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Northern Cayes

Once the favorite hideout and playground of pirates, the Northern Cayes are Belize’s greatest tourism draw, and with good reason. These postcard-perfect islands offer quick access to the Belize Barrier Reef and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a dizzying array of outdoor activities, and enough lodging, restaurants, and entertainment options to fit celebrity and backpacker budgets alike.

Located close to Belize City, the Northern Cayes are ideal for adventurers short on getaway time. This cluster of islands includes the iconic Great Blue Hole and two of Belize’s three atolls—Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef—for world-class diving, snorkeling, and fishing. And that’s not all: As the most tourist-ready region in all of Belize, the Northern Cayes host an estimated 70 percent of visitors for their first Belizean experience. This fusion of local culture with a constant stream of international visitors makes for one lively scene.

Avid divers tend to stay on one of the atolls to minimize travel time to top dive sites; otherwise, it’s a two-hour boat ride each way from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. Ambergris, generally referred to as San Pedro, attracts those seeking constant activity—there is incessant hustle and bustle, not to mention pretty hotels and pools, chic lounges, fine dining, and plenty of bars and nightlife. Smaller Caye Caulker attracts the laid-back, off-the-beaten-path traveler, those who seek immersion in local island life, exploring sand-only streets on foot or bicycle (there are no cars here!). There’s an amusing sibling rivalry between the two cayes—larger Ambergris Caye considers Caye Caulker slow and boring, while the smaller caye is content with the lack of noise, paved roads, and crowds. In reality, each has a varied slice of Belize to offer, excellent water sports, and island fun, and neither is a wasted visit.

POINTS OF INTEREST

AMBERGRIS CAYE

Ambergris Caye is Belize’s largest island, just south of the Mexican Yucatán mainland and stretching southward for 24 miles into Belizean waters. Ambergris (“AM-bur-giss”) is 35 miles east of Belize City and about 0.75 miles west of the Belize Barrier Reef. The island was formed by an accumulation of coral fragments and silt from the Río Hondo as it emptied from what is now northern Belize. The caye is made up of mangrove swamps, a dozen lagoons, a plateau, and a series of low sand ridges. The largest lagoon, fed by 15 creeks, is 2.5-milelong Laguna de San Pedro, on the western side of the village.

HOL CHAN MARINE RESERVE

Once a traditional fishing ground back when San Pedro was a sleepy village of a few hundred people, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most popular dive and snorkel site in Belize, with tens of thousands of visitors each year. The site is four miles south of San Pedro and makes for an affordable morning or afternoon trip. In town is a small visitor center on Caribeña Street with information on the reserve. Nearly all tour operators on Ambergris and Caye Caulker offer trips to the Hol Chan cut.

Once you visit, you’ll quickly understand the popularity of the reserve—and why it is important to help preserve it. Established as a marine park in 1987, when fishing was banned, Hol Chan boasts an amazing diversity of species. The reserve focuses on creating a sustainable link between tourism and conservation, protecting the coral reef while allowing visitors to experience and learn about the marine life living here.

BACALAR CHICO MARINE RESERVE

Located on and around the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve hosts an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, offers excellent snorkeling and diving, and is rich with history. The Bacalar Chico Canal is reputed to have been dug by Mayan traders between AD 700 and 900, creating Ambergris Caye by separating it from the Yucatán Peninsula. The reserve has a wide range of wildlife habitat; 194 species of birds have been sighted there. The landscape consists in part of sinkholes and cenotes created by the effects of weathering on the limestone bedrock of Ambergris Caye. On the eastern side of the reserve is Rocky Point, the only location in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System where the reef touches the shore. This is one of Belize’s most important and prolific sea turtle nesting sites, home to at least 10 threatened species. In 1997, Bacalar Chico—along with the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

CAY CAULKER

About 1,300 Hicaqueños reside on this island 21 miles northeast of Belize City, just south of Ambergris Caye and a mile west of the reef. It’s five miles long from north to south, but the developed and inhabited part is only a mile long, from the split to the airstrip. It’s true that there have been changes in recent years, including the arrival of boutique luxury condominium resorts as the island realizes its unique spot in Belize’s growing tourism economy. Yet the authenticity of life in a small Caribbean fishing village remains—original clapboard houses dot the coastline and side streets, and the only rumble you’ll hear is from the sound of the few golf carts and bicycles crushing the sand-only roads, or the daily street chatter among residents. There’s a happy, familial coexistence on Caye Caulker among ex-pats and locals, and all are determined to conserve the island’s history and surroundings through community education and involvement. In the end, Caye Caulker remains more affordable than Ambergris, and it’s as laid-back as its “Go Slow” motto indicates, but no less entertaining.

