Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Snorkeling In Ambergris Caye, Belize


After years of "adventurous" vacations in which we would usually travel hundreds of miles off the beaten track, we decided to just stay in one place and relax this time. I am starting law school in the fall so this would be our last trip for several years, and we really needed to de-stress.

I'm glad we chose Ambergris Caye. We had a great time despite some rain. After visiting Caye Caulker and the North end of Ambergris Caye, I think we would've been happier in either of those two places -- both were a little quieter, cleaner, and more laid-back. But San Pedro was fun too. And if you like to go out for dinner and hit the bars, it's the place to be. It's also in close proximity to all the tourist-related services.

Of all the things we did there, I'd have to say the snorkeling was the most amazing. I haven't snorkeled since I was a little kid, and the sea life was just breathtaking. It's worth a trip just for that reason. I can see why divers flock there.

Part of why we chose Ambergris Caye is because we like to avoid the over-Americanized "resort"-type places a la Hawaii, Cayman Islands, etc. But Ambergris Caye ended up being more resort-y than we expected. Not to say it wasn't enjoyable, just different. And with all the development, it will clearly become even more of a resort area as tourism continues to explode.


We got a great deal on tickets from Grupo Taca, and I've never had better service on an airline. It was a pleasant surprise after some folks had warned us about "Take A Chance Airlines!" But the flights were on time to the minute and early on most legs. It's the first time I've ever flown out of SFO on time. The only time we were late was on our return trip, because a belligerent couple had to be forcibly removed from the airplane before takeoff! The entertainment value was almost worth the 45-minute delay. :)

We flew in through San Salvador and were surprised at how nice and modern the airport there is. My boss was a reporter there during the revolution and remembers it quite differently -- he got a real kick out of the pictures I took!

Tropic Air was also very convenient and professional. And I'd say it's worth it to fly to Ambergris Caye just for the spectacular views. Remember that when you arrive at the Int'l terminal in Belize you have to go through a door marked "No Admittance" to get to the Tropic Air terminal -- tricky!


We stayed at the Banana Beach Resort south of San Pedro, which I thought was very nice. The full kitchen plus living room was wonderful to have. We hadn't been sure about spending the extra $25 a night for the "ocean view room," but it was definitely worth it. We spent hours just relaxing in the breeze on our own private veranda, taking in the gorgeous view.

A few people on the Ambergris Caye message board we participated in had been asking questions about the construction project going on there. They're apparently building a whole new wing onto the hotel. Here's a picture of what's happening:

I felt a little deceived that management didn't disclose this when we made our reservations. But the noise really wasn't much of a problem.

One thing that did bother me was that was that checkout was at 11am and they refused to let us check out a couple of hours late (our flight was at 3pm and we wanted to do one last half-day snorkel trip and be able to shower before leaving). I thought that was rather stingy, considering we'd just spent almost $1000 there. Nevertheless, overall I would definitely recommend it.


Every place we went took U.S. dollars and Belize dollars interchangeably. You could even pay in half of one, half of the other. The post office was the only exception I encountered. Bring all the cash you'll need, though, I understand there aren't any ATMs. I didn't see any.


There are scruffy, stray dogs everywhere around San Pedro. As a dog "mommy" and former SPCA volunteer, I found that really hard to take. With no inoculations I'm sure many suffer and die from painful diseases. Some were covered with mange. Others were just skin and bones. It was heartbreaking to see every day. There is a group called the Saga Society that works to help the animals, you can send them a donation or buy a really beautiful fundraising calendar at http://www.ambergriscaye.com/sagasociety/. You can also donate in little wooden boxes set up around town.


Frankly, we were shocked at how many people brought small children to Ambergris Caye. It's something we'd strongly consider before returning. It's really hard to enjoy a romantic moment watching the sun rise on your private veranda when there's a baby screaming ten feet away! We barely got to use the pool because there were always kids shrieking and jumping in and out of it. That may be partly due to the fact that we stayed in a hotel with in-room kitchens (I imagine that attracts more people with kids), but we saw similar problems at Capt. Morgan's Retreat and other places that are marketed as being romantic and upscale. Although we loved Ambergris Caye, next time we may choose somewhere less "kid-friendly."

Other than that, we liked the mix of tourists. There were a lot of people our age (20s-30s) and most were very friendly. Sure, there were a fair amount of cruise-ship-type folks, but we still met many people we had a lot in common with, which always adds to the fun!


The crystal-clear water off the reef is not replicated near the shore. The water's semitransparent... you can see the bottom until you get about waist-deep. It reminded me a lot of where I grew up in Southern California. The waves are small due to the reef.

Some people had been concerned about sea grass, but you can easily spot the dark patches where it grows and swim around it. Even if you don't, it's just grass -- not really a problem in my book.

