Writing the Book on Great
Dive Adventure Travel!
For adventurous travelers on land or sea, Belize may well be the biggest little country in the world. Smaller than almost any U.S. state (actually the second smallest nation in Central America after El Salvador), Belize nevertheless packs a spectacular and varied geographical punch. Here is a country of almost unlimited natural appeal. Though small, there is much topographical variety and, with a population of little less than a quarter of a million people, wide open spaces are the rule. Belize, as a natural wilderness, is further expanded by its twin image as both a Central American nation and a Caribbean offshore paradise.
The Belize coastline is nearly 200 miles long and the country's coastal zone extends some 40 to 45 miles offshore. This includes the massive and continuous Belize Barrier Reef, the best defined section of the Great Western Caribbean Reef (or Great Maya Barrier Reef) that extends from southeastern Mexico to Nicaragua. It is recognized scientifically as the longest and most species diversified coral reef in the entire Western Hemisphere. (It is actually the second longest reef in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.) This reefline alone would place Belize in a very special environmental context but it is only the beginning. Seaward of the barrier reef are three enormous and unique coral atolls. Similar to South Pacific atolls in design and nearly unknown in the Caribbean, each is a wilderness world of its own. Tracing the barrier reefline and surrounding the coral atolls are hundreds of islets and cayes. Some of them are inhabited and offer charming accommodations, complete with excellent dive and watersports operations.
Travel to and within Belize: TACA of El Salvador, the parent member of the network of six Central American airlines known as Grupo TACA (TACA, LACSA, Aviateca, COPA, NICA and TACA of Honduras), provides daily service to Belize aboard a fleet of modern Boeing jets. From the U.S., flights can be initiated from eight gateways, including Houston, New Orleans and Miami. TACA provides excellent in-flight service, including free beverages, a choice of entrees and complimentary after meal liqueurs.
Visitors arrive at the Belize International Airport for Customs and Immigration. You can be met by taxi or resort van at the airport or continue on to your final destination offshore, coastal or inland via three established in-country airlines. There is also a municipal airport in Belize City, 15 miles away, which is included in the routing.
Belize City is the arrival hub and the country's population center. Here are the most luxurious hotels and the center for offshore travel, where you may meet your quality live-aboard or travel by dayboat to an offshore resort. Many visitors will fly on to Ambergris Caye, the country's most popular offshore destination, or travel to Placencia, Lighthouse Reef or one of the offshore islands along the barrier reef. From Belize City you can fly anywhere in the country in 15 to 45 minutes or drive almost anywhere in one to three hours.
The Seascape: The offshore environment is both panoramic and detailed; a rich tapestry of sea and sky with an underwater world possessing both color and diversity. A single description cannot possibly apply to such a vast offshore realm. The area is immense, hundreds of square miles that display every reef system; patch, bank fringing, barrier or atoll; yet classified. A characteristic of oceanic Belize is the barrier reef lying from 12 to 25 miles offshore. This tract begins in the north just offshore Ambergris Caye and continues nearly uninterrupted through a series of sand, palm and mangrove cayes to the southern end of Belize.
Hundreds of islands are on or close to the barrier reefline. The dive sites along the barrier reef include shallow coral gardens, mid-depth coral spurs and pinnacles and deep, precipitous drop-offs. Along the outer reef are huge mountains of corals separated by a labyrinth of sand channels leading to the ultimate coral wall. Along the crest are schools of colorful fishes winding their way along a fringe of wire corals, sponges and seafans. Offshore is an abyss, hundreds of feet deep.
Biologists and marine experts such as Charles Darwin and Jacques Cousteau have studied the Belize Barrier Reef and have noted that the variety of marine life is among the best in the Western Hemisphere. Its tremendous north/south transect and position relative to the easterly trade winds creates a situation where the Belize Barrier Reef is privy to nearly every species found in the Caribbean. Reef fish as well as deep water pelagics are commonly seen. On every dive, spawning, mating, cleaning, predation and most other fish behaviors are continually on display. Divers in Belize often encounter unusual and rare species or, occasionally, a previously unidentified fish or invertebrate. Mating trunkfish, spawning groupers, swarming Nurse Sharks and 'smoking' sponges are all commonly included in a Belize dive vocabulary. Schools of friendly dolphins, schooling Eagle Rays, huge Green Morays, enormous sea turtles, minnow-filled caverns, giant Manta Rays, docile Jewfish and even Whale Sharks have all been sighted by divers in Belize.
The Atolls: Beyond the barrier reef are three huge ovals of coral, each a unique universe all to its own. Above water, this ocean panorama is occasionally interrupted by slim slivers of sand topped by frothy mangroves and slender palms. Around these islands a vast biological food chain is initiated that will eventually blossom over the surrounding coral reefs. Don a facemask, duck your head beneath the calm, placid waters of the inner lagoon and you will discover 60 species of hard corals, more than 200 species of reef fishes and more invertebrates than anyone has ever been able to count. Bathed by clear ocean waters, the underwater visibility is most often spectacular. Many of Belize's most famous dive sites are within or along the outer fringe of these three huge atolls.
