The cayes and atolls Travel Guide
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Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Belize’s spectacular Barrier Reef, with its dazzling variety of underwater life, string of exquisite cayes (pronounced “keys”) and extensive opportunities for all kinds of watersports, is the country’s main attraction for most first-time visitors. The longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, it runs the entire length of the coastline, usually 15 to 40km from the mainland, with most of the cayes lying in shallow water behind the shelter of the reef. Caye Caulker is the most popular destination for budget travellers. The town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, meanwhile, has transformed from a predominantly fishing community to one dominated by tourism. There are still some beautiful spots though, notably the protected sections of reef at either end of the caye: Bacalar Chico National Park and Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Beyond the barrier reef are two of Belize’s three atolls, the Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Reef, regularly visited on day-trips from San Pedro and Caye Caulker. Lighthouse Reef encompasses two of the most spectacular diving and snorkelling sites in the country – Half Moon Caye Natural Monument and the Blue Hole, an enormous collapsed cave.
Top image © Martina Genis/Shutterstock
The most northerly and, at almost forty kilometres long, by far the largest of the cayes, is Ambergris caye. The island’s main attraction is the former fishing village of San Pedro, facing the reef just a few kilometres from the caye’s southern tip. San Pedro is a small town, but its population of over nine thousand makes it the biggest of any of the cayes. As the result of massive recent development, it has lost most, though certainly not all, of its Caribbean charm: it still retains a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, despite the fact that some of the most exclusive hotels, restaurants and bars in Belize have been built here. The island’s only budget places are in the original village of San Pedro, though even these are extremely expensive. To save money and still visit Ambergris, consider staying on Caye Caulker and doing a day-trip.
San Pedro’s main streets are only half a dozen blocks long and the town does not boast any particular sights. The main focus of daytime entertainment is the sea and the reef, with activities from sunbathing to windsurfing, sailing, fishing, diving, snorkelling and glass-bottomed-boat rides. Beaches on the caye are narrow and the sea immediately offshore is shallow, with a lot of seagrass, so in town you’ll usually need to walk to the end of a dock if you want to swim. Be careful, though: there have been accidents in San Pedro in which speeding boats have hit people swimming off docks. A line of buoys indicates the “safe area”, but speedboat drivers can be a bit macho, so watch where you swim.
Accommodation in San Pedro is some of the most expensive in the country – all but a few places cost at least US$70. Most of the year reservations are not necessary, though it’s risky to turn up at Christmas, New Year or Easter unless you’ve booked a room.
The most central snorkelling and diving spot on Ambergris is the reef opposite San Pedro, but it’s also heavily used. You’re better off heading north, to Mexico Rocks, or south, to Hol Chan. For qualified divers, a two-tank local dive from Ambergris Caye costs around US$80. Open-water certification courses are around US$435, while a more basic, single-dive resort course ranges from US$140; both include equipment. All the dive shops in San Pedro also offer snorkelling trips, costing around US$25–35 for two to three hours and US$40–55 for four to five, and many will rent diving and snorkelling supplies; trips to the Blue Hole cost around US$250 and trips to the Turneffe Islands US$185.
San Pedro is the tourist entertainment capital of Belize, and if you check locally, you’ll find live music on somewhere every night of the week. Most of the hotels have bars, several of which offer happy hours, while back from the main street are a couple of small cantinas that serve both locals and tourists.
Restaurant prices in San Pedro are also generally higher than elsewhere in Belize. Seafood is prominent at most restaurants, and you can also rely on plenty of steak, shrimp, chicken, pizza and salads. In the evening, several inexpensive fast-food stands open for business along the front of Central Park. Self-catering isn’t much of a bargain: there’s no market and the supermarkets are stocked with expensive imported canned goods.
