Planning a Vacation to Ambergris Caye Belize
A Vacation on an Island Paradise
Ambergris Caye is one of hundreds of beautiful tropical islands in the Caribbean Sea that dot the coast of Belize. With the second longest barrier reef in the world just off shore it offers fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving and is a paradise for birdwatchers and nature lovers. It is easy to understand why it is the most popular tourist vacation destination in Belize.
The island is about 25 miles long and only about a mile wide. The height restrictions keep buildings below the top of the tallest palm trees with no buildings over 44 feet tall. Ambergris Caye has few paved roads and the primary mode of motorized transportation is golf carts. There are no major hotel chains which gives the island a relaxed retro ambience. Belize is an especially easy place for people from the US to visit because it is the only country in Central America where the official language is English and the Belizean dollar is tied to the US dollar with a super easy to calculate 2 to 1 exchange rate - 2 Belizean dollars = $1 US.
For those who are looking for an eco-friendly, unique getaway, take a look at what it is like to spend a few days on Ambergris Caye, Belize.
All photos by the author, Vicki Green - PNW Travels, unless credited otherwise.
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Where is Ambergris Caye?
While planning my trip I did some research and learned that Ambergris Caye is one of over 200 Belizean islands in the Caribbean Sea, located a few miles east of the mainland of Belize. The island is separated from Mexico to the north by the Bacalor Chico Channel, a narrow cut dug by the ancient Maya, that forms the border. Belize was formerly a British Colony known as British Honduras and has remained a member of the British Commonwealth. Just to the east of Ambergris Caye is the second longest coral barrrier reef in the world.
A Map of Belize and Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Belize, just south of Mexico.
Getting to Ambergris Caye from the Belize Mainland
International flights coming into Belize usually arrive at the Philip Goldson International Airport in Belize City. Since Ambergris Caye is an Island in the Caribbean several miles from the mainland of Belize, the only way to get there is by boat or by plane. There are water taxis that run during daylight hours and take about 90 minutes to make the trip to Ambergris Caye or you can board a small plane and take a short 20 minute flight from Philip Goldson Airport to San Pedro airport. There are two local airlines that have hourly scheduled flights to San Pedro - Maya Island Air and Tropic Air. I must confess that these planes were the smallest I'd ever flown on. No TSA, security or cockpit doors - you're right in the same compartment with the pilot. The adventure on Ambergris Caye begins!
Flying to Ambergris Caye from the Mainland of Belize
Fly from Belize City International Airport to Ambergris Caye
Landing at San Pedro Airport
Where to Stay on Ambergris Caye?
There are many lovely resorts on Ambergris Caye that are all fairly small and independently-owned. By law, no building can be more than 3 stories tall and there are no large corporate chain hotels or resorts. It is one of the features that attracted us to a vacation in Belize and one of the things that makes it a unique destination.
A short trip from the San Pedro airport by taxi, Xanadu Island Resort is a beautiful eco-friendly condo resort. Although it looks very picturesque with thatched roofs, the buildings are actually very sturdy concrete monolithic domes built to withstand the strongest hurricanes.
We like to stay at Xanadu for several reasons including many free amenities for guests like bicycles and kayaks, the beautiful grounds and it is just the right distance from San Pedro. We could easily walk to San Pedro to eat in restaurants or go shopping, but it is far enough away from the hustle and bustle of town to enjoy watching birds and wildlife in a quiet, peaceful area.
The staff is always very attentive to anything we want and arranges many of our activities for us. In advance of our stay we send in a grocery list and and the food and beverages we order are stocked in the kitchen when we arrive.
Xanadu Island Resort on Ambergris Caye
Take a Video Tour of Xanadu Island Resort on Ambergris Caye
A View of Xanadu Island Resort from the End of the Pier
The Hotel Piers on Ambergris Caye
Nearly all of the resorts located along the beaches of Belize have their own pier with a grass roofed shelter at the end. The piers are a great place to relax, birdwatch, fish or enter the water to swim or snorkel. The end of the dock is also used as the waiting area to be picked up by a boat for an adventure or trip into the town of San Pedro. We soon earned that when we were instructed to be waiting at the dock at a particular time to be picked up that we were on "Belize time". We were always told the pick-up would be at 9 am, but the boat never arrived before 9:45 am, so we learned to adjust to "island time" and be prepared to relax, read, watch birds or enjoy the scenery.
The End of the Pier in Belize
The Natural Eco-friendly Beaches of Belize
Walking Along the Shore at Ambergris Cay
We were only about a half mile walk from the business district of San Pedro, so we usually walked back and forth along the beach. The government of Belize recognizes the unique ecology of the world's second longest coral reef and the economic importance of ecotourism to their country so the beaches of Ambergris Caye are protected in their natural state to provide the best habitat for wildlife. As a result the vegetation is left growing on the beaches and rocks are not removed. Those who want a sandy beach destination for swimming or playing at the water's edge may want to vacation elsewhere. But those who enjoy the natural world and an opportunity to view the abundant wildlife will appreciate the efforts made to preserve the natural environment for future generations.
