Popular Attractions, Great Values & Hidden Gems Found during Our Adventure in Belize

The Sunset at Iguana Reef Hotel, Caye Caulker (Belize)

The Benefits of a Winter Anniversary

On Christmas morning, Jennifer and I get to open one present from each other, just after midnight. My gift to her is almost always a little something to go along with our Anniversary trip and the unveil of the trip itself. This year we were going back to Belize.

Having an Anniversary in January is great in that we are in the middle of ski season for most of the norther hemisphere and we can still fly “South for the Winter” if we want to get away from the cold. In recent years, Jennifer has hinted that she would rather “Fly South” more often, but Covid restrictions have hampered the ability to travel quite as extensively as we may have liked.

In 2020, we were able to explore Roatan, Honduras prior to the March shutdowns, but we kept our travels contained to within the United States in early 2021. The U.S and other countries have been opening-up somewhat, although almost as much research on Covid restrictions are necessary when traveling abroad as research on where we actually want to stay and go.

Trip Insurance seems to have become an absolute necessity with flight cancelations becoming more commonplace and testing requirements sometimes restricting the ability to enter the country. A few months ago, when we were in Nevis, we quarantined officially for 3 days. But it was actually 5 days before we were able to move about the country. The quarantine period started one day after arrival and ended after testing results were obtained again after the full three days. Temperature checks and masks were also required in Nevis whenever entering a building.

In Belize, masks are required on the streets and in most establishments, although most stores and restaurants did not enforce this. It was fine to take your masks off on the beach, and in most outdoor areas except for on the street, where the police enforced the mask rules vehemently. Our tests to re-enter the US were much easier to obtain in Belize as well, with Jennifer and I getting the results within 30 minutes. This time, it wasn’t the testing requirements but something else entirely unexpected that had us extending to the weekend. More on that later.

I knew we wanted to go back to Belize, because diving the Blue Hole has been on our bucket list for some time. This time we stayed on three different Islands instead of the mainland. It’s a different feel on the Islands and a trip that we have greatly enjoyed.


Masks Off on the Water Taxi from Belize City to Ambergris Caye (Belize) – Baron Bliss Lighthouse (Belize City)

Turneffe Island All Inclusive Resort: Exceptional Location – Great Accommodations

This was by far the best advertised and most expensive resort we researched for traveling to Belize. The resort transported all 20+ guests by boat to the island on Saturday afternoon. The weather was cooperating that day and the scenery was magnificent along the 90-minute boat ride. The attentive staff welcomed us on the dock when we arrived, and we were given the grand tour of the property.

As we were touring the property our guide pointed out the bungalow where each of us were staying for the next few days. We settled into our rooms as the tour was winding down and unpacked our clothes, dive gear etc.. The rooms were spacious and well done with back entry showers, stocked fridges, plenty of hot water and attentive staff.

Jennifer and I explored the property before dinner and found a great spot for watching the sunset on the dock furthest away from the resort. The beach was pristine, the fish were plentiful, and we felt like we had the whole island to ourselves at times.

Mealtimes were very structured in that there were less than 30 guests on the island. All meals were excellent, and Jennifer commented that she felt like we were at summer camp due to the nature of the facilities and interaction of the guests. The servers were very accommodating, and I felt a little guilty not sticking around for dessert at times when we were stuffed due to second servings. Breakfasts started at 7:00 with the bell noting it was time for the morning meal.

Sunset from the Docks at Turneffe Island Resort

Our dives started at 8:15 in the morning and our divemaster Bryan was extremely knowledgeable, pointing out lots of little things we had never noticed before. We were diving with him and another couple that week and Jennifer noted that this was one of the most efficient operations that she had encountered in her 30 years of diving. The location was exceptional in that we were only 5 minutes from many of the best dive sites in Belize. The reefs were pristine, the sea life was plentiful, and the dive guides were very knowledgeable and competent.

We had high expectations for Turneffe, given what was advertised and the price. The accommodations were the nicest we encountered while in Belize (We had visited once before in 2018). The operations were very efficient as well. Bryan and the staff at the dive shop delivered on what was advertised. But they had a lot to live up to because the other resort was so exceptional.

Ramon’s Village in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye: Great Quality & Service at a Good Price

Ramon’s was our first and third stop of our Belizean adventure. They picked us up from the water taxi and gave us a tour around the town when we first arrived. We were immediately escorted to our rooms, and everyone seemed to want to deliver a “great experience”.

