Have you ever visited a place only to find out later that you missed out on one of the most amazing attractions there?
It’s frustrating, isn’t it? You spent all that time, all that money, only to find out that you’re just going to have to go back there someday.
We almost made that mistake in Belize.
When we went on our Raggamuffin Tour, everyone kept raving about Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the amazing marine life they witnessed while snorkeling there — sea turtles, sting rays, even sharks!
Sure, that sounded great, but could it really be any better than what we had seen on this trip? Could it beat the baby sea turtles or camping in a storm?
I don’t know … you tell me:
Hol Chan presented not only the opportunity to see these incredible creatures (again!), but also to actually touch them!
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is located just south of Ambergris Caye, which is about an hour north of Caye Caulker, where we had been spending much of our time. It is popular among travelers because of the wealth of wildlife that frequent the area. Fishermen used to clean their daily catch in this particular spot and then discard the remains into the water, attracting nurse sharks and sting rays, who have since become regular visitors and are quite comfortable around humans.
Ok, so we could spend a week at Hopkins beach just chilling, or we could rearrange our itinerary mid-trip for the opportunity to swim with sharks and sting rays and another opportunity to spend a day out on this?
Please, twist my arm. Ouch. Ok, fine, I’ll do it.
So, we quickly changed our travel plans, cancelled our reservations at Hopkins, and headed back to Caye Caulker, where our time in Belize began. We decided to tour Hol Chan with our friends at Raggamuffin Tours, since we had enjoyed our first trip with them so much. Within a few days, we were back in Belize and back on the lazy island of Caye Caulker, preparing for our Hol Chan adventure.
Our Captain for the day was Jerry, who had taken us on our overnight sailing trip two weeks before. As we sailed leisurely toward the Reserve, Jerry fed fish to friggate birds flying overhead and offered passengers the opportunity to do so as well (we passed). It was amazing to watch them swoop down and grab the fish with incredible accuracy, balancing themselves in the wind.
We sailed along for an hour or so, stopping briefly for an introductory snorkel for those who needed some practice before reaching Hol Chan.
Soon we arrived at the tiny protected area of Hol Chan (which means “little channel” in Maya), where several other boat tours anchored as well. Our crew members would be snorkeling with us, serving as our guides, ensuring we did not stray into areas where swimmers are not allowed, and to also provide us with fish identification.
After a few simple words of instruction, we were turned loose into the water … and then within moments we saw this:
And this …
Pretty amazing, huh?
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, then came the sharks.
Our crew members would use food to lure the sharks and rays toward themselves, and they would then take hold of them. Within seconds, dozens of nurse sharks flocked to one side of our boat.
The animals love being stroked and fed, and seem to enjoy the attention they receive from the visitors. It is important to remember these particular animals are tamer than they would be elsewhere in the ocean and therefore they should never be approached like this elsewhere. Also, do not attempt to touch the animals unless your guide is holding them and they give you permission.
It is amazing just to float above the sharks and watch them glide majestically along the sea floor.
But the best part of this dive for me was not the sharks, nor the sting rays. It was this:
Adult and adolescent loggerhead sea turtles graze the sea floor for food. They are so graceful and beautiful to watch. I could have spent hours just floating above them, taking care not to disturb their feeding.
It was truly one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.
After an hour or so dive at Hol Chan, it was time to climb back into the boat and sail leisurely back to Caye Caulker. We are so glad we changed our plans and headed back to Caye Caulker to visit Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Our trip to Belize was still amazing without this excursion, but this was certainly the highlight of our trip.
Somebody was a wee bit excited after swimming with sharks ...
How to plan your visit to Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Where to depart: Head to Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye to begin your Hol Chan adventure.
Tour Companies:You must visit Hol Chan with a licensed tour operator. An abundance of options are available on both Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. We recommend Raggamuffin Tours, but there are plenty of other companies if Raggamuffin is booked. It is wise to make reservations in advance if you are traveling in the peak season (Nov. – April). If you’re traveling in the off-season, as we did, you can probably get away with not booking in advance, especially if you’re spending a few days on the islands and have a flexible schedule. Trips will cost approximately $40 – 50 USD/person and will include all equipment and lunch.
Things to Remember: The reef is a very fragile and protected eco-system. Please be respectful and do not touch the coral with any part of your body, including your dive fins. Also remember you are swimming with wild animals. Pay close attention to your guide and only touch the animals as you are instructed. Do not attempt to handle them on your own. Stick close to your guide while swimming so as to ensure you do not unnecessarily disturb the wildlife or venture too far off that you are swept away in a strong current. This is one place where it is very important to obey the rules!
We hope you will include an excursion to Hol Chan when you visit Belize. It is one place that is sure to not disappoint!