Friday, March 27, 2020

The experience of being in Belize during this crisis.....

So much has changed since my last post. Not just in Belize, of course, but all over the world. Things have been changing daily over the last approximately two weeks here.

Belize was far behind every other country in the Western hemisphere when it came to the virus. Because of the very low population density here, and the relatively small number of tourists compared to every other country around us, we were not hit as hard and as quickly as everyone else. The largest city, Belize City, has 50,000 residents. The most popular towns people visit, including Placencia and San Pedro in Ambergris Caye, have about 5,500 people on the whole peninsula in Placencia, and about 18,000 residents on the island (plus tourists). This makes for a very unique experience compared to places with millions.

We only had our first confirmed case on the island of Ambergris Caye about a week ago. Before that, we had ongoing more restrictive rules like everyone in the world. Before the confirmed case, on the island, we were down to 25 people gatherings. We had just shut down international travel, and almost all tourists had gone home. Side note, it was a little surprising to me, but there were many, many visitors who chose to ride it out in Belize, even up until today. The reason we think people chose to stay was because of the relative lack of restrictions, and the relative feeling of normalcy we had for so long here, compared to the rest of the world and what we were hearing. There have been some last minute repatriation flights and a small number have taken advantage of these.

For some there was an unspoken country wide anxiety, waiting for the first confirmed case. I almost felt like the country breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally announced. I say this because up until that point of a confirmed case, we were not sure of what to do to stay safe. A best hygiene practices campaign had been undertaken, and a few social distancing rules had been implemented. The positive case created an urgency, followed by an almost immediate declaration of a state of emergency. We all knew it was a matter of time, it just seemed wishful thinking that there would be few places in the entire world that would be completely spared, especially those accepting international travelers. 

When it was announced, things immediately changed here on the island. The entire island was immediately put on a 72-hour quarantine. All non-essential businesses were pretty much closed, with the exception of a few delivery places outside of grocery and pharmacies. We are still allowed to go to the grocery stores in the morning from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., here on the island, for now. In the rest of the country, they are down to 10 person gatherings, and the shut down of specific types of businesses. People are being asked to stay home as much as possible throughout the country unless it is essential or employment related. They are, however, not quarantined. The levels of restrictions are much different compared to the island, though. 

Two days ago, the government announced that we would have to do up to a 30-day quarantine on the island. It was found that the first positive case, after the initial mapping process was undertaken, had led to one other positive case. Mapping for both cases continues. Although the Prime Minister said that it may not be a full 30 days, the island appears to be expecting that it will probably be that long. At the moment, everyone is permitted to go shopping in the morning, but you are not allowed to do much of anything else. All non-essential businesses have to remain closed, including restaurants, and even deliveries are pretty limited. People can get grocery delivery. Pharmacies are staying open most of the day. 

A COVID-19 medical team from Cuba has arrived on the mainland to assist Belize with its COVID-19 response. A specific team for the island has not been announced. The island community has been nothing short of remarkable. Many of the business owners got together and started a quarantine unit in a private building. Hope Haven has been nothing short of spectacular; these individuals have been handing food out nonstop to those most in need. 

Many island workers were able to get off the island the morning the quarantine was announced, because they wanted to go home to their families on the mainland. Many people here were laid off due to the business closures, and did not have the funds or the housing to last for a long quarantine. Unfortunately, a large number of people who wished to return to the mainland were stranded on the island when the State of Emergency was declared. They have not been permitted to leave. For those who were able to travel to the mainland, country-wide controversy ensued quickly, as the rest of the mainland did not want the islanders to infect anyone else. It is certainly understandable, but there are also two sides to that story, and it is impossible to know the exact right things to have done in that situation.

While right now, everyone is mostly concerned with the spread of the virus, with most studies (just based on my own research!!) saying that 97% of people will show symptoms in about 11 days. There are certainly cases that can last longer, but word on the street is that everyone that is home right now, is first and foremost wanting to make sure that they, and their families, are free of the virus. The next worry down the line is that we have unprecedented unemployment due to many business closures. This is not unique to Belize, of course.

Being a business owner myself in this country, this has been an extremely stressful period of time. I have watched as anyone with any means here, has been willing to sacrifice for the greater good; this has been pretty universal. The way the community has come together has been one of the most positive experiences I ever could have expected. Most businesses who can pay employees - even something - to get us through this crisis, are doing so. Everyone with any means is asking what they can give and do for those with less. There has been a remarkable selflessness and desire to make sure no one slips through the cracks.

Like the rest of the world, there is a lot of uncertainty here as well. We all expect that there will be some businesses that simply can't weather the storm through uncertain months. There will likely be many closures and they will not reopen. There will also be many, many, places that are ready to reopen as soon as they are able. The government is working right now to make sure that any emergency funds are able to be diverted to those most in need. There has not been a concrete plan put out at this point, to identify exactly what the relief will be for individuals or businesses. Already, many of the banks are allowing people to halt paying on loans. Many businesses that have to pay taxes and ongoing bills, with zero income right now, are currently researching what they must pay right now versus what can wait. One of the issues in Belize is that Belize purchases their electricity outside of the country. This is a non-negotiable, so they cannot provide universal relief for everybody. It goes back to the “ask” that anyone with means to do so, continues to pay their bills.

