I spent a week exploring the islands, waters, and cities of Belize -- here are my favorite stories

‘The land of the free on the Caribbean Sea’

A view from the waters just outside of Placencia, Belize. (Derick Hutchinson, WDIV)

Hey everybody, it’s been awhile.

I’ve been off on an awesome adventure -- by my standards, anyway. Five of my friends from college, my wife, and I spent the last week exploring the islands and waters of Belize, a tiny country tucked between Guatemala and the southeastern-most tip of Mexico.

This wasn’t a work-related trip: My friend had been planning it since before the COVID pandemic, and this year, he finally turned that plan into reality. As someone who had never been out of the country before (except for one day in Windsor), I was extremely grateful for the invite. Shoutout Kyle.

But now that I’m back home in Michigan, I can’t wait to share some of my favorite experiences from the trip.

Charting our course

First thing’s first: I want to set the scene for everybody.

Belize is about 180 miles long and 62 miles wide. It’s shadowed by an equally long reef to its east, and speckled with more small islands (or cayes, pronounced “keys”) than anyone could count.

We began our trip at The Moorings, a boat chartering company in Placencia. From there, we sailed around the surrounding cayes -- exploring, snorkeling, indulging in the occasional adult beverage.

Here’s the route we took:

  • Placencia
  • South Water Caye
  • Glover’s Atoll
  • Southwest Caye
  • Tobacco Caye
  • Thatch Caye
  • The Pelican Cayes
  • King Lewey’s Caye
  • Rendezvous Caye (MUCH more on this later)
  • Ranguana Caye
  • Placencia Caye
  • Belize City

I could spend hours writing about each of these stops, but let’s stick to the highlights.

Captain Dan

“Permission to come aboard?”

A salute. A wide grin. That’s how we met Captain Dan -- and none of these stories can be told without Captain Dan.

I had no idea what to expect from our boat captain, and even as I sit here now, the trip still fresh in my mind, I don’t quite know how to begin describing him.

Charming. Enthusiastic. Approachable. Captain Dan was all of these things. But what defined him during our trip was his love and knowledge of Belize.

“The land of the free on the Caribbean Sea!” he proudly declared, no fewer than a dozen times.

Captain Dan (WDIV)

Not only was Captain Dan there to make sure we didn’t get lost at sea, he doubled as a passionate ambassador for his country.

Within minutes of meeting Captain Dan, we found ourselves riding into Placencia in the back of his SUV. Placencia is an awesome little town on a peninsula to the southeast, and everyone -- I mean everyone -- knows Captain Dan. We hadn’t been on the road 30 seconds before he was honking and waving at half the people we passed.

He stopped to chat with a woman in scrubs near a COVID testing facility, a father and son riding bikes, and several others who were either standing outside stores or walking along the road.

Part of Captain Dan’s charm is trying to figure out when he’s teaching you about Belize and when he’s just pulling your leg.

For example: Before we got to the grocery store, he pointed to five guys in T-shirts lounging in lawn chairs next to a big garage door.

“That’s the fire department,” he said. “All five of them are there. They get to the fires just in time for them to burn themselves out.”

He was joking about the last part. I think. Well, he was laughing, at least.

Captain Dan was dead serious, though, when he told us about the time his dad shot a “tiger,” which we later found out was actually a jaguar. He said the massive cat kept eating his dad’s dogs, so he developed a kind of vendetta against it.

“He’ll hunt for that tiger until he gets it,” Captain Dan said solemnly.

Then there was the time Captain Dan thought he was meeting someone to sell his bicycle. When the other guy showed up, he told Captain Dan he didn’t have money, but tried to trade him two guns he’s fashioned out of bicycle parts.

Looking back, I can’t remember how some of these things came up. But that was Captain Dan -- never a dull moment.

Don’t get it twisted, though. The quirky stories were only a small fraction of the much more complex Captain Dan Equation.

