The diminutive Central American country of Belize, formerly British Honduras, is one of the most interesting and accessible of Caribbean dive destinations. Served by excellent direct air connections from Houston, Miami, and New Orleans, on Island Dreams' recent Belize Quickie, our SAHSA 737 whisked us non-stop from Houston to Belize City in just under two hours. A good lunch and free drinks put everyone in a festive mood as we transferred from our jet to a 19-passenger Tropic Air Twin Otter and headed out across the sparkling Caribbean for our final destination, the island of Ambergris Caye and the laid-back, little town of San Pedro.
Once a sleepy fishing village, San Pedro is enjoying a comfortable growth in tourism, though the air strip is still the only paved road in town. Our chosen lodging, the Mayan Princess, is an excellent new hotel located in the heart of San Pedro. It offers comfortable, fully air-conditioned, condominium-style suites. The rooms are spacious, and by Caribbean standards, downright luxurious. Every room includes a kitchen with stocked refrigerator (beer and soft drinks), large comfortable beds, and a balcony commanding a beautiful view of the sea and Belize's famous barrier reef.
Our dive shop, Amigos del Mar, is conveniently located on a pier over the water, just next door to the Mayan Princess, and in front of the neighboring Lily's Hotel and Restaurant. True to their name, "Amigos" really goes out of their way to be helpful, professional, and friendly. They also grill up some really good fish, as we were to find out later. Their boats, open runabouts with big twin outboards, take a maximum of only six or eight divers and go very fast. On our first dive to the Hol Chan Marine Preserve the boat ride to the reef only took about ten minutes. Our divemaster, Changa Paz, owner of Amigos del Mar, is a PADI Instructor and gave a very good briefing. Under his watchful eye, we proceeded to explore the reef until our tanks hit 500 psi. The underwater terrain consists of spur and groove hard coral formations which form deep coral canyons. Grouper, yellow-tail snapper, and reef fish were plentiful, but the highlight of the dive was a huge turtle. As he cruised by I noted that his head was easily as big as mine. Judging from the growth of barnacles on his ancient carapace, he must have been fifty or sixty years old, a venerable denizen of the reef.
A goodly number of nice restaurants, bars, and even dance clubs have popped up in San Pedro over the last few years. We went to a favorite spot, Elvis, for a typical Belizian meal of rice, black beans, chicken and fish. Then it was early to bed, for a real adventure would start at 5:00 in the morning as we boarded the M.V. Reef Roamer I for a trip to the Blue Hole. This is a very unique dive made famous by none other than Jacques Cousteau. Surrounded by miles of very shallow reef, the Blue Hole is 1,000 feet in diameter and over 400 feet deep. To make it even more unique there are enormous stalactites ringing the sides, formed eons ago when sea level was lower and this was a subterranean cave. As you might imagine, the Blue Hole is not a dive for beginners. Divers should be properly prepared to go to at least 130 feet to witness this remarkable phenomena.
Planned for three dives, our next stop was on the western side of Lighthouse Reef to experience Half Moon Wall, truly one of the most beautiful dives I've ever seen. The wall starts in only 30 ft. of water with cave like passages that lead to the open water at 60-80 ft. The coral is in excellent shape with garlands of brilliant orange rope and massive yellow tube sponges. We swam with schools of jack, beautiful queen triggers and a stingray the size of a satellite dish. The Reef Roamer then docked at Half Moon Caye, a splendid uninhabited island right out of "South Pacific". Actually, it is inhabited by thousands of Red Footed Booby Birds. As the island and surrounding waters have been a national sanctuary for over ten years, visitors are cautioned not to remove so much as a shell. In the center of Half Moon Caye is an observation tower where one can view these comical yet impressive birds as they perch in the tree tops and screech at each other while defending against the marauding Gannets that swoop down and try to catch an unsuspecting chick for dinner.
The final dive of the day was also in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll on Long Cay. This was another beautiful wall dive which started around 40 feet. There was a shelf at 90, but after that it was 1500 feet straight down. We happened upon a huge Jewfish parked at a cleaning station on the wall. Reluctant to leave, he just looked at us as if to say, "haven't you ever seen a guy get his teeth cleaned before?" We saw more queens (angels and triggers), willowy black coral "bushes," some very large gorgonians and sponges, and a beautiful spotted eagle ray which floated effortlessly above us. The memories of this exciting day of diving coupled with the liquid refreshment provided by our friendly crew made the boat ride back to Ambergris Caye definitely worth the trip.
I enjoyed diving with both Amigos del Mar and the Reef Roamer. Their crews were dedicated to helping us enjoy their beautiful country, while not getting in the way of our diving pleasure. It's also nice to go to a foreign country and know that you are welcome and can feel secure enough to leave a thousand dollars worth of dive gear on the patio to dry. I am not sure that these claims are valid on the mainland, but on Ambergris Caye we found them to be the rule rather than the exception. Belize is an affordable alternative available to those of us who are tired of the "cattle boat" approach to diving that some of our more popular destinations have adopted. You have to know that they appreciate divers when they installed a Hyperbaric Chamber on an island that has yet to see a paved road. There is great diving for both the new diver and the old moss-back. I never felt that I was being hurried or rushed so the boat could go get another load of divers. In fact, our trip had some older and very inexperienced divers who were treated with a great deal of patience and extra care by the dive crew as well as by Ken Knezick, our trip leader. All in all, I had a great time and think Island Dreams is telling it like it is when they offer you, "the Best of Belize."
Report by Jeffrey Bond
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