This last April was our first trip to Ambergris Caye and Belize. My wife is not a great swimmer/snorkeller and we had some concerns on what she would have to do on an island that is mainly geared towards diving/snorkelling. We were there for a 9 day stay which would include tours to the mainland. As it turned out, she went snorkelling twice, we went on two mainland tours, and then she spent the remaining days on AC happily tanning and reading novels on the beach in front of our hotel.
When getting to AC, we flew into Belize City and then immediately caught a flight to the island. The plane was a turbo prop aircraft capable of seating about 12 people. They seem to leave every 20 minutes. We would recommend getting to the island this way as it was very quick and scenic from the air. As an option, you can take a boat to the island. They load your luggage aboard the boat but if it is rough on the water, both you and your luggage will likely get a little wet. We later had to take a boat to the mainland which took an hour roughly for the trip and got to compare the two modes of transportation.
Our place of residence was the Banana Beach Resort just 10 minutes south of the town of San Pedro. The hotel was very nice with large spacious/clean rooms. It provides the traveler with the opportunity to rent a golf cart on site as a means of getting into San Pedro and around the island without the use of a taxi. It also has a tour company called Monkey Business on premises that you can book tours for diving and mainland tours such as a visit to the Belize Zoo, Zip Lining, Cave Tubing, etc. We were able to book tours there at the last minute for many things we wanted to experience. However, some tours require a minimum number of participants before the tour actually takes place so you may want to book a couple of days in advance for those types of tours. Booking agencies will tell you which tours have that requirement.
The first thing on the agenda after settling into our room was to book a golf cart to get around the island. Golf carts are the most common way everyone gets around but taxis are available if you want to use them. Cart rentals are expensive at $65 a day but the price goes down the longer you rent the cart. The price can go down to $35 a day if you rent the cart for a week or more. Note that when you are looking at prices, they are usually noted in $bz. dollars where 2$bz=1$US. Dollar. The big grocery store in San Pedro may not where you should rent your cart as their past practices have been identified as shady by other visitors to the island.
Next we booked our tours in advance through Monkey Business. We were able to change some of the dates on tours with relative ease when required without paying a penalty. Monkey Business was quite flexible and very easy to deal with. We did not have problems using our credit cards at local businesses or obtaining cash from the local bank machines. The local paper currency is very colourful.
The next order of business was to obtain some local refreshments. We tried the local beer, Beliken, which comes in 2 different versions. You can purchase it in regular or premium and we found that we preferred the premium version as is was not as harsh as the regular version. The premium cost us 50 cents more a bottle but that was worth it and was available one block from our resort at the local grocery store.
Another important aspect in our travels it to try the local food establishments and local delicacies. Based on other people’s postings on this site, we tried a number of places and have the following reviews to present. Most of these restaurants were in the town of San Pedro.
Best tasting food was unquestionably at the Sunset Grill, followed by El Patio, then Jambel’s Jerk Pit. The El Patio is on the same side street as Jambel's in between Front St. and Middle St. When standing on the road between these two restaurants, the Sunset Grill is on the same road but just about 3 blocks down towards the waters edge. Walk away from Front Street, cross Middle Street, and go down 1.5 blocks to the Sunset Grill. If in doubt, just ask the locals for the direction. It is well worth findings this gem.
The Sunset Grill is right on the waters edge and has a school of Tarpon that hang around the outside edges of the dining area. They are fed nightly and you can watch the feeding spectacle every night during dining hours while you eat. It’s like watching piranhas feed but these are huge fish. At the restaurant, I ordered the fish speciality of the house, which was done in mango sauce. It was fantastic, so good that I had it twice during our visit.
The El Patio has great seafood, a sand floor, and the best deep fried peppers on the island.
Jambel’s Jerk Pit has a Jamaican theme about it and has some very nice curry based dishes. Service could be a little faster than what we experienced.
The much recommended Blue Water Grill was in a nice location on the beach among palm trees and had a romantic view and setting. However, the food was just average, the portions very small, and the cost was one of the highest on the island. The El Divino and the Reef had just average food. The Reef had a sand floor and a ‘diving’ theme to the décor. Food was just OK there.
For the best in tasting local cooking, try Warmongers on Middle Street, right next door to Big Tree Produce. It is a very small place with only about 3 tables and you will miss it if you blink when walking down the street. Try their Pupusa's which are only available on the evening menu. They are wonderful to take home to enjoy over TV. They are like a soft shell tortilla filled with a cheese or meat filling (usually pork) and usually served with a vinegar cabbage and/or with a little salsa. I would also recommend their burritos’ which are available at noon and evening. They are huge (1 is enough for 2 people) and are quite inexpensive ($20 Belize, $10 US). Tried the Conch burrito and it was great. Lobster was not in season but I was told by many it was also great. They also come in pork and chicken as well.
For break feast you can’t beat Estel’s. It is located on the beach, with a sand floor, and has a great menu. Would recommend you try the fryjacks, pancakes, seafood combos. The place specializes in break feasts.
For pastries, the local Pan Duce bakery on Middle Street was good but make sure to go in the morning as product is quickly sold.
The mosquito problem does exist on the island but does not really show up unless you are in deep jungle like vegetation during the day or around trees/plants in the evening when there is no wind. We experienced mosquito bites while sitting on a restaurant patio in the evening on a calm day waiting for our dinner to be served. Bring your own repellent as this, along with Sun Tan Lotion, is very expensive in the local stores.
