3 Best Tropical Vacation Spots
Going to Belize is like going back in time, one of the best tropical vacation spots to see some natural wonders
Ambergris Caye is Belize’s principal sun-and-fun destination. Though Ambergris Caye continues to attract primarily scuba divers and fishermen, it is becoming popular with a wide range of folks who like the slow-paced atmosphere, including an increasing number of snowbirds, expatriates, and retirees. In Belize English is the most used language followed by Spanish. While certainly not akin to big-city traffic, golf carts and automobiles are proliferating and constantly force pedestrians and bicycle riders to the sides of the road. In fact, the ongoing boom has actually led to gridlock. During peak hours, the downtown area of San Pedro is a jumble of golf carts, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, all moving at a rather slow pace. Development has reached both ends of Ambergris Caye, and steady construction appears destined to fill in the blanks from north to south.
SCUBA DIVING & SNORKELING Just offshore of Ambergris Caye is the longest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing are the main draws here. All are consistently spectacular. Within a 10- to 20-minute boat ride from the piers lie scores of world-class dive sites , including Mexico Rocks, Mata Rocks, Tackle Box, Tres Cocos, Esmeralda, Cypress Tunnel, and Rocky Point. A day’s diving will almost always feature a mix of steep wall drops and coral caverns and tunnels. You’ll see brilliant coral and sponge formations, as well as a wealth of marine life. There are scores of dive operators in San Pedro, and almost every hotel can arrange a dive trip, either because they have their own dive shop or because they subcontract out.
The crystal-clear waters, calm seas, and isolated anchorages and snorkeling spots all around Ambergris Caye make this an excellent place to go out for a sail. Your options range from crewed yachts and bareboat charters for multiday adventures, to day cruises and sunset sails. A day cruise, including lunch, drinks, and snorkeling gear, should run between BZ$180 and BZ$300 per person. BZ$ stands for Belize Dollar which is about .53cents in U.S. currency, so roughly one half, $100.00 Belize dollars is about $53.00 US dollars currently. Most hotels and tour operators around town can hook you up with a day sail or sunset cruise.
If you’re hesitant to take a tank plunge, don’t miss a chance to at least snorkel. There’s good snorkeling all along the protected side of the barrier reef, but some of the best is at Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve , which are about 6km (33⁄4 miles) southeast of San Pedro. Shark- Ray Alley provides a nice adrenaline rush for all but the most nonchalant and experienced divers. Here you’ll be able to snorkel above and between schools of nurse sharks and stingrays. Hol chan is a Mayan term meaning “little channel,” which is exactly what you’ll findthe shallow coral reef. Some of the more exciting residents of the area are large, green moray eels; stingrays; nurse sharks; and giant grouper. The walls of the channel are popular with divers, and the shallower areas are frequented by snorkelers. Most combination trips to Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve last about 21⁄2 to 3 hours, and cost around BZ$80 to BZ$150 For more adventurous and truly top-rate diving, you’ll probably want to head out to the Turneffe Island Atoll , Lighthouse Reef , and Blue Hole .
Most of the dive operations on the island offer this trip, or will subcontract it out. You’ll definitely want to choose a seaworthy, speedy, and comfortable boat. Most day trips out to Turneffe Island or Lighthouse Reef and Blue Hole run around BZ$350 to BZ$650 per person, including transportation, two or three dives, and tanks and weights, as well as lunch and snacks. All the above-mentioned operators offer day and multiday trips to the outer atoll islands and reefs. Prices average around BZ$700 to BZ$1,100 for a 2-day trip, BZ$900 to BZ$1,600 for a 3-day trip.
Ambergris Caye is also a great place to learn how to dive. In 3 to 4 days, you can get your full open-water certification. These courses run between BZ$650 and BZ$900, including all equipment rentals, class materials, and the processing of your certification, as well as four open-water and reef dives. All of the above-mentioned dive centers, as well as many of the individual resorts here, offer these courses.
There are a host of boats offering snorkeling trips, and most of the above dive operators also offer snorkel trips and equipment rental. Trips to other sites range in price from BZ$30 to BZ$60 for short jaunts, to half-day outings, and BZ$100 to BZ$140 for full-day trips. One of the operators who specialize in snorkeling trips here is the very personable Alfonse Graniel and his launch Li’l Alfonse ( 501-226- 3136 firstname.lastname@example.org). Another good snorkel operator is Grumpy & Happy 501-226-3420; www.grumpyandhappy.com), a husband-and-wife team that offers private personalized outings. Snorkel gear is available from most of the above operators and at several other sites around town. A full set of mask, fins, and snorkel will usually cost BZ$16 to BZ$30 per person per day.
Tip: Hol Chan and Shark-Ray Alley are extremely popular. If you really want to enjoy them, try to find a boat leaving San Pedro at or before 8am, and head first to Shark-Ray Alley. Most boats dive Hol Chan first, and this is the best way to get a dive with the greatest concentration of nurse sharks and stingrays. By all means, avoid snorkeling or diving these sites at times when the cruise ships are running excursions there. Alternatively, you may want to consider visiting a different snorkeling site, such as Mexico Rocks Coral Gardens, Tres Cocos, or Mata Rocks, where the snorkeling is just as good, if not better, and you’re more likely to have the place to yourself.
WINDSURFING, PARASAILING & WATERCRAFT Ambergris Caye is a good place for beginning and intermediate windsurfers. The nearly constant 15- to 20-knot trade winds are perfect for learning on and easy cruising. The protected waters provide some chop, but are generally pretty gentle on beginning board sailors. If you’re looking to do some windsurfing, or to try the latest adrenaline boost of kiteboarding, your best bet is to check in with the folks at Sail Sports Belize 501-226-4488; www.sailsportsbelize.com). Sailboard rentals run around BZ$44 to BZ$54 per hour, or BZ$100 to BZ$140 per day. Kite board rentals run BZ$110 for a half-day, and BZ$164 for a full day. Weekly rates are also available. These folks also rent out several types of small sailboats for cruising around close to shore.
Most resort hotels here have their own collection of all or some of the above mentioned watercraft. Rates run around BZ$40 to BZ$70 per hour for a Hobie Cat, small sailboat, or windsurfer, and BZ$60 to BZ$80 per hour for a jet ski. If not, Sail Sports Belize (see above) is your best bet.
While Caye Caulker is no longer the secret hideaway of a few happy hippie backers and chosen cognoscenti, it remains the epitome of a small, isolated, and laid-back Caribbean getaway. Unlike in
neighboring San Pedro, you won’t find any gridlock traffic here, or be run off the road by cars and golf carts. In fact, golf cart traffic is relatively light, with flip-flops and bicycles fulfilling most of the transportation needs.
Let’s hope it stays that way. Still, Caye Caulker has begun to experience some of the effects of the boom going on just to the north on Ambergris Caye. There’s more development on either end of the island, and the long-neglected northern section of Caye Caulker—across the Split—is starting to be developed.
The main activities on Caye Caulker itself are strolling up and down the sand streets, and swimming and sunbathing off the docks. The most popular spot is at the north end of the island by the Split . The Split was formed in 1961 when Hurricane Hattie literally split the island in two. Take care when swimming off the docks here. The split is an active channel with regular boat traffic. Also, when the tides are running strong, there’s quite a bit of current through the split and it’s easy to get dragged along for a few hundred yards or so. If you do get caught in this current, treat it like any riptide: Don’t panic, and swim diagonally across the current to get out of it. Aside from the split, there is not much beach to speak of on the rest of the island.
There is a narrow strip of sand for much of the length of the island, where the land meets the sea, but even at low tide it isn’t wide enough for you to unroll a beach towel on in most places. In fact, along most of its length this is a small bike and footpath that is probably the busiest thoroughfare on Caye Caulker. Several of the hotels have built long piers out into the sea, with steps down into the water, and swimming is best here.
WATER KAYAKS & OTHER WATERCRAFT
The calm protected waters just offshore are wonderful for any number of watersports vehicles. Several hotels and tour operators around Caye Caulker have various types of watercraft for guest use, or general rental. Rates run around BZ$20 to BZ$30 per hour for a kayak, BZ$40 to BZ$60 per hour for a Hobie Cat or small sailboat, and BZ$60 to BZ$80 per hour for a jet ski.
KITESURFING & SAILBOARDING With strong, steady, but not overpowering winds, Caye Caulker is a great place to learn or practice kitesurfing. The folks at Kitexplorer 501-626-4513 www.kitexplorer.com) rent out both kitesurfing and sailboarding equipment. They also offer an intensive 9-hour course in kitesurfing for BZ$740 that is guaranteed to get you up and skimming across the sea.
SAILING The crystal-clear waters, calm seas, and excellent snorkeling spots around Caye Caulker make this an excellent place to go out for a sail. Unlike on Ambergris Caye, there are no organized bareboat charters available here, but you can go out on any number of different vessels for a half- or full-day sail, a sunset cruise, a moonlight cruise, or a combined sailing and snorkeling adventure. A day cruise, including lunch, drinks, and snorkeling gear, should run between BZ$100 and BZ$240 per person; a half-day tour including drinks, a snack, and snorkeling gear should cost between BZ$70 and BZ$120. Most hotels and tour operators around town can hook you up with an appropriate captain and craft. Or you can head out on the Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan tour with Raggamuffin Tours 501-226-0348 www.raggamuffintours.com).
SCUBA DIVING & SNORKELING
There’s excellent diving and snorkeling close to Caye Caulker. Within a 5- to 20-minute boat ride from the pier lie a couple of world-class dive sites, including Caye Caulker North Cut, Coral Gardens, Pyramid Flats, Sponge Avenue, and Amigos Wreck. A day’s diving here will almost always feature a mix of steep wall drops and coral caverns and tunnels. Western Belize, from the capital city of Belmopan to the Guatemalan border, is a land of rolling hills, dense jungles, abundant waterfalls, clear rivers, extensive caves, and numerous Maya ruins. This region was the heart of the Belizean Maya world, with the major ruins of Caracol, Xunantunich, and El Pilar, as well as lesser sites like Cahal Pech. At the height of the Classic Maya period, there were more residents in this area than in all of modern Belize.
Today, the Cayo District is the heart of Belize’s ecotourism industry. There are a host of national parks and protected areas. The pine forests and rainforests here are great for hiking and bird-watching; the rivers are excellent for canoeing, kayaking, and inner-tubing; and the dirt roads are perfect for horseback riding and mountain biking.
The cave systems of the Cayo District were sacred to the ancient Maya, and many of them are open for exploration by novice and experienced spelunkers alike. Some of the more popular underground attractions include Actun Tunichil Muknal, Barton Creek Cave, Chechem Ha, Crystal Cave, and the Río Frío Cave. Of particular interest is the Caves Branch River, which provides the opportunity to float on an inner tube, kayak, or canoe through a series of caves. In the foothills of the mountains close to the Guatemalan border lie the sister towns of Santa Elena and San Ignacio, which are set on either side of the beautiful Macal River. For all intents and purposes, San Ignacio is the more important town, both in general terms and particularly for travelers. Just north of town, the Macal and Mopan rivers converge to form the Belize River.
The Cayo District is in the heart of the Maya highlands, with several major ruins and cave systems used by the ancient residents of this region. The most impressive are Xunantunich (on Benque Viejo Rd.) and Caracol . Close by, in Guatemala, lies Tikal , perhaps one of the best excavated and most impressive Maya cities in Mesoamerica .
XUNANTUNICH Although you may have trouble pronouncing it (say “Zoonahn- too-neetch”), Xunantunich is an impressive, well-excavated, and easily accessible Maya site. The name translates as “maiden of the rocks.” The main pyramid here, El Castillo, rises to 38m (125 ft.) and is clearly visible from the Western Highway as you approach. It’s a steep climb, but the view from the top is amazing—don’t miss it. You’ll be able to make out the twin border towns of Benque Viejo, Belize, and Melchor de Menchos, Guatemala. On the east side of the pyramid, near the top, is a remarkably well-preserved stucco frieze. Down below in the temple forecourt, archaeologists found three magnificent stelae portraying rulers of the region. These have been moved to the protection of the small, on-site museum, yet the years and ravages of weather have made most of the carvings difficult to decipher. Xunantunich was a thriving Maya city about the same time as Altun Ha, in the Classic Period, about a.d. 600 to 900. The visitor center at the entrance contains a beautiful scale model of the old city, as well as a replica of the original frieze. Open daily from 8am to 4pm, the site charges an admission of BZ$10. Xunantunich is 10km (61⁄4 miles) past San Ignacio on the road to Benque Viejo. To reach the ruins, you must cross the Mopan River aboard a tiny hand-cranked car ferry in the village of San José Succotz. After you’ve crossed the river, it’s a short, but dusty and vigorous, uphill walk to the ruins. If you have your own vehicle, you can take it across on the ferry and drive right to the ruins. To get here by bus, take any bus bound for Benque Viejo and get off in San José Succotz.
Caracol (www.caracol.org) is the largest known Maya archaeological site in Belize, and one of the great Maya city-states of the Classic era (a.d. 250–950). At one point, Caracol supported a population of over 150,000. Caracol, which means “snailor snail shell” in Spanish, gets its name from the large number of snail shells found here during early explorations. Caracol has revealed a wealth of informative carved glyphs that have allowed archaeologists to fill in much of the history of this once-powerful city-state. Glyphs here claim Caracol defeated Tikal in a.d. 562 and Naranjo in 631. One of the earliest temples here was built in a.d. 70, and the Caracol royal family has been officially chronicled since 331. The last recorded date on a glyph is 859, and archaeologists conclude that by 1050 Caracol had been completely abandoned.
