The warm breeze of the Caribbean Sea warmed my skin as I sipped on a cool glass of Belikin beer, awaiting the ferry to Ambergris Caye. A place I visited many years before, it would be Andrew's first time to Belize. Belize is home to some of the largest Mayan ruins in Central America with several sites hidden in the jungle throughout the country, it is also home to the Belize barrier reef system and the Great Blue Hole. On this trip we would get to visit both, something I had never done before.
The official language of Belize is English, making it a popular place for Canadians, Americans and Brits. An unspoiled paradise in Central America it has managed to avoid the devastation from over-tourism for many years, making it a truly authentic Caribbean experience.
There are two ways to visit the Island of Ambergris Caye, by small plane or by ferry. Flights are operated every hour by Maya Island Air or Tropic Air, usually around $150 each way make sure you check both airlines for prices and availability. If you don't like small planes or just want to save some money the water taxi is a great option at just $18 to Ambergris Caye it is quite a steal. The Belize Water Taxi offers water taxi service to most of the islands in Belize and even Chetemul near Tulum.
To reach the ferry terminal you can take a taxi from Belize City International Airport to the port downtown which takes about 20 minutes. Getting to Ambergris Caye takes about 2.5 hours on the double decker water taxi.
Feeling a bit under the weather I was hoping for a sunny and comfortable spot on the ferry to rest on our way out to sea. Packed to the brim with people, supplies and some pets we got seats in the back where the breeze could keep us cool. As we pulled out from the port, I watched the birds dancing in the wind. Past mangrove forests and the last remaining houses we motored into the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, the gentle hum of the motors rocking me to sleep. I awoke as we pulled into the island of Caye Caulker, a sleepy island popular with backpackers and budget travelers, just down the coast from Ambergris Caye it is filled with colorful houses and hotels that remind me of a Caribbean version of Burano in Italy. Dropping off people and supplies we were quickly on our way to Ambergris Caye.
Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize and also the most popular place for tourists to visit. From the island it is easy to explore any number of surrounding islands and mainland day tours to Mayan ruins, cave tubing, butterfly gardens and much more can all be booked from the island as well. The island is 25 miles long and just a mere 1.6 miles wide at its widest point. We arrived into San Pedro the only town on the island and hub for food, accommodations and activities.
San Pedro Town
Most of the businesses and hotels are located around San Pedro town. Due to the islands small size, the main options for transport are golf cart and boat, a small amount of cars are on the island, but all are sequestered to the town of San Pedro. Many people talk about these islands as the Caribbean of 40 years ago, a throwback to the days before cruise ships, duty free shops and discount jewelry. You won’t find any chain stores or big brands in Ambergris Caye or its surrounding islands. If you are looking for a great place to stay in town Ramon’s is a great option. The best hotel beach in town it has palapas right on the beach, as well as bar and restaurant where you can even grill your own meat on the tabletop. If diving is on your agenda you will love their onsite diving center where you can rent everything and plan the perfect day out exploring the miles of reef.
San Pedro town has a plethora of restaurants from budget to luxurious, make sure you try El Fogon and Elvi’s Kitchen two of the oldest and most authentic restaurants on the island. Some other favorites are Wild Mangoes, Blue Water Grill, Palmilla and farther up island Mambo and the Rojo Lounge at Matachica, as well as Capricorn.
In recent years boutique hotels and houses have popped up northerly along the coast and are reachable by bicycle, golf cart or boat. With many exclusive hotels having huge swaths of beach and their own private dive centers, we headed to one of the beachfront pubs to await our captain from the Portofino Beach Resort located 6 miles North of town. Weary from a long journey I was feeling much better after a snack and a cold drink.
The trip up island by boat took just 15 minutes. Greeted by the welcoming staff we were offered refreshing tropical juices and a cool towel for our faces. The hotel is owned by a European couple, having an on site restaurant, swimming pool, kayaks, bikes, dive center and spa services. Guests stay in private cabanas or large duplex homes located on the beach. The restaurant serves a mixture of Italian and Belizean flavors. More on Portofino: Watch the Video
Fabulous hotels aside the real reason I was coming back to Ambergris Caye was for the diving. Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef system in the world that stretches from the Yucatan south and covers more than 240 miles. Ambergris Caye is bordered by an atoll that is part of this reef system protecting it from rough seas and large predators. The close proximity of the atoll makes for some of the best snorkeling and diving you can find anywhere in the Caribbean.
One of the best ways to see the reef system and the island is by plane. From the airport in San Pedro there are scheduled daily outings to see the Blue Hole around 11 on both Maya Island Air and Tropic Air. Missing both we decided on chartering a plane for about $600 for two of us and headed out towards the Great Blue Hole about 40 miles from the island. The Great Blue Hole is the largest sunken cave system in the world. Once above the sea it was engulfed by a rising ocean more than 15,000 years ago, these rising waters would have degraded its roof system that one day collapsed creating a hole some 1,000 feet across and 407 feet deep. Flying there we passed over the barrier reef, dozens of islands and atolls and miles of ocean. It was beautiful departing the island it wasn’t long before we saw the Blue Hole, a true abnormality named by Jacques Cousteau in 1971. It is a World Heritage Site and one of the top 5 scuba diving sites in the world.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving
There are 40 snorkeling/dive sites less than a mile from the coast of the island. The most popular are Hol Chan, Shark & Ray Alley to the south and Mexico Rocks to the center. The northern end of the island is great for Macro photography, but all the sites offer an amazing amount of marine life. A variety of soft and hard corals and many different species of swimming and crawling marine life such as the Nassau Grouper, Angel Fish, Lobster and the Stone Crab, as well as turtles, small sharks, eels and rays. With yearly average temperatures around 80 F, one can stay in the water exploring most of the day.
