Beyond Belize's immense barrier reef lie the country's atolls, including Lighthouse Reef, easternmost of the three.
My daughter and I are having an argument. All the signs in the universe are telling us to snorkel, but Dorothy wants to study. It's two hours before our next dive, we're sitting in comfortable chaises on a tropical beach, and I'm watching the surf break on the hemisphere's second longest reef, just a quarter mile away. From the corner of my eye, I can see the resort's sit-on-top kayaks. They seem to beckon.
I'm a reasonable man.
"I'll give you a choice," I say. "Snorkel, or close your eyes and relax."
"No," she says mildly, shifting an impossibly thick study guide for an advanced placement exam in environmental science. Dorothy, who starts college in the fall, apparently doesn't see the irony in immersing herself in a book on the environment while generous numbers of barracuda and stingrays swim by, almost literally under our noses.
My parental authority is being challenged here, but Dorothy has the moral upper hand. It's our third day on Belize's Ambergris Caye, and we've taken full advantage of one of the most compact places for a vacation. Although we haven't left our pretty little resort, Journey's End, we've done more things than you could do within an hour's drive of most places:
- Dorothy has made her referral dives through the operation located on the premises of the resort, and proudly earned her certification. One of them was in Mata Cut, where we swam through dramatic coral formations swarming with sergeant majors.
- I've had a healthy number of Belikins, Belize's beer, plus a few piña coladas spiked with One Barrel, Belize's excellent rum.
- Dorothy has stood on the roof of the staff buildings and watched crocodiles in the lagoon behind the resort.
- I have canoed solo for five miles through that same lagoon, which swarmed with bonefish. Fishermen should be clamoring to get to this place, but I didn't see a soul.
- We have raced through four novels between the two of us.
- We have dived in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, home of the popular and aptly named Shark-Ray Alley, at night, during the full moon, in muscular current.
- We have walked for some miles along a mostly undeveloped beach, seeing many signs offering cheap real estate.
- We have sat for an hour and a half at a dining table on the edge of a deck over the beach, smearing huevos rancheros on our plates to attract flies for the lizard hunt. (People will tell you that Ambergris is the kind of time-free place where type-A people find themselves staring for more than an hour at a lizard. It's entirely true.)
- And we have already kayaked out to the reef, tied to a mooring, and snorkeled among stingrays and spiny lobsters and eels. The coral here almost breaks the water's surface, and we snorkeled carefully through the mazes.
And that was in just three days, without leaving the resort. Dorothy should have been studying for her exam already, but I have talked her out of it each time she tries. OK, I'm a terrible influence on her. So, I let her study and walk off to chat with the bartender in the large, shady outdoor bar.
You meet a great mix of people on Ambergris. Belize touts itself as the only English-speaking country in Central America, and it seems as though every native speaks it. But Spanish is their first language, and the food has a deep Mexican influence. Many of the guests we meet are Americans, but a good third are from other Latin American countries, especially Guatemala and Mexico. There is no better place on earth than a bar in Belize to attempt to revive three years of dormant high school Spanish. Intending to order a virgin piña colada, I somehow end up with a fruit drink aggressively spiked with rum. The bartender looks hurt when I leave without touching it and run to the dock. Dorothy is there already. This time Steve, the shop's divemaster, is taking us to Tackle Box Canyons.
Steve looks everything you would hope for in a modern-day pirate: raggedy cutoff Boston Red Sox shirt, enormous earrings, and a mouth full of gold teeth that glitter when he smiles, which is often. His outfit seems to be the island's standard predive attire. Nearly everyone we meet, from the waiters to the water taxi drivers, are divers, and, unless they are in uniform, they make an honest attempt to dress down.
The Journey's End divemasters like to use sardines as chum, and Steve takes a generous amount for our dive, attracting even more sergeant majors than we've seen before. He leads us down through deep reef canyons, where we peer into crevices for lobsters and eels. Dorothy practices swimming upside down. I never knew that someone could smile so widely through a regulator. "Isn't diving relaxin?" Steve says when we're back on the boat.
Having behaved virtuously on our third day, Dorothy is ready to move on our fourth day. She wants to catch the action in San Pedro. The action, as it turns out, isn't in town. "You like to go fast?" asks the captain of the little water taxi that meets us at the Journey's End dock.
He yanks the stick back and we roar down the coast, getting soaked, watching the blur of the coast, tearing by the thatched huts of one of the resorts where "Temptation Island" was filmed, and getting deposited at San Pedro, where lazy barracudas take the shade.