It may be that we were so spoiled by the friendliness and spectacular service provide by Ramon’s both before and after our stay at Turneffe that made everything else pale by comparison. Every time I called to the front desk, they would immediately and enthusiastically greet me with a “hello Mr. Joe”. Jose at reception was extremely accommodating and helpful when we arrived back in San Pedro. He found us rooms at the last minute and even coordinated with Turneffe to help get our bags transported from the other resort when it seemed Turneffe was having issues.

Our server “Jack” was exceptional during dining hours. When we told him we were from Tennessee, he recited what he had learned of our home state with talk of Memphis, Nashville, the Tennessee Titans and Jack Daniels. We were amazed at how many states and countries’ capitals, characteristics, and sports teams he had been able to memorize. He seemed to truly enjoy interacting with everyone and made everyone feel welcome. Many who know me may recognize that I tend to be a little slow in the morning and he helped me get in the groove at breakfast.

The entire resort was designed to capture Mayan culture with thatched roofs and wooden carvings throughout. The rooms were a bit smaller than on Turneffe, but just as nice. They were consistently clean, and we were able to enjoy all the amenities on the beach and in our little Jungle bungalow. Jennifer especially enjoyed the fruit smoothies that were plentiful on site.

We did not get a chance to dive with Ramon’s, but from what I heard about their dive operation from the guests, it was top notch. In talking with the people at the dive shop, their dives sounded almost as exciting as those from Turneffe. The main difference was that the boat rides were much longer from Ramon’s to some of the best dive areas.

The only thing we might note about Ramon’s is the lack of hot water, although from talking with others out and about, it seems that all the hotels in San Pedro tend to be “hot water deficient”.

Late afternoon Sky from the Dock at Ramon’s

While on Ambergris Caye we took a day trip via golf cart (rather than having cars everyone has a golf cart on the Islands) to Secret Beach and enjoyed the festivities away from San Pedro. It took a good 45 minutes to travel from San Pedro and if not for the signs along the road we would have probably gotten lost with nothing to see but mangroves and swamp for miles in all directions. When we arrived, there are many bars lined up along the beach giving free drinks, free massages, and the like to newcomers.


These were some of the best beaches we have encountered anywhere. Jennifer was able to walk hundreds of meters on the sandbar into the Ocean with clear waters and plenty of fish to observe. If someone prefers calm waters to breaking waves, these beaches would make most lists as some of the best beaches to visit. Sunset Palace and Blue Bayou were the two locations we enjoyed most. We would definitely recommend these two for those visiting the Secret Beach. They are run by locals and have a great, fun atmosphere.

Caye Caulker: A Treasure Trove of Hidden Gems.

We always love to support local small businesses when we are traveling. We want to encourage the “entrepreneurial spirit” of those with a dream of a better life, creating something new and wonderful or filling a need for travelers and the public at large. We like the feeling of helping these individuals and smaller teams by giving them a helping hand when they are working hard to get things up and running.

To this end we stayed at a smaller venue on the beach called Jan’s Hotel. The cleaning staff and the driver treated us well and we enjoyed the sunrise from the Pelican’s Nest overlooking the beach a couple of mornings. The hotel was also located close to “The Split” in the Island where you can visit the bars and restaurants along the beach or take a ferry across to the Northern end.

Joe and Jen with Plato, owner of Split the Split Ferry Crossing – Blooms in the Winter

We were able to watch the Sunrise from our Hotel on the East Coast and walk just ten minutes to the West Coast of the Island to enjoy the Sunset. One of the best places to watch the Sunset is at the Iguana Reef Hotel. Jennifer was giddy getting a chance to view seahorses from the dock and many were also feeding the pelicans, storks and sting rays with fish the hotel provided. This location was definitely the most popular in the early evening both for onlookers, the birds and the sting rays. When we arrived the second night, the sting rays were scarce, but as sunset approached, you could see many swimming in to the shore. At least a dozen sting rays gathered in the feeding area each night when we were observing them. We plan on bringing our kids back to Iguana Reef Hotel in Caye Caulker someday.

Walking back from Iguana Reef Hotel the first night we met a man grilling pineapple, fish, corn and all kinds of other fare just outside a tiny structure named the Backyard Grille. It was clear he had a low overhead operation and was just getting his business off the ground. The food smelled wonderful, but we had already planned to eat at another establishment on the beach that night. We promised him we’d come but we noticed that he was not to be found the next day. We figured he may work somewhere else during the day and operate this establishment at night. After sunset we drove our golf cart back by and Chef Fred was cooking on the grille.

