BELIZE: Inland Wonders and Offshore Atolls

 

Eco-tourism: n. Tourism involving travel to areas of natural or ecological interest, for the purpose of observing wildlife and learning about the environment.

The word “eco-tourism” as it applies to travel destinations has become a term that is bandied about as liberally as “gin-clear water” and “powdery white beaches.” Obviously this admirable focus does not always quite live up to expectations. Fortunately though, there are those occasional dive travel gems that truly do encompass a diversity of natural resources deserving of the term. Belize is just such a rarity. The country possesses a palette of terrestrial and aquatic wonders that borders on overwhelming. Not only is the environment stunning, but it provides a backdrop for breathtaking historical monuments and a warm and friendly people who readily welcome visitors.

The only caveat for the fortunate visitor is to understand the unlikelihood that Belize could ever be fully experienced in a single visit.

In the Heart of the Western Caribbean

Belize is a rectangular-shaped nation of about 8,878 square miles (23,083 sq km) on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America. This land of dense tropical forests and coastal mangrove is bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south.

The topography of this small country is remarkably varied and includes the large granite Maya Mountains in the south, while to the north are large flat regions interrupted by occasional rolling hills. Interspersed throughout the country are limestone areas marked by sinkholes, caves and underground streams.

There are no fewer than 18 major rivers in Belize and countless smaller tributaries. Many have played a key role in commerce and agriculture.

Perhaps the most remarkable geographical feature to the traveling diver is the great Belize Barrier Reef and the many cayes (islands, pronounced “keys”) that dot the waters between the reef and the mainland. The reef runs nearly 200 miles (320 km) along the Belizean coastline and is considered the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.

The weather in the coastal regions is distinctly tropical and varies only slightly from the coolest to warmest times of the year. On the other hand, the rainy and dry seasons do vary significantly, with January through April or May being the driest. There is also a short period that the locals call the “little dry” that occurs in late July or August.

A Maya Legacy

People have inhabited the region of Belize for many thousands of years, but those that left the most indelible mark have been the Maya. This fascinating culture is thought to have arisen about 1000 B.C. and gradually increased its sophistication and architectural grandeur over the next 1,500 to 2,000 years. As a people with a firm grasp of mathematics and astronomy, the Maya created a complex calendar and a high level of artistic expression. By A.D. 900 several main cities in the region held as many as 2 million Maya, who had created some of the most spectacular monuments and infrastructures in the world. No one is exactly sure what happened during the next 500 or so years, but the great civilization declined and the Maya dispersed.

When Columbus finally sailed along the Central American coast, he was captivated not by a grand civilization, but rather by a beautiful bay that curved along what is now southern Belize. He named this coast the Bay of Honduras, and the European settlers that would come later became known as “Baymen.”

The first of these settlers was a group of shipwrecked British sailors in 1638, but pirates and loggers added to the mix and the next 150 years were marked by conflicts with Indians and nearby Spanish settlements.

No history of this region is complete without at least one notable battle between the Spanish and British. In 1798 the British drove back Spain in the battle of St. George Caye. The victory is celebrated as a holiday each September 10.

In 1840, the region formally became known as the Colony of British Honduras. By 1964, self-government came into effect and in 1973 the territory’s name officially changed from British Honduras to Belize. Full independence eventually came in 1981, although a long-held grudge (apparently dating from that 1798 loss to the British) kept neighboring Guatemala from recognizing Belize until 1992.

Today tourism is the mainstay of the economy in Belize. The small nation has also developed a strong reputation for tolerance, fairness and ecological progressiveness that has attracted immigrants and investors from all parts of the world. As awareness grows of its environmental riches, the future looks very bright indeed for this land of Maya heritage.

Diving a World Heritage Site and Beyond

I once watched Jacques Yves-Cousteau explore Belize’s Blue Hole on television when I was still just an impressionable youth. So impressionable, it would seem, that the rush of vicarious adrenaline pumped right back into my belly as I stared down at the cobalt edge of that same Blue Hole from the gunnels of our dive boat. It was an easy descent along the sheer wall, but somehow the morning light cast a slightly eerie glow on the encrusting reef. This sensation was punctuated by a massive undercut at about 100 feet (30 m) that offered up an astounding view of ancient limestone formations including stalactites more than 30 feet (9 m) long. These caverns were the remnants of the original collapsed cave system and offer safe, but awe-inspiring terrain. As if this unique experience wasn’t enough, the schools of jacks and reef sharks drifting in and out of the blue only serve to cement this marine wonder in my memory bank. I’d like to think Jacques was feeling the same way on his first dive here.

The Belizean reef is a very long serpentine wonderland of diving possibilities. Often described as the second largest barrier reef in the world, this local treasure runs offshore for the entire length of the country. Included within this stretch are no fewer than seven marine parks and reserves that have been declared World Heritage Sites (including the aforementioned Blue Hole). After a few dives, the logic of UNESCO’s declaration quickly becomes clear. The local Caribbean waters thrive, with nearly 400 fish species, 70 types of hard corals and countless invertebrates. Add in water visibility as much as 150 feet (45 m) and water temperatures that rarely dip below 78 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) and the recipe for extraordinary diving is complete.

Starting from the mainland and going eastward toward the Caribbean Sea, there are three main atolls and hundreds of islets all with unique geological features that make up the diversity of this dive destination. The reef begins around the country’s northernmost offshore island called Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”). This popular dive island is near spur and groove reefs, offering dozens of interesting dive sites. Also in this area, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley can be easily reached and is a treat for snorkelers and divers alike. Shark Ray Alley is hugely popular, so it pays to get there early, but this shallow snorkel spot is worth the effort. Cavorting around a pretty little reef in 10 feet (3 m) of water I saw at least 10 nurse sharks, dozens of southern rays, scads of tropicals and two beautiful eagle rays.

