Editor's note: In May 1997, Catherine McCabe and Steven Helm went on a "Discovery Tour" of Belize sponsored by International Living newsletter. This is Catherine McCabe's candid report on that tour. In a future issue, BELIZE FIRST plans reports on other retirement-oriented trips to Belize and the rest of the Caribbean Coast, including one organized by Overseas Retirement Network.

By CATHERINE McCABE

We left California on May 4 to join up with International Living newsletter's Discovery Tour to Belize which was to last until May 11. It was a whirlwind trip accommodating 39 of us, plus our International Living guide, Paula Lanterman, Kathleen Peddicord (one of the newsletter's publishers) and Beth Dent (vice president of Agora which publishes the monthly newsletter). Most of the group came through Miami together while we transited Houston to Belize City since we were from the Los Angeles area.There was a lady to meet us in Belize City and direct us to a Tropic Air plane to Ambergris Caye and a gentleman waiting in San Pedro to take us in a van to Victoria House where we were to stay for three nights. We were impressed since we weren't with the main group, and we had been afraid of being left by the wayside. There were cocktails and snacks at the beach bar at Victoria House that evening so the group could meet. Since TACA had been quite late out of Miami and Houston, everyone was pretty tired and collapsed early.

The first morning was taken up by a number of speakers designed to give us a grasp of what to expect in terms of real estate, laws, and general living conditions in Belize. We heard from Shakira Oxley, of Belize Tourism, who was strangely cold and uninspiring. Oddly enough she didn't seem to know much about Ambergris Caye and seemed quite vague when it came to what we could expect living in her country. Joel Nagel, an American attorney, spoke to us about offshore corporations, trusts and annuities. He was informative and personable.

We then heard from Ambergris Caye realtors representing Southwind, Triton, Ambergris Caye Realtors Association, Tropical Land, and Royal Palms Villas. By far the most impressive and informative was Diane Campbell, then of Southwind Properties but now with Sunrise Realty in San Pedro. It was interesting to find out that these realty outfits have decided to band together and share listings, a concept unknown in Belize prior to this. The idea of Royal Palms becoming a timeshare was rather repugnant to many people and the man who spoke to us was a little too slick for most of our tastes. Next we heard from Belize real estate people representing Regents, British American Cattle Company, and Belize Real Estate. Ron Zendt, British American Cattle Co., may have been pushing a good product at Sittee Point but it was poorly presented and caught no one's interest .

After a coffee break we heard from Lois M. Young Barrow, a Belizean lawyer, about real estate and property ownership in her country. She was extremely well spoken and many notes were taken. She was followed by Juergen Krueger, owner of Pescador Hotel, who gave us his views of being an expat in business - he was entertaining and informative. Lunch was on our own which turned out to be an event for some of us. Royal Palms had invited anyone who wished to their place for a free lunch. Obviously, anyone who went knew they were also going to be pitched time shares. The lunch and presentation were disasters.

Following lunch there was a focus discussion by the Ambergris Caye Realtors Association for people who wanted to look at real estate the next day. Late this afternoon we were taken on a lovely sunset sail on the Winnie Estelle where cocktails and snacks were provided. It was not only a wonderful view of the island but a nice way to gain perspective after a very full day. Dinner was on our own.

On May 6, we were left to our own devices to look at real estate, make individual appointments with the attorney Joel Nagel, snorkel, dive, wander or sleep. We chose diving, lunch in town, a golf cart ride to explore, and a "look-see" at a rental house we had seen in Islands magazine. At night the group was treated to a seafood dinner at Ramon's. A note should be added here as the group was beginning to coalesce and friendships were forming. My husband and I are "anti-group" types, never having been on a group tour in our lives. The International Living group seemed to be almost all "anti-group" as well, making for a very interesting mix. The ages ranged from late 30s/early 40s to one lady who was close to 80 but in better shape than many of the rest of us. Everyone was financially fairly well off, a few being fat cats of sorts. Each was definitely an individual with quite specific interests and goals. There were few couples; often a husband or wife was traveling alone intending to report back to his/her other half on the business or retirement possibilities. The conversation was lively and spirited in this very cosmopolitan and quite sophisticated, well traveled group. People came from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Illinois, California, Wyoming, Nevada, Florida, New Mexico, Georgia, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.

On our way to P.G., each plane circled the Sittee Point property belonging to American Cattle Co. but it wasn't very impressive from the air. In Punta Gorda we were met by a school bus and Bonita Momme who is a local realtor. She turned out to be a fascinating raconteur who has lived many years in the P.G. area - her mother lived there before she did. She is German with a definite artistic bent and a real love for the land and its people. She showed us several properties, a possible resort, farming land, individual houses, the town itself, and the countryside, including a Maya family living primitively off the land. This area was not popular with many of the tour participants because of the reports of so much rain. They couldn't see commercial possibilities nor wanted to retire in a part of the country where it was so wet so much of the time. The countryside is absolutely gorgeous, however. What made this side trip delightful was meeting Bonita and listening to her stories; what a charming character. Kathleen Peddicord later said IL won't take the whole group to P.G. in the future, leaving it as an option for those who wish to go.

