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Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
Dives off Ambergris are usually single tank at depths of 50 to 80 feet, allowing about 35 minutes of bottom time. Diving trips run around BZ$90 for a single-tank dive, BZ$150 for a two-tank dive, BZ$90–BZ$110 for a one-tank night dive, BZ$450–BZ$500 for a three-tank full-day drive trip to Turneffe atoll, and BZ$700–750 for day trips with three dives to Lighthouse Reef. Atoll rates include breakfast, lunch and marine reserve admission. Dive gear rental is usually extra—a full package of gear including wet suit, buoyancy compensator, regulator, mask, and fins is around BZ$60–BZ$80. Snorkeling by boat around Ambergris generally costs BZ$70–BZ$100 per person for two or three hours or BZ$140–BZ$200 for a day trip, including lunch. If you go to Hol Chan Marine Reserve there's a BZ$20 park fee, but this fee is sometimes included in the quoted rate. A snorkel trip to the Blue Hole is around BZ$450–BZ$480, including the BZ$80 Marine Reserve fee. Snorkel gear rental may be additional. Prices also may not include 12.5% tax. (Businesses are supposed to include the 12.5% GST in their quoted prices, but not all do.) Most dive shops will pick you up at your hotel or at the nearest pier.
Be careful when snorkeling off docks and piers on Ambergris Caye. There’s heavy boat traffic between the reef and shore, and boat captains may not be able to see snorkelers in the water. Several snorkelers near shore have been killed or seriously injured by boats.
Dive and Snorkel Sites
Bacalar Chico Marine National Park & Reserve. Development on Ambergris continues relentlessly, but most of the far north of the island remains pristine, or close to it. At the top of the caye, butting up against Mexico, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve spans 41 square miles (105 square km) of land, reef, and sea. Here, on 11 miles (18 km) of trails you may cross paths with whitetail deer, ocelots, saltwater crocodiles, and, according to some reports, pumas and jaguars. There are excellent diving, snorkeling, and fishing opportunities, especially off Rocky Point, and a small visitor center and museum will get you oriented. You'll need a boat and a guide to take you here, where there are some small, unexcavated Mayan ruins. Be sure to bring insect repellent. An all-day snorkel trip to Bacalar Chico from San Pedro costs around BZ$170–BZ$220 per person. Trips from Sarteneja also are offered for about the same cost. North end of Ambergris Caye, Ambergris Caye. BZ$10 or BZ$30 for weekly pass.
Belize Barrier Reef. The longest barrier reef in either the Western or Northern hemispheres (it's just a widely accepted rumor that it's the second-longest barrier reef in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia), the Belize Barrier Reef is off the eastern shore of Ambergris Caye. From the island shore, or from the air, you see the coral reef as an almost unbroken chain of white surf. Inside the reef, the water is clear and shallow, and the reef itself is a beautiful living wall formed by billions of small coral polyps. Just outside the reef, the seabed drops sharply, and from a distance the water looks dark blue or purple. The reef is closest to shore on far north end of Ambergris Caye. In and around San Pedro town, the barrier reef is a few hundred yards off the beach. ½ mi (1 km) east of Ambergris Caye (it's closer to shore the farther north you go on the island)., Ambergris Caye.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The reef's focal point for diving and snorkeling near Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker is the spectacular Hol Chan Marine Reserve (Maya for "little channel"). It's a 20-minute boat ride from San Pedro, and about 30 minutes from Caye Caulker. Hol Chan is a break in the reef about 100 feet wide and 20 to 35 feet deep, through which tremendous volumes of water pass with the tides. Shark-Ray Alley, now a part of Hol Chan, is famous as a place to swim, snorkel, and dive with sharks (nearly all are nurse sharks) and Southern sting rays.
Especially during peak visitor periods to the cayes or when several cruise ships are docked off Belize City, snorkel tour boats can stack up at Hol Chan. Check locally to see when Hol Chan may be less busy, and consider visiting in early morning before most of the tours arrive.
The expanded 21-square-mi (55-square-km) park has a miniature Blue Hole and a 12-foot-deep cave whose entrance often attracts the fairy basslet, an iridescent purple-and-yellow fish frequently seen here. The reserve is also home to a large moray eel population.
Varying in depth from 50 feet to 100 feet, Hol Chan's canyons lie between buttresses of coral running perpendicular to the reef, separated by white, sandy channels. You may find tunnel-like passageways from one canyon to the next. It's exciting to explore because as you come over each hill you don't know what you'll see in the "valley." Because fishing generally is off-limits here, divers and snorkelers can see abundant marine life, including spotted eagle rays and sharks. There are throngs of squirrelfish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, and queen angelfish, as well as Nassau groupers, barracuda, and large shoals of yellowtail snappers. Unfortunately, also here are lionfish, an invasive Indo-Pacific species that is eating its way—destroying small native fish—from Venezuela to the North Carolina coast. Altogether, more than 160 species of fish have been identified in the marine reserve, along with 40 species of coral, and five kinds of sponges. Hawksbill, loggerhead, and green turtles have also been found here, along with spotted and common dolphins, West Indian manatees, sting rays and several species of sharks.
