Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What is it like to try and build in Belize? (and, first full week of the CBC build/reno!)

My husband Dave and I have been through several builds/renovation in Belize, and it is not quite like the US! People often ask us what it is like, what do we wish we would have known, etc.  When we first moved here almost 3 years ago, we pretty much expected to do the dirty work ourselves, as we didn't have any contacts or knowledge of who we could trust and work with. One valuable tool was talking with our neighbors and new acquaintances as people are generally happy to share contractors that they trust, as it is a win-win - people are usually happy to get more work to good people.

You can get equally negative and positive things said about the same contractor either here or anywhere, so one thing that we highly recommend is to be ON SITE as much as possible. You are MUCH more likely to have a good outcome if you can be here.

It is well known that if you cannot be here, the work is likely to take MUCH longer. If you have very little knowledge or experience of construction, it is recommended that you either buy a home that is already built that you can get some history on it, or else buy in a development-type property (which might put you farther out of the village.)

If you are trying to build during rainy season, it is not dependable....you may have delays because it is just too wet to work in the sand (on the peninsula you are often trying to build on sand.)

One important thing to note is that materials are quite inconsistently available in the village. One should expect that there will be even basic 2x4's or such things that are simply out of stock. As far as lighting, doors, appliances, etc - there is VERY limited selection in most of the country. You will be able to find something - but you may end up with a white fridge, a bronze light, a silver faucet, a black microwave etc. It can be very frustrating if you had a visual expectation in mind and then what is actually available is visually painful when put together. It is well known here, that unfortunately, Belize often receives odds and ends and misfit items from other countries. Belize is not a country of manufacturing, and the duty to bring things in is quite high, so this really limits stock here. You will see that a "yard sale" here brings everyone out of the woodwork - simply putting a used crockpot out there for sale will bring a dozen calls in the first hour.

It really helps to have a truck available to make trips to Cayo, where there is a bit more stock, or even Chetumal in Mexico, where there is a Wal Mart (prices are not that cheap and you'll have to pay duty on the way back in), but it is still not even close to what is available in even a medium size town in the US. There are also limits on paint colors that are available - make sure you can get your hands on an adequate amount of the color of paint you need! It might require a lot of calls to stores throughout the country to get adequate stock. It is worthwhile to research how to ship things into the country - a container or even crates, as even if you have to pay the duty, you may pay the same for less quality items here, and you can pick out exactly what you want. It is expensive and complicated, but well worth it.

Also note that if you are anywhere close to the shore, and you haven't lived near salt water before - there is a learning curve here (we have had a lot of lessons on this!) You must use oil based paints, stainless steel screws for anything that might bleed through and show rust, it is never worth it to buy cheap fixtures that will end up looking rusty in NO time, outdoor lights have to be the highest grade if you want them to work past a few months!, drywall is almost worthless as it molds, wood will warp in an unbelievable way, and you may want to think about having closed up closets as things get moldy when they are shut up at all (open cabinets or at least cabinet doors with cut outs are recommended.)

Also, as unpleasant as this sounds, you can build with wood as it is more economical, but it must be treated wood as termites down here are unbelievable. Although concrete homes take more time to build, they are certainly more able to withstand hurricanes and make termites less of an issue.

We are so excited about the changes we are doing at CBC....we "broke ground" last week on a new pool, two new units, and we are renovating the casita porch to add lounge chairs and more space, and renovating the bathrooms and floors of the cabanas, along with all new paint and art throughout the property. We are upgrading and refreshing the furniture in the units, adding a lot of outdoor hang out space, and there will be a cute tiki-bar style area around the pool for guests to hang out in.

Our new units are already booking up for high season, and they are going to be super spectacular (if I do say so myself!) They will be Mexican-style villas with rooftop decks, and these decks will have lounge chairs, and a table/umbrella set. They will also have a lower veranda with hammocks overlooking the pool. Inside, they will have a modern-beach feel, here's a sample the style:
These are some pinterest images that are the feel and style of the art and furniture:







Here is the basic model we are using for the exterior, our details will be different but the feel will be similar:
Here is CBC before, and the after will have the pool on the left of the sidewalk, with the two new villas on the right, facing the pool:
Our workers already moving plants, staking out the ground, and moving fountains, digging, and moving Bonita's doghouse (sorry girl!), and bringing in the material!
First week:
This week:
Renovation in cabanas (new tile, new floors, new bathrooms!)
Renovation of Casita porch (to enlarge, new cushioned lounge chairs, more open feel to the sea!) All our buildings will be getting new paint inside and out as well - we are going to be going with a more neutral, natural shade that we think will look spectacular!
This will be a long, messy, complicated build, and TOTALLY worth it!!! We can't wait for our first guests to arrive on 11/1!!!





