Volume II, Number 3



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Volume II, Number 3 Page 1

Focus on: Belize's Caribbean Islands


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What to Expect from BELIZE FIRST Magazine

As a reader of BELIZE FIRST, you have a right to know what we stand for:

1. To put you, the reader, first. Not advertisers, not the subjects of our stories. But YOU.

2. To cover the entire spectrum of travel and life in Belize and the Caribbean Coast, that hard-to-define but unique region of Central America and Mexico, and beyond, stretching along the tropical edges of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

3. To promote the region as a desirable place to live.

4. To publish the best writing about Belize and the Caribbean Coast.

5. To work for the economic betterment of Belize and the other areas of the Caribbean Coast.

6. To promote sustainable, responsible, ecologically sensitive tourism in this wonderful and still little-known region.

7. To work to make the region safer for both citizens and travelers alike.

8. To provide candid, independent reporting without any hidden agenda - we have no connection with any political party or ideology, or to any business or other group.

9. To avoid any interference with the internal affairs of Belize or any other country in the region.

10. To work to provide more opportunity for Belizeans, and the citizens of other countries in the region, to manage their own affairs and to benefit from the investment of their own time and money.



In this issue of BELIZE FIRST, we focus on the Caribbean islands of Belize. As always, we turn to the region's top journalists for our reports. Tom Brosnahan, author of more than two dozen guidebooks -- that's right, two dozen! -- updates Caye Caulker, that laid-back budget paradise.

We're also expanding our coverage of other parts of the Caribbean Coast, with articles on diving in Honduras, good eating in Mexico, real estate for sale in Costa Rica, Honduras and Belize, and more.

This is our biggest, and we hope, best issue ever. Hope you enjoy it!

--Lan Sluder, Editor and Publisher

Vol. II, No. 3

- Opinion, by Lan Sluder: FAA and Belize

- Q&A on Belize: Questions from readers with answers from the Belize experts

- Real Estate Listings: If you're interested in buying, selling or exchanging property in Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras or elsewhere on the Caribbean Coast, this NON- advertising section may be of help

-In Case You Missed It: Latest news on Belize and the Caribbean Coast

- Programme for Belize, by Caryl Bigenho: It all started when they spotted a scorpion on the ceiling ...

-Greener Hotels: Members of the Belize Eco-Tourism Association

- Eating Your Way around Mexico, by Kit Snedaker: Where Even the Corn Smut is Muy Bueno

SPECIAL SECTION: Belize's Caribbean Islands.

- Caye Caulker, by Tom Brosnahan: Paradise on a budget, revisited

- Diving Cheap in Honduras, by Jane Prendergast: The Hemisphere's cheapest diving and dive training may be on Utila

- TACA and Pan Am in Belize, by Neil Fraser: Go back in time to the the days of British Honduras, when this part of Central America was a distant outpost of Empire, and DC-3s were the latest thing in air travel

- Crime Control: Too Little, Too Late? by Lan Sluder: The crime rate is beginning to affect tourists, too

- Belize's Jungle Hideaways, by Lin Sutherland: New, cheap, and good places to stay in Belize

- Hotel Update: Readers and friends share the real story on Belize's inns, hotels and lodges

- Books, Maps & Information


BELIZE FIRST is published quarterly in Asheville, North Carolina, by Equator Travel Publications, Inc., 280 Beaverdam Road, Candler, NC 28715 USA. E-mail address:

Mail subscription rates US$29 or BZ$58 a year in the U.S., Belize, Canada and Mexico, US$39 a year in other countries. Electronic editions, in abridged form, of BELIZE FIRST are also available on CompuServe, America On-Line, the Internet's archives, and some private electronic bulletin boards.

BELIZE FIRST welcomes contributions from readers, travel writers and correspondents. We pay highly competitive rates.

© Copyright 1994. All rights reserved under international and Pan-American copyright conventions.


"I'd rather fly TACA than Aeroflot any day!"

Opinion, by LAN SLUDER


The United States Federal Aviation Administration, the federal agency that oversees airline safety in the U.S., prompted by Freedom of Information requests from the media and individuals, disclosed in September that nine countries, including Belize, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay, do not meet the FAA's safety oversight standards. In addition, airlines from four other countries can fly to the United States only under close FAA scrutiny: El Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia and the Netherlands Antilles.

Unconditional approval was given to governments of several countries in the region: Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, and to 12 others.

Although the FAA's efforts to protect air travelers is much appreciated, we have several problems with the FAA's disclosure. Before listing those, I must thank senior officials at the FAA, in particular Deputy Director Tony Broderick, for responding in detail to several of these points, and to clarifying a number of issues.

1. The FAA disclosure has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted by the flying public. It actually focuses on government, not airline, safety oversight standards. It doesn't mean that one airline is safer than another. It doesn't even mean that flag carriers of an unapproved country are less safe than that of an approved country, because both may be using leased equipment from the same approved source. It doesn't apply to internal flights or to flights not to or from the U.S.

