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HE ANCIENT N4A\A LO\ED FISHING AND paddling They r,r.ere so eager to access rhe \\rater sports off the coast of Belize that they,' clug a narlou' channel across the dangllsouthern terminus of the Yucatzin Peninsula

stands about a halI-mile offshore along the rest of the caye, close enough to swim to though that's not recommended on accollnt of boat traffic. Fortunateli,, mt.iu,1 options exist to get you out to the a\\re-inspiring barrier reef

as a shortcut for therr canoes This createcl

Scuba diving buih modern Ambergris Caye, with travellng divers "discovering" this reefside island back in the late '70s Short boat trip: to amazing sites, reliably clear r,vater, friendly locals, and beach shacks serving burritos and cold Belikin made it a diver's dream destination. None o[ that has changed, though the recent building spree shocks many longtimers and there are real concerns regarding develop-

a 24-rnile-long island, and during their he1'da;: up to 10.000 Ma,va livecl in fishlng villages and trading centers on this caye. After the Mzrya came the buccaneers ancl ltirates, .,r'ho naned the islancl for the invaluable dollops of sperm whale poop lound on Ambergris'be aches ancl r,vhich solcl, bizarrell-. as perfume and an aphroclisiac tt took 1,000 )/ears for the islands population Lo relllr'n to Mal'2 nurnbers, buL on\'tire last clecade toiump anoLher 50 percent Condos and resorts have replaced tnbal villages, ancl San Pedro Ambergris Ca1'e's sole tolvn. ronantjcized b1, earrll' tourists for its sand streets and occasiot1a1 golf cart is norv a bustle of little trucks and cars cror.vding a (.gasp) paved road On Ambergris'

r'vaterfront, visitors find dozens of water-sports operations perched on piers above lleets of bobbing boats. Ser.eral bars, restaurants and small guesthouses front the town's narrow

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ments impact on the health of the reef. On the positive side, visitors now find a surfeit of reliable dive operators, lodging options and, of course, beer shacks. Ambergris dive boats range from srnall lanchas to larger craft capable of handling a dozen bubblers, u'ith a la carte rates a\/eraging $40 per dii'e and packages reducing the cost considerably. A typical scuba trip begins with a deep dive on the outer reef Coral grou's light to the surface , and white water marks [he reef crest in all but the calmest seas Your captain navigates across the reef through a narrow channel usually Tuff' 6s1 and turns north or south, choos-ing liom more than 40 named sites Seaward of the crest, the barrier reef builds into massive spur and groove

stretch of sand, u'ith souvenir sellers and sandwich makers lining rhe back stree[s. The island's lures, however, remain the same as they have for rnil, lenniums: water sports and precious

gilts from the ,.:

lonnations. which are natura] coral architecture consisting of parallel fingers pointing to deep r,vater, with sand-floor canyons in between.

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is a skinny strip of sand backecl

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mangrove wetlands. Dozens of spindly piers reach from the shoreline like galley oars, underpinning the island's

transportation system Wa ter-sports opera[ors collect clients from hotel docks, and small outboard ferries run the island on a regular schedule, stopping wherever passengers flag them down Based at Fido's Dock in San Pedro, the taxi boats operat-e on set fares from Xis to $13, depending on the distance from town. There are more than 100 places to stay on Ambergris, rang-

ing from back-bay budget bunkhouses to flat-out fabulous

with rental homes, condos, and specialty fishing lodges and dive resorts Most hotels strlng along the beachfront wall-to-wall near San Pedrc, with more breathing space (and generall;, more sand) as )rou mo\re north or sollth. No matter where lrorl shack up, your focus will be Ambergris Ca1'e5 Itott, yard: the Belize Barrier Reef, aka the Mesoamerican Re ef, aka the Big Coral Kahuna, second in size only, to the Great One Down Under Belize's 19O-mile-long bulwark of living coral atop prehistoric reef grows so close to beach villas, along

