Seeking Balance in Belize
Placencia juggles its future.
My boyfriend says my name as a warning, with a cautionary edge to his voice. I look down in the dim light of our LED flashlight to see that I am three inches away from stepping on a tarantula, furry and the size of a lime. I yelp and hop to the side as if I'm performing a move from some lost ’60s dance craze (“Let's all do the terrified lady!”), and keep hopping as if the longer I can keep myself off the ground, the less likely I am to step on something potentially venomous. It's some form of logic, but one that I can recognize in retrospect is also likely to startle any sort of potentially harmful creature into attacking.
It is nighttime in December, and we are walking towards a tiny beachfront Indian restaurant on Placencia Peninsula in Belize, the little country tucked under Mexico on the Caribbean Sea. Formerly known as British Honduras, the English-speaking country became independent in 1981 and has since become a favorite destination of both tourists and ex-pats, who mingle with the country's Mayan, Garifuna, Mestizo, and Creole residents.
Inside the tiny, circular Indian restaurant we are served by some of those ex-pats: a girl who spent her last few weeks working at a rural farm in Nicaragua; a guy who runs kayak tours. Tourist season, we've been told, isn't really starting for another couple of weeks, so we are the only patrons in the restaurant. We eat samosas and shrimp curry in dim light, and the kayak tour guide opens two Belikins for us, beers from the brewery that has a monopoly on Belize's suds. As he hands the bottles over, he asks what I do.
“I'm a writer.”
His eyes sharpen; he immediately asks if I do travel writing. “We could use it,” he says with a tone of voice that implies he's saying please. “This year. And next year.” I write this piece not as a favor, but to note that Placencia is on a strange precipice. The southern Belize peninsula joined the tourism game late, thanks largely to the fact that for several years, the area was accessible mainly by boat. Even after a road connecting the peninsula to the mainland was built, this formerly fishing-supported area has labored to keep an intimate village feel. Maintaining this intimacy while encouraging tourist traffic, however, is a balancing act. Twenty-six percent of Belize's GDP comes from tourism, and Placencia tries to court those who are interested in quiet, extended-night stays.
This isn't because the area hasn't had other opportunities. In August, the Placencia Tour Operators Association voted to keep cruise ships — which could bring thousands of tourists and their money — out of the area. But while refusing the cruise ships will maintain Placencia's focus on overnight tourists, it won't stop the other changes already underway on the peninsula. Over the past few years, new developments have become larger and more plentiful. One morning during our trip, my boyfriend and I are in a minivan, driving up the peninsula's road, which still isn't completely paved. Bumping along, we pass a development of closely seated, pre-fab-looking mansions that could rival any community in Boca Raton. On the other side of the road, our tour guide points out a casino under construction.
Residents' fears about the changing area aren't just fueled by a desire to keep Placencia quiet and intimate, they're also fueled by some hard facts about infrastructure. Belize is a small, sparsely populated country, and in several areas, basic amenities are playing catch-up with rising tourist demands. For example, the Placencia Peninsula has no sewage system, and according to the non-profit group Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development, some individuals still dispose “night waste directly into the Lagoon or Sea.” There are also difficulties getting fresh water to the area, electrical issues, and problems with garbage washing up on the shores.
That said, it's also easy to see why so many companies want to develop here. The peninsula is lush, warm, and exceedingly friendly, while still being unknown enough to keep prices low and provide the sort of personal experiences that have become more and more difficult to find in other Caribbean destinations. The day we pass the Boca-style development, we're traveling to Hokeb Ha Cave on the mainland, a mouth of rock in the Belize forest. When we arrive, our guide strips to his boxers, gives us headlamps and life jackets, and proceeds to lead us swimming upstream into the pitch-dark cave. We pull against the current, clamber up waterfalls, scrape over rocks, and eye the tightly folded bats hanging from the rocky ceiling. We are alone, the three of us, and the water is so warm and the swim so exhilarating that I have to keep fighting the feeling that the cave isn't real. Part of me believes the only way I should get to experience something this neat is if it's fiction, something Disney builds into a warehouse, populates with periodically blinking animatronic bats, and carefully times the entrance of every group so, if people don't talk too loudly, you can feel as if you're alone.
It's real, though, and for a while we turn off our lamps and swim completely in the dark. I feel safe and amazing. But of course, experiences like this aren't sustainable — not if tourism and the ex-pat community continues to grow. Infrastructure will need to be built, and areas like Hokeb Ha Cave will need to be protected.
Then again, the houses we passed in that development on our way to Hokeb Ha Cave all stood empty. Right now, Placencia — and Belize in general — is in a sweet spot. In space, yes, but moreover, in time. It's a time when residents can ask for more tourists while refusing others, when you can wander around town without feeling like a stranger, when you can be the only non-local person in a restaurant or swim deep into a cave.
Placencia is standing next to a tarantula that is the future, unsure whether it will be friendly, scurry away, or attack. But the air is warm, and the weather is calm, so Placencia waits. • 15 September 2010
Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Philadelphia.
Article photo via almostfearless / CC BY-NC 2.0