Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma (2015)
The Northern Cayes
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Hol Chan Marine Reserve: The second-largest barrier reef in the world is less than a mile offshore from both Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Spending a day here is akin to swimming in a giant aquarium (click here).
S Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve: This UNESCO World Heritage Site at the northern tip of Ambergris Caye boasts spectacular snorkeling and diving (click here).
S The Split: Caye Caulker’s best swimming area is a unique scene where visitors and locals alike sun themselves on concrete slabs, snorkel, or dance at the on-site beach bar (click here).
S Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary: This protected area is home to the endangered West Indian manatee and is one of several worthwhile excursions offered from the Northern Cayes (click here).
S The Elbow: Advanced divers visit this steep drop-off where swift currents collide, hoping to spot deep-water predatory fish as well as a wall of interesting sponges (click here).
S Half Moon Caye National Monument: A birder’s paradise, this beautiful crescent-shaped island on Lighthouse Reef Atoll is home to more than 4,000 red-footed boobies and 120 other species. It’s also one of the best diving spots in Belize (click here).
Once the favorite hideout and playground of pirates, the Northern Cayes are Belize’s greatest tourism draw, and with good reason. These postcard-perfect islands offer quick access to the Belize Barrier Reef and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a dizzying array of outdoor activities, and enough lodging, restaurants, and entertainment options to fit celebrity and backpacker budgets alike.
Located close to Belize City, the Northern Cayes are ideal for adventurers short on getaway time. This cluster of islands includes the iconic Great Blue Hole and two of Belize’s three atolls—Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef—for world-class diving, snorkeling, and fishing. And that’s not all: As the most tourist-ready region in all of Belize, the Northern Cayes host an estimated 70 percent of visitors for their first Belizean experience. This fusion of local culture with a constant stream of international visitors makes for one lively scene.
Avid divers tend to stay on one of the atolls to minimize travel time to top dive sites; otherwise, it’s a two-hour boat ride each way from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. Ambergris, generally referred to as San Pedro, attracts those seeking constant activity—there is incessant hustle and bustle, not to mention pretty hotels and pools, chic lounges, fine dining, and plenty of bars and nightlife. Smaller Caye Caulker attracts the laid-back, off-the-beaten-path traveler, those who seek immersion in local island life, exploring sand-only streets on foot or bicycle (there are no cars here!). There’s an amusing sibling rivalry between the two cayes—larger Ambergris Caye considers Caye Caulker slow and boring, while the smaller caye is content with the lack of noise, paved roads, and crowds. In reality, each has a varied slice of Belize to offer, excellent water sports, and island fun, and neither is a wasted visit.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
A common dilemma is whether to stay on Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker, each unique in rhythm and scenery. The good news is that they are a mere 20-minute water-taxi hop away from each other, with tours available from either base.
Ambergris Caye’s foodie treasures and luxury accommodations attract travelers seeking both excellent diving and nonstop nightlife. San Pedro is considered the “trendy” part of Belize, with more resorts, bars, lounges, eateries, and general day-to-day activities than most of the country. There’s a steady buzz here, and events take place year-round, attracting not only visitors but also Belizeans from the city seeking a quick, fun getaway. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most popular dive and snorkel site in Belize. Located on and around the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve hosts an incredibly diverse array of wildlife and offers excellent snorkeling and diving.
Caye Caulker’s slower yet rhythmic Caribbean vibe will appeal to the laid-back visitor while still offering excellent diving opportunities. The Split is the favorite go-to swimming and sunset rendezvous spot on the island. Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, at the north end of the Drowned Cayes, is a protected area with nearly 9,000 acres of sea and mangroves to explore.
Outside these two cayes are the upscale Turneffe Islands, with diving opportunities at The Elbow and Lighthouse Reef Atoll, home to the some of the best dive spots in the world—Half Moon Caye and Long Caye.
San Pedro and Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is Belize’s largest island, just south of the Mexican Yucatán mainland and stretching southward for 24 miles into Belizean waters. Ambergris (“AM-bur-giss”) is 35 miles east of Belize City and about 0.75 miles west of the Belize Barrier Reef. The island was formed by an accumulation of coral fragments and silt from the Río Hondo as it emptied from what is now northern Belize. The caye is made up of mangrove swamps, a dozen lagoons, a plateau, and a series of low sand ridges. The largest lagoon, fed by 15 creeks, is 2.5-mile-long Laguna de San Pedro, on the western side of the village.
San Pedro Town sits on a sand ridge at the southern end of the island, the only actual town on the island and the most-visited destination in Belize. It is chock-full of accommodations, restaurants, bars, golf carts, and services. San Pedro is also the most expensive part of Belize, with prices for some basic goods and foods double the mainland prices and sometimes even more than similar services and restaurants in the United States.
Whether arriving by air or sea, your trip to Ambergris begins in San Pedro Town—the heart of the island’s activity, where most of the restaurants, bars, nightlife, shopping, and hotels are clustered. Three streets run north-south and parallel the beach on the island’s east side. Residents still refer to them by their historic names: Front Street (Barrier Reef Dr.), Middle Street (Pescador Dr.), and Back Street (Angel Coral St.). Another landmark is at the north end of town, where the San Pedro River flows through a navigable cut. This spot is often referred to as “the cut” or “the bridge,” referring to the toll bridge that replaced the hand-drawn ferry. Past the bridge are some exclusive resorts, hotels, and lounges. You’ll also hear the term “south of town,” referring to the continually developing area south of the airstrip and south of San Pedro Town, accessed by Coconut Drive and starting past Ramon’s Village Resort, where more upscale retreats can be found, along with some casual and lively outdoor bars.
S Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Once a traditional fishing ground back when San Pedro was a sleepy village of a few hundred people, Hol Chan Marine Reserve (www.holchanbelize.org, US$12.50 pp) is the most popular dive and snorkel site in Belize, with tens of thousands of visitors each year. The site is four miles south of San Pedro and makes for an affordable morning or afternoon trip. In town is a small visitors center on Caribeña Street with information on the reserve. Nearly all tour operators on Ambergris and Caye Caulker offer trips to the Hol Chan cut.
Once you visit, you’ll quickly understand the popularity of the reserve—and why it is important to help preserve it. Established as a marine park in 1987, when fishing was banned, Hol Chan boasts an amazing diversity of species. The reserve focuses on creating a sustainable link between tourism and conservation, protecting the coral reef while allowing visitors to experience and learn about the marinelife living here.
Along with a stop at Hol Chan is one at Shark Ray Alley—a nearby zone of the reserve where stingrays and six-foot-long nurse sharks have gathered over the years thanks to anglers who often cleaned their catch in this area. Used to getting their scraps of fish, the nurse sharks anticipate the boats and are used to humans—although it is best to keep a safe distance. The thrill of jumping in waters surrounded by these creatures is something to experience at least once.
Note that officially it is illegal to feed or touch the fish. Even if your guide tells you differently, and even if you see other groups caressing the nurse sharks and rays, this is against the reserve rules and regulations and against all normal protocol for interacting with wildlife, as it should be. That said, San Pedro anglers and tour guides have been feeding the animals in this spot every day for over 15 years, so some argue that an exception should be made, or that there is some educational benefit to interacting with the animals. Best to leave only bubbles, I say.
San Pedro House of Culture
Tucked a couple of streets back from the beachfront area of San Pedro, the San Pedro House of Culture (across from the Sports Stadium, Angel Coral St., tel. 501/226-4531, firstname.lastname@example.org, 8am-5pm daily, free) is small but an encouraging effort at sharing more of Belize’s and Ambergris’ history with visitors—something that was otherwise lacking on the island. The showroom displays artifacts found at the Marco Gonzalez Maya Site, Garifuna instruments and utensils, and hosts rotating exhibits of interest to the San Pedro community. The one I experienced was an excellent Rastafari and Bob Marley exhibit celebrating the icon’s 70th birthday. A volunteer is on hand to help explain and guide you through if you need. There’s no entry fee, but visitors are free to donate or tip as they see fit.
The Marco Gonzalez Maya Site
Those looking for a little Mayan history right on the island can find it at the Marco Gonzalez Maya Site (for a tour contact Jan Brown, tel. 501/662-2725, www.marcogonzalezmayasite.com, US$10 site, US$8 transportation), just a 30-minute golf-cart ride from San Pedro to the south end of Ambergris Caye. Of an estimated 18 Mayan sites on the island, Marco Gonzalez was the first site to receive archaeological reserve status in 2011. History and adventure buffs will enjoy private guided tours of this virgin site, currently under study, which was inhabited by the Maya for 1,600 years. Head here with Jan Brown, a passionate expat and the reserve’s chairperson, as your guide.
While the site continues to be preserved, cleaned, and examined for its history of the coastal Maya, it is literally a museum in the wild. A tour is an eco-adventure in itself, requiring careful navigation to avoid stepping on pieces of Mayan ceramics, with rainforest wildlife encounters along the way. Over the past few years, students have helped excavate parts of the site, revealing plaza structures and tombs. Human bones have been found, including skull fragments and skeletons as well as cutting tools made out of volcanic rock, thought to have been imported from Honduras and used for Mayan bloodletting rituals.
Bone fragments discovered at the site are still being studied
This may be the only place in the world where you can visit an ancient Mayan trading city on an island and spot pieces on the site that date back to 100 BC. On the way back to San Pedro, stop along the way to enjoy the scenic views from the south side, some of the most beautiful on Ambergris Caye.
S Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve
Located on and around the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve hosts an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, offers excellent snorkeling and diving, and is rich with history. The Bacalar Chico Canal is reputed to have been dug by Mayan traders between AD 700 and 900, creating Ambergris Caye by separating it from the Yucatán Peninsula. The reserve has a wide range of wildlife habitat; 194 species of birds have been sighted there. The landscape consists in part of sinkholes and cenotes created by the effects of weathering on the limestone bedrock of Ambergris Caye. On the eastern side of the reserve is Rocky Point, the only location in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System where the reef touches the shore. This is one of Belize’s most important and prolific sea turtle nesting sites, home to at least 10 threatened species. In 1997, Bacalar Chico—along with the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Bacalar Chico also contains at least nine archaeological sites: Mayan trading, fishing, and agricultural settlements that were inhabited from at least AD 300 to 900. A 10th site just outside the reserve boundary is regarded as especially important for its remaining wall network throughout the settlement and its potential to provide missing information about the transition from the classic Mayan period to modern times. The reserve also contains evidence of Spanish and English habitation during the colonial period, including several Spanish-period shipwrecks offshore.
A ranger station in the northwest area of the park has a visitors center (tel. 501/226-2833, http://bacalarchico.org) and displays of area history, including old glass bottles and Mayan relics found within the reserve. A picnic area offers a barbecue.
ACCOMMODATIONS AND FOOD
The two places to stay nearest Bacalar are on a beautiful hard-packed white-sand beach 12 miles north of San Pedro. The boat ride from town takes anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes, well past the last stop on the water taxi. These options are for folks who want to feel like they are on another island, not for people who want to drive golf carts, party, and be “in the mix” (though all the standard tours are still available, probably with a little extra transportation cost).
Tranquility Bay Resort (U.S. tel. 800/843-2293, www.tranquilitybayresort.com, from US$139) is the only resort on the island where you can snorkel directly from the beach to the reef. Every evening, tarpon, barracuda, and eagle rays swim under the lights of the dockside restaurant, appropriately named The Aquarium. There’s a budget room just off the beach, along with seven brightly painted two-bedroom cabanas and three one-bedrooms with lofts, lining one of the nicest white-sand beaches on the island. Bedrooms are air-conditioned, and each cabana is equipped with a refrigerator and a microwave. The cabins have Belizean hardwoods, Mexican tiles, and spectacular ocean views. The resort offers free use of kayaks, which can cover a lot of ground at this site, and there is an on-site dive shop. Fishing, snorkeling, scuba, and sailing trips are available.
Most Ambergris dive shops and a few tour companies that do dive and snorkel trips to Bacalar Chico are based in San Pedro. Start with Seaduced by Belize (tel. 501/226-2254, www.seaducedbybelize.com, US$105 pp) and Searious Adventures (tel. 501/226-4202, www.seariousadventures.com, US$90), or arrange a trip with Tranquility Bay Resort (U.S. tel. 800/843-2293, www.tranquilitybayresort.com) or The Turtleman’s House (tel. 501/664-9661, http://turtlemanshouse.com).
SPORTS AND RECREATION
It is often said that you shouldn’t expect the wide-open uninterrupted beaches seen in neighboring Mexico and other Caribbean destinations. The comparison is one between apples and oranges: Belize is unique in having a barrier reef, and one that’s a short distance from the coastline, stopping any wave action from reaching the shores and leading to the buildup of sea grass in the shallow waters along the beach. This is a small sacrifice for a nearby natural wonder. To say there is no beach whatsoever is a stretch. It does require a little trekking away from San Pedro Town to find the better ones; the town’s beachfront is nothing more than a long sandy pedestrian sidewalk, although you can still feel sand beneath your toes, and the ocean views are as beautiful as ever.
The best swimming and sunning section in San Pedro Town is directly in front of Ramon’s Village Resort. This is where most head for a swim and a snorkel. Numerous docks also give access where swimming might otherwise be difficult—but please beware of boat traffic, and make sure you are visible at all times as there have been accidents in the past.
Beach enthusiasts have more choices just a short 15 to 30 minutes from town. A few of the hotels and bars on Ambergris Caye’s north and south ends have wider, softer white-sand areas and better swimming entry points, although patches of sea grass are ever present.
One option is to head north of the bridge (by water taxi, bike, or cart, depending on how far you are going) and park yourself at one of the several beachfront bars or resorts—Palapa Bar is a great spot, as is Portofino resort, well worth the lengthier 30-minute boat ride with its boutique yet laid-back atmosphere, infinity pool, and calming views. Grab a meal or a cocktail and you can use the docks and dip your toes in that sand and clear water. One of the best natural swimming and snorkeling beaches is also 12 miles north of San Pedro at Tranquility Bay Resort.
Going south, lovely stretches shaded by dozens of palm trees are by Victoria House, one of the most gorgeous resorts on the island, or by Catamaran Beach Bar at Caribbean Villas. Start at any of these and hop your way along the beach.
Diving and Snorkeling
Almost every hotel on Ambergris either employs local dive shops or has its own on-site shop and dive masters. They offer similar services: resort courses, PADI or NAUI certification classes, day trips, and snorkel trips to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Bacalar Chico, and others. Some also offer night dives, and a few have nitrox capabilities. Ultimately, what makes the difference is the experience of the instructor or dive master, the quality of the equipment, the specialty in dive sites, the size of the boat, and the size of the groups (an important factor if you want to avoid “cattle boats”). Prices are pretty standard around the island: Local two-tank dives are about US$75, plus rental fees and tax; resort courses are US$160; open-water certification runs US$450-470; advanced certification is US$380; three-tank dives to the Blue Hole are US$250-325 and to Turneffe US$235.
dive shop on Ambergris Caye
Snorkeling and Diving off Ambergris Caye
Choose from a casual snorkel in town or a half- or a full-day snorkel or dive tour by boat. The first option is for days when you want to stay close to shore; the second is for exploring marinelife and coral, a must when in Belize. Be sure to observe snorkel and reef etiquette at all times.
✵ Ramon’s Village Resort (Ramon’s Dive Shop pier, tel. 501/226-2071, U.S. tel. 800/624-4215, www.ramons.com) has an artificial reef that is home to a wide variety of small reef fish. Snorkel trips to the Belize Barrier Reef are available.
✵ Hol Chan Marine Reserve (reserve office on Caribeña St., www.holchanbelize.org) is the crown jewel of snorkeling, located four miles southeast of San Pedro Town.
✵ Shark Ray Alley is usually included on a trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Snorkel alongside large southern stingrays and nurse sharks and view spectacular coral formations, or dive the Amigos Del Mar tugboat wreck.
✵ Mexico Rocks, on the reef north of town, is the place to see a huge variety of coral formations.
✵ Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, near the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, is an incredible site with a stunning diversity of wildlife and coral—at least 187 species of fish and several important spawning aggregation sites, plus loggerhead, green, and hawksbill sea turtles.
Beginners and experienced divers or snorkelers alike have several solid choices. Chuck and Robbie’s (Boca del Rio Dr., tel. 501/610-4424, www.ambergriscayediving.com, 2-tank dive US$80) are a favorite among locals as well as visitors. Many clients return year after year to dive with the same long-term and friendly staff. Chuck and Robbie’s runs frequent dive trips to nearby spots, including night time dives at Hol Chan Marine Reserve. PADI courses are also available.
Hugh Parkey’s Diving (at the SunBreeze Hotel, beachfront in central San Pedro, tel. 501/226-4526 or 501/670-5239, www.belizediving.com) specializes in local dives only. Ecologic Divers (tel. 501/226-4118, www.ecologicdivers.com), with the best-looking dock in town, offers regular Blue Hole and atoll journeys in the comfort of their new covered dive boat—taking no more than 12 divers at a time—as well as night dives. Patojo’s Scuba Center (tel. 501/206-2283, email@example.com) is another option. All have proven reputations for safety and service.
Snorkeling gear can be rented from Ramon’s Village Resort (Ramon’s Dive Shop pier, half-day US$5, full-day US$10), and there is decent marinelife just at the end of their dock, specially created for those seeking to snorkel in town. If you decide to explore from another dock, beware of boat activity at all times, as there have been serious accidents.
Snuba and Sea Trek
To change it up a bit from regular snorkeling or for those who want to avoid diving, try snuba or sea trek. Both allow for an underwater experience and a chance for fun photo ops and videos without fretting about a tank or equalizing.
Snuba lets you explore the barrier reef at depths of up to 20 feet without getting scuba certified and without a heavy tank strapped to your back: Breathing is through a regulator, receiving air through a long 20-foot line attached to a support raft that floats safely at the surface. Training is provided in 15 minutes, and anyone over age eight can participate as long as they can swim.
Sea trek consists of hiking the sea floor, literally: Plop on a cool helmet that receives almost three times the amount of air needed through a hose. So far, the only certified outfitter to offer this new way of experiencing Hol Chan is Discovery Expeditions (Exotic Caye Beach Resort Pier, tel. 501/671-2882 or 501/671-0748, www.discoverybelize.com, US$68-74, including hotel transfers but not the US$10 Hol Chan park fee) out of San Pedro, which is also a snuba outfitter. If you’re staying on Caye Caulker, you may be able to arrange the tour through your hotel and catch the water taxi over to San Pedro for a day. Another option offered is to “power snorkel”—snorkeling with a hand-held power scooter.
Boating and Sailing
Explore the Caribbean the way it was meant to be traveled: by sea. Old standby boats include the “old-school sailing trip” aboard the refurbished Rum Punch II (moored north of Cholo’s Sports Bar, tel. 501/610-3240), operated by longtime resident and captain George Eiley, offering glass-bottom-boat snorkel tours, beach barbecues, and sunset charters.
The Sirena Azul (Blue Tang Inn, corner of Sandpiper St. and the sea, tel. 501/226-2326, U.S. tel. 866/881-1020, www.bluetanginn.com), is a 40-foot Belizean hardwood beauty operated out of the Blue Tang Inn. Built by a boat-building family in the northern village of Sarteneja, and with an added diesel onboard engine and restroom, this sailboat an experience worth the extra cost. Sunset sails (US$50 pp, drinks included; private charter US$350 for 1-6 people) are popular, although the boat also goes on snorkeling day trips.
Another popular and fancy cat for private rental or for sunset sails is Seaduction, operated by Seaduced by Belize (tel. 501/226-2254, www.seaducedbybelize.com). Ecological Divers now offer sailing charters aboard their two 50-foot catamarans as well as sunset dinner cruises by the reef.
For a more rustic and laid-back sail, spend the day with the Rubio brothers snorkeling, fishing, and drinking aboard No Rush, a quaint 36-foot catamaran that can be booked through Unity Tours (tel. 501/226-2326 or 501/600-5022, www.ambergriscaye.com/unitytours, full-day snorkel US$75 pp, half-day US$50 pp). Reef Runners (tel. 501/602-0858, www.ambergriscaye.com/reefrunner, full-day snorkel US$45 adults) has 24-foot-long glass-bottom boats for snorkel tours and fishing trips, and they know these waters well. You can’t miss their bright-yellow boats docked beside the San Pedro Belize water taxi terminal. Searious Adventures (tel. 501/226-4202, www.seariousadventures.com) offers sailing and snorkeling activities.
A notch up is Belize Sailing Vacations (tel. 501/664-5300 or U.S. tel. 866/873-1171, www.belizesailingvacations.com, from US$1,295), providing luxury sailing charters with “the amenities of an all-inclusive luxury resort aboard your own private catamaran, tailored to your own personalized itinerary.” This dream itinerary goes from island-hopping to snorkeling and diving on the way or just relaxing on board. A popular choice is Doris, a 50-foot catamaran with four air-conditioned cabins, four baths, lounge areas, plasma TVs, and your very own chef on board.
The area within the reef is a favorite for tarpon and bonefish. Outside the reef, the choice of big game is endless. Most hotels and dive shops will make arrangements for fishing, including a boat and a guide. Ask around the docks (and your hotel) for the best guides. Serious anglers should consider Abner Marin at GoFish Belize (beachfront at Boca del Rio Dr., tel. 501/226-3121, www.gofishbelize.com), one of the most qualified and reputable guides around. Or try Uprising Tours Fishing (Front St., tel. 501/662-7413, firstname.lastname@example.org), another sure bet with half- or full-day chartered fishing trips; ask about their lobster beach barbecue fishing trip.
Little wave action and regular trade winds make kayaking a great option off Belize’s cayes. Ideal spots to navigate are on the south side of the island near Xanadu Island Resort or Victoria House, with wider open space and less boat activity. The north end also offers quieter options for rowing in safety. Many hotels offer complimentary use of kayaks. If not, check with San Pedro Water Sports (Tackle Box dock, tel. 501/226-2888, www.sanpedrowatersports.com, single kayak US$15 per hour) or with Ramon’s Village Resort (dockside, US$15 per hour, US$35 per day).
BIG SUP (Boca Del Rio Dr., Chuck & Robbie’s Dock, tel. 501/602-4447, www.bigsupbelize.com, 8am-5pm daily, US$15 per hour, includes basic tips) has gorgeous stand-up paddleboards available for rent—including racing boards—and beginner classes and SUP tours to the reef. If you’re into yoga, you’ll want to show up at 1pm Tuesday for their popular weekly Yoga SUP class. Owners Derek and Kelly Angele are setting up the first Belize SUP Association.
BIG SUP offers weekly yoga on paddleboards.
The latest wind sports are always the rage. It’s not surprising, given the often-ideal weather conditions. There’s that “constant breeze in Belize” that locals love to brag about—the result of Caribbean trade winds that hit the islands from November to July. Combine it with a nearby reef that creates flat waters, and voilà!
Sailsports Belize (beachfront at Grand Caribe, 2 miles north of San Pedro, tel. 501/610-0773, www.sailsportsbelize.com) is a solid and affordable choice for windsurfing, kite surfing, and sailing. Its location is on a calm stretch of beach by Grand Caribe resort, on the north end of the island. Lessons and courses are offered with licensed instructors (introduction to windsurfing and 2-hour rental US$99; beginner kite surfing 5-hour course US$303) and hotel delivery is available for rentals (windsurfing US$22 per hour, sailing US$49 per hour).