Day-trips from San Pedro to the ruins of Altun Ha (US$75–90) or Lamanai (US$135–160) are becoming increasingly popular, but can be done more cheaply from other parts of the country. However, with a good guide this is an excellent way to spot wildlife, including crocodiles and manatees, and the riverbank trees are often adorned with orchids. It’s also possible to visit some of the local ancient Maya sites on the northwest coast of Ambergris, many of which are just in the process of being excavated. On San Juan beach you’ll be scrunching over literally thousands of pieces of Maya pottery, but perhaps the most appealing site is Chac Balam, a ceremonial and administrative centre with deep burial chambers.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve (Bz$20), 8km south of San Pedro at the southern tip of the caye, takes its name from the Maya for “little channel” – it is this break in the reef that forms the focus of the reserve. Its three zones preserve a comprehensive cross-section of the marine environment, from the open sea through seagrass beds and mangroves. Tours to Hol Chan must be led by a licensed guide, and also stop at Shark-Ray Alley, another part of the reserve, where you can swim with three-metre nurse sharks and enormous stingrays – an extremely popular attraction. It’s also somewhat controversial: biologists claim that the practice of feeding the fish to attract them alters their natural behaviour.
While most travellers come to the cayes to snorkel or dive, windsurfing and sailing are popular as well, though learning either sport can be quite expensive. The best rental and instruction for both is offered by SailSports Belize (t 226-4488, w www.sailsportsbelize.com), on the beach at Caribbean Villas Hotel. Sailboard rentals cost US$22–27 an hour, and from US$49 for a seven-hour day; sailboat rental is US$22–49 an hour, with discounts for multiple hours. They also offer kite-surfing lessons (US$165 for a 2hr 30min session) and sailing lessons (US$66/hr).
Caye Caulker, 35km northeast of Belize City, is relaxed, easy-going and more than merits its “Go Slow” motto. The reef, 1.5km offshore, is a marine reserve, offering unbelievable opportunities for any imaginable watersport. Even so, in general, the island is affordable, with an abundance of inexpensive accommodation and tour operators, though the number of expensive places is also increasing. The island is now a firm favourite on the backpacker trail, although up until about fifteen years ago, tourism existed almost as a sideline to the island’s main source of income, lobster fishing. The money might be coming from tourists these days but there are still plenty of the spiny creatures around, most notably at the annual Lobster Fest, normally held in the third weekend of June to celebrate the opening of the season.
The caye is a little over 8km long. A settlement lies at its southern end, which curves west like a hook; the northern tip forms the Caye Caulker Forest Reserve, designated to protect the caye litoral forest, one of the rarest habitats in Belize. At the northern end of the village lies “the Split”, a narrow (but widening) channel cut by Hurricane Hattie in 1961; it’s a popular place to relax and swim. Although there’s a reasonable beach along the front of the caye (created by pumping sand from the back of the island), the sea nearby is full of seagrass, so head to the Split or hop off the end of a dock if you want to go for a dip.
Some of Caye Caulker’s hotels have been renovated to provide more upscale accommodation, but the island still has an abundance of simple, inexpensive, shared-bath rooms. Book in advance, especially at Christmas and New Year’s. Even the furthest hotels are no more than ten minutes’ walk from the front dock.
Diving here is excellent, and instruction and trips are usually cheaper than in San Pedro: open-water certification starts at US$300, two-tank dives at US$60, trips to the Blue Hole at US$200 and trips to the Turneffe Islands at US$150. Most places in town offer enthusiastic, knowledgeable local guides, regular fast boat trips and a wide range of diving courses.
Restaurant prices in Caye Caulker are quite high compared to the rest of the country, and it can be difficult to find a meal for less than Bz$15. Still, lobster (in season) and seafood are delicious and generally good value. You can self-cater from several shops and supermarkets on the island, and children sell home-made banana bread, coconut cakes and other goodies. Note that the tap water is unfit to drink; rainwater and bottled water are widely available. Many bars offer a happy hour from 3–7pm, with local spirits being the least expensive option.
A more romantic way to enjoy the sea and the reef is to spend the day on a sailboat, which costs around US$45–55 per person, and usually includes several snorkelling stops and lunch, arriving back as the sun goes down. Raggamuffin Tours offers sunset cruises for US$25 with rum cocktails and ceviche included. A number of establishments along Front Street rent kayaks: Tsunami Adventures charge only US$5 per hour. Many tour operators, including Anwar Snorkel Tours, organize trips inland to Altun Ha (from US$80) and Lamanai (from US$90).
