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Belizean coast /offshore cayes

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Did You Know … ?

  • The name for Ambergris Caye is based on a substance found in whale intestines.
  • Actor Leonardo DiCaprio and a partner own Blackadore Caye.
  • The Belizean barrier reef is part of the longest reef system in the Northern and Western hemispheres (600-700 miles).
  • Manatees, weighing up to 1,200 pounds, eat 10% of their weight in plants daily.
  • Elephants are the closest living relatives to the manatee’s sirenian species.

Keys to the cayes

Three words — water, reefs and fish — go quite far in defining a vacation to the Belizean coast and the country’s offshore islands (called cayes, pronounced keys). The water is the Caribbean, the reefs are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, aka the Great Mayan Reef, and the fish are simply numerous — more than 400 species.

Not surprisingly, fishing, snorkeling and diving are central to the area’s attraction for visitors. Anglers reel in (and toss back, by law) their catch while snorkelers and divers observe all manner of marine life, including dolphins, manatees and sharks, and the reefs as well.

For those who want more, a Belizean seaside vacation may be further defined by sand, birds, seafood and wind. Sandy beaches promise the lazy days sunbathers love; the birds — also numerous — are exotic and colorful; the seafood is varied and fresh, and the area’s trade winds are suited to kiteboarding, kite surfing, parasailing and windsurfing.

Regardless of how actively any visitor engages with nature here, Belize’s coastal region is unfailingly scenic, the wildlife wondrous, its subtropical climate inviting and the ambience seemingly designed to eliminate life’s stresses. The living is very informal everywhere.

As to geography, 185 miles of the barrier reef parallel Belize’s coastline. A shallow lagoon separates the mainland and the reef. In the north, the barrier is 12 to 15 miles from shore and the lagoon generally seven to 10 feet deep. The lagoon becomes wider and deeper to the south.

More than 400 cayes dot the waters inside the barrier reef and populate three atolls (rings of coral islands) beyond the barrier. Seven marine reserves protect much of the reef system.

The largest island, Ambergris Caye, has a real town, San Pedro, with restaurant choices, nightlife and a range of accommodations. Another likely choice, Caye Caulker, is smaller and quieter. Other cayes, including some in the atolls, have housing and tourist services, too.

Placencia Peninsula, on Belize’s southeast coast, boasts 16 miles of golden sand. Except for Placencia, all Belize’s seaside action is off the mainland.

Finally, if swimming or diving, be aware currents through the reefs can be quite strong.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take a dive — to explore the coral formations and sheer walls along the Belize’s barrier reef. Take a course if needed. Dive sites include the atolls, the Blue Hole, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, South Water Caye Marine Reserve and seasonal whale shark encounters at Gladden Spit.
  • Sign on for a weeklong kayak adventure among the islands.
  • Test your options for wind sports such as kite surfing and windsurfing on Ambergris Caye and elsewhere.
  • At the Placencia Peninsula or at San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, charter a sailboat, with or without a captain, for sailing Belizean coastal waters, all inside the barrier reef.
  • If a serious diver or angler, consider staying on one of the atolls. While the settings are gorgeous, the housing could be primitive.
  • After sunset, hit the bars and clubs in San Pedro. Look for — or listen for — live music.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Don the snorkeling mask and discover the color in the various kinds of coral in Belizean waters, as well as some of the more than 400 kinds of fish.
  • See the Blue Hole, an underwater collapsed cave in Lighthouse Reef Atoll, from a helicopter.
  • At Shark Ray Alley, swim with nurse sharks and stingrays. Alternatively, view the creatures from a glass bottom boat.
  • Go fishing. Choices extend from Bacalar Chico in the north to Punta Icacos Lagoon in the south. Go for fly-fishing’s grand slam, tarpon, permit and bonefish, around mangrove islands and coastal lagoons. For other species, choice spots include river mouths, areas near the reef or deep waters beyond the reef. This is catch-and-release sportfishing, and a license is required.
  • Get your fill at the midsummer Lobster Festival on Caye Caulker.
  • Set aside time for bird-watching. One choice: Use the observation platform at Half Moon Caye for good views of a colony of red-footed boobies.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Join a manatee watch at the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary south of Caye Caulker.
  • Choose a full-day tour to Bacalar Chico National Park on the northern end of Ambergris Caye for the flora and fauna, plus partially excavated Mayan ruins. The park is good for birding.
  • Spend barefoot days in and around the beaches on the Placencia Peninsula, on Belize’s southeast coast.
  • Book a special-interest cruise that takes you to Belizean islands and atolls.
  • Eat seafood everywhere.
  • Book a day trip from Ambergris Caye to the mainland. Choices include Mayan ruins or horseback riding followed by spa treatments.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Belize Tourism Board at