Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sargassum seaweed in Belize - PSA - what guests are saying, asking, & experiencing!

PSA blog - We are getting a lot of questions about Sargassum....here's an assessment of many of the questions we are asked, and how to visit without worrying too much about it!

Sargassum continues to be an issue throughout Mexico and the Caribbean in 2019 - Mexico appears to be getting the brunt of it, but it is showing up many places in the Caribbean, and the currents and wind can change daily, so there really is no predicting into tomorrow where it will land.

In Belize, it has been inconsistent - worse up north in the cayes thus far. There have been days over the last several weeks where it has been what would be considered "bad" - which, if you live here, means you can see mats of it coming in, it is coming in faster than it can be removed, and it starts to decompose, leaving a sometimes gross smell in the air. There were some really windy May days that seemed to be making it worse, although in the last couple days, it has abated.

Why aren't people fixing this problem??
Many people who visit here have questions like, why not bulldoze it off the beach? Why not have crews out there 24/7 getting rid of it? Why not put barriers out in the sea to stop it?

People all over the Caribbean have tried all these methods. It is a new issue since 2014, a bit in 2011, and there isn't a ton of research and history yet to give evidence of the best ways to deal with it - and there hasn't been a real solution found yet.

If you have watched a worker struggle in dealing with it - you can see the problem to start. It is horrible work. It is heavy, messy, smelly, and if there is a lot - you have to have a place to move it to. Especially on an island - you don't have massive, remote areas where you can go dump decomposing biological matter -those areas that might be ok, might be privately owned, and the owner doesn't want it on their property, or the area is too remote to get the trucks to it, or there just isn't the manpower and equipment to do it properly. If you can picture trying to put together a consistent crew who is willing and able to do backbreaking work on an as-needed basis, no guarantee they will be needed daily, and also this same inconsistency with having the right equipment available on a somewhat remote island, only on the days you need it - this just isn't realistic.

It is well-documented that using heavy equipment and machinery on the beaches is actually hurting more than it is helping, and machinery designed to not damage the beaches and designed only for Sargassum doesn't exist yet. When you add in the challenges of a developing country with limited resources - when even Mexico is struggling - you can see why this is a hand-wringing issue. With a large crew using appropriate tools, which right now are pitchforks and wheelbarrows - it could be an entire day to clear a small amount of beach, and that doesn't even start to address the work of moving the seaweed somewhere else. The sea currents often move more overnight, than a crew can deal with in a whole days work, and as you start to notice those patterns, you can see why there is no solution.

So why is anyone still coming to places with Sargassum?
This doesn't mean that Belize and elsewhere in the Caribbean aren't still completely worthwhile to visit - in fact, it may open the door to better adventures than just sitting on a beach. Thankfully, in both Ambergris Caye and Placencia, there are still plenty of places to swim that are Sargassum-free. In Placencia, the area around the pier and to the leeward side are seaweed-free. Placencia hasn't been hit as hard and swimming has been ok for the most part. In Ambergris Caye, the bohemian Secret Beach area (not a secret) has been a haven for swimming and continues to grow and explode with more to see and do - without a stitch of seaweed. Not to mention that the countless smaller cayes in the sea, which is one reason to come to Belize, are usually free of seaweed and are picture-perfect.

There are many reasons to visit Belize - and those reasons have never been for mainland beaches. In Placencia, it is considered a beach destination, but Placencia has so many other options for things to do and see that there is no reason you won't have an amazing vacation. (Jaguar Sanctuary, snorkeling, food tours, Monkey River, waterfalls, just to name a few).

In Ambergris Caye - it is pretty well-known that this is not a beach island to start with. Yes, people swim, but the island is set up for boating (so there are mainly seawalls) in the main areas of town, and not for calendar-worthy beach swimming. Secret Beach and the many snorkeling options, endless pools, and the varied/vast activities available throughout the island more than make up for not wading in the sea one afternoon. Even when there is NO seaweed - you just don't see tons of people swimming in Belize, it is just not what people come here for in the heart of town. 

This is the #1 thing I like to address with people considering Belize. Even if you THOUGHT you were coming here to be a beach bum - that is not usually what you end up doing when you are here. Belize is about adventure, food, connecting with locals and travelers from all over the world (the smaller amount of tourism make it a much more social and intimate-type destination than one that has a million tourists), and also - the happiest travelers here NEVER report that beach swimming was their highlight. You can honestly go to all the great beaches in the US if that is what you are looking for.  The US has a plethora of amazing beach destinations. Here are a list of things you come to Belize for that Sargassum can't touch - and neither can a US-based vacation!