Caracol is open daily from 8am to 4pm; admission is BZ$15. There’s a small visitor center at the entrance, and a guide can sometimes be hired here, although most visitors come with their own guide as part of an organized tour. Caracol is about 81km (50 miles) along a dirt road from the Western Highway. Actually, the final 16km (10 miles) into the park are paved. Plan on the drive taking about 2 hours, or more if the road is in bad shape. A visit to Caracol is often combined with a stop at the Río On Pools, or some of the other attractions in the Mountain Pine Ridge area.
WATERFALLS Waterfalls are abundant in this region. Perhaps my favorite is the falls found at the Río On Pools . This is a series of falls and pools somewhat reminiscent of Ocho Ríos in Jamaica. There’s an entrance hut and parking lot when you enter the area. From here, some concrete steps lead straight down a steep hill to the base of the falls. While the views and swimming are fine at the bottom, it’s a strenuous hike back up, and I think you’ll find better pools and views by hiking a few minutes upstream. Here you’ll find numerous pools and rapids flowing between big rocks. Many of these rocks are perfect for sunbathing. The Río On Pools are around Mile Marker 181⁄2 of the Pine Ridge Road. There’s no entrance fee.
You can also visit the Five Sister Falls , a lovely series of cascading falls, that divide into five distinct side-by-side cascades just above the riverside beach and bar area of the Five Sisters Lodge. If you are not staying at the lodge, you may visit the falls for BZ$10. The hotel has a little beach area and several natural swimming holes, near the base of the falls. There are also some nature trails you can hike, and a small snack bar, restrooms, and changing facilities. You’ll even find a wonderful open-air thatch palapa on the banks of the river strung with hammocks—a compelling spot for an afternoon siesta.
BARTON CREEK CAVE This is one of the area’s easier caves to explore. The trip is conducted by canoe, and while there are a few tight squeezes and areas with low ceilings, in general you won’t get as wet or claustrophobic here as you will at some of the other caves in Belize. Located beside a small Mennonite community, Barton Creek is navigable for nearly a mile inside the cave. Along the way, by the light of headlamps and strong flashlights, you’ll see wonderful natural formations, a large gallery, and numerous Maya artifacts, including several skeletons believed to be the remains of ritual sacrifices. There’s a BZ$10 fee to visit the site, but that doesn’t include the canoe trip or transportation. If you drive there yourself, you can hire a canoe that holds two passengers, plus the guide, for around BZ$30 to BZ$40. Tours out of San Ignacio average around BZ$100 to BZ$120 per person, not including the entrance fee. Barton Creek Cave is located just off the Pine Ridge Road, about 6km (33⁄4 miles) from the Western Highway.
RIO FRIO CAVE This high vaulted cave is about 180m (600 ft.) long and open at both ends, with a lazy creek flowing through it. There’s a path leading through the cave, and several hiking trails through the forests surrounding it. Along the neighboring trails, you will find other caves that you can venture into. However, be careful and be sure to have a good flashlight. To reach the Río Frío Cave, drive the Pine Ridge Road to Douglas Da Silva Village at about Mile Marker 24. Do not follow the turnoff
for Caracol, but head into the little village. Here you will see signs for the turnoff to the cave. The cave is about a mile outside the village. There’s a small parking area very close to the mouth of the cave and a couple of picnic tables and benches along the river. No admission is charged to visit here.
Southern Belize has only two major towns, Dangriga and Punta Gorda, and one popular beach village, Placencia . For years, this was the least developed region of Belize, but that’s changing quickly. Placencia is arguably the hottest and fastest-growing destination in Belize. And the tiny Garífuna settlement of Hopkins Village is booming. Both Placencia and Hopkins Village offer some of the longest and finest sand beaches to be found in the country. Placencia is at the southern tip of a long, narrow peninsula that is separated from the mainland by a similarly narrow lagoon, and boasts nearly 26km (16 miles) of white sand fronting a calm turquoise sea and backed by palm trees. Placencia attracts everyone from backpackers to naturalists to divers to upscale snowbirds. For years, the village’s principal thoroughfare was a thin concrete sidewalk. Once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the narrowest street in the world, the sidewalk still runs through the heart of the village parallel to the sea. However, the ongoing construction and development boom has made the main road through town (called “the Back Road”) actually the town’s busiest thoroughfare most days.
