I know Marty because he runs Ambergriscaye.com, the largest resource for information on Belize. The website is massive; it ranges from recommendations on things to do, where to go, photos, early history, economics, real estate and published research studies to name a few.
I decided to interview Marty because I hope more people realise the great service he has done on pioneering tourism in Belize. Also, I’m sure many people believe that running a high-quality website is guaranteed passive income, and on the contrary, it’s a lot of hard work. Here’s his story, I hope it provides good insight.
Tell me a little about yourself?
I was born in Kansas in 1956 to my lovely mother Verna and my Cuban born father Manuel (he is from Puerto Padre on the NE coast of Cuba), moved to Oklahoma about age 14, and to Oregon after a couple years at the University of Oklahoma. Married my beautiful bride Becky in 1976, and we have wonderful children, Myah and Ryan. Nowadays we have three grandchildren, from Myah and her hubby Jacob, Feona, John Martin, and Benjamin. Ryan has a lovely lady as his best friend, Skye. Belize is a great place for kids. My children just LOVE coming to Belize, and have for many years. They have often brought friends, and invariably all the young ones have a great time, with cherished memories for a lifetime.
What brought you to Belize?
I first came in 1996 as we began to initiate a website for the island, and give classes on email and the internet in downtown San Pedro. I loved it. Simple yet beautiful. I felt I had come home, even though I had never been to the island before. I think it’s my Cuban blood.
Among my first friends on the island, and a great help in helping me to explore and understand the island were: Norman Eiley, Ramón Nunez, Julian Rivero, Wil and Susan Lala, Bruce and Victoria Collins, Chris & Rebecca Berlin, Richie Woods, Amanda Syme, Diane Campbell, Capt. Abel, Rebecca and Elito Arceo, Herman Smith, Iraida Gonzalez, Angel Nunez, Allan Forman, George Kay, Spanish, Jesse Cope, and Mervin Key (I am sure I missed a few folks here, sorry for that).
And I would be remiss without mentioning Tony Rath, whose pioneering work on the internet showed to all that it is possible to have a BEAUTIFUL website, as well as offering good information. His work was critical to me in understanding what is possible.
How did Ambergriscaye.com get started?
I was a volunteer teaching technology to Talented and Gifted kids at Whiteaker Elementary in Eugene, the poorest (socio-economically) school in Oregon where my wife Becky taught. I made a website for the school back when a school website was rare indeed, and that site was written up in a cover story in a fancy library magazine of the time. A friend, Alan McNeill, had been to San Pedro, and ran a technology company in Eugene Oregon where I lived. He wanted to establish a website for the island, and I was the website guy for his company. The town had established an internet committee, to take bids for a website, and figure out what kind of website would be good for the island. Our project was selected by the committee, and we began to work. Pretty quickly it was too much work for Alan to contribute, so I took it on myself.
How has the website grown throughout the years?
We started out as an informational center for the island, and I see it continuing along that path into the future. We hope that we will continue to be a stable, well informed, and most importantly to me, drama free steward of the island.
We started very small, as you can see here: http://AmbergrisCaye.com/1996.html
Traffic really ramped up during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the traffic to the message board, and phone and email from folks wanting information and kept me up for 24 hours every day for literally a week. I think it was for many, the first time they were aware of the website.
Here is how the website looked in 1998 http://AmbergrisCaye.com/1998.html
Now AmbergrisCaye.com is the most heavily viewed website on Belize, we get about 10,000 “unique hosts” or viewers, each day, over 300,000 visitors per month. We have had over 50 million visitors since April 1996 (as of November 5, 2013). We also do BelizeNews.com (5,000 viewers per day) and BelizeSearch.com.
What’s the worst challenge you’ve overcome and best advice you can offer anyone trying to market Belize online?
Oh gosh, at first it was a miracle to get anything. I’d beg folks to chat a bit, write a bit, let me borrow their home photos (thanks Capt. Abel for i.e.), it took a lot to get this off the ground. After ten years folks were more aware of the positives to doing this, but at first it was like pulling teeth. Laugh. Really tough. There were plenty of viewers anxious to read about Belize, but getting the text material and photos required digging and persistence.
Prepare to commit some time. I have not had one day off since 1996 when we started this. But it is a task which I carry out gratefully, for I love it. Be prepared for a very wide range of questions, and keep a good rolodex. No one can know everything.
Where’s your favourite place in Belize? Least favourite?
Bad place? I suppose staying at Nestor’s in Corozal in 1998 or so was probably the time my wife disliked the most. Screens out, windows out, chickens hollering all over, one light bulb swinging from the ceiling, big bugs. But I still loved it, Becky not so much. The old Nestors area is all new and fancy now though!
The first time I heard howler monkeys in the middle of the night sure straightened my back. “Good Lord what the hell is that?” A cross between a squealing pig and a train. Now it’s the music of the jungle. But that first time…
My most intense time was in rebuilding some southern villages after Iris in 2001. Lots of money was donated to the website for use on the island when it appeared the storm would hit Ambergris, but then it veered south and hit the mainland. it was agreed the money would be used to benefit those hurt, and Peter Singfield, Frank Redmond and I managed the effort.
The Mennonites were help beyond imagination, and they put up work camps throughout the area. We provided (with the donated funds) wood, beams, concrete, forms. The Mennonites provided ALL the labour totally free of charge. Their work camps were amazing.
In the Maya villages, we would meet with the Alcalde, and families, they decided how many homes to build. We built about 400 homes. The destruction was bad, but the football field seemed to always survive. Each village also got a football or two and a pump with a handful of needles. We did about 20-30 homes in each village of Toledo, cooking in empty coffee cans along the roads between stops. It was quite an effort by all.
In your own words, why should anyone travel to Belize?
Enjoy the incomparable beauty and friendship of the people of Belize, enjoy the many amazing micro climates. Beach, mountains, caves, rain, monkeys, ruins, jaguars, that wonderful Belize Museum, there is something for anyone. Relax, climb mountains, rope drop off cave tops, scuba, parachute, and eat eat eat. The food of Belize is fabulous. When in San Pedro, go to El Fogon straight off. And start eating. And continue for some time. The natural juices, lime juice, so many delicious fresh fruit juices…
Go to the museum! I was never so happy to lose as I was when the Belize Museum won over AmbergrisCaye.com for a BTB award a few years ago. I LOVE the MUSEUM! (I am a history junkie). That bug room is for the AGES! I bowed down to them at the award ceremony, I was so happy for them! I had gone to the museum just that afternoon to chat with them to let them know I knew they would win and it was going to be great fun! What a night that was! So many folks have never been to the Belize Museum, they need to go!
Anyone interested in finding out more about Marty can shoot him an email at marty[at]casado[dot]net. To see similar interviews, check out my interview series.