Island paradise features massive coral reef

May 30, 2008 Recommend
Hugging the second longest coral reef in the world, Belize's Ambergris Caye draws boatloads of divers and snorkelers. It's also a jumping-off point for day trips to mainland Belize -- Central America's only English-speaking country -- to tour Mayan temples and jungle caves.

Ambergris Caye is a quirky little island where golf carts are the preferred mode of travel. The beefy-wheeled carts drive like dune buggies on the island's packed sand streets that are littered with potholes.

Once home to pirates, the 25-mile long sliver of an island has white sandy beaches and palm trees to the east and mangroves to the west. San Pedro, the island's only town, is about a 20-minute flight in a propeller plane from Belize City or a 90-minute boat ride.

With laws limiting buildings to four stories and no port for cruise ships, growth has been steady but controlled. It's not Cancun. Condos and resorts have been sprouting up along the northern and southern areas of the island giving tourists more options -- and increasing traffic on the laid-back patch of land. A tiny rope-pulled ferry with barely enough space for two golf carts was replaced two years ago with a new toll bridge over a narrow channel north of town.

The Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a seven-square-mile area of coral gardens around a channel in the reef, is a must-see stop for divers and snorkelers. Most snorkel trips to Hol Chan also include a trip to Shark Ray Alley, a shallow area where snorkelers are treated to close encounters with southern stingrays and nurse sharks who come for the food thrown overboard by the half dozen boats that linger here.

It's up to you whether you want to touch the rays and sharks that swarm the boats. For those who are curious, nurse shark skin feels like gritty sandpaper, while stingrays have more of a slippery velvet feel. The nurse sharks aren't man-eaters; they're like giant bottom-feeding catfish. Not cuddly but not scary, either.

Dive sites are scattered along the length of the reef to keep even hardcore divers busy for several days. Some of the most popular dives within a 10- to 15-minute boat ride from town are Hol Chan Cut, Tackle Box Canyons and Victoria Tunnels. From February through April, strong winds might prevent diving or limit visibility for a day or two, so be prepared to be flexible.

Day trips are available to Turneffe Atoll, one of only four atolls in the Americas. (Three of these atolls, or circular coral reefs surrounding lagoons, are off Belize.) Excursions depart from Ambergris Caye early in the morning to the 400-foot deep Blue Hole, a sinkhole where divers can spot stalactites and a few varieties of sharks.

After a long day viewing marine life, it's time to eat it. You can get your fill of grilled red snapper, grouper, fried conch and lobster when it's in season. Or do your own reef fishing during half-day or full-day trips from the island.

When eating out, don't miss a side of Belizean beans and coconut rice. Popular restaurants include Caramba, El Patio, Elvi's and Sweet Basil. For breakfast try Belizean fry jacks made from fried dough and mix it with beans and the habanero hot sauce -- a fixture on every table in Belize.

Dusk is the best time to get a glimpse of the crocodiles patrolling the brackish water in Ambergris Caye's western lagoons. Some islanders feed them raw chicken. More common reptiles are the iguanas sunning themselves near the road and house geckos sticking impossibly to vertical walls.

Several tour operators on Ambergris Caye offer cave tubing day trips to mainland Belize, where you can zip-line between tree platforms or take a trip to the Belize Zoo.

Cave tubers at the Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort are armed with an inner tube and a headlamp before jumping into the turquoise river. They sit back and float through a series of five caves with jagged stalactites dripping from the ceilings.

If you want to take in some ruins, Lamanai is the most important mainland Mayan site accessible by day trip from the caye. The journey to the Lamanai temple up the New River includes bird spotting, but it's a long day switching from ocean boat to van to river boat and back again. The closest Mayan ruin is Altun-Ha, the icon on Belize's Belikin beer labels.

For a small island in a tiny country, Ambergris Caye packs in plenty of adventure above and below the water.

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