 

Joe & Jen with Chef Fred

Chef Fred unveiled us what he had cooking that night. I decided on the whole Black Snapper and Jen chose grilled vegetables. It seems he had an arrangement with the bar behind him that served up the drinks while he cooked the food. He definitely had a low overhead operation. His whole snapper was one of the best I’ve ever tasted and I also enjoyed the corn. Jennifer greatly enjoyed her grilled vegetables as well. We got our picture with Chef Fred that night. I’m not sure how many people want to have their picture taken with him, but we like to remember characters like him getting their little businesses off the ground and hustling to make it happen.

When we were dining that night, Jennifer told me, “I liked Turneffe Island Resort, I loved Ambergris Caye and Ramon’s Village, but I really love Caye Caulker”. It’s something about the raw interaction with the locals that gives you a great feel for a country and an area.

Three Types of Investment Opportunities

These three islands with differing resorts, accommodations and businesses brings to mind different types of investment opportunities: The popular but pricey investment, a high quality company at a good price and “Hidden Gems.”

Popular but Pricey:

The first opportunity is the popular but pricey investment opportunity. This is the trendy offering, hot stock or deal that you hear people talk about at parties and may even hear about on the news because it has done so well in the recent past. In markets like late 2020 and most of 2021, these types of investments do well and may continue to do well into late 2022 and early 2023. Many may remember 1999 when the popular but pricey dot.com companies more than doubled in price during the second half of the year. It is hard to note when the party is over and trends can shift suddenly, however. If the company disappoints in an earnings call or a negative news article surfaces, these types of investments can fall hard quickly. Turneffe Island Resort had the competitive advantage of being in one of the best locations in the world for diving and sport fishing as well as top accommodations. I would put them in the popular but pricey category, however.

Popular but pricey investments are many times exceptional companies. These companies, because of their popularity, are commanding prices that sometimes do not make sense in retrospect when the mania is over. Because of the extremely high expectations that allows them to command such exorbitant prices, we rarely see these companies live up to their billing. High expectations lead to high prices which lead to disappointing relative results which lead to lower prices. It’s when no-one expects much from a company or an industry that we can benefit from the upside as companies can easily exceed these expectations.
“You Pay a Very High Price in the Market for a Cheery Consensus.” – Warren Buffett

Hidden Gems:

Sometimes we can find companies with exceptionally low prices or other opportunities where no-one is looking. Many times these are smaller companies that are not a member of any widely followed index. Other times these are companies that have been spun out of other top-quality companies. Sometimes a private company goes public without much fanfare and few people notice. A reorganization may also allow an existing company to spin out many of its lesser non-core components.

Hidden Gems tend to be smaller companies or sometimes larger companies that go under the radar because they are not in sexy industries or popular fields. Sometimes they cannot be easily placed into a category and thus have little to no competition (a great reason to invest in them).

We often find these “Hidden Gems” by doing research and comparing multiple companies in an industry and looking globally for those with the best metrics. Many companies currently are selling at prices and “mulitples” of earnings and revenues that are much less than you can find here in the U.S. The problem with some of these metrics is that foreign companies do not always account for earnings and even revenues with “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”. This is one reason why many politicians are wanting to make listing requirements much more stringent in the U.S, for those companies that want to have their shares trade on our exchanges as ADRs or American Depository Receipts.
Many can buy these shares directly on other exchanges and most companies are even more attractively priced when they do not trade widely. But how can we be sure that earnings and even revenues are real and not subject to accounting shenanigans.

Some professionals use services such as Bloomberg or FactSet terminals which do a lot of the work for us to compile the income statements and balance sheets in a standardized format. This does not come close to helping us uncover accounting irregularities, however. Earnings are the easiest to fake for these companies. Some have even gone so far as to book sales before funds are collected and show exaggerated revenues. But one thing that is extremely hard to fake for these companies is their dividends.

Dividends are either received by investors are they are not. If a company has a good track record of stable or increasing dividends, this is even better. Dividends have provided the bulk of returns for most companies over the last century and it has only been during the last few decades as investors have scrapped dividends in favor of share buybacks or reinvestment of earnings for higher growth. The chart above shows the portion of total return attributed to dividends versus share price appreciation in the S&P 500 from 1930 through 2010. It’s easy to see that many would have lost money if not for dividends during a couple of these decades. Companies that pay dividends tend to hold their value better than others as well and can provide ongoing cash flow for investors or additional cash for ongoing investments over time.