THE SPLIT

The best landmark to start with is Caye Caulker’s “Split”—also the most popular swimming and snorkeling spot. The Split cuts Caye Caulker into two areas: the southern inhabited part of the island, or “the Village,” and the northern mangrove swamps. The story most people like to tell is that the Split came to be when Hurricane Hattie widened the channel in 1961 and “cut” the island in two, north and south. Boat captains and longtime residents will tell you that in fact, the hurricane created only a tiny water passage that was later dug wider by anglers and politicians who wanted larger boats to pass. Eventually, daily sweeping tides made it as large as it is today. Either way, travelers and locals flocked here at all hours of the day swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing on concrete slabs, sharing finger foods on picnic tables anchored in shallow water, or drowning in rum punch and reggae from the on-site bar.

CAYE CAULKER MARINE RESERVE

The island’s very own “local channel” off the reef, where you can snorkel surrounded by dozens or more stingrays and nurse sharks as well as explore beautiful coral at the “coral gardens,” is 0.5 miles from shore and just under 10 minutes by boat. It’s an area often overlooked by those who head to Hol Chan, but if you prefer a similar but less crowded experience, this is a great choice.

On the north end of this reserve is a channel that attracts manatees during their mating season (May-Sept.). Two or three manatees, sometimes more, can be spotted at the surface at any time. It’s a spectacular sight; just remember to respect the reserve rules and not touch or swim with the marine animals. Any of the tour companies will bring you here.

SWALLOW CAYE WILDLIFE SANCTUARY

This protected area comprises nearly 9,000 acres of sea and mangrove at the north end of the Drowned Cayes, just a few miles east of Belize City. The sanctuary is comanaged by the Belize Forest Department and Friends of Swallow Caye.

NORTHERN MANGROVE FOREST RESERVE

Just before the airstrip is a northern mangrove forest reserve area of about 100 acres that has been protected since 1998. Three kinds of mangroves—red, white, and black—and other trees provide an ideal habitat for crocodiles, turtles, fish, and water birds. Bird-watching is ideal here, with some 130 species, including the Rufous-necked rail, the black catbird, and others that have not been spotted elsewhere in Belize. Tours can be arranged through the Caye Caulker branch of the Belize Tourism and Industry Association.

SOUTH POINT

Located directly opposite the airstrip, away from town and tucked behind the abandoned Belize Odyssey Resort, is a narrow sandy path that leads to a little-visited side of the island. The trail winds through a maze of glorious landscape— mangroves, almond trees, coconut palms, and saltwater palmettos—with pockets of sea views on the left and off-the-grid solar-and wind-powered homes on the other. Keep straight on the path and follow its twists and turns until you reach a dead-end, noting the last house on the right. After dousing yourself generously with mosquito repellent, hike through a small littoral forest to reach the last dock. There lies a breathtaking scene of open water, blue skies, and sailing birds at the southernmost point of the island. This is South Point, the raw inhabited Caye Caulker, where electrical poles are nonexistent and where selling seafront lots has yet to completely change the nature that fills this area.

TURNEFFE ISLANDS

A renowned diving and fishing destination about 30 miles east of Belize City, most of the Turneffe islands are small dots of sand, mangrove clusters, and swamp, home only to seabirds and wading birds, ospreys, manatees, and crocodiles. Only Blackbird Caye and Douglas Caye are of habitable size, supporting small populations of fishers and shellfish divers. In November 2012, Turneffe Atoll was officially declared a protected marine reserve.

LIGHTHOUSE REEF

The most easterly of Belize’s three atolls, Lighthouse Reef lies 50 miles southeast of Belize City. The 30-mile-long, 8-mile-wide lagoon is the location of the Blue Hole, a dive spot made famous by Jacques Cousteau and a favorite destination of dive boats from Belize City, Ambergris Caye, and Caye Caulker. The best dive spots, however, are along the walls of Half Moon Caye and Long Caye, where the diving rivals any in the world.

BLUE HOLE

This circular underwater formation, with its magnificent blue-to-black hues surrounded by electric-blue water, is emblematic of Belize itself. The submerged shaft is a karst-eroded sinkhole with depths exceeding 400 feet. In the early 1970s, Jacques Cousteau and his crew explored the tunnels, caverns, and stalactites here, created by past earthquakes.

