A former colony called British Honduras is emerging as one of Central America's fastest growing eco-tourism destinations. From jungles to jaguars, mountains to Mayan ruins, beaches to blue holes, Belize has a little bit of everything. So much so, that deciding to go to Belize is the easy part--it's figuring out where to go in Belize that's the hard part. While there's no shortage of things to do, for divers the main selling point is the immense barrier reef--the hemisphere's longest--that lies just offshore and runs the entire length of the country, for 190 miles. Where to go? We've divided Belize into three geographic regions--Ambergris and the Cayes, the Atolls and Southern Belize. The choice is yours.
Ambergris and the Cayes
Just off the bottom of southeastern Mexico hangs Ambergris Caye, detached from the Yucatan Peninsula by a small channel hand-dug by the early Mayans. Ambergris is the largest and most developed of the nearly 200 cayes that lie off Belize's eastern shore. San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris, is reminiscent of Mexican seaside resorts, much like the Cancun of decades ago. Here, the roads are dirt, the cafes are beachside and dive shacks are on the beach.
Ambergris's rank as Belize's major dive destination is bolstered by its proximity to the barrier reef, which lies just a quarter-mile beyond the beach. The barrier reef starts just five miles north of the Mexican border and nearly collides with Ambergris during its southbound trajectory. The sites are so near shore that diving is just a suiting-up and mask-clearing away. Full-day escapes to the atolls are also possible on fast dive boats from Ambergris. The island is perfect for divers who are a little gregarious and are looking for some great diving with a little nightlife and shopping thrown in, with all the "conveniences" of a town.
Just south of San Pedro are a few more cayes popular with tourists, including Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel and St. George's Caye. Far less visited and much mellower than Ambergris, these cayes are the domain of small guesthouses and inns, where the focus is on total relaxation and diving the barrier reef just offshore.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Mayan for "Little Channel," was established in 1987 at the southern end of Ambergris and was Belize's first marine park. The three-square-mile sanctuary includes Shark Ray Alley, Belize's signature big animal encounter. For years, fishermen would clean their catch at the cut in the reef here, attracting throngs of sharks and rays. Now, a 15-minute boat ride puts you in the water with tame nurse sharks and hungry stingrays. Currents can be strong, so be alert and stay with your group.
Three of the four only true atolls in the hemisphere, Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glover's Reef (Mexico's Chinchorro Banks is the other), lie just over the horizon from the mainland, beyond the barrier reef. These living rings of mangroves and reefs aren't volcanic like Pacific atolls; they're the result of years of coral build-up. If you're looking to dive your brains out and get away from it all, you've found the right place. There's little to do besides dive, eat, sleep and explore the atolls--and the back of your eyelids in a hammock. Take a book and don't worry about answering your cell phone. You'll find glorious isolation from the tourist mainstream above water, and fish-thick coral walls that plummet 3,000 feet below.
Turneffe Islands Atoll is the largest of Belize's atolls, and closest to the mainland. Turneffe boasts excellent drop-offs and shallow coral gardens, as well as some of the finest fishing in Belize. Lighthouse Reef is the farthest from the mainland, and home to the much touted Blue Hole. Glover's Reef Atoll is the most remote and least visited of the three, and was recently designated a World Heritage Site.
The southern half of Belize is witnessing a gold rush--and the payoff is in the form of tourists. This is the country's fastest growing region, the kind of place you actually see growing if you return every year. Luxurious eco-resorts are popping up all along the coast south of Belize City, in places that just a decade ago were outside the Belize tourist mainstream--Dangriga, Hopkins, Stann Creek and Placencia.
In Southern Belize, the barrier reef starts peeling away from the mainland, and lies about 20 miles offshore. Dive resorts in the south compensate with faster boats. But the flip side of the remoteness is that out here, divers have the reef all to themselves, and probably won't bump into other divers. There is also a larger shallow area, meaning snorkelers have more to enjoy down here as well. You've got an excellent chance of seeing whale sharks along the southern barrier reef especially between April and June, when they come inside the reef to feed on the spawn of cubera snapper.