San Pedro Water Sports (Tackle Box dock, tel. 501/226-2888, www.sanpedrowatersports.com) has equipment for rent, including paddleboards (US$15 per hour) and windsurfing boards. Adrian is happy to give you pointers on paddleboarding if it’s your first time.
Ramon’s Village Resort’s dive shop has windsurfing or Hobie Cat catamaran lessons (US$45-70 for 2 hours) and equipment rentals (windsurfing US$20 per hour, Hobie Cat US$30 per hour).
KiteXplorer (beachfront, tel. 501/635-4967, http://kitexplorer.com/kitex, 9am-6pm daily) shares a dock with Patojo’s Dive Center and has two licensed instructors offering kite surfing or paddle surfing lessons (kite surfing intro US$90, stand-up paddle surfing US$45 for 1.5 hours). Rentals are also available for paddle surfing and kite surfing (US$20-120 per hour). The ideal months for these weather-influenced sports are November to July, with March to July offering the strongest winds. KiteXplorer also operates out of Caye Caulker.
The Grand Slam: Belize’s Fly-Fishing Competition
Chasing tail in Belizean waters is on the dream list of anglers worldwide and has been for decades. Many also head here for a chance to achieve the grand slam: catching a tarpon, permit, and bonefish in one day. Doing so is no small feat—some spend as much as a week of daily excursions and even years attempting it. Those who succeed automatically gain a spot in a de facto exclusive group of top-rated anglers.
While visitors can conduct their own grand slam fly-fishing mission year-round in Belize, Ambergris Caye holds an annual catch-and-release sportfishing tournament and event known as the Tres Pescados Slam Tournament. It’s the fly-fishing competition of all fishing competitions, with teams descending on San Pedro from other countries and parts of Belize to compete in catching the big three in just three days. Teams consist of one or two fly-fishers and a Belize Tourism Board licensed guide. Held annually since 2009, the competition is more intense than ever to win prestigious titles, including Top Guide, Top Female Angler, Best Men’s and Women’s Casting, and generous cash prizes.
The money raised by the tournament supports a worthwhile cause. Up to 15 teams participated in 2012, donating US$7,000 to the Bonefish Tarpon Trust Project in Belize, benefiting bonefish, permit, and tarpon fisheries.
Nonfishing family members can have fun too, as the three-day event includes weekend long games and activities, usually held at the Central Park in San Pedro.
A great way to relax and catch spectacular views of the island and reef, weather permitting, is to parasail with Castaway Caye Watersports (Di V’u dock, formerly Wet Willy’s dock, across from Reef Adventures, tel. 501/671-3000, www.castawaycaye.com, US$79 single, US$139 double). Castaway also offers Jet Ski rentals (US$99 per hour), kayak rentals, and kiteboarding lessons.
Birding and Wildlife-Watching
Although many people come here for the reef, Ambergris also offers birding and nature tour opportunities.
Take a boat ride along the north of the island, where wildlife can be spotted along the beach and also in the lagoon on the back side, a peaceful, rarely visited part of Ambergris. Sightings may include egrets, great herons, and, if you’re lucky, crocodiles. For customized tours and other island nature tours, check with any of the beachfront operators or with Seaduced by Belize (tel. 501/226-2254, www.seaducedbybelize.com).
Xanadu Island Resort has a lush marked nature trail at the back of the property; stop in at the front desk for directions.
Another potential bird-watching spot all the way south of the island is the Marco Gonzalez Maya Site (tel. 501/662-2725, www.marcogonzalezmayasite.com, US$10 site, US$8 transportation). Kill two birds with one stone (no pun intended) by visiting a Mayan site—the only one of its kind on Ambergris Caye.
Massage and Bodywork
If your hotel lacks a proper gym and you’d rather pump iron than dive, the Train Station (tel. 501/226-4222, www.trainstationfitness.com) is 2.5 blocks south of the bridge. CrossFit has also gained popularity, and you’ll find a qualified center at Sun and Sand CrossFit (Hurricane Way, south of town, adjacent to the airstrip, tel. 501/665-5560, www.sunandsandcrossfitbelize.com, US$15 per class). In San Pedro, you’ll find both scheduled yoga classes (drop-in US$15) and private sessions at Sol Spa (Phoenix Hotel, tel. 501/226-2410, www.belizesolspa.com, 9am-5pm daily), a small but cozy retreat offering a range of treatments and massages like Honeymoon Bliss, Solar Therapy, and Maya Abdominal Massage.
Land Tours from San Pedro
While staying on Ambergris Caye provides plenty of entertainment and pretty sights, Belize’s beautiful interior of rainforests, rivers teeming with wildlife, underground caves, and Mayan sites is not to be missed. Most tour operators in San Pedro offer full day trips to the mainland, or they can easily be arranged through your hotel. Take a break from the sea and hop on one of these memorable inland adventures.
If you’re looking to combine these tours and save a few bucks, look into package deals and book in advance. Searious Adventures (tel. 501/226-4202 or 501/226-4206, www.seariousadventures.com, US$150) offers interesting ones. Remember to bring sunscreen, insect repellent and a hat or sunglasses. If touring in the summer—the rainy season—pack a light rain jacket.
LAMANAI RIVER SAFARI AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
If your schedule only allows one land tour, opt for this daylong journey through the wilderness. The trip (7am-5:30pm daily mid-Nov.-mid-Apr., US$152 pp) begins with a water taxi ride toward the mainland, just under an hour away. From there, you’ll take a short 30-minute van ride that will carry you to the banks of the New River, in northern Belize. A riverboat takes you slowly along the New River—one of Belize’s most beautiful bodies of water—where you’ll spot howler monkeys, birds, iguanas, snakes, and, if you’re lucky, crocodiles. Bring your camera, as the scenery is quite incredible. Once the boat is docked at the Lamanai site, a hike begins through a lush rainforest, leading to the archaeological site itself and the various Mayan temples. Climb up the High Temple and take in the 360-degree view of the surrounding canopy and river before descending and heading back to San Pedro in time for sunset.
CAVE TUBING AND THE BELIZE ZOO
The scenery and experience of navigating a river in a tube and floating through ancient Mayan ceremonial caves is straight out of a movie. You’ll leave San Pedro early on this tour (7am-5:30pm daily mid-Nov.-mid-Apr., US$169 pp, breakfast and lunch included) and land in the mainland’s western district of Cayo, one of Belize’s top adventure destinations. When you’re done cave tubing, it’s just over an hour’s ride to the 29-acre Belize Zoo. Anything but typical, the zoo houses animals that are native to Belize, particularly those that were orphaned, injured, or need special care. Set in a lush rainforest and an environment that’s as natural as can be, the zoo is home to the country’s top five cats, including jaguars, pumas, and ocelots, along with Belize’s national animal, the tapir.
A block away from Front Street is Black Orchid Spa (Tarpon St., Vilma Linda Plaza, 2nd Fl., tel. 501/226-3939, www.blackorchidspa.com, 9am-8pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-5pm Sun.), with good reviews but set in the hustle and bustle of San Pedro, which might snap you back into reality too quickly as you leave the oasis.
A short distance before reaching the bridge going north, for a more casual option and an authentic Caribbean setting, look for Shirlene Santino’s Just Relax Massage and her seaside massage chair and hut (between Caye Casa and Wayo’s Beach Bar, tel. 501/666-3536, deep tissue US$40 per hour, house calls US$55). Shirlene has special oils for any ailment ranging from sunburn to back aches. Call ahead for an appointment.
Farther up north is Serenity Spa and Wellness Center at Las Terrazas Resort (U.S. tel. 800/447-1553, www.lasterrazasresort.com), with the “Unbelizeable Facial” and other treatments.
Ak’Bol Yoga Retreat (tel. 501/226-2073, www.akbol.com) is one of the few places in Belize offering daily yoga classes (usually at 9am), popular among residents.
ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENTS
San Pedro boasts the best nightlife in the country, whether your idea of fun is dancing up a storm, barhopping, dining to live music, or betting on chicken poop—it’s all here. San Pedranos have a weeklong calendar of places to be. Wednesday and Saturday are the biggest nights out, and water taxis actually change their schedules to accommodate revelers. But other nights are popular as well, including Monday for live punta music and Thursday because of the Chicken Drop. In general, the hot spots don’t get going until 11pm or midnight, with lots of warming up in various bars before the bumpin’ and grindin’ begins.
BARS AND LOUNGES
Diving or touring by day and partying by night is the standard San Pedro scene, although some really do barhop all day long. There are enough watering holes on the island for serious drinkers. Lately, more upscale lounges have found their way to the north and south of the island.
Starting in the center of town, the buzz-filled beachfront Cholo’s Sports Bar (tel. 501/226-2406, 10am-midnight daily) is a modest but perfect local hangout and the heart of San Pedro’s social scene. You’ll find the cheapest drinks in town (US$1.50 for a rum and Coke) and plenty of people-watching from the outdoor tables, as it’s close to the water taxis and dive shops. Ceviche is the only bar snack, but it’s made fresh daily. Expect to see only men on the inside, sitting at the bar or playing pool.
A few stumbling steps from Cholo’s on the roadside is Lola’s Pub (Front St., tel. 501/206-2120, 11am-midnight daily), a popular after-work or weekend hangout. Beautifully lit shelves house top-shelf liquor, and the bistro-like atmosphere is casual and friendly, with a couple of flat-screen TVs and music. Bartender Trevor is one of the best on the island.
Farther down the beach is Fido’s Courtyard (Front St., tel. 501/226-3176, www.fidosbelize.com, 10am-midnight Mon.-Fri., 10am-2am Sat.-Sun.), the largest bar-restaurant complex in town, catering mostly to travelers with a live rock band (and sadly, no local Belizean music) almost every night in the high season and an all-day full menu that ranges from bar foods to dinner.
Place your bets at the weekly Chicken Drop at 6pm Thursday in front of Wahoo’s Lounge and Bar (beachside in the Spindrift Hotel, tel. 501/226-2002) and adjacent to Caliente Restaurant (tel. 501/226-2170, 11am-9:30pm Tues.-Sun.). A chicken is let loose on a numbered grid after revelers place bets on which number the chicken will choose to soil. The winner takes a cash prize, but not before cleaning up the poop. Warm up at Wahoo’s Lounge and Bar with two-for-one rum punches and a DJ playing calypso and upbeat local sounds on the beach, or with Caliente Restaurant’s two-for-one happy hour (4pm-6pm daily) and delicious nachos.
The beachfront outdoor Señor Marlin’s Sports Bar (tel. 501/672-0212, 11am-midnight daily) was named after the massive marlin caught and brought back in the owner’s canoe. Just a few steps from Central Park, the bright green exterior and the interior palapa decor are complemented by stiff drinks and an excellent DJ playing reggae, dancehall, and house tunes. Umbrella-covered seating is available directly on the beach. It’s one of my favorite spots.
The slightly more upscale Caprice Bar Grill (Holiday Hotel, Barrier Reef Dr., tel. 501/226-2014, email@example.com, 11am-9pm daily), with interior and beachfront dock seating, is a decent choice for its popular half-price weekday happy hour (3pm-6pm Mon.-Fri.).
Also on San Pedro’s beachfront, Hurricane’s Ceviche Bar and Grill (tel. 501/226-4124, 10am-10pm Wed.-Mon.), set on a dock over the water, serves a variety of—you guessed it—ceviche. It has a very friendly barkeep and a narrow hidden top deck for views of the water and the beach. The Rehab Bar (Front St., no phone, daily), a small patio bar next to the Jaguar’s Temple disco, is a favorite for people-watching.
South of San Pedro, Crazy Canucks Beach Bar (S. Coconut Dr., tel. 501/670-8001) has live music and dancing on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday afternoon. You’ll find happy customers and meet interesting characters playing cards, horseshoes, dominoes, and other games. Also on Coconut Drive, directly across from Canucks, look for the Roadkill Bar (S. Coconut Dr., tel. 501/628-6882, 3:30pm-midnight daily), another popular open-air hangout with karaoke on Wednesday, and a free beer with a shot of tequila for US$5 until 9pm. Their “panty ripper” cocktails are delicious.
A short distance before the north bridge is the lively Wayo’s Beachside Beernet (Boca del Rio, tel. 501/661-8271, 10am-midnight daily), a casual, colorful outdoor hangout ideal for drinks, a bite, and a swim all day long, or for nighttime fun with the occasional karaoke night. Across from the bar a palapa and a hammock are set even closer to the water. Owner “Wayo from Cayo” will even pick you up at night and give you a ride back if needed—ideal for solo female travelers.
Wayo’s Beachside Beernet is one of several fun outdoor bars on Ambergris Caye.
A stone’s throw away is Sandy Toes Beach Bar & Grill (Boca del Rio, tel. 501/601-0920, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-noon daily, US$3-5), a casual, wooden beach bar popular with locals and travelers and where there’s never a dull moment, from the friendly owners to the frequent live music and Sunday barbecue specials. The food is equally satisfying—try the stuffed jalapeños and the ceviche.
North of San Pedro, the legendary Palapa Bar (tel. 501/226-3111, 10am-about 9pm daily) is an absolute must-stop while on Ambergris, whether for lunch, sunset, or a lazy evening of appetizers (US$4-6), barbecue, beer, and cocktails. For the full Palapa Bar experience, bring a bathing suit so you can swim and float in an anchored inner tube and have the bartender lower you down a bucket of beer and take up your empty ones. It’s a short golf cart ride north of the bridge, or US$3.50 by water taxi from the Coastal Express dock in San Pedro.
Live Music in San Pedro
Music aficionados will find their fix in San Pedro. It’s the most frequent, steady, weeklong schedule of musicians and bands you’ll find anywhere in Belize, although other parts of the country tend to have more local sounds and less in Western genres. Overall, San Pedro’s offerings reflect a mix that keeps visitors and locals happy on a year-round basis—from soothing Latin melodies over dinner to light rock, jazz, and blues bands catering to travelers and expats, and local punta rock sounds for a taste of the Afro-influenced Garífuna side of Belize. And there’s no extra cover charge! Up for it? Here’s your weeklong itinerary.
Monday, start out at Crazy Canucks Beach Bar (beachfront, S. Coconut Dr., tel. 501/670-8001, 7:30pm-11pm Mon.) with live reggae from 8pm. The crowd is a mix of visitors, expats, and locals.
Tuesday gives you a chance to get behind the mic on Jam Night at popular Legends Burger House (north of the bridge, tel. 501/226-2113, noon-midnight Tues.). Ask about the other live-music nights, including Saturday.
Wednesday, start out mellow with Cuban music and tapas at Red Ginger (Phoenix Resort, tel. 501/226-4623, www.redgingerbelize.com, 6pm-9pm Wed.), a more intimate option.
Thursday, it’s Fido’s Courtyard (Front St., tel. 501/226-2056, www.fidosbelize.com, 6pm-close Thurs., 9pm-close Fri.) for a beachfront setting. A regular lineup of light rock or jazz bands fills this large indoor and outdoor space. While there isn’t much “local” about Fido’s, it’s there if you need an option. Over at Legends (north of the bridge, tel. 501/226-2113) is live reggae. Not to be missed, however, is the local Belizean music at the Chicken Drop event just down from Fido’s at Wahoo’s Lounge (Front St., tel. 501/634-6008, www.wahoosloungebelize.com, 6pm-midnight Thurs.), playing a mix of calypso, reggae, punta, and more. It’s possibly the closest you’ll come to dancing barefoot to local music on San Pedro’s “beach.”
Indulge in live Reggae at Blue Water Grill (on the beach, behind the SunBreeze Hotel, tel. 501/226-3347) on Friday nights; Saturday, you can rock and roll at Wahoo’s.
Sunday is “Funday” in Belize. Everything shuts down except the bars and restaurants, and everyone relaxes, swims on the beach, drinks Belikins, listens to music, and breaks out the barbecue grills. Try Crazy Canucks Beach Bar (S. Coconut Dr., tel. 501/670-8001, noon-close Sun.) or Caribbean Villas (Seagrape Dr., tel. 501/226-2715, www.caribbeanvillashotel.com, 7:30am-9pm Sun.). Wherever you end up, don’t forget your swimming gear to take advantage of the docks and swimming pools.
Kama Bar Bistro (set in from the north-side road, tel. 501/610-3775 or 501/226-3709, email@example.com, noon-10pm daily) raises it up a whole notch and is quite possibly the sexiest lounge and bar in Belize. This waterfront escape is a sight to be seen, with lilac voile curtains flowing over a maze of red cushy beds, a small plunge pool in the center, hookahs standing tall on every table, a full bar, and a decent-tasting menu of kebabs, ceviche, pasta, and panini. The evening red mood lighting is impossible to miss from the water, not to mention lounge beats that make you sink farther into the camas (beds). There are regular Tuesday hookah nights, live music or a DJ on weekends, occasional movie nights on a 15-foot screen, full moon parties, and more.
Farther up north is Rojo Beach Bar (at Azul Belize, next to Matachica Resort, tel. 501/226-4012, www.azulbelize.com, noon-10pm Tues.-Sat.), a trendy but casual waterfront spot with beds, a pool, fancy cocktails, and absolutely delicious food. Ask for Finn and you’re sure to laugh and make a new friend.
If a quieter, pre-dinner glass of wine is more your beat, try the Friday-night wine social at Wine de Vine (Coconut Dr., tel. 501/226-3430, www.winedevine.com, 4pm-7pm Fri.).
Monday is “happening” at Crazy Canucks Beach Bar (S. Coconut Dr., tel. 501/670-8001, 7:30pm-11pm Mon.) with a live reggae band. Get ready to throw back the cocktails, meet locals, and get jammin’. The band begins around 8pm.
You can dance to a live band on Wednesdays (and just about any day of the week) at Fido’s (beachfront, tel. 501/226-3176), a popular beachfront restaurant and bar, and Saturday gets going when the bars close at midnight and everyone wanders across the street to Jaguar’s Temple (tel. 501/226-4077, www.jaguarstempleclub.com, from 9:30pm-4am Thurs.-Sat.), the most popular and decent nightclub in Belize. The two-story interior is complete with a large dance floor, two bars with spacious standing room, air-conditioning, and just the right amount of snazzy disco lighting. After Jaguar’s, the insatiable night owls often stumble over to Daddy Rocks Nightclub (tel. 501/607-2229, 10am-4am Thurs.-Sat., 11am-4am Sun.), just across the street in the park. It has a can’t-miss-it flamboyant exterior (you’ll have to see it to believe it) and stays open until 7am. The music is more the reggae and dancehall type, while Jaguar plays a mix of all genres, from house to reggae and Latin, and attracts more of a “cool” crowd, though as a visitor you’ll dance at either one. The fun gets started around 11pm-midnight and can go until 4am and later.
Festivals and Events
San Pedro’s events are a year-round affair. These celebrations bring even more crowds, but experiencing them is a chance to witness the San Pedrano joie de vivre.
The San Pedro Carnaval (mid-Feb.) encompasses copious amounts of colorful paint splattered on the crowd, egg throwing, men dressed like women, and all-around Mardi Gras-type debauchery. The highlights of three days of partying include cultural dance performances on opening night as well as comparsas, street dance groups competing for prizes.
The two-day Lagoon Reef Eco-Challenge Kayak Race (tel. 501/226-2247, www.ecochallengebelize.com, June, registration US$200-500) attracts professional, amateur, and junior kayakers (over age 15) from around the world to compete in a 60-mile race around the entire island. The race begins south of Ambergris, passes by the lagoon side and through mangrove cayes on day one, and reaches the northern tip at Bacalar Chico for the night before continuing back down the island along the reef on the second day. The funds raised go toward promoting the connection between the island’s lagoons and the reef—both an integral part of the island’s ecosystem and vital to the livelihood of its inhabitants.
Lobsterfest (first week of June) is now among the most anticipated events on the island. It is a celebration of the opening of the lobster season with week-long bar crawl events—for which you can collect points and enter incredible trip giveaways—outdoor food festivals and cook offs, and ending with a big Saturday night concert in Central Park.
San Pedro holds the Día de San Pedro (end of June), a three-day festival in honor of Saint Peter, the island’s patron saint. There are traditional dances, pageants, food vendors, and music showcasing the island’s mixed Belizean, Mexican, and Mayan heritage. If you can only attend one day, come opening night.
The Costa Maya Festival (first weekend in Aug.) is considered Belize’s biggest festival—perhaps in size, because it attracts guests and participants from the neighboring Maya Mundo in one big celebration of heritage. It’s worth checking out to sample all the fantastic food vendors.
The island celebrates Independence Day (Sept. 21) with the Independence Day Parade. San Pedro’s parade rivals even the capital’s, with carnival floats, costumes, marching bands, free rum and beer, beach after-parties, and children and adults dancing in the streets. It’s an ideal time to visit, not least for the festivities and off-season prices.
Gift shops abound in San Pedro, especially on Front and Middle Streets; they’ve got your postcards, beach apparel, towels, hats, T-shirts, hot sauces, and the usual knickknacks.
Arts and Crafts
Belizean Arts (Fido’s Courtyard, tel. 501/226-2056, www.belizeanarts.com, 11am-7pm daily) sells art, jewelry, ceramics, and carvings by Central American and Belizean artists. The well-established shop has the largest selection of original paintings in Belize.
An exciting newcomer is 12 (Tarpon St., top floor of Vilma Linda Plaza, 8am-4pm daily), a gift shop featuring Belizean-only products—the first of its kind in Belize—selected from artists all around the country. Whether it’s coffee and cacao from Punta Gorda, handcrafted soaps from Caye Caulker, or woven purses from Maya Bags, you’ll have access to the latest and greatest, made right here in Belize. Each product rack has a label on its creator, and staff is on hand for more information. Owner Laura Goldman, who also runs Romantic Travel Belize, launched the boutique after high demand from brides for made-in-Belize gift packages.
Belizean Melody Art Gallery (Front St., tel. 501/226-2787, www.belizemelodyart.com, 9am-6pm Mon.-Wed., later close Thurs.-Sat.) has carefully selected paintings, crafts, and unique handmade souvenirs, all guaranteed to be made in Belize. Transforming her great-grandmother’s house into a gallery, San Pedro native, owner, and artist Melody Sanchez Wolfe—currently the visual and expressive arts director for the island’s cultural committee—is passionate about providing an outlet for the success of fellow Belizean talents, some as young as 18. Hand-painted shell magnets are just an example of some unique made-in-Belize souvenir items, and the gorgeous paintings aren’t to be found anywhere else.
Directly across the street is the new San Pedro branch of Belize’s popular gift store, Orange Gallery (14 Barrier Reef Dr., tel. 501/824-3296, 9am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-5pm Sat.-Sun.) carrying works by artists from the Cayo District, including jewelry and stainless steel knives.
Clothing and Jewelry
The small, established Ambar (Fido’s Courtyard, tel. 501/226-2824, firstname.lastname@example.org, 10am-5pm daily) offers beautifully handcrafted jewelry—from anklets to necklaces and rings—made with a variety of imported stones, from resin amber to Maya jade, onyx and larimar, as well as silver. Owner Elizabeth moved from France over 20 years ago and is an experienced healer who is passionate about her store and loves to welcome newcomers into her creative space.