Top 10 Reminders/Reports from happy travelers of what a vacation in Belize is about!!
1.) Experiencing 1st-hand what a mostly undeveloped country looks and feels like - how often do you hear, wish I could have seen Cancun 40 years ago before it was all commercial? Belize is one of the few unspoiled, authentic places left, that are still considered accessible to travelers. There are plenty of rustic places in the world, but many are quite difficult to get to, and few people want to spend a full day or two of their precious vacation time getting to the place. You can get to Belize in a half day or less of travel, and the minute you step on the land, you can feel the difference. It is just different enough to be a challenge, but friendly and small enough that you feel like an expert by the time you leave.

2.) Truly connecting with others. When you go on vacation to, say, Hilton Head - you are there with countless thousands of families and cliques - you stay in your own house or condo rental, you eat with your group, and you don't get an opportunity to meet people from different countries - in fact you are likely sitting next to people from Indiana and Ohio at dinner. (Nothing wrong with that - but it also isn't a novel/growth experience.)
3.) You get to experience a culture where you are not constantly regulated and fatigued by rules. In the US - we have rules for everything.....liability for everything....and you are not free to decide the level of risk or adventure you want to take. Someone, somewhere has already ruined that for others by being overly reckless, and so it is somewhat of a sanitized experience wherever you go. This testing yourself can lead to pushing your comfort level--being uncomfortable is one of best ways to grow and feel competent and confident. The world can really open up when you realize you can figure it out and get along in a completely different world.

4.) There are (almost) no chains in Belize - yes - there are about a handful throughout the country, BUT - nothing like the beaches in the US. You won't find an IHOP, McDonald's, Bob Evans, etc as far as the eye can see. Not to mention - no Ripley's Believe it or Not, Cinemark, etc. Everything you see here is going to feel fresh and new to your eyes - everything you eat and visit is a new experience. Belize is a way to experience the expansion in your brain that happens when not knowing exactly what to expect----from a restaurant, store, excursion, driving etc. In the US we tend to do a LOT of the same experiences over and over again (chain restaurants, amusement parks, predictable activities.) When you find yourself, say, hiking in a jaguar preserve in the dark, tubing through the jungle, climbing a Mayan ruin, tasting something totally unfamiliar at a street stand....with no frame of reference....sometimes one starts to think for themselves about what is enjoyable for THEM instead of following the recipe we grow up with.
5.) HUNDREDS/countless cayes to visit - this is truly unique to Belize. You could visit a new caye every day of the year and still not see them all. Some have a beach bar or a tiny shack you could stay in, some have nothing at all - they are an amazing must-do. Also..... jungle inland, the mountains, waterfalls, reef (see below), and the charming little villages that you will see as you ride through the country. You drive past farms that look straight out of the 1950's, tropical foliage that has every color of the rainbow, tropical plants and palm trees, and it is the least population dense place in the western Hemisphere, which means you never feel crowded. This is not even mentioning the tropical birds, the amazing sea views, beaches, mangroves....

6.) 2nd biggest reef in the world - either a 10-minute boat ride from the north, or up to 40-60 minutes in the south, and you can swim with sharks, rays, huge turtles, and have a world-class snorkel experience.

7.) Mayan Ruins - you can't have this experience in the US. You can't climb to the top of a Mayan ruin with an outrageous view of the rainforest almost anywhere else. There are no handrails, signing of waivers, etc - it is a very exotic and exhilarating experience when you are used to the US-style of tourism.

8.) Caving - the caving experiences in Belize, where you can touch ancient pottery, see bones from sacrifices, and things are not roped off and glassed in - is unforgettable. People come from all over the world for the cave systems here. Instead of Busch gardens or Disney, you can see real historic treasures like the Blue Hole, Mayan ruins, the coral reef, see the way people actually do live in one room houses on stilts, see the actual banana farmers working, walk through a real jungle, etc.