The beaches are fine for laying on, just make sure your hotel has someone to rake away the dead sea grass each day. In areas where it's not removed, it piles up and gets stinky.


We were there 7 days, and the first two it was overcast with showers, temperatures in the 60s to low 70s. The third day it rained. The remaining four days were sunny and in the 80s. There was always at least a bit of wind, and the humidity was high (which I *love* so that was a plus!).

I should add a note about the sun -- don't underestimate its power so close to the equator! Even with gobs of sunblock, my fair-skinned hubby got burned. I never burn, so I used only #4 sunscreen our first day, and I got fried! If you burn easily, be sure to bring hats, light long-sleeve shirts, etc.


I don't like talking about how much things cost, but I know how beneficial it is to people planning a trip, so I've included per-person tour prices in U.S. dollars. Oddly, we booked all our trips through Tuff Enuff, but the boats and guides were always from Searious. I'm not sure how that worked, or if they had an agreement, or what. Here's what we did:

Altun Ha Tour ($60)

We hadn't planned on going inland but it rained that day, so what the heck! Our guide from Searious, Willy, was very knowledgeable.

The boat ride up the Northern River through the mangroves was really interesting. We debarked at the ramshackle village of Bomba and took a bus to the ruins, which are quite impressive.

Later we got back on the bus and spent a couple of hours at the Maruba Resort and Spa, a beautiful rainforest-themed place. You could get lunch or a massage/facial/etc. Those options were pretty pricey so we grabbed some Rum Punches from the bar and hung out by their gorgeous pool. Later we relaxed in the secluded hot tub, which was surrounded by plants, as the cool rain fell on our faces.

Manatee Tour ($75)

Willy again took us on this trip. We went South to Swallow Caye and saw five adult manatees and a baby. They came right up to the boat!

Then we cut across to Goff's Caye, a gorgeous tiny island that was the Belize of my dreams. Crystal-clear water and snorkeling right off the shore. After snorkeling, Willy prepared a delicious BBQ lunch for us.

We got back in the boat later to check out a place where sharks and rays congregate (not Shark Ray Alley) and we marveled as Willy fed them and they swarmed around us. I was really surprised the sting rays didn't try and sting us!

Finally, we stopped to check out Caye Caulker for about an hour -- it was more laid-back than Ambergris Caye, with a younger crowd. As I say, I kind of wish we'd stayed there instead!

Mexico Rocks/Tres Cocos Half-Day Snorkel ($25)

We were the only two people on this half-day trip so we kind of got to go where we wanted. Our guide, Alfredo, was a snorkeler, and seemed genuinely interested in showing off his favorite spots. Tres Cocos was spectacular! It was very shallow. We spotted a nurse shark hiding in a cave, a Queen Triggerfish, tons of gorgeous parrotfish, and lots of barracuda!

Hol Chan/Shark Ray Alley Half-Day Snorkel ($20)

We again had the boat to ourselves! I'm glad we went to Hol Chan last (day before we left) because everywhere else paled in comparison. Yes, it was crowded. But it was so worth it. We saw every kind of marine animal you can think of.

Shark Ray Alley was SWARMING with people, but again, it was worth visiting. The snorkeling on the reef in that area was also spectacular. In addition to many other things, we saw a big moray eel that came out of his cave hoping for a snack (our guide had sardines). My hubby carelessly got too close and almost lost a finger! :)

Although our guide, Geoffrey, was informative, we were kind of irritated that he forced us to leave Hol Chan before we were ready (since we were the only couple on the trip, I didn't see why we couldn't stay longer before moving on to Shark Ray Alley). Also, the half-day trip was supposed to be 9:00-12:30, and he had us back by 11:30. I could easily have snorkeled an hour longer!

Anyway, despite the crowds, Hol Chan is NOT TO BE MISSED!


* La Popular Bakery: YUM YUM YUM! We kept coming back. It's geared towards locals and is delicious and dirt-cheap.
* Fido's: We just had pina coladas and split a rice and beans dish. Other people we met on the trip found it overrated, but we thought what we had was delicious, and the service was very friendly.
* Mango's: My favorite place we ate. It's so cheerful and friendly, too. I felt bad for the owners, though -- the *day* we arrived, a new law had gone into effect preventing them from serving booze before 6pm because there's a school across the street. I could tell it was hurting business. But the huge selection of (non-alcoholic) smoothies more than made up for it, in my book!
* Jambel Jerk Pit: VERY spicy, but good and authentic. Great Caribbean atmosphere.
* Rico's: Beautiful setting -- we had their breakfast buffet the day we left. It wasn't particularly exciting, pretty much the usual breakfast buffet fare, but was good and satisfying.

Well I don't want to go on forever, but those were my general thoughts on Ambergris Caye. Would we go back? I'd like to! But it's changing so quickly, I know in 10 or even 5 years, it will be a completely different place. Hopefully the change will be for the better!

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