As in the rest of Belize, the first people on the caye were the Maya. They managed to fight off invading Spaniards as early as 1508. A small Post-Classic site in the Basil Jones area and a few jade ornaments have been found along with obsidian flakes and fragments of pottery. Remnants indicate that Ambergris Caye was an important hub for trading. It is possible to visit these sites; transportation and guides are widely available.
It is presumed that because of the location of Ambergris Caye (in the center of the sea-lane) it was a stopover for Maya traders traveling up and down the coast.
Four and a half miles north of Rocky Point, at Boca Bacalar Chico, a narrow channel separates Belize and Mexico. The Maya dug this strait by hand so that they could bring their canoes through rather than go all the way around the peninsula (which is now Ambergris Caye). In dry years, when the water receded it was impossible to get a boat through, so in 1899 the Mexican government expanded the channel.
Between 1848 and 1849, during the Caste War on the Yucatán Peninsula, Yucatecan mestizos migrated to Belize, and four families were the first permanent residents of present-day San Pedro. Before long, there was a population of about 50 self-sufficient fishermen, who were also growing corn and vegetables. Life was idyllic for these people—until 1874 and the coming of the Blake family, the first of many foreign real estate developers who would transform the island.
James Blake paid the Belize government BZE$650 for Ambergris Caye (taking over every parcel of land except one set aside for the Catholic church) and began collecting rent from people who had been there for many years. After this, the history of the island was tied up with the fortunes of the Blakes and their in-laws, the Parhams and Alamillas. Their story reads like a novel, including love affairs, illegitimate children, and unlikely marriages. The Blakes controlled everybody and everything on the island, including the coconut and fishing industries; after almost 100 years of this, the Belizean government stepped in and made a “forced purchase” of San Pedro. It redistributed the land, selling lots and parcels to the same islanders who had been living on the land for generations.
The Fishing Industry
The caye’s main industry has shifted from logwood to chicle to coconuts, then to lobsters, fish, and conch. Before 1920, the spiny lobster was considered a nuisance, constantly getting caught in fishing nets, and thrown away. That all changed in 1921 when the lobster became a valuable export item. Though the fishermen were getting only a penny a pound, the business became lucrative when freezer vessels and freezer-equipped seaplanes began flying between the cayes and Florida.
The establishment of a fishermen’s co-op enabled the population to develop a middle-class economy over the years. The financial upswing allowed the town to improve the infrastructure of the island, which in turn has created a welcoming atmosphere for tourists.
The earliest tourists came to Ambergris Caye aboard the boat Pamelayne in the 1920s. By 1965, the first hotel was established, and the industry has been growing ever since. The caye boasts 24-hour-a-day electricity (most of the time), modern communication to anywhere in the world, a few banks, and basic medical services. At last count, there were 141 registered hotels on the island employing about 1,100 Belizeans.
There is a steady, mellow buzz to San Pedro Town, which becomes a bit hectic and trendy at holiday times, especially during El Día de San Pedro (June 26–29) and the Costa Maya Festival in August.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition