Placencia – the “Pleasant” Bay

Placencia is a fascinating little village and, as such, has an interesting and colourful history.  Here it is, from http://www.belizespecialists.com/Placencia.htm:

“Placencia has a long history of occupation starting with the Maya who established at least 14 sites around the Placencia Lagoon. These were principally engaged in the making of salt as well as participating in the extensive coastal trade.

In the seventeenth century, Placencia was settled by the English Puritans who were originally from Nova Scotia and latterly from the island of Providencia. This settlement died out during the Central American wars of independence in the 1820’s.

The Spaniards that travelled the southern coast of Belize gave Placencia its name. At that time Placencia was called Placentia, with the point being called Punta Placentia or Pleasant Point. The Placencia Peninsula was resettled in the late 1800’s by the Garbutt family, who decided to settle and eventually own most of the Peninsula. In 1894 Abner Westby, whose family originated in Scotland, came to Placencia and purchased land from the Garbutts. He was later joined by a younger member of his family, John Eiley. The Cabral family, originally from Lisbon, Portugal, closed their business in Sao Paulo, Brazil and the Caribbean and sailed to the southern part of Belize on two schooners, The Colibri and The Jane. Soon they began doing business with and eventually married into the Placencia community. In the early 1900’s the Leslie’s, originally from Rotan, also came to Placencia.

Placencia prospered and soon became a village, earning its livelihood from the sea. On June 20th, 1962, the fishermen of the Village came together and formed the Placencia Produces Cooperative, which is still in operation today, to provide the village with competitive prices for their seafood production. In the early 1970’s Placencia was provided with electricity (although sometimes less than 110V) from the generators of the Cooperative, and eventually in 1993 the Belize Electricity Limited assumed that role, providing 110V and 220V to supply the increasing demand.

Placencia is as culturally diverse today as it was in its formation. Walking down the sidewalk on any given day you will see and hear people from all over Belize and the world gracing the little village. The people in Placencia are united in their love for the sea and in their commitment to tourism and development. .Since 1990, Placencia has made large and sure strides toward making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belize. Hurricane Iris that hit the village on October 8 of last year (2001) set Placencia back a bit but today Placencia is back on the track of tourism.”

In fact, Hurricane Iris destroyed 95% of the village and surrounding area and structures and it has grown back bigger and better than ever.  Placencia is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s narrowest main street:  a sidewalk 4071 feet long and 4 feet wide.  It took 30 years to build, all done by hand, and has ceramic tile inlaid and family names inscribed and character galore.

The one waterfront bar that most cruisers frequent is called Yoli’s.  They have Sunday BBQs and local musician nights and the best information around:  whatever you need to know you’ll find out here from other cruisers.  Yoli’s also has the main dink dock in town where it is not unusual to see dinks lined up 2 deep on both sides.

We were anchored just off of Paradise Resort, where “Paradise is a state of mind”…so true.  The other sign said, “No shoes, no shirt, no problem”, which gives a good indication of the laid back and casual style of Belizeans.  Everywhere was like that, friendly, welcoming and warm.  We happened to frequent Paradise more than Yoli’s because there was good food, friendly people, mucho knowledgeable bartenders (and yes, they knew everything about the town too) and good wifi.

I think I’ll dedicate a page of photos just to “Cool Signs” because there were so many in Belize.  I forgot most of the ones I saw in San Pedro  before I got home to write them down so, in Placencia, I just took pictures of them.  One that made me laugh every time I saw it was “Omar’s Creole Grub”….I’m a sucker for oxymorons.

One thing I noticed about the flora and foliage in Belize was that, as beautiful as it looked, there was no smell to it, any of it, at all, nada, period.  You’d think that pretty flowers would smell pretty but they don’t and I don’t know why.  I have an entire folder of flower pics to put up too just cuz they’re nice to look at.

Our time in Placencia was most enjoyable, we explored the village, the lagoon, the beaches, just everywhere.   We went up the lagoon to get gas (the only gas station in town) for the dinghy, and also when taking the water taxi over to the other side to get our Customs papers.  It reminded me of the sloughs in southern Ontario, waterways that people live beside and use as their main ‘road’,  ‘parking’ in their ‘driveways’ or ‘covered garages’.  It’s just a beautiful little boat ride just to go and experience it.

We tried many different restaurants while there and looked at menus at another hundred or so.  The prices were decent, remembering that Belize is only 2:1 USD, but the food was usually very good.  There was Crow’s Nest Cafe (a more sophisticated menu), Pickled Parrot (super burgers and everyday $10 specials), Friends (with tropical pancakes), Paradise (EVERYTHING was good there), Omar’s Creole Grub (good old fashioned downhome bacon ‘n eggs), Above Grounds coffee shop (THE best coffee around and yes, it’s in a treehouse..lol), The Shak (vegetarian style bistro on the beach), BJ’s Belizean Bellyful (LOTS of food at good prices), Barefoot (where the food was so-so but the people were great).  And probably more that I have forgotten.