While the misinterpretation is not the FAA's fault, it should have known that consumer would grasp on the simplest view, which is that the airlines of some countries are "good" and those of other countries are "bad." Thus, it tars with a broad brush excellent airlines such as TACA. El Salvador-based TACA has a long reputation for professional standards and good service. TACA operates an FAA-certificated maintenance base in San Salvador, and the pilots have FAA licenses. It has been flying to Belize for 50 years, with an enviable record of safety. TACA also owns interests in other Central American carriers. At the same time, the FAA's opinions do NOT extend to the safety, or lack of it, of internal airlines or to those that do not fly into the U.S. Thus, Belize's several commuter airlines are not addressed or affected by the FAA disclosure one way or another.

2. The FAA seems to have less problem pointing its finger at small countries than big, globally important ones. It's easier to kick the little guy. The FAA did not cite countries such as Russia and China, whose safety records for air travel safety oversight appear to be grossly worse than many of the countries blacklisted. It was an Aeroflot plane, you'll recall, that crashed earlier this year en route to Hong Kong. The black box recording exposed the fact that the kids of a pilot had been allowed to actually take the controls of the craft. Former Aeroflot airlines in Russia have been involved in numerous fatal crashes since the break-up of the USSR. I'd rather fly TACA than Aeroflot any day!

The FAA says it will complete inspections of these countries in the future. Indeed, in October the FAA issued a report on its Russia aviation inspection effort. The report, while not an unconditional okay of Russia's safety oversight, resulted in amending an order which had prohibited U.S. government employees from traveling on any Russian carrier; now, they are permitted to travel on certain internationally certified Russian carriers. Basically, Russia now joins 17 other countries on the approved list, while Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and several other small Latin American countries remain on the no-no list, and others such as Guatemala and El Salvador, remain on the watch list. What's wrong with this picture?

3. The FAA disclosures in some ways the result of internal U.S. political considerations. One travel trade magazine editor told me, "The FAA's 'inspection program' began as a C-Y-A operation, became a bag of dirty little secrets, and ended up a public relations triumph when [FAA Secretary Frederico] Pena decided he would publish 'the list' in the interests of honest government." The FAA is, in many ways, a highly political animal. There have even been recent discussions on privatizing some FAA functions, and this may have played a part in the disclosures.

4. With limited staff and government funding cut-backs, the FAA is hardly able to monitor and inspect all U.S.- based operations, much less police air travel for the world. Inspections of foreign government safety standards by the FAA are necessarily limited and incomplete. The inspections involve sending a four-person team to a foreign country for as little as a week. The FAA has its hands full inspecting such airlines as USAir, the financially troubled U.S. carrier which has had a series of fatal accidents (and which does not fly to Central America) and American Airlines commuters, which have experienced a series of recent accidents.

5. All the countries listed with airlines that fly to the United States DO meet international safety standards, those of the International Civil Aviation Organization. If the FAA thinks ICAO standards are of no value, then it should act to change them.

6. The announcement is in several ways meaningless, especially as regards Belize passenger service, because there are no passenger airlines based in Belize which fly into the U.S. Belize Air, a cargo carrier, operates out of Belize to the U.S. According to the FAA, Belize Air had operated using "dry leased" aircraft and crews (that is, from brokers) but now, after being required to do so by the FAA, operate "wet leases" from approved countries for their U.S. operations.

7. The FAA announcement serves, perhaps unintentionally, to encourage use of U.S.-flag carriers such as American, which have strong and growing presences in Latin America. U.S. carriers in the past few years have grown to control more than one-half of Latin American traffic.

8. The FAA did not show, or even claim, that airlines based in countries on the list have had in fact a worse accident or safety record than the airlines of countries such as Colombia, Peru, Barbuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, Montserrat, Grenada and Anguilla, all of which which passed FAA muster. The International Airline Passengers Association has recommended against travel on the airlines of Colombia, among other countries.

The FAA disclosure was confusing, political, of limited value to travelers, unhelpful, and ultimately mostly meaningless. Air travelers, and especially those to Central America and the Caribbean Basin, deserve better than this.

- Lan Sluder, editor and publisher of BELIZE FIRST magazine, is at work on several books, including one on Belize. His business and travel articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Caribbean Travel and Life, Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Tico Times, and other publications around the world. He is in charge of the Mexico/Central America and Travel Writing sections on the Travel Forum on CompuServe



Got questions about Belize? Or other destinations on the Caribbean Coast such as Costa Rica, the Yucatan or Honduras? Send 'em to us. By snail-mail, to Belize First, Equator Travel Publications/Asheville, 280 Beaverdam Road, Candler, NC 28715 USA. Via e-mail to Lan Sluder at at

Q. I have a Sunday afternoon flight out of Belize City. Can I get a bus back from the Cayo in time? I've been told bus service is cut back on Sundays. A.N.

A. You shouldn't have any trouble. Although bus service is reduced somewhat on Sundays, and the earliest Sunday Batty Brothers service to Belize City from San Ignacio is at noon, Novelo does have early Sunday morning service, originating at Benque Viejo near the Guatemala border. The earliest (as of this writing) is at 6 a.m.

Q. My wife and I are undecided as to whether we should visit Cancun or someplace in Belize. We have never been to either place. J.B.

