…in a small, romantic and affordable hotel nestled off the coast of Central America.
Story and photos by Stacey Dougherty
Nothing quite beats getting away from it all when that means jetting off to a remote island in the Caribbean Sea surrounded by nothing except other tiny islands and atolls, all part of the second largest barrier reef in the world and calling a small local hotel home base as you explore mother nature in all her glory. Ambergris Caye (pronounced key) in Belize is the island and the small romantic hotel is Mata Rocks, just outside the island’s only town of San Pedro. Mata Rocks may bill itself as a resort but its size and friendly service are more reminiscent of a well run B&B. The hosts, Liz Cechini and Terry Anderson, are accessible and helpful and usually appear at their Squirrel’s Nest beachfront bar most nights for happy hour. It’s usually a popular time of the day, with guests mingling with vacationers from other nearby accommodations and a few locals grabbing stools to share the details of their day.
The blinding white of the inn’s exterior is both eye catching and effective in bouncing the strong rays of the sun off the building, which keeps it cooler during the day and allows for walking barefoot around the pool area in the afternoons. The hotel accommodates guests in only eleven rooms and six junior suites. The suites all offer full kitchenettes and all rooms have air conditioning, cable TV, wireless internet, mini-fridge, coffeemaker and private bath and shower. Maid service is provided with fresh linens daily.
The charm of the hotel is the fact that every room is different and the services available are thoughtfully provided. There are free bikes waiting for any guest who wants one, continental breakfast is provided at the Squirrel’s Nest Bar from 7:30 am until 9:30 am with the best coffee and freshest tropical fruit you’ll have anywhere and virtually any type of excursion is offered and can be booked for you through the front desk.
And excursions are what will keep most guests busy because Belize, like Costa Rica is a treasure trove of natural beauty and attractions that are unique to this part of the world. Almost forty percent of Belize’s land mass is under some sort of government protection in the form of national parks, national monuments, wildlife sanctuaries, forest preserves and marine parks. The surprising fact is that all of this protected land exists in a country with the lowest population density in Central America and one of the lowest in the world. The country is taking a proactive approach to protecting its unique historic sites, its precious natural resources and the diverse animal and plant species that call the country home.
Part of the appeal of Belize for travelers in the know is the fact that the country’s coastline is also home to the second largest barrier reef in the world at just over 180 miles in length. It attracts divers, fisherman and snorkelers from all over the world and during the months of April and May around the time of the full moon, whale sharks can be sighted, mostly off of Placencia, in the southern part of the country. Many divers live for that time of year and the full moon trips are booked up way in advance.
Off the coast of Ambergris Caye, Hol-Chan Marine Reserve is the closest protected site and is home to a myriad number of species of fish including the enormous black grouper, as well as shellfish like the spiny lobster and predators like the moray eel. My husband and I booked a trip through the front desk that took us on a catamaran with about ten others run by Seaduced by Belize, a family owned tour business that has guided tourists for over twenty years. Elito Arceo, the captain and owner, toured Hol-Chan with us as we snorkeled through the amazing coral formations and went looking for some possible close encounters. He managed to find one and proceeded to hand feed a sea turtle with some conch meat he brought along just for this purpose. Elito’s extensive experience in these waters makes him able to find just about anything he sets out for and all of his clients rave about his skill.
After Hol-Chan we headed to Caye Caulker, a tiny island with the most unblemished white sand beaches I’ve ever seen. The water was just gorgeous and there was hardly anyone around, even in the main town. We enjoyed our time so much and Elito was a very entertaining and fun-loving guide that we booked another sail with him for later in the week. That one took us to the northern end of Ambergris Caye and we went snorkeling in search of conch to make fresh ceviche. The beaches there were the most untouched and pretty beachside cottages made the shoreline picture postcard perfect.
The two most amazing tours we went on took us to the mainland. We traveled by high- powered speedboat up into the mouth of a river whose entrance looked like a photo from National Geographic. About a half hour after entering the river we had to disembark and get on a bus, heading to a remote rural area about forty-minutes away. We were headed there to do some zip lining in the rainforest canopy.
The property itself was rather astonishing. We got off the bus and walked on the path to the area where we had to gear up and listen to instructions on how to operate the equipment. On the way, we passed the most incredible plants – palms that had fronds growing from the ground to about four stories high and were as wide as a single garage door. It was the houseplant department at Pike’s on steroids.
We were instructed on how to get from one end of the line to the other and were told that we shouldn’t slow down too much as we zipped toward the platform or else we’d wind up short and have to jiggle our way to the end, or one of the handlers would have to come and get us. Not cool. Thankfully, everyone in our line did well and no rescues had to be performed. The first time you step off the platform and whiz through the air is both unbelievably frightening and extremely exhilarating at the same time. When you make it to the end and haven’t knocked the handler who’s waiting to catch you off the platform, realize you’re in one piece and still a hundred feet above the ground you can’t wait to do it again.
There were several groups of us making our way through the course and as close as the various zip lines were to each other, we couldn’t see anything except the line we were actually using at the moment because the vegetation was so thick. But the screaming we heard. Usually followed by some high-pitched, nervous laughter. That’s probably what kept the monkeys away.
Afterwards we had lunch at a private wildlife lodge in the area and then boarded the bus and headed back to the river where the speedboat waited for us. A long day and we were looking forward to happy hour.
A few days later we made a similar trip but this time it was to do some cave tubing. Belize has a very extensive underwater cave system that in the time of the Maya was considered a spiritual place and used for religious purposes. On this trip we were required to hike about a half hour to the starting point and we were given headlamps because the caves were pitch black. The trip was several hours but we went through some of the most interesting and beautiful caves, full of curious and stunning rock formations. So many of them reminded me of the red rocks found in the desert Southwest of the United States. Some had waterfalls cascading through them or were backlit by the natural light that got in through some crevices in the rocks.
Back at the hotel for our last night was hard to face. We filled up our week pretty extensively in Belize and we really had a blast. The friendly service and all the activities were a great way to spend a twentieth anniversary. Hopefully, it won’t be another twenty years before we return. If it is, nothing had better change – it was perfect just the way it was.
If You Go
Travel to Belize requires a U. S. passport that is valid through your departure date. Tourist visits of up to 30 days do not require a visa. An exit fee of $35 US is charged upon departure and collected in US dollars. The official language is English and the currency exchange rate is $2 BLZ to $1 US.
Delta has regular flights to Belize City from Hartsfield Jackson Int’l Airport. Check their schedule and fares at www.delta.com
Flights to San Pedro from Belize City are on small prop planes and are run by Maya Air and Tropic Air. Cost is usually less than $130 R/T. If you book a stay at Mata Rocks, they will handle R/T booking for you. Just give them your fight info and they’ll handle the rest.
Mata Rocks Resort
Offering 11 rooms and 6 Junior Suites all with cable TV, A/C, mini fridges, wireless internet and free continental breakfast.
Room rates from $110 -$210 per night, dble occupancy and dependent on the season. Christmas holiday season a little higher. Packages available.
Wild Mangoes. One of the best restaurants on the island, by far. Award winning Chef Amy does wonders with fresh local ingredients. Not to be missed! In San Pedro open from 11am – 11pm Tel: 226.2859
Never a problem in Belize. Book with Elito and Rebecca Arceo and you will have a wonderful adventure no matter what trip you choose. Extensive itineraries available. They run an efficient and friendly tour business that you’ll wish you could take with you on all your vacations.
Seaduced by Belize – www.seaducedbybelize.com