Ambergris that it actually touches land at Rocklr Psin1, or.r ,h. islands north end, jr"rst below the old Maya canal that serves as the national border between Belize and Mexico. The reef

Ambergris Caye deploi,s a permanent buoy s)/stern to prevenl- damage to the reef by anchors, and boats tie off on the floats to drop divemasters and their grotrps. Once everyone is in the \,'ater, the boats cast off and follou' the bubbles, picking up divers as they ascend; it's all r.'ery easy and safe. If there's any knock on Ambergris Caye deep dives, its that many of the sites are similar. The delights, though, exist in the details A basic dive profiie rneans following the guide into a groo\re between spurs and finning toward the open ocean At the end of the spur, )/ou're a spacewalker floating in the big blue, eyes peeled for a gllmpse of fellou' travelers such as manta and eagle rays, u'hale sharks and reef sharks Then, you round the spur and head back up the next groor-c, into shallower water, $/here you're almost guaranteed [o see nurse sharks. The best sites Esmeralda, M&M Caverns, Cypress Tunnel, Victoria Tunnel and Paradlse Canyon stand orlt because of their elaborate su.im-throughs: caves that lead lrorn one groove to another, or ar-eas u'here coral has grown so effusively as to roof over from spur to spur The favorite spot for the da1's second or third dive, or for stellar night dives and one of the best shallow dives in the

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bird sanctuary and beaches of Half Moon Caye more than the "saw it and got the T-shirt" dive into the Blue Hole. For those who want to do the dives but skip the six-hour boat ride, Astrum Helicopters (astrumhelicopters.com) offers the ultimate Blue Hole trip including that "Earth's staring eye" aerial view. A Bell chopper will arrange a pickup on Ambergris and fly you out to meet a di."'e boat at the atoll. '

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i :i- i H ti r i; li1 You can

see a great deal around Ambergris Caye using just a mask and snorkel The island is not known for its beaches because, in most areas, there's only a narrow fringe of sand, as lawns of turtle grass grow right at the water's edge. For .

snorkelers, though, this is a boon. Strap on your fins and wade in at a spot safe from boat traffic, and you're instantly floating amid schools of minnows being hunted by needlefish and occasionally divebombed b)'brow.r pelicans In the grass below,

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conch slolr'l)' lurch along a bottom decorated u'ith a prickly collection of urchins and sea stars Look carefully and you'li see peacock flounders and

yellow stingrays camouflaged against the sand, r,vhile razorlish and tilefish show off their best defense by doing kamikaze dives into the soft bottom. Hotel piers are also do-it-yourself

snorkel spots, as they commonll. attract schools ofsnapper, baby tropi-

\\'orld

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is Hol Chan (explored in

more detail on page 72).

Ambergris Caye's professional dive guides are \/ery.,vell trained and understand the value of their natural resources "This isn't a Dlsney World ride out here," sal's Ernesto "Buju"

Leslie, u'ho works with Ambergris Divers "If lve destroy the reef, r,r'e can't iust build another one."

I r ; i i L irj.t' I i:ii i ; il i.ri. t-ying u,ithin striking distance of two out of Belize's three coral atolls, several Ambergris Caye operators offer special daylong dive and snorkel trips. Scheduling a three-dive-plus-picnic expedition to Turnelfe Atoll's coral r,valls (about $170), or to Lighthouse Reef Atoll's Great Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye National Monr-rment (about S240, including park fees), will definitely spice up your u'eek of divng. As Belizes most famous dive site, the Blue Hole demands particular mention A trip from Ambergris to the Blue Hole means a sunrise pickup and a three-hour boat ride each way Though the dive itself is an ethereal experience you take a quick vertical descent to a narcosis-inclucing l3O feet, ducking under an ice-age overhar-rg with thick limestone stalactites and possibly seeing sharks that have wandered into the hole it's over very fast In truth, the Blue Hole is more impressive from the air than under$'ater Thats not to say a trip isn't rvorthwhile, but you'll probably enjoy the days wall dives and the visit to the

cals, trunkfish and puffers, along u'ith all manner of invertebraLes, like shrimp, that cling to the pilings. If your hotel is close enough and your arms strong enough, you can even padclle a sit-on-top kayak out to the reef. Make sure to ask the hotel for a tether line )/ou can hold onto while snorkeling, and don't cross the reef crest into open water there's plenty