After a traditional Belizean lunch at Via del Mar, Tropic flew us to Placencia where we divided into two hotels, Serenity and the Nautical Inn. That night we were treated to cocktails and a barbecue on the roof of the Serenity where Kevin Flynn of Regents Real Estate talked to us about the emerging market in Placencia in general and their huge land project in the northern part of the peninsula in particular. He was quite engaging in his youthful enthusiasm but was unable to answer some hard questions when I wanted to know how the current infrastructure could support a burgeoning population of more than 7, 000 if their land development project were to take off as he said it would. Where was the medical support to come from, food supplies, transportation, etc.? Ron Zendt, British American Cattle Co., was there, too, offering to drive anyone who wished to Sittee Point for the day. Unfortunately, his rather cavalier attitude at Ambergris Caye had ruined his credibility and no one went with him. Any real estate agent who doesn't realize that Discovery Tour groups are a tough, exacting bunch of people who are well educated and relatively sophisticated has made a real error in judgment.

   The beach at Sittee Point near Hopkins.

After breakfast on May 8, we were taken by air conditioned bus to see Regent Real Estate's land development project in the north, and the owner of the Serenity Hotel, Tom Giblin, joined us to show us around the peninsula pointing out various lots, homes, and resorts that were for sale. For those not interested in doing this which was coupled with a walk through the town of Placencia, an optional tour of the Monkey River was offered for US$35 per person. The few who went on this were rather disappointed as they didn't see any monkeys and several complained of the mosquitoes. After lunch at Serenity, we were flown to Central Farm Airstrip at San lgnacio where we were transferred to Chaa Creek and treated to dinner. As this was by far the most luxurious place we had been, the cocktails flowed, the men lit up Cuban cigars, and everyone exclaimed over the fantastic dinner and professional service.

The morning of May 9 brought Glenda Gwin of Cayo Real Estate to speak to the group at breakfast. She seemed in over her head and not very well informed. The people who went on the real estate tour with her considered it a waste of time since she spent almost the entire time showing her own property which just happened to be for sale. The few other properties that were seen, either from the far distance or for just a few moments, were not sufficiently explained and she was ill-prepared to answer people's questions. Others opted for hiking the Panti Medicinal Trail and Chaa Creek's Natural History Centre along with the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm. Some canoed the Macal River down to San lgnacio as well. All of these activities were offered free of charge. Dinner was promised to be with the owners of Chaa Greek, Mick and Lucy Flemming, who were supposed to speak but they didn't show up. This hardly dampened the evening since the group was getting along beautifully and the dining room was filled with laughter.

 Citrus plantings in Cayo District  

May 10th marked the leaving of Chaa Creek for the trip by bus to Belize City with stops at the Xunantunich ruins, Gregory Turner's wood carving hut, Cheers Restaurant for lunch, the Belize Zoo, and a late afternoon check-in at the Radisson Fort George. We left the group here to continue on to Blancaneaux so can not comment on the Belize Zoo and the farewell dinner that night with Emory King as the guest speaker. We anguished over this decision as we especially wanted to hear Emory King and see the zoo but by this time we knew we would be returning to Belize so felt we could cover whatever we had missed later. The trip ended for the group on May 11th with an 10:30 am flight to Miami.

I would say the International Living Discovery Tour was well worth the tariff charged and was an excellent way to get a quick overview of Belize, although I do wish we had been exposed to more expats and heard their views. About 10 of the group stayed on after the trip was over and at least three-fourths of the group said they intended to return. If retirement, business investment, or general curiosity about the country with an eye to later involvement is your motivation, this is a well recommended way to see Belize. I would rate the entire experience in terms of its handling, leadership, and organization B+ to A-, the accommodations and food B to B+, and the guides and speakers B+ to A-. We would, and probably will, go on another Discovery Tour with International Living. I am a lifetime member of IL and have always been curious if they were totally on the up and up and could deliver what they promised, I am pleased to say a resounding "yes" to all the above.

A proviso should be added for those never having been to Belize. If expecting a tour including gourmet meals, five-star hotels, and sightseeing centered on fine museums and elegant shopping, this is not for you. If you're the kind of traveler who is curious, adventuresome and able to adapt to some of the challenges of a Third World country, then this might just be the ticket. A lot is packed into seven days so having a sense of humor, being flexible, and appreciating the cultural and life style differences will help to make your trip enjoyable. You will leave with a real sense of the country and likely a desire to return for a more in depth experience.

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