where no building is taller than a coconut tree, San Pedro has grown in recent decades to a settlement of more than twelve thousand, but still retains an off-the-beaten-track vibe. Tourism has long outstripped fishing as the economic mainstay, and visitors can choose between upscale resorts and backpacker guesthouses, plus everything in between. White-sand beaches are a stone’s throw away, every cottage has a garden profuse with flowers, and golf carts and bicycles are still the chief mode of transport.
Once a peninsula attached to the Yucatán mainland, Ambergris Caye was made into an island by its early Maya inhabitants, who dug a channel linking the Caribbean Sea and Chetumal Bay. The Mayan towns on Ambergris Caye were important links in a trading network that extended along the coast and into the interior of Central America.
In later centuries, the island was a refuge for pirates and privateers, and become known as a source of valuable ambergris, a waxy substance excreted by sperm whales and once used by perfumers.
San Pedro itself was founded in 1848 or 1849 by refugees from the Mexican mainland, fleeing the lengthy “Caste War” of Yucatán. The first handful of settlers slowly expanded into a thriving fishing village; the “discovery” of the island by adventure tourists and dive operators in the late twentieth century changed the sleepy outpost of the past into the travel destination of today.
The annual Costa Maya Festival (running from 6 to 8 August this year), celebrating Belize’s Mayan heritage, is the biggest entertainment event on Ambergris Caye — and perhaps in all of Belize. The line-up includes musical acts from across Central America, a beauty pageant, dancing, and food. For a more historically grounded sense of Mayan history, visit the Marco Gonzalez Maya Site, where archaeological investigation has documented two thousand years of settlement and forty-nine mound structures.
The modest Ambergris Museum, with its displays on the history and wildlife of the island, is temporarily closed. But the Black and White Cultural Entertainment Centre offers a glimpse at Garifuna culture — descended from the “Black Caribs” of the Lesser Antilles — through music, performances, and traditional cuisine.
Dozens of high-, middle-, and low-end dining options are scattered across San Pedro. Seafood is always on the menu, as it should be. At the upper end of the scale are restaurants like Casa Picasso, with its international menu, and El Fogon, offering Belizean classics in a chic setting. Salvadoran-style pupuserias are increasingly popular, and within the small radius of the town you’ll also find Italian, Thai, and Spanish menus, plus no shortage of beach bars. Head to the Caye Coffee Roasting Company for the best brews on the island. Moho Chocolate is both organic and fair-trade, and boasts bars flavoured with ginger, chili, and the must-try sea salt and lime.
The point of San Pedro is to be in, on, or near the sea as much as possible. Hol Chan Marine Reserve, south of the town, is the most accessible diving and snorkelling site, with abundant marine life — turtles, sharks, rays, eels, and more, all visible in conditions suitable for beginners. Fewer visitors make it to Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, a ninety-minute boat-ride north, which means more pristine conditions and more spectacular coral.
Experienced divers will want to make a day-trip to the Great Blue Hole, the spectacular and world-famous underwater limestone sinkhole forty miles out to sea. Nearly a thousand feet across and over four hundred feet deep, the Blue Hole is one of the most spectacular dive sites anywhere, its sheer submerged sides festooned with stalactites and riddled with a system of underwater caves.
Last night I dreamt of San Pedro . . . Locals proudly insist that Madonna’s 1987 hit song “La Isla Bonita” refers to their island, even if the singer has been more circumspect. Tropical the island breeze / All of nature wild and free: the description certainly fits San Pedro — and countless other tropical islands with a Spanish inflection.
17.92º N 87.96ºW
Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights to Miami International Airport, with frequent connections on other airlines to Belize