Other small things to note is that you can expect to pay $7 to $10 US for a 2 litre bottle of Coke in the local stores. To get to the north part of the island using a golf cart, you will have to pay a $10 charge to cross the bridge. There are guards watching this bridge and will ask for payment should you try and cross. It was not worth crossing the bridge to visit the north part when we were there as the road just past the bridge is something most people would only tackle in a 4 x 4 or quad. It had rained a lot prior to our arrival the road was in extremely bad shape, very rough, and something most people should not try and transverse using a golf cart.
For those that are looking for local souvenirs to take home, the pickings are quite poor compared to other vacation spots. All of the local wood carvers/artisans that we ran into produced very poor quality products. If they had any quality products for sale, they pretended to have produced them personally by sitting there and polishing these items but it was quite evident these were imported. Any quality type products were all imported from the mainland. The local realty shop on Front Street carried a number of finely hand crafted fish carvings done in water buffalo horn which we purchased. They indicated that these were imported from the mainland.
Our initial diving tours were arranged through Monkey Business and we went to Hol Chan, Shark Ray Alley, and Mexico Rocks. Scuba diving at Hol Chan only takes you to about 30 feet so many people just snorkelled the site. Scuba gives the diver the opportunity to get to the bottom and see things like lobsters which snorkelling is not able to provide. Hol Chan contained large groupers, barracuda, lobsters, and numerous schools of fish. The ocean current was very strong here and would not be recommended for weak swimmers when the tide is coming in or going out.
Shark Ray Alley was the most impressive of the 3 locations in the number and variety of fish, the number of fish in schools, the large sting ray and nurse sharks, flounder, and the amount of conch shells spread out on the ocean floor.
When a boat enters any of the three previously mentioned dive locations, the fish just swarm the boat expecting to be fed. Mexico Rocks was the least impressive of the 3 locations. Scuba diving is overkill in both Shark Ray Alley and Mexico Rocks. We did not get a chance to go to the Blue Hole as weather would not permit this the entire time of our stay.
We arranged the final diving to be again at Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. This was done through a local dive operator who used to have a shop located on the beach until a large resort chain bought the resort property around his location and asked him to vacate his premises. As such, he can only be contacted via the telephone book and you are able to arrange a personalized dive outing. You get the use of his services, knowledge, and boat for as long as you wish. His name is Gerry Auk.
We booked a half day excursion with him and it only cost us about $100 more than what we would have paid to go going through a large dive operation that takes out a large group of people for each dive. With Gerry, we got a customized trip to were we wanted to go. We were able to determine the time we wanted to be picked up, where we would go, how long we would stay in each location. Once there, he took us around the site and showed us things we may have likely missed had we not been shown around. We did not have to endure the problems of snorkelling in a large group and had personalized tours of each site we chose to dive. In all, we did 3 dive sites in that half day. He even served us a Conch cerviche’ (conch salsa) on the boat after we finished diving. We were out for approximately 4.5 hours. As you might guess, we would highly recommend him to anyone wishing a more personalize and non-crowded diving expedition.
As for the unusual, local teenagers walking the beach front, made us aware of a daily crocodile feeding that takes place 10 minutes south of the Banana Beach Resort. This is done at approximately 4 – 5 PM. This event is not sanctioned by anyone other than the teenagers themselves who persuade one of the vacationers to purchase a whole frozen chicken. They then tie a string onto the bird and throw it into the water. This then coxes out what appears to be around a 14 foot crocodile that comes into shore to feed on the bird. They bring the croc within 2 feet of themselves as he tries to get the bird. They ‘pet’ the croc on the head and then try and persuade onlookers to do the same. A surprising a number of not too wise people do this, and even encourage their small children to pet the croc. We witnessed a number of these non-to-wise parents permitting their kids to pet the croc. This is a wild croc and anyone doing this is play with their life. I would definitely suggest that if you are persuaded to attend this event that you do not go near this croc as it is wild and could attack on something as simple as the smell of your perfume or perspiration.
Through Monkey Business we also arranged to go Caving Tubing and Zip-Lining on the mainland. We took a 1 hour boat ride to the mainland and then where put on a bus and transported to the Zip-Lining site in-land. This drive was a 40 minute one and ended with us putting on climbing gear and walking into the jungle a little way. We then climbed into the first tree-post and connected to the cable stretched between 2 trees. You then had to jump off the tree post which would send you hurling through the jungle foliage for approximately 200 ft to the next tree. This was repeated about 7 times and at the end you had to repel to the ground. It was extremely safe in that you were connected to the cables with a total of 6 separate cable hooks which were told was capable of holding a total of 6000 lbs. The hook-up redundancy made you feel safe, the equipment was new, and the guides were very friendly and safety conscious.
From there we were driven another 15 minutes to the tubing site. You are then asked to change into your swim suits and your clothes are then kept in the guides van for safe keeping. Next, you are given a large black tire inner tube to carry into the jungle for about 1 mile where you come to the river. The river is fairly slow moving and you just get into the water, get onto your tube and slowly drift into the first cave. You are given a miner’s light that is battery operated to wear on your head so that you can see the cave walls and sealing. You drift through 2 – 3 caves depending on the tour operator. The water is just the right temperature to keep you cool in the hot jungle.
After reaching the end of the river ride, you get back to where you started, and change back into your original clothes. There are many changing rooms at this location.
At both of these attractions, you can obtain pictures taken of you while you are tubing and zip-lining. Make sure to bring lots of cash as each picture is going to cost you $20 blz ($10 US). Bring cash for entry fees for the park as some tours do not pay this entry fee and you must pay it when you get there. Bring a little more than you think you might need for these unexpected costs.
Overall, we really enjoyed our vacation, the weather was great and it did not rain while we were there. Hope this trip report helps others who are planning a trip to Ambergris and are interested in the details of our experiences and recommendations which were provided within.