A. First, if you're a Cancun type of person, you probably won't like Belize, and if you're a Belize type of person you won't like Cancun.

Cancun has more than six times as many hotel rooms in a small tourist zone than the entire country of Belize has in an area the size of Massachusetts. Cancun gets 2 million tourists a year; Belize gets only about 110,000 foreign visitors from North America, Europe, the Caribbean and South America, plus it gets about the same number of Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans who cross the borders for business, family or other reasons.

Cancun has high-rise hotels, timeshares, condos and U.S. chain restaurants. The largest hotel in Belize has just 118 rooms, and the most lodges and inns have just 8 or 10 rooms. There's not a single U.S. fast-food joint in Belize.

Q. I'm considering flying into Cancun or Merida and driving from there to Belize. Is there any problem with taking a Mexican rental car into Belize? B.T.

A. Generally not. Many rental agencies in Mexico will permit you to drive into Belize. You have to buy Belize insurance for the car, around US$12 a week.

Q. Is the Southern Highway paved yet? G.G.

A. The Belize Tourism office in New York reports, with astounding optimism, that it is paved. A tour agency in the U.S. says some of it is paved. Fact is, although some financing for the road work has been arranged (from Kuwait) and some bids have been let, the Southern Highway is NOT paved, and it will be a while before it is.

Q. Is it safe to go to Tikal by road from San Ignacio? A.A.

A. The latest report is that many travelers are stopped once every half hour or so during the two to three-hour trip by Guatemalan army troops. The soldiers are polite and won't detain you for long. Some private cars, buses and even tour vans have been hit by bandits, who want only money and want it fast. The road between the Belize border and the cross-roads to Tikal is still unpaved, badly rutted and just plain terrible, especially after a rain.

Tikal is well worth seeing, but unless you speak Spanish well and are at least mildly adventurous, it is advised to take a van tour from a reputable Belize operator (around US$50 per person for a day trip, available from Maya Mountain, Windy Hill, Chaa Creek and other operators, with overnight trips also available). This will also speed your border crossing and help smooth any problems en route. In any event, few rental car companies in Belize permit their vehicles to go into Guatemala. Guatemala buses are cheap but uncomfortable, and you will almost surely be unable to make the trip in one day.



Editor's note: This is the second of two parts on the development of air service in Belize and Central America. In the last issue of BELIZE FIRST, Neil Fraser wrote of the arrival in Belize on December 30, 1927, of Charles 'Lindy' Lindbergh, and of his subsequent Central America trip in February 1929.


Charles Lindbergh's flying visits to Central America in 1927 and 1929, greeted everywhere by cheering crowds, were heralds that air transportation had arrived in the region.

Pan American Airlines, which had its start in 1927 flying mail from Key West to Havana, established a station in Belize. Pan Am's flights in the Sikorsky amphibians became a regular part of life in Belize through most of the 1930s.

The Pan Am station chief, Didier Mason, was one of the many colorful characters Belize has known over the years. He was the only French pilot to have flown with the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I.

The ramp at the Barracks airport - the one called the 'polo fields' by Lindbergh, as the area in the north part of the city had golf and polo clubs - was replaced with a pier that stretched out from shore, allowing the aircraft to dock like a boat. The route finally established ran to Mˇrida in northern Yucat‡n, then on to Belize. In addition to mail, the early twin-engined amphibians could carry six passengers. Later models, the S-38s, carried eight passengers.

Pan Am's radio operator, Louis Sherouse, played a key role after the catastrophic 1931 hurricane, which hit on September 10, Belize's national day. Learning of the oncoming storm and aware of its possible consequences, Sherouse had hoisted his radio equipment to the second floor of his house so it would be safe from the water of the storm surge. The regular Belize wireless towers were destroyed, but Sherouse was able to send out distress calls telling the world of the disaster and summoning help.

In the end, though, the Belize stopover did not live up to Lindbergh's optimistic predictions, and Pan Am's service was terminated before the outbreak of World War II.

The air age in Belize, however, did not end with the cessation of Pan American's flights. It was maintained through a new airline called Transporteos Aereos Centro Americanos, or TACA, that still serves Belize today.

TACA came about through the entrepreneurship of a bush pilot named Lowell Yerex who was flying mining machinery in the Republic of Honduras. Yerex, a New Zealander and former World War I pilot, aided the winning side in a Honduran revolution, losing an eye in the process when his plane was hit by ground fire. The grateful government helped Yerex in starting his airline to serve Honduras, but he quickly branched out with other air services in Central and South America.

The present TACA international airline has its roots in Yerex's El Salvador air service. TACA originally flew the chubby single-engined tail-dragging Bellancas of the 1930s, then graduated to Ford tri-motors and later to the twin- engined, twin-tailed Lockheed Hudsons and Lodestars, the classic air transports of that time made immortal in the final scenes of the movie Casablanca. After World War II, TACA briefly flew surplus Avro Ansons before obtaining the famous DC-3s.

In its early days, TACA provided Belize with an air link to neighboring countries where passengers could catch Pan

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