Monday, September 29, 2014

A trip review of a weekend on the island of Roatan, Honduras!

Dave, Chris, Sonia, and I went to Roatan, Honduras over the weekend--the goal being to add another country to our lists as none of us have been there, and to compare it to Placencia, as it has a lot of the same features.
Honduras gets a bit of a bad rap online as being very dangerous; it has the highest murder rate in the world. We did not go to the mainland for this reason; we heard enough reviews from other travelers that unless you go with someone who knows what they are doing, you might want to stick to Roatan. I can't speak for the mainland (although I have heard it is quite inexpensive but a lot of poverty) and we will go at some point-but we only had a quick weekend so there wasn't time for all of it.

It is a bit hard to travel around Central America in that your options are, rent a car and drive where there can be stops/roadblocks that you can't always know are legit (and you shouldn't really drive at night anywhere due to road conditions and safety), take a rickety bus that is not for the faint of heart, or fly on the puddle jumpers, which is pricey. There are ferry options but when you get to the mainland you still have to find a way to the main cities which can take a full day in some cases. You need to have an abundance of time, energy, patience, and a sense of adventure for most options--we chose to fly for time's sake :)

We flew on Tropic Air Friday afternoon to Roatan, and it was gorgeous as you fly in--it is hilly, green, and has beautiful turquoise water. The airport looked first world, and had few crowds due to low season right now. We got right in a cab and went to West End--there are many neighborhoods and over 100,000 people on the island alone (that is almost 1/3 the population of Belize!) on an approximately 25 mile island (about 1-2 miles wide). West End is the most touristy section--safe, you can walk to everything, and a lot of fun to be had. Our main concern was being able to walk to the beach and to the fun downtown area, and I would recommend this neighborhood for that. West Bay is close by and also has a walkable area, but not as big. It has resorts higher up in the hills so the views are great, but a lot more hill walking.
**Please note, some of the pictures I used I had to snatch from google because some of my pictures didn't turn out, but they were images that represented reality :) )
How it looks as you fly in:
We stayed at Sunset Villas, it was very nice and reasonably priced--two king sized bedrooms, two bathrooms, in a nice condo unit with a view of the pool and sea.
Our room view:
We all felt that the downtown area was really fun, very festive, beach-town, everything right on the shore. It has a slightly more developed feel than Placencia, more chains, everything was in English (Honduras is Spanish speaking on the mainland but Roatan was run by the English at one point, and the Kriol English stuck). I think we were expecting it to be more rustic and more exotic or Spanish feeling than Placencia, when it was far more tourist-centered. In Placencia, everyone hangs out together, there are not really tourist parts and local parts (it is a lot smaller-but gives you a more authentic feel as well). We felt safe the entire time and there were all ages hanging out together, and we explored the entire island. I cannot imagine feeling unsafe at any part of the island, we even drove right through many small towns and villages where we were told they were a bit rougher. One other comparison is that Roatan is thick with greenery and Northern-looking trees--in Placencia you see water, beach, and palm trees everywhere you look. Roatan had more oak and pine trees (at least that is what they looked like to me!), less water views than Placencia, less palm trees. Here are a few pictures of Sunset Villas and mains street in West End:

We swam in Half Moon Bay Beach--very clean water, no waves, in a bay (hence the name), great views of the hills around. It looks and feels exotic/Central American/Caribbean. Placencia's beach by comparison is much bigger/wider, we do have more sea grass problems, but we also have relatively big waves for the Caribbean, which I prefer, but everyone has their preference:

On Saturday, we rented a car for $50 us for the day, and spent the day touring the island. I highly recommend this--renting bikes was impossible to find, and I can see why--between the hills and the fact that there are no sidewalks, it would be dangerous to bike. You can see the whole island if you rent a car, and as long as you can tolerate skinny roads with a lot of turns, most anyone can handle it. There are only a few main roads and you can't get lost. 

We went to the Iguana Sanctuary, which was SO MUCH more fun than it may sound :). You walk in and a great group of people, Susan and Sherman being two of them, will tell you anything you want to know about iguanas, monkeys, fish, lobsters, boats, etc. We were able to feed the iguanas, and as you can see from the pictures, it was scary and freakish to have hundreds of dinosaur looking creatures, stepping all over each other to get at you and your leaves:

They have a few adorable monkeys that you can touch--and they will steal your sunglasses if you are not careful--this guy was ready to reach and steal---
Too cute :)
There is a growing lobster nursery and a tarpin fish cage, which Dave and Chris ended up getting in!! I would NOT get in here:
But they did:
It was a really fun way to spend a couple hours. Sherman also explained that they reason you see so many "shipwrecked" boats--like this--
Is because they attract fish and lobsters. It is a pretty cool feature of the island, and while we didn't get out and snorkel too much, this would be a great vacation activity. 

