To be overly dramatic, I could say that we were marooned in the Sapodilla Cayes, a small group of Caribbean islands belonging to Belize that sit in the coral-riddled crotch of Guatemala, between the legs of and Honduras. A few of the cays are privately owned, a few so small as to have room for only a couple of coconut palms, and others — among them, Ragged, Lime, Hunting, Frank's, and Northeast — are loosely confederated within the fifty square miles of the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve.
We had set out from Punta Gorda, a town in the south of Belize, in the Long Gone, a thirty-foot sailboat captained, crewed, and slopped by Mark Leslie, a charming Belizean who put me in mind of the young Giancarlo Giannini — handsome and muscular, but English- and Creole-speaking, with a soft spot for the yearning ballads of classic rock. He has pirate blood, he told us, being descended from the European buccaneers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who knew well the ins and outs of Belize's treacherous reef and who eventually settled along the coast, cutting logwood. The water was as blue as the sea in “Swept Away,” but unfortunately for Mark, his passengers — my friend Cynthia and I — did not add up (our exacting standards and not insignificant allure notwithstanding) to Mariangela Melato.
About halfway out on our first day (the islands are forty miles offshore), we started to notice the smell of the engine when we were under power. Smelled a bit like smoke. Mark checked the water, checked the antifreeze and the gas — all looked good. Oh, well, we were moving, the day was beautiful, nothing for it but to keep going ...
Like a sailor, the traveler exploring the Caribbean coast of Central America quickly discovers that enjoying unanticipated opportunities to rest, refresh and repair is the only way to get in the groove. Railing against the gods, bureaucracy, the climate, missed connections, or broken engines is frankly childish; it spoils not only your own pleasure in paradise but that of everyone else around you. If you forget this lesson, the gods, etc. — perhaps particularly in Central America — will generously give you the opportunity to revisit it. I was able to profit from this teaching numerous times.
South of Mexico, the coast of the western Caribbean meanders to South America over 1,900 miles like a lazily drawn reclining S. I was able to trace aspects of this sinuous line in three trips: to Belize and Honduras with brief stops in Guatemala; to Nicaragua and Costa Rica; and to Panama. Only bits of this coast are well traveled — notably, along Belize, the Bay Islands of Honduras, and the southeast of Costa Rica.
I have been in love with the Caribbean Sea since 1959. When I was four, my father upped and moved to St. Martin — he thought it was a good place to write, perhaps even to create a floating university, one that would move from place to place via the trade winds in perpetual pursuit of the accretion and exchange of knowledge — and the rest of the family followed him. There were only thirteen people on the island then for every hundred there are today. Tiny fig bananas grew in the backyard; fish was purchased on the main beach; people jabbered in Creole, French, English, and Dutch. I can't remember ever wearing anything but underpants. There were no cruise ships, no resorts, and few cars.
Now, I was looking for places where I could, if not play in my underpants, at least go barefoot for days, where the infrastructure might not be great but life is generally relaxed and low-key. The coastal culture, which is unique to the shores of Central America, is a combination of communities: Indian peoples — Maya, Miskito, Bribri, and Kuna among them — who have lived here since before the Age of Exploration; the Garinagu (or Black Caribs) and more recent immigrants from Caribbean nations, particularly Jamaica and Barbados; remnants of various European colonial societies; and contemporary international First World refuseniks.
It's not surprising to find towns that are waterlocked — accessible only by sea. For the most part, tourism is still on a community scale. But not for long: The two words on the lips of many travelers I met in Central America were real estate. Among them were individual investors looking to retire or escape as well as corporate and state developers. The coast is beautiful, paradisiacal — with reefs, white-sand beaches, miles of mangroves. The people who have traditionally lived here are poor but not hungry. Although they have been able to carve out a fairly dignified living from fishing and farming, there is eagerness for economic growth. Everyone I met was enthusiastic about the area's potential, happy to share it with and show it to travelers, and hoping to find a place for themselves in the expansion of tourism. The challenge will be to manage change in a way that doesn't shred the unusual social fabric.