Offshore, you’ll find some of Belize’s most beautiful cayes and its most remote atoll, Glover’s Reef Atoll . The cayes and barrier reef down here are as spectacular as that found farther north, yet far less developed and crowded. You can literally have an island to yourself down here. Much of the offshore and underwater wonders are protected in reserves, such as the Southwater Caye Marine Reserve, Glover’s Marine Reserve, Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, and Laughing Bird Caye National Park.
FISHING Fishing around here is some of the best in Belize. There’s excellent bone-fishing in flats in this area. Anglers can also go for tarpon, permit, and snook, or head offshore for bigger game, including grouper, yellowfin tuna, king mackerel, wahoo, mahimahi, and the occasional sail or marlin. Experienced guides can help you track any of the above fish, and many are taking their guests out fly-fishing for them as well. The folks at Tarpon Caye Lodge (& 501/523-3323; www.tarponcaye lodge.com) who have a small fishing lodge on the remote Tarpon Caye, and have some of the more experienced fishing guides in town, specializing in fishing for permit and tarpon. You can also try Trip ’N Travel 501-523-3614), another longstanding local operation with well-regarded guides.
Several hotels and tour operators in town rent out sea kayaks. The waters just off the beach are usually calm and perfect for kayaking. However, the lagoon is probably a better choice, offering up more interesting mangrove terrain and excellent bird-watching opportunities.
Toadal Adventures 501-523-3207; www.toadaladventure.com). These folks offer several different multiday kayaking trips, both out on the ocean and on inland rivers. Custom trips can also be designed.
The crystal-clear waters, calm seas, and isolated islands surrounding Placencia make this an excellent place to go out for a sail. Your options range from crewed yachts and bareboat charters for multiday adventures to day cruises and sunset sails. A day cruise, including lunch, drinks, and snorkeling gear, should cost between BZ$160 and BZ$300 per person. Most hotels and tour operators around town can arrange a sail or cruise, or you can simply head to the docks, or check in with the folks at Next Wave Sailing 501-661-3744).
SNORKELING & SCUBA DIVING
There’s often decent snorkeling right off the beach, especially if you head north a mile or so. The water’s clear and you’ll see plenty of fish and bottom life in the sea grass and along the sand bottom. One of the more popular snorkel excursions is to the nearby Laughing Bird Caye 501-523-3565; www.laughingbird.org). Just a few miles offshore from Placencia, Laughing Bird Caye is a national park. It’s a tiny little island measuring roughly 11×105m (35×350 ft.). There’s good snorkeling and swimming offshore, and a beautiful little beach. A host of tour operators take folks here, and then serve a picnic lunch on the beach.
However, if you’re serious about diving or snorkeling, you’ll want to get out to the barrier reef and its dozens of little offshore cayes. It’s between 16 and 40km (10–25 miles) out to the reef here, making it a relatively quick and easy boat ride.
The offshore Gladden Spit site is a world-renowned spot to dive with massive whale sharks. Whale shark sightings are fairly common here, right around the full moon, from late March to early July, and to a lesser extent during the months of August through October and December and January. If you’re not staying at a hotel with a dedicated dive operation, check in with the folks at Avadon Divers 888-509-5617 in the U.S. and Canada, or 501-503-3377 in Belize; www.avadondiversbelize.com) or Seahorse Dive Shop 501-523-3166; www.belizescuba.com). A snorkeling trip should cost between BZ$60 and BZ$160, depending on the distance traveled and whether lunch is included. Rates for scuba diving run between BZ$120 and BZ$300 for a two-tank dive, also depending on the length of the journey to the dive site and whether gear and lunch are included. Equipment rental should cost from BZ$15 to BZ$30 for a snorkeler, and BZ$30 to BZ$60 for a scuba diver.
GUIDED DAY TRIPS
While the ocean and outlying cayes are the focus of most activities and tours in Placencia, there are a host of other options. The most popular of these include tours to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the Maya ruins of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, and up the Monkey River. Day trips can run between BZ$100 and BZ$300 per person, depending on the distance traveled and the number of activities offered or sites visited. Almost every tour agency in town offers these trips, or ask at your hotel for a recommended guide or operator.
The most popular “inland” trip offered out of Placencia is up the Monkey River , and most of it is actually on the water, anyway. About a half-hour boat ride down the coast and through the mangroves, the Monkey River area is rich in wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might spot a manatee on your way down. Once traveling up the river, keep your eyes peeled for crocodiles, green iguana, wild deer, howler monkeys, and the occasional boa constrictor, as well as scores of bird species. These tours can be done entirely in a motor launch, or may allow you to kayak on the Monkey River portion; I recommend the latter. Most tours include lunch in the quaint little creole fishing village of Monkey River itself, as well as a short hike through a forest trail. Monkey River trips cost between BZ$90 and BZ$120 per person.