Belize's Best Dives
2. Mata Cut & Mexico Rocks: Two cuts in the reef a half-hour north of San Pedro, these two shallow sites boast coral heads, a small wreck and tons of fish.
3. Tackle Box Canyons: A deeper site directly off San Pedro that offers canyons, caverns and cuts in the barrier reef.
4. Caye Caulker North Channel: This cut in the barrier reef witnesses the daily passage of pelagic fish, sea turtles and spotted eagle rays.
5. The Elbow: Among Belize's most acclaimed wall dives, this drop-off at Turneffe's southern tip is a busy intersection of currents, divers and big honking fish--your odds are good for seeing pelagics here, including big schools of jacks and permit.
6. The Blue Hole: A thousand feet in diameter and nearly 450 feet deep, the Blue Hole is one of the most heavily marketed sites in Belize. Operators have begun chumming the top of the hole's gaping maw, bringing in loads of reef and bull sharks.
7. Half Moon Caye: The walls here are shot through with tunnels and swim-throughs, packed with huge barrel and tube sponges, and monster grouper. Go ashore to see one of the world's largest red-footed booby colonies.
8. Glover's Reef: Out of reach for Ambergris Caye day boats, rarely dived Glover's boasts thick bushes of black coral, and burly groupers enjoy peace and quiet along 50 miles of reef and walls.
9. Laughing Bird Caye: This is perhaps Belize's most popular diving and snorkeling area, where southern resort boats disgorge their passengers to laze on the beach, snorkel and enjoy a picnic lunch. If you've brought tanks, you'll find tranquility on the reefs offshore, and undulating anemones, tunicates bunched like grapes, pulsing moon jellies, spotted eagle rays and lobsters in nearly every nook.
10. Carrie Bow Caye: The Smithsonian Institution has a research station here, and offshore, a shallow spur and groove reef is punctuated by elkhorn and star coral. Lots of macro life hides in the nooks and crannies, and tarpon, jacks and eagle rays hang in the blue.
This sinkhole 40 miles off Placencia is an ancient collapsed cave that is now packed with sharks. The entrance to the submerged chamber lies at 40 feet, dropping down to a sandy bottom at just over 100 feet, where nurse sharks circle the small sand mound at the bottom of the cave.
Belize's Live-aboard Option
If you want to maximize your diving time in Belize, live-aboards are an excellent option. A handful of vessels operated by the Aggressor Fleet, Peter Hughes Diving and Nekton Diving Cruises ply the atoll dive sites. Live-aboards allow you to dive the atolls morning, noon and night.
Belize can be chilled by "northers," cold fronts that blow in November through January, reducing vis and bringing rougher weather. Keep in mind that the water is always clearest outside the barrier reef.
The vis varies at sites off Ambergris and the cayes, but it's generally decent. Typical visibility ranges from 50 to 100 feet. Vis off the atolls is usually excellent, often above 100 feet, but it's best April to June. In Southern Belize, visibility peaks in spring around 100 feet, but northerly winds can lower it and bring rougher seas November through January.
Expect typical Caribbean water temperatures, ranging from the mid-70Fs in winter to low to mid-80Fs in summer. Bring at least a Lycra skin to ward off coral abrasions.
Staying Healthy and Safe
Belize has a well-developed tourism infrastructure, particularly in Belize City, the Cayo District and on the northern cayes. Unless you plan on doing back-country jungle trekking, you don't need to worry about contracting a tropical disease.
DRINKING WATER: Most travelers opt for bottled water, even though you may see people drinking tap water.
CRIME: Belize City used to have a reputation for crime and petty theft, but has cleaned up its act. You're as safe in the national capital as you are in any medium-size U.S. city. Belize City has made great efforts to put more police officers on the streets, and the difference is visible. Nonetheless, take commonsense precautions--such as not walking around alone at night--and you'll be just fine.
