After hearing guest feedback about Belize for the last 2 years, I thought it was time to put together a post about who may love their vacation to Belize, and who may be a better fit for other places; I sincerely hope potential guests will read this before they come. Expectations are a big part of vacation, and no one wins if a tourist expected one thing, but found that what they were told did not match reality. This is more of an article then a blog post, less for entertainment and more for your own research for your trip! It can be so hard to choose a destination for your vacation; every place you research is going to look perfect on the internet. Only by doing a bit more research will you be able to determine the subtle or significant differences between "paradises!"
HOW DOES BELIZE COMPARE TO OTHER BEACH DESTINATIONS?
This is hard to capture in one paragraph! One reason Belize recently won international awards for Best Overall Destination and Best Beach Destination (Ambergris Caye and Placencia, respectively) is because Belize truly offers an authentic and slightly off the beaten path experience - NOT because Belize offers perfection unlike anywhere else. Belize is NOT like Cancun or many of the traditional places you find on cruise ports, like Nassau, St Thomas, The Dominican Republic, etc. (HERE is a post in which I describe more differences in detail.) In the tourist areas in those places, corporations have come in and bought huge tracts of land, and put up massive resorts, where all-inclusives are prevalent. You can eat at chain restaurants, be with other tourists, and if you have been to one all-inclusive, you pretty much get what it is all about. In many places people do not venture into town due to safety factors. You eat, swim, and hang out at the resort with maybe an excursion or two.
The positives of this, of course, are that you know what to expect! It is familiar, first world, and comfortable. You know there will be uniformed staff around, and every need can be met. There is a time and place where this vacation is just the right fit!
Belize is not quite like that. Belize is still a developing country - you will find many comforts and first world experiences here, but you don't have to look far to see wood shacks on stilts, and clear indications that you are not at Disney World. Often, this is what attracts the traveler that has had enough of the "sameness" of the all-inclusive experience. In Belize, particularly Placencia, the village IS the experience. There is no scrubbed clean, tourist-contrived area. The locals, ex pats, and tourists all hang out together. We are lucky here in that Placencia has historically been warm, welcoming, and safe for visitors.
We get a remarkable number of repeat visitors, and there is a reason that Belize is the fastest-growing country in the Western Hemisphere. It is not for everyone, but for those who seek adventures beyond the predictable experiences, they can quickly fall in love with it here! Every culture is different, and in Belize, there has been a massive effort at keeping things authentic and moving slowly. Belize has historically not shown interest in bringing in huge corporations to change the landscape and feel of its villages. In fact, the locals and ex pats who live here are resistant to these changes, because most want to maintain the charm and pace that exists now.
What this can mean, for travelers who are planning their first trip to Belize, is that some of the culture here can come as a bit of a surprise, sometimes called "culture shock." You may find in some travel reviews or forums, comments about beach dogs being in bad shape, the beaches not being cleaned, power or water outages, begging, problems with medical facilities, poverty, or a general slowness to fix problems. You will read other reviews that call Belize "paradise." This can make it very confusing to decide if Belize is for you!
One of the best reasons to travel is to increase your "worldliness." With this comes wisdom about other cultures and an awareness that North American standards are not the standards everywhere - and sometimes, even with the "inconveniences," this is a good thing!
I will focus on Placencia. In Placencia, as you drive down the peninsula, you are likely to be completely charmed by what you see. Mountains and the lagoon on one side, endless beach and the Caribbean Sea on the other. One cute resort-style place after another, all painted quirky colors with adorable names, not a chain in sight - palm trees everywhere, happy tourists, smiling locals. In Placencia, we do not have problems with sick beach dogs or begging - this would be a very unusual sighting for a tourist.
However, before you get to Placencia Village, after Maya Beach (which is at the far North end of the peninsula, about 14 miles away) you will drive through the village of Seine Bight. This is not a tourist village, this is a typical Central American town, and to the average tourist, this will look quite rough. You will see more dogs milling around, buildings that could use some maintenance, and signs of poverty. However, the people of Seine Bight are used to tourists coming through, and while it can look alarming to those who have not seen an authentic Central American village before, you will also find very warm and friendly people. Some guests have remarked about how it could be improved, and things that could or even should be done to change the lives of the animals and people that reside there. It can be hard not to compare what you see here to the standards of first world living.