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to see on the back reef. Do check the weather, winds and currents before you go, and tell someone where you're going and when I'su'll be back. Ambergris Caye's snorkel operators primarily head to one or more of the area's marquee sites on each half-day trip ($20

for a single stop; $35 for two stops). A 20-minute boatride inside the lagoon brings you to Mexico Rocks, where large mounds of star coral combine with 29 other species of hard coral to create the only patch reef near the caye This garden of coral stands shoreward of the main reef, offering protected waters, and attracts thousands of small fish and plenty of inverlebrates like lobster and crabs. Five miles south of San Pedro, in a turtle-grass bed adjacent to Hol Chan and a part- of the same marine sanctuar;', lies an underwater petting zoo called Shark-Ray Alley It could more accurately be called Shark, Ra1', Turtle, Snapper, Hogfish and Big Fat Grouper Alley due to the profusion of animals that gathers here. Similar to Grand Ca1'putt't Stingral' Citl',

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began when fishermen anchored in the calm, shallow area to clean their day's catches, attracting scores of scavengers and acclimating them to the sound of boat engines. Snorkel guides have become adept at fondling the fish, hugging large southern

and since Hol Chan is the only nearby inlet, i.ts current can be quite strong at maximum ebb and flow. Your guide will judge [he current and decide the best way to approach the site.

stingrays and even cradling nurse sharks upside down, putting the sharks into a state of tonic immobility temporary paralysis so clients can gently stroke their skin.

cut The south side is healthiest, but there's a beautiful starcoral swim-through on the north wall Schools of fish gather

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iil.i i i i : ir i,ii.llrl::l f !n'* Ambergris caye s Little i 1 {) i i-i'l ri Channel is a big deai. Declared a marine sanctuary in 1987, Hol Chan remains the most popular attraction in Belize and deservedly so This snorkel and dive si[e a]so serves as a vivid example of how well underwater parks can work. While much of the reef had been depleted of edible species like grouper and snapper, protectj.ng this one small area allowed populations to bounce back in such numbers that local fishermen working the waters outsi.de the park now catch more and larger fish just from the overflow. This natural cut in the reef spans only 75 feet, so you can see all of Hol Chans shallow section in a single dive or snorkel You could also come back every day and never tire of the experience. More than L60 species of fish, 40 kinds of coral, three types of turtle, and even dolphins and manatees have been spotted inside the park The boat will tie to a buoy back in the sea-grass beds, and as soon as you hit the water you'll see nurse sharks and stingrays Channels always attract marine life because of the water flow that carries food across the reef, 72

CAR BBEAN TRAVET+t

FE

Corals and sponges grow profusely on both sides of the

al Hol Chan in incredible numbers, and there's a good chance of seeing free-swimming morays snaking from coral head to coral head. Divers will experience stronger underwater currents, especially on outgoing tides, but if you stay low and frnd the current "shadows" behind bottom features, you can swim across the cut The middle of the channel acts as a wateq, highway and hangout for Hol Chans largest fish. Schools of big tarpon and horse-eye jacks stack up in the current while eagle rays lly patterns over the sand. Fat, happy grouper and hogfish, safe from hooks and spears, loll on the bottom between their hunting forays, as St. Bernard-size parrotfish lope past, stopping occasionally to chew off chunks of limestone Af[er sunset, Hol Chan comes alive with the bobbing blue glow ofnight snorkelers and divers. Shine your light along the bottom, and it looks like a ski slope covered in moguls. Get cLoser, and you see that the bumps have eyes. Closer still, and a big stlngray will erupt from the sand. Coral polyps extend their feeding arms, and the night-shif[ creatures the octojoin -the morays pus, cardinalfish and bright-red shrimp working the reef. For those who've never snorkeled or dived alter dark. this is a don't-miss experience. CAR BBEANTRAVEL[/AG COI\,I