Central Belize and Belize City: The country's rustic, colonial-style capital, Belize City, is on the Caribbean coast. The town is famous for its period architecture and the picturesque swing bridge with its anchorage of sailing and fishing boats. In addition to transportation, touring and shopping convenience, here is where you will find the largest and most amenity conscious hotels in the country. Restaurants and eateries, lounges and bars, gift shops and arts and crafts stores are easily found throughout the city. As a result of good highways, it is easy to get most anywhere inland from Belize City. The northern and western highways, including the southern-bound Hummingbird Highway, radiate from Belize City like the spokes of a wheel.
All major hotels have tour agencies on the premises that can easily schedule inland or offshore visits. Only a 30 to 45 minute cruise offshore is the first of a series of scenic sandy or mangrove cayes, perfect for snorkeling, scuba diving or beach picnics. Close by are the golden reefs of the Belize Barrier Reef.
The Northern Cayes: The most obvious offshore destination in Belize, for many reasons, is Ambergris Caye. The northernmost and the largest of the many cayes, Ambergris is both the country's offshore population center and the primary tourist village. At the southern end of the island is San Pedro Town, a former fishing village. Ambergris' sandy streets and low architectural profile now include a complete selection of small hotels, resorts, docks with diving and fishing fleets, restaurants, lounges and shops.
The immediate and accessible dive environment includes more than 20 miles of barrier reef found parallel to the island just offshore. More than 40 named dive sites can be reached from resort and town docks, including six or more within Hol Chan Marine Park, the country's first and best known marine sanctuary. Close by is the famous Shark-Ray Alley, with its swarm of friendly Nurse Sharks and stingrays. Also not far away is the Amigos Wreck, recently sunk as a diving attraction. Deep sites along the outside of the barrier reef include M and M Caverns and Punta Azul Canyons. Also from Ambergris, day and overnight trips are available to Turneffe Islands Atoll and Lighthouse Reef Atoll, which includes the Great Blue Hole, Belize's most famous dive site.
Ambergris Caye begins a string of northern islands that starts from the Yucatan Peninsula and follows contour lines just inside the barrier reef. One of the most popular is Caye Caulker, just south of Ambergris Caye. Other northern cayes of interest along the barrier reef include Caye Chapel, Gallows Point Caye, Sergeants Caye, Goff's Caye and English Caye. Several of these are visited on day trips out of Belize City.
The Southern Cayes: So many islands; so little time! There are more than 200 islets, islands and cayes that follow the barrier reef southward. Most of these cayes, some mere sandspits and others sizable islands, become less inhabited and more pristine as they progress toward Southern Belize. A few offer a cottage type resort and a quality diving/fishing operation. Along the barrier reef are many spectacular wall sites, such as Black Beauty and Silversides, easily reached from South Water Caye. Just inside the Tobacco Cayes is Shark Hole, an exciting and mysterious blue hole.
Placencia: Moving south along the coast from Belize City, the countryside is sparsely populated. Eventually, past Dangriga, you reach Placencia, a scenic narrow strip of beach and palms, and the country's outpost of coastal tourism. Here is a sliver of land that will meet everyone's criteria for a quiet, secluded tropical paradise; an island (actually a peninsula) of only modest development that provides a series of small cottage resorts sandwiched between two tiny villages. Placencia may well be the perfect place for the escapist visitor. There are several small but well equipped diving and fishing resorts perched along the beach. Placencia is reached daily via flights from Belize City.
Getting to the Offshore Atolls: The country's three enchanting atolls; the Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef and Glover's Reef; are 30 to 60 miles off the coast. Many experienced visitors will tell you the atolls present the most pristine underwater environment in all of Belize. You can visit them several ways. There are excellent dive resorts; weekly packages are available with the resorts transporting guests to/from the Belize International Airport. Air service to the atolls is available only for Lighthouse Reef; the other resorts provide boat transfers. Resorts on Ambergris Caye, along the barrier reef and in Belize City often feature day trips to the atolls for snorkelers and scuba divers. Some atoll resorts also offer regular outings to other atolls. A most exciting possibility is a week-long excursion aboard a quality live-aboard vessel. Several of the world's best live-aboards visit the atolls from their docks in Belize City.