The currents through the reef can be strong here at times, so tell your guide if you're not a strong swimmer and ask for a snorkel vest or float. Also, although the nurse sharks are normally docile and very used to humans, they are wild creatures that on rare occasions have bitten snorkelers or divers who disturbed them. off southern tip of Ambergris Caye, Ambergris Caye. 526/2247 Hol Chan office in San Pedro. www.holchanbelize.org. BZ$20, normally included in snorkel or dive tour charge.
Shark-Ray Alley. Shark-Ray Alley is a sandbar within Hol Chan Marine Reserve where you can snorkel alongside nurse sharks (which can bite but rarely do) and stingrays (which gather here to be fed) and near even larger numbers of day-trippers from San Pedro and from cruise ships. Sliding into the water is a small feat of personal bravery—the sight of sharks and rays brushing past is spectacular yet daunting. Although they shouldn't, guides touch and hold sharks and rays, and sometimes encourage visitors to pet these sea creatures (which you shouldn't do, either). The Hol Chan Marine Reserve office is on Caribena Street in San Pedro. A night dive at Shark-Ray Alley is a special treat: bioluminescence causes the water to light up, and many nocturnal animals emerge, such as octopus and spider crab. Because of the strong current you'll need above-average swimming skills. Southern tip of Ambergris Caye in Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Ambergris Caye. 226/2247 Hol Chan office on Caribena St. in San Pedro. www.holchanbelize.org. BZ$20 marine reserve fee included as a part of Hol Chan fee.
Dive Shops and Operators
Many dive shops and resorts have diving courses. A half-day basic familiarization course or "resort course" costs around BZ$300–BZ$350. A complete four-day PADI open-water certification course costs BZ$800–BZ$1,000. One popular variant is a referral course, where the academic and pool training is done at home, or online, but not the required dives. The cost for two days in Belize is about BZ$550–BZ$650. Prices for dive courses vary a little from island to island, generally being least expensive on Caye Caulker. However, even prices on Ambergris Caye, which tends to have higher costs for most activities, are a little lower than on the mainland.
If you're staying on Ambergris Caye, Glover's Reef is out of the question for a day trip by boat. Even with perfect weather—which it often isn't—a trip to Lighthouse Reef takes between two and three hours. Most trips to Lighthouse and the Blue Hole depart at 6 am and return at 5:30 or 6 pm, making for a long day in the sun and water. Turneffe is more accessible, though it's still a long and costly day trip, and you're unlikely to reach the atoll's southern tip, which has the best diving.
Amigos del Mar. Amigos del Mar, established in 1987, is perhaps the island's most consistently recommended dive operation. The PADI facility has a dozen dive boats and offers a range of local dives as well as trips to Turneffe Atoll and Lighthouse Reef in a fast 56-foot dive boat. Amigos charges BZ$150 per person for a local two-tank dive, not including equipment rental (if needed) or 12.5% tax, and BZ$600 for a 12-hour trip to the Blue Hole, including BZ$80 park fee and lunch but not equipment rental or tax. An open water certification course is BZ$900. Amigos also offers snorkel and fishing trips. On a pier off Barrier Reef Dr., near Mayan Princess Hotel, San Pedro. 226/2706 or 800/882–6159. www.amigosdivebelize.com.
Ecologic Divers. This PADI shop has won a good reputation for safety, service, and ecologically sound practices. Local two-tank dives go out daily at 9 and 2 and cost BZ$150, not including any equipment rental or 12.5% tax. Full-day Turneffe trips are BZ$500 including breakfast and lunch, but not 12.5% tax. On pier at north end of San Pedro, just south of The Phoenix resort, San Pedro. 226/4118; 800/244–7774 in U.S. and Canada. www.ecologicdivers.com.
Hugh Parkey's Belize Dive Connection. The long-established Hugh Parkey's Belize Dive Connection has moved its main dive shop operation from Belize City to the dock of the SunBreeze Hotel in San Pedro. The late Hugh Parkey was a pioneer in diving in Belize, and this dive operation maintains Parkey's legacy of excellence. BDC has a 46-ft dive boat and does trips to the barrier reef as well as to Turneffe and Lighthouse atolls. Dive/hotel packages with SunBreeze are offered. SunBreeze Hotel Pier, Beachfront, San Pedro. 220/4024. www.hpbelizeadventures.com.
Lil' Alphonse Tours. Offering snorkeling only, Lil' Alphonse himself usually captains the tours, doing a fabulous job making snorkelers feel comfortable in the water. Coconut Dr., across street from Changes in Latitudes B&B, San Pedro. 226/3136. www.ambergriscaye.com/alfonso.