Thursday, August 18, 2016

What to expect from the range of hotels in Placencia, from $25-$700 a night - (an analysis of why hotels charge what they do, here!)

This is a long over-due post! The range of questions I get from potential guests tells me that there is a lot of understandable confusion when it comes to picking the right hotel in another country, where there isn't the AAA-star ratings and basic agreement on expectations of what you get with a certain price. We know what to expect from a Motel 6 vs. a Hilton, and the prices reflect that. When you take the chains out of it, and you are basically dealing with resorts or mom-and-pop places, it is very confusing, and picking a place based on the price you'd pay in the US can lead to expectations that may not be correct. Let's start from the bottom and work our way up...
(I would like to note something....if you check out the TripAdvisor reviews for Placencia hotels (don't forget to check the b&b listings and the specialty lodging listings!), you will note something important - they are mostly ALL good! Placencia is known as a clean, tourist-friendly place. ALL the places I mention here, are places I would happily recommend as being clean, safe, and tourist friendly. There are very few if any "bad places" and I don't even know of any!)

What to expect from....
$25-65 per night 
(Prices in US dollars. Almost all hotels, excursions, and real estate prices are in USD and everything else you see is usually BZ dollars,unless noted. Why? Because the tourists are the ones utilizing these things for the most part!)
One of the fun things about travel in developing countries is staying on the super-cheap at hostels. We have those here, and they have good reputations. There are mostly younger 20-somethings, backpackers, or interesting ex hippie types. Some of these places include Lydia's Guesthouse, Anda Di Hows, Manatee Inn, Palma Guest House, Julia's Guest House, some of the Sea Spray rooms, or SailFish. All these places have a few things in common - they are going to provide you with basic, clean accommodations. Some have shared baths, or shared rooms. Why are they so cheap? There is a reason - for the most part, there will be something that keeps their costs down. For example, they may not be near/on the beach, or they don't provide any luxuries, including things like beach towels, maid service, any outdoor seating where you can enjoy the beach, no a/c, cable, etc. Most do have WiFi. Most are going to be very basic in their aesthetics - most are cabin-like, with wood walls, basic Mennonite beds with simple mattresses and bedding, and quite utilitarian. You are probably not going to get picked up at the airport or have someone helping to arrange excursions. Some are near loud bars, which is not always a negative for some people.
Images from this price point:
Shared space at Anda Di Hows: (tripadvisor)
SailFish single room: (booking.com)
 SailFish from the land (it is on an island): (remax)
 Julia's Cabanas inside: (travelpod.com)

$65-150
At this price point, there can be great disparity in what you can expect. At the lower-cost end, places like Sea Glass Inn, Michelo Suites, Sea View and Serenade; at the higher end, Paradise Resort, Heaven's Gate, Ranguana Lodge, Easy Living, and some Sea Spray rooms. These will be closer to a 2 to 3 star hotel in the US. All are clean and provide a good, basic experience. Some things that tends to separate the lower from the higher end in this category are location, aesthetics, and services/amenities shipped in from outside the country.