Further south along the reef chain is Caye Caulker, where coral canyons begin at 35 feet (11 m) and drop to 85 feet (26 m) with an abundance of fish, turtles and spotted eagle rays. This island is even more laid-back than the leisurely paced Ambergris.

Turneffe Island Atoll is the largest of the three atolls and closest to Belize City. One of the highlights of diving here is The Elbow, on the southern end. This site starts in 60 feet (18 m) and has a sheer drop to 100 feet (30 m), with more schooling snapper than I’ve ever seen in one location.

A few miles farther south is Lighthouse Reef Atoll; the easternmost stretch of a palm-fringed paradise that runs 20 miles (32 km) long and 4 miles (6 km) wide. The Blue Hole is on the northern end, while on the south end is one of the country’s first national parks, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, established in 1982. This area has fantastic diving and the island provides a wonderful surface interval where you can see red-footed boobies, frigate birds and countless iguanas.

Glover’s Atoll rounds out the last of the three atolls and is due south of Half Moon Caye. The atoll is 15 miles (24 km) long by 4 miles (6 km) wide and covers some of the most pristine waters in Belize. Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve is a wonder — 700 coral patches and miles of sheer drop-offs from 40 to 2,600 feet (12-788 m). A few of the more popular sites include Northeast and Southeast Caye Wall and Glover’s West Wall.

There are well over a hundred dive sites to be explored along the barrier reef and the abundant dive operations cover overlapping regions of any given stretch of reef. In addition, many operators plan longer excursions to the various atolls to expand the diving possibilities.

Adventure in the Land of the Ancients

As a matter of logistics, many divers will likely spend a considerable portion of their visit to Belize at one of the diving resorts on the offshore islands or on a live-aboard. Many of these islands have a wonderfully rustic quality that takes the visitor back several decades, to a simpler time. Diversions tend to be mellow, like walking the sandy main street on Caye Caulker or checking out chicken bingo on Ambergris Caye. The rest of your stay could easily be spent kayaking, bonefishing or perfecting the fine art of hammock napping. That being said, it would truly be a shame not to allow for some easily arranged trekking or tours inland.

Belize has set aside about 40 percent of its total land area in the form of parks and reserves, which means there is a lot of amazing territory to explore.

High on any must-see list are the incredible Maya temples. There are more than 100 archaeological sites, but a few locations really stand out. The closest Maya site to Belize City (your likely arrival and departure city) is Altun Ha. I actually combined a trip to this site with a great mountain bike ride on which I found myself blazing down a muddy trail through verdant forest reserves. This ride is a blast, whether rain or shine, and includes glimpses of orchids, exotic wildlife and during the rainy season, fording creeks.

Most of the large archaeological sites, including Altun Ha, can also be accessed by bus or shuttle. A spectacular destination reached by easy bus ride is Xunantunich (pronounced zoo-NAN-too-nich), near the western border with Guatemala. Standing atop the massive pyramids and looking across the ancient sporting fields, one can almost imagine the cheers of a distant people echoing over forests that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Another popular mainland diversion is a trip to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife/Jaguar preserve. This large tract of semideciduous rain forest offers spectacular glimpses of wildlife and tropical vegetation. Of course the most famous of the local residents is the endangered jaguar, but with its nocturnal habits, sightings are rare.

From here, the list of adventures is as long as time allows. There are several more sanctuaries, including one for baboons. River rafting and tubing is popular, as are treks to waterfalls and caves. You’ll not likely make it to all the significant ruins, but you might wish you could. There are even easily arranged trips to Guatemala’s famous Tikal ruins, located right across the Belizean border.

Staff members at almost any resort can help you plan these various adventures and are frequently eager to help you see their country. For the most part, the accommodations in Belize tend to be smaller, privately owned resorts and quaint guesthouses. These can range from rustic to elegant, but universally they are run by accommodating and easygoing folks who are quick with a smile. If you choose to stay on the mainland for a few days to explore, you could find a few conventional hotels in Belize City, but you might also consider one of the eco-lodges that are becoming more common around the country.

Ultimately there is no wrong way to discover and enjoy Belize. Just remember to slow down your pace a notch upon arrival, because in Belize, adventure and relaxation are enjoyed in equal measure … naturally.

Story and photos by Kevin Palmer

Ancient Mayan Temples

Belize has a stunning variety of Maya archaeological sites around the country, most of which are still being excavated from the soil and dense tropical growth. Tours can be readily arranged via coach transport or small aircraft from Ambergris Caye, Belize City or Dangriga. The following are the sites that are most accessible and visually impressive.

  • Altun Ha “Water of the Rock,” north central Belize
  • Cahal Pech “Place of the Ticks,” northwest area of the Cayo District
  • Caracol “The Snail,” southwestern part of the Cayo District
  • Cerros Maya “Hills,” northern part of the Corozal District
  • El Pilar “Water Basin or Pila,” southern part of the Cayo District
  • Lamanai “Submerged Crocodile,” east central part of the Orange Walk District
  • La Milpa “Cornfield,” northwest Belize
  • Lubaantun “Place of Fallen Stones,” central part of the Toledo District
  • Nim Li Punit “Big Hat,” central part of the Toledo District
  • Santa Rita “Saint Rita,” northern part of the Corozal District
  • Xunantunich “Maiden of the Rock,” western part of the Cayo District