Caves off Long Caye, Lighthouse Reef Atoll.
Perched at the outer edge of a geological fault line that roughly parallels
the coast, the Belize Barrier Reef is a continuous ridge of undersea mountains.
Off Ambergris Caye (the northernmost island and most popular destination
for divers), the reef rises to the surface 1,000 yards from shore. Shallow
coral gardens give way to pinnacles and canyons that line a deep wall.
The area between the reef crest and the drop-off is a hot zone for divers.
Spots like M and M Caverns surround divers with huge formations, pocked
with ledges and swim-throughs.
From Caye Caulker to Belize City and further south to South Water Caye,
the barrier reef provides a shallower drop-off, often closer to shore.
At English Caye Banks, several coral ridges rise from deep water, steep-sided
like a Maya pyramid. The temple at its summit, is a fairyland of sponges
and gorgonians. Once on a dive here, I encountered a grouper spawn comprised
of hundreds of animals. Off Salt Water Caye is a series of precipitous
canyon dives, immense formations of coral sloughing off and disappearing
in the deep blue. Diving here is like gliding along an underwater Grand
of the topside temples, the jaguar.
Seaward of the Belize Barrier Reef are three immense coral atolls, formations
that are perhaps even more unique and pristine than the barrier reef itself.
Turneffe Islands Atoll (the largest and the closest to the mainland) offers
unlimited diving adventures with more than 70 named and established sites.
Almost directly opposite the Blackbird Caye Resort are a series of wall
dives such as Sponge Canyons that typify the undersea topography. These
sites are blessed with sponges of every shape, size and color including
huge barrel sponges, some taller than a diver, and handsome golden tube
and strawberry red sponges surrounded by bouquets of black coral bushes.
Surprises such as turtles, Eagle Rays or even mantas are possible on any
One of the most spectacular dive sites in all of Belize is found only
minutes from the Turneffe Island Lodge. Here, as a result of swirling
currents is a natural feeding station for the entire food chain, mixing
reef and pelagic fishes into dense schools. Every dive I have had here
has been memorable.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll (the farthest from shore) features many of Belizes
most famous underwater sites. Number one on the list of must-do dive experiences
is the Great Blue Holea nearly perfect circle of blue in the center
of the atoll. A descent into the Great Blue Hole is not for the faint
of heart. For the first minute or two, you drop through an emerald world
devoid of anything to focus on. Then, you enter a natural stone-lined
cathedral, its ceiling dripping with monstrous stalactites, some 30 feet
long. Divers wind their way through the maze of dripstones as though exploring
an ancient temple supported by gigantic pillars.
In contrast, diving the reefs and walls that surround this beautiful
atoll are sunlit, light-hearted experiences. Halfmoon Caye Wall, at the
southern end of the oval, presents a shallow drop-off lined with huge
nuggets of coral lying on a sand bottom. Piercing the wall is a series
of tunnels and swim-throughs. Schools of pelagics are frequently seen
out in the blue. Equally spectacular, is a series of wall sites on the
outside of Long Caye and others at the northern end of the reef, just
off Lighthouse Reef Resort, the only resort on the atoll.
in the Wall, Glovers Reef.
Glovers Reef is the most southerly of the atolls and the least
visited by divers. It is also the smallest, though at 15 miles long and
four miles wide, it is a lifetime of dive discovery by itself. Glovers
has the distinction of a slightly deeper lagoon riddled with more than
700 patch reefs. Along the outer eastern edge are dozens of shipwrecks
that have accumulated over four centuries. More than 40 dive sites are
known, however, due to minimal traffic, none are yet moored. Drift diving
is practiced almost exclusively. My favorite site is Hole in the Walla
seemingly unending series of mountains, canyons and cliffs that line the
sponge-decorated drop-off. Barracuda, in larger numbers and sizes, appear
here more than anywhere else in Belize.
Above water, natural and cultural attractions abound. Only hours away
from your favorite dive site are mountains cloaked in greenery, bisected
by winding jungle rivers and accented by the protruding bone-white, temple-topped
Maya pyramids. The Maya Mountains, the Chiquibul wilderness, the Vaca
Plateau, Mountain Pine Ridge and the Cockscomb Mountain range are all
mesmerizing vistas where charming resorts support a variety of outdoor
activities. Here, you can visit sprawling ancient Maya sites, explore
yawning caves, ride horses through the forest, hike, swim, mountain bike,
kayak or canoe yourself into a lather, before returning to the spa-like
hospitality of your jungle lodge. The ancient Maya considered many of
the mountaintops as sacred sanctuaries for their gods of nature and vegetative
abundance, while caves were the domain of a watery underworld and were
thus beset with death gods. Pyramids were the analog of sacred mountains.
Temples that capped the pyramids were often lined with earth monsters;
doorways represented a natural cave and the entrance to the underworld.
Tunicates, Turneffe Atoll.
You will no doubt be mystified and enchanted by the vestiges of an ancient
American civilization that reached its peak while Paris was still a small
village. If not, you will still be mesmerized by its surroundings. What
sets apart Maya ruins from those of Egypt or Rome is the jungle. Here,
stone and sky and forest intermingle; the ruins and vegetation often claim
the same space. Ancient Maya architecture is most often a visual poetry
of moss and shadow, where the hands of man and nature are blended together.
Of the hundreds of Maya sites, there are at least 15 that are partially
restored and accessible to visitorseach has its own character and
Just north of Belize City is Altun-ha, a medium-sized Maya site cradled
in a cohune palm forest. To the west is Lamanai, accessed by boat via
the scenic New River Lagoon. In the west, Xunantunich is found via a hand
cranked ferry over the Mopan River and El Pilar, as much jungle park as
a city of ruins. The greatest of the Maya sites in Belize is Caracol,
in southwestern Belize. The tallest temple, Caana, rises 145 feet off
the jungle floorstill the tallest man-made structure in the country
today. In the south is Lubaantum, with its perfect cut-block masonry,
and Nimli Punit, with huge hieroglyphic-engraved monuments strewn across
the forest floor. And, while hiking through the jungle, if you should
stumble upon a great gnarly mound that hits at the outline of more ruins,
do not be surprised. You are in Belize, where world-class diving can be
combined with exploring one of the richest archaeological zones in the