Two chocolate stores in town source their cacao from Punta Gorda’s Cacao Growers Association. The Chocolate Boutique (Front St., next to Wild Mango’s, tel. 501/226-3015 or 501/610-4828, www.belizechocolatecompany.com, 10am-6:30pm Mon.-Sat.) has chocolate bars, truffles, and “kakaw” powder as well as chocochino and other delicious chocolate drinks. The cacao body oil and bars make great gifts. A few steps down Front Street, right beside the water taxi alley, is Moho Chocolate (cell 501/633-6595, www.mohocholate.com, 9am-6pm daily), also selling chocolate bars and chocolate-anything gifts; get some free samples and then get a bottle of the Maya Cocoa Kahlúa mix to make your own Belizean chocolate-based Kahlúa. The owners of Moho also run the Cotton Tree Lodge in Punta Gorda, famous for its chocolate-making workshops. Moho works with several independent cacao growers in the Toledo District. The original Moho Chocolate store is in Belize City’s Tourism Village.
For unique decadent gifts, the Rum, Cigar & Coffee House (Middle St., 1 block from Elvi’s Kitchen, tel. 501/226-2020, 9am-9pm daily) has a walk-in humidor with Cuban and Belizean cigars as well as their own San Pedro-made Jankunu rum cream creations (which are very tasty, I might add) and delicious freshly roasted Guatemalan Arabica coffee. The coffee is available for sale and sampling (US$1 per cup), and the shop has a couple of tables should you decide to savor it on-site.
Wine de Vine (Coconut Dr., tel. 501/226-3430, www.winedevine.com, 9am-6pm daily, 7pm close Tues., 8pm close Fri.) has the finest selection of imported wines in all of Belize and a worldwide selection of cheeses and meats. They offer free wine tastings and also sell it by the glass. Premium Wines (tel. 501/226-3700, 9am-6pm Mon.-Sat.) on Front Street has a selection from seven countries and offers wholesale pricing: Buy 12 bottles and get a 17 percent discount. Prices range from US$17 for a California wine to US$14 for a white French table wine.
Ambergris Caye has over 100 licensed hotels, mostly mid-range and increasingly upscale resort lodging. The few places geared toward backpackers and extreme budget travelers are located either right in San Pedro Town or on the outskirts by the airstrip. Otherwise, here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding on a hotel.
First off, in downtown San Pedro, the word beachfront refers to the very narrow strip of sand that is used more as a pathway for pedestrians and boats than for lounging on sand. The views are still pretty and you can still find plenty of space to sun yourself, but as you move farther from town, either to the north or south along the island, the beaches fronting the resorts become wider, softer, and more exclusive.
Of course, what you give up in beach quality you get back in location: “In town” means being in the middle of the buzz of cafés, bars, boutiques, dive shops, dancing, and dining. If you’re more into privacy, all this action is easily accessible from any resort on the island by boat, taxi, or golf cart. And those in town can easily escape north or south for the day as well for more exclusive restaurants and scenery.
Keep in mind that rates across the board are subject to seasonal fluctuations, service charges, and government taxes. Always verify and ask about discounts before booking. Remember that rates are for double occupancy during the high season.
In addition to hotels and luxury lodges, there are many apartment and house rentals available around the island. To start, check the classifieds from the San Pedro Sun (www.sanpedrosun.net) and the San Pedro Daily (sanpedrodaily.com). Other sources for vacation homes are M&M Rentals (U.S. tel. 949/258-5268, www.mandmrentalsbelize.com) and Caye Management (tel. 501/226-3077, www.cayemanagement.com), which has an office that’s open daily on the north edge of town at Casa Coral.
San Pedro has had slim pickings in this category for a long time, but new beachfront hostels are now under way in 2014-2015. A reliable option is S Ruby’s Hotel (tel. 501/226-2063, email@example.com, US$21-44), with 23 basic, clean guest rooms in a well-maintained building right on the water in the heart of the village. Ruby’s Café and pastry shop downstairs is excellent and a San Pedrano institution, and you can sit on your room’s balcony or the common deck space with some fresh morning johnnycakes and watch the beach traffic below. Guest rooms have either shared or private bath with a fan or air-conditioning.
Hostel La Vista (Barrier Reef Dr. or Front St., across from Central Park, tel. 501/668-6798, www.hostellavista.com, US$20 pp) does indeed have some views of the sea ahead. The location is ideal for a hostel—smack in the heart of San Pedro, a stone’s throw from the sea and beach—and adjacent to Jaguar Nightclub, which is a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the type of hostel you seek. A definite bonus: air-conditioning is included. The cheerful purple and lime-green building with sky-blue doors is tucked to the back of an unusually large front yard, more green than you’re likely to see in town. Shared rooms come with wooden bunk beds (three sets in one room), lockers, and an en suite full bath. Manager Maria Parham moved from Texas to Belize to make something of this prime property inherited from her Belizean grandfather.
Pedro’s Inn (Seagrape Dr., off Coconut Dr., tel. 501/226-3825, www.backpackersbelize.com, US$12.50 s, US$22.50 d, 3-night minimum), was once upon a time the only youth hostel, with two rows of 14 wooden stalls, each with a bed, a ceiling fan, a locker, and access to shared bath facilities. The rooms are right above Pedro’s Sports Bar and poker room, so you’ve got an on-site nightly social scene with a lively cast of characters and pizza available for delivery. Pedro’s has two swimming pools with lounge chairs, a deck, and a shaded picnic area. It’s back by the airstrip (you’ll wake up to the morning’s flights taking off overhead), a 10-minute walk from the town center or US$3.50 by taxi. Across the street, Pedro’s has 32 standard hotel rooms (US$50-65) with air-conditioning, TVs, private baths, and fans, including 12 deluxe rooms with pool views (US$80). Guests of Pedro’s now also have access to the beach at Caribbean Villas.
Right in town, the family-run S Hotel San Pedrano (Front St., tel. 501/226-2054, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$35 with fan, US$45 with a/c) has six guest rooms, from single to triple, that make up the island’s self-proclaimed “top of the low end.” From the breezy upstairs veranda it’s easy to eat a bite, read a book, or watch the street below. Each guest room has hot and cold water, a private bath, a ceiling fan, and optional air-conditioning. The amenities are basic, but the hotel is a stone’s throw from all the action in town and steps from the water-taxi pier.
Thomas Hotel (Front St., tel. 501/226-2061, US$35-43) has six cheap and bare-bones but clean guest rooms with private baths, fans or air-conditioning, and aged refrigerators, all 100 feet from the beach; this humble hotelito is more than 40 years old.
The only budget option north of the bridge is the Ak’Bol retreat center (tel. 501/226-2073, www.akbol.com), which has 30 guest rooms (US$35 s, US$50 d) in a long wooden building with a massive shared restroom-shower-locker room. The resort is on a narrow beach strip and has a yoga deck and an average restaurant on-site.
Right in the center of town and on the street side, the Coral Beach Hotel (Front St., tel. 501/266-2013, US$55 with fan, US$67 with a/c) offers 16 small clean guest rooms, each with a private bath, hot and cold water, and air-conditioning or a fan. The guest rooms are basic and dated for the price, but perhaps location is what you’re paying for. There’s a large veranda with a nice view of the hustle and bustle of Front Street.
Across the street and a few steps away is the brighter, well-kept Spindrift Hotel (Front St., tel. 501/226-2174, U.S. tel. 888/705-9978, www.spindriftbelize.com, US$54-150), a three-story building offering clean, spacious guest rooms with all the amenities, including Wi-Fi and balconies. There’s a wonderful massive veranda overlooking the beach, and the hotel is sandwiched between Wahoo’s Lounge, home of the Chicken Drop, and Caliente Restaurant. This is where I stayed my first time in San Pedro, and it was ideal.
A few steps away is the charming pink-and-white beachfront S Conch Shell Inn (tel. 501/226-2062, email@example.com, US$74-94), beside Sunbreeze Suites. It was the third hotel to open in the early days of tourism. Renovated in 2008 and well maintained, the five upstairs single and double guest rooms have great views, tiled floors, and kitchenettes with all the amenities; the cheaper downstairs rooms are steps from the sea. All guest rooms are beachfront, and there are portable air-conditioning units (US$10) available if needed. Daily maid service and a lovely private front courtyard with hammocks and beach chairs make this a great beach vacation spot in town.
Conch Shell Inn
South of San Pedro, a quaint and homey option is Changes in Latitudes Bed and Breakfast (36 Coconut Dr., next to Belize Yacht Club, tel. 501/226-2986, U.S. tel. 800/631-9834, www.changesinlatitudesbelize.com, US$105), with six small and cozy guest rooms with air-conditioning, ceiling fans, private baths, and pool privileges at Exotic Caye Beach Resort, a few doors down. They’re serious about the breakfast, made fresh daily and served in the outdoor common room, and there’s a board updated daily with suggested activities and nightlife. The location is ideal, just a few steps from Ramon’s Village Resort, the best swimming stretch in town. Use of bicycles is complimentary, as are outdoor lockers for drying wet clothes, and there’s on-site security at night.
On the north end of town, toward the bridge, Hotel del Rio (tel. 501/226-2286, www.hoteldelriobelize.com, US$60-145) is a quiet hotel on the beach that offers great value. Accommodations range from basic economy rooms with shared baths and cold water to bigger colorful casitas built of pimento palm, some with a king or two queen beds. There is also a larger villa (US$600 per week) in the back. There are hammocks to enjoy in the private beachfront courtyard.
The central and cheerful San Pedro Holiday Hotel (Front. St., tel. 501/226-2103, U.S. tel. 713/893-3825, www.sanpedroholiday.com, US$134-163), the island’s first hotel and still under the original family’s management, keeps getting better. The 16 clean, spacious guest rooms have air-conditioning and fans, private baths, and beachfront verandas. Lots of water sports and boats are available.
Inside an elegant three-story building of tropical colonial design, on the corner of Sandpiper Street and the sea, is the delightful S Blue Tang Inn (tel. 501/226-2326, U.S. tel. 866/881-1020, www.bluetanginn.com, US$139-239). The 14 tasteful guest rooms sport lots of warm, rich wood paneling and have kitchens, private baths, ceiling fans, and air-conditioning. The grounds are well kept, with a gated but beach-facing swimming pool by the entrance, and the rooftop balcony is breezy and pleasant, with a killer sunset view. It’s a great pick for some boutique luxury right in town, ideal for couples or friends. Continental breakfast is served daily on the terrace facing the beach.
One of Belize’s only dedicated yoga resorts, Ak’Bol (1 mile north of the bridge, tel. 501/226-2073, www.akbol.com, US$145-165) has seven cabanas on the beach in a naturally landscaped garden, a small pool, and a shaded yoga garden within earshot of the sea. The cabanas have raised beds, local decor, a loft for the kids, unique conch-shell sinks, and private outdoor rainforest showers. There’s an on-site beach bar, although the food is hit or miss and service can be slow. There are also daily yoga classes, which are popular with residents, and retreat packages.
The SunBreeze Hotel (tel. 501/226-2191, U.S. tel. 800/688-0191, www.sunbreeze.net, US$188-248) is a full-service beachfront hotel with 43 guest rooms built around an open sand area and pool. Guest rooms have two queen beds, air-conditioning, tile floors, local artwork, private baths, and direct-dial phones; Front Street starts next door, and the entrance is yards from the airstrip. There’s an on-site dive shop, a top-notch restaurant (Blue Water Grill), and many other services. The SunBreeze has some of the few fully wheelchair-accessible guest rooms in the country. They also rent suites at the other end of Front Street, on the beach across from the Belize Bank, at SunBreeze Suites (tel. 501/226-4675, U.S. tel. 800/820-1631, www.sunbreezesuites.com, US$199-225), which offers one-bedroom suites with full kitchens, guest queen sofa beds, and air-conditioning. The suites can sleep up to four adults per room; families and children are welcome. They have less of a standard hotel feel and are more akin to self-catering condos—and are cozier for it. There is a wonderful small Jamaican restaurant on-site called Jambel Jerk Pit.
Ramon’s Village Resort (Coconut Dr., tel. 501/226-2071, U.S. tel. 800/624-4215, www.ramons.com) is somewhat of an institution in San Pedro. So when a section of this full-service resort with 71 guest rooms was struck by yet another accidental and devastating fire in August 2013, the entire island came to the rescue. In just under four months of rebuilding, the resort has brand-new cabanas and a swimming pool. Standard seafront guest rooms run from US$210 and the presidential suite goes for US$475; the guest rooms are nice, although the “kitchenettes” are not much more than a sink and a microwave. The property’s 500-foot beach is practically in San Pedro Town and has decent walk-in snorkeling. There’s a restaurant and bar, as well as on-site dive shops, guides, and an inland tour operator. You can rent windsurfing boards, snorkel gear, and golf carts.
S Xanadu Island Resort (tel. 501/226-2814, U.S. tel. 866/351-4752, www.xanaduislandresort.com, from US$220) is one of my favorite accommodations in San Pedro. The resort is a cluster of luxury monolithic domes with thatched overlay roofs nestled in lush landscaping. There is a beachfront pool as well as a private nature walk and bird sanctuary. Nineteen suites are available with fully equipped kitchens, and there is a choice of studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. The beachfront lofts are stunning, and the service is top-notch. There’s a restaurant-bar next door at Caribbean Villas’ Catamaran Beach Bar if you need coffee first thing in the morning and don’t care to brew your own.
Farther south is Mata Rocks Resort (tel. 501/226-2336, U.S. tel. 888/628-2757, www.matarocks.com, US$155-220), a small hotel tucked on the south end of Ambergris with six suites and 11 ocean-view guest rooms centered around a pool; the guest rooms, while not huge, have plenty of basic amenities, such as air-conditioning, cable, wireless Internet, bikes, transfers, and continental breakfast at the tiny on-site bar. The architecture is unusual—all white, clean, and Mediterranean. Don’t forget your sunglasses if you stay here.
One of the island’s top class acts, S Victoria House (tel. 501/226-2067, U.S. tel. 800/247-5159, www.victoria-house.com, US$199-1,325) has a luxurious selection of suites and several multifamily mansion-like two- to five-bedroom villas set along one of the nicest stretches of beach in town. Expect grand colonial elegance on a well-manicured tranquil piece of property about two miles south of San Pedro. The stucco and thatched casitas with tile floors are placed around several sleek infinity pools; you also get a full-service dive shop with private guides, the Admiral Nelson Bar, and one of the top-rated restaurants in the country (Restaurant Palmilla).
Ambergris Caye is Belize’s top honeymoon pick, not least for its numerous resorts, fine dining and entertainment options, and short distance to the Belize Barrier Reef. While San Pedro Town is the hub, the island is large enough that couples can choose to stay on the south or north end, secluded parts that are either a short walk to town (south) or a boat ride away (north) for added isolation. Whether spending the day in a hammock on an isolated beach stretch or exploring San Pedro Town’s alley-size streets, there are choices to suit all couples.
Most resorts offer five- to seven-day packages, which often include all meals and one snorkel or day trip for two. Picking a resort will ultimately come down to the actual hotel setting, offered amenities, and the type of getaway you seek. A few stand out from the pack and are a good place to start your research.
For a luxurious experience away from the noise but close enough to the action in town, the award-winning Victoria House (tel. 501/226-2067, U.S. tel. 800/247-5159, www.victoria-house.com, US$335-625) is a solid option, with beachfront villas or palapa roof casitas facing one of the best stretches near San Pedro and with numerous on-site amenities, including two swimming pools. The Reef Romance package is chock-full of goodies, including massages for two, champagne, and a private candlelit dinner.
You’ll hop on a 20-minute private boat ride from San Pedro to reach the Zen Matachica Beach Resort (tel. 501/220-5010, www.matachica.com, from US$256), on the island’s northern side. Colorful thatched roof cabanas with hammocks sit on a deserted, powdery soft white-sand beach—a postcard-perfect greeting as you near the shoreline. An excellent on-site restaurant, water sports equipment, spa, and friendly staff make this an easy pick. Honeymoon packages include two-day trips, one to the reef and the other to the mainland’s beautiful Lamanai archaeological site. Be sure to reserve a seafront cabana and wake early for sunrise views from your bed. A stretch more remote than Matachica is X’Tan Ha Resort (U.S. tel. 844/360-1553, tel. 501/226-2846, www.xtanha.com, starting at US$300), a delightful boutique resort with one-bedroom beachfront villas, a couple of steps from a lovely white-sand stretch with shallow entry and plenty of umbrellas and chairs. The bar and restaurant are excellent but the staff here truly stand out.
If money is no object, live it up like a rock star at Cayo Espanto (U.S. tel. 888/666-4282, US$1,500, 5 nights for US$7,475), a private island where a villa comes with all the bells and whistles—a private plunge pool, tailored meals, bar drinks, and your very own butler. And, of course, you can’t beat staying on an uncrowded idyllic plot, surrounded by nothing but the Caribbean’s turquoise waters and roaming fish.
Tranquility Bay Resort (tel. 501/236-5880, U.S. tel. 800/843-2293, www.tranquilitybayresort.com, from US$240) gets rave reviews from couples seeking peace and quiet, a sunset-facing beach, and walk-in snorkel sites. Located 12 miles north of San Pedro, the resort caters to lovebirds. You just can’t go wrong with the gorgeous setting of bright blue and yellow wooden cabanas on a white-sand beach.
S The Villas at Banyan Bay (tel. 501/226-3739, U.S. tel. 866/352-1163, www.banyanbay.com, from US$275) is a luxury family resort with all the amenities in its 32 suites, including balconies and whirlpool tubs. Lots of activities and lessons for children are available; full dive trips and inland trips can be arranged. There’s also an on-site dock restaurant, Rico’s, and a wedding chapel at the tip of the dock. It’s close to San Pedro Town, yet away from the noise and on a nice section of the beach.
Less than three miles north of San Pedro, the family-run El Pescador (tel. 501/226-2398, U.S. tel. 800/242-2017, www.elpescador.com, 3 nights US$1,295) was constructed in 1974 as one of the world’s premier sportfishing lodges, and it has evolved into a modern upscale eco-lodge resort. There are 13 newly rebuilt, gorgeous seafront double rooms in the original mahogany lodge—still cozy and with colorful paintings, for a luxurious feel—and private one-, two-, and three-bedroom villa accommodations, all of which are centered around three stunning saltwater and freshwater swimming pools and gorgeous palms. The villas can be locked off into smaller sections, and each is outfitted with a spacious seafront deck, a full kitchen with a sit-up bar, baths with gorgeous tiling, and Belizean-made hardwood floors. The resort offers more than fly-fishing trips, including smaller customized ecotours and diving with resident licensed dive master Alonzo Flota. Guests mingle over communal meals on the lovely large outdoor patio and at the on-site lounge, complete with a bar and a pool table, at the end of the day’s activities. You’ll find that anglers and their nonfishing families (there are spa services available, yoga classes nearby, cycling, and more) are repeat visitors, and many know each other from past years.
Las Terrazas (Mile 3.5, North Ambergris Caye, U.S. tel. 800/447-1553, www.lasterrazasresort.com, US$215-485) is a slick affair of 39 fully equipped “residential townhomes” around a pool area and restaurant serving “Southwestern cuisine with Caribbean flair.” This is a full-service luxury resort with many activities and packages.
A little more than four miles north of San Pedro, you’ll fall in love with the über-stylish, exotic yet unpretentious S Matachica Beach Resort (tel. 501/220-5010, www.matachica.com, from US$256), with 24 spacious casitas, suites, and luxury villas clustered along a beautiful stretch of white sand, front and back. The casitas are named after fruits (mine was Cherry); each bears its own color and matching porch hammock and is styled with local art and a blend of African and Asian-tinged decor. The resort offers a full range of amenities, a spa with two treatment rooms, an infinity pool with a jetted tub, plus a vast lounge—with pool table and ample seating—that connects to the Mambo restaurant. There are no flat-screen TVs or phones, nor will you miss them—Matachica is all about Zen. Proximity to the reef, which is visible from the white sandy shores, makes it ideal for water sports, from paddleboarding to kayaking; all are complimentary, as are the private daily boat shuttles to town. The resort is ideal for an intimate wedding, or a secluded couple getaway. An exciting addition are the two one-bedroom luxury beachfront villas—Luna and Aqua—with soaking tubs, and a spacious wooden outdoor deck outfitted with a whirlpool tub facing the sea.
Portofino (tel. 501/678-5096, www.portofinobelize.com, US$295-395) is another long-standing luxury lodge right on the beach, but with a deep swimming pool, an excellent on-site restaurant (meal plan available), and friendly staff. It has 15 units, including two treetop suites and a honeymoon-VIP villa with full amenities. You can use the lodge’s sporting equipment to play around all day—it’s only a 15-minute kayak paddle to excellent snorkeling at Mexico Rocks.
The beautiful, luxurious oceanfront suites at S The Palms (tel. 501/226-3322, www.belizepalms.com, US$204-292), a boutique condominium resort on the beach next to Ramon’s Village Resort, are in a shaded compound in town. Secluded yet centrally located, the resort has a beautiful small freshwater pool in a well-kept garden and 12 one- and two-bedroom ocean-view suites, executive suites, and a poolside casita. Amenities aren’t spared, and the furnishings are wonderful. The Palms feel like your own luxurious vacation home.
The Phoenix Resort (Barrier Reef Dr., U.S. tel. 877/822-5512, tel. 501/226-2083, www.thephoenixbelize.com, US$465-795) raises luxury up a couple of notches in San Pedro. This large condo resort has 28 of the largest furnished suites on the island, with every amenity you can imagine both in and out of your room, including king beds, granite countertop kitchens, and even iPads. It has a pool, a restaurant, a gym, and a spa, all in a big walled compound toward the north of town on the beach side, and there is full concierge service for activities on and off the island (complimentary kayaks, paddleboards, and bicycles). It’s très contemporary chic.
Located 7.2 miles north of San Pedro, S X’Tan Ha (U.S. tel. 844/360-1553, tel. 501/226-2846, www.xtanha.com, starting at US$300) is a delightful boutique resort with luxury one-bedroom beachfront villas, equipped with all the bells and whistles, including a full kitchen, air-conditioning, a living room with futons for extra sleep space, a dining room, and cozy elevated king beds. The beach is a lovely white stretch with shallow entry and plenty of umbrellas and chairs. The bar at X’Tan Ha is lively compared to most north-end resorts, with a couple of picnic tables in the water, and the on-site restaurant is excellent (the cheesy potato pancakes for breakfast sent me to heaven). A swimming pool will soon be added at the back of the resort. X’Tan Ha is a favorite among couples seeking escape and low-key evenings.
X’Tan Ha resort
Sapphire Beach Resort (North Ambergris Caye, tel. 501/670-2480, www.sapphirebeachbz.com, starting at US$170) is the definition of a laid-back getaway—even slower than at X’Tan Ha, with ultra-spacious beach villas, small pools, and kayaks for guest use. The reef is a stone’s throw, and you can anchor and relax there if you wish. The chef at the on-site El Zafiro Restaurant delights with his unique creations and presentation style—don’t miss the lobster curry fettuccine. The sunset colors this far north of the island are spectacular.
