Need to get away? At the corner of Belize’s Caribbean Coast, laid-back Placencia offers an offbeat escape with lots (or little) to do. Your choice.
If visiting the world’s second largest coral reef wasn’t reason enough to jump on a plane to Belize, then staying in Placencia—“Pleasant Point”—clinched the deal. I was eager for some check-it-off-the-bucket-list diving and seriously laid-back R & R.
Belize is one of Central America’s smallest countries and sits south of Mexico, east of Guatemala and north of Honduras. Due east, the Caribbean sea shimmers bright blue and draws divers and snorkelers from around the world to the highly revered and protected Belize Barrier Reef System—a short 17-mile boat ride from the peninsula of Placencia in southeastern Belize. The water is remarkably clear, the reef vibrant and the sea life spectacular. During my first dive, I lost count of the sharks, eels, turtles, rays and exotic Skittles-colored fish I saw. My time spent on the reef and its cayes was unforgettable and exciting.
On land, Placencia was similarly memorable, but much less exhilarating. And that’s its charm. Think Margaritaville, not Miami. Once a sleepy fishing village with a narrow wandering sidewalk that acted as its main street (and still does), the half-mile-wide town sits at the southern tip of the peninsula, between the sea to the east and a mangrove-lined lagoon to the west. Like its culturally diverse people—a melting pot of Creole, Garifuna, Maya, Mestizo, assorted expats and others—the town is welcoming, low-key and delightfully quirky.
On days not spent diving or visiting Mayan ruins in Guatemala, we pedaled old beach cruisers or paddled kayaks from nearby Turtle Inn into the charmingly shabby town. There we’d drink rum at Tipsy Tuna and dine on local conch at Barefoot Beach Bar, grab a gelato at Tutti Fruitti and wander aimlessly around the offbeat bohemia. Under swaying palm trees, sidewalks connect small, colorfully painted wood homes (many raised on stilts) with tatty cottages, impromptu art studios, modest storefronts, small eateries, open-air beach bars and tiny groceries. In the evenings, we’d dine waterside at Turtle Inn or head to town to dine at restaurants serving local, home-cooked Caribbean fare. Finally, with waves lapping lazily just yards from our palm-thatched cottage, sleep came easily each and every night.
After only a week away, I was a new man. Placencia, I discovered, is a perfect escape for any multitasking, Google-scheduled soul seeking an unassuming spot offering plenty to do—or not. I chose both.
WHERE TO STAY
Consistently ranked among the best resorts in Central and South America, Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn is a seafront hideaway combining barefoot elegance with exotic rusticism. There’s nothing quite like waking up to the gentle sound of ocean waves in one of the Inn’s Balinese-style seafront cottages. The Inn is a serene oasis with plenty of on-site activities to help you unwind—nap in a colorful hammock strung between palm trees, recline by one of its pair of pools or treat yourself to the luxurious spa set in an open-air Balinese rice house.
The Inn is just a short bicycle ride, walk or paddle from Placencia Village. The staff can arrange a myriad of memorable jungle and sea adventures off-site too, from scuba diving to tours of ancient jungle ruins.
WHAT TO DO
TAKE a boat—with a guide and gear for snorkeling or scuba—to Gladden Spit and Silk Caye Marine Reserve, created to protect the rich bio-diversity of hundreds of species of sea life inhabiting the area. In March through June, the area is home to whale sharks feeding there. Snorkeling or diving with these gentle giants an unforgettable experience. Book with a local dive shop or resort, including Turtle Inn, which has its own dive shop.
WANDER ancient ruins in the rainforests of Belize and Guatemala. Easily accessible from Placencia are Lubantuun and Nim Li Punit—minor but interesting Mayan ruins. Farther afield, but still easily reachable, is Xunantunich—home to the second tallest building in Belize, even though it was built over 1,000 years ago. More dramatic, and worth the full-day trip into Guatemala and the hired guide it requires, are the ruins of Tikal, a huge Mayan complex with hundreds of ancient buildings and pyramids. Local tour companies, including Ian Yearwood’s Barefoot Services, can arrange excursions.
SEARCH for elusive jaguars in the only jaguar reserve in the world, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve. It’s rare to see one of the cats, but the preserve’s hiking trails will lead you to unforgettable destinations, from hidden waterfalls to mountain tops offering amazing jungle views. Plus, you’re nearly sure to see, or at least hear, many other jungle animals like the aptly named howler monkey.
WHERE TO EAT
Turtle Inn offers three dining options — Mare, Gauguin Grill, and Auntie Luba’s Kitchen. Mare, its main restaurant, combines fresh seafood dishes and Italian classics in a huge open air, tiki-style dining room. Gaugin Grill serves fresh seafood, grilled in view, to a handful of tables set in the sand just steps from lapping water.
Auntie Lubie’s Kitchen offers Caribbean comfort food in a lagoon-side building that evokes the charming feeling of dining in a local home.
Rumfish y Vino, located on the second floor and balcony of a pastel-colored colonial building overlooking Placencia’s cricket field, has a menu filled with traditional Belizian comfort food, as well as imaginative Caribbean-international fusion fare. With a sister restaurant in Ventura, California, the place seems a mix of local and international, with the benefit of the best stocked bar and wine cellar in town.
If you’re looking for purely local flavor and excellent home style cooking, visit Omar’s Creole Grub. Located along on the town’s main street, it’s unapologetically shabby, but the food is superb. The service is both excellent and friendly, but grab beer or wine from the store across the street. Omar’s doesn’t serve alcohol, although they’ll chill it for you.