The next day, we went to see the Red Mangroves on a boat tour--this was very worthwhile. You will feel like your canoe boat will not make it through the mangroves---like this---
The mangroves are impossibly tangled!
And while we didn't see much wildlife, this is always possible in the mangroves. We were able to swing from a rope in the trees, and swim in the gorgeous bay:
Sonia and Chris not having any fun:)
Random Honduran fisherman that you see often:
We ended this day at a place called the Hole in the Wall, which is a true hole in the wall. For $25 you can get all you can eat lobster tail....and we ate all of the lobster tails :) This was a fun adventure, make sure you ask about the spooky story about the house behind the bar...
We also spent time at a bar called Sundowners, which is a very well known bar for good reason in West End. It is without a doubt, the prototype for all tiki beach bars; if you are into this kind of thing, and I am, this was the beach bar of my dreams. The setting, chairs, cheap drink prices, fun crowd, great guitarist, beach bonfire, everything about it was perfect. Touristy or not--I don't think you could help but love it here. We went twice and would have gone again!

Sunset at Sundowners...
Overall, we wished we had more time, with a couple extra days, we would have taken the ferry to La Ceiba and then made our way to San Pedro Sula. Taking the ferry and renting a car would have been much more economical than flying. 

Roatan is awesome and well worth a trip. A comparison if you are trying to decide between Belize and Roatan--a trip to the mainland in Honduras may only be for the truly adventurous, while in Belize you can experience many facets of vacation in one trip--jungle, ocean, water sports, Mayan ruins. In Roatan, you can do all this as well, but you are on an island. If you are a hard core snorkeler and are happy with a small area with a great tourist vibe, tons of energy, you would like Roatan. Belize is more laid back and rustic, more local flavor, Belize has no chains and maintains a charm that can't be bought or built. The charm you find in built up beach areas definitely has its place, and Roatan was more exotic than Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head for sure :) You will know you are in a Central American/Caribbean atmosphere, but just less of the local authenticity in Placencia. Both places are fantastic for their own reasons!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Some eye candy pictures of Placencia from this past week :)

Sometimes pictures are just better than words. The weather was great this past week, the sargassum FINALLY is going away, there were some spectacular sunrises, so here is some great beach pictures--especially for those in parts of the world where cold nights and sweaters are becoming normal again :(!
A beautiful place to have breakfast, happy hour, or drinks...Singing Sands up in Maya Beach...the aesthetics here are really something and worth a trip for one day!

Some gorgeous sunrise and sunset pictures from the last week....

Some shots from the Belize Ocean Club Pool party Sundays....

A shot from the bar at Barefoot Beach Bar....
 Some lovely flowers growing in rainy season....
 A shot of the Maya mountains over the lagoon side.....
Our visitors have all said, the pictures don't do it justice. I will try my best to capture how truly pretty is is down here, but come see for yourself!!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The truth about things people worry about when they come to Belize-Crime, Bugs, Hurricanes, WIFI....

The top concerns and questions people have about coming down to Belize - This is going to read more like a book report and not so much for entertainment, but still was an important blog I have been wanting to write :)
The most common concerns are:

How safe is it?
Are the bugs bad?
Are the critters in general bad?
Can I get good wifi?
Are there a lot of power outages?
How bad is rainy season/is there a chance of a hurricane?

I did about a year of research on Belize before moving here, then asked a thousand questions to expats who lived here, and then have lived here pretty much since February. This is not a lifetime of research but a decent sample size :)

How safe is it?
Belize is sometimes shown as ranked #6 in the world for unsafe countries. This number is truly disproportionate. Belize's murder rate is 44 out of 100,000. BUT as is widely claimed most of these murders (up to 60%) are in Belize City, southern, where the gang violence happens in a small pocket. Crime rates are rather hard to find, but here is some actual evidence for crime:
Let's look at where I live, Placencia. Placencia is in the Stann Creek District. This is the 2nd largest district. There are about 35,000 residents but that doesn't include people like me, here on a (long term) tourist visa, OR the number of the 300,000 visitors that come to Belize every year. (not including the 700,000 cruise ship passengers.)

The murder rate is 17/100,000 for my district (6 murders in a population of 35,000). This means, if you ONLY count ACTUAL residents,  for the whole year, for the WHOLE DISTRICT. Again, this isn't counting the fact that the population swells during high season, or the people like me, who essentially live here.

THIS FACT MEANS-------this rate is about the same as visiting Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or Cincinnati, Ohio. When is the last time someone said, I can't visit Milwaukee, the crime rate is just too high??? And please check out the rates of rape and robbery. If we compare it to a city I picked randomly, Cincinnati, the rate of rape is 11/100,000 in Stann Creek vs Cincinnati's rate of 63/100,000. Robbery--Stann Creek-57/100,000....Cincinnati-582/100,000!! And the population of Cincinnati is not thrown off by huge tourism swells or long term expats. The rates would be even lower if you included these populations, but that would be pretty complicated.

