The little passenger compartment of the plane filled with the steamy scent of salt air and hot asphalt as soon as the door opened. We collected our bags and found a bit of shade under the eaves of the airstrip’s little bungalow terminal building to check the map. Our hotel was just a few blocks away, so we rolled our suitcases through the gravel airstrip parking lot and down the hard-pack street in the mid-day heat.
Dangriga, in the middle of Belize’s 200-mile long Caribbean coastline, used to be known as Stann Creek Town. It once was the second largest population center in Belize after the capital, Belize City… until Orange Walk Town up north surpassed it. (Orange Walk Town currently claims 18,000 souls compared to Dangriga’s 12,000. The entire country has only 300,000 people in it, nearly a third of whom live in the capital.)
Dangriga is a Garifuna word that roughly translates as “Standing Water.” The name was changed from Stann Creek Town in the 1980s during a resurgence of Garifuna cultural pride in Belize. (The Garifuna are a cultural and ethnic group of mixed Carib Indian and African ancestry that left slave colonies on the Caribbean islands and spread out along the Central American Caribbean coast in the 1800s.)
The Garifuna love to do three things above all else-sing, dance, and drum. The drums they make to play their distinctive punta dance beats can be works of art, and there is actually a large monument to them in town.
The town’s main drag is Commerce Street, where you’ll find the bus station, medical clinic, telephone office, police station, and bank. The center of action is the little bridge where Commerce Street crosses North Stann Creek. At just about any time of day or night Punta Rock (a local blend of traditional African beats, calypso, and electric instruments) is playing on various nearby car-trunk sound systems. There are also plenty of locals hanging around the bridge and nearby stores and restaurants offering fishing excursions, runs out to the offshore islands, tours of the nearby jungle preserves and Mayan ruins, and whatever you’d like to drink, smoke, or otherwise ingest.
As we found out, the majority of offers for things to do in town (aside from the drinking and smoking) involved getting out of Dangriga itself. There is no real beach in town. That’s because, like most of the Belize coast, the ocean shore at Dangriga is either mangrove or simply land that ends at the water. What sand beach there is on the shore around Dangriga and nearby Hopkins has largely been gobbled up by high-dollar resort developments.
It’s still possible to find beach view lots starting at $60,000 and actual oceanfront lots start at about $95,000 in the area. And settling in Dangriga itself is inexpensive… typical clapboard houses in town start at $30,000. There is also an active market for orchard and farmland up country from Dangriga for the gentlemen farmers and off-the-grid types who don’t care if they ever see the ocean.
Thirty years ago, with a backpack and hair down to my waist, Dangriga’s Siren call would have been irresistible. It’s nice to know that places like this still exist. For the young… and the young at heart… Dangriga is a small but bona fide frontier land of adventure, Punta rock, non-stop street life, and steamy Caribbean culture.