who want to practice jumps, while advanced players head out to the reef cuts to catch air off waves hitting the crest SailSports Belize (sailsportsbelize.com) on the beach at the Caribbean Villas Hotel can hook you up with everything from rentalwindsurfers ($22 to $27 per hour) to kite gear (982 per day) to Hobies ($38 to $49 per hour) to chase boats ($35 per hour). All levels of instruction are offered. "We can teach anyone to sail a Hobie in an hour," says Chris Beaumont, owner of SailSports Windsurfing takes a little longer, he says, with kiteboarding the most challenging. "It takes two 2%-hour-long sessions to get up and going on a kite," says Beaumont, "but this is a wonderful place to learn."

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:-j, "I know all rhese fish personall)'," laughs Gilberto "Star" Acosta, a fishing guide whos been working the waters around Ambergris for 24 years Star charters his lancha out of a beachfront fishing lodge appropriately named EI Pescador. From this and other hotel docks, Star and his fellow pros lead their clients to bonefish, permit and tarpon, hunting all the way from Ambergris' Caribbean beaches to the mainland's estuaries to find the fish (half-days average $225; full-days $300, including lunch). The most consis-

tent bite, though, happens right behind the island, in Ambergris'watery outback, among low mangrove cayes and sand flats.

Catching all three of the flat's premier game fish on the same day earns you a coveted grand slam, and your guide will decide which species to target first. Tarpon up to 100 pounds cruise gullies between the flats year-round, and summer Qune through August) brings addirional

flotillas of 150-pound migratory monsters i.nto the mix Times around the new moon tend to have the best tarpon bite, and Acosta suggests fly-fishermen use Black Death and

Green Hornet flies with 80-pound shock leaders on 10- to l2-weight rods. Once you've got your silver

king (all fishing for tarpon, permit

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The broad lagoon inside rhe barrier reef makes for a beautiful aquamarine pond ideaL for saL1ing, windsurfi.ng and kiteboarding. Seas break against the reef, keeping the inside waters calm, and the winds usuaiiy come from the easl, so there's no worry about getting blown out to sea February throughJune offers the most constant winds, usuaily l0 to 20 knots, but you can rely on a breeze most of the year, outside the August and September doldrums (when the ocean is often flat calm and underwater visibility is at its best). While the winds here are not radical, the sailing area offers forever reaches and long downwinders The calmest water lies

just behind the reef, where the water shoals to two to three feet deep, making the area perfect for beginning kiteboarders. A chop builds closer to shore for those windsurfers and kiters

and bonefish is catch-and-release on11'), your guide will move to the skinnier flats to look for permit. April and May are the

best months for these frustratingly warl' and wily fighters that grow to 30 pounds around Ambergris. Spin fishermen can cast the permits favorite food, live crab, while fly-fishers need to use their best-tied imitation. Nine-weight rods match up well against Belize permit. The easlest and that term is most definitely relative of the three fish to find and catch are

- here in good numbers and nice bonefish They school

size, 2 to 5 pounds (use a 6-, 7- or S-weight rod), and will totally make your day if nothing else is biting If you do catch your tarpon and permit, the guide will get you a bonefish lo finish your grand slam even i.f he has to put on a barracuda costume and scare one into the boat. * 73

Profile for Belize Islands Real Estate

Caribbean Travel & Life - Ambergris Caye Belize (December 2009)  

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Caribbean Travel & Life - Ambergris Caye Belize (December 2009)  

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