Many, many visitors were looking forward to their time in Belize. It was heartbreaking to have to ask people to put off their visits here. Belize mostly runs on tourism, and this has been and will be devastating to the communities here. We have two hotels here on the island, so I was able to get an up front, albeit awful, seat to the carnage. Universally, the hotels here are mostly family-run places. While every hotel has reserves for cancellations and reschedules, there has never been a time in history where hotels had to face up to months of cancellations and refunds in one short period. The hotel owners on this island all got together to make sure that we were offering as much as we possibly could to the visitors here, in a way that was universal and unified, while also planning to keep the business viable, and being able to give something to staff until reopening was a possibility. Almost all hotel owners offered full credits and rebookings for guests in the normally non-refundable period, which is usually 30 days before arrival. Guests outside of this period were asked to reschedule as opposed to cancel. As a hotel owner, it was/is heartbreaking and scary on every level.

For many other businesses, including small restaurants, and locally run tour guides, this has been nothing short of devastating. Thankfully, due to the tight knit communities, and the vast network of families in this small country, many people were and are able to rely on the minimal comforts offered to keep going at this time.

What has been especially upsetting about this time of year, is that this is the end of the typical high season, which keeps businesses going throughout the low part. It was a rainy and cloudy winter season in this region, and the weather finally let up and has been absolutely perfect. The beaches have also been picture perfect. Belize and many other Caribbean countries went through years of sargassum and survived. It is especially ironic and upsetting that right when the sargassum let up, we were led into an even worse crisis for tourism.

One of the things I have appreciated most in my time in Belize, is the grit and resourcefulness of the Belizean people. This experience thus far has cemented the fact that this is a very special place that takes care of its own, and I personally right now, despite the horrible level of stress across the world, find Belize has a unique position right now. The Belizean culture is extremely non-materialistic, and everyone that lives here for any period of time, generally takes on the same culture. People live very simply here, so much of the level of life change in more developed places, is not as felt here. People are not happy here because of the things they have, they are happy here because it is a gloriously beautiful and simple place to live, with ample free and nature-based activities to enjoy.

I can say from being here, that I feel very lucky to have experienced the beginning of the crisis in a place like this. The amount of supportive Facebook, WhatsApp, messenger, and other groups that have cropped up out of the blue to provide help, support, and to access those in great need, has been nothing short of miraculous. People have come together and made new friends who had never met up till a couple weeks ago. It has really bonded those who chose to stay here and ride it out. Although I had the chance to go back to the US, this was never really an option for me. Not only was my first priority my businesses and employees, but I was impressed from minute one by the small-town reaction to these huge problems. It somehow made it feel more manageable than imagining being in enormous US cities. I know some have expressed concern about the lack of sophisticated medical care in Belize. We have learned throughout this crisis that there is no predicting the next hour, let alone next week or next month. The business community has come together to raise a great deal of money for medical equipment, and while it may be far short of what is needed, this appears to be true everywhere in the world. None of us know exactly the right place to be, or the safest place with the most resources, because this crisis has exposed many weaknesses all over the world that we never could have known. The way that the country has committed to every behavior to stop the spread, and to get serious about flattening the curve, looks mostly positive right now.

All any of us can do right now, is do our part in our small corners to keep our community safe, keep ourselves safe, and to help those less fortunate. That is my personal plan in the coming weeks. The minute that Belize becomes a place people are able to safely travel again, I will do everything in my power to bring visitors back!!!! (until then, here's a few pics to lighten the mood...)

Friday, January 24, 2020

If you have missed any latest news out of Belize, here is your update!

I've been in Belize for 6 years, and I'm not sure I have ever seen Belize in the news more than in the last month. Generally around the turn of the year, many news outlets will come out with their "Best of" the prior year and the "Must-Do's" for the new year. Belize landed on SO many of these lists!! I think some of the reasons are that there has been a lot of new direct flights here, there has also been some buzz because of some of the big chain hotels that have started to crop up on Ambergris Caye. This has brought a slew of new tourists to Belize that perhaps would not have come otherwise (many came through Hilton points to the new Mahogany Bay on Ambergris Caye) and Wyndham bought Costa Blu, and is building a larger facility on the island, plus Margaritaville is supposed to open this year. The new hotel Itz'ana also opened in Placencia. Belize continues to get mostly great reviews from tourists, and people have continued to move here and make their home in Belize. This despite a bad Sargassum year last year - but thankfully the seaweed has been gone for months now.

Here are some of the newest articles about Belize:

And in local news/changes - (all pics from the Facebook page of the business featured)
Skyfall Terrace
Placencia Beach Club
Rick's Cafe
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In Placencia...
Muna recently opened on the top of the Ellysian - and it is a truly upscale, remarkable dining experience with sweeping views of town (IN TOWN!) - an additional upscale restaurant was sorely needed! Unfortunately Tranquilo has closed back down for now so keep that in mind when you come down. However the Placencia Beach Club has been a huge hit and it a true must-do for an afternoon in Placencia. Note that Rick's Cafe is now open in its new location - and also note - Tutti Frutti has moved from its old location next to Cha Chis, and is now underneath Rick's cafe, a little closer to the middle of the village on main street. Don't forget to get a drink at sunset at the top of Miramar right in the village  at Skyfall Terrace - gorgeous sweeping views of the village beach! A great new addition in Maya Beach has been Placencia Mini Golf - this has been a huge hit and much needed.

