Fascinating and exotic, Belize offers a world of tropical adventure to divers and snorkelers. It is a preserve for the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the magnificent Blue Hole, a 1,000-ft ocean sinkhole, and home to three beautiful atolls - Lighthouse Reef, the Turneffe Islands and Glovers Reef. Within the reef system are hundreds of uncharted islands.
Just 750 miles from Miami, Belize lies on the Caribbean coast of Central America between Guatemala and Mexico. Populated by a mere 200,000 people, it is a country of approximately 9,000 square miles. It has inland mountain ranges with peaks over 3,500 ft, dense tropical jungles, a coastline of mangrove swamps, and 266 square miles of offshore coral islands. The 185-mile-long barrier reef parallels the shore from 10 to 30 miles out, with prime diving locations around the out islands.
Tours to Belize are labeled "expedition" or "safari" rather than "vacation." Its offshore accommodations and facilities are considered primitive by Caribbean standards-few TVs, phones or automobiles on most of the islands-yet Belize's jungles and unspoiled reefs lure intrepid divers back again and again.
Visitors arriving in Belize City will find a safer environment than in the past, thanks to a special Tourist Police Force formed in 1995 that has reduced crimes against tourists by 72%. Despite the improvement, it's still wise to avoid flashing expensive cameras, jewelry, or money around.
On the mainland outside Belize City one finds fairly rugged and varied terrain, alive with yellowhead parrots, giant iguanas, monkeys and a curious creature called the gibnut-described by Belizean author, Robert Nicolait, as a cross between a fat rabbit and a small pig.
The heart of dive tourism is Ambergris Caye, a bustling resort and fishing community, the largest of the out islands or "cayes." Its main town, San Pedro, is a few hundred yards from the Hol Chan Marine Preserve, the northernmost point of the Barrier Reef, and is the jump-off point to Belize's smaller cayes and atolls. Ambergris is just 20 minutes by air from Belize City or an hour and 15 minutes by ferry (see end of chapter for transportation details). The northern portion of Ambergris is accessible by boat only, but plans for a road are under consideration. Transportation on Ambergris and the other islands is by golf cart or on foot.
A new area for divers is Placencia, a quaint fishing village located on a 16-mile coastal peninsula, 100 miles south of Belize City. There are some coral heads off the beaches, but a half-hour boat ride will bring you to Laughing Bird Caye, a small island surrounded by pristine reefs, and the remains of old wrecks. Several Spanish galleons went down in this area over the years and occasionally a gold piece washes up on the beach. Placencia is an intriguing new place to explore.
Visit Belize during the dry season, from February to May. Annual rainfall ranges from 170 inches in the south to 50 inches in the north. Heaviest rainfall is from September to January. August is frequently dry.