Inside Belize’s Gorgeous Cayo Espanto Island, AKA ‘Ghost Key’

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Bill Gates, Robert De Niro, Tiger Woods, and Bradley Cooper have all reportedly stayed at this ultra-exclusive Caribbean getaway.

Cayo Espanto

After your gleaming G650 comes to a skidding stop on the blacktop of Philip S. W. Goldson Airport in Belize City, a small team will meet you on the tarmac and usher you to a helicopter waiting nearby. 

A scant 20 minutes later, skimming over emerald islands, remote beaches and turquoise Caribbean water below, a small tropical key will materialize—the kind filed in your memory banks under “desert island.” Soon the chopper descends onto a green patch of grass where paradise awaits: a white sand, palm-studded Xanadu of solace dubbed Cayo Espanto. 

Your approach to your “desert island” Xanadu

The brainchild of entrepreneur Jeff Gram, Cayo Espanto—aka “Ghost Key”—opened in 1999 with only a trio of casitas spread out over three acres. In the two decades since it has grown to seven villas, each nestled away in its own corner of the island, and shaded by leafy palms and knotted mangrove trees to offer an unheard-of level of privacy. There is no common area here at Cayo Espanto; there’s no lobby or restaurant, or even a bar to belly up to. 

No wonder A-listers like Jennifer Lawrence, Bill Gates, Robert De Niro and Tiger Woods are rumored to have called Cayo Espanto home. Local gossip whispers Bradley Cooper and his buddy Leonardo DiCaprio rented out the entire island during the pandemic just for themselves and their girlfriends. That’s the category of über seclusion that Cayo Espanto offers its demanding clientele

Cayo Espanto

“I definitely like the privacy, I wanted that for personal reasons,” explains Gram of his vision from day one. “I like to interact with people and have fun, but I want to be able to get away with a special person and feel as though I am the only one on the island.”  

This level of solitude has always been exigent for a certain pedigree of folk, but since the global pandemic is now paramount for any wary traveler. In many ways Gram’s concept was prescient, especially given the circumstance. Consider Belize 30 years ago: the former British colony — one straddling both Central American and Caribbean cultures — was even more primitive then, with materials and skilled workmanship hard to come by.

There were no 5-Star resorts anywhere in the English speaking nation; Francis Ford Coppola had yet to build his famed Turtle Inn resort. When Gram purchased the feral island its interior was a swamp so they had to ship in gravel and sand from Belize City to fill it in, and because the shores are so shallow all construction goods had to be canoed in from the boat. The early vision, and the dedication to execute, are impressive.

“You’ll notice how we did the landscaping, you really don’t see any other people,” notes Gram, highlighting the 300-plus coconut, poisonwood, and almond trees they brought in for shade and shelter, while consciously working around the aged, twisted mangrove trees already there. “It’s very important for people to feel as though it’s just the two of them on their own private island.” 

Cayo Espanto

“The ground was to be left as natural sand—no shrubs or ground cover and definitely no walkways,” adds the resort’s landscape architect James Hyatt of the initial design he and Gram imagined. “We wanted the guests to feel like they had come upon a natural, idyllic island.” 

And that’s one of the miracles of Cayo Espanto: its ability to simultaneously feel ultra-luxurious yet still wild, organic, indigenous — as if it had always existed on this quiet phantom isle.

According to Hyatt, the villas’ strong pyramidal roofs reference  primitive island huts across the world, and collectively are meant to recreate the appearance of a small littoral village. Villa walls open nearly 360 degrees to erase any separation between man-made luxury and mother nature, and in concert with the tall ceilings help create a great sense of interior space. “Definitely ADHD created Cayo Espanto,” laughs Gram. “Nobody else would be crazy enough to do it.” 

Cayo Espanto

These eggshell-blue villas make ideal epicenters for long, almost endless hours of doing nothing. Soaking in the Belizean rays from your private dock, feeling the warm breeze blowing in from the west and the hot kiss of sun on your skin. Minutes turn to hours, mornings blend into evenings, delirious and long and in slow motion. After months of simmering anxiety in the global zeitgeist, this type of luxurious indolence is a priceless commodity. 

Perhaps the world was devolving into chaos all around us, we knew nothing. Ignorance—alongside a well-made piña colada with a Myer’s Original Dark Rum floater—is bliss. The languid, lazy days are punctuated by world-class meals, the only intermittent entertainment breaking the time apart. Whenever you wake, simply press the walkie talkie and tell your butler — each villa has two — your choice for breakfast. Huevos rancheros with Belize’s famous habanero hot sauce, bright orange like a nuclear warning, was a favorite. As were banana coconut pancakes drizzled with maple syrup; dessert for breakfast. If you feel guilty about all those carbs, lunch absolves you via the Niçoise or Caesar salad.

Despite Cayo Espanto’s seclusion and island limitations, the team does a superb job moving locations every night to lend each dinner a unique ambience, one of the rare clues that separates Monday from Friday. One evening supper is plated by your small private pool, the other on the dock, or perhaps under a giant curling mangrove. 

Cayo Espanto

Our last sunset we dined by the grass helipad, lit up by small candles and tiki torches. Grilled grouper on polenta, shrimp skewers and ribeye steak were served, all finished with a flowing lava cake of gushing chocolate, accompanied by a dram of Laphroaig. At the end of the meal our servers lit Chinese wishing lanterns and set them adrift over the Caribbean. My girl’s flew high into the horizon until it disappeared into the star-lit heavens; mine went up in flames almost immediately and plummeted into the dark water. An auspicious beginning to 2021. 

Of course should you tire of sinking in your pool sipping Campari Americanos all day, there’s no lack of distractions. If you so desire, one can paddleboard, kayak, snorkel and fly fish directly from your deck. We scuba dove the second-largest barrier reef in the world, and on another day took a private yacht to fish and dive for fresh langostinos, which we then grilled on a nearby deserted island for lunch. There are also helicopter tours over the famed Great Blue Hole, and day trips to Mayan ruins. 

Cayo Espanto

But nevermind all that. We’ve never been to a resort quite like this, where the most successful endeavor one can enjoy is doing not a goddamn thing. Should you require anything — salt-rimmed Herradura palomas, deep tissue massage, a couple plates of sushi — your butler is only a walkie talkie blip away. Or if you’re deeply sated and happy to just chill, no worries — if you don’t call, they’ll never bother you. 

My favorite time of every day was the quiet hour at dawn, waking up to catch the sunrise while my girl slept peacefully. Sneaking out to the dock to stare out into the calm, glasslike ocean with clouds towering high, pink and light blue like a pastel. Just sipping coffee while the morning sky shifted in vivid hues. Here, the world patiently waits.