Robbery denotes theft by force. There are non violent thefts here, and if you leave your stuff out in a poor country, where people don't have much, yes, your stuff will be taken. I have had one thing taken in my time here, which was a case of empty beer bottles that were left out to be recycled. My friend that visited left a ping pong game out on his veranda which was taken. You certainly want to be aware of where your stuff is, and hide it away. I have heard that it is common knowledge here, that if you leave something out, you must not care too much about it, which makes it fair game. Good to know :)
Anyplace will feel safe to you, until something happens, of course. But I cringe when people hear a crime report and say, well take that place off the list, too dangerous! It is healthy to be suspicious and overly cautious when in a new place (in my opinion :) ) Look at your own home town statistics--because you know the town, it feels safe. But burglaries, rapes, etc are happening there the same as here. Most people DO tend to be more cautious on vacations, and Belize has areas in every city where there are tourists walking around everywhere, lights, and a feeling of safety. I wouldn't walk the streets at night, alone, ANYWHERE, or flash a bunch of cash anywhere, or leave my cell phone out in plain view when I am not near, and I use those same rules here. THE VAST MAJORITY of travelers anywhere--have a good experience and are not victims of crime. The tiny percentage that do have a problem, are publicized to the max, and unfortunate people use this as an excuse to not have any adventures in their life outside of Myrtle Beach or Disney World (and crime happens there too!!!). This is not recommended :)
Are the bugs bad? Critters in general?
I HATE bugs. I hate getting bit, and if I feel something brush against me I freak out. With that said, the bugs down here are not THAT bad. The ants are a problem. You will see ants every day down here, and worse if you don't treat for them, or you leave any food out.
The mosquitos have not been a problem except for very recently, because it is called "mauger season" where the wind really dies down. Because of the constant awesome breeze off the Caribbean, it keeps the bugs at bay, except for a small portion of the year. Wear some DEET an move on :)
Sand fleas-I have had three times since February where I felt sufficiently attacked by sand fleas to be really sad about it. All three times, I was out after a rain, at dusk, and I was sitting on the ground or in the sand. It left about 50-100 bites on my legs that made me miserable for about 2 days and then they went away. They itch like hell. If you have no self control, like me, you will turn them into scabs and be sorry you did it. I got smart and use anti itch cream now, and I am careful to put baby oil on my legs at high risk times.
Other bugs--I see bees and other large flying insects but they seem to not care that much about me. I have heard of people getting bit by Bot or Botless flies, which are pretty gross. They can swell up and be itchy. There are a lot of geckos around, which just don't bother me, they don't want anything to do with people and they eat insects.
I will admit--since February, we have had one tarantula, one scorpion, and one small snake on the property (outside!!) Occasionally Dave steps in a fire ant hill by his truck. We have dealt with termites here, they live everywhere, but this is not a concern of a guest, you will never see one, hear one, and they have no interest in eating humans. I have also seen a total of 5 cockroaches in our places. We treat for them so we only find them when they are dead. As gross as they are, they don't want to eat us. They are just freakish with a bad reputation.
To summarize, as a guest, unless you seek out a wildlife adventure, you are likely to see some regular old boring ants and maybe a gecko. If you see anything beyond that, remember that this will be a good story you can tell later, and nothing will hurt or kill you. Case closed.
How are the wifi and power outages?
I have read countless complaints about both. I honestly am either lucky or only reading the complainers or outliers. The internet has been as good as at home, and the power has gone out a total of three times, for a total of about 15 minutes. *yawn*

How bad in rainy season/chance of hurricanes?
Rainy season I have heard can be pretty depressing. However, we are in rainy season now, and what I have experienced is a Cleveland summer. Frequent rain and clouds, but better than Cleveland, it rains hard and quick and then is over, not a dull, grey, drizzle all day. I'll take rainy season any time over the weather in the Northern US. There is plenty of sunshine, very little temperature fluctuation, and the sun dries the rain up quickly. It doesn't stop us from doing anything. As for hurricanes, it looks like Belize by history is susceptible to a big one about every 30 years. We are due in about 15 years. Go ahead and make those travel plans.
So what IS bad??
If Sargassum is bad, it is BAD. This was an anomaly in the Caribbean this past year, but has abated.

Watch for the jellyfish. Because we are so close to the reef, when the tide is right, those little jerks float right over and invisibly enter your personal space. They can turn a pleasant swim into a blood curdling race for the shore. Good news is, this isn't Australia with box jellyfish that kill you, but it isn't fun to be stung.
The heat--it is freaking awesome here between 4pm-10am. Awesome. Breezy, comfortable, pleasant, no air conditioning needed. However, on some days, between 10am-4pm, you feel as if your IQ has dropped 40 points and your energy level is that of an 80 year old. You just have to figure it out and we have lived with it; if you have a sense of humor and can plan your day accordingly, it is part of the fun.

I am sure someone living here will have feedback or thoughts and I would love to hear what I left out :)

** Disclaimer based on a couple comments: Placencia is not the same experience as other parts of Belize. They ALL have their benefits and negatives and what is right for one person will be a dealbreaker for another. On Ambergris Caye, it is more expensive, but more first world like-more options, more roads, less bugs, more like a resort town, busy, crazy, lots of expats--but some might say not as authentic a Belize experience--and again, not very affordable. Cayo/Corozal are seen as more affordable, more authentic Belize, but less ocean access. More "rustic"--closer to the jungle in some cases so more bugs, less internet access. Placencia is in the middle. Not cheap, but you can live cheaply--hard to do anywhere in the cayes. There is rusticness but it feels more touristy then farther North or West. Feels kind of resort-ish but with limits :) Just my opinion!