Snorkelling the reef is an experience not to be missed; its coral canyons are home to an astonishing range of fish, along with eagle rays and perhaps even the odd shark (almost certainly harmless nurse sharks). Because of the reef’s fragility, visits to the marine reserves and the reef itself must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Trips are easily arranged at the island’s snorkel and dive shops – expect to pay US$30–40 per person for a half-day and US$45–65 for a full day. Most day-trips stop at the reef as well as Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark-Ray Alley. It’s possible to rent sea kayaks from several places on Front Street for independent snorkelling closer to the island, where some coral is visible; most shops offer kayaks for Bz$30 per hour, and snorkel gear for Bz$20.
For snorkelling, recommended operators include: Anwar Snorkel Tours, north of the front dock (t 226-0327, w www.anwartours.page.tl); Carlos Tours, near the Sandbox (t 226-0058, e firstname.lastname@example.org); Raggamuffin Tours, near the north end of Front St (t 226-0348, w www.raggamuffintours.com); and Tsunami Adventures, near the Split (t 226-0462, w www.tsunamiadventures.com). For diving, try: Frenchie’s, towards the northern end of the village (t 226-0234, w www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com); or Belize Diving Services, on Back St (t 226-0143, w www.belizedivingservices.net).
About 80km east of Belize City is Belize’s outermost atoll, Lighthouse Reef, home to the popular underwater attractions of the Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye Natural Monument.
The Blue Hole, technically a karst-eroded sinkhole, is over 300m in diameter and 135m deep, dropping through the bottom of the lagoon and opening out into a complex network of caves and crevices; its depth gives it an astonishing deep-blue colour that is, unfortunately, best appreciated from the air. Though visibility is generally limited, many divers still find the trip worthwhile for the drop-offs and underwater caves, which include stalactites and stalagmites. Unfortunately for budget travellers, trips to the Blue Hole – which must be led by a licensed guide or company – usually cost at least US$200.
The Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, the first marine conservation area in Belize, was declared a national park in 1982 and became one of Belize’s first World Heritage Sites in 1996. The 180,000-square-metre caye is divided into two distinct ecosystems. In the west, guano from sea birds fertilizes the soil, enabling the growth of dense vegetation, while the eastern half has mostly coconut palms. A total of 98 bird species has been recorded here, including frigate birds, ospreys and a resident population of four thousand red-footed boobies, one of only two such nesting colonies in the Caribbean. Upon arrival (most people come as part of a tour), visitors must pay the Bz$20 entrance fee at the visitors’ centre; you can camp here (t 223-5004; US$10 per person), but you need to call ahead for permission.
Coral reefs are among the most fragile ecosystems on earth. Colonies grow less than 5cm a year; once damaged, the coral is far more susceptible to bacterial infection, which can quickly lead to large-scale irreversible deterioration. All licensed tour guides in Belize are trained in reef ecology, and should brief you on reef precautions. If exploring independently, keep the following points in mind:
• Never anchor boats on the reef – use the permanently secured buoys.
• Never touch or stand on the reef.
• Don’t remove shells, sponges or other creatures, or buy reef products from souvenir shops.
• Avoid disturbing the seabed around corals – clouds of sand smother coral colonies.
• If you’re a beginner or out-of-practice diver, practise away from the reef first.
• Don’t use suntan lotion in reef areas – the oils remain on the water’s surface; instead, wear a T-shirt to guard against sunburn.
• Don’t feed or interfere with fish or marine life; this can harm not only sea creatures, but snorkellers and divers too – large fish may attack, trying to get their share.
Although Caye Caulker and San Pedro are the only villages on the reef, there are a couple of dozen other inhabited islands, as well as some excellent diving spots. The virtually uninhabited Turneffe Islands, 40km from Belize City and south of cayes Caulker and Ambergris, comprise an oval archipelago of low-lying mangrove islands around a shallow lagoon 60km long. These are enclosed by a beautiful coral reef, which offers some of the best diving and snorkelling in Belize. The island boasts several resorts, all of which are out of the reach of the typical budget traveller, but you can still visit this incredible spot on a day-trip from San Pedro and Caye Caulker.