A 33-year-old father of two -- a 5-year-old boy and an 18-month-old girl -- Captain Dan spends most of his time with groups like ours. He sails between the cayes, teaches visitors about Belize, brings them back, and repeats the process.

Captain Dan (WDIV)

We met up with his stepbrother’s boat a few times, and one night, he took the dinghy ashore to have dinner with his stepmom.

I can’t tell you how many times we’d anchor near an island and Captain Dan would point to a building and say, “When I used to work there...”

This man has done it all.

Even though he’s only been captaining for eight years, there can’t be many who know their way around the Belizean cayes better than Captain Dan. Every day he would check the weather forecast and give us a list of options. On this island, there’s a really cool bar, he’d say. The other has a fun snorkeling spot. A third is situated perfectly to block the wind overnight.

When we stopped at the bar on South Water Caye, there was Captain Dan, surrounded by five or six locals, sharing stories. At Thatch Caye, I did a double take when Captain Dan suddenly sped past on a bicycle.

In Belize, the people take care of each other. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that he brings tourists to their businesses to spend money, but Captain Dan rarely left any island without a free to-go dinner, or at least a Belikin beer in hand.

“We’re with Captain Dan” was a de facto password to unlock any dinner reservation or access to resorts that were normally reserved for people staying there as guests. We weren’t abusing this power -- we just didn’t know what else to say when he would drop us off somewhere and head back to the boat.

He sailed us through 30 knot winds, showed us how to drop a secondary anchor, fished for barracuda, and taught us all about Belize along the way.

Captain Dan gave me permission to use his name in this story “as long as it’s all good -- if not, call me Captain Juan or Captain Alfonso.” Don’t worry, Cap’. Nothing but good things to say, here.

Restaurant scene

One of my favorite parts of the trip was eating on the islands -- something we did only three times.

We had an incredible three-course meal overlooking the Caribbean at Charlie’s on South Water Caye. Two nights later, we ate shrimp at Windward Lodge on Tobacco Caye -- the best part of that was the banana bread dessert.

Tobacco Caye in Belize (WDIV)

Dinner reservations work a little differently on these cayes. First of all, there weren’t menu options -- everyone ate what the restaurant caught that day.

At the Windward Lodge, we walked into the empty building early in the afternoon and asked if they had room for seven people that night.

“Here, ask the cook,” a woman sitting at the only table asked, before yelling into the kitchen. The cook came out, said they had some shrimp and could cook it up with rice and beans (not rice *with* beans -- that would mean the two were cooked separately).

Show up around 7 p.m., and the first time you see anyone is when they bring your food out. That’s all there is to it.

It took a bit of getting used to, but I found it refreshing compared to the U.S. dining experience. We weren’t staring at menus or waiting for food to come out at different times -- everyone got the same thing at the same time. Sometimes simple is better.

Making Belizean food

When you think about gourmet seafood, the first things that come to mind are barracuda and uncooked conch, right?

Our boat’s kitchen was built to optimize space. Captain Dan didn’t exactly have a deep arsenal of tools at his disposal. But that didn’t stop him from whipping up three Belizean staples: barracuda, conch ceviche, and fried jacks.

Captain Dan caught the barracuda our second day at sea. “It’s the national fish of Belize,” he declared.

This barracuda made a pool noodle look thick, but after Captain Dan cooked it up and added some rice, it was really good. He gained some cooking credibility with that one.

Which was fortunate, because he needed that credibility for the next dish.

During our next snorkel, Captain Dan directed us to find conch -- pronounced “konk” in Belize. I love a good quest, so I set off to find as many as I could. Basically, we were scanning the ocean floor looking for conch shells, scooping them up, and swimming them back to the captain.

An hour later, we’d collected about a dozen conches on the stern. Other than three times when Captain Dan yelled, “Too small!” at me (talk about a blow to the ego), they were all pretty huge.

Captain Dan removed the conches from their shells, marinated them with lime juice and added vegetables. He tried to strike a trade with his stepbrother’s boat for a tomato, but they didn’t have one either, so we used pineapple.