Dining out can be expensive in San Pedro, but there are cheap meals and snacks at many bakeries as well as the fast-food carts in the central park.
Bakeries and Cafés
Breakfast is serious business in San Pedro. You can smell the freshly baked bread and johnnycakes as you walk down Front Street early in the morning, starting with S Ruby’s Café (Front St., 4:45am-6pm Mon.-Sat.) and Celi’s Deli (Front St., tel. 501/226-0346, 6am-6pm daily), which for decades have been bustling every morning with workers, visitors, and party animals eating breakfast at dawn and stocking up for day trips. For pastries and sweet bites, from sausage rolls to apple turnovers, doughnuts and cinnamon buns, ride down to The Baker (Coconut Dr., next to Marina’s Supermarket, tel. 501/629-8030, 7:30am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 7:30am-2pm Sat.), where you can either sit as you eat or grab it and walk over to the beach to enjoy your treats. There’s also freshly baked bread.
Head to the Rum, Cigar & Coffee House (Middle St., tel. 501/226-2020, 9am-9pm daily), which, believe it or not, sells and serves some of the best coffee in town—freshly roasted Guatemalan beans. There’s interior seating to enjoy, although it’s limited. You might as well try their Belizean-made rum cream while you’re here.
One of my favorite restaurants, Caliente (in the Spindrift Hotel, Front St., tel. 501/226-2170, 6:30am-9:30pm Tues.-Sun.) now serves breakfast—try their signature egg sandwich, served with pan-fried potatoes. Across Central Park, Island Torch Bar & Grill (Barrier Reef Dr., tel. 501/602-8559, firstname.lastname@example.org, 6am-2pm Thurs.-Tues.) serves up the morning meal all day long—opt for the breakfast burrito or the Belizean breakfast; it comes with a side of fry jacks—are sure bets for newcomers looking to try Belizean classics.
Mesa Café (Tarpon St., tel. 501/226-3444, 9am-2pm Mon.-Fri.) serves delicious and affordable breakfasts (the coconut french toast is heaven), quiches, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and pies. It’s at the entrance to the Vilma Linda Plaza, a peaceful oasis in the bustle of downtown; the tiled courtyard is filled with lush plants and a small fishpond.
Besides the informal street barbecues, which offer the best-value food around, a rotating schedule ensures a beach cook-up nearly every night of the week. Your choice of chicken, ribs, or fish runs US$5-10. Also on Sunday, a host of beachfront eateries offer a special barbecue menu, coupled with live music; it’s a sort of tradition on San Pedro.
On Friday, you’ll see a steaming grill outside the Lions Club building (Front St., across from Manelly’s) for the weekly fund-raising barbecue. Starting at 2pm, anyone is welcome to buy a plate or “boxed lunch” of grilled chicken with generous side servings (US$4.50). There’s also a bar on-site. All the money made is pooled to help members who are in need or suffer a disaster. In case you were curious, Friday night is also bingo night, so popular among the locals that many negotiate their weekly work shifts around it.
Sunday Beach Barbecue
Sunday is “Funday,” as they say in San Pedro and in the rest of Belize. Businesses close, families lunch together after church, kids swim off the docks, and adults relax in the shade beside barbecue grills. Heaps of perfectly smoked chicken, lobster, and other meats come off the grill and are washed down with Belikins. The rest of the afternoon is spent fishing, competing in horseshoe tournaments, dancing to live music, or napping beside a palm tree. It’s the cure for a week’s hard work (or a Saturday-night hangover).
Belizeans are masters of the barbecue, and this skill manifests itself most on the weekend. If you’re not lucky enough to be invited to a local’s outdoor food fest, there are a few options where visitors can get a taste of this Belizean tradition. Several beachfront establishments in San Pedro Town offer a Sunday barbecue special, complete with beachside seating, pools or docks, and live music. Some also throw in games for all-around good cheer.
You can’t go wrong at Estel’s Dine by the Sea (tel. 501/226-2019, 6am-close Sun., US$12.50), a family-run gem serving succulent barbecue ribs with your choice of pork, chicken, jerk wings, sausage, and generous sides. You’ll see owner Charles Worthington outside at 6:30am, perfecting the meat on a massive grill. Get your outdoor patio table early (by noon) and sip a cold beverage while you listen to a soothing acoustic band play light rock tunes.
Estel’s Dine by the Sea
Sunday Funday at Crazy Canucks Beach Bar (beachfront, tel. 501/670-8001, US$5-10) is somewhat of an expat institution. The place attracts the largest crowd of all on Sunday afternoons, and starts later than most at 3pm. It also has a live blues band, and you can try your hand at the horseshoe tournament.
To escape the Sunday action in town, the ever-wonderful Palapa Bar and Grill (tel. 501/226-3111, 10am-about 9pm Sun., US$4-6), north of the bridge, is perfect almost any day, not just Sunday.
Another option is to head out on a special day’s sail to a nearby caye for an island beach barbecue getaway Belizean-style. For more information, check with the Rubio Brothers (tel. 501/600-5022).
It’s often difficult to find authentic Jamaican jerk outside Jamaica, but S Jambel Jerk Pit (Front St., beachside at Sunbreeze Suites, tel. 501/226-3515, 7am-9pm daily, US$8-20) rises to the challenge, and its weekly Wednesday all-you-can-eat buffet with live music is a great value (6pm-9pm Wed., US$20 pp). The location, on a poolside and beachfront deck with umbrellas, is wonderful.
Belizean and Central American
On the back side of the island, a few local eateries offer the cheapest stew chicken, rice and beans, or burrito dishes on the island. The popular S El Fogón (Trigger Fish St., tel. 501/206-2121, 11:30am-3pm and 6:30pm-9pm Mon.-Sat., US$4-6) is an authentic family-style eatery with flavorful Creole and mestizo dishes home-cooked on an open-fire hearth and served in a small, shaded, sand-floored space. Tucked toward the back of the island, just north of the airstrip, it will not let you down. The restaurant recently started serving dinner (US$16-30), with plenty of grilled seafood choices and kebabs along with either rice or pasta and sides.
Exactly one street back and parallel to El Fogón is Neri’s Taco Place (Chicken St., 5:30am-11:30am and 5:30pm-9pm Mon.-Sat., 5:30am-noon Sun.), dishing out some of the best tacos (US$0.50 for 3) and cheap, delicious eats that you order at a small window. There are a couple of picnic tables outside, and it gets very crowded with locals on Sunday. It’s off the beaten path but well worth finding.
On the beach side, S Estel’s Dine by the Sea (on the beach behind Atlantic Bank, tel. 501/226-2019, 6am-4:30pm Wed.-Mon., US$12.50) is a relaxed, ideal breakfast spot. Besides the morning treats, Estel’s is great on Sunday with barbecue lunch and live music.
Ruby’s (Front St., 4:45am-6pm Mon.-Sat.) has the absolute best local pastries in town, from stuffed massive fry jacks to soft and crunchy johnnycakes and more, not to mention coffee early in the morning—in short, you cannot visit San Pedro and not stop in at Ruby’s. Another reputable spot is Celi’s Deli (Front St., tel. 501/226-0346, 6am-6pm daily), second only to Ruby’s and popular for its plain or stuffed johnnycakes and sought-after meat pies that you can enjoy across the street on the Holiday Hotel’s beachfront deli (owned by the same family).
My Secret Deli (Caribeña St., breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, US$3-5) is a great place to get affordable and tasty local fare—stews, chicken fingers, soups and other fast faves—in a town that’s overrun with pricier restaurants. It offers outdoor seating and plenty of ambiance.
For top-notch Latin Caribbean cuisine, S Wild Mango’s (Front St., sandwiched between Ruby’s Hotel and the library on the beach, tel. 501/226-2859, noon-3pm and 6pm-9pm Mon.-Sat., US$12-20) serves amazing versions of local favorites (ceviche, fish tacos, quesadillas, burritos) prepared by one of Belize’s most distinguished chefs, Amy Knox. You cannot go wrong here, with offerings such as Mango’s Mongo Burrito, seafood specials, Amy’s Chef Salad, and rum-glazed bacon shrimp.
For fun beach-like ambience with sandy floors, picnic tables, and Latin music, Elvi’s Kitchen (Pescador Dr., tel. 501/226-2404, 11am-10pm Mon.-Sat., US$10-40) is a great San Pedrano experience. Doña Elvi’s family-run restaurant serves the ultimate Belizean version of soul food—home-cooked, authentic cuisine with a kick. Don’t miss the cheese-stuffed jalapeños, the Mayan fish, or the to-die-for coconut shrimp curry, among many other options. There’s also a popular Mayan buffet on Friday nights with live Mayan music (and if you must know, they make some of the best margaritas in town).
Not far off from Elvi’s is Waruguma (Middle St., tel. 501/633-0931, 11am-9:30pm daily, US$8-18), rightly famous for its savory pupusas (available for lunch but grilled outdoors on the patio in the evenings starting at 5pm) and their megasize burritos as well as other Salvadoran treats, all at a great price. So gigantic are the burritos that there’s a wall of fame dedicated to those who have managed to finish one by themselves.
If you’re searching for the best conch fritters on the island, along with fresh seafood in all sorts of combinations—grilled, blackened, steamed, Mexican, Creole, breaded, fried, you name it—stop at S Caramba Restaurant and Bar (Pescador Dr., tel. 501/226-4321, 11am-10pm Thurs.-Tues., US$5-15), with its lively and colorful indoor and outdoor bar and patio. The seafood here is tasty and plentiful, as is the meat—look out for the Bacon Macho Burger. Prepare your stomach, and make reservations for dinner, as the place gets packed.
Directly across the street from Caramba is another must-not-miss and often overlooked gem: The Reef (Pescador Dr., 11am-9pm Thurs.-Tues., US$5-15), a cheerful lime and blue walled restaurant serves up ultra-local food—the ceviche is excellent—and daily fresh fish of the day. They’re known for cooking up the best hogfish in town, usually for dinner. They’ll even cook your catch for you. Sitting at one of the wooden tables, digging into my plate of fried snapper with rice and beans, toes buried in the sandy floor, and an old stereo blasting pop songs—I could almost picture the once-upon-a-time fishing village of San Pedro.
Slightly higher-end yet still casual, Caliente (in the Spindrift Hotel, Front St., tel. 501/226-2170, 6:30am-9:30pm Tues.-Sun.) offers Mexican cuisine and seafood on an open porch or in a waterfront dining room. It is famous for the good-for-hangovers lime soup (US$4.50) at lunch, generous seafood dinners (US$12-22), as well as tasty Mexican staples—try the beef nachos, a perfect snack on Thursday before the Chicken Drop event next door at Wahoo’s Lounge.
Inside the San Pedro Holiday Hotel is the swank beachfront Caprice Bar Grill (Front St., tel. 501/226-2014, 9am-midnight Mon.-Sat., 11am-9pm Sun., US$15-32), delivering Caribbean and Latin cuisine. The quesadillas are to die for and the portions are large. The outdoor covered deck is ideal for the popular happy hour (3pm-6pm daily), with half-price mojitos, margaritas and rum punch as well as US$2 beer specials.
Keep walking south and you’ll run into Hurricane’s Ceviche Bar & Grill (tel. 501/226-4124, 10am-10pm Wed.-Mon., US$8-18), set on a pier and specializing in all kinds of ceviche—including horse conch, octopus, lobster, and other seafood. The sea views and the friendly barkeep make it stand out.
Another longtime popular ceviche venue in town is the casual Lily’s Treasure Chest Restaurant (beachside on Front St., tel. 501/226-2650, 7am-9pm daily, US$9-17), serving ceviche through the day and affordable Belizean dishes. It has a spacious outdoor patio.
For a nice Ambergris evening away from town, take a golf cart or water taxi to one of the restaurants north of the bridge. The cheapest and most casual places are Palapa Bar and Ak’Bol. Easily accessible and a notch up in style is the chic Kama Lounge (tel. 501/226-3709, email@example.com, noon-10pm daily, US$10-35), offering affordable “kama eats” that include bar food, salads, pastas, kebabs, paninis, and more, served under the stars in a beautiful setting of couches, hookahs, and dim red lighting. A sure bet up north, just a 10-minute ride and complete with a pool, red couches, and sultry music, and with an ultra-tasty menu, is S Rojo Beach Bar (tel. 501/226-4012, lunch and dinner Tues.-Sat., entrées from US$27). Rojo offers a Belizean-inspired menu with a sophisticated twist, including pizzas, and enticing cocktails—ask for the daily concoction, or try the poison martini—in seductive yet casual surroundings. It has a thatch-hut bar and a prime beachfront spot.
You can get a decent burger at many restaurants in San Pedro, but only Legends Burger House (tel. 501/226-2113, noon-9pm Mon.-Sat., US$10), about 0.5 miles north of the bridge, specializes totally in beef and chicken patties. The atmosphere is tropical frat house, with live music till midnight on weekends and a popular Tuesday-night live jam. The menu is entertaining, with each burger dedicated to the owner’s various heroes. The most Belizean is the Sir Barry Burger, a tribute to local legend Barry Bowen, a widely admired businessman who was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2010; it’s a beef patty topped with Belikin beer-battered shrimp, representing three of the commodities Bowen produced and sold.
Pizza is available for delivery or dining in at dozens of places on the island. Pepperoni’s Pizza (Coconut Dr., tel. 501/226-4515, 5pm-10pm Tues.-Sun.) is the most popular for both quality and price—a large 16-inch specialty pie goes for US$20 and is served deep-dish style. Pirates (Middle St., tel. 501/226-4663, US$4-25) is also good and does slices in the evenings.
Mexican food lovers will enjoy the Lone Star Grill & Cantina (tel. 501/226-4666, noon-9pm Wed.-Mon., US$10-18), a very far trek south but well worth it both for the ambience and the tasty belly-filling dishes, including chimichangas, El Jefe burritos, chalupas, enchiladas, and more Mexican favorites. There are also “gringo favorites” of the burger-and-fries variety.
San Pedro has an ever-evolving selection of trendy restaurants offering international fare and flair; if you don’t pay for such indulgence with an expanded waistline, you’ll surely pay for it in cash. If you’re really dining out—an appetizer, a couple of drinks, an entrée, and a dessert—expect to pay as much as you would in a U.S. city: US$40-80 per person, more if you like your wine. Remember that many upscale restaurants add tax and a service charge, and there’s a fee for using a credit card, so bring enough cash. Reservations are recommended at all of the following restaurants, especially in the high season.
Of the finer restaurants, S Blue Water Grill (on the beach, behind the SunBreeze Hotel, tel. 501/226-3347, 7am-9:30pm daily, entrées from US$19) is known to offer some of the best values and biggest portions. The menu has hints of Hawaiian and Southeast Asian cuisine; try the coconut shrimp stick with black-bean sweet-and-sour sauce. Sushi is offered on Tuesday and Thursday; there are dishes like snook with banana curry along with comfort plates like lasagna.
Red Ginger (Barrier Reef Dr., tel. 501/226-4623, 7:30am-10:30am, 11:30am-2:30pm, and 6pm-9:30pm daily, US$9-37), in the Phoenix Resort toward the north part of San Pedro, has an indoor air-conditioned dining room and trellised outdoor patio. The food here is divine. They specialize in local cuisine with an international twist—grouper ceviche with mango, empanadas with pork, and plantains with buffalo mozzarella and sautéed basil. There are homemade bagel sandwiches for breakfast, Indian chicken curry and Cajun gumbo for lunch, and appetizers, salads, pastas, seafood, and steaks, plus a delicious and filling five-course tasting menu (US$45), for dinner; there’s a big wine list, half-price martinis on Saturday, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. For live music, stop by on Wednesday or Sunday.
S Casa Picasso (Sting Ray St., tel. 501/226-4443, www.casapicassobelize.com, 5:30pm-9:30pm Tues.-Sat., US$10-30) is one of the best fine-dining experiences in San Pedro. The restaurant, a spacious yet cozy dining room setting with art, drapes, and mood lighting, serves tapas (think lobster sliders, potato ricotta gnocchi, or pork belly in oyster sauce, yum!), salads, steaks, seafood, and unique entrées (the lobster risotto is otherworldly and has won awards at the annual Lobsterfest). Desserts aren’t to be missed either, including the banana wontons. Enjoy a free pickup and return with your reservation.
Hidden Treasure Restaurant (2715 Flamboyant Dr., Escalante area, south San Pedro, tel. 501/226-4111, www.hiddentreasurebelize.com, 5pm-9pm daily, US$15-22) is an intimate open-air restaurant, beautifully lit under a palapa roof. There’s a long list of appetizers, lunches, dinner items, and desserts, from seafood bisque to Mayan-accented snapper and spare buhurie (Garífuna-spiced ribs).
The Golf Carts of San Pedro
It’s the most common dilemma when planning a stay on Ambergris: Do I really need a golf cart to get around? It can take a chunk out of your travel budget, so decide beforehand whether to stay in San Pedro Town or not. Carts are most useful for those staying at one of the many resorts south of San Pedro, especially if you plan on coming into town often to shop, eat, and explore, day or night. The road to the north end of Ambergris is currently being paved, but can get bumpy still and it requires a toll (US$5 per day) to cross the north bridge. To explore farther north, you either have to hike or take the Coastal Express water taxi. If you’re staying right in San Pedro, everything is pretty walkable, although a golf cart could be fun for a day’s exploration.
Ambergris’s carts all used to be electric, but now most companies have gas-powered carts. It’ll set you back as much as renting an automobile on the mainland, but if you’re staying south of town and have multiple passengers (a family, for example), it’s probably worth it. Expect to pay more than US$75 for 24 hours and at least US$310 for a week. Drivers must be age 17 and have a valid driver’s license. You will likely be required to leave a security deposit in the form of your credit card imprint or cash.
Golf carts are one of the main modes of transportation on Ambergris Caye.
In the high season, reserve a cart in advance. Most companies will deliver to your hotel or pick you up at the airstrip. Your choices begin with Moncho’s (Coconut Dr., tel. 501/226-4490, www.sanpedrogolfcartrental.com) and Carts Belize (south, next to Xanadu Island Resort, tel. 501/226-4090, www.cartsbelize.com), both close to the airstrip with relatively large fleets. Toward the north end of town, Cholo’s (Jewfish St., in town, tel. 501/226-2406, www.choloscartrental.com) is reliable and has a small fleet of carts, and Island Adventures Golf Cart Rentals (Coconut Dr., near Tropic Air, www.islandgolfcarts.com, tel. 501/226-4343, firstname.lastname@example.org) has weekly deals and will deliver your cart. Another option is La Isla Bonita (north of town, tel. 501/226-4343), an extension of the Caye Mart supermarket; it’s a family-run business offering reasonable cart prices. Be sure to check these companies’ websites and social media pages for specials throughout the year.
When driving your cart, carry your valid driver’s license and follow all normal traffic laws, including one-way street rules. Note that Front Street closes to all but pedestrian traffic on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. Make sure you park on the correct side of the street (it alternates every few weeks; just do what the locals are doing). Be sure to pay attention to the map you are given, don’t speed or terrorize pedestrians into a corner, beware of unexpected bicycle riders, and watch for schoolchildren and one-way streets.
The chef at Restaurant Palmilla (at Victoria House, 2 miles south of San Pedro, tel. 501/226-2067, 6:30am-2:30pm and 6pm-9pm daily, US$24-50) was born in Mexico City, trained in the United States, and comes from a family of renowned chefs. His unique style is “Mayan bistro,” which combines the chile peppers of Mexico with fresh local produce, seafood, and meats. Start with crispy snapper cakes with chipotle beurre blanc, black beans, and roasted corn succotash; follow with black-bean or chilapachole (corn) soup; then savor main dishes like cashew-crusted grouper.
S Mambo’s (Matachica Beach Resort, tel. 501/223-0002, www.matachica.com, lunch and dinner daily) is pure indulgence, serving rich and artful heaps of snappers, scallops, shrimp, lobsters, and calamari—you can try them all in the amazing Deep Blue entrée (US$34). Appetizers, such as soy-glazed snapper carpaccio, are US$10-16; save room for the chocolate mousse.
Portofino Restaurant and Green Parrot Beach Bar (tel. 501/226-5096, lunch and dinner daily, dinner entrées US$18-35) is six miles north of San Pedro, and they’ll give you a complimentary boat ride to join them for dinner, although from no farther south than Fido’s dock; expect local cuisine with European flair, including spider crab-laced snapper and other creative seafood specials. Lunch is also excellent, with delicious chicken finger baskets and an enormous vegetarian selection (US$6-14), and they’ll set up a romantic table on the end of their pier if you’d like.
Go to Manelly’s (Front St.) for homemade ice cream—it is known for its “coconut creation.” Or sample the frozen custard at DandE’s Ice Cream (Pescador St.), where a couple from Pennsylvania dairy country turn out fresh flavors every day, including soursop, from a local fruit that makes for a tart Belizean treat. If you’re in the mood for frozen yogurt, stop at the first self-serve in Belize, Yo Mama (18 Barrier Reef Dr., Fido’s Courtyard, tel. 501/226-3176, 11 am-10pm, US$0.45 per ounce)—where “you swirl and you top.” Its ultra-bright blue walls, fruit flavors like mango and pineapple, and colorful toppings will have you ordering the treat even if you’re not in the mood.
There are several medium-size supermarkets around San Pedro; one of the cheapest is the locally owned Marina’s Market (next to Xanadu Island Resort, Coconut Dr., tel. 501/226-3647). The Greenhouse (Pescador Dr., next to St. Francis Xavier Credit Union, tel. 501/226-2085) boasts the most fresh produce and seafood, including cold cuts and unique grocery selections. Caye Mart Supermarket (north of Castillo’s Hardware Store, tel. 501/226-3446, email@example.com) has wine selections as well as imported Carib and Presidente beer. You can find fresh fruits at Maria’s stand, across the Belize Yacht Club.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
There are plenty of banks in town. Belize, Scotiabank, Atlantic, and First Caribbean have international ATMs. There’s also an ATM in the big supermarket just south of Ramon’s Village Resort. Milo’s Money Exchange (Middle St., tel. 501/226-2196) is another option to exchange Belizean, U.S., Guatemalan, Mexican, Canadian, and British currencies, and it’s also a Western Union branch.
Health and Emergencies
Prescriptions and other medicines can be found at R&L Pharmacy (tel. 501/226-2890, open daily), by the airstrip, and there are plenty of smaller pharmacies around town. If you need medical attention, all hotels and resorts keep a list of doctors and transportation options to call in the middle of the night, including a helicopter to take you to the hospital in Belize City in the event of a major emergency. For other medical concerns, go to the San Pedro PolyClinic II (tel. 501/226-2536, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm Mon.-Sat.), located behind Wine de Vine and the Island Supermarket, facing the airstrip.
Dr. Daniel Gonzalez’s Ambergris Hope Clinic (tel. 501/226-2660), located next to Castillo’s hardware store, is another option. For diving emergencies, the island has one hyperbaric chamber (tel. 501/226-2851 or 501/226-3195), or call Dr. Antonia Guerrero (tel. 501/628-3828).
The police department (for emergencies tel. 911, south substation tel. 501/206-2022) and fire department (tel. 501/226-2372) are both in San Pedro Town near the big BTL antenna on Middle Street.
