Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, tiny Belize is bordered by Mexico in the north and Guatemala to the west. But don’t let its size fool you. Only 14,270 square miles wide, Belize is home to the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere offering some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world. Traveler, Christa Visperas, elaborates below and shares some of the best locations in Belize to access this water wonder.
By Christa Visperas
The Belize Barrier Reef — This 300 kilometer stretch of coral reef in the coast of Belize is so breathtakingly-beautiful that even famous naturalist Charles Darwin was moved to call it “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies” in 1842.
The Belize Barrier Reef is a veritable adventure haven for visitors because it is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Snorkeling and scuba diving enthusiasts will marvel at the diversity of animal and plant life in the area. With hundreds of coral and fish species living in the reef, there is no lack of close encounters with these colorful and interesting denizens of the deep. Mollusks and corals co-inhabit the reef with crustaceans, echinoderms and fish of every size and color, with a plethora of interesting algae adding variety. Eagle rays, green turtles, moray eels, dolphins, and sharks fill the waters. No wonder UNESCO has tagged the Belize Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Site.
Only a small portion of the Belize Barrier Reef has actually been explored. The diversity that people see is only ten percent of the whole area. Imagine what wonders lie in the remaining 90%! It touches a chord in every adventurous soul, for who doesn’t thrill to the idea of stumbling on a never-before-seen sea creature, or beholding for the first time a secret cave, or uncovering the secrets long hidden within the atolls and lagoons dotting the reef?
Getting to the Belize Barrier Reef can be done in many ways, but the most preferred method is to make Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island, your take-off point for exploration. San Pedro is the place to stay in Ambergris Caye, a bustling fishing village with quaint remnants of its Mayan heritage everywhere, from the English-Spanish-Creole-Maya mixed dialect, to the sunny shops with Mexican-Caribbean decors. Mahogany skiffs ply the island for chartered fishing and a day of scuba diving in the reef. The skiffs bring to mind the romantic buccaneering age when the reef was a pirate hunting ground. Hol Chan Marine Reserve, one of Belize’s top diving destinations, is only a ten-minute boat ride from San Pedro. In just 5 square miles it compacts 3 different marine zones: reef, mangrove and sea grass beds.
The town of Dangriga in Southern Belize is also one of the best places to stay if you plan to explore the Belize Barrier Reef. Only 70 miles from Belize City, it takes around 2 hours of car or bus travel to get there. There are also fishing and scuba diving operators in Dangriga waiting to take you on a day of excursion. All it takes is a stroll down the docks to start your fishing adventure. Trips to nearby cayes of the Belize Barrier Reef – Tobacco Caye and South Water Caye – are easily planned in these docks and jetties. If you have a mind for underwater exploration, Glover’s Reef Atoll is the nearest accessible snorkeling and scuba diving site from Dangriga. Due to its isolation from the mainland, Glover’s waters are very clear and have a rich reef system.
Yet another great place to start exploring the Belize Barrier Reef is at the town of Placencia, where most visitors base themselves to avail of the best diving and exploration packages. After settling in a hotel or guesthouse of your choice, you can immediately relax on a hammock or stroll along the sandy beaches. To explore the nearest cayes, a catamaran or a private sailboat can be rented in the docks or from many tour operators, for day and even overnight excursions. For the more adventurous, a kayak trip can take you to out-of-the-way islands that dot the reef, where you can enjoy nature camping at its very best.
Belize Weather: The climate in the reef is subtropical at 80 degrees Fahrenheit on the average, so best to wear light clothing like shorts and t-shirts, with a light sweater for nighttime activities and a hat to ward off the sun in the daytime. Sunglasses, sunscreen lotions and insect repellents are also essential things to bring. For sight-seers and avid bird-watchers, a good pair of binoculars will come in handy. Local commuter airlines Maya Island Air and Tropic Air take visitors in and out of the area on a regular basis.