If anywhere can be said to be the cultural center of the Garifuna people (Garifuna being either an adjective or a singular noun, Garinagu the plural noun), it is Dangriga, a town about halfway down the coast of Belize. On the outskirts of Dangriga is the relatively new Gulisi Garifuna Museum. Our guide, Charlie Gamboa — whom we met while hanging out at the Riverside Café, after a satisfying and entirely typical lunch of fried fish, rice and beans, and potato salad — told us that it wasn't to be missed. At first glance, Charlie — snaggletoothed, his hair in small puffy braids, and clearly at loose ends — wasn't too prepossessing. However, he soon ingratiated himself with both the breadth and depth of his local knowledge; once given the nod, he masterfully shepherded Cynthia and me around during our stay. As we made our way to our rental car, Charlie bummed a cigarette from Cynthia and then told her, "You sit in the back." We headed out on the main road ("Step on it," he said) and then, at Charlie's direction, turned into a big field with an enormous, seemingly abandoned monument in the middle. Next to it was a building, small by comparison, which housed the museum that tells the story of the Garinagu — meaning "People of the Cassava Clan" in Garifuna, an Arawak language. Charlie, who seemed to know practically everyone in town, introduced us to Peter Ciego, the curator, who explained the exhibits. The Garinagu's ancestors, the Black Caribs, came from St. Vincent. The tools I saw in the museum for making cassava bread I later saw in communities in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, sometimes for sale in crafts shops, sometimes drawn on buildings that were dance halls or community centers.
All along the coast on November 19, Garifuna Settlement Day, the Garinagu reenact and celebrate their arrival in their new communities. Early in the morning, the ladies of Punta Gorda, many dressed in traditional full skirts and head scarves of checked gingham, lead the parade to the dock waving cassava and palm fronds. They are accompanied by young men playing mahogany drums and turtle shells. Everyone greets those "arriving" on the boats, offers thanks and praise, and then wends their way to the Catholic church for Mass.
Four days later, in Livingston, Guatemala, the celebrations were still going on. Called La Buga, or "mouth of the great river" in Garifuna, Livingston is accessible only by boat or private plane. It was founded in 1802 by a buyei, or priest, who led people here from Roatan, in Honduras, and from Punta Gorda, in Belize. The night we arrived, there was a huge party in the cavernous town hall that lasted easily five hours. A gray-haired man, his face lit up with joy, introduced himself: Harvey had traveled sixty miles for this event. "Garifuna culture was being lost," he said, "but this, this — I love this."
Back aboard the Long Gone, there was a jumble of sacred and profane moments: A sea turtle raised a pale speckled arm in greeting as we slid past; the sink wouldn't drain; a big fish took the hook we were trailing from the back of the boat, then snapped it off, leaving us with just a piece of metal lure. In the next day's good wind, we flew across the water, zigging and zagging above fingers of reef; leaning over, I could watch the geography changing beneath us — the depth reader charted it: from 350 feet to 19, to 15, to 200 in a matter of minutes.
We were bound for Belize's Hunting Caye, a small island with a white sand beach, a couple of little thatched shelters, the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve office where we would check in, and a coast guard station. By the evening of the second day, when we were safely harbored off its silken Halfmoon Beach, our engine would no longer speak to us at all.
The delay allowed us to take the dinghy to shore and confer with the people in the office and the officers of the peace. We also met Orlando Usher, whom Cynthia and I had noticed the day before standing alone in his old dory, a dugout canoe, on the sea, looking into the water. Orlando, a master fisherman, is fifty-six, a slight man with a natural wispy beard and cheeks like polished walnuts bridged by a finely cut nose. He was wearing a black beret, black rubber boots, and a black, pink, and purple women's windbreaker that was too big for him. With his deep knowledge of the area, his easy silence, and his unexpected humor, he's like a cross between a gnome and a sprite. He lives by himself in a tent on Hunting Caye. It turns out that he and Mark, our captain, are cousins — through the Youngs, an old Belizean family.
Orlando told Mark where to dive to collect lobsters for our dinner and explained to me how to fish at night in "burning water," when the fish leave phosphorescent trails revealing their location; about the sweetness of Sapodilla Tom, the sixty-five-foot-long sea creature that swims in these parts (ah, a whale shark!); how to read the "baffling winds," which hit your sail in puffs and then disappear, only to come again a little while later. It was late now, and Orlando gently pointed to the sky, high in the direction of eastern Honduras. "See that light moving out there?" he asked. In the sky, where all was still except for twinkling, one small light was moving north. "That's the cocaine plane, making its run," he said. The coast once controlled by pirates could still be called Smuggler's Run. Partly because much of the Atlantic coast is wild, contraband travels pretty easily up the Caribbean corridor to Mexico and then the United States.