Media and Communications
Things change quickly in San Pedro, especially prices. Before your trip, you can take a look at Ambergris’s two weekly papers, the San Pedro Sun (tel. 501/226-2070, www.sanpedrosun.net) and the online Ambergris Today (Middle St., tel. 501/226-3462, www.ambergristoday.com), both solid resources. Ambergris Today, a favorite of mine, includes comprehensive reviews of the latest and best establishments in town, including resorts, restaurants, and more.
The post office (Middle St., 8am-4pm Mon.-Thurs., 8am-3:30pm Fri.) is next to Elvi’s Kitchen. There are several Internet cafés in town, some with Wi-Fi and others with desktops—most are on Front Street. Try Pelican Internet Cafe (Front St., tel. 501/206-2153, 7am-10pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-10pm Sun., US$5 per hour) is located a block north of Fido’s and has wireless Internet access, coffee and alcoholic beverages, and air-conditioning.
The 2,600-foot-long runway of San Pedro Airport (SPR) is practically in downtown San Pedro. Belize’s two airlines, Maya Island Air (tel. 501/223-1140 or 501/223-1362, www.mayaislandair.com) and Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com) fly more than a dozen daily flights between San Pedro, Caye Caulker, and Belize City—and another five to and from Corozal. Tropic Air has a computerized system and offers more reliable service; there are flights from San Pedro to Belmopan, offering quicker access to the Cayo District. Maya Island Air is good too and sometimes gives 50 percent discounts on cash purchases; be sure to ask if a discount is available. The flight from Belize City’s international airport to San Pedro takes about 15 minutes and costs US$125 round-trip. Flying in and out of Belize City’s Municipal Airport is much cheaper (US$25 each way, not much more expensive than the water taxi), although you’ll need to catch a taxi from the international airport to get there.
Two companies providing scheduled water taxi service between Belize City and the islands: Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association (San Pedro tel. 501/226-4646 Caye Caulker tel. 501/226-0992, Belize City tel. 501/223-5752, www.cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com) and the San Pedro Belize Water Taxi Express (tel. 501/223-2225, www.belizewatertaxi.com) alternate schedules, each offering four daily trips between Belize City and Ambergris Caye, a 75-minute ride that costs US$17.50 one-way.
In Belize City, the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Terminal is off the pier across from Conch Shell Inn, with boats leaving between 8am and 4:30pm daily. The San Pedro Belize Water Taxi Express departs from the Tourism Village in Belize City. Boats depart San Pedro from the pier across from Licks Cafe, 6am-3:30pm daily. Always check the schedule before making plans; usually there are extra boats on weekends and holidays.
Thunderbolt Travels (tel. 501/422-0026, http://ambergriscaye.com/thunderbolt) runs a once-daily trip to Corozal (3pm, US$22.50 one-way, US$42.50 round-trip), leaving Corozal at 7am. The trip takes two hours in each direction. The departure pier in San Pedro is by the old football field; ask anyone to direct you to Thunderbolt.
Walking is feasible within the town of San Pedro; it’s about a 20-minute stroll from the airstrip to the split. Once you start traveling between resorts to the south or north, however, you may want to go by bicycle, golf cart, taxi, or boat. At one time, cars were a rarity, but together with golf carts they are taking over the town streets and even the north side of Ambergris. Most of the electric golf carts have been replaced by gas-powered ones, and hundreds ply San Pedro’s rutted roads. Cobbled streets mean less dust and fewer potholes downtown.
The toll bridge connecting San Pedro Town with Ambergris’s north side is free for pedestrians. From 6am to 10pm, bicycles pay US$1 to cross, and golf carts pay US$5 round-trip.
The toll bridge connecting San Pedro with North Ambergris Caye
Usually the smoothest and quickest way to travel up and down Ambergris Caye, water taxi service is available from Coastal Express (tel. 501/226-2007, www.coastalxpress.com). Boats share a dock with Amigos del Mar Dive Shop, in front of Cholo’s Sports Bar, departing for points north and south 5:30am-10:30pm daily, with special late-night schedules on big party nights (Wed.-Sat.). Daily scheduled runs are posted online. The fare, usually US$5-25 each way, depends on how far you are going, all the way up to El Secreto, the farthest resort at press time. Most restaurants will radio the ferry to arrange your ride back to San Pedro Town. Coastal Express also offers private charters starting at a minimum of three people.
Minivan taxis (with green license plates) run north and south along the island at most hours; just wave one down and climb in. Expect to pay about US$4-7 to travel between town and points south. Within town, you’ll pay around US$4. There are several drivers that you (or your lodging’s front desk) can call as well, including Island Taxi (tel. 501/226-3125), and Amber Isle Taxi (tel. 501/226-2041).
Many resorts have bicycles that their guests can use for free, and others have them for rent, as do a handful of outside shops. Rentals are available by the hour (about US$5), day (US$10), and week (US$25). Many resorts refer guests to Joe’s Bikes (tel. 501/226-4371), so check with your hotel for referrals.
Travel & Tour Belize (just north of the airstrip, tel. 501/226-2137 or 501/226-2031, www.traveltourbelize.com, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.) is the oldest and only full-service travel agent in San Pedro; they’ll handle all your bookings, both local and international, and can help with weddings and events too.
About 1,300 Hicaqueños (hee-ka-KEN-yos; derived from the island’s Spanish name, Cayo Hicaco) reside on this island 21 miles northeast of Belize City, just south of Ambergris Caye and a mile west of the reef. It’s five miles long from north to south, but the developed and inhabited part is only a mile long, from the split to the airstrip.
It’s true that there have been changes in recent years, including the arrival of boutique luxury condominium resorts as the island realizes its unique spot in Belize’s growing tourism economy. Yet the authenticity of life in a small Caribbean fishing village remains—original clapboard houses dot the coastline and side streets, and the only rumble you’ll hear is from the sound of the few golf carts and bicycles crushing the sand-only roads, or the daily street chatter among residents. There’s a happy, familial coexistence on Caye Caulker among expats and locals, and all are determined to conserve the island’s history and surroundings through community education and involvement. In the end, Caye Caulker remains more affordable than Ambergris, and it’s as laid-back as its “Go Slow” motto indicates, but no less entertaining.
The best landmark to start with is Caye Caulker’s “Split”—also the most popular swimming and snorkeling spot. The Split cuts Caye Caulker into two areas: the southern inhabited part of the island, or “the Village,” and the northern mangrove swamps.
panoramic view of Caye Caulker
Heading south from the Split, the main path lining the shore is Front Street, where you’ll find seafront hotels, eateries, and the water taxi terminal. The other two main streets that shoot off parallel to Front Street are the simply named Middle Street and Back Street. Each leads to sandy roads with more accommodations, restaurants, and residents’ homes. The entire island can be quickly explored in a couple of hours yet is big enough that it can take weeks to delve into each corner.
There’s a fuel pump on the western pier. Sailors exploring nearby cayes can anchor in the shallow protected waters offshore; the water here is open ocean but is still often referred to as a “lagoon.”
Front Street’s south end comes to a dead-end by the cemetery, and you have a choice: Follow the narrow beach path along the water, or turn right and then left, where you’ll find another sandy avenue that leads to the airstrip at the back of the island.
Bordering the airstrip is a rapidly developing neighborhood called Bahia Puesta del Sol, which has a small grocery store and a new high school. The land opposite the airstrip, called South Point, consists of mangrove swamps, with a narrow path cleared for golf cart or bicycle passage, for a coastal ride through an area rich in nature—trees, birds, and crocodiles—and lined with off-the-grid solar-powered homes and docks.
S The Split
Popular long before it appeared on the TV show The Bachelor, Caye Caulker’s infamous “Split,” or “cut,” as it’s still called by residents, is the favorite go-to swimming and sunset rendezvous spot on the island. It’s no surprise, then, that so much interest centered on this plot of land after news broke out about a change in management and renovation that began in spring 2015 after a controversial landlord-tenant battle. There is talk of future plans for an expanded beach and rebuilt bar.
This “Split” corner of the island once resembled a perfect island movie-set—not least for having the most decent stretch of sand, although it’s narrow and flat. The story most people like to tell is that the Split came to be when Hurricane Hattie widened the channel in 1961 and “cut” the island in two, north and south. Boat captains and long-time residents will tell you that in fact the hurricane created only a tiny water passage that was later dug wider by anglers and politicians who wanted larger boats to pass. Eventually, daily sweeping tides made it as large as it is today. Either way, travelers and locals flocked here at all hours of the day swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing on concrete slabs, sharing finger foods on picnic tables anchored in shallow water, or drowning in rum punch and reggae from the on-site bar. The Split and Lazy Lizard Bar switched owners in spring 2015. The hope is that this paradisiacal corner will retain its authenticity alongside upgraded service and facilities.
Caye Caulker Marine Reserve
The island’s very own “local channel” off the reef, where you can snorkel surrounded by dozens or more stingrays and nurse sharks as well as explore beautiful coral at the “coral gardens,” is 0.5 miles from shore and just under 10 minutes by boat. It’s an area often overlooked by those who head to Hol Chan, but if you prefer a similar but less crowded experience, this is a great choice. Note that you must have a tour guide present, as these are protected waters. The tour can also be combined with other snorkel stops for a small additional fee. Let French Angel Expeditions (tel. 501/206-0037 or 501/670-7506, www.frenchangelexp.com) bring you here.
On the north end of this reserve is a channel that attracts manatees during their mating season (May-Sept.). Two or three manatees, sometimes more, can be spotted at the surface at any time. It’s a spectacular sight; just remember to respect the reserve rules and not touch or swim with the marine animals. Any of the tour companies will bring you here.
S Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary
This protected area comprises nearly 9,000 acres of sea and mangrove at the north end of the Drowned Cayes, just a few miles east of Belize City. The sanctuary is comanaged by the Belize Forest Department and Friends of Swallow Caye (www.swallowcayemanatees.org). Check the website for more information, including membership, tours, and manatee facts.
Many tour operators will take you to Swallow Caye, usually for US$60 per person. Chocolate’s Manatee Tours was the premiere operator for Swallow Caye; unfortunately, Mr. Chocolate (a local legend on the island and in the ecotourism trade) died in April 2013. Mr. Chocolate was instrumental in the sanctuary’s creation in July 2002. He earned environmental and tourism awards for providing quality trips to hundreds of tourists every season. Other guides are sure to uphold his legacy.
From Belize City, this trip is combined with snorkeling on the barrier reef and looking for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Park fees are US$5 per person.
Northern Mangrove Forest Reserve
Just before the airstrip is a northern mangrove forest reserve area of about 100 acres that has been protected since 1998. Three kinds of mangroves—red, white, and black—and other trees provide an ideal habitat for crocodiles, turtles, fish, and water birds. Bird-watching is ideal here, with some 130 species, including the rufous-necked rail, the black catbird, and others that have not been spotted elsewhere in Belize. Tours can be arranged through the Caye Caulker branch of the Belize Tourism and Industry Association (tel. 501/623-9810).
Located directly opposite the airstrip, away from town and tucked behind the abandoned Belize Odyssey Resort, is a narrow sandy path that leads to a little-visited side of the island. The trail winds through a maze of glorious landscape—mangroves, almond trees, coconut palms, and saltwater palmettos—with pockets of sea views on the left and off-the-grid solar- and wind-powered homes on the other. Keep straight on the path and follow its twists and turns until you reach a dead end, noting the last house on the right. After dousing yourself generously with mosquito repellent, hike through a small littoral forest to reach the last dock. There lies a breathtaking scene of open water, blue skies, and sailing birds at the southernmost point of the island. This is South Point, the raw inhabited Caye Caulker, where electrical poles are nonexistent and where selling seafront lots has yet to completely change the nature that fills this area.
Don’t venture here in the rainy summer months without a golf cart—not least because the occasional crocodile could very well be crossing your path as you pass. The ground could also prove particularly muddy and treacherous during rains. Golf-cart taxis can also bring you here; just ask around for a reliable driver.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
There’s enough to do on this five-mile island with ideal calm waters and fewer crowds than San Pedro to keep you occupied for days if you so choose—pick from an exciting list of water activities above or below the sea, in addition to turf action such as biking, yoga, or indulging in healing spas.
Beaches on most of Caye Caulker are of the thin, hard variety—don’t expect to find a thick, soft, endless stretch of sand. Still, there’s sand to feel under your toes, and the ratio of crowds versus beach space is favorable, such that finding your own sandy plot of the island is an easy feat. And if you can get past the first few inches of harmless sea grass and don’t mind the lack of wave action due to the mile-distant barrier reef, you’ll find the water is just as soothing and in the same jade color of Belize—all in all, a happy compromise.
The beachfront is a public area, and if you prefer to jump deeper into the sea to avoid the sea grass, docks are also a dime a dozen, unless marked “private.” Just be mindful of boat activity and stay alert while snorkeling or swimming underwater.
Conservation Efforts on Caye Caulker
The Forest and Marine Reserves Association of Caye Caulker (FAMRACC, www.famracc.org) is a nongovernmental organization comprising representatives from different island organizations and service groups, including tour guides, schools, and the police. FAMRACC comanages the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve with the Fisheries and Forests Departments and works on projects like mangrove restoration, reef rapid assessments, community reef-technician training, and environmental education field trips for local children.
FAMRACC sometimes accepts volunteers to work with the mangrove and littoral forest restoration projects in the forest reserve as well as maintenance of reef mooring lines and buoys in the marine reserve. Guest researchers and scientists are also welcome.
The Caye Caulker branch of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (CCBTIA, www.cayecaulkervacation.com) manages a 1.5-acre private forest reserve that is just before the airstrip. This tiny but lush littoral forest reserve has a nice walking trail that winds to the mangroves on the beach, and flora and fauna along the way are identified with hand-painted signs. CCBTIA has published a trail guide to the reserve as well as two books about the plants and birds of Caye Caulker; these are for sale at Cayeboard Connection or from CCBTIA. There is no charge to walk the trails. Guided tours are also available, and there is a small interpretive center.
FAMRACC can help you plan a tour in the forest reserve. Birding tours (3 hours, US$32) leave very early, and natural history tours of the project sites can be booked, followed by snorkeling in the North Channel (US$50-70, depending on duration). Contact marine biologist and guide Ellen McRae (tel. 501/226-0178) to arrange details.
The island is relatively small, so finding the beach merely requires going to the front or back areas of Caye Caulker. The best stretch for your towel is the Split area on the north end of the island—under expansion and construction as of publication time. Other options for those looking to read quietly is the stretch of beach—formerly known as Playa Asuncion—going along the front side from the arrival dock but going south (turning left). Along the back of the island are smaller stretches of beach, and swimming may be best off a dock, but the views are still lovely. Grab a cocktail at Sea Dreams Hotel’s upstairs Banyan Tree Bar or at Iguana Reef and sit by their beach to watch sunset.
Diving and Snorkeling
The reef you see from Caulker’s eastern shore provides fantastic snorkeling and diving opportunities right in your front yard. Snorkeling can be as simple and cheap as renting masks and fins for US$5 per day from one of the tour operators (or bringing your own) and using them off almost any dock. If renting, you may be required to leave your ID behind for the day as security. Note that several tour operators are hesitant to pass out equipment so as not to encourage snorkeling beyond the docks in the protected marine reserves without a guide.
You could check to see if you can snorkel off the island’s most popular swimming spot: the Split—although the surrounding beach and land are under construction as of publication time. Avoid the heavily trafficked part and beware, as swimming here can be dangerous because of the pull of the current, which is strong enough to overpower children or weak swimmers. Your best bet is to go around the bend, only a few yards out of the Split, to avoid the dangerous boat traffic. Be mindful where you step or dive at the Split, as old construction materials have been dumped here for fill.
To snorkel the reef itself—just a mile away, leaving no excuse not to before leaving the island—boat tours are necessary, and plenty are offered for beginner or advanced snorkelers and divers. Trips can go for half a day or a full day, depending on the excursion, and there are enough to fit all budget ranges.
The most popular snorkel and dive sites are Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, Caye Chapel Canyons, and the reefs around St. George’s Caye, Long Caye Wall, and Sergeant’s Caye. A common snorkeling tour package is to Hol Chan with stops at Shark Ray Alley and the Coral Gardens, San Pedro for lunch (not included), and the seahorse sanctuary behind the Split.
Nurse sharks at Hol Chan Marine Reserve
For snorkeling tours, EZ Boy Tours (tel. 501/226-0349, www.ezboytoursbelize.com) offers all the standard snorkel tours on their sailboat as well as overnight camping trips to Placencia. Local guides Hans and Ian know their home island and its surrounding waters like the back of their hands. EZ Boy’s new three-day sailing and camping trip (US$350) to Placencia stops along the southern coast of Belize, with overnights on St. George’s Caye and on Tobacco Caye, on their new Belizean-built wooden sailboat, Inri. You can also check their website ahead of time for departure dates; the trip requires a minimum of eight people.
Raggamuffin Tours (Front St., tel. 501/226-0348, www.raggamuffintours.com) are well-known for their sailing trips on the RaggaGal, Ragga Prince, RaggaQueen, or RaggaKing boats. Raggamuffin regularly sails to Hol Chan (full-day trip, US$50, includes lunch and rum punch on board), but their most popular journey is the overnight sail from Caye Caulker to Placencia.
Belizean guide and dive master Shadrack Ash offers friendly, professional snorkeling, manatee watching, fishing trips, and night dives through his company French Angel Expeditions (tel. 501/206-0037 or 501/670-7506, www.frenchangelexp.com), which gets rave reviews from past clients. Walk straight down the street from the water taxi on Calle del Sol.
For a reggae vibe, join Ras Creek on his infamous boat Heritage Cruze, docked at the Split when not plying the reef with happy reggae-crazy customers; this is one of the best ways to tour the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve (US$30). Ras Creek was the first to guide visitors to the unofficial seahorse sanctuary behind the Split.
Climb aboard the Gypsy with Carlos Tours (tel. 501/600-1654, firstname.lastname@example.org), which has an excellent reputation for personal attention and a focus on safety. Carlos is the only shop to offer a full-day snorkel tour to Hol Chan combined with a lunch stopover in San Pedro, where you get to eat and explore Ambergris Caye for 1.5 hours on your own (US$50 pp). Carlos loves underwater photography and will share and sell photo CDs immediately after a trip (US$15). His office is on Front Street next to Amor y Café.
Two local brothers run Anwar Tours (tel. 501/226-0327, www.anwartours.page.tl), and with 15 years of experience, they get positive reviews for both snorkel trips and inland tours, including island tubing. Tsunami Adventures (tel. 501/226-0462, www.tsunamiadventures.com) is near the Split and rents underwater cameras (US$8 per day).
Many visitors are willing to brave four hours (two hours each way) on a boat in mostly open ocean to dive the Blue Hole and Turneffe Islands or other atoll sites. There is no “number one” dive site, as every diver is looking for something different, but some are indeed renowned for their marine diversity; just be sure to discuss the options before booking the trip, and make sure you’re comfortable with the boat, guides, group size, and gear. Consider whether gear is included in the price or not, and don’t quickly jump on the cheapest package.
Caye Caulker has three main dive shops offering similar tours, albeit with slightly varying prices and packages as well as boats. The main offerings include Hol Chan (US$110-125 for 2 tanks); Blue Hole, Half Moon Caye, and Lighthouse (US$190-255 for 3 tanks); Turneffe day trips (US$125 north, US$150 south); certification courses (US$325-375 open water, US$275-300 advanced); as well as snorkeling excursions and other trips.
Dive master couple Chip and Danielle Petersen run Belize Diving Services (Chapoose St., across from the soccer field, tel. 501/226-0143, www.belizedivingservices.com), with an excellent reputation and an operation that is all computerized and offers both recreational and technical dives at Miner’s Gold and Treasure Hunt dive sites. They also offer weekly dives at the Blue Hole and the atolls thanks to their 46-foot custom Newton dive boat, equipped with showers, ideal for the long ride. Certification courses are available. Frenchie’s Diving Services (tel. 501/226-0234, www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com) is a reliable dive shop with knowledgeable dive masters and a 43-foot boat with a small onboard changing room for farther destinations, such as the Blue Hole and Turneffe. They also offer half-day dive excursions to the nearby Caye Caulker Marine Reserve (US$90). The shop offers PADI courses. Small, Belizean owned Black Durgon Dives (Front St., tel. 501/622-3823, www.blackdurgondives.com) specializes in small groups—not more than six divers per trip. Regular stops include Hol Chan, Caye Caulker Canyons, and Turneffe’s North Walls.
Snuba and Sea Trek
The new way of exploring Hol Chan is to snuba or sea trek with Discovery Expeditions (tel. 501/671-2881 or 501/671-2882, www.discoverybelize.com, US$68-74, includes hotel transfers but not the US$10 Hol Chan park fee) out of San Pedro. Catch the 8am water taxi over to San Pedro, where you will get picked up for your tour. The experience includes orientation before experiencing depths of 20-30 feet, enjoying marinelife and corals without needing a tank or worrying about being dive certified. Both activities are safe for anyone in good physical condition and older than age eight.
Boating and Sailing
Raggamuffin Tours (tel. 501/226-0348, www.raggamuffintours.com) offers sunset cruises and day sails. Their best-known adventure is the overnight sailing trip on the 50-foot Stonington Ketch RaggaQueen sailboat or on the Ragga Empress catamaran south to Placencia (Tues. and Fri. departures), including an overnight on Tobacco Caye and a final third-day drop-off in Placencia to continue your travels; it’s three days of sun and sea and two nights camping out on idyllic cayes. The trip costs US$350 per person, including all gear, delicious food prepared by the crew, including fresh catch, snorkeling, and fishing; expect a higher holiday rate (US$400) during the last week of December. Check how many passengers are signed up on your trip if you prefer smaller crowds.
EZ Boy Tours (tel. 501/226-0349, www.ezboytoursbelize.com) has a sunset sail that is the most relaxing and longest-lasting I have been on: three hours (5pm-8pm) drifting all along the coast of Caye Caulker, with bottomless rum punch and Captain Ian’s freshly made shrimp ceviche. Day sails to Hol Chan are popular, too. The local tour operator now runs a similar three-day sailing and camping trip to Placencia, with stops along the southern coast of Belize, and overnight stops on St. George’s Caye and Tobacco Caye, on their new Belizean-built wooden sailboat Inri. You can check their website ahead of time for departure dates; the trip requires a minimum of eight people.
Try to catch your dinner off one of the island’s many piers. You can buy bait and rent fishing rods at the Badillos’ house near the soccer field (look for a small porch sign). Or fish like a local with a hook, line, and weight. Or take a walk toward the back of the island, where you’ll find fishers cleaning their fish, working on lobster traps, or mending their nets in the morning. Many will be willing to take you out for a reasonable fee. The main trophies are groupers, barracuda, and snappers—all good eating. Small boats are available for rent by the hour.