Conch doesn’t necessarily look the most appetizing, and I’ve never considered “dump in lime juice” to be a form of cooking, but you know what they say: “When in Belize.”

We ate the ceviche with tortilla chips, and it was really good. Maybe that Captain Dan guy knew what he was doing after all.

The final Belizean dish took very little courage to try. We woke up on our final full day to Captain Dan making what looked like tortillas. We figured he was just preparing a breakfast burrito, but then he put the dough in a frying pan and pulled it out looking all puffy and crispy.

Fried jacks -- highly recommend.

Driving the boat

One of the coolest experiences was getting a chance to drive the boat between cayes -- not necessarily because I held the fate of all my friends in my hands, but because I got to see another side of Captain Dan.

It doesn’t take much to drive the boat with a captain looking over your shoulder. He would basically point to something on the horizon and say, “Aim for that.” Pretty hard to mess it up.

My turn to drive came as we left the Tobacco Caye Range and headed to Thatch Caye. Most of the trip was over open water, but at the end, Captain Dan helped me navigate around a long sand bar to get to our mooring spot.

He told me to always drive scared.

“That’s why I’ve never gotten stuck,” he said.

I was determined not to ground the boat because my friends would never -- never -- let me hear the end of it. They still bring up the time I put the wrong soap in the dishwasher and flooded the kitchen with bubbles in college (that bottle was *not* clearly labelled).

Staring at the depth meter is a roller coaster of emotions. When we got within a few feet of the bottom, I was always more than happy to hand over the reins. But Captain Dan told me to look at the water, not the screen. That helped a lot.

We rocked out to Bob Marley together, and he played his favorite song, “Freaky Deaky” by Tyga and Doja Cat, three times in a row. It was a really pure moment -- one I’ll remember for a long time.

Secret path at the Yacht Club

The final night on the boat we dropped anchor right off of Placencia, and Captain Dan saw a group of people gathered on a dock nearby. He wanted to see what was going on, so we hopped in the dinghy and rode over.

It turned out to be the Placencia Yacht Club on Placencia Caye, and a few people were buying drinks at the bar to take a walk along the water. We decided to do the same.

We saw a sailboat from Brisbane, Australia, and wondered if they had sailed all the way from there to Belize. On the way back, a woman was sitting in the stern and yelled out to us.

“Did you try the other path?” she asked.

We had no idea what she was talking about. She told us to turn around and, when we got to the next house, turn right into the grass along the wall and go through the trees.

It was easy enough to find if you knew where to look, but we never would have discovered it without her help. The path led to a skinny boardwalk fully surrounded by thousands of mangrove trees. At the end was a completely hidden, deserted overwater gazebo.

I wondered how many people have seen that spot. It can’t be many.

On our way back to the dinghy, we ran into the Yacht Club bartender again. Fittingly, he talked about how Belize is a “hidden gem” that most people can’t even pinpoint on a map.

“But when they come here, they realize it’s free and beautiful,” he said.

It only took a week to see Belize is littered with secluded, peaceful little spots like that hidden gazebo, and it was always fun to discover them and spend a few moments appreciating the country’s natural beauty.

Thank you, brave sailor from Brisbane. You made our day.

Rendezvous Caye

I saved my favorite sailing story for last. There’s even a Detroit connection... kind of.

On the sixth day of our trip, Captain Dan said we needed to leave King Lewey’s Caye by 2:30 p.m. and head for a place called Rendezvous Caye to be protected from the winds for the night.

We would later find out that there’s another Rendezvous Caye, but there’s no way it’s anything like this one.

After battling through 32 knot winds, we dropped anchor a few hundred feet from the island, which, at first glance, didn’t look remarkably different from most of the others. There was a beach bar, a few buildings, and palm trees. Sounds like paradise, right?

As soon as the dinghy hit sand, we realized Rendezvous Caye was not, in fact, like any of the other islands.

The beach bar, though stocked with what appeared to be clean glasses and Moscow mule cups, was completely deserted. Upon closer inspection, the entire island was deserted, other than one man and one dog.