The services might be great, but the place might be a couple decades old, without recent upgrades or updates. There might be pretty basic amenities, or they are a hike to the beach. All offer something really worthwhile - but worth noting that for SOME travelers, you may read on the reviews that things were missing that travelers had expected to get. These are ones you may have to comb through to see if they have something that is really important to you - these are not likely to have "all the things" - such as a pool, along with recent renovation, great beach area, free kayaks/bikes, cell phone in room, or a multitude of luxuries. Most do have a/c at this price point but worth double checking. Another item worth noting is that there is a great difference between a 2 bedroom at $150 and a 1 bedroom as $150 - your 2 bed at this price point is likely to be pretty basic, but a $150 1 bed, you can expect there to be more goodies.
Images from this price point:
Cute, unique, exotic outside Heaven's Gate: (reefci.com)
Inside Heaven's Gate: (booking.com)
Outside of Sea View:(listofcompanies.org)
Inside Sea View rooms: (tripadvisor)
 Sea Glass veranda where you can get community coffee: (tripadvisor)
 Inside at Serenade, good example of typical $70 room in Placencia: (hotels.com)
 Outside of Serenade off sidewalk: (hotel.placencia.booked.net)
 Inside Paradise Resort rooms - one of their smaller ones - their larger ones can be more upscale and pricier: (kayak.com)
 Outside Paradise - they don't exactly have a beach as they are on the tip of peninsula, but cute outdoor space:(mobetah.blogspot.com)
Ranguana Lodge:(tripadvisor)
 Inside Rangauna:(tripadvisor.com)
$150-$300
Here is another interesting divide, that might be the most confusing for a traveler. What am I actually getting with my extra $50-100 a night for a 1 bed place, for example? Is it worth it for me? We will look at some comparisons here.

Rooms around the $150 range are a bit more rare in the village, including Casa Palma, Village Inn, and Miramar, and then when you go above that, you include Caribbean Beach Cabanas (that's us!), Laru BeyaMirasol, Belizean Nirvana, Mariposa. Go up a bit more to around $250....Robert's Grove, The Placencia, Belize Ocean Club, Sunset Point, and then when you go above that.....$350+, we are at Turtle Inn and Chabil Mar. (I know there are many others, but I had to pick some!)
Images from the $150 price point:
Outside Village Inn: (thevilageinn.com)
 Inside Village Inn: (example of one where it is not fancy, but right on the beach, great outdoor aesthetics, just outside village) (thevillageinn.com)
Casa Palma outside:
 Inside Casa Palma kitchen
Images from the $150-$300 price point:
An example of the special furnishings you might expect to enhance the aesthetics: (caribbeanbeachcabanas.com)
 The view you might expect from this price point: (caribbeanbeachcabanas)
 The view outside cbc, beachfront cabana:
View from inside Hacienda, CBC:
 Sunset Point: (placenciabelizerealestate.com)
Inside Sunset Point:

 Inside Mirasol: (vacasa.com)
 Nirvana kitchen: (tripadvisor)
 Beachfront with cushions at Nirvana,, all rooms face beach: (booking.com)
Images from the $350+ price point:
Chabil Mar (hotel-scoop.com)
 Turtle Inn: (tripadvisor.com)
Some points to consider to make your choice.....
-----At the lower-cost end of this price point($150), feel pretty confident that you are going to have a nice experience. Again, if there are any deal breakers for you, you may want to comb the amenities. Why pay $200 when you can pay $150? In Belize it comes down to a few factors. Size/upgrading/aesthetics/age of room, location, and amenities - especially those that must be brought in from outside the country. Those that are charging around $200 are going to have checked ALL those boxes (the ones that are doing it well).

-----At $150, you may be either outside/not walking distance to the village; some are lovely but do not have a/c or cable, but make up for it by being beachfront. Some may not offer on site management or complimentary kayaks/bikes/paddleboards etc. Maybe they have a great beach but don't offer beach towels or cushions. Expect for some things to be great at this price; though, you may walk away saying if it only had..."insert need here"...it would have been perfect.

-----At $200 a night for a single room, you should be getting a very special experience. There should be very few things that you have to think about that you are missing. For example, you should expect complimentary pick up at the airport, with a welcome drink, perhaps a welcome basket, towel animals, fresh flowers, a nice intro from a manager with a good binder/guide in the room to help you acclimate; it should be a prime location (beachfront!), with many complimentary amenities like ALL the beach fun, floats, tubes, chairs WITH cushions, and some special attention from staff such as drinks, snacks, or events at the place to add a special touch. This paragraph encompases the difference between a room in Placencia at $175-$200 vs. $150.

