As always in Belize, the transition from one landscape to another is swift and startling. As you approach the Hummingbird Highway's end in coastal Dangriga, the lush, mountainous terrain of the north gives way to flat plains bristling with orange trees. Farther south, the Stann Creek Valley is where bananas, the nation's first bumper crop, and most other fruits are grown. Equally noticeable is the cultural segue: whereas San Ignacio has a Spanish air, the Southern Coast is strongly Afro-Caribbean.
The Southern Coast isn't so much a melting pot as a tropical stew full of different flavors. A seaside Garífuna village recalls Senegal, while just down the road a Creole village evokes the Caribbean. Inland, Maya live much as they have for thousands of years next door to Mestizos from Guatemala and Honduras who've come to work the banana plantations or citrus groves. Sprinkled in are expats from the northern climes, looking for a retirement home or trying to make a buck in tourism.
Tourist dollars, the staple of contemporary Belize, have largely bypassed Dangriga to land in Hopkins, and, even more tellingly, in Placencia, the region's most striking destination. Just a decade or so ago there were only three small resorts on the peninsula north of Placencia Village. Now there are more than 20, stretching up to the village of Seine Bight, Maya Beach, and beyond. Despite the global recession, plans are in the works for new condos and hotels, although some of these developments were stalled by a shortage of financing and a scarcity of buyers. A few shut down, victims of the real-estate bust, or are rotting away in the tropical humidity. Still, owners of small beach resorts and inns are cashing in, selling out to developers, who are in turn combining several small tracts into one, hoping to put together larger residential or resort projects.
With the paving of the Placencia road now completed, with the on-again, off-again construction of a new international airport going on just north of the peninsula, and with talk of a new cruise-ship port on a caye off Placencia, or even in Placencia village, many believe that the tipping point for the Placencia peninsula has been reached and that the new wave of resorts and residential developments will be larger, more upscale, and more multinational. Local residents appear divided about the dramatic changes coming to the peninsula. Some embrace the development in hopes of a better economic future; others bitterly oppose it, citing the impact on the narrow peninsula's fragile ecosystems. With the exception of a few shop owners and some guides, most Placencia residents appear to oppose the coming of mass cruise-ship tourism to the fragile peninsula, but powerful political and economic forces in the country appear to be ready to bring cruise ships to this part of Belize soon.
The surfacing of the Southern Highway from Dangriga all the way to Punta Gorda has made the region much more accessible. Off the main highway, however, most roads consist of red dirt and potholes. The road that once was the worst in the region, the dirt track from the Southern Highway to Placencia Village, has been transformed, thanks to a loan from the Caribbean Development Bank, into a smooth, paved, two-lane thoroughfare. The repaving of the Hopkins Road has been scheduled to begin by 2014.
Real-estate sales are a driving force in Placencia, Hopkins, and elsewhere along the coast. The lure is the beaches. The Southern Coast has the best beaches on the mainland, although as elsewhere inside the protecting Barrier Reef, the low wave action means the beaches are narrow and there's usually sea grass in the water close to shore. (Sea grass—not seaweed, which is an algae—may be a nuisance for swimmers, but it's a vital part of the coastal ecosystem, acting as a nursery for sea life.) Much of the seafront land has been divided into lots awaiting development; if things continue at this pace, the area will one day rival Ambergris Caye as Belize's top beach destination. Indeed, at the Belize Tourism Board annual awards ceremonies in 2013, for the first time ever most of the national tourism honors for best hotels, restaurants, guides, and tourism staff went to the Placencia peninsula instead of San Pedro.