For professional fishing tours, go to Anglers Abroad (tel. 501/226-0602, www.anglersabroad.com, half-day US$220, full-day US$330, includes lunch) near the Split. Owner and licensed guide Haywood Curry sells and rents a complete selection of fly and spin gear (US$20-30 per day), and he is happy to give advice to the novice or expert fisher. He offers lessons (US$100 for 4 hours) and DIY instruction by canoe or on foot and sets up half-day, full-day, and overnight adventure trips. Group tours, as well as private lessons, are available. The shop occasionally works with well-known, award-winning, and experienced reefs and flats fishing guides, including Parnel and Kenan Coc, the 2011, 2012, and 2014 Top Guide title winners in the prestigious annual Tres Pescados Slam Tournament. Anglers Abroad now also teaches a fly-fishing high school class at Ocean Academy.
Local fishing guide Esley Usher of Esley Usher Fishing Tours (tel. 501/624-6555, email@example.com, half-day US$200, full-day US$300, includes lunch) is a safe bet for deep sea and reef fishing.
Shadrack Ash, owner of French Angel Expeditions (tel. 501/670-7506 or 501/670-9155, www.frenchangelexp.com, half- or full-day US$200-350), can take you catch-and-release fly-fishing, spin casting with an option to grill your catch for you, and lobster fishing (June 15-Feb. 15).
Toucan Canoe and Kayaks (Palapa Gardens, Front St., across from Real Macaw, tel. 501/625-8024, firstname.lastname@example.org) has the most comprehensive canoe and kayak tours and rentals on the island (single US$5 per hour, double US$10 per hour). Private and group lessons are offered by Canadian-Belizean owner Allie Johnstone, who is a top-placing international canoe racer and licensed tour guide and naturalist. All two-hour tours are US$25. Ask Allie about beach stargazing options, mangrove tours, and her herbal walk to learn about the various medicinal plants and other flora on the island. Tsunami Adventures (tel. 501/226-0462, www.tsunamiadventures.com) also offers kayak and canoe rentals (US$7.50 per hour).
Nondivers can rest assured: Caye Caulker is on the cutting edge of water sports, including the latest trend of stand-up paddleboarding, in part thanks to great bump and jump conditions—shallow crystal-clear waters protected by a nearby reef and the Caribbean trade winds.
For fun in the water and the wind, find KiteXplorer (Front St., toward the Split, tel. 501/635-4967, www.kitexplorer.com, 9am-6pm daily), offering beginner to advanced kite surfing, stand-up paddle surfing, and windsurfing lessons (introduction to kite surfing US$90, or US$50 pp for 1.5 hours) with three licensed instructors, or equipment rentals (stand-up paddleboard US$20 per hour, windsurfing board US$15 per hour). Note that these sports are seasonal and best from October through March.
Reef Watersports (Ave. Hicaco/Front St., just before the Split, tel. 501/635-7219, www.reefwatersports.com) offers Jet Ski rentals (US$75 for 30 minutes) as well as wakeboarding, waterskiing, and boat tubing (all US$100 per hour for 2 people).
The best place to practice paddleboarding solo on the island is on the “lee side” of the island, as Hicaqueños call it—the calm, flat side starting behind the Split.
Contour Ocean Ventures (Front St., make a right turn after the arrival dock, tel. 501/660-5761, email@example.com, 9am-noon and 1pm-5pm daily) has paddleboards for rent (US$15 per hour, US$60 per day, includes 15-minute lesson, full damage insurance optional). Passionate water-sports owners, trained dive masters, and surf enthusiasts run the shop. They also offer surfing trips (US$54 half-day on surfboard, includes insurance) for those who have some experience, with surfing at a reef break just 2.5 miles off Caye Caulker. Other fun excursions include windsurfing (lessons are limited to 3 students per class, 3-day package US$300 or US$55 per hour), mangrove paddleboard tours, and workout sessions on paddleboards. Windsurfing rentals are also available (US$60 for 2 hours).
A popular activity as of late, tubing is a fun way to cool off, have a drink—yes, Anda De Wata Tours (Front St., across from Happy Lobster, tel. 501/666-7374, www.snorkelandadewatabelize.com, US$35 pp) has a beer delivery system from the boat to your inner tube while you are towed along—and take in Caye Caulker’s magnificent coast, birds, and even tarpons along the way. Up to seven tubes can enjoy the ride together.
An ideal way to explore the island and get a workout is by renting a bicycle (US$5-6 per day, US$25 per week) and exploring its nooks and crannies at your leisure. Most locals here are on bikes, even with their little ones in tow. The better spots to rent are M&N Mel’s Bike Rentals (Chapoose St., off Front St., tel. 501/226-0229, US$2 per hour, US$7 per day, US$25 per week) and the Friendship Convenience Store on Front Street. Many hotels also throw in complimentary bicycle use, so be sure to check beforehand.
Sea kayak rentals are an affordable way to explore the island.
More than 190 species of resident and migratory birds have been identified on Caye Caulker, some of which are rarely seen elsewhere. The white-crowned pigeon, rufous-necked wood-rail, and black catbird are commonly seen here. The northernmost part of the island, part of a protected forest and marine reserve system since 1998, is ideal for birding and is made up of miles of reef, grass flats, lagoons, and mangroves. Guided ecotours can be arranged through the BTIA Resource Center (firstname.lastname@example.org). Caye Caulker’s South Point has plenty of birdlife; rent a golf cart and explore at your leisure.
Massage and Bodywork
You’ll feel rejuvenated and make new friends after a treatment at Purple Passion Beauty Studio (Calle del Sol, cell 501/666-8845, tel. 501/633-4525, email@example.com, 9am-noon and 1pm-6pm Mon.-Sat.), just a few steps from Rose’s Grill. Inside the green- and purple-colored cabin, talented Belizean sisters Stacy and Gina Badillo, with more than a decade in the industry, run a tight beauty ship, offering full salon services that later expanded into spa services, including body scrubs, facials, and hot-stone massages in a cozy treatment oasis of a room in the back. The spa has a contemporary boho-chic feel, and it’s a welcome respite from the outside rush of bicycles and pedestrians. Don’t miss Gina’s magical hands (US$50 per hour, hot stone US$65 per hour) or Stacy’s skillful nail art (get a Belizean flag on those tips) and hair-coloring talent. You might even pick up a couple of Creole phrases while here.
Eva McFarlane’s fragrant Healing Touch Day Spa (tel. 501/206-0380 or 501/601-9731, www.healingtouchbelize.com) on Front Street offers everything from deep tissue and Swedish massage to Reiki, reflexology, aura cleansing, waxing, manicures, and facials, albeit at a higher price. All treatments are US$60 for an hour, US$85 for 90 minutes.
RandOM Yoga (tel. 501/664-9444, www.randomyoga.com) is a donation-based seasonal outdoor yoga studio; for schedules, look for their online calendar or their sign on Front Street by Anwar Tours. Some of the weekly yoga sessions are held at sunset on Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel’s rooftop—an updated schedule is posted in the lobby.
ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENTS
For a small island, Caye Caulker offers just enough “liming” (socializing over food and drink) options, from watering holes to late-night dancing.
For drinks over sunset, head to the lively Lazy Lizard Bar at the Split and opt for two-for-one rum punches (Tues.-Sun., US$5), mangoritas or, if you’re feeling brave, the “lizard juice” cocktail, a thick, potent neon-green concoction. Lazy Lizard also serves good bar munchies, including chicken fingers and lobster burritos. The top deck has additional seating, and a great view of the chaotic beach scene below.
For live music, bar fare, burgers, and trivia-game nights (7:30pm Wed., Fri., and Sun.) that remind you of North America, head to the Barrier Reef Sports Bar and Grill (Front St., tel. 501/226-0077), directly on the beach and a few steps from the water-taxi docks. The Friday guitar jam (3pm-7pm) attracts a lively crowd of visitors and residents; feel free to get up there and sing your heart out or dance. Service can be very slow at the busy bar, so go early. Tuesday nights are for free movies and popcorn, with matinees and evening screenings.
Those looking to extend sunset romance or just something to do on a weekday night can go for an after-dinner outdoor movie under the stars at Paradiso Outdoor Cinema (Front St., next to Amor y Café, 6:30pm and 8:30pm Mon., Wed., and Fri., US$5). There’s a mix of futons and chairs, a giant screen, surround sound (occasionally faulty) and a gated modern lounge vibe. Pick a futon and lay back while sipping on a fancy cocktail—mojitos to martinis—or on delicious bar bites from the adjacent, neon-lit Bondi Bar. Movies are often new, with the schedule announced on a chalkboard outside the venue.
Do not dare leave the island without a drink and a glimpse of the three-story I&I Reggae Bar (Traveler’s Palm St., 4pm-1am daily), one of the best in the Caribbean with its eye-catching interior decor of all things Rastafarian, swing bar chairs, and late-night ambience of reggae and dance beats. For more of a lounge vibe, head upstairs and people-watch on the deck. A small but nicely lit VIP room with its own bar adds a special touch, although the real party is still in the main room, where tipsy sun-kissed travelers and locals on the prowl converge on a disco-lit floor until closing.
You’ll need a reliable taxi to get to West Bay Beach Club (Puesta del Sol, tel. 501/626-4911, 9pm-4am Fri.-Sat.), a 10-minute ride away and on the other end of the island. Once there, however, you’ll be glad for all the bells and whistles of a decent nightclub—including spacious floor, a good DJ, and a fully stocked bar. Check their Facebook page for specials and taxi rides, and be sure you have a way home—it’s not the safest area to lose your wits.
Festivals and Events
With a claim to being the original host and creator of Lobsterfest in 1995, now held here annually in late June, in neighboring San Pedro, and in the southern beach town of Placencia, Caye Caulker’s lobster season launch celebration remains as authentic as it was decades ago and attracts visitors from across Belize. The three-day weekend event is filled with Belizean-style recreation, including a Miss Lobsterfest beauty pageant, dozens of food booths to sample the crustacean in all its forms—grilled, stewed, or in ceviche—and beach parties with live music and games. The fun continues on the Split for a big late outdoor party.
All shops on the island are open daily. You’ll find Laca Laca Toucan, the largest souvenir and beachwear store, and a sprinkling of small gift shops on and around Front Street selling T-shirts, hot sauce, hammocks, art, sarongs, beach apparel, postcards, photo albums, and other Belizean souvenirs. Caye Caulker’s sandy streets have several skilled artisanal vendors. On Front Street is a collection of numbered stalls called Palapa Gardens. Here you can find hand-carved ziricote and rosewood, hand-painted T-shirts, Guatemalan textiles and handicrafts, beautiful model sailboats complete with rigging, jewelry, and music CDs.
Jewelry is a popular craft on the island, often sold from tables set up in the street. Calvin sells his cool handmade island necklaces, anklets, and earrings at his table set up between Habaneros and Rose’s Grill; he started 30 years ago, well before souvenir stores opened on the island. Celi’s Music (Front St.) is where Mr. August can be found at a small table beside the shop, cutting and polishing conch shell pieces. There’s a good selection of popular Belizean music and videos.
Who doesn’t love sweet-smelling bath products? Don’t miss Lisa Novelo’s handcrafted, fragrant, and colorful soaps—so pretty they look like candy—including face and body lotions and scrubs. If there were a Belizean equivalent to Bath and Body Works, this would be it. Lisa’s Soap Delights and Body Products—try the soap made with a dash of Belikin Beer or the patchouli body lotion—are displayed and sold at Village Treasures Boutique (Front St., tel. 501/629-7508, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-5pm Mon.-Sat., closed at lunch) and make for great gifts or treats. The small boutique—quite possibly the best-smelling place on the island—also sells tasteful imported clothing, from bikinis to shorts and cocktail dresses.
Lee Vanderwalker’s colorful gallery, Caribbean Colors Art Gallery and Café (Front St., tel. 501/668-7205, www.caribbean-colors.com, 6:30am-9pm Fri.-Wed., US$6-10), across from the basketball court, sells delightful paintings created by the owner as well as other local artists, photo books of Caye Caulker, and other unique souvenirs. Grab a cup of coffee and a dessert, or lunch after all the shopping. Nearby, Cooper’s Art Gallery (tel. 501/226-0330, www.debbiecooperart.com, 11am-5pm Mon.-Tues., 10am-8pm Wed.-Sun., US$10-220) on Front Street sells colorful Caribbean primitive art and posters, many in funky frames, big and small, hand-painted by artist Debbie Cooper and other local Belizean artists; they make great gifts. The Go Slow Art Gallery, in Palapa Gardens stalls 6 and 7, encourages the Belizean art community and sells paintings of different styles, including acrylic on canvas, realism, and primitive. Seek out pieces by well-known local artists Nelson Young and Marcos Manzanero, and look for beautifully crafted mini drums, handmade by Garífuna artist Mark Welch (tel. 501/620-1020, www.mccaribbeandrums.com, US$50). Look out for Jacob & Stevens, a modest art and jewelry stall just before Palapa Gardens, with longtime island resident Jacob Cabral’s colorful and unusual fish-motif paintings.
Hair braiders along Front Street, near Rainbow Hotel, create “head art” with their lightning-fast fingers, adding colorful beads and extensions.
Prices given are for high-season double occupancy, but you can often get discounts year-round, especially if you’re staying for five or more days. Be sure to check directly with the hotel or take note of social media pages for the latest specials. Reservations are recommended during the high season (late Dec.-Apr.), as rooms tend to fill quickly, particularly during national holidays such as Easter. The rest of the year, rooms are easy to find on the spot, and choices will be plentiful (except in October, when a few properties close for renovation).
Staying at a seafront property or by the hustle and bustle of Front Street and the Split is always lovely, but since everything is a short walk away, staying off the main drag and in the center or back of town won’t hurt your vacation—particularly with the sandy streets all around. Be warned that you’ll be spoiled for choice of affordable, cozy places to stay. Plenty of delightful hotels, condos, and B&B options with great sea views or relaxing gardens are spread around the island.
When arriving off the boat or plane, ignore any pushy taxi drivers or local “guides” who attempt to help with your bags and pressure you into staying at specific properties; often these individuals obtain commissions, or worse, you may end up at a hotel with low security, hence the aggressive tactics. Smile and head to your first choice of accommodations, or ask around for advice on the way to the island. Both airline and water taxi terminals often carry pamphlets and maps for visitors. My best advice, if you’re completely unsure and traveling solo, is to head to Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel (Calle del Sol, across from Chan’s Supermarket), a short walk from the arrival dock and a place with 24-hour friendly front-desk staff.
There are many budget guest rooms along Front Street, or even Middle Street, that are easy to find. The best deal in town is Dirty McNasty’s Hostel (Crocodile St., off Front St. past Red Macaw, US$10-30), down a quiet side street just a stone’s throw from all the action. This is the place for “world travelers.” The hard-to-miss red building offers upper-floor coed dorm rooms (with bunk beds and private indoor baths) and spacious private rooms with double beds. The balcony, outfitted with hammocks, enjoys a nice breeze and a nifty view of the sea and reef. A second building houses a communal kitchen with a coffeemaker, a fridge, and a microwave, and a game room with pool tables and a dartboard. Free Wi-Fi is included, and a swimming pool is in the works.
Yuma’s House (tel. 501/206-0019, email@example.com) is a small waterfront hostel to the right as you walk off the town arrival dock. It offers dorm-style rooms (US$13) plus a few private rooms (US$29-30) with shared baths and a kitchen. There’s a dock peppered with hammocks, or you can chill in the garden while looking out at the sea. Just beware of the owner’s strict rules: Nonguests are not allowed past the front gate, and no outside chatter is permitted after nightfall. Not very relaxing, if you ask me.
In the heart of the village, across from the soccer field, are two great options for reasonable rooms and cabanas. Set in a private fenced yard is S Sandy Lane Guesthouse and Cabanas (corner of Chapoose St. and Langosta St., tel. 501/226-0117, www.belizeexplorer.com), offering hostel-type accommodations, with nine guest rooms (US$12.50 with shared outdoor bath, US$17 with private bath) and four basic cabanas with kitchenettes, TVs, and hard beds (US$30). There is a communal outdoor cooking area as well. Up the lane, closer to Front Street, is M & N Hotel and Apartments (Chapoose St., tel. 501/226-0229, www.aguallos.com/mandnhotel, US$15-30), which has eight basic and clean guest rooms with shared baths.
A bit farther south along the beach, you’ll find Tom’s Hotel (tel. 501/226-0102, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$21-33), worth checking out only if other spots are booked, you’re on a backpacker’s tight budget, have no valuables to lose, and are simply passing through for a night or two. There are basic guest rooms, including a few simple bungalows. Avoid walking to and from Tom’s after dark and opt for a golf cart taxi (US$2.50 one-way) instead.
S Sophie’s Guest Rooms (Almond St., behind Sea Dreams Hotel, tel. 501/661-2715, email@example.com, US$34.50) offer real bang for the buck, if only for having basic rooms—double beds, a standing fan, and a small mirror with sink—that are ideally located: under the shade of coconut trees and facing the sea, with glorious sunset views. There’s a dock for easy swimming, and the laid-back quiet island vibe on that street is hard to beat. But if you want more noise, it’s also just a one-minute walk over to the Split and Lazy Lizard Bar. Baths are shared, with each room having a key to a shower with hot and cold water and a toilet cabin steps from the rooms. There’s no air-conditioning, but with the water this close, you won’t need it much. Ask for Room 5 for a bonus microwave and fridge.
For a dose of “old Caye Caulker,” check in to one of the funky beachfront cabins at Morgan’s Inn (tucked away in a cluster of palms near the old cemetery, tel. 501/226-0178, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$28-45); cabins are spacious and rustic. Kayaks and windsurfing are available.
Set in a private villa, S Ocean Pearl Royale (tel. 501/226-0074, email@example.com, US$27.50-45) is on a side street before the Split. There are 10 guest rooms with a choice of fan or air-conditioning, single or double beds, and wireless Internet around a large communal living area and kitchen with a fridge, a microwave, and a coffeemaker. In the pretty garden is a delightful studio-size cabana with a full kitchen and a porch, for rent by the week (US$250) or month (US$500), without air-conditioning.
Blue Wave Guest House (Front. St., tel. 501/669-0114 or 501/206-0114, www.bluewaveguesthouse.com, US$22) has clean, basic guest rooms with shared baths, TVs, an outdoor communal kitchen, wireless Internet, and a private dock. There are also private guest rooms (US$71), one of which is seafront, cozy, and clean, with a flat-screen TV; it’s ideal for one or for a couple. It’s a great deal for the location, just a few steps from the Split. There are also options for guest rooms with private baths.
Barefoot Caribe (tel. 501/226-0161, www.barefootcaribe.com, US$30) also has budget courtyard rooms with ceiling fans only and private baths. The hotel is located on Front Street, where all the action and foot traffic goes by.
A few steps down from the Rainbow Hotel, De Real Macaw (Front St., tel. 501/226-0459, www.derealmacaw.biz, US$50-70) is a small and rustic pet-friendly thatched-roof property whose 10 units have private baths, mini kitchens, TVs, wireless Internet, and spacious private verandas with hammocks. A condo-apartment and a two-bedroom beach house (both US$130) are also available, and for the solo traveler seeking only a safe place to stay, the “little budget room” ($20) has a single bed, a private bath, and ceiling and floor fans.
Closer to the Split are the seven wood cabin rooms at Mara’s Place (just before the Split, tel. 501/600-0080, firstname.lastname@example.org, from US$85). There’s a communal kitchen, and the guest rooms have private baths but are basic and small for the high rates—you decide if it’s worth being just a couple of steps away from the Split. The best feature may be the private dock with lounge chairs for guests only, and the on-site Mara’s Snack Attack Shack Mini Bar (11am-6:30pm daily), serving up frozen margaritas and ice cream.
Before S Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel (Calle del Sol/Middle St., tel. 501/226-0780, www.cayecaulkerplazahotel.com, US$90-100) came along, traveling groups had difficulty staying under one roof, as the smaller hotels on the island lacked capacity. Located in the heart of the island, just a five-minute walk to the sea, the three-story hotel, with 32 guest rooms, some with street-view balconies, is family-run. Past the outside concrete look, it offers great value in the heart of the action, with guest rooms that include air-conditioning, free Internet access, in-room safes, fresh coffee every morning from 6am, a top-floor terrace overlooking the island, and an invaluable 24-hour front-desk presence. Add to that friendly young Belizean staffers as well as easy scheduling of tour and domestic flight options. If you don’t have a reservation coming off the boat, this is a reliable first stop.
You’ll find bright and spotless accommodations at Barefoot Beach Resort Belize (southern end of Front St., tel. 501/226-0205, www.barefootcariberesort.com, US$75), all clustered on the beach; a few bigger suites are the size of a small apartment, each with an outdoor patio, and go for US$129-145, depending on the length of stay. The small, cheerful guest rooms have comfortable queen or king beds, ceiling fans, small fridges, private baths with hot showers, air-conditioning, plus their own deck or patio with seating and access to a dock. Complimentary use of one bike is provided per room, although walking to town is entirely feasible.
Just a few steps south is a quiet, postcard-perfect boutique property, secluded yet close to town, at Colinda Cabanas (tel. 501/226-0383, www.colindacabanas.com, US$59-149). The resort offers eight cabana rooms and a few more on the way. Standard guest rooms have fans, and the upstairs beachfront suites are spacious and tastefully decorated with Belizean paintings, with full kitchens, air-conditioning, and an amazing deck view of the barrier reef. A lovely palapa sunning and swimming dock is available, and all rooms have their own coffeemaker, porch, hammock, and wireless Internet access.
Colinda Cabanas is one of a few secluded and affordable beachfront resorts.
Quite possibly the most charming B&B on the island, S Tree Tops Guesthouse (tel. 501/226-0240, www.treetopsbelize.com, US$56-110) is tucked down a private side alley off the beach near Tom’s Hotel. It’s a luxurious little gem in a tall white building. Austrian native Doris has created a wonderful ambience with her colorful ceramics and thematically decorated guest rooms—including two sea-facing suites, the African Room and the Malaysian Room, that have private balconies, TVs, fridges, full baths, and memorable decor. Two cheaper guest rooms share a bath, and each has a TV, a fan, and a fridge. The two-level rooftop has 180-degree views of the island and hammocks to enjoy them.
Maxhapan Cabañas (close to the primary school, tel. 501/226-0118, email@example.com, US$65) is another hidden gem. Belizean owner Louise Aguilar is passionate about the three self-catering cabanas she offers, originally built for her children, who ended up living abroad. Nestled to the back of a lush yard maintained by her husband, both upper- and lower-level rooms are immaculately clean and have their own verandas and hammocks, full-size beds, small fridges, coffeemakers, air-conditioning, cable TV, Wi-Fi, and full baths with hot and cold water. Bicycles are provided for each room. There is a common recreation area in the middle of the yard with lots of seating options and shade under a gigantic breadfruit tree (maxhapan in Mayan).
Oasi (tel. 501/226-0384, www.oasi-holidaysbelize.com, US$75-95), outside the main buzz of town toward the airstrip, gets rave reviews from its previous guests. It’s no surprise—there are four quiet, self-contained, beautifully kept and decorated apartments with patios, air-conditioning, and ceiling fans, hot and cold rainwater showers, equipped kitchens, TVs, and wireless Internet. The top-floor apartment in particular is simply lovely (I could live here). The entrance is a large tropical garden with a fountain, and there are two dogs on the property. There’s a recreation area in the garden with a grill for guest use, and an afternoon bar. Your warm host, Luciana Essenziale, will help plan your days; complimentary use of bikes makes the five-minute ride to town easy.