The clean, but deserted, beach bar on Rendezvous Caye in Belize. (WDIV)

The man was walking alone on the beach with a wheelbarrow of cinderblocks, moving them from a pile in the sand to a spot amongst the trees. The dog was tied up on the other side of the island.

OK, weird. But Captain Dan told us we could go anywhere we wanted, joking that we might find property we wanted to put a bid on.

Well, we walked past a series of structures all in descending stages of completion. At the far end was what looked like an unfinished beach home -- with the electrical wiring sticking out through the walls, crumbling tiles, and walls that had been cut for windows, but the glass hadn’t been inserted.

The path to a line of unfinished structures on Rendezvous Caye in Belize. (WDIV)
Some of the unfinished structures on Rendezvous Caye in Belize. (WDIV)

Other than two armchairs and a couch in the main room, there was no furniture. Four bare, twin mattresses were leaned against one of the walls. The outdoor entrance area was flooded with dirty water.

It looked as if someone had started building a resort several years ago and then just... stopped. Completely bizarre.

Near the dog we saw a pile of bathtubs, sinks, and lamps. Clearly these were supposed to be distributed throughout the homes. One of the lamps even had a lightbulb in it, so it must have been pretty close to finding a home. There were thousands of cinderblocks stacked nearby.

Piles of uninstalled appliances and stacks of cinderblocks on Rendezvous Caye in Belize. (WDIV)

We had to learn more. There was only one place to go.

At this point, the man with the wheelbarrow had finished hauling the last crumbling shards of cinderblocks off the beach and was raking the sand. He was wearing a purple shirt that said “Crazy Canucks Beach Bar, San Pedro, Belize.”

“Beach, drink, music, crabs, repeat,” it said on the back. “Ambergris Caye, Belize.”

Sounds fun to me, but it definitely was not describing this place.

“What’s the story here?” we asked him.

He told us he and four others had been on the island working on a resort, but the project had been put on pause. The other guys left a month and a half ago while the search for an investor dragged on.

“Why is the dog tied up if it’s just you?”

“I have another animal, too.”

Turns out that animal was a gibnut, a sort of giant rodent that was brought there when the queen visited in the 1960s.

The queen visited this place?

When we got back to the boat, we couldn’t help wondering if the project had been canceled and nobody bothered to tell the man in the purple shirt. Had he been forgotten at sea -- a true castaway?

Captain Dan went back to see him for awhile, and when he returned, he told us someone from the Dallas Mavericks was scheduled to visit the island that day with an investor and a Belizean minister.

Luka Doncic? Trey Burke? Tim Hardaway Jr.? Nope, none of those sounded right to Captain Dan.

Well, my wife later did a bit of research and discovered Instagram photos from Reggie Bullock that show he was walking that very same island just hours before us.

Wait, *that* Reggie Bullock? The one who played four seasons with the Detroit Pistons?

Turns out Bullock apparently bought an island in Belize just a month ago and plans to use it as a vacation home and also build rentable homes. He wants to call it “Bullock Caye.”

There isn’t specific information about which island Bullock bought, but the description sounds a lot like the Caribbean Twilight Zone we walked through, and his Instagram photos was definitely from the same deserted bar on the beach.

Did we, in the middle of the ocean off the coast of a foreign country, really just walk through the future vacation home of a recent Pistons player? Would Bullock let the gibnut stay? Can someone please help The Man In The Purple Shirt? So many questions.

There was a full moon hanging over the boat that night, as we looked at the dark outline of Rendezvous Caye -- or whatever it’s really called. We speculated we must have entered an alternate dimension when we left King Lewey’s Caye.

‘Coconut Pete’ and the Lamanai ruins

Before our flight home, four of us took a day on land to visit the Lamanai Mayan ruins outside Belize City. Aware that we had no idea what we were doing, we hired a tour guide named Linsdale to help us out.

Linsdale was a blessing. From answering questions in the weeks leading up to our trip, to volunteering to spend an extra four hours with us in the downtown area, he went above and beyond to make that last day incredible.