High Quality at a Good (Sometimes Great) Price:

Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s vice chairman and longtime business partner of Warren Buffet has been long recognized at helping Mr. Buffet refine his investment strategy over the years. Warren for a long time was known as a deep value investor who would find businesses selling at rock bottom prices and scoop them up regardless of the quality of the business. Many times, Warren would uncover a “hidden gem”, but at times he might have uncovered “fool’s gold” or a “value trap” that many investors fall for over time. Many investors mistakenly believe from time to time that if something is cheap enough, it is bound to recover sooner or later. For Buffet, the few mistakes he shares with the public are those where he bought a shoddy business in a low margin competitive industry without any long-term competitive advantage and continued to hold it because it was “cheap”. He likes to note the textile industry and the airline industry as two where he has made this mistake more than once.

Munger on the other hand has been instrumental in helping Buffet develop a better approach. This approach has continued to work for them as their operations have scaled and Berkshire Hathaway has become one of the largest companies in the world. Munger encouraged Buffet to look for the highest quality companies available with wide moats (competitive advantages) and top quality management and wait for the market to offer them a compelling value. (usually when encountering a temporary setback). Eventually prices come down to where “Mr. Market” is making us an offer we cannot refuse and as long as we stay alert and take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves, we can come out ahead. Unfortunately, for many, waiting around for these opportunities harder in practice than what you might think. It’s hard to wait for the right opportunity when there are so many sexy and popular options available that are performing better than something currently out of favor.

Recently we noted that Mr. Munger was buying shares of Alibaba in 2021. We started buying for ourselves and clients in the third quarter when the price dropped below the March 2020 pandemic lows and we noted that Munger was increasing his position. In December, for tax purposes, we sold off some of this position, replacing it with similar shares of other Chinese internet companies. We continue to hold Alibaba and may even consider adding to the position as Mr. Munger doubled his stake in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Investing in temporarily unloved high-quality businesses is difficult for many and we have clients asking us at times why we would buy X company when it is going through so many problems at the time. Why not wait until it has bottomed and starting to recover? Why not wait until it shows that it is trending upwards before committing capital? Sometimes we catch these investments on the upswing and encounter little if any downturn for a long period of time. Other times we are early but still have strong confidence in the investment itself and continue to add to the position. We prefer the former if we can buy a large enough position to comprise a meaningful part of portfolios at a good to great price. We don’t mind the latter if we can continue to get a even better price for a great company, although this tends to make clients a little more nervous.

A Great Time to Buy is When Volatility Is High

For markets in general and great, quality companies when prices are temporarily beaten up, Mr. Market offers us the best opportunities when he is most fearful. This tends to coincide with higher volatility periods. It’s during the periods when volatility is low and investors are most greedy that we want to watch out and lighten positions. It’s during the times when investors are most fearful and volatility increases that we get the best opportunities. These opportunities are many times short lived in non-recessionary periods as investors recognize a deal when they see one (unless something else exists to scare them away from an otherwise top-quality enterprise). During recessionary periods, we want to be more cautious as a good opportunity can become a great opportunity or even a spectacular opportunity as panic sets in and investors sell at foolish prices. Those who have funds available and can scoop these up do the best over time.

The historical volatility study above shows “High Volatility Periods” with the Highest 12 month and 18 month forward expected Returns. Recently the “VIX” volatility or “fear” index registered readings in the high 30s which has historically proven profitable for those investors buying during these periods. If the Federal Reserve is raising rates to combat inflation and slow the economy, we are typically not close to an impending recession and recessions tend to coincide with longer and deeper downturns. So if you find you are currently fearful, this is typically a better investment environment than those times when everything looks rosy.

“The time of Maximum Pessimism is the best time to Buy, and the time of Maximum Optimism is the best time to Sell.” – John Templeton

 

Joe D. Franklin, CFP is Founder and President of Franklin Wealth Management, and CEO of Innovative Advisory Partners, a registered investment advisory firm in Hixson, Tennessee. A 20+year industry veteran, he contributes guest articles for Money Magazine and authors the Franklin Backstage Pass blog. Joe has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s Magazine, USA Today and other publications.

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