MOSQUITOES: An anti-malarial such as Lariam may be overkill, but you'll definitely want to bring some bug repellent to ward off biting pests. Give yourself a margin of safety against mosquito-borne ailments.
HAZARDOUS MARINE LIFE: You're more likely to get injured by fire coral than you are by the nurse sharks and stingrays of Hol Chan, so wear at least a Lycra skin, even in summer, and keep your hands off the reef.
GUATEMALA: Don't drive your rental car across the border into Guatemala. Insurance won't cover theft or damage there. Take a guided bus tour--it's safer, more informative and cheaper.
Packing for Belize
Keep the airborne critters at bay with insect repellent. Take a light windbreaker for rainy days and post-dive boat rides that can get a little chilly. Put small locks on the zippers of your luggage to discourage theft. If you'll be making domestic flights in Belize, take earplugs, as the little puddle-jumpers can get noisy. Small binoculars are a good idea for jungle walks to spot animals in the canopy, and sneakers are perfect for climbing up steps at the Mayan ruins. Dry bags (available at most dive or camping stores) will keep your camera and wallet dry on the dive boat, and T-shirts dry on rainy jungle hikes.
Puddle-Jumping Around Belize
Two domestic air carriers have Belize covered--Tropic Air and Maya Island Air. Tropic Air serves Belize City, San Pedro, Corozal, Dangriga, Placencia, Punta Gorda and Caye Caulker, as well as Flores in Guatemala, with Cessna Caravans. Tropic Air also arranges air/land day and overnight tours of the magnificent ruins at Tikal in Guatemala and flights over the awe-inspiring Blue Hole offshore, both departing from San Pedro. Maya Island Air serves Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel, San Pedro, Placencia, Dangriga, Corozal Town and Belize City with several seven- to 13-passenger propeller aircraft.
What is now modern-day Belize was once the geographic heart of the Mayan civilization. While the ruins of Belize are not as large as some of the better-known sites in Central America--such as Palenque or Chichen Itza--there are several fascinating sites, from Altun Ha to Xunantunich. Here are a few worth checking out:
ALTUN HA: Just outside Belize City, Altun Ha is the country's most thoroughly excavated Mayan site.
CARACOL: In the remote southwest of the country, the site's largest pyramid, the Canaa, or "Sky Palace," remains Belize's tallest manmade structure.
LAMANAI: One of the Mayan world's longest continuously occupied sites--more than 3,000 years.
XUNANTUNICH: Straddling the border with Guatemala in the western Cayo District, this ancient regional capital is accessible only by hand-powered river ferry.
Black "eye" spots near the base of their tail give adversaries a false target when attacking. Average length: 3 to 4 inches. Max depth: 60 feet.
These fish are--go figure--deep blue, and distinctly oval-shaped. Average length: 5 to 10 inches. Max depth: 60 feet.
Reminiscent of a traffic signal, they have a reddish belly and tail, yellow crescent on tail and greenish body. Average length: 1 to 1 1/2 feet. Max depth: 80 feet.
As if it were dipped in chocolate, the front half of this fish is black and the aft section white. Average length: 2 to 3 1/2 inches. Max depth: 80 feet.
Brilliant blue with a forked, black-edged tail. Average length: 3 to 4 inches. Max depth: 80 feet.
Silvery body with long yellow stripe that runs back to the tail. Average length: 1 to 2 feet. Max depth: 60 feet.
Magenta toward the front, yellow toward the tail. Average length: 3 inches. Max depth: 200 feet.
Distinguished by a bright blue head, white ring surrounded by two black rings, and a blue-green rear section. Average length: 4 to 5 inches. Max depth: 80 feet.
An angelfish with yellow head and tail, and yellow border ringing a black body. Average length: 5 to 8 inches. Max depth: 80 feet.
A bright cigar-shaped fish with a yellow head; dark purple, green and blue hues toward the tail. Average length: 5 to 6 inches. Max depth: 50 feet.