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Rum Dog
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Island Wonder
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Marriot Belize renderings
In Ambergris Cay...
Recently opened are the great new bar Rum Dog, over the water fun about a mile north of the bridge. The same group changed the old La Feliz bar to the Dog House Sports Lounge, at Tres Cocos Resort. They have a fundraiser every Tuesday for SAGA which is such a great community service. There is a great new yogurt shop (with the island's only sugar-free yogurt!) at Yogobean. K's diner changed hands and is now Island Wonder, and the new owner is bringing a lot of passion to the new project - great place to watch the planes land by Tropic Air. Palapa Bar and Grill is now hosting the famous Jerry Jeff Walker at their famous bar. And look at Crazy Canucks in the near future as their little southern corner of town turns into a "Colonial British" style paradise with the Marriot project, and the famous bar will be moving to a brand new over the water bar. Secret Beach area continues to expand with a brand new bar - maybe several new if you haven't been there in a while - check out Salty Anchor Marina Bar.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Latest upgrades at CBC - amazing tropical images that will get you excited for your trip here!! Photos by: Belize My Travels

We are so fortunate to have the talented Kevin from Belize My Travels to get some images from our latest changes. They are SO good that we are trying to slowly release each one, they truly capture CBC and Placencia in a special way.

We did many upgrades throughout the property, including adding more beachfront hammocks, and upgrades to La Casita and La Hacienda - see below! We also have an on site masseur, right on the beach....and stay tuned for more future announcements about what we have planned to improve the guest experience even more over the next year....

***In addition - in case you didn't hear .....sargassum has been gone for months and our guests have been treated to the idyllic, magical beaches that Belize has been known for!
Kevin's amazing images!
The cute La Casita got a number of closet, second TV, new colors and paint, upgraded window treatments, brand new shower, plus some other aesthetic changes to make it painfully adorable!

La Hacienda got a brand new couch from the Belize handcrafted furniture store Hummingbird has been a big hit with our guests!!

 And we always love to see CBC through his eyes, around the hotel!
 We added two more beachfront hammocks, these are a huge hit with our guests....
 CBC is thrilled to have on on site masseur Ms Keesha - our guests are loving the option to get a beachfront massage right on our quiet, relaxing beach!

The second floor balcony on La Hacienda....
Third floor private views from La Hacienda....

Every suite has its own conch shell outdoor shower to rinse after a swim...
 And of course no visit to CBC is complete until you get Mr Imer to cut you a fresh coconut off the trees....

Finally, enjoy Kevin's great drone footage around CBC!!!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

25 Things that create the Belize experience.....

While you might find a few of these things elsewhere in the world.....most of these are part of what makes the Belize experience so memorable and unique!

1.) There’s a napkin wrapped on every beer ...and you order a beer by saying, "I'll have a beer" (beer=regular Belikin)
2.) Fry jacks - sometimes as big as a football and stuffed with tons of stuff
3.) Belikin Beer
4.) Puddle jumpers
5.) Johnny cakes
6.) English signs...yet you landed in Central America
7.) You'll notice locals will speak English to you - but then immediately turn to their friend and speak 2 other languages, and they can go in and out seamlessly
8.) Golf carts are the preferred, or sometimes only option, in places
9.) Mennonite furniture - once you recognize the Mennonite template, you can't unsee it...and you'll see it......everywhere
10.) The smell of Belize - to me, is a mix of Fabuloso and Mahogany wood
11.) "Right now" means.... not right now
12. ) Highest building is still a Mayan ruin
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13.) The Belizean accent - everyone loves it and it will make you nostalgic when you aren't there
14.) Diversity easily intermixed at a bar - every color, age, socioeconomic status all hang together - and no one is trying to dress fancy
15.) You may randomly find a t-shirt from your tiny American elementary school hanging in a secondhand store window - happens all the time
16.) When it rains, expect everything to blip in and out for a little while - power, internet, cable (not always, but never a surprise)
17.) If you stop to talk to anyone who has lived here a while, you watch as they slowly but clearly scoot over to the nearest shady spot - no explanation needed
18.) Speed humps are the countries best traffic cop
19.) Make sure you check expiration dates at the grocery stores....and be careful buying imported freezer goods!
20.) Drums as the only instrument in the best band you’ll see all week
21.) Mayan ruins as common as Starbucks in NYC
22.) It’s likely your well cared for taxi cab is suffering from a lack of new parts
23.) Fast rains - quick sun - sometimes all day
24.) Hitchhiking is normal - and so are loungers on your parked cart - normal to find a couple Belikins in your cart in the morning
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25.) Good morning, good afternoon, good evening/night (often, twice) is the normal greeting - not "Hi" or "Hello" - and you'll feel compelled to make eye contact and say it to everyone you pass, once you are here a while!