As you keep driving South into Placencia, you start to see Placencia Village. Placencia is such a special place - a charming, funky place where locals, ex pats, and tourists can be seen everywhere. There is what has been described as a "good vibe" here. People are warm and friendly, it is very easy to navigate, you will feel safe, and yet you know you are not in a contrived area - it is authentic. Much of it looks like a Caribbean postcard - cute dogs running around, palm trees, tons of bars and restaurants, endless beaches, adorable places to stay, and you can even drink the water, which is more pure than bottled water!
What often happens next is interesting. Most tourists are in love with the village and have a beach dog or two following them around by the end of their trip, and have made friends throughout the village. They have enjoyed world class restaurants, exotic excursions, and plenty of lazy beach days.
But, we are still in a developing country. Once in a while, things happen that are difficult for some tourists to get their head around. Occasionally, the power or water will be off unexpectedly. Sometimes these are planned outages, but sometimes we can't predict them. Occasionally, a tropical rain will come through, and knock out the WiFi/cable for a while, and create MASSIVE puddles everywhere. Sometimes, because we are close to the reef, if the current is such, sea grass (or even garbage from who knows where) will wash in and make the beach less than perfect. Sometimes popular places to go, like Tranquilo, Fusion Beach, Tutti Frutti, etc, will be closed for a short time. Sometimes the sea is too rough to take a water excursion, or it is more cloudy, less Caribbean postcard blue.
We have found the vast majority of guests to be wonderful sports in these cases. (Belize tends to attract adventurous, flexible spirits). I have yet to see a vacation ruined by any of these things; there are ALWAYS alternatives, and you can ALWAYS make the best of things. There is plenty to do here no matter what is happening! Occasionally you will hear a negative review about Belize or Placencia in general with regards to these problems. Often guests will ask before they come, about the water, weather, etc. You can find positive and negative reviews about EVERY place on earth. NO place is right for everyone. It can be frustrating when unexpected occurrences happen, and you may find yourself asking, why doesn't the village have generators, stronger WiFi/cable, people cleaning the beach every day, someone managing the stray dogs better?
The reason, simply, is that exotic places sometimes have limited resources. With the first world resources, you get first world amenities. With first world expectations, you get first world predictability. Belize is not going to be totally predictable, and thankfully the problems I mentioned are NOT the norm. But, if unexpected problems occur, and you are from North America, you might get frustrated about the seeming lack of urgency to fix things. Some may find themselves thinking that if people would just solve the problem by....(insert first world solution here)...this problem would go away. After 2 years here, (and by no means does this make me an expert, this was just one of the few major learning curves I have experienced!) I am starting to have an understanding of the deeper and more complex issues at hand, that prevent first world solutions from working.
Frankly, a lot of the issue is this. WE HAVE URGENCY in the US, and not all cultures have it. I have found this to be one of the best - and hardest - learning curves. For example, when a strong current comes in and sea grass and some garbage washes ashore, we do go out and clean it up quickly. We have a worker on staff who cleans our beach 5x a week. However, 90% of the beach in Placencia remains untouched. Why? Because Mother Nature will take care of it, it is just going to come back at some point, there is plenty of places to swim and enjoy yourself, the heat index is over 100, there isn't anywhere to put the garbage, there is no recycling mechanism, the tractors purchased to clean it are broken and parts can't be found here, most of it is organic and builds the beach back up, it simply isn't that big a deal, etc etc etc. There ARE reasons why (cultural and otherwise) countries have their own way of handling problems.
You will have less of these operational/maintenance problems at a first world all inclusive, NO DOUBT! However, if you choose that route, you are also choosing a safe, predictable, non challenging, minimally enriching/growth oriented experience, one where you can probably predict the entire vacation before you even go. I have addressed this in detail in a past post HERE.
The pleasures, benefits, and experience you can have by getting a bit out of your comfort zone, with the risk that you may encounter a variable that you weren't expecting, will be COMPLETELY worth it to some people, and some others may say, I am only doing a Hilton vacation from here on out. But, armed with this information, hopefully your expectations are in line, and please read HERE about why Placencia is truly a slice of paradise on earth!