The barracudas have the local vibe down pat. There's a certain bustle to the town--the three dirt streets are crowded with electric carts, the island's favored form of land transport--but you wouldn't go to Ambergris for the nightlife. We have lunch at Fido's ("Pronounced Feedo's," the waiters' T-shirts say), an open-air restaurant with a giant thatched roof and a pair of Belizean folk singers. Next to the restaurant is an art shop run by a pleasant Englishwoman. We buy the requisite souvenirs, and take a water taxi back to Journey's End. We've had enough to do without going anywhere else.
More than enough: We don't get the chance to dive Blue Hole, Belize's most famous dive. Nor do we visit the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha, or tube through a cave on the mainland. As we board a little Tropic Air for the 15-minute flight back to Belize City after five days at Journey's End, it occurs to me that I can't account for all the time we have wasted.
Which, come to think of it, makes it the perfect vacation.
|While diving Lighthouse Reef in Belize you may get to say hello to Honey, a social bottlenose dolphin.|
Beyond Ambergris: Southern Belize
For decades, most divers arriving in Belize would immediately depart Belize City for Ambergris and points north. Lately, many are heading south, to resorts near the towns of Dangriga, Hopkins, Stann Creek and Placencia. Though farther from the barrier reef--about an hour-long boat ride, in most cases--the resorts in southern Belize have the reef to themselves, and you've got about as good a chance of seeing a whale shark as you do another resort's dive boat.
DIVE OPPORTUNITIES: Laughing Bird Caye is a relatively popular lunch and snorkel spot for day-trippers, but you'll be one of the few divers on its colorful and sublime faro reef system at sites like Brian's Drop-off and Lobster Gardens. Seal Caye and Hunting Caye are among the sites in the Sapodilla Cayes, 25 miles east of Punta Gorda in the extreme south, where divers are rare, and big marlin, wahoo, tuna and grouper are common.
DON'T-MISS FAMILY OUTING: Put on your pith helmet--the Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary just west of Hopkins is the world's only jaguar preserve.
Beyond Ambergris: Belize's Atolls
Three large atolls--Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glovers--are three of the only four atolls in the entire western hemisphere and loom 30 to 60 miles off Belize's eastern horizon. They are completely devoid of urban development and are the stuff that "no phones, no lights, no motorcars" dreams are made of. If you want to sample their pleasures, you've got three choices: spend a week on a live-aboard (the Belize Aggressor III, Peter Hughes' Sun Dancer II and Nekton Pilot, which transfers here in winter from the Bahamas), stay in one of the atoll-based resorts (Blackbird Caye, Turneffe Flats, Turneffe Island Lodge and others) or visit with a land-based operator from the mainland (several in Ambergris, in the northern cayes and the southern resorts make the journey) on an all-day trip.
DIVE OPPORTUNITIES: Some of the Caribbean's wildest dives happen here, at sites like The Elbow--reminiscent of pelagic-heavy Pacific sites--a drop-off where currents, schools of jacks and divers all come together. The 412-foot-deep Blue Hole is cool (especially since operators started chumming it for sharks), but don't miss nearby Half Moon Caye, where the walls are riddled with tunnels and swim-throughs, and barrel sponges and grouper are fat and happy. Southernmost Glovers Reef gets the fewest divers but hoards the riches, more than 50 miles of coral reefs and walls.
DON'T-MISS FAMILY OUTING: This is flyfishing heaven--cast for bonefish, permit and tarpon in the shallows. If you don't fish, you can kayak the mangrove channels instead.
Climate: Subtropical, which means pretty warm year-round. The coast, cayes and atolls enjoy a brisk prevailing wind from the Caribbean, which moderates the heat.
Water Temps: Mid-70Fs in winter and low to mid-80Fs in summer. Wear at least a Lycra skin to ward off coral abrasions.
Visibility: Off Ambergris, it's variable, though generally decent. The visibility off the atolls is rarely bad, but it's best from April to June. Vis off southern Belize peaks in spring, but northerly winds can lower vis and bring rougher seas November through January. The water is always clearest outside the barrier reef.
Documents: Passport and proof of return is required.
Money Matters: The Belize dollar (BZ$) trades at BZ$2 to US$1. Credit cards and traveler's checks are accepted throughout the country. There is a $20 departure tax.
Time: The same as Central Standard Time in the U.S. Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Electricity: The same as in the U.S. and Canada--110 volts, 60 cycles--and the country uses the North American-style 2-pin plug.
For More Info: Belize Tourism Board, web: www.travelbelize.org.