The Turneffe Islands: Turneffe Islands Atoll is the largest of the three atolls and is the closest of the trio to Belize City. This mangrove crowded island indicate a prolific marine sanctuary beneath the sea. There are more than 70 excellent dive sites in all quadrants of the atoll, with most on the outer reefs. On the inside of the atoll there are shallow, scenic sites great for snorkeling and scuba diving. One of these is the wreck of the Sayonara, a small cargo vessel perfect for day or night diving. One of Turneffe's most spectacular dive sites is a spot called The Elbow at the southern end of the atoll. Here are majestic pinnacles of coral that provide a backdrop for numerous reef and pelagic fish. Many fish form swarms and schools so thick it appears as if a living wall is in front of you. Numerous sites along the eastern and western coasts feature corallined drop-offs rich with sponges and Black Corals. Turtles, dolphins and Nurse Sharks are readily sighted at Turneffe.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll: Lighthouse Reef is the farthest atoll from shore and is often considered to harbor some of the very best diving in all of Belize. The atoll is the second largest of the trio, almost 20 miles long and 1.5 to 3 miles wide. Above water is a ring of low-lying white sand islets mostly crowded with palms. To the outside of these islets is an oval of pristine reefs with precipitous, often vertical drop-offs at the seaward edge.
Belize's most famous underwater landmark, the Great Blue Hole, is in the middle of Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Almost perfectly round and nearly 1,000 feet in diameter, the ink-blue depths descend more than 400 feet. Formed during the last Ice Age, when sea level was hundreds of feet lower, the Blue Hole today is completely submerged. Divers descend along the outer ring where the drop quickly becomes vertical. As your eyes become adjusted to the fading light at a depth of 110 feet, you begin to see an apparition. Then the largest U/W dripstones in the world appear before you. Huge stalactites, some 30 feet long, hang from the cavern ceiling like the toothy maw of a sea monster. Most divers compare the Blue Hole experience to a visit to a strange planet.
Exactly the opposite kind of diving is available at Half Moon Caye and Long Caye. Here are numerous sites that feature biology instead of geology. On the oceanside of Half Moon Caye is a series of shallow drop-offs, each more spectacular than the other. From the reef crest, in only 30 feet of water, divers descend through a crystal infinity; a coral wall decorated with sponges and corals of every color imaginable. Dividing the reef into spurs and pinnacles are channels of snow white sand, providing convenient swim-throughs. Schools of pelagics, turtles and Eagle Rays are frequently sighted over the wall.
Half Moon Caye is also a popular picnic spot and a National Park that includes snorkeling trails and a popular frigate and booby bird sanctuary.
More superb wall sites are just west of Long Caye. One of the most exciting is Silver Caves, which, in addition to a busy fish population, is decorated with monstrous orange sponges and bushes of Black Coral.
Glover's Reef Atoll: Glover's Reef is the most southerly of the atolls. Seventy miles southeast of Belize City, it is the farthest from the coast, which contributes to its remote and mysterious appeal. Glover's is 15 miles long and 4 miles wide, with an extensive lagoon that reportedly contains more than 700 patch reefs. A few picturesque coconut fringed islets are found along the southern end of the atoll; otherwise, Glover's is dominated by a crystal clear lagoon. Once the abode of the English pirate John Glover, this atoll has gained a reputation for attracting shipwrecks and sunken treasure.
The real treasure of Glover's Reef is its variety of reef topography. Sites such as Elkhorn Crossing display Glover's golden coral gardens while wall sites such as Pinnacles, Gorgonia's Gallery and Hole in the Wall portray the huge coral spires that dominate the deep scenery.
Mainland Attractions: Opportunities for exploration on the Belizean mainland are inexhaustible. This is one of the world's greatest ecotourism destinations and tours now run to many interesting sites in the Belize interior. Because the mainland/offshore destinations are so close to one another, there is an excellent opportunity for scuba divers to become inland adventurers and vice versa. Dive resorts, interior resorts and many independent travel services can arrange add-on tours or day trips from your original destination. Don't forget that there are many travel agencies in the States that specialize in custom travel packages to Belize.
The sum of Belize's land experiences can be divided into environmental sites, ancient sites and modern cultural experiences. Many day trips and tours combine several of these experiences in one outing. National parks and conservation areas now account for nearly one-third of the country's total area. Many picturesque and historic ancient Maya sites are accessible in north, south and central Belize. Two of the most interesting cultures in the country are the Black Carib or Garifuna people, an African and Caribbean derived culture that is currently celebrating the 200 year anniversary of its arrival in Central America, and the Mopan, Kekchi and Yucatecan Maya people, direct descendants of the ancient Maya, who are scattered throughout Belize. Throughout the Belize interior are many charming and environmentally conscious resorts and lodges.
Ancient Maya sites include Lamanai, at the edge of New River Lagoon; Altun-ha, only 37 miles from Belize City; Caracol, the metropolis of all ancient Maya sites in Belize; and Xunantunich, just off the western highway.
There is also El Pillar, a recently excavated site in the western district with a road leading to a sister site in nearby Guatemala and Lubaantun, the best known ancient site in Southern Belize.
Environmental sites, many of which can be reached easily from Belize City, include the Belize Zoo and Tropical Research Education Center; the Bermudian Landing Community Baboon Sanctuary and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's only jaguar (Panthera onca) reserve.
Additional sites include Crooked Tree Wildlife Preserve; Guanacaste Park Nature Reserve; Exchel Tropical Research Foundation; Mountain Pine Ridge; Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area and Shipstern Nature Reserve, which offers more than 200 species of butterflies.