Bicycling is an easy and relaxing way to get around on Ambergris Caye, a sliver of an island off the coast of Belize that's only 40 kilometres long and barely two kilometres wide in some places.
SAN PEDRO, BELIZE—I’m standing on the edge of a boat peering uneasily into an ocean that’s swirling with sharks, mentally preparing myself to jump overboard.
Dimas Mejia, who’s leading this excursion to the appropriately named Shark-Ray Alley, is attempting to reassure his uncertain passengers this is a perfectly safe spot for snorkelling.
“It’s all right,” Mejia, 23, says. “I carry a life-ring with me.”
But drowning is the least of my worries as I watch five sharks that are about my size going after the fish-heads he’s tossing into the waves. Fortunately these are nurse sharks; despite their disconcerting resemblance to Jaws they’re usually harmless to humans.
“Just don’t stick your hand in their mouths because they’ll suck it right in,” Mejia says.
With that in mind I pull on flippers, grab a face-mask and plunge into the impossibly turquoise waters of the Caribbean, trying all the while to keep my hands as close as possible to myself.
Travelling a bit farther south than Mexico’s Mayan Riveria brings you to this sun-splashed holiday haven in Belize. I’m staying in the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, a 40-kilometre-long island 45 minutes by water taxi from Belize City on the mainland. The narrow spit of land is an idyllic tropical paradise, with a sandy white beach stretching along a coast studded with palm trees.
It may be part of Central America, but the vibe is classic Caribbean with Jimmy Buffet and reggae music drifting on the tropical breeze from the pastel-coloured beachfront bars.
Ambergris is developed to a certain extent, but its hotels are small and the attitude is laid-back. Shoes and shirts are optional. Most people get around using golf carts or bicycles and there’s only one paved road. There are the creature comforts a vacationer might crave, without the raucous crowds of Cancun.
Canadians will feel right at home in the former British colony — and not just because there’s a bar called Crazy Canucks. English is the official language and the Queen even adorns the Belizean dollar.
The country’s main attraction is just offshore — the stellar snorkelling and scuba diving around Belize’s barrier reef, which at 300 kilometres in length is the second largest in the world after Australia’s. The coral reef system is home to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals that lurk in the underwater caves and among the atolls.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve, of which Shark-Ray Alley is a part, is about a 20-minute boat ride away.
I flutter along near the surface looking down at underwater canyons that run to a depth of 25 metres. The water is so clear the sun shines through unimpeded, allowing for fantastic views of schools of iridescent tropical fish that dart here and there.
A stingray gently flaps its broad wings on one side of me while a green turtle paddles along on the other.
Mejia dives deeper to point out creatures of interest along the seabed, such as a moray eel that pokes its head indignantly out of a crevice in the rocks, chomping on one of his flippers.
“They can bite your hand off,” he tells me later, showing me a scar where one had apparently tried.
There are stunningly beautiful creatures such as the pinkish-hued hogfish. Then there are astonishingly odd-looking ones such as the porcupine puffer fish, which inflates to twice its size like a beachball studded with spikes.
The reef runs about a kilometre from the coast of Ambergris and blocks the heavier surf from striking the caye. The water inside the reef is shallow and calm, allowing for that beautiful bluish-green tint that puts you at ease while sipping a pina colada on shore, smugly thinking about the North American winter you’re missing.
That’s exactly what Ken Timmons has in mind as he takes a break from blustery Chicago.
“I didn’t know where Belize was,” admits Timmons, 52, while recounting how a former colleague had piqued his interest in the country.
But he found it had an inviting atmosphere that offered something different than other better-known vacation spots.
“It’s a little more laid back maybe than Mexico,” he says. “Kind of a less touristy place to come than Cancun. It’s still got a little bit of a local flavour that’s not ruined by cruise ships.”
Asked how he’s spending his time on the caye, he glances at his girlfriend Donna Engelhard and grins.
“I’m not sure your readers really want to know that,” he says, breaking into laughter before quickly adding, “Actually we’ve been bike-riding a lot.”
Ambergris does provide a perfect backdrop for romance. After a beautiful Caribbean sunset, the soft lights flicker on at restaurant patios, providing al fresco dining to the sound of waves lapping the nearby shore and the wind caressing the palm trees.
Naturally, the specialty is seafood and one of the best places is a slightly upscale yet relaxed restaurant called Mango’s, where a mouth-watering starter of coconut shrimp has me wanting to order it again for my main.
There’s also a lot of good eating available on a smaller budget, from simple taco shacks to papusa joints offering the Salvadoran dish of corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans, chicken or seafood topped with salsa and slaw. They’re best washed down with the local Belikan beer. For further drinking, San Pedro’s nightlife booms until dawn, attracting locals, ex-pats and tourists.
No need to worry about sleeping, since there will be ample time to doze under the sun during lazy afternoons. And there’s no better feeling than waking up to another day in paradise.
Jeffrey Simpson is a Canadian journalist who lives in London, England
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