Belize is an outdoorsy kind of place. Obviously, every country has places that are outside (unless you’re a Lemurian living in the underground city of Telos). But Belize, probably more than any country I’ve visited, is a place that can only be fully experienced in the out-of-doors. Apart from a couple of museums and a handful of cultural buildings (and as pleasant as they all are, none of them are must-sees), there isn’t much in the way of indoor attractions – so if you’ve come on holiday to visit world-class museums, cutting-edge art galleries, or experimental theatres, you’ll be disappointed. But when you’ve got some of the most pristine jungle on earth, the planet’s second-largest coral reef, hundreds of islands, and tens of Maya ruins, all of it accessible, and all of it bathed in a tropical climate, no one’s coming here to stay indoors.
Belize has a small population and a low population density, and most of the people live on or near the coast, so it’s not difficult to get away from the crowds and into the wild. Over two-thirds of the country is still in its natural state, and two-thirds of that natural area is under some kind of environmental protection. Which makes Belize a great destination for nature lovers and fans of outdoor activities. Unless you come in the worst part of the hurricane season (September and October), and it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale, in which case you’ll just have to sit it out…
Ever since Jacques Cousteau came to Belize in the 1960s, people have been coming here to scuba dive – not only does the country have the aforementioned second-longest barrier reef in the world, it’s waters contain three of the four atolls in the Caribbean. Dive or snorkel anywhere, and you can immerse yourself in a spectacular underwater world of colourful corals, tropical fish, turtles, rays, and sharks.
For reef dives, the main centres are Ambergris Caye (San Pedro), Caye Caulker, and Placencia. Caye Caulker has three dive shops, Placencia has about five, and San Pedro has dozens. Belize is less populated (and less touristed) in its south, so the reef is in a better condition (and gets less divers) there – the northern cayes of San Pedro and Caye Caulker have some very nice and very accessible dive sites (like Hol Chan), but my personal favourites are the more remote, quieter ones near Placencia, at Laughing Bird Caye and Silk Caye (two tiny, uninhabited tropical islands perched right on the reef). Placencia is also the most popular base from which to dive with whale sharks, as they migrate through Belizean waters from April to June every year. Another great place to dive is at the marine reserve at South Water Caye, accessible from Hopkins or Tobacco Caye (a dive there, as part of a few days spent on Tobacco Caye, is probably one of the most relaxing ways to spend your time in Belize).
But if you want a perfect dive, the offshore atolls are the places to go – they’re more expensive to visit and take longer to get to, but the diving is superb. Turneffe and Lighthouse Reefs are accessible from Caye Caulker and San Pedro (Caye Caulker being closer to both), and Glover’s Reef is the remotest and least-visited, a short trip from Tobacco Caye (or a long trip from Hopkins or Placencia). Lighthouse Reef is home to the famous Blue Hole (which makes it the most popular of the three), but the rest of the reef has excellent diving, as do the other two atolls.
And if you’re not a diver (and don’t want to get certified, which you can at every dive shop), there’s good snorkelling too. The cayes near Placencia are great for snorkelling as well as diving, and on Tobacco Caye you can snorkel right off the beach (like the cayes near Placencia, Tobacco Caye is right on the reef). But the most famous (and popular) snorkelling site is Shark Ray Alley, which is part of Hol Chan Marine Reserve, in between Caye Caulker and San Pedro – nurse sharks and sting rays have congregated here ever since local fisherman have been cleaning their catch in the area (for obvious reasons). And as soon as the boats arrive, they’re surrounded by hungry elasmobranches in search of scraps. The shark and rays have become accustomed to people, and will often swim right up to (and in some cases, bump into) snorkellers, providing a surreal, slightly unnatural, but nonetheless very enjoyable, experience. Just try not to think about Steve Irwin…
In a week or two, I’ll be posting a follow-up article, and giving a brief run-down of the rest of Belize’s numerous activities.