Jul 26, 2022

Pursuing paradise in Placencia Village, Belize

Part One: Arrival day and great expectations

When you picture a tropical paradise, what do you usually see?  For me, it’s a picturesque beachfront full of sand, waves gently crashing ashore, palm trees weighed down with coconuts and plenty of empty chairs and hammocks for watching the world go by.  Kind of like what you see below …

Trust me, this is not as easy to find as one might think.  But after much research and a growing desire to check out one of the most tourist-friendly countries in Central America (to U.S. residents, at least), Punky and I made it our mission to find our own piece of paradise in Belize.  It was Valentine’s Day when we booked our summer getaway, and the timing of the flights to our destination, along with the availability of the location we landed upon -- Caribbean Beach Cabanas in Placencia Village -- could not have set up better for us.

We were drawn to Belize in general for several reasons:  1) English is the official language, so fewer communication barriers; 2) An easy currency exchange – two Belizean dollars equals one U.S. dollar, always; 3) a thriving and growing expat population not only in the touristy areas but throughout the country; 4) it’s relatively inexpensive to visit compared to some of the Caribbean island destinations; 5) it was relatively easy to get to – Southwest flies directly to Belize from its main hub in Houston; and 6) a fascinating blend of cultures including Mayan, Creole, Garifuna and a lingering bit of British colonialism.  

And very importantly, we were also drawn to Belize for its beach vacation options -- from Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker in the north to the southernmost coastal town of Punta Gorda.  But in the end, we decided on the Placencia peninsula in southern Belize and Caribbean Beach Cabanas in particular.  Placencia seemed to have just the right blend of touristy and tranquility, and our resort was highly regarded in reviews and had earned a Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Award in 2020.  It also came highly recommended by friends who had stayed there previously.

So, you know the saying about travel that getting there is half the fun?  I don’t think they meant for it to apply to air travel.  Even with road construction and poor detour directions near St. Louis’ Lambert International Airport, parking close to our terminal was a breeze, and we arrived with the recommended two hours to spare for an international check-in.  Unfortunately, that also meant having to wait for Southwest’s employees to arrive and open things up.  On the plus side, every other part of the experience with Southwest went as smoothly as one could hope for.  

I was also a little surprised to find no option for an adult beverage at Lambert. I know I’d had a morning Bloody Mary there before a flight to Las Vegas many years ago.  Oh, well.  Rules change with the times.  And surely in a state with a fierce independent streak like Texas, someplace would be open to help us start our vacation off right with a refreshing libation.  

Wrong again. 

I had never flown through the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston before, but I guess with it being so well known as a major Southwest hub, I was expecting something bigger.  With more dining options, maybe?  Apparently, Pappasito’s has cornered the market there – it was about the only restaurant open at the time besides a few coffee stands.    

Between an hour wait for sit-down service despite looking pretty empty and no liquor service until 10 a.m., Punky wisely steered us toward the to-go line for a couple of breakfast tacos.  They were far from the best I’ve ever had, but they served us just fine for the remainder of our travel day.

The flight from Houston to Belize went quickly – we even arrived a little earlier than scheduled.  The immigration paperwork we filled out on the plane helped pass the time. Before very long, land came into view, and although the approach was largely obscured by clouds …   

… it was nonetheless a smooth landing on the single-runway Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, which is actually a half hour outside of Belize City near the much smaller town of Ladyville.  A slow U-turn and left turn to the Southwest gate, and we were ready to disembark.

Two flights of stairs were rolled up to the plane for front and rear exiting directly onto the tarmac.  From there, we were greeted by a series of airport officials who guided the herd of new arrivals into the immigration line.

Photos of immigration checkpoint not recommended.

And this is what happens when a lot of foreigners arrive at a small point-of-entry – even an international airport – at the same time.  Our resort wisely advised us to allow at least an hour for the process.  They were accurate, of course.  The process was straightforward but deliberate, as it should be.  

After a successful check-in and retrieval of our luggage, we followed the seemingly more knowledgeable tourists through the arrival area and into the center concourse of the airport, which was filled with duty-free shops, places to eat and, importantly, a Tropic Air ticket station.  After booking our resort, I had taken its staff up on their offer to arrange our transportation from the international airport to Placencia.  They booked us right away on a puddle jumper flight through Tropic Air, with the added advantage being I would not have to pay for the domestic flight until I arrived in Belize.     

And it worked out perfectly.  Our reservations were being held, payment was quickly made and with receipt in hand we were directed toward the end of the departures concourse to wait for our 3 p.m. flight.  And when your choices are Terminal 1 or Terminal 2, it’s not that hard to navigate. 

The entire process seemed much less “formal” than I’m used to with reservations, but I couldn’t argue with the results. 

With plenty of time to unwind, we roamed the concourse and its various gift shops.  

And maybe it’s the inner Parrothead in me, but we somehow landed on this place to have our first drink in Belize.  Sure, the big sell is for the resort/retirement village being built in Ambergris Caye, but the shots of rum and Landshark beers were what lured us (and almost everyone else) in. 

Eventually, the time to board our third and final flight of the day arrived.  I presented our receipt at the gate and followed the small line of fellow passengers and our luggage handlers onto the tarmac to board the puddle jumper that would take us to Placencia. 

It looked quite cozy and felt perfectly safe to me.   We were even close enough to the pilot to get a good view of the instrument panel.

Punky, on the other hand, was not impressed, even after a smooth and effortless takeoff. 

Oh, well.  Everyone else on board seemed to be getting the most out of the experience.   

The flight took less than half an hour, straddling the coastline to Placencia most of the way.  The views of the Belizean countryside, although somewhat limited by intermittent showers in the area, were fabulous and at times breathtaking.

Before long, the pilot dipped the plane and took a left turn to glide over the bayside of the peninsula.  The edge of the runway appeared below the plane seconds before landing.  We passed the single building marked “Placencia Airport” on the left before the plane halted.  A quick U-turn back, and we had arrived. 

All we needed to do at this point was gather our luggage.  A shuttle driver from Caribbean Beach Cabanas was already waiting for us in front of the airport. 

The drive to the resort took no more than 10 minutes, as we watched our driver take Placencia Road (aka “the main road’) around the runway we had just been on, then through a marshy patch along the highway before reaching the village.  We turned left on an unmarked sandy drive past some home construction (a familiar sight in town in the days to come) and stopped in front of what we quickly learned was Placencia Sidewalk, the other main “street” in town.       

We had arrived at our home away from home for the next five nights. 

And we could not have felt more welcomed at our arrival.  Our hostess greeted us at the outside bar stationed next to the resort office.  We went over the check-in process with complimentary fruit punches in our hand.  Then we were given a tour of the facilities from the back office up to the beachfront.   

Paradise.  Found.

Once in our cabana, it was time to relax after a long day’s travels, enjoy the remainder of our welcome drink and ponder what to do next, or perhaps just do nothing.  At least for a while.  When you’ve found paradise, doing nothing is always a good option. 

There would be plenty of time for both relaxation and exploration, as I’ll detail in the next Placencia blog post … 

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