Lunch in Miami, one of the tiniest traditionally Garifuna communities sprinkled along the Atlantic coast of Honduras, was a profoundly satisfying moment, when all the contradictions of the world came together. The village lies at the end of a sand barrier, straddling the narrow ribbon of land that seals Los Micos Lagoon off from the Caribbean Sea, west of the small town of Tela. It is just inside the Jeannette Kawas National Park, one of Honduras's largest, a magical mix of cloud forest, estuaries, mangroves, and beaches. Walking through the village felt almost like trespassing; there are no streets, only paths between the small houses, all built of thatch and reeds. The sand sparkles, and there are little decorative gardens around some of the houses. There's no electricity or running water. The cayucos, boats carved from tree trunks, were pulled up on the shore of the lagoon, but if it's early enough in the day and you ask around, someone will take you out fishing or touring the enchanting lagoon. There was a breeze off the ocean, and we sat down at Nany's Place, along benches and picnic tables. I got a green coconut with the top cut off so I could drink its cool water and scrape the jelly out with a spoon. We lingered under the palapa, with the beach on one side and a view of the lagoon on the other, drinking beer and chatting with whoever came by to hang out. Then my cell phone rang — New York City checking in.
This waterfront has been providing subsistence to Garifuna and other coastal peoples for 300 years. Despite the unaffected feel of the place, there is fighting over the future of all this beauty. Dead palm trees en route to Miami haven't been replaced — perhaps, I was told, because the area is about to be developed. At the behest of the government, the Honduran Tourism Board plans to construct the Los Micos Beach & Golf Resort right here, between Miami and Tornabé, the next village over. The project is meant to be not only ambitious but environmentally sustainable; plans include up to five top-flight hotels, as well as villas, a twenty-seven-hole golf course, an equestrian center, a shopping center, and a marina. Conflict about the project abounds, with different points of view on what constitutes sustainability. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has asked the Honduran government to protect the nearby communities of San Juan Tela and Triunfo de la Cruz, where in the last year masked men forced one woman to sign over rights to ancestral lands at gunpoint and threatened, shot at, and harassed other community leaders. The guy who offered to watch the car while we walked around Miami said that his main concern is whether he'll get a job.
Across the water, on the island of Roatan, where I went next, the members of the Honduran legislature had all come over to sign a new law making the Bay Islands a free port — eliminating hotel and sales taxes for visitors as well as ending import duties and income tax for tourism businesses. Part of the deal is a new fifty-million-dollar terminal and deepwater port constructed by Carnival Cruise Lines that will be up and running in 2009 and will host up to seven thousand visitors a day.
Such major developments are under way all along the coast, not just in Honduras. Citizens in southern Belize are protesting the six-hundred-acre Ara Macao Resort & Marina, which will be built over the next five years at the top of the thread-thin peninsula leading to Placencia. They fear that it will completely overwhelm resources and undermine the largely Garifuna communities in between. Known locally as Scarlet Macaw, the development — to include a marina, 456 condos, 296 villas, two nine-hole golf courses, a casino, a hotel, and retail space — will be able to accommodate at capacity 13,000 people. In Panama's Bocas del Toro, there are environmental and community concerns about Red Frog Beach, an eight-hundred-unit residential-tourism development next to a national marine park.
For me, Little Corn Island, 40 miles off the east coast of Nicaragua, seemed pretty close to perfect. There are fruit trees and beaches, no cars (everything is more or less within walking distance), and no large developments in the offing. After tramping around for an hour or so along unmarked paths through the forest, I managed to find an empty little beach stretching out beneath crystal, calm water. There were a couple of houses and a garden higher up on the shore, but other than three puppies busily investigating an overturned boat, I was alone. Drenched in sweat, I peeled off my sun-protective long-sleeve shirt, sarong, and oversized hat and dove in. While cooling off, I watched the shore. On the porch of one of the houses, a long-limbed young woman dressed only in a T-shirt came out to hang laundry. Aware that I looked like some sort of ghastly North American apparition — wet, fat, pale, yet overdressed — I approached and tried to explain that I had no idea where I was. Could she give me directions back to town?
She smiled. "If you can wait a minute while I get dressed, I'll walk you back," she volunteered. We chatted as I followed her along the trail: I admired the flowers painted on her toes; she agreed that her beach is the island's most perfect. But Yetty was deeply bored. What she really wanted was to be a dancer, yet Little Corn — population 250 to 1,000 — offered little opportunity. She shrugged and, changing the subject, said that if I liked, she'd show me some of the island's other great beaches the next day.
