'Wanna pet the shark?'
The offer comes from a 21-year-old snorkel guide named Tony, who is bearing sardines. Two beige nurse sharks piggyback one another at our port side, almost begging as smaller fish pick off the chum before it even hits the water.
But I've owned cats more likely to tear into flesh than the four-foot nurse sharks at Hol Chan Marine Reserve. A protected three-square-mile area off Ambergris Cay, Hol Chan (Mayan for "little channel," named for a cut in the 140-mile reef) abounds with sharks, fish, and stingrays. They feel the thrum of an approaching boat, swim over when the engine stops, partake of the buffet, and then chill out at the bottom of the Caribbean until summoned by another outboard dinner bell.
Throw in a hammock and a rum-based cocktail of your choice, and that's also pretty much what life is like for humans at Belize's top vacation destination.
Welcome to paradise!" the baggage handler hails as I unfold from the 13-seat plane that has brought us from the mainland to San Pedro, the island's only town. I've been told by a few travelers (and one Belizean) that the former fishing village is too touristy, but hey, there's something to be said for Internet cafés and water you can brush your teeth with.
Ambergris Cay has grown since its days as the off-the-radar sunshine playground that Madonna sang about 20 years ago in "La Isla Bonita" (an odd title, come to think of it, given that English is Belize's official language). The locals include a fair share of expat businesspeople, but leaving your type A personality on the mainland is apparently a requirement.
Upon my arrival at The Tides Beach Resort, a shirtless bartender named Butch greets me by first name and directs me to a spacious, no-frills room with an ocean view, A/C, a minifridge, and 60 channels of American TV. I never do get asked to sign a piece of paper or produce a credit card. "It's Belize, go with the flow," owner Sabrina Paz says when I finally meet her.
Sabrina's husband, Elmer "Patojo" Paz, has run Patojo's Dive Shop here for 17 years. With three atolls, the world's second-largest barrier reef, and (just a few hours offshore) the Blue Hole, Ambergris Cay attracts both experienced divers and novices getting certified on vacation. In 1998, the couple tore down their beachfront home and replaced it with a three-floor, 12-room Spanish colonial, including living quarters for themselves and their six kids, who are often around the pool or on the pier doing their homework. (Or not doing it: Megan, their 12-year old, wonders why she has to finish high school when she plans to be a dive master like Dad.) The arrangement gives The Tides a family bed-and-breakfast vibe without the actual feeling that you're sleeping over at a stranger's house.
The roads on Ambergris seem to range from unpaved to nonexistent. Cars are scarce, the north side of the island is accessible only by golf cart or boat, and the beach is something of a thoroughfare for single-gear bikes with back-pedal brakes. On my first stroll around town, I decide that renting a golf cart or a bike won't be necessary. San Pedro is small, the streets are safe, and cab rides rarely cost more than $5. The only reason not to walk is the humidity, which is unavoidable in any case.
For dinner that night I choose Elvi's, which began as a takeout window more than 30 years ago and still has a sand floor. It's priced for tourists, but my $14 is well spent on Mayan-style fish cooked to a nice char in a banana leaf with roasted peppers, onions, and tomatoes, plus a heavenly scoop of coconut rice. It's served by the cook himself, who offers a friendly shoulder tap and instructs me (ha, ha) not to eat the leaf.
The next afternoon, Tony, a family friend of Patojo's who has been guiding formally for one year and informally since he was around 13, takes me out to Hol Chan. Six or seven other vessels are already there--a number that can easily quadruple during high season (December to May), since most guides run a daily trip at 2 P.M. (Groups of six or eight might want to spend a little more for a private morning excursion with Grumpy and Happy.) Some divers prefer to avoid Hol Chan, going instead to the Mexico Rocks coral and the Bacalar Chico Marine and Wildlife Reserve up north, or some spot along the reef (every guide has his own "secret" location). For an amateur like me, the real-life Finding Nemo oceanscape is dazzling: blue tangs and parrot fish; silvery, thin barracudas; and flat flounder. Moray eels and a little octopus are hidden in the coral but are spotted easily by Tony. "I come here every day," he shrugs.
We proceed to Shark Ray Alley, so named because it's where those friendly nurses and southern stingrays congregate. Swimming a few feet below the surface with one ray alongside you and another on the ocean floor is both thrilling and discomfiting. The rays are mostly harmless, as Tony demonstrates when he proffers a morsel of sardine to a curious stingray, then picks the ray up with both hands. Along with hugging a shark, this is every San Pedro tour guide's favorite parlor trick; all the guides agree that Steve Irwin's death was a freak occurrence.
Wednesday evenings at San Pedro's beachfront bar scene mean one thing: the chance to watch a chicken do its business (yes, that kind of business). If your ticket matches the numbered square the poultry performer poops on, you win $100. The World-Famous Chicken Drop has gone down at the Spindrift Hotel's Pier Lounge every Wednesday at 6 P.M. for 18 years. You pay 50¢ for a number picked from a jar, toss back a few happy-hour drinks, and gather around an outdoor pen to see how fast fresh coconut and half-cooked bacon travel through the animal's system. "That'd make anybody crap," promises Pier Lounge owner Jan Brown, a 63-year-old former Texan who recently posed seminude, à la the film Calendar Girls, to raise money for San Pedro's new primary school.
