The low-stress, genuine charm of Belize comes at a steep cost

Ten years ago I took my family to Belize for a week.  It was our first trip to the country that used to be British Honduras (it became Belize in 1981), and we enjoyed it.  Just south of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Belize lies on the Caribbean Sea and borders on the west and south with Guatemala.  It’s 180 miles long and 68 miles wide—a small country—but its population is less than 350,000, which makes it the least densely populated country in Central America.

We liked the people and the place and wanted to return.  With its coconut palm white sand beaches, famous offshore reef, warm blue tropical waters, and good infrastructure, it’s a great site for a week of Spring Break and relatively easy to get to from Raleigh (less than 3 hours from ATL).  It’s also very safe, always important, especially when traveling with children.

But, being an inveterate airfare opportunist,  it took a decade of looking to find air travel prices low enough to entice me to press the “BUY” button on the website for flights to Belize City.  I obsessed among the shrinking number of airline sites to find the lowest fare I could live with.  Even so, I ended up paying a much higher fare than I budgeted for, and that was just the start of cash flying out of my wallet for this trip.

First, the good news.  Belize was wonderful in most ways: genuinely friendly, even innocent, people who haven’t been corrupted by the modern world; gorgeous postcard-perfect coconut palm white sand beaches abutting a bathwater-warm and gentle blue Caribbean Sea; excellent modern, comfortable, even luxurious, air-conditioned accommodation; reasonably decent basic infrastructure (power only went out once, and the resort’s generator soon kicked in; roads are not that great; water and sewer out of sight and mind).

Another big plus in Belize is the lack of density mentioned above.  There are so few people that even the main roads have little traffic, and back roads have virtually none.  Not just the roads, either.  Almost any walk or drive would quickly lead to rural areas devoid of human presence.  It was very stress-free.

Downsides were: the cost of food (very high); cost of activities (sky-high); no swim-to reef for snorkeling (nearest coral was 14 miles offshore, requiring a boat and crew); reef nearest us (the one nearest to Hopkins was 14 miles offshore, a 30-minute boat ride one way) was not spectacular compared to, say, St. John, instead being pedestrian to the point of boring.

Here is why I thought it was expensive:

Airfare was $910 each RDU/BZE (discounted first class on Delta) because I opted to pay $150 per person extra after discovering coach was over $700. Thus X 4 people = $3640.

By the way, service on Delta in First Class (called “Business Class” on the ATL/BZE segments) was friendly, but it was not in any way worth the extra money to get up front.  Seat pitch was cramped, too, no better and perhaps worse than Economy Comfort.  Lesson learned.

Jaguar Reef Lodge resort accommodation in a 2-BR/2 bath suite with kitchen and porch on the Caribbean was $220/night X 7 = $1540 + 8% room service charge and another 9% hotel tax = %1802.  This was by far the best bargain element of the trip, and I highly recommend the Jaguar Reef Lodge.  The staff was well-trained, sincerely interested in helping, and fun to be around.  Can’t say enough good things about the place if you just wanted to lounge on the beach, by the pool, or on your porch reading while overlooking the beautiful Caribbean Sea.

20140330_080544ABOVE:  The view towards the Caribbean from our suite.

20140330_113317ABOVE:  Typical Jaguar Reef Lodge accommodation with 4 suites (ours was the upper right).

20140330_080520ABOVE: The view from our steps at Jaguar Reef Lodge

Transfers, including an interesting van trip to the Belize Zoo and later passing along the beautiful Hummingbird Highway inbound and land/air back to Belize City on departure was $739 including tip (about $185 each).

Meals and activities charged to AmEx while there (for all the expensive activities like the reef snorkeling, Mayan ruins, horseback riding, rainforest zipline, etc.) was $1850 (about $475 each).

Cash expenditures for additional meals and activities was $900 (about $225 each).

Parking at RDU was $96.

Total trip cost was therefore $8217 (about $2050 per person).

Meals were expensive no matter where we ate.  The resort charged about $12-15 each for breakfast.  In the nearby small town of Hopkins at an extremely modest local place (we tried several), breakfast was about $8 each.

Ditto for dinner.  The resort charges always came to about $20-25 each, including beer.  In rickety shack cafes in Hopkins, it was never less than $20 each.  Food and drink were expensive everywhere.

Activities were the highest.  Half day reef snorkeling in an open, mostly unshaded boat shared with 16-18 other people was $80 each (including 12.5% local GST), and for that you spent most of the half day riding out or riding back or sitting on a beach between 40-45 minute snorkeling sessions.  The reef itself was not very interesting, nor its marine life nearly as diverse as St. John.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed it, but couldn’t justify $320 again for less than 90 minutes of snorkeling over a mediocre reef site.

Horseback riding was $90 per person for a two hour trail ride to the Sittee River through a beautiful hilly rainforest where we twice saw jaguar tracks.  I loved being in the rainforest, and our ten year old daughter loved the riding experience.  Once again, though, the cost was pretty high for the experience.

20140402_100505ABOVE: Jaguar tracks in the rainforest as seen from horseback

The 8:00 AM to 2:30 PM trip to the Mayan ruins and ancient archaeological site and modern Mayan cultural center, including a great lunch, was $110 per person  (including 12.5% local GST).  I realized when we got back to the room that it had cost $440 altogether for the outing.

20140403_123153ABOVE: A Mayan woman demonstrates how to grind corn using ancient grinding stones handed down for a thousand years

The cost of the activities added up quickly.

These prices probably don’t seem terribly high to readers accustomed to spending a great deal more on trips than we are.  From my perspective, I have never spent $8278 for one week of Spring Break before.  That’s $1146 per day total, or $287 per person per day.

By contrast, 15 days in the Kruger National Park of South Africa in February—a much more distant destination—cost $2900 (my cost alone), or about $193 per person per day.

Speaking of which, I will get back to my latest paean to the Kruger in my next post.


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