-----If you are more of a basic needs/DIY person, you will be more than happy at any of these. If you are on a special occasion, or want to have the experience of not thinking about any need not being met, want the ability to have a romance package offered, walk out to the beach and have the cushions waiting for you, be able to work with an on site manager to schedule your excursions, be somewhere where you can walk everywhere, not have to pay for any extras because they come with the rooms (bikes etc), and you want to feel pampered and comfortable without wanting for anything, then I would consider the $175-$200 rooms - there IS a difference.

-----AESTHETICS - Another difference that matters to some people and not to others is the environment and aesthetics. In Belize, things corrode QUICKLY. Upkeep is literally a full-time job, and it is quite apparent when it is done well. You will see places that are constantly upgrading their place to keep it fresh and new, and others will have reviews that say things about mold, rust, or clogs. Just like a tired hotel in the US, there is something that is very refreshing about staying in a place that looks and feels new and fresh. This can make a big difference in your experience of a place. Also, are you the type that say, wants a private place to lounge and read? Don't book a place with a tiny veranda or only public space, or who don't provide beach loungers with cushions. Do you need direct beachfront? You may want to consider a smaller microresort with more beachfront private rooms. The effort, money, and resources at keeping places fresh and new makes a big difference in price points.

-----AMENITIES - This is one of the key "invisible" factors that you may not know you are missing until you don't have it. For example, higher end places here will provide local cells for guests in their rooms; they will have modern, fresh furniture, art, kayaks, bikes, flat screens; things will match and look "right" - very pleasing to the eye. The towels and sheets will be high quality, the decor will be luxurious, the plates and cookware, shampoo, etc., will be higher end and well thought out. Places that are charging closer to $200+ will have brought all of this in from outside the country. Belize is not a country of manufacturing, and the duty on goods brought in is astronomical. It is a long and laborious process to ship and replace things, and this is an expensive commitment a hotel makes at the higher end prices. You will know it right away if you step into a room that has been sourced with local goods vs. a room sourced with outside goods (see images above!). Go into the hardware stores on the peninsula and you can see what the stock is that a hotel can choose from, if they don't bring in outside goods - it is often very inexpensive goods from China, or mismatched pieces that are the odds and ends of full sets. It is a challenge of running a hotel in a remote location, and why the prices at some places may look high to those who expected to have more "developing country" prices.

-----LOCATION - This is one of my personal dealbreakers when it comes to a hotel. I personally need to be in walking distance to the heart of things. It is the first thing I look at when searching for a hotel; others will purposefully look for a place that is remote. In Placencia, our peninsula is 14 miles long. Some of the really nice resorts can be up to 14 miles away from the village, which takes a good half hour to get to. But, land IN the village is at a premium, so there are no sprawling resorts in the village (which is a huge positive to almost everyone!) One of the lovely things about the village is the ability to walk to the village, where it feels safe, and you aren't stuck in the resort the whole time.

Placencia has several higher-end places (above $150) within the village, and those are Caribbean Beach Cabanas, Mirasol, Belizean Nirvana, and Sunset Point. These are 4 places (yes I did include ours, shameless, but an honest assessment!) that provide more luxurious or higher end accommodations. The resorts mentioned earlier (Robert's Grove, Belize Ocean Club, etc) are between 5-14 miles outside the village, and offer standard resort fun times. The prices of these 4 in the village are about the same. To briefly compare, as I often send guests to the other three when we are full:
Sunset Point - gorgeous apartments, most are 2 bed, they have a pool and a very tranqil atmosphere. They allow kids but they are not on the beach.
Belizean Nirvana - a great place with all beach facing large apartments, free breakfast, they allow kids, cozy little beach, no pool, but great on site managers and charming rooms. It is a bit of a walk from the sidewalk, so you walk through some local housing on the way.
Mirasol - only 3 units, but very nice, large, with a small pool. They also allow kids, and are right in town so it might be a bit more noise.
Caribbean Beach Cabanas - we have been building and upgrading, and will reopen Nov 1st with a pool and a range of brand new renovations to bring about a microresort experience for guests. We have the smallest rooms of the 4 places - more studio apartment style, but the largest private outdoor space/verandas. We are also adults-only, so those with kids or who feel they need a large indoor space would want to consider the other three.
You can walk to all the village fun, bars, and restaurants from all of these.