In recent years, a host of boutique and “higher end” accommodations have sprouted on the island—offering more luxurious surroundings but still at a reasonable price compared to neighboring San Pedro.
The bright, centrally located, and longtime family-run Rainbow Hotel (Front St., tel. 501/226-0123, www.rainbowhotel-cayecaulker.com, US$115) completed major guest room upgrades in December 2011, giving them upscale decor throughout, with quality bedding, spacious baths with glass shower doors, flat-screen TVs with premium cable, wet bars with mini fridges, coffeemakers, and microwaves. The popular waterfront Rainbow Bar and Grill is across the street, famous for its seafood.
The towering three-story suites at S Costa Maya Beach Cabanas (Front St., close to the Split, tel. 501/226-0432, www.costamayabelize.com, US$130-250) offer a dream location—on the main drag, set back enough from foot traffic yet a minute’s flip-flop shuffle to the Split and Lazy Lizard corner of the island. There are six reasonably furnished self-catering suites and a top-floor penthouse. All have access to the rooftop terrace, with hammocks and the most stunning panoramic view of the island, including part of the Split. There rooms are equipped with full kitchens, air-conditioning, and flat-screen TVs. The atmosphere is laid-back, and there’s also a private dock for taking in the sunrise; just beware of swimming off it due to heavy boat traffic.
Ideally tucked along the last side street before the Split, S Sea Dreams Hotel and Guest Houses (Hattie St., tel. 501/226-0602, www.seadreamsbelize.com, US$115-205) offers a private thatched-roof one-bedroom Orchid Cabana with a partial sea view, a gorgeous one-bedroom and full kitchen Bougainvillea Bungalow at the back of the property, as well as five single “courtyard” or ground-floor guest rooms and three beautiful two-bedroom apartments with full kitchens. Air-conditioning, wireless Internet, complimentary use of bicycles and snorkel gear, and a daily hot breakfast on the second floor at outdoor table seating are included. The private dock and palapa for impromptu swims or sunset viewing (even better than at the Split), a rooftop deck peppered with hammocks for yoga, naps, or massages (US$65 per hour), and cocktails from the Banyan Tree Bar make it as ideal a spot for lovers—a few have left here engaged—as it is for solo travelers. Owners Heidi and Haywood Curry and their friendly staff have transformed Sea Dreams into a perfect home away from home.
At the foot of the town dock, Seaside Cabanas (Calle del Sol, tel. 501/226-0498, www.seasidecabanas.com, US$115-130) is a brightly painted 16-room mini resort. The smart guest rooms and cabanas are equipped with air-conditioning, cable TV, wireless Internet access, and cheerful decor surrounding a fine swimming pool and sporting lots of rooftop space. The Uno Mas bar is open daily until 10pm, and upstairs seating has ocean views.
Island Magic Beach Resort (beachfront, Ave. Hicaco, tel. 501/226-0505, www.islandmagicbelize.com, US$110-135) offers 12 beachfront and island guest rooms, in addition to a fourth-floor penthouse suite with great views of the sea and Belize Barrier Reef. All guest rooms, with kitchenettes and baths, are spacious, and the new beachy interior decor is a lot more pleasing to the eye. There’s a decent-size on-site swimming pool with a kiddy section, ideal for families, as well as a bar and a private dock.
The Iguana Reef Inn (tel. 501/226-0213, www.iguanareefinn.com, US$140-170) was one of the first to raise the bar with its 13 upscale rooms built around a well-kept complex on the west side of the island, behind the soccer field. Its rooms are spacious and standard in looks, and all have comfortable touches like mini fridges, porches, bathtubs, hot and cold water, and other modern conveniences. Continental breakfast is included. The bar, swimming pool, and clean beach area face the sunset and are more private and quiet than those on the island’s windward side. There’s also a penthouse (US$395).
Apartment-style accommodations are found at Caye Caulker Condos (tel. 501/226-0072, www.cayecaulkercondos.com, US$99-139), near the north end of the village by the Split; eight fully furnished suites, each facing the sea, have all the amenities, including a small pool. The balconies and rooftop hangout have nice views.
CayeReef (Front St., tel. 501/226-0382, www.cayereef.com, US$168-240) has the most upscale boutique accommodations on the island: six spacious luxury apartments. Although the decor isn’t mind-blowing, they have all the bells and whistles. Fully furnished sea-facing units have full kitchens and two bedrooms with en suite baths; a penthouse is on the third floor. There’s a swimming pool with an infinity-like view from the apartments’ top-floor balconies.
Caye Caulker Rentals (tel. 501/226-0029 or 501/630-1008, www.cayecaulkerrentals.com) rents more than 20 holiday houses, cabanas, and cottages. The website sorts homes by price, location, and size and provides photos. Nightly rental rates range US$60-379, with one luxury villa that sleeps six going for US$379. A minimum number of nights is required, and monthly rentals are available.
Caye Caulker Accommodations (tel. 501/226-0382, www.cayecaulkeraccommodations.com) manages nine vacation properties and books suites for two upscale hotels. You can see photos and make reservations through the website.
Bakeries and Cafés
Hicaqueños love their baked goods, street food, and mobile vendors—who wouldn’t want grab-and-go pieces of home-cooked goodness at super-cheap prices?
It all begins on Back Street—if you’re early enough, you might luck out with sampling the morning and afternoon delights at Glenda’s (tel. 501/226-0148, 7am-10am and 11:30am-1pm Mon.-Sat.), literally set up inside someone’s home and offering inexpensive, ridiculously delicious Belizean breakfast and lunch options. Getting up early for her homemade cinnamon rolls and a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice (all for US$2) is well worth it; unfortunately she does run out quickly, so be sure to ask before taking a seat. For lunch, try the garnaches (crispy tortillas under a small mound of tomato, cabbage, cheese, and hot sauce) or burritos.
Glenda’s restaurant is an institution on the island.
No breakfast in Belize is complete without sampling fry jacks—delicious fried dough that resembles a flat beignet, best accompanied by jam or as a side to your beans and eggs. Several eateries serve them, but the best I’ve tried are at Marin’s Restaurant (Traveler’s Palm St., tel. 501/226-0104, 8am-2pm and 6pm-10pm daily, fry jacks with eggs US$1.50), also serving lunch and dinner on the upstairs porch, and at Tropical Paradise (end of Front St., tel. 501/226-0124, 7:30am-9pm Mon.-Sat.).
Two blocks south of the dock, Amor y Café (6am-noon daily, US$4-6) is a laid-back spot for a morning coffee (no refills) and breakfast, with seating choice between an upper deck or street-level sandy-floored patio for early-bird people-watching. Omelets, waffles, grilled sandwiches, and other options are served in regular portions. It’s a tad pricey for the island, but the yogurt-granola option is welcome when you tire of starch and eggs.
A much better option is S Caribbean Colors Art Gallery and Café (Front St., tel. 501/668-7205, www.caribbean-colors.com, 6:30am-9pm Fri.-Wed., US$6-10), across from the basketball court, and serving gourmet coffee as well as breakfast burritos, omelets, and brownies on their outdoor patio. The homemade lunch specials are delicious, vary daily, and include lobster salad, Mexican tortilla soup, and fresh sushi rolls, among other delectable choices. Greek, Cobb, and chef salads are available every day. The outdoor porch is ideal for watching Front Street foot traffic and sipping on a brew while waiting for a departure taxi or for an afternoon break from the sun. Make sure to take a look at Ms. Lee’s gorgeous local paintings for sale both inside and outdoors.
Across the street, a few steps away, Belita’s Deli (Front St., 5:30am-2pm Fri.-Wed.) is a modest locally owned open-air breakfast spot with upstairs seating and a view of Front Street’s hustle and bustle. It serves up all the local breakfast and lunch specialties at reasonable prices. If you sit downstairs, you’ll watch your eggs being cracked and fried in the open kitchen, while you sip on instant coffee to the sound of Latin music. The breakfast burritos and stuffed fry jacks are decent, and there are also fruit shakes and local fresh fruit juices.
S Happy Lobster (Front St., tel. 501/226-0064, 6am-9:30pm Wed.-Mon.) has a solid breakfast menu, with local fare (fry jacks) and more mainstream options like pancakes and waffles, with morning coffee for US$1.50 and free Wi-Fi as long as you’re eating; it’s always good and reasonably priced.
La Perla Del Mar (Front St., across from Toucan Gift Shop, 7am-9pm daily) serves Cuban coffee (and it is nice and strong) with a new espresso machine for gourmet drinks, served hot or cold. It also recently started serving ceviche (US$15) and beer, to be enjoyed on an outdoor porch facing the island’s main foot traffic.
Paradiso Sandwich Shop (Front St., tel. 501/226-0511, 6:30am-close daily, US$6-9) has deluxe baguette deli sandwiches as well as large salads, smoothies, wine, and a popular breakfast. There’s a cute shaded seating area, ideal for a sea view while using the free Wi-Fi and people-watching along Front Street while you wait for your tour to depart.
Get your ice cream fix at Mara’s Snack Attack Shack Mini Bar (tel. 501/600-0080, firstname.lastname@example.org, 11am-6:30pm), ideally located two steps from the Split, also selling frozen margaritas (the mixed berry is divine), happy-hour two-for-one specials on mixed drinks (from 3pm, US$2.50), beer buckets, and a myriad of other cocktails.
Rose’s Grill and Bar (Front St., tel. 501/226-0407, www.rosesgrillandbar.com, 11am-3:30pm and 5pm-10pm daily, US$10-20) always has a good crowd under its gigantic palapa; the tempting fresh catch of the day, from black snapper to lobster and priced by weight, is beautifully laid outside for your selection and subsequently cooked as you wait. Other entrées are also available. While the taste has gone down in proportion to the restaurant’s expansion, it’s still a fair choice for dinner. Orders come with side choices of the day.
The catch of the day is displayed at Rose’s Grill and Bar for grilling upon request.
The weekly barbecue special from the local favorite Syd’s (Middle St., across from the bakery, tel. 501/600-9481, 7am-10pm Sun.-Fri., US$4.50) is served on Saturday, with delicious spiced baked beans, slaw, and a warm tortilla. Wash it down with fresh fruit juice or a beer.
For fresh johnnycakes (also known as journey cakes), plain or stuffed with cheese, chicken, or beef, find the taco woman running Rico’s Tacos (Front St., across from Habaneros), an unassuming stand that opens in the wee hours of the morning every day (this might vary by season). The most popular orders are stuffed tortillas, and a small crowd of children and adults often forms, so be vocal about your order lest you be skipped over by other hungry souls.
Those in search of a cheap lunch snack should listen for (and will hear) the calls of the gregarious Dukunu Man (Mark Fitzgibbon) as he starts his rounds from the beachfront water taxi arrival dock area at 8:30am and continues along Back, Middle, and Front Streets all the way to the Split until he sells out of his US$0.50 delicious vegetarian or US$1.25 chicken-filled hot dukunu—a Creole version of a small tamale, made of corn and wrapped in a banana leaf. At the very least, you should meet him!
S Syd’s (Middle St. at Ave. Langosta, tel. 501/206-0294) is famous for its fry chicken, some of the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere in Belize, with a crispy, perfectly seasoned flavor, served with two large sides for just US$4.50. Orders can take about 20 minutes for the fry chicken and sell out quickly, so go by noon if you can. The stew chicken is also excellent. Prices for burritos and other quick lunch favorites are the lowest you’ll find. Those with time can enjoy the lovely garden patio seating in the back.
S Auntie’s Fast Food (Calle del Sol, tel. 501/226-0478, 7am-9pm Fri.-Wed., 7am-3pm Thurs., US$3.50-6) is a local haunt and comes to the rescue when you crave a quick, plentiful boxed lunch in the mid-afternoon to assuage post-snorkeling hunger pains. The window-service establishment dishes out everything from chicken fingers to stew chicken and daily local Central American specialties, such as escabeche (onion soup), conch soup, or barracuda, along with rice and beans or slaw. Cheap options like the chicken burger, just US$2.50, attract plenty of backpackers. It’s doing so well that it recently rebuilt a new facility with bigger windows and plenty of picnic tables to dine outdoors. Service can be erratic—don’t be surprised if the wait is long at meal times, or if you’re skipped over for another patron.
A hole-in-the-wall that you might mistakenly ignore, tucked in a corner across Auntie’s, Panda (Calle al Sol, 11am-midnight daily, from US$4) serves up some of the tastiest and freshest Chinese food you’ll find on the island, if not Belize. It’s also very affordable and the service is friendly. I’ve had many a tasty wonton and chicken soup here to treat my colds. Other favorites include the kung pao chicken and the lo mein dishes. If you come at night, you’ll find a host of rowdy local men boozing the night away—drinks are cheap—so come earlier.
A little farther south off Back Street and up two flights of steep stairs is Little Kitchen (tel. 501/667-2178, 11am-3pm and 5pm-10pm daily, US$5-10), where you can get salbutes (a kind of hot, soggy taco dripping in oil), garnaches (crispy tortillas under a small mound of tomato, cabbage, cheese, and hot sauce), and panades (little meat pies, 3 for US$1), burritos, and home-cooked seafood dishes, all for very cheap. Seating is casual at outdoor picnic tables, with reggae music and a nice breeze. The area is a bit sketchy, so get a round-trip taxi ride.
Belizean-owned S Rainbow Bar and Grill (off Front. St., tel. 501/226-0281, 10:30am-9pm Tues.-Sun., US$10-25) offers diners a lovely seaside ambience and view—the covered outdoor deck stretches over the water—and solid local seafood options as well as a delicious sandwiches (try the club; it’s delicious and huge). Lunch is very popular with day-trippers to the island because of the restaurant’s ideal location a short walk from both the water taxi and the Split.
Happy Lobster (Front St., tel. 501/226-0064, 6am-9:30pm Wed.-Mon., US$4-15) is another reliable local favorite for breakfast—order the fry jack side—and lunch. It offers a choice of local dishes or surprisingly tasty pastas and hot sandwiches, plus outdoor seating and free wireless Internet. Dinners tend to be less flavorful, for some reason. Prices are reasonable, and it’s one of the few eateries open on Sunday.
S Fantasy Dining (Front St., tel. 501/206-0638, 8am-10pm daily, US$5-20) invites you to “wine and dine on island time” and is a great choice for a reasonably priced and solid local and international fare, including American, Mexican, Italian, and seafood. The space is inviting, with an outdoor deck seating, and friendly staff. Breakfasts and dinners are popular; try the spicy Creole chicken or fresh grilled fish. The turkey meal I had here for Thanksgiving was a standout.
Another great choice for a casual meal throughout the day, Tropical Paradise (Front St., tel. 501/226-0124, 7:30am-9pm Mon.-Sat., US$4-15) has a solid menu of dishes that include Belizean, seafood, burgers, and nachos, not to mention a full bar for cocktails. The appetizers are excellent, especially the ceviche, and there are plenty of entrées. Ask for the seafood or chicken kebab options, listed on a hidden wall menu. The service is friendly, and the wait on orders is surprisingly short despite crowds in the busy season.
The beachfront Barrier Reef Sports Bar and Grill (Front St., tel. 501/226-0077, 9am-midnight daily, US$12-25) serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bar food. With options such as steaks, seafood, and pasta entrées and satellite television screens showing sports, it’s an easy choice for those picky eaters seeking a taste of home.
A worthwhile stop is the red, white, and blue Au French Corner (Front St., tel. 501/624-7374, 6pm-10pm Thurs.-Tues., brunch Fri.-Sun., US$5-13) the first crêperie on the island, dishing out authentic fresh salty and sweet crepes—think banana and Nutella, among the choices—and run by a young well-traveled French couple from Nice, Manon and Juma Massué. The open-air ambiance, including sounds of world music, as well as the friendly staff and the food make it a stand out. Don’t miss a glass of the red sangria, bursting with flavor and fresh fruit.
The tiny outdoor dining terrace at Pasta Per Caso (Front St., tel. 501/602-6670, email@example.com, from 6pm Mon.-Fri., from US$11) beckons with lanterns and soft music, despite its basic picnic-table seating. Run by an expat Italian couple from Verona, the menu invites you to taste “homemade pasta”—although it’s not as tasty as one would anticipate.
Skip the pasta and make a stop at S Aladdin’s (tel. 501/660-1550, 11am-8pm Thurs.-Tues., US$5-12)—one of my happiest discoveries working on this edition. Tucked in a corner that’s a second away from the Split, the open-air picnic-table style beachfront bistro serves up Middle Eastern specialties that are surprisingly authentic. The hummus and the baba ghanoush are delicious, served with freshly baked triangles of pita bread. Stuffed wraps come with various fillings—garlic chicken (my favorite), falafel, or lamb, among other options, while entrées include kebabs and rice. The prices are good for the serving sizes. You’ll find yourself returning more than once.
Il Pellicano (49 Pasero St., tel. 501/226-0660, 5pm-10pm Wed.-Sun., US$15-35) is a delightful Italian fine dining restaurant tucked in a residential area, away from any street noise and surrounded with gardens for an alfresco experience. The Italian owners provide as authentic an Italian menu as you’ll find in Belize—homemade gnocchi, spaghetti with meatballs, porchetta, and stuffed ravioli are among some of the tastiest options. The staff’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the ambiance is worth the treat.
Coconut Reef Caribbean Trattoria (Front St., close to Raggamuffin Tours, tel. 501/206-0333, http://coconutreefcayecaulker.webs.com, 5pm-9pm Mon.-Sat., US$10-22) says it serves up “Italian dishes with a Caye Caulker twist,” but the entrées can be hit or miss. Options include lobster lasagna and char-grilled lime and peppercorn tuna steak. Pizzas are also available for delivery.
S Habaneros (Front St., tel. 501/626-4911, 6pm-9pm daily, US$6-25) is the priciest restaurant and lounge by the island’s standards, but its Central American cuisine is a notch above the others, with unique and absolutely delicious seafood options—from the seafood curry to coconut-encrusted snapper—and several other vegetarian and meat specialties. The raised porch is ideal to enjoy the lavishly presented meals and live music, and the indoor bar is tiny but has chic ambience. Make sure to try the frozen mojito, and the Creole voodoo cakes are to die for (watch out for the habanero pepper sauce). Reservations are strongly recommended; this popular restaurant only seats 36 and fills up as early as 7pm.
Next door, Bondi Bar (Front St., at Outdoor Cinema, 4pm-midnight Mon.-Sat., US$9-16) serves up delicious tapas in a trendy, neon-lit alfresco lounge with platform futons, swank chairs, and electronic music. The food and drinks are some of the priciest you’ll find on the island, but if you’re up for a smaller crowd, fancy cocktails, and gourmet snacks (the Mediterranean platter and the mini burgers are tasty), this is a nice place to have a night out away from the usual spots.
Got a sweet tooth or craving dessert? Several locals are skilled bakers. Look out for a sweet evening aroma as bicycle carts filled with delicious cakes and pies, homemade daily, roll through the sandy streets; try Estella’s coconut pie or banana bread, if you’re lucky enough to spot her.
Chan’s Mini Mart (Middle St., across from Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel, tel. 501/226-0165, 7am-9pm daily) is pretty much the heart of “downtown” Caulker—check the bulletin board for ads and events or go inside for a full-size supermarket minus the deli counter. Chinatown Grocery (Ave. Langosta and Estrella St., tel. 501/226-0338, 7am-11pm daily) also has a good selection.
There are a few great fruit, vegetable, and juice stalls around town; look near the bakery and Atlantic Bank. A favorite is Julia’s Juice (Front St., US$2.50), where she sells watermelon, orange, lime, soursop, and mixed-fruit juice in recycled plastic bottles—you can mix and match your juices. Another reliable stand is the newer Seachoice Island Produce (Pasero St., opposite Atlantic Bank, 6:30am-5pm Mon.-Thurs., 8am-noon Sun.). For fresh fish or lobsters, go to the Lobstermen’s Co-op Dock (Calle del Sol), on the back side of the island; ask what time the fishing boats come in with their catch.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
There is plenty of online research you can do while planning your trip to the Northern Cayes. Check the official website of the Caye Caulker Belize Tourism Industry Association (CCBTIA, www.gocayecaulker.com). The best-run and most active website is probably www.ambergriscaye.com. The forum also has a Caye Caulker section that is easily searched and where you’ll find a large community of knowledgeable folks who are generally quick to answer. There is no visitor information booth on the island; just walk off the dock and ask around.
Tsunami Adventures (tel. 501/226-0462, www.tsunamiadventures.com), up toward the Split, acts as a local travel agency. Seaside Cabanas (Calle del Sol, tel. 501/226-0498, www.seasidecabanas.com) also has reliable travel agents.
Atlantic Bank (Middle St., 8am-3pm Mon.-Fri., 8:30am-noon Sat.) is the only bank on the island. Atlantic’s ATM accepts international cards. A Western Union office is located in the bank, and another is down the street inside Syd’s (Middle St. at Ave. Langosta). Be warned that the ATM tends to run out of cash by noon, but it is replenished again in the afternoon. Be sure to get enough cash if you’re on the island just before a weekend.
Health and Emergencies
The free health clinic (south end of Front St., tel. 501/226-0190, 8am-7pm daily) will help you with meds, if they have the supplies; it is staffed by a Cuban doctor and a Belizean nurse. For any serious emergency, your best bet is an emergency flight to the mainland; all hotels keep a list of emergency boat captains and pilots.
Media and Communications
At the south end of Front Street is the Village Council office (upstairs in the community center) and community library, health clinic, and post office (8am-noon and 1pm-5pm Mon.-Thurs., 1pm-4:30pm Fri.). The mail goes out every morning. FedEx services are available at the Tropic Air cargo office at the airstrip.
The BTL Office (Back St., 8am-noon and 1pm-5pm Mon.-Fri.) sells Digicell SIM cards for those with an unlocked phone; getting a local number requires an ID (passport or driver’s license) for registration purposes.
Cayeboard Connection (Front St., tel. 501/629-3680, 8am-9pm daily, US$6 per hour) is a small Internet hub and bookstore with an extensive collection of used travel guidebooks and random romance novels, as well as Belize-related cultural books. They will burn CDs and print photos; scanning and copying services are also offered. Island Link (Front St., tel. 501/226-0592, firstname.lastname@example.org, 8am-9pm daily, US$6 per hour), near the Split, combines access and office copy services with a small ice-cream parlor.
Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com) and Maya Island Air (tel. 501/223-1140 or 501/223-1362, www.mayaislandair.com) make daily flights to Caye Caulker from Belize City’s municipal and international airports as part of their San Pedro run. The airstrip on Caye Caulker is simple—you arrive just 15 minutes early and wait outside or on the veranda of the small building that serves all flights. Fares on Tropic Air, slightly lower than Maya Island Air, are US$41.50 one-way to Belize City’s municipal airport (about 10 minutes) and US$72 one-way to the international airport (8 minutes). Tropic Air also flies between the Belize International Airport and Cancún, Mexico, with connections to Caye Caulker and San Pedro—yet another option for flying into Belize.
