Madonna's 'La Isla Bonita' a Fitting Tribute to Belize and the Beauty of San Pedro
After a recent trip to the Central American country of Belize and its beautiful island of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, I know what Madonna meant when she sang, "last night I dreamt of San Pedro ... tropical the island breeze, all the nature wild and free, this is where I long to be, La Isla Bonita."
As a kid, I loved singing and dancing to the pop icon's 1987 hit off of her third album, "True Blue." Not only was it really cool to hear Spanish in a mainstream song (which I didn't realize was a thing back then), but it conjured a feeling of escapism to a mystical island and a romance with a handsome Latin, island boy. I remember how beautiful Madonna looked in that red flamenco dress and wanted to be her and be on the island of San Pedro. Well, as life would have it, I unexpectedly found my way there.
A romantic at heart, a lover of Latin culture, not to mention a sucker for a Caribbean backdrop, I now have a newfound sense of nostalgia when I hear that song. I felt the "tropical island breeze" against my skin and I witnessed "all the nature wild and free" --- from its nurse sharks, sea turtles, eagle rays and abundance of tropical fish at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, to its howler monkeys and colorful toucans in its Cayo district.
Unlike the video, which wasn't actually filmed on the island of San Pedro but probably somewhere in a Hollywood studio in L.A., I was able to get the real experience in a thatched-roof cabana just a few feet away from the shore and a couple miles from the second-largest barrier reef in the world. I was welcomed by blue crab who popped in and out of their holes to say good morning and good night. I swam and snorkeled in its 80 degree, bath-like water and tasted some of the best bread, pastries, tropical juices and Belizean cuisine.
Whether Madonna actually had the pleasure of visiting San Pedro, she made a splash on the music scene with the song and impacted the island itself, which labels itself "La Isla Bonita" on signs across the island, such as "Keep La Isla Bonita Clean" by the trash bins.
The instrumental arrangement for "La Isla Bonita" was reportedly first presented to the late Michael Jackson, but he supposedly passed on it. Madonna was approached next and, needless to say, she nailed it.
Madonna made the song her own, and not only did "La Isla Bonita" become a colossal hit around the world, it would continue to inspire a longtime love affair with Latin culture, incorporating themes of passion, Catholicism and rebellion, which became Madonna's signature style. "La Isla Bonita" would also further catapult her career into super-stardom, putting Spanish motifs and lyrics on the map in mainstream pop music.
"La Isla Bonita" was the beginning of Madonna's attraction toward Latin themes, which reoccurred in her other mega-hits, such as "Who's That Girl" (1987), "Spanish Eyes" (1989), "I'm Going Bananas" (1990), the Spanish version of "You'll See" (1995) (called "Verás"), "Be Careful (Cuidado Con Mi Corazón)" (1999), a duet with Ricky Martin, "Lo Que Siente La Mujer" -- the Spanish version for "What It Feels Like for a Girl" (2001) -- "Sorry" (2005) and "Spanish Lesson" from "Hard Candy" (2008).
Madonna has reportedly described "La Isla Bonita" as her tribute to the "beauty and mystery of Latin American people."
The Latin influence spilled over into Madonna's personal life so much so that she fell for her Cuban personal trainer Carlos Leon. The former couple had a daughter, Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon, who also goes by the name, "Lola."
Besides the Madonna connection to the island of San Pedro, Belize as a country has a lot to offer. It's bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the south and west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
Belize is the only Central American country with English as its official language, however there is a variety of Spanish, Creole, and Maya spoken there as well. Spanish is widely spoken as the major ethnic group of Belize is now Latino. Most Belizeans are fully bilingual in English and Spanish, and almost everyone speaks and understands Creole, an English-derived dialect.
With a close to one million tourists who reportedly visit Belize annually, 70 percent of tourists are North Americans. Cruise ships often pay a visit to its major harbors.
Deep sea divers can explore the Blue Hole, visit the quaint, bike-only, laid back island of Caye Caulker and hikers or history enthusiasts can take a trip to the many Mayan archaeological sites, including Corozal, Altun Ha and Lamanai.
I ventured to the Cayo District to the charming little town of San Ignacio and made the worthwhile trek to Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), also known locally as "Xibalba" or ATM, an incredible Mayan archaeological site that includes skeletons, ceramics and stoneware. To complete my Mayan experience, I also visited Guatemala's famous archaeological site, Tikal National Park, which is "considered the largest excavated site in the American continent" and "Guatemala's most famous cultural and natural preserve."
Although my Mayan adventures and stay at the laid-back, tropical island paradise are over and the cold weather will soon be approaching, my mind will be able to escape for a few minutes to Belize when listening to Madonna's "La Isla Bonita."
Like in the song, "And when the samba played, the sun would set so high, ring through my ears and sting my eyes, your Spanish lullaby..." In my case, I'm thinking the sting was when reality came rushing back to me upon my arrival to New York City. Oh well, "it all seems like yesterday, not far away..."
Let's go back to the '80s and relive the beauty of "La Isla Bonita" in Madonna's 1987 hit video below.