 $350+
Finally, for the highest-end guest experience, there is Turtle Inn and Chabil Mar. These are relatively close to the village, not quite walkable unless you are quite hardy, but a quick bike ride in. They are both lovely experiences and they are larger than what can be offered within the village. Prices start around $350-$450/night at Chabil Mar, up to around $450-700 for Turtle Inn. What separates these from the four I mentioned above, including us, are that there are on site restaurants and bars, and they are on a larger piece of land. There are more staff to service guests, and they provide a very high-end resort experience.



Friday, August 5, 2016

Hurricane Earl....from a Placencia perspective...

Friday morning, Belize woke up feeling very nervous, wondering what we were all going to wake up and find. NO ONE wanted the eye of Earl to go through their town, but we certainly didn't want anyone else's town hurt either! That was the sad part, rooting for it to go north for us, because then it would be hurting somewhere else. We were all so, so happy and relieved to see that there were little to no injuries. However, poor San Pedro....they took the worst hit, with most to all of their piers destroyed, and anyone who has been on Ambergris Caye, knows part of the charm of that island is walking up the coast and enjoying all the piers, palapas, dive shops, and beachfront fun. Much of it is destroyed. We still don't entirely know how bad Belize City is.

Many of us stayed riveted to Facebook all day long, and if there were ever a good use of Facebook, it is the social connections in situations like this. We knew who was on line, who talked to whom, and we were able to watch live videos of the damage in each place.

Here is what I learned about Placencia :)

1.) This village has a GOOD sense of humor. :) The number of hurricane parties, in the midst of boarding up windows and making sure that there were enough beers on hand for the night, and kindness of checking in with one another, made us all feel very connected and proud.
2.) The low stress and urgency - I have written a lot about how in the US, many people do love to find a reason to freak out and assume "worst case scenario". Here, people analyzed a bit and then took it as it came.
3.) Where there was damage in the country and in Placencia, the amount of public support and GoFundMe pages, and people having each other's backs was simply incredible.
4.) The amount of people that reached out because of past trips to Belize, was so touching. I was particularly touched by the number of past guests that wrote us to make sure we were ok. It made me so proud to be a part of a special place, where people connect so much to the village, that they wanted to be sure it was going to be ok!
5.) I was shocked by the lack of US coverage of the hurricane. If there is a hint of a storm in the US, it is breaking news all over the place - and overblown - until it becomes tiresome. This was a legit, damaging Category 1 Hurricane and Belize didn't ask for outside help, or complain that there wasn't enough coverage, or do anything but pull together and start cleaning up immediately.
6.) The resilience of the Belizean people is just really something else. If you have a moment and can do a search for #HurricaneEarl on Facebook or Google, you will see the most touching stories about how this country pulled together - no whining, just get on with it!

As for our little piece of paradise, our little palapa roofs didn't appreciate the wind, that is for sure. Our AMAZING managers Sue and Carlos not only held a party for our (super cool, adventurous, and fun) guests that braved the storm, but they had CBC cleaned up and ready to go in less than a half day. While we didn't get hit as bad as the eye of the storm, the amount of debris and clean up was truly overwhelming. And they did it all with a smile on their faces :).

Our manager Sue captured some of the images around the village the next day; anyone who has been here knows that the dreary look and the debris are just not the norm for downtown. At the bottom, some pics of CBC post clean up :). No worries if you are on your way here as the airport is back up and going, and everything is going to slowly get back to normal here. You may have disruptions for a few weeks in other parts of the country, so well worth it to reach out, if traveling to other parts is in your plans!

Pre-Storm....strange calm, even stranger colors!!!






 The colors are pretty.....but not right...
 Beautiful but eerie.
Getting rid of coconuts as they turn into missiles in the wind...
Placencia Hurricane parties!!! These were happening all over the village.


CBC Post Hurricane Earl



The village post Hurricane Earl....

Submerged boat at the pier
 Many downed trees.



This is at the pier, where one of the dive shops, Sea Horse, collapsed. 
CBC later that day....thanks to our awesome crew....guests were able to enjoy the beauty of Belize again!


We were extraordinarily lucky. Hurricanes here truly are, historically, a rare event. And we would love to keep it that way!!