Our first morning we headed out with Chocolate our onsite diving guide to snorkel at Mexico Rocks. Within a moment of jumping in, Andrew came fin to face with a nurse shark. His first encounter with a shark, lucky for him it was a nurse shark “the puppy dogs of the sea.” Not one to panic I was surprised by how calm and collected he remained. I jumped in after him and swam around following our new friend. Before long we were joined by a sea turtle, who was all too curious in investigating us. The shallow reef was home to dozens of lobsters and hundreds of fish, the corals were healthy- a rare site these days, emanating with vibrant colors and other life. A stingray came to wish us well as we departed back to the boat.
Great Blue Hole
After seeing the Blue Hole from the sky it was time to explore its depths from below. Trips to the Blue Hole are full days tours and are available for both open/advanced divers and snorkelers. Divers must have dove in the last 6 months in order to be eligible for diving at depths near 150’. There are not tours out to the Blue Hole everyday so make sure you plan your excursion at the beginning of your trip in case availability changes. We went out with Amigos del Mar but there are a few different companies that offer trips. https://www.amigosdivebelize.com/ Divers $260, Snorkelers $195 includes 3 dives/snorkels and visit to Half Moon Caye Natural Monument with meals.
Trips start early in the morning which means your trip out to sea will be chasing the rising the sun.
The trip out takes several hours. We passed many different islands and headed for the rougher waters of the Sea as we got farther from shore. By the time we reached the Blue Hole it was a wonderful sunny day.
Donning our gear those of us that were diving jumped in the water, while the snorkelers waited eagerly to explore the shallower waters.
The Blue Hole is made of limestone and the shallower depths are full of corals with a sandy white bottom. This abnormality of nature is unlike anything I have ever seen underwater before. Our group of divers descended slowly so that everyone could equalize with the pressure. At around 60' the sandy bottom slowly drops off and down a cliff. We hung to the sandy wall for another 20' , as the sunlight started to fade we were soon in utter darkness. With the beam of the flashlights to follow we descended still further into the depths. At 140' the wall curves back and we entered the remnants of what would have once been a huge cavern. Stalactites hung all around us from the ceiling of this ancient limestone cavern.
We had just seven short minutes to look at these alien formations far under the ocean surface. Looking farther into the middle of the abyss we could make out some big sharks enjoying the cooler waters of the deep. With just one entrance and exit the animals that find their way into the hole often spend a lifetime there.
Soon enough we were heading back to the surface to decompress. While I was diving Andrew had been snorkeling in the shallower waters with small fish and corals. The trip included three tanks of diving and we would be moving to a new dive location once everyone was safely back on the boat. I was excited to see some more sharks, corals and hopefully an Eagle ray.
Dives two and three had an abundance of diverse marine life. The barrier reef has more than 60 species of hard and soft corals. The variations are so unique they are hard to describe. Some look like empty flower vases, while others look like crystallized sugar fanned out and standing up straight. There were corals that looked like tree branches and others that looked like rocks.
Several Caribbean reef sharks of varying sizes cruised nearby, the larger ones staying farther from the reef. A graceful sea turtle swam around us, looking even more peaceful in the deeper waters.
On the third dive we dove near a wall that went down to a few hundred feet deep. Our guide suggested that we avoid swimming too close to the wall for Moray Eels hide in crevasses. After getting distracted following a grouper I got to close to the wall and was startled by the diver behind me screaming. I looked to the wall just in time to see an eel darting right for my face. Remembering that our fins are our defense underwater I stuck mine up and deflected this Moray from giving me a bite. Lesson learned I payed closer attention and noticed several more moray eels as we swam along.
Right before we ascended on our last dive I was rewarded with a treat. I had read about the existence of Eagle Rays in the Belize Barrier Reef, and this was as species I had never seen. To my luck I caught a fleeting movement to my right and noticed an Eagle Ray just leaving the reef. I followed him as much as I could, now my dream for the day had been fulfilled. Eagle Rays are so graceful, with huge outstretched fins that resemble wings that move quickly through the water to be able to pump oxygen through their gills.
Our trip to the Belize Blue hole wasn't quite over. Our last stop would be the island of Half Moon Caye. A Belize Natural Monument. A small island that is home to the largest colony of red footed boobies in the Caribbean. The island is a paradise for these birds whom share it with a thriving population of geckos, iguanas and hermit crabs. Protected as part of the World Heritage Site, not even a grain of sand is allowed to leave the island.
The red footed boobie are a beautiful bird, the island has a viewing platform that allows you to be at the same level with their nests. Lucky for me I was there in December which is nesting season for the birds, and most of them were sitting in their nests protecting freshly laid eggs.
We were allowed to spend about an hour exploring the small island and viewing the birds before heading back to Ambergris Caye.
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