Yetty showed up in the morning carrying four sweet yellow mangoes that she had gathered for me. This was the first time she'd been on the grounds of the Casa Iguana, where I was happily installed in a cool cabin overlooking the sea; she felt very shy about being there. She had also brought a small bag of nail polishes, and she offered to decorate my toes, too.
We then spent the day wandering from beach to beach, drinking beer and eating plantain chips, swimming, and talking about men and life, family and the future, our lives totally different but nonetheless the same. The paradox — that there I was, looking to find pretty much exactly what she wanted to escape — was central. I could travel there, but most of the people I met could not come to the United States; and if they did come, it would be for work and not for leisure, which is why they couldn't get visas.
Although there is as yet nothing that compares with, say, the northerly coast of Mexico's Quintana Roo (now marketed as the Riviera Maya), the Caribbean coast of Central America does have a handful of lively towns patronized by surfers, divers, sailors, and beachcombers. An older generation of local entrepreneurs, developers, and folks from the First World who decided to chuck the insanity have built small tourism businesses, for instance, in Roatan's West End or Placencia, Belize — which is where I headed next. At the high end in Placencia, just above town, are Francis Ford Coppola's Balinese-chic Turtle Inn and the Inn at Robert's Grove, which also manages two small private islands. I preferred, however, to spend a couple of days in town, where I was completely happy at the Ranguana Lodge (owned and managed by Mark Leslie's sister, as it turned out), which provided us a little cottage on the beach, complete with a fridge and a fan and a wee front porch. Placencia, which has one paved street, qualifies as a big town because it has an ATM, a pharmacy, grocery stores, some charming inns, and one standout French restaurant. At a number of establishments, one can even start the day with a latte.
In Costa Rica, along the two-lane coastal road south from Limón, is a series of similarly happening communities, from Cahuita to Manzanillo, each with its own exceptional beach. The largest by far is Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, the only one with a bank (a good indicator in these parts of having made it onto the grid). A town chock-full of fusion and local cuisine, surfers, drinkers, shops, and music, it remains just under the radar of mass tourism. Its growth has taken place over only 20 years — electricity arrived in 1986, private phones in 1996; still no gas station — and all of its development remains small-scale, its West Indian–infused culture largely intact.
South of town, at Playa Cocles, there's a great beach scene, where the young surfers strut, music plays, and people sit on the sand to watch the hotdogging. Perhaps Hershel Lewis used to be one of them. Today he's a mature guy, a mensch who teaches surfing to tourists, drives a jeep, and has a pretty girlfriend, a young entrepreneur. His warmth and humor are disarming, his skills as a teacher inspired. We met because on this particular trip, I had hooked up with my kids to investigate adventurous entertainments — in addition to surfing, rafting, hiking, and zip-lining, all of which are easily available.
Perhaps the areas that are most out of the loop are the autonomous Indian lands — for instance, in Panama, the comarcas of the Ngobe-Bugle and the Kuna peoples. En route to Coral Lodge, an extremely comfortable, low-key, and environmentally conscientious resort, I passed through Kuna Yala, the comarca formerly known as the San Blas Islands. Indigenous peoples up and down the coast of the western Caribbean have, like the Garifuna, been marginal to mainstream Central American life, but the Kuna have been able to control more than nine hundred square miles of their ancestral lands. Because Coral Lodge is owned by a Panamanian businessman, it is not Kuna and is outside Kuna Yala. There are a number of small Kuna-run resorts within the comarca but nothing that approximates a First World conception of luxury.
Our early-morning puddle jumper landed on El Porvenir, Kuna Yala's northernmost main island, basically a short airstrip on a spot of white sand. We were met by Hernán Martínez, our guide for the day. About five-foot-seven, barrel-chested, with a round, broad face, Hernán is the color of a mild coffee bean. After hosting us — a group of four — to a heartbreaking breakfast of a hot dog, an egg, white bread, Velveeta, Cremora, and Splenda, he took us to visit the small thatched hut that houses the Kuna Museum. Hernán and his cousin Elias, the curator, explained which fish the Kuna like to eat and what the various shapes embroidered on their famous molas symbolize; they patiently and thoughtfully tried to answer our questions.
Upon leaving the museum, Hernán packed us into his cayuco for a trip to Wailidup, a picture-perfect white-sand-ringed island, where Coral Lodge would fetch us anon. We sat in twos on narrow wood planks, with a boatman in the back nursing a forty-horsepower engine and Hernán standing at the prow watching what was coming. The seas were surprisingly high, and there was a lot of wind. We putt-putted through swells of eight feet, all the climbing and falling producing a more or less constant splashing and spray. At the bottom of the trough, all you could see was a 360-degree perimeter of water. It occurred to me that the flowered plastic tablecloths we had been given for cover were about as much of a life raft as we'd get.