Most dive groups descend to a depth of about 135 feet. Technically, this is not a dive for novices or even intermediate divers, though many intermediate divers do it with a guide. It requires a rapid descent, a very short period at depth, and a careful ascent, requiring excellent buoyancy control. For a group of 10 or more, at least three dive masters should be present.

HALF MOON CAYE NATIONAL MONUMENT

Dedicated as a monument in 1982, this crescent-shaped island was the first protected area in Belize. Half Moon Caye, at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef, measures 45 acres, half of which is a thriving but endangered littoral forest; the other half is a stunning palm-dotted beach. This is also the only redfooted booby sanctuary in the western hemisphere besides the Galápagos. The US$40 per person admission fee is sometimes included in your dive boat fee, but sometimes you’ll pay it directly to the park ranger when you disembark.

HALF MOON CAYE WALL

On the eastern side of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the reef has a shallow shelf in about 15 feet of water where garden eels are plentiful. The sandy area broken with corals extends downward till you run into the reef wall, which rises some 20 feet toward the surface. Most boats anchor in the sandy area above the reef wall. Numerous fissures in the reef crest form canyons or tunnels leading out to the vertical face. In this area, sandy shelves and valleys frequently harbor nurse sharks and gigantic stingrays. Divers here are sure to return with a wealth of wonderful pictures.

LONG CAYE AQUARIUM

Minutes from Half Moon Caye Wall, often combined with a Blue Hole trip, is a spectacular dive site ideal for photos and with the most marinelife spotting— even more than at Half Moon Caye Wall. The electrifying deep-blue waters will stun you, as will the schools of bright colorful fish and the large eagle rays, sea turtles, stingrays, and nurse sharks.

SILVER CAVES

The shoals of silversides (small gleaming minnows) that gave this western atoll site its name are gone, but Silver Caves is still impressive and enjoyable. The coral formations are riddled with large crevices and caves that cut clear through the reef. As you enter the water above the sandy slope where most boats anchor, you’ll be in about 30 feet of water and surrounded by friendly yellowtail snappers. Once again you’ll see the downwardly sloping bottom, the rising reef crest, and the stomach-flipping drop into the blue.

TRES COCOS

On the western wall, “Three Coconuts” refers to trees on nearby Long Caye. The sandy bottom slopes from about 30 feet to about 40 feet deep before it plunges downward. Overhangs are common features here, and sponges and soft corals adorn the walls. Another fish lover’s paradise, Tres Cocos does not have the outstanding coral formations you’ll see at several other dives in the area, but who cares? There’s a rainbow of marinelife all about. Turtles, morays, jacks, coral, shrimp, cowfish, rays, and angelfish are among the actors on this colorful stage.

ST. GEORGE’S CAYE

The most historically significant caye—a national landmark and the first capital of the British Settlement (1650-1784)—is a little-known getaway. Nine miles or a 20-minute water taxi hop from Belize City, this small caye is home to St. George’s Caye Mangrove Reserve, established in 2005 and covering 12.5 acres on the southernmost point of the island.

DROWNED CAYES

Spanish Lookout Caye is a 187-acre mangrove island at the southern tip of the Drowned Cayes, only 10 miles east of Belize City. There are many day-trip possibilities to Spanish Lookout Caye, including the country’s first dolphin-encounter program, a beach, kayaks, and snorkeling.

THE BLUEFIELD RANGE

Scattered along the coast is a constellation of small cayes, some accessible to travelers, others only by drug traffickers. The Bluefield Range is one such group of cayes, a short distance south of Belize City. Accommodations are no longer available here, unfortunately, thanks to Hurricane Richard, which destroyed the range in 2010.

GOFF’S CAYE

Near English Caye, Goff’s Caye is a favorite little island stop for picnics and day trips out of Caye Caulker and Belize City, thanks to a beautiful sandy beach and promising snorkeling areas. Sailboats often stop overnight; camping can be arranged from Caye Caulker by talking with any reputable guide. Bring your own tent and supplies. Goff’s is a protected caye, so note the rules posted by the pier. Goff’s has seen major impact from the cruise ship industry, which sometimes sends thousands of people per week to snorkel around and party on the tiny piece of sand, and a few reports have said that this is destroying the coral.

ENGLISH CAYE

Although this is just a small collection of palm trees, sand, and coral, an important lighthouse sits here at the entrance to the Belize City harbor from the Caribbean Sea. Large ships stop at English Caye to pick up one of the two pilots who navigate the 10 miles in and out of the busy harbor. Overnights are not allowed here, but it’s a pleasant day-trip location.