There is a town just to the north of Punta Gorda that calls to locals and expatriates with its beautiful coastline, inexpensive eateries, and a legendary gelato shop. During low season, you’ll find the beaches virtually deserted, the long strip of white sand yours to claim. In the spirit of Belize’s better-known beach towns, Placencia offers comfortable beachside cabanas and pleasant company amongst the locals. It was the perfect place to unwind after several weeks of writing about forest rangers for my documentary on the Ya’axche Conservation Trust.
One sunny Sunday morning, I decided to take a day-cation with a diver named Isabelle, a new friend I’d made while living in Punta Gorda. She and I shared a thirst for adventure and since she had been in living in Belize longer than I had, I decided to make her my tour guide. After two months in Belize, I’d found a rhythm to working and living in Punta Gorda, but still I hadn’t experienced much of the recreation that Belize has to offer. We set out for Independence, a town just across the inlet that separates the Placencia Peninsula from the mainland.
We caught the 8 a.m. James Bus heading north and spent the two-hour ride gossiping, sharing stories, and nibbling on sweet tortillas. We watched through the bus windows as the forests of the Toledo district gradually turned into grassy savannah, counting the thatched roofs in the villages whizzing by.
Once we reached Independence, Isabelle and I walked from the bus station to the Hokey Pokey water taxi. I took a picture of Isabelle doing the Hokey Pokey next to the sign, to her mild embarrassment. The taxi filled up with an odd mix of passengers: a small woman with a bowl full of cakes to sell, a grandmother with her grandchildren, men talking into cell phones, and us. We zipped away from Independence past stretches of mangroves running along the peninsula.
In a few minutes, we were swinging our beach bags along Placencia’s main street, looking into shops. We were hoping to stop into the legendary Tutti Frutti gelato shop; to our disappointment, we discovered we were just a hair too early – high season hadn’t begun yet, and Tutti Frutti would not be open for another week. However, a treehouse coffee shop called Above Grounds was open. After fueling up for an afternoon of splashing in the sunshine, Isabelle and I took a short walk along the water and found a few abandoned beach chairs to commandeer.
My first dip into the Caribbean was as warm and luxurious as bathwater. Isabelle did some exploring and found a sea star next to the rusted posts from an old dock. She gently picked up the star with an expert’s touch and showed me the suckers on its underside before replacing it delicately where she’d found it. We scanned the sea grass below for seahorses and said hello to a crab passing by.
There is something about the smell of sunscreen, salt and sand that inspires a craving for something cold and sweet. Isabelle took me to The Shak, a place that she exclaimed “has the best smoothies ever!” We noshed on quesadillas and gazed at the horizon under The Shak’s thatched veranda. I had my first taste of soursop juice, a flavor hybrid of sweet honeydew melon, tart pineapple and creamy banana. I’d never tasted anything like it.
We made our last stop at DeViner’s for an adult beverage. Isabelle struggled to find the words to describe this eclectic bar; she finally said, “They have a mirrorball Buddha.” I was sold. Only in Placencia could a place like DeViner’s exist: the relaxed ambience attracts a unique mix of colorful characters from local business owners to expatriates. A three-foot-tall statue of a seated Buddha covered in brilliant mirrored squares sat with hands folded in a sutra at the entrance of the bar, regarding us with a glittery, peaceful smile. The purple-drenched saloon provided the perfect atmosphere for an afternoon of watching the ocean reflect the sky as it deepened with indigo. The two bartenders manning their posts evoked the swashbuckling pirates of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I could imagine them sailing ships along the Mosquito Coast, salt and sun beating on their leathery faces, chests bared, bravely staring down the elements, cursing at each other as they drank down their last barrels of rum.
As I waited for the silver-haired barman to take my order, my ears perked up at the sound of music playing. Some intoxicating crooner was singing over the speakers and I had to know who it was. The bartender, whose American accent gave away a previous life somewhere near New York, glanced at the iPod behind him. We were listening to Antony and the Johnsons! The moody and emotive voice of the band’s British lead singer seemed perfect for this warm and balmy evening at DeViner’s, which had swiftly become my favorite expat watering hole. The bartender poured me and Isabelle two very strong drinks and we were told to pay whenever we felt like it.
On the water taxi ride back to Independence I watched the sun setting into the cumulous clouds hovering over the mangroves. Platinum rays of light stretched their way through the billows. Isabelle admired the scene across the way and said, “That’s God’s hand right there.” Indeed, if heaven could reach down and touch the Earth, it would look exactly like that.
It was dark before we got back to Punta Gorda, but our sunkissed cheeks and warmed hearts made the long journey worth it. I will never forget my experience in Placencia: the sugary sand, touching a sea star, Antony and the Johnsons, a mirrorball Buddha, soursop juice and my new friendship with Isabelle. As great as it is to take a vacation every so often, the best part about living abroad is the relationships you build with people you would have never met if you chose to stay in the place you’ve always known. No matter how we find each other, I believe our connections to other people are what give us joy wherever we find ourselves. I will always have a family to return to if I should find a way to come back to Belize.