We arrived soaked but without serious incident, although the German girl sitting up front was seasick and had clearly been sobbing. The sun was intense, and we were all exhausted — the journey had started that morning in Panama City at 4:30. Wailidup had a couple of cabins, which had been rented by some Scandinavians, and a café-bar on a platform that provided shade and some lunch.
When all is said and done, the most spectacular aspect of the Atlantic coast of Central America is not the perfect sand beaches, the great music, the delicious fish, or the dignity of intact culture but the extraordinary people I met everywhere I went. The graciousness of the hosts more than made up for the lack of luxuries. Dell Lopez, of Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua, is such a host, and as such, a national treasure. Miss Dell (among all the English-speaking communities I visited along the coast, ladies are always addressed as Miss), who with her husband has a small inn called the Casa Blanca, picked me up in Bluefields for a whirlwind tour of the lagoon and out to the Pearl Cayes. En route to her boat, we toured the university, grabbed a scrumptious lunch of churrasco near the port, and talked about politics, about education, about tourism, joined by several of Miss Dell's relatives, who are her support team. And this was just the beginning of Dell's inviting me into her life.
With her son Brady at the helm, we motored up to little La Fe, a settlement of maybe two hundred people on a green lawn at water's edge with no electricity, no running water, no phone. Dell has property here, and we stopped to visit with her sister Sylvia. As we sat on the porch of a small house, a young man pulled out an old guitar and sang a country-western-style song he'd written about the Garinagu; others gathered around, singing harmony. Accompanied by a passel of kids, we collected limes from one of Miss Dell's trees ("The guests like to have them in their drinks," she explained). As we were leaving, Sylvia ran down to the boat to give Dell some cassava bread, the only time I got to taste this traditional Garifuna staple during my travels. We continued on to Orinoco — the Garifuna town founded by Miss Dell's great-great-grandfather and the Miskito woman he married, and Dell's birthplace — where her uncle Frank Lopez told tales of the town's 160-year-old history. We stopped in on an elderly aunt, and a young man performed on the drums.
That night in the Casa Blanca's restaurant, I met an American expatriate who had written off Puerto Viejo as already too developed. Changes are coming here, too. "You're seeing this place just on the cusp," he said, and he told me about a new road linking Pearl Lagoon to the rest of the country. Later, I asked Dell for her thoughts. "You see the cars in town? That's how they got here," she said. I had seen perhaps three. Because of the road, she told me, so many people had come for Holy Week (the high season in Central America) that she had had to turn away potential guests. She intends to have six more rooms with private baths by next Easter; she had already bought the sand to give to the local fellow who will make her bricks.
The next day was my very favorite on the western shores of the Caribbean. Early in the morning, Miss Dell, Brady, and I headed out to the Pearl Cayes. We passed at least three dozen fishermen, working for their daily catch in their cayucos, and checked in with the coast guard before picking up speed for an hour or so across open sea. Sand Fly Cay (appropriately named) is home to Miss Paula, Dell's half sister whom she grew up with, and only four or five other people. The house is right on the beach, there are some places to sit, and coconut husks burned in the sand. We went fishing while Miss Paula started making us a spicy fish stew called rondon for lunch. The fish mainly ate my bait, but I did catch a small one, which Miss Dell praised as being "a market fish." Stretched out in an old lounge chair on the beach, I enjoyed my rondon, which reminded me of the tapado I had had in Livingston and the hudut that I had never managed to track down in Punta Gorda — fish, coconut, peppers, and green banana.
Before heading back to Pearl Lagoon, Miss Dell took me to see some of the cayes that are at the center of an ownership dispute: Although the islands are all community property, a developer has nonetheless sold a number of them to individual buyers. A couple of the islands have armed guards. But not Grape Cay, a two-and-a-half-acre drop of sand with nothing much on it besides coconut palms. Brady stayed out fiddling with the boat, while Dell and I went ashore. I immediately plopped into the water, which was at the temperature of an enormous personal bath; I discovered the meaning of "happy as a clam." Miss Dell industriously collected fallen coconuts. "Aren't you going to come in?" I called. She piled up her coconuts and made her way over. She plopped too, and there, in about eighteen inches of water, we lay, two middle-aged ladies, basking, occasionally splashing — another hour or so spent together, alone in paradise.