9.) You learn more about history and geography, in the most memorable ways, by traveling then by any sort of school or reading, and certainly by visiting places that are bit off the beaten path. You can't buy being more worldly and having a greater perspective, and how this helps us become more wise.
10.) Let's end with something shallow. There is fun around the corner everywhere you look here. Be it in the form of happy, open-minded and fun-spirited other travelers, to the endless games and activities available (often cheap/free), zipping around on a golf cart or bike, or having just a walk through town turn into an adventure. Like drinking on vacation? You can drink on the beach - no one cares - you can walk into town with a beer from your house in your hand - or have a beer with breakfast, no one will notice. Although not encouraged, drink on your golf cart (preferably as the passenger.) The #1 reason people come back to Belize is because it attracts a FUN crowd and the locals here know what they are doing - they know how to have fun, and be fun, and create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. I definitely DO NOT experience the vibe I feel in Belize when I travel other places - and I am far from the only one to say this.



Thursday, May 9, 2019

What's newly opened and fun in Belize??? Placencia + Ambergris Caye

Belize is so small, and realistically, it changes pretty slowly all things considered - but it is amazing how many new little places crop up all the time. Thankfully, at this time, they are almost exclusively mom-and-pop places like the history of Belize has always had (I can only think of Losers and Hilton's Mahogany Bay as chains that have opened in the country recently - yes there is talk of more but it'll be a while.)

Because all the new stuff makes my head spin, I find it helpful to keep a record of new places as they open. Here are the new places in the last couple months in Placencia and Ambergris Caye! ***HERE is my last update from February 2019 - a couple places were mentioned in the this post that are here again, but they weren't quite open yet :)

Placencia:

Twisted Tea - a cute new place in the old Wallen's store - great, unique idea! From their Facebook page: "Hi peeps. We are a new Tea shop across from Basketball Court. Ice and hot Teas. Hard apple cider and Hobbs Beer. Open early Monday to Saturday. Try our Sparkling Cold Tea."
Potliquors - This new lagoon-beachfront bar is getting a lot of great reviews!! Worth a stop in the Maya Beach area. 
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Toucan Jacks - this is a new little beachfront bar at a new hotel in Placencia. I don't think outside guests can swim at the pool but they are having some cute get together events!
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Hobbs Brewing - One complaint in Belize is the lack of brewery beers - we still aren't sure how these guys did it, but it has been a HUGE hit, raves about their brews, and it has even been showing up in Ambergris Caye. Belize traditionally has only allowed Belikin beer, brewed in Belize, or Caricom beers (Caribbean). This is a first and a very welcome addition!
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Mademoiselle Bakery - Another welcome addition to the Placencia sidewalk and people are raving about it...Here is an example of the super unique offerings - from their Facebook page: "Time for something new! The Ultra Fresh Club Sandwich 😋 Made with Olive Bread, Cream Cheese, Spices, Fresh Herbs and Vegetables. $10BZ per slice."
Placencia Mini Golf - This is a new, super cute and fun looking offering for a fun afternoon up in Maya Beach!
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Rooftop bar at Miramar - great views, cozy seating, right in the heart of town!!
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Peggy's Cornbread Cafe - Nautical Inn - Yum! Southern food on the peninsula...
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Ambergris Caye:

New Clinic - Belize Medical Associates is opening this clinic with some advanced care on the island, and this is really huge news. It is nearing completion and will really change the safety dynamics for all the development north of the bridge!
Origins - Vegan - this place is already a hit :) Vegan food is still a bit hard to come by on the island, and this cafe is one of the first to exclusively cater to vegan! **HERE is a guide to vegan eating in Belize....
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Capricorn - this was a classic restaurant on the island, that closed down for a while and is having their grand opening party this Saturday!! Will probably become a destination north of the bridge...
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Diamond Lodge Pool Bar - this boutique hotel in the south of town recently opened its pool to the public, with happy hour specials - and you can swim there! Not all hotels allow outside guests in the pool so this is a welcome spot in the south :)
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Planed Road ALLLLL the way north to Rojo Beach Bar - I was personally shocked a few weeks ago when I went for a ride north. Apparently the road has been planed north very recently - and this is seriously changing the situation up there. Going up to Rojo used to be considered a serious haul - like you really had to want it, it was a destination. The road was really bad, pot-holed, jarring, and it took FOREVER because of how slow you had to drive around the holes. It would easily take over an hour to drive from north of the bridge to Rojo. NOW........you can get there in about 20 smooth, happy minutes - maybe less. There are NO jarring holes to worry about, it is pretty comfortable and now there is no excuse to go see the talking bird at Rojo :) 
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The Belikin Store - super cute and fun store now open right by the Tropic Air airport!! Great place for your house if you live here, or souvenirs if you have to leave :) In the past Belikin beer stuff was a little hard to find.
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***As always - if I missed anything new please let me know :) Will update again in a few months with more new stuff!