The Streets of San Pedro
Transportation in San Pedro, Belize
San Pedro is located near the southern end of the island and is home to the airport and main business district on the island. The two main streets, Pescadero Drive and Barrier Reef Drive are paved with cobblestones, but most of the other streets are unpaved sand. There are only a few cars on the island, mainly vans used as taxis and trucks to transport goods. Golf carts and bicycles are the main wheeled vehicles used for land transportation, and boats are commonly used to transport people from one pier to another. The road to the north end of the island ends after about 3.5 miles at Captain Morgan's resort. The rest of the northern half of the island is only accessible by boat.
Ambergris Cay Restaurants and Bars
Dining and Drinking on Ambergris Caye
There are numerous restaurants and bars on Ambergris Caye featuring fresh, delicious local seafood dishes and beers and spirits made in Belize. Belikan Beer is a national favorite and locally favorite cocktails include mojitos and rum punch. Rum punch cocktails are commonly referred to by the colorful (and off-color) name of "panty rippers". There are numerous little thatch-roofed open air bars along the beaches of Ambergris Caye.
Birding and Wildlife Watching in Belize
The Beautiful Birds of Belize
According to the Audubon Society, over 580 bird species can be seen in Belize and over 260 on Ambergris Caye. I took a field guide specific to birds in Belize and was glad I did. Although many species are migrants that are also found in North America in the summer, it was great to have a book to identify the many species I had never seen before.
A Field Guide to Identify the Birds of Belize
Belize - A Wildlife and Bird Watching Paradise
In addition to the birds, I was amazed at the number of species of wildlife I saw on Ambergris Caye. We were entertained by watching several species of reptiles including lizards and crocodiles. It added to my enjoyment to have my binoculars to get a better look.
My Photos of the Wildlife of Ambergris CayeClick thumbnail to view full-size
SeaDuced by Belize
Photos of our SeaDuced by Belize Sailing and Snorkeling AdventureClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Hol Chan Marine Preserve
Through our resort office we also booked a snorkeling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve including "Shark Ray Alley".
"Hol Chan" in the ancient Mayan language means "small channel". Hol Chan is a narrow cut through the barrier reef about 4 miles from the south end of Ambergris Cay. The opening in the reef allows passage of fish and other sea creatures back and forth between the shallow water inside the reef to the deep water beyond. This edge between the two depths creates conditions where it is possible to see an amazing number of different species of fish and coral. Hol Chan is the oldest marine reserve in Belize and needless to say, the snorkeling and scuba diving at Hol Chan Marine Reserve is amazing. Hol Chan is divided into 4 zones, with the newest addition being the famous Shark Ray Alley.
Snorkeling at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Fish and Coral at Hol Chan ReserveClick thumbnail to view full-size
Shark Ray Alley, Belize
Sharks and rays were originally attracted to this area of Hol Chan because it was tradtionally a place where fishermen would stop to clean their catch before coming back to shore. The sharks and rays learned that this was a place to get an easy meal and began to congregate whenever boats stopped in the area. The word spread and it became a popular snorkeling and scuba diving spot. The adventure sounds much more dangerous than it actually is. The sharks are gentle, non-agressive nurse sharks and the rays are tame enough to be petted when they swim up for a handout. We only got a fleeting glimpse of one timid shark and a chance to touch a tame ray that was being fed by our guide. Nonetheless, it was an amazing experience and gave us bragging rights and we bought "I swam with the sharks" T-shirts as souvenirs.
Snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley in Belize
A Friendly Ray at Shark Ray Alley
Watch Matt Lauer's Swim with the Sharks and Rays
Planning a Trip to Belize
It is really very easy to plan a trip to Belize. We started by selecting the resort we wanted to stay at, first by deciding which area of the island that we preferred to stay. We knew we wanted to stay within walking distance of San Pedro to be close to a large selection of restaurants, bars and shopping. The next thing we did to help narrow our search was to read the reviews of San Pedro resorts and hotels on Trip Advisor. After selecting a resort we thought we'd like within our budget, we contacted them and then we checked airfares online to find the best prices for the dates the resort had availability and booked our flights to Belize City. The Xanadu Island Resort helped us with the rest of our reservations including our flight to San Pedro from Belize City and transportation from the airport to the resort.
Don't Forget Your Passport
If you are planning a trip to Belize from the US, remember to apply for a US passport or passport renewal 4 to 6 weeks before departure to allow adequate time for processing. For an additional fee an expedited US passport can be obtained in 3-4 weeks. If you want to depart in less than three weeks, you can use express passport services that can process your passport application more quickly and get your passport to you in a week or less.
© 2012 Vicki Green
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