The film Casablanca is what first got me traveling, searching the world for Rick’s Café. That near-mythical place where idealists, romantics, and wanderers wash up, drifting in and dropping out, a sense of it glimpsed in Palermo, Antananarivo, Brazzaville. You know a Rick’s Café when you walk into one.
But why would Rick choose Belize, an Adam’s apple of a country on the neck of the Central American isthmus? Because south of Mexico, north of Guatemala, the former colony of British Honduras is an outpost of low taxes, high idiosyncrasy, tremendous skies, and torpid stability, still sufficiently uncrowded that visitors and settlers feel they have happened on somewhere everyone else has overlooked.
The peninsula of Placencia—“pleasant place,” the Spanish called it—is a straggle of beaches, mangroves, and lagoons caught between the coastal plain of Belize and a Caribbean sea as blue as a Dutch policeman’s shirt. Just over the horizon, the second-largest living coral reef in the world holds the swells at bay. The shallows seem too warm and sleepy to bother raising a wave.
Some locals were once—or still claim to be—pirates and fishermen, so they’re not surprised by anyone and turn no one away. Walk along the beach with an eye out for shipwrecked contraband and treasure, and people will smile at you. They refer to successful beachcombing as “winning the Sea Lotto.” Pretty soon, newcomers become as quietly eccentric as everybody else.
I love the colors, sea-bright and faded at once, and the houses on stilts, the painted wood, the outside stairs, and the trees rocking their heads in the breeze, as though everything seems a good idea to them, however mad. And I love the kookiness. Someone has made a gigantic fake snake out of foam and wire and laid it out on the road. Someone else has just tried smoking a scorpion’s tail. Apparently it worked.
SOME LOCALS WERE PIRATES, OR STILL CLAIM TO BE, SO THEY’RE NOT SURPRISED BY ANYONE.
“We all lose our shoes constantly,” said a strikingly handsome woman I met on the road to town. “We do Beach Olympics in summer and winter. You cover yourself in baby oil and glitter and go dogsledding on palm branches. No, you don’t need a dog.” To Placencians, shoes were made to be kicked off, for better beach action and better dancing. They like to cut the rug in Tipsy Tuna. A big, wide painted-wood place, it reminded me of an African dance bar: jazzy and jolly, with floorboards still vibrating from last night. Rachel McAdams and Björk could tell you all about it, but then Placencia is one of those happy spots where the world famous put on their normal selves and relax. Suffice to say, I now have one thing in common with Naomi Watts. We both fell for a dog named Goldie, a beautiful blond beast who lives on Coral Caye, just offshore, and who is utterly sweet-natured.I love the colors, sea-bright and faded at once, and the houses on stilts, the painted wood, the outside stairs, and the trees rocking their heads in the breeze, as though everything seems a good idea to them, however mad. And I love the kookiness. Someone has made a gigantic fake snake out of foam and wire and laid it out on the road. Someone else has just tried smoking a scorpion’s tail. Apparently it worked.
The simple deceptions of geography here are beguiling. A recent arrival saw a cay, one of the small mangrove islands, seemingly on fire, burning orange in the sea. But it was the rising of the full moon, a monthly eruption. Walk down the only road to the end, to the pier, and you think, Well, that was very pretty. You stare out at the cays in the lambent sea and wonder if that is it. It is not. Behind the frontages, to the east, is the real main street, just two people wide, a pedestrian path called the Sidewalk (which residents claim is the world’s narrowest main street), originally made of conch shells for a barefoot bishop who walked from home to church. Here wooden houses and people from different backgrounds find refuge under the palms—mestizo and Garifuna (descendants of slaves who escaped from the Caribbean islands and are also known as “the drummers”), Creole and Mayan. They lived a life of fishing and small trading untroubled by modernity for longer than the rest of us, and are not vastly changed by it now, at least on the surface.
The town newspaper, The Placencia Breeze, gives an impression of current concerns, advertising the chocolate festival (May), a birding festival (October), and the big one, the lobster festival in June. A boat called As You Wish has lost its registration certificate—call if you find it. The Rotary Club, “responding to a desperate plea from the youth,” has donated lights for the soccer field. Someone is selling a 500-acre island for $8 million. It might seem that all of Placencia’s life lies between the Breeze’s innocent lines, but you feel its true story swims behind the gentle eyes of Merl Westby, whose family has lived here for generations.
Merl could easily be a buccaneer’s grandmother, with her heavy gold earrings and delighted laugh. As the old and wise do, she lives in different eras simultaneously. “I was just telling my daughter—it was so simple back then. Most people had their own chickens. My dad would catch fish every day. But times will change, that’s reality. Seafood is expensive now.” Her arms are covered in cooking scars that she displays proudly, like bracelets. “I had six kids. I’m a single mother and I raised them myself, so I had to work.” Her café is west of the pier (you can’t miss it—walk to the end, or follow a pelican), under a scarlet frangipani.
As we talk, a series of immaculately pressed schoolchildren wander past, all wishing her a good evening. “My grandchildren,” she says, smiling. Her speciality is conch steak, and, she adds with a significant look, “People like my lemon-meringue pie.” A food critic from New York, dazzled by her cooking, begged Merl to change the name of her place from Merl’s Sweets and Treats, on the grounds that you cannot tell it is a restaurant. Merl is holding out.