Everything is within walking distance because the town is only a mile square – or less.  The famous Mile-Long Sidewalk winds along the beach with homes, restaurants, cabanas, artistes, tour shacks and hammock hangouts all along it.  Every colour of the rainbow is used in decorating homes and business in Placencia and no colour is repeated two buildings in a row.  Street signs, where there are any, are handpainted; billboards are unobtrusive; and smiles are everywhere.

Jean-Marie and I took two nights in a beach cabana – mostly for the hot shower included within.  Sleeping in a bed that wasn’t moving proved not to be the luxury it sounds like:  we still woke up every couple hours to “check the anchor”…lol.  But, finding four people on a  boat for a month getting to be a little close, staying in town was a comfort.  The little cabana had a microwave (for what reason I don’t know), a mini fridge to hold the beer and water, and a coffeepot that we never used.  No phone, no tv, no radio, no clock – perfect.  On the beach, behind the palms, with a lattice gazebo type porch, windows open and fan on, it was cool and breezy and comfortable.

We met a little Mayan lady, Olivia, who comes into town to sell her homemade goodies.  We saw her somewhere in town almost every day and finally, while in the cabana, bought some stuff from her – a table runner for the salon and a head scarf/bandanna for Jean-Marie.  She stopped to chat on her way by every day, maybe took a glass of water, and brought us some oranges from her yard.  Turns out that she takes an hour’s bus ride each way every day to come from her village to Placencia, $40 per day.

There are many many of these artisans all around town, some just walking around, some with tables set up, none in the same place day to day.  We stopped to watch a guy making bracelets out of plastic bags.  He tied one end to a post and twisted it and twisted it until it made a tiny rope about 2 mm wide.  Once he had the lengths he wanted in various colours, he would weave them or macrame them together to make bracelets or necklace cords.  Recycling on steroids!  And they were just beautiful.

Most of the furniture in the restaurants, especially on the beach, was made from the local mahogany trees or bamboo; roofs were mostly thatch from palm fronds – watching the process of one of those being built is incredible.  Most of the buildings and homes were second story, built on stilts, to catch whatever breeze was blowing.  And yes, being on the ground floor was usually very hot.  Windows and walls along the beach were practically non-existent – they would roll down a screen during higher winds or rain – and you could sit or take shelter in any closed business because the main floor and tables were still open.

Crime in Placencia was a rarity.  Oh, there were petty thefts and such, mostly crimes of opportunity but we never locked the dinghy, we never worried about walking after dark, we could leave computer on table to go to the washroom, I didn’t have to hug my purse, etc.  What a difference from Belize City just up the coast!

Besides meeting up with Yonder and Wind Whisperer again, we also saw Takatuka for a bit.  Placencia Bay soon became the United Nations parking lot with cruisers from Switzerland and Italy and England and Australia…and Canada!  We were Canadian boat #8 when we pulled in and there were a bunch more came in later.

While there, our batteries decided they didn’t want to charge anymore so we ended up replacing the whole bank of 4.  Even with the exchange rate, it cost about the same as it would in Canada – about $200 each including tax, shipping, etc.

For being a village of about 750 people, Placencia has really got it together.  All schools have a uniform policy, crossing guards set up morning and afternoon on school days, and there is a Tourism Police force which routinely carries out roadblocks.  I found it pretty cool to see these things in a town where “rush hour traffic” means there are more than 3 vehicles or bicycles on the road at the same time.  But what I found amusing were the golf cart/motorcycle rentals and taxicabs – in a town less than a square mile in area.

Life in Placencia, like most of the Caribbean that we’ve seen, is slow and easy.  Not much is open before 11:00, maybe a restaurant that serves breakfast and even then it closes at about 4.  During the day, siesta is normal between 2 and 4-ish, dinner is normally about 7 or so.  Even parties or dances don’t last much beyond midnight at the very latest.  Belizeans seem to cram a whole lot of living into the 12 hours or less that they are active.

As cruisers, we found it more normal to do the sun-up sun-down thing.  It is hazardous to be out on the water in the dinghy after dark because so many boats rip around the harbour with no lights; and dinghies don’t have lights unless we carry a little flashlight to show our whereabouts.  Being up at sunrise has the disadvantage, however, of being upright and mobile while no one else is.  Coffee in the cockpit can only last so long, a bit of cleaning or maintenance before it gets too warm and then it’s off to town to explore and wait for things to open.  The biggest advantage to early rising is getting to see the beautiful colours and patterns of each unique sunrise.

We had been there about a week when word went around that a norther was coming, ETA Super Bowl Sunday.  Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning saw many boats making a run in for the shelter of the bay.  A cute trend that we noticed was all the boats pulling up anchor and nosing toward the shore that offered the best protection.  When we arrived they were all over on the eastern shore, actually the western shore of the island lying off the east of town.  As the storm day approached many of them moved over to our side, tucking in behind the spit that formed the north edge of the bay and ranging down the line.  Personally, we found it didn’t really matter:  no matter what or where the wind, the bay stayed fairly calm and we didn’t rock and roll much at all.  The best indication of wind was which way our nose was pointing.