Linsdale is a police detective in Belize City, but he wants to transition more regularly into giving tours -- and I can see why.

He picked us up and took us to a roadside wine stand, where we tried four different flavors but liked the cashew wine best. Dodging dozens of wild dogs and passing hundreds of buses, our next stop was a small dock on the New River, where we got into a speed boat with another infectious Belizean personality: “Coconut Pete.”

“My name is Luis, but I hope you won’t call me that, because it’s the name my mom uses when I’m in trouble,” he grinned. “My family and friends call me ‘Coconut Pete,’ and as long as you’re in this boat, you’re my family and friends, too.”

The name is corny, but there was nothing gimmicky about Coconut Pete’s skills. Minutes into our wild 33-mile race through the winding river, Coconut Pete, careening across the water at about 30 mph, spotted a four-inch-long baby crocodile napping on a stick near the shore.

“How did you see that?” I asked.

“This is my river!”

He showed us the two different kinds of iguanas native to Belize, multiple crocodiles, and pulled over so we could taste coco plums off a tree.

When we got to Lamanai, he knew more about all the ruins and wildlife than I could even process. He entered a verbal territorial battle with howler monkeys and used a piece of grass to coax a Red Rump Tarantula out of a hole in the ground.

“If you rotate it the right way, it thinks it’s an insect,” he explained.

If you’re ever in need of someone who can drive a speed boat, memorize 33 miles of branching river, spot local wildlife on the fly, recite the history of Mayan culture, and make you laugh the whole time, Coconut Pete is your guy.

Even though the rain felt like hail as we sped back up the river, it didn’t bother Coconut Pete. He sang to himself the entire way.

Thanks to him and Linsdale, we packed two thrilling boat rides, a ruins expedition, and a tour of Belize City into 12 hours.

Visiting Belize

A weird few hours on Rendezvous Caye aside, our trip to Belize was an incredible adventure. We’re so thankful to have visited so many amazing places.

I would recommend this trip to anyone who likes a bit of adventure and doesn’t mind going without some day-to-day comforts. Jumping between cayes is definitely the way to go -- each provides its own unique glimpse of Belize.

The Belizean people we met were extremely welcoming and passionate about their home. They genuinely want people to see the country, understand what makes it tick, and have an amazing time.

“Seeing is Belize-ing,” they liked to tell us. After my first trip abroad, I can’t wait to see even more.

Tips for traveling to Belize

If you do decide to take a vacation to Belize, here are some of my tips, from personal experience:

  • Hire a captain if you’re chartering a boat. Even if you know how to sail, having someone who knew the ins and outs of the cayes and waters was extraordinarily valuable.
  • Buy your alcohol duty free at the airport. It was much cheaper, and they’ll package it up and make sure it gets on the plane with you. Each person can declare up to 4.5 liters.
  • Bring a long-sleeved swimming shirt for snorkeling. We had a couple of burned backs after the first day.
  • If you’re spending any time on the mainland, bring bug spray -- a lot of it.
  • Try the mango coladas and rum punches at island bars. Pretty much all of them offer it.
  • Don’t worry about exchanging U.S. money. Everywhere we went accepted either U.S. or Belizean dollars (the exchange rate is 2-to-1, so every price marked in Belize dollars actually cost half that in U.S. dollars).
  • Bring plenty of $1 and $5 bills. Most places didn’t have much U.S. change, only larger bills. It’s also hard to find somewhere to break a $20 if you need more tip money -- you might end up just getting some $5 and $10 Belizean bills.
  • Do you like hot sauce? Marie Sharp’s brand is massive in Belize. It’s in every store and on most restaurant tables, no matter how remote. Give it a try.
  • If you get motion sickness, bring non-drowsy medication for sailing between the islands -- it can get a bit rocky. It can also help for the smaller airplanes if you need to get from Belize City to Placencia or Dangriga.
  • (I’ll add more as I think of them.)

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.