THE TREES ROCK THEIR HEADS IN THE BREEZE, AS THOUGH EVERYTHING SEEMS A GOOD IDEA TO THEM, HOWEVER MAD.
Nearby Kerr barber shop, on the main street, displays 150 different haircuts on the walls, but they only do one, beginning with clippers and ending with meticulous razor work. There I watched a tiny world go by; two Rastafarians exchanged greetings—one lit up while the other gravely took up a broom and swept the street, stoop, and inside of the barber’s in an act of random public service. Eventually, the road peters out into the pier and the sea, where boys wade up to their waists, casting lines into the lazy surf. At a stall near the beach, surrounded by fierce posters of the Ten Commandments, a craftsman has worked his way through a huge stack of conch shells, grinding them into small sculptures and jewelry. In a yard next to him is a tent, actually a church run by his wife.
In this way the community and the fish that sustain them endure, intermingled now with migratory birds, hippies made good; with the young and international who work three jobs—crewing yachts, selling apartments, tending bars, and partying in their downtime on catamarans awash with sushi and strawberry mojitos. Inland, the Maya Mountains jumble under towering clouds, giants dreaming on their backs. Along the shore, small places to stay range from simple $50-a-night cabins to several hundred-thousand-dollar villas with plunge pools and sea views, still under construction and being snapped up sight unseen. Guests at the Itz’ana, a new hotel with a beautiful rattan- and plant-decorated restaurant and a bar slinging sweet corn coladas and mango habanero margaritas around its sublime pool, will be able to rent some of them.
People find Placencia by word of mouth. “After he made Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola was looking to buy a place in the Philippines—somewhere to write films—but then he read that Belize had just become independent. He came down and loved it,” says Martin Krediet, who manages Coppola’s
Turtle Inn. It opened in 2000 as the very definition of an easeful hotel of thatched villas, including Sofia’s Beach House, and now has a new island offshoot, Coral Caye.
In his straw fedora and immaculate shirt, Krediet might have slipped out of the pages of a John le Carré novel; you would never guess he’s a former marine from the Netherlands. He bought his own house on the beach from the English novelist Patrick McGrath. “I only meant to stay a little, but I’ll never sell,” he says. “I’m happy to dip back into Miami and the chaos, but I’d rather not live in it. There are secrets here too. A helicopter pilot flew me down into a vertical pit in the mountains where there were Mayan bones and pots just lying around.”
“There are no addresses,” Shay Todd, a writer for the Breeze who walked around town with me, says. “If I get a package, the postman tags me on Facebook. People have started to name their own streets. My friend Dana has called hers Dana Drive. Another friend named one Easy Street. It has an intersection with Hard Way.” Todd, a Canadian who arrived years ago to write a novel, now rents a wooden apartment on stilts on the Sidewalk. Her address is “The house on the Sidewalk beside the white arch with the pink flowers.” She recommends eating at Omar’s, a gently dilapidated hangout painted in pink-and-green candy stripes on the right at the top of the main street as you come into town, which Omar took over from his parents. “We’re successful because we get the best fish, and we really know how to cook it,” he says with a grin. I have the grouper fillet cooked in a light coconut sauce. I could eat it, joyfully, every day.
Food is central to local culture. “In Creole they say, Empti sak nuh stan up. It means ‘Feed me!’ ” Todd says. “If someone likes you, they bring you a cake.” If you like your admirer, accept an invitation to drink bittas: This herbal, root-based spirit tastes of aniseed and caffeine, and is reputed to impart potency. Surprisingly, there is a growing wine scene. Recent openings include the Little Wine Bar, which does great cheese platters in as tiny a space as the name suggests. It opens at three. Later, the Wine House and Pyramid House Wine Etc. dole out tastings by the glass as the sun slips down. Best of all is Tutti Frutti, a gelateria run by Tiziana and Lorenzo Testa. Tiziana is Venetian. She found Placencia 16 years ago and fell for it.
“We loved the Creole culture and the melting pot of people,” she says. “They have fantastic taste buds. We go to Europe once a year to get flavors. Pistachio from Sicily, violets from Toulouse, almonds from Puglia.” Her gelato is as good as anything in Italy, and her café functions as a central gossip spot. “Did you hear about the guy who drove his van onto the airstrip because someone forgot to close the barriers and careered into the plane that was taking off, and it crashed into the sea? Well, no one was hurt!”
But really, the main attraction here is to escape the rest of the planet’s reality and ease yourself into a culture still based on an old rhythm of life. The new Coral Caye, a private island that can only be rented through Turtle Inn, offers a distilled version. A 20-minute boat ride takes you to this scrap of sand and palms, 50 paces wide by 150 long, and its two cabins and sand-floor lobby with a magnificent carved wooden daybed. There’s nothing to do but snorkel, snooze in a hammock, scratch Goldie’s ears, talk to her about the list of Hollywood stars, which includes Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, who want to take her home, and wonder what the chef will come up with next. But for the occasional lipsmack of the sea, the night silence is absolute. With the shutters open, you lie in starlight and a soft breeze.
As the night deepens, stars, sea, and the light spill of Honduras far to the south conspire to set the searcher, the visitor, dreaming. The Caye, the peninsula, and the sea frame one of those precious, pleasant places, where deeper histories feel palpable and still mysterious. Who is not at home here? The arrival stories of the ancestors of Placencia’s residents would make all manner of tales. Riches, poverty, piratical avarice, life as a beach. It is all here, unsleeping beside the sea.