Sunday afternoon the sky lowered and the wind picked up to form quite large chops (comparatively) with whitecaps, the rain started and it pounded so hard it left holes in the sand and bounced 2 feet off the water.  And it just kept on.  One boat that had just made it in time didn’t fare so well.  We watched as he dropped the anchor then dropped about 100 feet of chain directly on top of it, turned off the engine and left in the dinghy not waiting to see if he grabbed.  Well, he didn’t grab.  Over the next couple hours we noticed the boat wasn’t there anymore and found it had dragged about ½ mile away to the south toward the rocks on the next shore.  Jean-Marie and a couple others took our dinghy out to the boat and tried to reset the anchor.  They were working on it when the owners finally returned and took over, bringing the boat back up into shelter and re-anchoring – properly this time.

As it turns out, the boat was from Italy and had come across the Atlantic and toodled around the Caribbean before reaching Placencia.  I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to be on it, not after seeing the botched attempts at anchoring, I wouldn’t trust the competency of the captain.  But that’s me.  We’ve seen many boats like that, ones we wouldn’t want to be on, but they were mostly rentals.  A boating license (that you can get online for $50 and a multiple question test) and a credit card allows you to charter a boat wherever whenever for however long.  For some reason, they seem to be the ones that put everyone else into danger with their incompetency.  Just a week or so before we got to Placencia, a rental boat had dragged 150 feet into another boat, causing tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage and 2 weeks of waiting for parts and repairs.

We spent the rest of the day and evening at Paradise where the game was on the big screen.  Between the power outage at the Super Bowl and the off and on flickers from our own storm, the losing and regaining of the satellite, the wind blowing the rain in over the first row of tables (remember there are no walls) it was an interesting day.  I sat and played on the puter the whole time ignoring the hooting and hollering, and had a great dinner.  I was happy.

The next morning I counted:  33 sailboats of all sizes and models, 2 cargo ships and 1 barge lying off, and a mini-cruise ship that had come in and was able to beach itself.  It was a virtual parking lot!  The cruise ship was interesting to watch.  About 10:30 pm it came off the beach and made its way through the maze of boats to lie off nearer the cargo ships.  Making way dead slow, it had a monstrous searchlight going back and forth to find all the boats, sometimes shining on a particular boat for a few extra seconds to determine where the anchor chain was.  It zigzagged through without mishap, turned about into the wind and lay with no anchor for the whole night; even with the engines running the current was strong enough to hold it in place.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching his adventure.  Kudos to the captain for a job well done!

So 33 boats and a 150 foot anchor drag doesn’t really sound like much until you realize that the bay is only about 1.5 miles long and 1 mile wide and each boat has probably 100 feet or more chain in front of them, requiring a good 300 foot diameter swinging circle for good clearance.  I am impressed with the seamanship of all the captains there that day: no incidents occurred.  Same with all the local boats – fishermen, divers, lanchas, resort tenders – they had to do the same weaving in and out to get from one of the bay to the other; and they usually do it at full speed and without lights!  They done good – there was no crashing that night.

The night of the full moon, I was honoured by the presence of a pair of dolphins that came in to feed.  The gentle shoosh of them sounding was the only indication and it took me a bit to find them in the moonlight.  The water would ripple and part to reveal the sleek forms curving on the surface for just a moment before slipping silently beneath the water.  The full moon reflecting on the mirror-like surface was the perfect  backdrop for these gentle creatures.

They were in the bay all the time and came in close to shore almost every night to feed but that was the only time I saw them.  For that moment, I am grateful.

As with most beach front cafes, Yoli’s was built on a pier and piles extending out over the water with a plank walk to the dinghy dock in front.  The fish would hang around for the tidbits thrown to them.  It was fun to feed and watch them, perch-like ones, needlefish, even a white stingray in San Pedro (there is photos of that one).

Something we had been told, and found to be true, is that Belizeans love to gamble and they will gamble on anything – literally anything and everything.  One favourite pasttime turned into a Thursday night routine was Chicken Drop.  They built a walled square with checkerboard pattern floor, each square being numbered.  Then they let a chicken loose into the square and bet on which square he would “drop” (ie, poop).

At the Pickled Parrot one night for dinner (BEST burgers in town), the owner, Eugene, said that the bartender was on break and due back at 5 but that it could be whenever because Kareem was not known for his punctuality, the night before being 5:25 before his return.  So we started a pool to see what time he would get back, park his bike and walk through the gate.  It was $1 per bet (2 BZ) and winner took all; so everyone put in their money and Tommy wrote the time on the bill with a Sharpie.  We covered right up until 5:30 and as it was getting close to that time, we had to revise the rules and place new bets.  When Kareem finally did walk in at 5:38 or something like that, he did so to cheers and jeers and loud applause.  He didn’t mind at all being the centre of a gambling pool based on his tardiness.

Placencia was just an awesome little town to visit and I can completely understand why so many people come for a vacation and just never leave.   Everyone is so friendly and helpful, smiling and laughing all the time; there were never any fights or arguments or even loud angry voices.  The people there really don’t have much but will share or give what they’ve got and they always have time for a sit and a chat.

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