When I received the initial invitation to visit Cayo Espanto, I had to look it up. I’d never heard of it, didn’t know where it was and certainly had never seen it advertised. But for 25 years, the all-inclusive private island resort three miles off the coast of Belize has quietly catered to celebrities and those looking to truly be away from it all, building up a strong roster of return guests. Now, after having experienced it firsthand, it’s easy to see why — the resort offers a balance of seclusion, luxury and warm hospitality, all amidst some of the most intoxicating ocean views.
A Cessna Across the Sea
Part of Cayo Espanto’s appeal is its semi-remote location. From my connecting airport in Houston, it was a two-and-a-half hour flight down to Belize City, where the small international airport was bursting with visitors. In the domestic flights terminal, Cayo Espanto’s liaison Emilio happily came over to greet and take control, coordinating the now-missed inter-country flight to San Pedro. An hour later, I squeezed onto my first Cessna for the short 15 minute journey. Upon landing, I was greeted by Dorian, one of the “housemen” assigned to my villa. Carrying luggage, he navigated us to a taxi, then onto a boat for the final 10-minute stretch to the island.
A journey that had taken upwards of 10 hours disappeared as we sped across the teal sea and the island came into focus. Dorian politely asked if there was any interest in having a signature cocktail waiting upon arrival, then phoned the resort with an ETA. As we drifted up to the private dock attached to Casa Olita, the villa I was about to call home, I noticed the entire staff lined up to greet our boat — one with a perfectly frozen drink in hand. Flights? Boats? Travel hiccups? Paradise has a way of quickly wiping away the day’s struggles.
Villas in the Ocean
Casa Olita is one of the seven private beachfront villas offered, and while they all differ in various ways, the blueprint is similar. Three sides of the villa sat open, the shuttered doors pushed back during the day for the ocean breeze to drift through and closed up at night for comfortable A/C to run. Chairs for lounging are everywhere — on the dock, next to the small plunge pool in between the ocean and the villa, on the sand where the water gently laps a few feet away — and a picturesque hammock hangs on the porch corner. The king bed sat facing the water, quite easily one of the most comfortable I have ever drifted to sleep in.
Cayo Espanto is masterful at letting guests put their brain in park and not worry about a thing. The two housemen assigned during my stay, Dorian and Obed, took care of everything. I mentioned once that I usually rise early and drink coffee, so each night, without prompting, the villa’s coffee maker was prepared, fresh milk and honey stashed. They reminded me every evening of what was planned for the next day and what time to be ready. If there was a need or want at any point in the day, they were a simple walkie talkie call away.
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Daily Life at Cayo Espanto
Each morning, I would radio Dorian and Obed when I was ready for breakfast. They would open up the villa as I ate, pushing back shutters and preparing the hammock. Mid-morning, they would come back with the menu tailored for my lunch choices so selections could be made and a time chosen. The routine was repeated mid-afternoon for the dinner options. In the evening, they would serve dinner and prepare the evening’s relaxing activity — a movie on the dock or perhaps stargazing on an inflatable mattress.
While it is extremely easy to spend your time lazily rocking in the hammock, Cayo Espanto offers dozens of activities, at additional costs, for guests to enrich their stay. One afternoon, I boarded a boat with Captain Geronimo and his assistant Max to set sail for Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Geronimo gave a guided snorkeling tour along the reef before we clambered back aboard and headed for Shark Alley, where dozens of nurse sharks appeared for a feeding frenzy of the chum Max doled into the water.
The next day, Geronimo and Max were there for an all-day fishing expedition. Noting my seasickness the day before, they rearranged our journey for calmer waters and provided Dramamine. I was touched by their consideration; it summed up a stay at Cayo Espanto in one simple gesture. We fished for hours, catching snapper and barracuda near the mangroves before zipping past the resort to a private beach farther beyond. Chairs in the sand and under a canopy were set up for relaxation while Max and Geronimo prepared fresh ceviche and then used our day’s catch for a fish bake. Prepared on a grate over two cinder blocks on the beach, that meal still lingers in my mind.
Signature Dining for All
Less than 20 guests are on the island at any given time, but there could potentially be a unique menu for each guest every day. Newly appointed executive chef Richard Gillett, a native Belizean and 18 year veteran of the resort, and his team of seven examine guest pre-arrival surveys to identify menu preferences and dietary restrictions before crafting meal options that will fit everyone’s needs.
“It’s possible that I have four guests in one villa and all on different menus,” he says. “I have a board in the kitchen that lists all the guests and what they don’t want, can’t have; no matter what the restrictions are, I still put out a soup, appetizer, entree and dessert for each person every night.” How many people would see the exact same lunch menu I had just picked from earlier? Gillett paused, thinking. “Just six. Kind of — we still had to make a few tweaks.”
Even without the amount of customization going into each dish, the food offered at Cayo Espanto would be incredible — and given the amount of juggling and preparation needed to create each menu selection every day, it’s nothing short of extraordinary. With spiny lobster, grouper and snapper, my love for fresh seafood was expertly satisfied, and Belizean flavors were subtly incorporated across the dishes. And yet, the kitchen still found time to keep a bright, lemony hummus on hand for afternoon cravings alongside Gillett’s addictive tortilla chips, a personal snack favorite I noted in my survey.
When it was time to depart, the staff lined up once again on the dock to say goodbye. Gillett stood with a small herringbone lunch bag — inside, he had packed sandwiches and snacks for the journey back. The hand-wrapped turkey and cheese left me with a lump in my throat, not because of the effort required, but because of the thoughtfulness given. It is why for a quarter century, people have continued to make the journey to Cayo Espanto.
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