Patojo's Scuba Center. Operated by Elmer "Patojo" Paz, who has nearly 20 years of diving experience, Patojo's Scuba Center at The Tides Hotel is a small dive shop with a good reputation. The Tides Hotel, north end of San Pedro, San Pedro. 226/2283. www.ambergriscaye.com/tides.
SEAduced by Belize. This well-run snorkeling, sailing, and tour company does full-day snorkeling trips to Bacalar Chico and to Mexico Rocks and Robles Point. Trips include a lovely beach barbecue. SEAduced also does Hol Chan snorkel tours, plus mainland trips to Maya sites and cave tubing. This locally run company offers sailing cruises as well. Vilma Linda Plaza, Tarpon St., San Pedro. 226/2254. www.seaducedbybelize.com.
SEArious Adventures. This long-established snorkeling and sailing shop does day snorkel trips to Caye Caulker (BZ$100 plus park fees and equipment rental), along with a variety of other snorkel and sail trips. It also offers day sails and mainland tours. Beachfront, on dock, between Tarpon and Black Coral St., San Pedro. 226/4202. www.seariousadventures.com.
White Sands Dive Shop. White Sands Dive Shop isn't at White Sands Resort but at Las Terrazas. Never mind, this PADI dive center is run by Elbert Greer, a noted diver and birder who has taught scuba in San Pedro for more than 20 years, getting some 2,500 divers certified. A daily scheduled dive and snorkel boat picks up at island resorts starting around 9 am. Las Terrazas, North Ambergris Caye, Ambergris Caye. 226/2405. www.whitesandsdiveshop.com.
How to Choose a Dive Master
Many dive masters in Belize are former anglers who began diving on the side and ended up doing it full-time. The best have an intimate knowledge of the reef and a superb eye for coral and marine life.
When choosing a dive master or dive shop, first check the web. Participants on forums and newsgroups such as www.ambergriscaye.com and www.scubaboard.com field many questions on diving and dive shops in Belize. On islands where there are multiple dive shops, spend some time talking to dive masters to see which ones make you feel most comfortable. Find out about their backgrounds and experience, as well as the actual crew that would be going out with you. Are they dive masters, instructors, or just crew? Get a sense of how the dive master feels about reef and sea life conservation.
Besides questions about costs and equipment, ask:
How many people, maximum, go out on your dive trips?
Is there a minimum number of divers before you'll make the trip?
What dive sites are your favorites, and why?
What kind of boats do you have, and how long does it take to get where we're going?
Who is actually in the water with the divers?
What kind of safety and communications equipment is on the boat?
What's the procedure for cancellation in case of bad weather?
How do you decide if you're going out or not?
If you're not comfortable with the answers, or if the dive shop just doesn't pass your sniff test, move on.
If you want to hit the best dive spots in Belize and dive a lot—up to five or six dives a day—live-aboard dive boats may be your best bet. The two main international live-aboard companies serving Belize, Aggressor Fleet and Sun Dancer, have merged. Their two live-aboard boats in Belize concentrate on dives around Lighthouse Reef atoll and the Blue Hole. The boats are based at the Radisson Fort George Hotel in Belize City.
Expect to pay about US$2,300–US$2,700 per person double occupancy for six days of diving. The price includes all dives, meals, airport transfers, and stateroom accommodations on the dive boat. It doesn't include airfare to Belize, overnight stays at a hotel before or after the dive trip if necessary, tips, U.S. port fees (US$95), some alcoholic beverages, equipment rentals, Nitrox, port charges, and incidentals.
Agressor Fleet. The Agressor Fleet operates two live-aboards in Belize, the Belize Aggressor III and Sun Dancer II. Guests are met at the international airport near Belize City and are taken to the dock at the Radisson Fort George. Boats leave on Saturday evening for Lighthouse Reef, Half Moon Caye, and the Blue Hole, with as many as five or six dives each day available. They return the next Friday. The Aggressor III can accommodate up to 18 passengers in nine staterooms. It's a 110-ft luxury cruiser with a hot tub and sundeck, powered by twin 500-horsepower engines. The Sun Dancer II, a 138-ft yacht, can accommodate up to 20 passengers in 10 staterooms. All staterooms on both live-aboards have private heads, TVs, and DVDs, plus individual climate controls. Lighthouse Reef. 706/993–2531 U.S. office; 800/348–2628 in the U.S. and Canada; 223/0748 shore office in Belize. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.aggressor.com. Sun Dancer II, US$2,295 to $2,495 per person; Aggressor III, US$2,495 to $2,695. Rates are plus US$95 for U.S. port fees and do not include airfare to Belize, equipment rentals, Nitrox, alcoholic beverages (except local beer), or gratuities.
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