The story behind the 2008 opening of Caye Caulker’s first high school, Ocean Academy (near the airstrip, tel. 501/226-0321, www.cayecaulkerschool.com), speaks to the island’s strong community spirit. In 2007, Hicaqueños had no option but to send their children to the mainland once they completed primary school. Only the privileged few could afford daily or even weekly commute costs to Belize City, much less the school fees and uniforms. As a result, many children on the island stopped attending school at age 12, falling behind in the most basic of skills.
Enter Heidi Curry, an American expat who left the rat race to make a new life for herself and her family in Belize. While tutoring primary schoolchildren in her free time, she learned of the alarming gap in learning opportunities. It wasn’t long before her passion for the island’s children led her to the idea of opening a high school. After an initial phone inquiry to the Ministry of Education (as simple, she says, as asking “How does one open a high school?”) the community rallied behind her—including cofounder Joni Miller, parents, business owners, volunteers, and resident Dane Dingerson, who donated land and funded construction. Within eight months, a nonprofit high school was born. The first high school graduation ceremony took place in 2011.
In addition to core academic classes, subjects taught include marine biology, graphic design, tour guiding, fly fishing, and scuba certification. Environmental education has a big place here, with projects such as mangrove restoration and composting. Students are offered annual apprenticeship placements on the island, giving them a role in Caye Caulker’s growing tourism industry.
Travelers have many opportunities to get involved. The school hosts service-learning groups, volunteer teachers, and mentors year-round; needed volunteer skills and school supplies are listed online. Cash donations are welcome and can help sponsor the school year-round, particularly supporting the completion of a partially finished second floor of classrooms. Guided tours of the school campus (US$5 pp) are available.
The short water-taxi ride between Caye Caulker and either Belize City or San Pedro is the most common and affordable way to get to the island. The Belize City-Caye Caulker trip costs US$12.50 one-way. Many boats are partially open-air, with benches for seats, although San Pedro Belize Express has a fleet of forward-facing three- and four-seat rows and covered interiors, but with less leg room. A light cardigan or rain jacket is always handy for windy trips. The boats are often packed to the point of being overloaded and sometimes depart late, although some companies are guiltier of these offenses than others. The safest bet is often the San Pedro Belize Express.
Three competing water taxi companies have alternative schedules and similar fares. Tickets for the San Pedro Belize Express (San Pedro tel. 501/226-3535, Caye Caulker tel. 501/226-0225, Belize City tel. 501/223-2225, www.belizewatertaxi.com) can be purchased from the ticket office on Caye Caulker’s Front Street. Boats depart from the dock across from the police station. Express departures to Belize City run 6am-5pm daily, and to San Pedro 8am-5:30pm daily. San Pedro Belize Express Water Taxi also offers service to the Muelle Fiscal in Chetumal, Mexico. The boat departs from Caye Caulker at 7am daily and San Pedro at 7:30am daily and returns from Chetumal at 3:30pm daily. Caye Caulker connections are available. The 2.5-hour one-way trip costs US$45.
Caye Caulker Water Taxi (San Pedro tel. 501/226-2194, Caye Caulker tel. 501/226-0992, Belize City tel. 501/223-5752, www.cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com) boats depart Caye Caulker from the main pier on the east side of the island; buy tickets at the office right on the dock before boarding the boat. Departures to Belize City run 6:30am-4pm daily, and to San Pedro 8:45am-5:45pm daily.
Water Jets Express boats (San Pedro tel. 501/226-2194, Caye Caulker tel. 501/206-0234, Belize City tel. 501/207-1000, www.sanpedrowatertaxi.com) depart from the lagoon on the back side of the island to Belize City 6:30am-4pm daily, to San Pedro 8:45am-5:45pm daily. Water Jets Express also offers service to Chetumal in Mexico (US$45 one-way) that departs Caye Caulker at 7am daily and San Pedro at 8am daily, and returns from Chetumal at 3pm daily. It also has a boat that leaves San Pedro at 3pm daily for Corozal and Sarteneja, which returns at 7am daily.
The navigable part of town—from the airstrip north to the Split—is one mile long and easily explored on foot. Still, a bicycle will make things easier, particularly on hot days and if you’re staying in one of the more southern accommodations. Ask if your hotel provides one, or rent at Friendship Center on Front Street. M&N Mel’s Bike Rentals (Chapoose St., just off Front St., tel. 501/226-0229, US$2 per hour, US$25 per week) is also a safe bet.
If you’re staying far south of the village, you might consider renting a golf cart from C&N, Island Boy Rental (Traveler’s Palm St., tel. 501/226-0252 or 501/610-5236, US$88 per day).
A golf cart taxi ride is cheap and worth it when moving around the island with heavy luggage. Taxi guy Luis (tel. 501/624-8578, US$2.50) is responsive and sends colleagues right away if he’s busy; taxis also operate from the Rainbow Hotel front desk (Rainbow Taxi, tel. 501/226-0123), and several remain parked outside the water taxi terminals awaiting arrivals.
Diving the Northern Atolls
Belize’s atolls are a sight to behold—with some of the clearest turquoise waters as well as abundant marinelife. No trip to these easterly islands is ever wasted, whether to snorkel, dive, or swim, taking in Belize’s breathtaking waters, not to mention some of the most beautiful beaches.
A renowned diving and fishing destination about 30 miles east of Belize City, most of the Turneffe islands are small dots of sand, mangrove clusters, and swamp, home only to seabirds and wading birds, ospreys, manatees, and crocodiles. Only Blackbird Caye and Douglas Caye are of habitable size, supporting small populations of fishers and shellfish divers. In November 2012, Turneffe Atoll was officially declared a protected marine reserve.
If you’re looking to hook a bonefish or a permit, miles of crystal flats are alive with both hard-fighting species. Tarpon are abundant late March-June within the protected creeks and channels throughout the islands. Those who seek larger trophies will find a grand choice of marlin, sailfish, wahoo, groupers, blackfin tuna, and many more.
Most visitors to Turneffe are day-tripping divers based in Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker; a select few choose to book an island vacation package. There are a couple of upscale resorts and one research facility where visitors can stay.
This is a popular first dive for overnighters out of Ambergris Caye. It provides a great opportunity for divers who haven’t been under in a while. The depth is about 40-50 feet and affords sufficient bottom time for you to get a good look at a wide variety of reef life. Angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, yellowtails, and morays are well represented. This will whet appetites for the outstanding diving to come at the Elbow.
S The Elbow
Most divers have heard of the Elbow (just 10 minutes from Turneffe Island Lodge), a point of coral that juts out into the ocean. This now-famous dive site offers a steep sloping drop-off covered with tube sponges and deep-water gorgonians, along with shoals of snappers (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) and other pelagic creatures. Predators such as bar jacks, wahoo, and permits cruise the reef, and the drop-off is impressive. Currents sweep the face of the wall most of the time, and they typically run from the north. However, occasionally they reverse or cease all together.
A short distance farther up the eastern side of the atoll from the Elbow is another dive to excite even those with a lot of bottom time under their weight belts. Lefty’s Ledge features dramatic spur-and-groove formations that create a wealth of habitats. Correspondingly, divers will see a head-turning display of undersea life in both reef and pelagic species. Jacks, mackerels, permits, and groupers are present in impressive numbers. Wrasses, rays, parrotfish, and butterflyfish are evident around the sandy canyons. Cleaning stations are also evident, where you’ll see large predators allowing themselves to be groomed by small cleaner shrimp or fish. The dive begins at about 50 feet and the bottom slopes to about 100 feet before dropping off into the blue.
Gales Point is a “don’t-miss” dive a short distance up the eastern side of the atoll from Lefty’s Ledge. Here the reef juts out into the current at a depth of about 45 feet, sloping to about 100 feet before the drop-off. Along the wall and the slope just above it are numerous ledges and cave-like formations. Rays and groupers are especially common here—some say this may be a grouper breeding area. Corals and sponges are everywhere in numerous varieties.
On the leeward, or western, side of the atoll, the wreck of the Sayonara, a tender sunk by Dave Bennett of Turneffe Island Lodge, lies in about 30 feet of water. Close by is a sloping ledge with interesting tunnels and spur-and-groove formations. Healthy numbers of reef fish play among the coral, and some barracuda tag along. Divers’ bubbles often draw down large schools of permits.
A bit farther up the atoll from the Sayonara, Hollywood offers divers a relatively shallow dive (30-40 feet) with moderate visibility, unless the currents have reversed. Here you’ll find lots of basket and tube sponges and lush coral growth. Many angelfish, parrotfish, grunts, and snappers swim here. Although not as dramatic as an eastern side dive, Hollywood has plenty to see.
Turneffe Island Resort (tel. 501/532-2990, U.S. tel. 800/874-0118, www.turnefferesort.com, 3-night package US$1,590-2,790) is on Little Caye Bokel, 12 acres of beautiful palm-lined beachfront and mangroves. Book a seven-night dive or fishing package and stay in one of eight ground-floor deluxe guest rooms, four second-floor superior rooms, and eight stand-alone cabanas. It’s a popular location for divers, anglers, and those who just want a hammock under the palms. At the southern tip of the atoll, the lodge is a short distance north of its larger relative, Big Caye Bokel. This strategic location offers enthusiasts a wide range of underwater experiences—it’s within minutes of nearly 200 dive sites. Shallow areas are perfect for photography or snorkeling; you can see nurse sharks, rays, reef fish, and dolphins in the flats a few hundred yards from the dock. All the dives mentioned earlier and many more are within 15 minutes by boat. The dive operation is first-rate, and advanced instruction and equipment rentals are available. Anglers have a choice of fishing for snappers, permits, jacks, mackerel, and billfish from the drop-offs. They can stalk the near-record numbers of snook, bonefish, and tarpon in the flats and mangroves. The lodge’s fishing guide has an uncanny way of knowing where the fish will be.
On the eastern side of the Turneffe Islands, Blackbird Caye Resort (tel. 501/223-2772, U.S. tel. 866/909-7333, www.blackbirdresort.com) encompasses 166 acres of beach and rainforest, and promises “an adventure” and not just an average vacation. It can accommodate 36 guests (double occupancy) with hot-water showers, private baths, and double and queen beds, as well as a duplex and a triplex featuring private guest rooms and air-conditioning. Snorkeling, fishing, and diving packages are offered for about US$2,000-3,000 per week, depending on activities and accommodations, and can include three dives a day, all meals, lodging, and airport transfers.
Turneffe Flats (tel. 501/232-9022, U.S. tel. 800/512-8812, www.tflats.com, packages US$2,000) is famous among international saltwater fly fishers who know the value of being able to sight fish in wadable flats for permits, bonefish, and tarpon. Or go for barracuda, snappers, jacks, or snook and eat it up at night. Guided fishing is in the lodge’s 16-foot Super Skiff flats boats. Divers are welcome and will enjoy daily forays to scores of sites throughout Turneffe Atoll and Lighthouse Reef. Varied beach accommodations are comfortable and well appointed, and meals are eaten family-style.
The most easterly of Belize’s three atolls, Lighthouse Reef lies 50 miles southeast of Belize City. The 30-mile-long, 8-mile-wide lagoon is the location of the Blue Hole, a dive spot made famous by Jacques Cousteau and a favorite destination of dive boats from Belize City, Ambergris Caye, and Caye Caulker. The best dive spots, however, are along the walls of Half Moon Caye and Long Caye, where the diving rivals any in the world.
Think of the atoll as a large spatula with a short handle and a long blade. At the northern tip of the spatula blade, Sandbore Caye is home to a rusty lighthouse and a few fishing shacks. It is also the favorite anchorage of several of the dive boats that do overnight stops, including Reef Roamer II.
Big Northern Caye, across a narrow strait, has a landing strip that used to serve the now-closed resort here. There are long stretches of beach to walk, beautiful vistas, mangroves, and lagoons, home to snowy egrets and crocodiles.
Halfway down the spatula-shaped atoll, about where the blade meets the handle, lies the magnificent Blue Hole, a formation best appreciated from the air but also impressive from the bridge of a boat.
At the elbow of the handle is Half Moon Caye, a historical natural monument and protected area with its lighthouse, bird sanctuary, shipwrecks, and incredible diving offshore. Finally, on the handle, Long Caye is a lonely outpost with a small dock, large palms, and glassy water.
beach on Half Moon Caye, Lighthouse Reef Atoll
This circular underwater formation, with its magnificent blue-to-black hues surrounded by electric-blue water, is emblematic of Belize itself. The submerged shaft is a karst-eroded sinkhole with depths exceeding 400 feet. In the early 1970s, Jacques Cousteau and his crew explored the tunnels, caverns, and stalactites here, created by past earthquakes.
Most dive groups descend to a depth of about 135 feet. Technically, this is not a dive for novices or even intermediate divers, though many intermediate divers do it with a guide. It requires a rapid descent, a very short period at depth, and a careful ascent, requiring excellent buoyancy control. For a group of 10 or more, at least three dive masters should be present. The Blue Hole is everything it is hyped up to be; my own personal experience there was extraordinary, and I gasped at the sight of the gigantic formations, the infinite depth, and the Caribbean reef sharks that circled nearby. It’s akin to an out-of-body experience. The lip of the crater down to about 60-80 feet has the most life: fat midnight parrotfish, stingrays, angelfish, butterflyfish, and other small reef fish cluster around coral heads and outcroppings.
S Half Moon Caye National Monument
Dedicated as a monument in 1982, this crescent-shaped island was the first protected area in Belize. Half Moon Caye, at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef, measures 45 acres, half of which is a thriving but endangered littoral forest; the other half is a stunning palm-dotted beach. This is also the only red-footed booby sanctuary in the western hemisphere besides the Galápagos. The US$40 per person admission fee is sometimes included in your dive boat fee, but sometimes you’ll pay it directly to the park ranger when you disembark.
As you approach Half Moon Caye, you’ll believe you have arrived at some South Sea paradise. Offshore, boaters use the rusted hull of a wreck, the Elksund, as a landmark in these waters. Its dark hulk looms over the surreal blue and black of the reef world. The caye, eight feet above sea level, was formed by the accretion of coral bits, shells, and calcareous algae. It’s divided into two ecosystems: The section on the western side has dense vegetation with rich fertile soil, while the eastern section primarily supports coconut palms and little other vegetation.
Besides offshore waters that are among the clearest in Belize, the caye’s beaches are gorgeous. You must climb the eight-foot-high central ridge that divides the island and gaze south before you see the striking half-moon beach with its unrelenting surf erupting against limestone rocks. Half Moon Caye’s first lighthouse was built in 1820, modernized and enlarged in 1931, decommissioned in 1997, then felled by the elements in 2010. A newer lighthouse was built in 1998 and is still functioning.
Everyone should go to the observation tower, built by the Audubon Society in the ziricote forest; climb above the forest canopy for an unbelievable 180-degree view. Every tree is covered with perched booby birds in some stage of growth or mating. In March, you’ll have a close-up view of nests where feathered parents tend their hatchlings. The air is filled with boobies coming and going, attempting to make their usually clumsy landings (those webbed feet weren’t designed for landing in trees). Visitors also have a wonderful opportunity to see the other myriad inhabitants of the caye. Thieving magnificent frigates (the symbol of the Belize Audubon Society) swoop in to steal eggs, and iguanas crawl around in the branches, also looking for a snack.
It’s 52 miles from the mainland to Half Moon Caye, a long boat trip over open ocean. Most visitors make the trip through one of the bigger dive shops, like Amigo’s on Ambergris Caye. Otherwise, only chartered or privately owned boats and seaplanes travel to Half Moon Caye. Check with the Belize Audubon Society in Belize City for other suggestions.
Half Moon Caye Wall
On the eastern side of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the reef has a shallow shelf in about 15 feet of water where garden eels are plentiful. The sandy area broken with corals extends downward till you run into the reef wall, which rises some 20 feet toward the surface. Most boats anchor in the sandy area above the reef wall. Numerous fissures in the reef crest form canyons or tunnels leading out to the vertical face. In this area, sandy shelves and valleys frequently harbor nurse sharks and gigantic stingrays. Divers here are sure to return with a wealth of wonderful pictures.
Long Caye Aquarium
Minutes from Half Moon Caye Wall, often combined with a Blue Hole trip, is a spectacular dive site ideal for photos and with the most marinelife spotting—even more than at Half Moon Caye Wall. The electrifying deep-blue waters will stun you, as will the schools of bright colorful fish and the large eagle rays, sea turtles, stingrays, and nurse sharks.
The shoals of silversides (small gleaming minnows) that gave this western atoll site its name are gone, but Silver Caves is still impressive and enjoyable. The coral formations are riddled with large crevices and caves that cut clear through the reef. As you enter the water above the sandy slope where most boats anchor, you’ll be in about 30 feet of water and surrounded by friendly yellowtail snappers. Once again you’ll see the downwardly sloping bottom, the rising reef crest, and the stomach-flipping drop into the blue.
On the western wall, “Three Coconuts” refers to trees on nearby Long Caye. The sandy bottom slopes from about 30 feet to about 40 feet deep before it plunges downward. Overhangs are common features here, and sponges and soft corals adorn the walls. Another fish lover’s paradise, Tres Cocos does not have the outstanding coral formations you’ll see at several other dives in the area, but who cares? There’s a rainbow of marinelife all about. Turtles, morays, jacks, coral, shrimp, cowfish, rays, and angelfish are among the actors on this colorful stage.
Farther north and about even with the Blue Hole, West Point is well worth a dive. Visibility may be a bit more limited than down south, but it’s still very acceptable. The reef face here is stepped. The first drop plunges from about 30 feet to well over 100 feet deep. Another coral and sand slope at that depth extends a short distance before dropping vertically into very deep water. The first shallow wall has pronounced overhangs and lush coral and sponge growth.
Stay overnight on Long Caye with Huracan Diving (U.S. tel. 518/253-7705, www.huracandiving.com), where you can choose from either a four- or seven-night all-inclusive dive package (US$990-1,490). The four guest rooms at Huracan’s lodge have private baths, king beds, ceiling fans, and screened windows. Pickup and transfer from Belize City is included in your package. A second option on Long Caye is Itza Lodge (U.S. tel. 305/600-2585, tel. 501/223-3228, www.itzaresort.com, R&R 3-night package US$995-1,650 for, 7-night package US$1,395-2,795), a 20-room oceanfront resort offering diving, fishing, water sports such as kite surfing, and “R&R” packages.
For even more adventure and full embrace the stunning outdoors on this atoll, sign up for a three-day “Lighthouse Getaway” overnight on Half Moon Caye with Island Expeditions (U.S. tel. 800/667-1630, www.islandexpeditions.com, US$599 pp)—the only adventure-travel outfitter with a tent camp on the island. It’s a well-run, professional operation with daily water-sports activities of all kinds—for the novice and expert alike—and a great way to travel with a group. The tents are sturdy and have single or double beds and kerosene lamps, and they are well sheltered from the elements. This eco-friendly camp on Half Moon Caye provides shared composting toilets, cold-water showers (with outdoor warm-water hoses when the weather cooperates), and evening generator use until 9:30pm. Meals are communal.
ST. GEORGE’S CAYE
The most historically significant caye—a national landmark and the first capital of the British Settlement (1650-1784)—is a little-known getaway. Nine miles or a 20-minute water taxi hop from Belize City, this small caye is home to St. George’s Caye Mangrove Reserve, established in 2005 and covering 12.5 acres on the southernmost point of the island. One luxury resort has a full-service dive shop that also offers other water sports: St. George’s Caye Resort (U.S. tel. 800/813-8498, www.gooddiving.com, US$168 pp, includes meals). The rest of the island is lined with private villas and docks owned by affluent Belizeans who escape here on the weekends.
St. George’s Caye Day is celebrated nationwide on September 10 to honor a 1798 British battle that took place here and prevented Spanish invasion. Today, the small cemetery gives evidence of St. George’s heroic past and is Belize’s smallest archaeological reserve.
The St. George’s Caye Research Station and Field School, founded by ECOMAR in 2009, hosts a group of Texas State University professors and students who spend a month on the island to conduct research digs. They also conduct coral reef research and educational trips based here.
St. George’s Caye Aquarium
Ever visited a professional aquarium created by a 10-year-old? Walk south of St. George’s Caye Resort, past the renowned St. George’s Caye cannon, where the British Baymen fought off an attempted Spanish invasion of Belize in 1798, to the St. George’s Caye Aquarium (tel. 501/662-2170, email@example.com, 8am-5pm Mon.-Sun., US$3), clearly indicated at the entrance to a home. In 2011, at the age of 10, Karly Bischof opened and has since managed the only indoor marine display of this kind in Belize, home to over 100 species of fish. He shows visitors around, describing each of the creatures that are native to Belize, from seahorses to scorpionfish and even a toadfish, and providing details on Belize’s underwater life. Like his father, he hopes to become a marine biologist, and there’s no better place to prepare for it than Belize. Karly’s aquarium has even appeared in overseas publications and is a worthwhile stop if you find yourself visiting the caye.
St. George’s Caye is just a 10-minute boat ride from Belize City.
Spanish Lookout Caye is a 187-acre mangrove island at the southern tip of the Drowned Cayes, only 10 miles east of Belize City. There are many day-trip possibilities to Spanish Lookout Caye, including the country’s first dolphin-encounter program, a beach, kayaks, and snorkeling.
If you’re not researching manatees or mangroves with Earthwatch Institute, you’re most likely coming to meet the dolphins or stay at Belize Adventure Lodge (tel. 501/220-4024, reservations U.S. tel. 888/223-5403, www.belizeadventurelodge.com, US$100), a full-service island facility offering 12 quasi-colonial cabanas over the water, two student dormitories, classrooms, a restaurant, a bar, a gift shop, and a dive center. Five colorful cabanas with 10 guest rooms, hot showers, and private baths are connected to the island by a dock. The resort offers popular four-night packages (US$799 pp d) that include all meals and transfers to the island.
Diving is one of the favorite activities here, and guests can participate in educational and research programs. Manatees and dolphins are regularly seen foraging near the island. Juvenile reef fish, seahorses, lobsters, and mollusks live among the red mangrove roots and sea grass beds. Tarpon and barracuda often come into the bay to feed on the abundant silversides. The resort is only one mile west of the Belize Barrier Reef and about eight miles west of central Turneffe Island.
THE BLUEFIELD RANGE
Scattered along the coast is a constellation of small cayes, some accessible to travelers, others only by drug traffickers. The Bluefield Range is one such group of cayes, a short distance south of Belize City. Accommodations are no longer available here, unfortunately, thanks to Hurricane Richard, which destroyed the range in 2010.
Near English Caye, Goff’s Caye is a favorite little island stop for picnics and day trips out of Caye Caulker and Belize City, thanks to a beautiful sandy beach and promising snorkeling areas. Sailboats often stop overnight; camping can be arranged from Caye Caulker by talking with any reputable guide. Bring your own tent and supplies. Goff’s is a protected caye, so note the rules posted by the pier. Goff’s has seen major impact from the cruise ship industry, which sometimes sends thousands of people per week to snorkel around and party on the tiny piece of sand, and a few reports have said that this is destroying the coral.
Although this is just a small collection of palm trees, sand, and coral, an important lighthouse sits here at the entrance to the Belize City harbor from the Caribbean Sea. Large ships stop at English Caye to pick up one of the two pilots who navigate the 10 miles in and out of the busy harbor. Overnights are not allowed here, but it’s a pleasant day-trip location.
Black Rock Lodge, San Ignacio