One gambler gets to drop the chicken in the pen, and this week, the honor goes to a brunette named Stacy, one of a dozen buddies from all over the U.S. who have been on the island for a week. Her instructions are to gently shake the chicken three times. "Then you gotta blow up its butt for good luck," Jan insists. Stacy shakes, gamely blows, and the chicken totters on the very square it lands on for 10 seconds, and then . . . plop. The hundred bucks goes to Jason, another member of the group. Jan then reveals the unofficial rule: The winner has to clean up the mess.
"How many of you went diving today?" Jan asks the crowd. "Anybody see a ruin?"
"Anybody see a pool?" Jason retorts. "Anybody see some horseshoes? I saw the bottom of a bottle."
Indeed, you'll probably spend a lot of time just staring at the Caribbean, Belikin beer in hand. Might be at a bar, might be at a restaurant, might be at a resort--and not necessarily the one you're staying at. Most beaches are small, and the tepid water is thick with sea grass. The entire shore of Ambergris is public, which makes it easy to hop from bar to beach to resort.
The Xanadu Island Resort, where I stay for the last part of my trip, proves suitable for sitting around and not doing much of anything. Its freshwater pool is beachfront and surrounded by palm trees. My loft suite comes with a full kitchen and the use of a bike and a kayak. There's a hammock on every porch.
After checking in, I walk the mile into town to El Fogon, a tiny palapa restaurant tucked a block west of the airstrip. Fogon means "hearth," and that's what dominates the dining area: fresh-cut wood stacked up beneath three iron burners. Tender "stew beans," as opposed to the more commonplace Creole beans and rice, taste like peppery smoke itself, melting in my mouth.
One of my neighbors at Xanadu is Mark Wilson, a Brit who first came to Belize in 1988 and has been back a dozen times since. "It's the biggest f--ing jewel in Queen Elizabeth's crown," he says. Earlier in the week, Mark was sitting at Estel's--a place where you can get a drink before the stroke of noon, and breakfast well past it--when a cornrowed Creole named Ernesto passed by with a load of freshly filleted barracuda. After a brief conversation, Ernesto sold Mark on a fishing trip, including snorkeling with manatees on the side. Mark and his girlfriend, Angell Crosland, graciously allow me to third-wheel.
Most manatee tours venture 30 miles down the coast, but Ernesto (who's 43, looks 30, and has a voice like Mike Tyson's) knows a spot that's closer. He and his goateed partner, Oliver (who sports a 30-stitch spearfishing scar on his right wrist), launched their two-man operation, Cari'Bean Tours, just last year, though they've worked for other operations for years.
It's nice just to be out on open water, to see the turquoise shimmer of the Caribbean without the muddled undertone of sea grass. Angell and I are both total novices at fishing, and we enjoy reeling in little snappers and grunts, never mind the fact that my ratio of caught fish to lost bait is one to four. We also don't have any luck trolling for 'cudas, and soon enough, it's time to put away the rods and go snorkeling.
Led by Ernesto, we swim and swim, and then swim a little more. The current isn't strong, but this close to the reef, the waves are bouncy. We make a long circle and appear to be heading back to the boat, but Ernesto peels off in another direction. He gives us the "quiet" signal; just like that, we're 10 feet behind three manatees. The big gray beasts swish slowly through the ocean. When they surface for a breath, we come up with them and get a good look at their whiskered snouts.
Back on the Cari'Bean, Ernesto completes our luncheon menu by free diving 20 feet to catch a lobster with his bare hands--doing it with gloves damages the coral--and four more with a hook. He dips the cutting board into the ocean to clean off our morning bait, rinses off the fish, and slices delicate fillets. We anchor at an isolated beach, and Ernesto dumps the fish and lobster into foil, along with a few dollops of butter and barbecue sauce, a can of salsa, green pepper, onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. It takes all of five minutes to cook on the fire. By the time it's ready, we all have rum punches and fresh tortillas in hand.
I'm as content as a nurse shark with a belly full of sardines, yet somehow I'm feeling a little jealous--of Ernesto, Oliver, even the manatees. After all, they come here every day.
Ambergris Cay basics
Between Tropic and Maya Island airlines, there are 20 flights a day from Belize City to San Pedro. The 10-minute flight costs about $100 round trip. A water taxi is $15 each way, though the ride takes an hour and the marine terminal is a 30-minute cab ride from the airport.
Hotels in San Pedro are simpler and smaller than the isolated, upscale northern resorts. The hotels and resorts south of San Pedro fall somewhere between the two extremes.
There are limited street addresses in San Pedro. The two main drags, Barrier Reef Drive and Pescador Drive, are universally referred to by their former monikers: Front Street and Middle Street, respectively. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere, but traveler's checks are still a good idea. Only one ATM in town (at the Belize Bank on Barrier Reef Drive) accepts foreign cards, though all the banks will process credit-card cash advances.