Madonna sang it as La Isla Bonita and reinforced the motto. Today, neither hurricanes nor political strife discourage VIP and wealthy vacationers from enjoying this tropical getaway.
Belize City quickly proves to be both unpleasant and threatening, even more so for those traveling with photographic equipment. Transformed into an outpost for drug trafficking in the Americas, Belize's largest city has become used to the frequent destruction caused by the various hurricanes that have already hit the country, and has surrendered to a culture of gangs and violence that drive most common visitors away. . Its semi-ruined and chaotic streets are crossed by sewers and smelly canals and patrolled by bands of Afro residents and superb Garifunas with impressive bearings, deep voices and almost always suspicious intentions. The most welcoming corner of the country was waiting for us and we didn't stay to find out more.
On the way to Ambergris Caye, depending on the depth of the sea, the water changes from green to blue again and again, and we pass through islets full of mangroves and pelicans. After half an hour, there is a white foam mark caused by the surf on the coralline and, a little later, the silhouette of Ambergris. As we get closer, the first front of wooden houses becomes clearer, right next to the beach, from where dozens of aging docks and jetties project.
Ambergris, (sometimes Am-ber-griss and other Amberjis) is the largest of Belize's cayes. It extends for about 40 km in length, in a kind of extension of the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan. The island is protected from the occasional fury of the sea by the second largest barrier reef in the world, which is also its main attraction.
But the reef alone does not work miracles and, when the rainy season arrives, – from June to November – its 4500 inhabitants know that they are at the mercy of nature's whims. The first truly destructive hurricane devastated Belize in 1931, at a time when they were not even baptized. The second was Hattie, in 1961, and the third arrived in 2001, with the nice name of Iris. The last one to do major damage was Richard, in October 2010.
Of course, as the main national tourist domain, the island has priority in reconstruction. Authorities cannot afford the luxury of the Americans and Europeans who invest here having losses and, for that, La Isla Bonita – as Madonna sang it – has to continue to seduce.
Most Ambergris residents live in San Pedro, on the southern tip of the island, where the barrier reef is just 800 meters offshore. It is an undeveloped city with a small airport where visitors and the richest natives land. Transportation is provided by golf carts. There are dozens of them circulating here and there, miniatures representing the size of the city and its humble spirit, the same unpretentious spirit that makes, during the day, many of the inhabitants walk barefoot and bare-chested.
San Pedro is arranged around three main streets that were previously simply called Front street, Middle street and Back street and the authorities decided, in vain, to name them with real names: Barrier Reef Drive, Pescador dr. and Angel Coral dr. It is between these streets and the beginning of the airport runway that almost all services are concentrated, just a few meters from each other. In the two-story wooden houses of this central area, there are also the main shops, bars and restaurants, as well as the Baptist church.
It's impossible to get lost here. In addition to being small, the city extends on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Caribbean Sea, to the east, and the San Pedro lagoon, to the west – this is indeed a labyrinth of small people. keys, shoals and islets where only the most experienced can navigate.
Any movement in the central area can be done on foot, but to reach the resorts on the outskirts of the city, you need either land or water vehicles. To the north, the route is interrupted at the end of Pescador drive, where there is a canal that is crossed by a hand-drawn ferry and, shortly thereafter, the roads disappear altogether.
With the end of the coconut and lobster industry, the resorts, bars and diving and excursion agencies have ensured the income of many Belizeans. Serving foreigners who enrich themselves visibly at the expense of the beauty of their homeland is not the life many of them dreamed of, but as long as things don't change, it's much better than nothing. In order for the country's economic situation to improve, the government is committed to education and patriotic training for its children. Belize is a country almost as young as some of them and therefore national awareness is something that has to be taught and instilled.
A typical day of classes begins with a lecture by the institution's director. The raising of the flag ensues as a huge choir of children in blue and white uniforms sings the anthem. After this ritual, students head to the dark and cramped classrooms.
The San Pedro school is a perfect observatory of the ethnic diversity that culturally enriches this Caribbean corner which, despite being poor, has attracted and continues to seduce people from all over the world. Along with descendants of distant Baymen, African slaves and children of both, they study mestizo children of Mexican origin, others, Mayans and Chinese, and young descendants of Americans, Canadians and Europeans who brought their lives there.
While discovering San Pedro, we also witness the last moments of a pre-season electoral campaign. The city is still adorned with posters and banners with questions to the ruling PUP – Peoples United Party: “Why was the cemetery land sold? or “Where did the money provided by the international community to recover from the damage of the hurricanes go?”.
On another day, a small crowd of PUP militants and sympathizers came to a halt waving flags, dancing and chanting slogans and chants in support of the party and its candidate. On foot and in golf carts, the main arteries were covered on a circuit that would end with the official submission of the application. Then, it was the turn of the UDP – United Democratic Party, whose much more modest procession, joined, without any problem, the people of the PUP, near the entrance to the Municipal Assembly.
There seems to be a general fair game that guarantees continued fraternization and political stability. The fact that the island, like the rest of the country, does not have valuable raw materials, or investment power, contributes to the ambition to be restrained and the Machiavellian dictators who ruin so many other nations do not emerge. Around here, only one thing is more respected and valued than democracy: the reef barrier. Any conversation leads to the favorite topic of the inhabitants of Ambergris. As with a young employee we met at a diving agency: – “The barrier reef is all we have, friends. We have to protect her like a child!” When they meet, Sanpedrenses tirelessly exchange their latest diving experiences in the different areas of the barrier. Every night, around the national beer – Belikin – or during the endless barbecues in the bars of Front Street, they discuss, in detail, the state of a certain coral stock or where they detected the biggest shoals of barracudas or basking sharks that day. . At one point, we heard two of them proudly report that an American yacht had been fined for running aground and destroying a few meters of reef.
Foreigners can even take more and more portions of the island from them, but at the barrier…not that. Nobody touches the barrier.