Discover a Bit About Ambergris Caye History Before Your Trip

Ambergris Caye BelizeThere’s no doubt that Ambergris Caye in Belize is a beautiful place to spend a vacation. With lots of sand and sun, breathtaking lagoons, and the guided tours of the Mangrove Swamps, there is always something to do. Factor in the shopping and restaurants found in San Pedro Town and you have the perfect setting for your time away from home.

One way to appreciate Ambergris Caye all the more is to learn a little about the island’s history. Doing so will help you to understand how the island and the entire nation of Belize developed over time. Settle back and enjoy some historical tidbits that are sure to enhance your perception of the place.

Ambergris Caye and the Mayan Empire

The Mayan Empire plays a vital role in what would eventually become Belize. With a civilization that’s believed to have emerged around 2,000 BCE and flourished until about 1,000 AD, the Mayans made the island a major trading area. That included engineering some geographical changes to the peninsula.

There is evidence that the Mayans wanted to enhance trading along the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Part of the plan involved digging a channel that would separate Ambergris Caye from Mexico. That channel could be used to bring goods into the area as well as move them out to other parts of the Empire. The channel also made it easier to transport goods to and from what’s known today as Belize.

European Explorers Reach the Yucatan Peninsula

The first European explorers reached the area during the first years of the 16th century. While the Mayan Empire was in decline, Ambergris Caye was still a relatively busy trading post. That began to change as first the Spanish and then the French began to move in and through the area.

Over the rest of the 16th and into the 17th centuries, the Mayans moved further from Ambergris Caye. While European settlers exhibited little interest in settling permanently in the area, the Yucatan Peninsula did serve as a popular and efficient place to land and move inland. A desire by the remaining Mayans to keep interaction with the newcomers to a minimum eventually led to the abandonment of Ambergris Caye.

The Pirates and Whalers Discover Ambergris Caye

While the explorers as well as the Mayans were not interested in inhabiting the area, there were others who were happy to make use of what Ambergris Caye and the surrounding islands had to offer. Pirates found that the islands were ideal for setting up secure areas to hide. From their vantage point, it was easy to leave the safety of the islands, strike, and then return quickly.

Local legends hold that British, French, and Dutch pirates all found the area to be ideal for their purposes. In many cases, their targets were Spanish ships that were either just arriving or were preparing to set sail for Spain. The coves offered excellent hiding places for their spoils while the pirates made arrangements to sell them in the Old World.

Pirates were not the only 17th century figures to make use of Ambergris Caye. Whalers also found the area to be ideal for trapping sperm whales. The goal was to extract the gray matter that’s found in the intestines of the whales. At the time, that matter was essential in the production of perfume.

The War of the Castes and the Beginnings of a Town

Sometimes referred to as the Caste War of Yucatan, the War of the Castes broke out in 1847. The war involved the Mayans who remained in control of the southeast and the European settlers who were found in the northeast. Far from being a quick and decisive event, the war continued until 1901.

During that time, thousands of Spanish refugees relocated to the northern part of Belize. As the Mayans reclaimed more territory in the north and west, the refugees continued to flood into Belize. During that time, Ambergris Caye once again became a population center. It was during the early years of the war that San Pedro Town was formed and remains the primary town on the island today.

Settling the Question of Ownership

The 19th century was also a time when ownership to the island came into question. That controversy was settled in 1869 when James Hume Blake purchased the land and prepared it for development. Blake obtained the resources for the purchase from his wife, Antonia Andrade. Andrade had settled in the area after fleeing from the war and worked alongside her husband to begin developing a coconut plantation.

The plantation, located in what was now called British Honduras, provided a degree of economic stability to the island and its recently arrived residents. For almost a century, it served as the primary means of earning a living on the island. That was to change by the middle of the 20th century.

Hurricanes Alter the Future of Ambergris Caye Permanently

By the 1950’s, hurricanes had left the island unfit for use as a coconut plantation. The area struggled for several years until the government arranged a purchase of the property. Once that was completed, the island was parceled out to those who still remained in hopes of developing an economically sound community.

During this time, attempts to revitalize the area included plans attracting tourism to the area. The cultivating of a lobster industry was one of the most notable achievements of the period. Unfortunately, overfishing began to undermine the new industry’s efforts.

Diversification began to come to the island. As the lobster industry became less prominent, the first efforts toward tourism began. While it would be some years before those efforts began to pay off, they laid the foundation for the Ambergris Caye and the Belize that people enjoy today.

An Independent Nation and Continued Economic Diversification

Things began to change in 1973 when British Honduras officially became the self-governing colony of Belize. While tourism was still somewhat slow during this era, more people began to discover what Ambergris Caye had to offer. It was also during this time that the first steps toward developing the financial sector and becoming an ideal site for offshore banking and investing.

When Belize gained full independence in 1981, the efforts to develop a robust tourist trade escalated. Around the same time, the fishing industry began to recover. Thanks to the increase in tour guides, diving lessons, the development of the hospitality industry near the beaches, and the establishment of the first offshore banks, Ambergris Caye saw an increase in local population as well as the number of visitors annually.

Today, Belize in general and Ambergris Caye in particular are known as wonderful places to visit or live. The beauty, culture, and cost of living are only a few of the reasons why many people choose to make their home here, particularly during retirement years. With the quality of life found here, there’s no doubt that the island will continue to thrive.

When you’re ready to discuss offshore banking choices in Belize, contact Caye International Bank. We’re located on beautiful Ambergris Caye and are happy to share more information with you about the area and banking options available to help protect your assets.

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About this author


Luigi Wewege is the Senior Vice President, and Head of Private Banking of Caye International Bank, published author of The Digital Banking Revolution - now in its third edition, has co-authored economic research which was presented before the U.S. Congress and currently serves as an Instructor at the FinTech School. He holds an Italian MBA with a major in International Business, as well as a BSBA with a triple major in Finance, International Business, and Management - cum laude from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.