There is a lengthy list of sensible reasons why Belize belongs on the must-do list when it comes to Caribbean cruising. First, a two-hour flight from the United States to Belize City makes it easy to travel to, English is the official language and it is one of the most affordable destinations in the Caribbean—the U.S. dollar is widely accepted and is worth twice the Belizean dollar. Second (or fourth, depending on how you count), electricity is the same as in the U.S., and you can drink the water. But most of all, besides all of the sensible reasons to visit Belize, the country’s overwhelming draw is the natural beauty of its islands, waters and rainforests, along with its intriguing Mayan culture, all of which are wrapped up in an intoxicatingly relaxed way of life.
Belize is the pioneer of sustainable tourism and, proud of its abundance of natural wonders, it pampers them and shows them off well. Boating on ancient Mayan waterways brings one close to water birds and crocodiles. The country is chock-full of limestone caves and sinkholes to hike and swim in, some of which even contain Mayan treasures. Belize has a baboon sanctuary and one of the only jaguar preserves in the world. Howler monkeys and toucans peer out of its verdant rainforests. With hundreds of offshore islands, beachcombing, diving, snorkeling, and boating are superb.
The more than 321,000 people of Belize come from eight distinct cultures: Maya, Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian, German Mennonite, Arab, and Chinese, all of which add their distinct seasoning to the dish of Belizean music, cuisine and art. The Mayan culture is ever present. From 250-900 A.D. the mathematically brilliant Mayan civilization flourished in Central America leaving 1,400 archeological sites in Belize. Day tripping to sites before or after cruising or island hopping is easy since Belize is only 185 miles long and 75 miles wide. Hotels and charter companies are happy to arrange excursions.
Boat travel up winding rivers to both Altun Ha and Lamanai in Northern Belize is a treat. Altun Ha—Mayan for “water of the rock”—was a small but important ceremonial and trading center located 31 miles north of Belize City where archeologists found the largest Mayan carved jade object, a jade head. Lamanai (“submerged crocodile” in Mayan) appears out of the rainforest after a 26-mile boat ride on the New River. It is famous for a stela of a Mayan ruler wearing a crocodile headdress. The Mayans occupied this site for 3,000 years.
Landlubbers are content to stay ashore, but mariners come to life on the water and Belize has plenty of that. Along its entire Caribbean coastline lays the longest unbroken barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere—a UNESCO World Heritage site. More than 100 species of coral and 500 species of fish call the area home. Eight protected marine reserves, including the famous Blue Hole—a 1,000-foot-wide sinkhole in the sea—provide SCUBA divers and snorkelers wondrous guided experiences year round.
Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye are the largest and most populated islands of Belize. Ambergris Caye, with the town of San Pedro, is a little livelier than Caye Caulker where the motto “Go Slow” says it all. Both places have access to the mainland with $20 round-trip water taxis (45 minutes) and $138 round-trip Tropic Air flights (15 minutes). The charter company TMM is based in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. Both islands are good places to provision, gas up and top off the water tank. Required diving and snorkel guides are available on both islands for visits to several nearby marine reserves.
Ragamuffin Tours on Caye Caulker offers the unique experience of sailing on an authentic Belizean sailing sloop all day, visiting Hol Chan Reserve, Coral Gardens and Shark Ray Alley sites for only $70. Included meals could be stewed chicken, coconut rice or freshly-made shrimp ceviche washed down with rum punch mixed in an oversized water jug. Dolphins play with the sloop’s bow wave en route to snorkel adventures with nurse sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, blue tangs, moray eels, goatfish, trunk fish, blueheads, butterfly fish, and the list goes on. Ragamuffin insists that all footwear be left at the dock before departure. By the time the pile of flip-flops are returned, life is seen in a better light!
All beaches on Ambergris and Caulker are public and plenty of fish swim just offshore. A favorite place for mingling with people and fish on Caye Caulker is at The Split. This small channel separates the island and it is here that people hang out all day at the Lazy Lizard Bar. Snorkel in the morning with starfish, eat curried lobster, coconut rice and beans with a Belikin Beer for lunch, and then return to the water where a float is the perfect means of transportation.
Life becomes more peaceful as one travels down the coast to the Placencia Peninsula in southern Belize. Uninhabited islands provide dot-to-dot sailing in uncluttered water. From April to June people come to swim with whale sharks, and drums beat during the celebration of the Garifuna in November, but most of the time tranquility is the main attraction.
Chartering a catamaran for a week in Belize is possible through Sunsail and The Moorings based in Placencia, TMM Yacht Charters on Ambergris Caye, and other local charter companies. Whether you bareboat or hire a captain and crew, charter is a great way to experience Belizean waters. Just keep in mind that charter companies insist that bareboaters stay within the barrier reef unless accompanied by a local captain. Navigational aids are sparse and navigation by sight with a bow watch is highly recommended due to “skinny” waters and coral reefs. The place is remote beyond the cayes and communication is sketchy at times on both cellphone and VHF. Gas, water, ice, and provisions should be conserved since replenishment is spotty. On the bright side, the barrier reef protects sailors from ocean swells, and trade winds almost guarantee 20 knots of wind every day. The Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast by Freya Rauscher (3rd Edition) is the guide of choice and can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org. Most companies provide copies onboard but TMM and The Moorings give a copy to charters.
Perhaps “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret” is less of a secret now. Once this country’s natural playground is experienced it could be said, “It’s unBelizeable!”
Nancy E. Spraker, Southern Boating September 2013