Travel Destinations

Cruising Itinerary: The Coast of Belize

San Pedro Beach Ambergris Caye |Credit Wikimedia Commons

Starting Point: Ambergris Caye

Belize’s largest island, Ambergris Caye, is 25 miles long and about a mile wide. Near the southern end, you find San Pedro Town, where most of the island’s marinas, hotels and restaurants are located. Snorkelers flock to nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a five-square-mile underwater park with four different zones that include The Reef, Seagrass Beds, Mangroves and Shark Ray Alley.

Just north of San Pedro Town is Secret Beach, a prime white-sand destination for tourists and locals that also features cenotes, sinkholes and caves. For onshore accommodations, check out Alaia Belize, an Autograph Collection Hotel featuring a rooftop pool and lounge, as well as upscale drinking and dining options.

While the waters around Ambergris Caye and other sites on BBRRS are relatively calm, navigation by sight with a bow watch is recommended due to abundant skinny water and coral reefs. The good news is numerous mooring buoys are available to keep boat anchors from damaging the reef. The outer reefs are more dangerous and less charted; many areas are simply labeled “numerous coral heads or patch reefs.” Tip: Get a copy of Captain Freya Rauscher’s Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast.

Stop 1: Lighthouse Reef

Estimated mileage: 35 NM

Half Moon Beach at Lighthouse Reef | Credit Falco Ermert on Flickr

Located about 50 miles southeast of Belize City, Lighthouse Reef (LHR) forms a shallow sandy lagoon with a depth that runs between 2 and 6 meters. The big draw is the infamous Blue Hole, a giant marine sinkhole about 1,000 feet across and 400 feet deep that was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, who declared it one of the world’s top five scuba diving sites. In all, 60+ dive sites are within the vicinity of Lighthouse Reef, including several shipwrecks.

To the southeast of the Blue Hole, you find Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, a small island that’s been a designated bird sanctuary since 1924 and a marine protected area since 1981. The main attraction is the unique flora and fauna. The orange-flowered ziricote tree provides a habitat that supports one of the only red-footed booby colonies in the western Caribbean. In turn, the booby colony supports the forest’s stability by providing guano as fertilizer. It’s also a habitat for the endemic leaf-toed gecko and anole lizard, and the southeastern part of the island is a prime sea turtle nesting ground from May to November.

A handful of “eco-resorts” on LHR, primarily on Long Caye, offer accommodations ranging from rustic to really rustic. For lunch or dinner, try the Itza Resort, where you can dine on a “thatch-covered open-air deck with sweeping views of the Caribbean Ocean and nearby Half Moon Caye.” Call ahead.

Belize Blue Hole | Wikimedia Commons

Stop 2: South Water Caye

Estimated mileage: 42 NM

The main island in the 118,000-acre South Water Caye Marine Reserve (SWCMR), South Water Caye is just one of several small cays in the area offering unsurpassed snorkeling, diving, beaches and laid-back charm. Man O’ War Caye, Tobacco Caye, Coco Plum Caye, Thatch Caye and the Pelican Cays are nearby and easily accessible.

Considered one of the most biodiverse marine areas in Belize, SWCMR consists of “pristine reefs, mangroves, palm-fringed islands, turquoise waters and seagrass beds that provide a home to tropical reef fish, rays, seabirds, manatees and crocodiles,” according to the website Anywhere Belize.

South Water Caye is known for its dense, red mangroves that populate coral outcrops and the rare diamond-shaped reefs known as “faro” reefs. If the beach is more your speed, the island’s southern portion is well known for sandy shorelines, especially Pelican Beach.

For landlubbers, Blue Marlin Beach Resort and Pelican Beach Resorts are located at either end of South Water Caye, both offering snorkeling, kayaking, bird watching or just plain island-style relaxation, complete with Belizean cocktails and cuisine.

Stop 3: Glover's Reef

Estimated mileage: 13 NM

Coral Reef Fish | Credit Wouter Naert Unsplash

The 86,000-acre Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve is a popular destination for diving, snorkeling, kayaking, fly fishing and sailing. Since the atoll is only 18 miles long and 6 miles wide, you can easily explore it all in a day. Don’t miss the Caiman Trench, the deepest ocean drop in the world, plunging 15,000 feet. Prized for its amazing biodiversity, the waters of the atoll’s lagoon are home to three species of sea turtles, eight species of sharks and rays, hundreds of species of fish, and vast vistas and varieties of coral.

After a day of nautical adventure, you can relax and recharge at one of the area’s “off the grid” retreats, such as Isla Marisol Resort or Off the Wall Dive Center & Resort, both five-star PADI properties offering instruction, guided trips, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking, accommodations, libations and all mod cons to adventurers and aquatic aficionados. If you prefer something less strenuous, Off the Wall owners Jim and Kendra Schofield invite visitors to kick back and spend time “walking barefoot on the pearly white sand beaches, searching for shells, or cooling off in the warm waters of the lagoon.”

Tip: Bluewater Sailing website notes that “the channel into Glover’s Reef is easily followed in good light. The entrance on the south end of the atoll is wide and calm, and a wonderful anchorage lies just inside this southern entrance through the reef. The reefs are healthy and teeming with fish of many species. Spear fishing is allowed on the southern edge of the reef, while the reefs in the conservation zone offer spectacular viewing.”

Placencia | Credit Glen Murphy Wikimedia Commons

Stop 4: Placencia

Estimated mileage: 32 NM

Placencia Peninsula’s narrow, 16-mile strand offers silvery sand beaches on the Caribbean side and mangrove-fringed lagoons on the western side that are inhabited by manatees, marine turtles and saltwater crocodiles. At its southern tip you find the town of Placencia, a tranquil place to spend time exploring.

As the gateway to the southern part of the BBRRS, Placencia is a popular destination for sensational snorkeling and dramatic diving. The town of around 1,800 permanent residents has several marinas where you can restock and recharge, as well as more than a dozen options if you want to lay your head on dry land for a night or two — everything from modest B&B-style accommodations to high-end resort properties. Hungry after a day on the reefs? Try Muna Rooftop Restaurant & Bar at The Ellysian or Mare by Coppola at the Turtle Inn for upscale Belizean cuisine and super-fresh seafood.

Side trip: A few miles up the road from Placencia is Seine Bight, a small village that’s home to the Garifuna, a West Indian native population who’ve occupied various parts of the Caribbean for 400+ years, eventually founding Seine Bight nearly 200 years ago. The villagers still practice indigenous drumming, singing and dancing, and traditional dress is worn for the dances, including unique masks and headdresses. Check out Sam’s Disco, where there’s dancing to punta and reggae, or Wamasa, a nightclub with live entertainment on weekends. Garifuna artisans are also renowned for their intricate carvings of indigenous animals and other fine crafts.

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