Swimming with the sting rays and nurse sharks is one of the highlights of a snorkeling trip excursion to Shark-Ray Alley in Belize, Central America.
BY KIM QUADE
When I first visited Belize in Central America more than 20 years ago as a writer for a travel company, I met Emory King, who had, as a young man, shipwrecked off of Belize’s coast while attempting to sail around the world. He liked the country so much, he stayed.
King, an author, provided me with this advice: “If you come to Belize without patience, you’ll learn it. If you come to Belize with patience, you’ll lose it.” It was his way of telling me and other travelers to slow down, relax and enjoy the unique culture and ecological diversity Belize offers.
San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is home to an array of locally owned and operated restaurants and bars.
Belize, located just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is bordered by Guatemala to the west and south and the Caribbean Sea to the east. About the size of Massachusetts, it was formerly known as British Honduras, gained its independence from England in 1981 and is primarily an English-speaking country.
Beginning 20 years ago over the course of eight years, I traveled to Belize at least a dozen times, visiting resorts and meeting friendly people in all areas of the country. After a hiatus of 12 years, my husband and I decided to make a return trip.
With a six-day window, we based our stay in San Pedro on the 22-mile-long Ambergris Caye. Once a sleepy fishing village, San Pedro is now a bustling little town catering to scuba divers, snorkelers, deep-sea and fly fishermen, and those who just want to unwind, relax and appreciate the spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea and the world’s second-longest barrier reef.
We flew into the Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, swiftly processed through customs and immigration and boarded a commuter plane for the 15-minute flight to the island. The view from the plane affords an aerial rendering of the crystal-clear turquoise water and the atolls that dot the landscape.
Ambergris Caye in Belize, Central America, provides picturesque views of the Caribbean Sea and its tropical paradise.
There’s also an option to arrange a boat transfer from Belize City to Ambergris Caye, a trip that takes about an hour and a half.
A representative from the SunBreeze Hotel met us at the airstrip and walked us to our accommodations just across the street. We selected this beachfront hotel because of its central location in town. A wide range of hotel options are available in San Pedro and on Ambergris Caye – from low-budget rooms with ceiling fans, to air-conditioned cabanas on the beach, to condominium units with kitchens.
Though our primary goal was to relax by the seaside pool and soak up some local culture, we couldn’t travel this far without arranging a couple of snorkel trips to investigate the country’s amazing underwater world. We joined a group from the SunBreeze going to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark-Ray Alley, a must-do for any traveler to Belize.
A short boat ride from the hotel’s dock, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a five-square-mile national park just feet from the barrier reef. Here we saw striking coral formations, sea turtles, an eel and a large array of tropical fish. At Shark-Ray Alley, we had the chance to snorkel among the stingrays and the nurse sharks.
One of the author's favorite breakfast spots in San Pedro. You can’t beat the view from the outdoor patio.
A couple of days later, we arranged an all-day excursion with Suya Tours. It included three snorkel stops and a beach barbecue where our guides grilled the conch and the fresh fish they speared. The fresh catch was accompanied by rice, beans, potatoes and grilled coconut. The highlight, in addition to the lunch, was the snorkel stop at Mexico Rocks. The water was filled with hundreds of colorful, juvenile fish; it was like swimming inside an aquarium.
Dive and tour companies offer a variety of other water-based trips including excursions to the Blue Hole, the country’s most famous dive destination that measures 1,000 feet in diameter and plunges 410 feet.
Locals and tourists use golf carts to move around San Pedro and the island.
When we weren’t playing in the water, we explored San Pedro, trying different local restaurants and bars for breakfast, lunch and dinner and popping in and out of gift shops. What you won’t find here, or elsewhere in the country, are chain or fast-food restaurants or big-box stores like Walmart or Target. We found a mix of Belizean, Mexican, Creole, Central American, Chinese and American cuisine. Fresh seafood is a staple as well as the Belizean rice and beans. One of our favorite new finds was a papusa, a Salvadorian grilled tortilla filled with beans, chicken, shrimp or cheese.
We walked everywhere, but many tourists opt to rent golf carts so they can explore sections both north and south on the island. Our hotel was next door to the elementary school, and we enjoyed watching the children play nearby before and after school. We also ventured to the city center in the evening where local vendors sell their handmade art, jewelry and homemade food.
Though we based this stay on the island, we also know a trip to Belize isn’t complete until you’ve visited the mainland. It is home to Mayan ruins, miles of rain forest jungle filled with abundant wildlife, rivers, caves and mountains. This diversity presents a wide range of soft adventure options – experiences that are adventurous yet safe. Travelers can explore underwater caves on foot or by inner tubes or canoes, bird watch, horseback ride, zipline and hike.
My husband and I were glad we had chosen to return to Belize; we just wish we hadn’t waited so long. From the first trip 20 years ago, I fell in love with the friendly people, the beautiful tropical location and the laid-back lifestyle where the motto is: “No shirt, no shoes, no problem.”