Ambergris Caye & Belize’s Islands, Cayes & Atolls
The aquamarine waters, fascinating corals, and biodiversity of the Belize Barrier Reef are no longer a secret known only to select scuba divers, marine researchers, and locals. While still retaining their laid-back charm, Belize’s cayes are attracting more attention from travelers seeking marine adventures on or under the water, or who just want a laid-back getaway to enjoy ocean breezes and gorgeous views. More than 400 cayes and atolls line Belize’s Caribbean coast. Some are barren or, during high tide, even submerged, while others proffer postcard-perfect palms, mangrove clusters, and beaches with exceptional snorkeling, fishing, sailing, wind-surfing, and scuba diving.
The largest and most-visited cayes are Ambergris Caye, (about 40 km/25 mi long and 2 km/1 mi wide), and Caye Caulker (about 6 km/4 mi long). Once quiet Maya fishing villages, a colorful mix of locals—speaking English, Spanish, Creole, and Maya languages—now call the cayes home. San Pedro Town, on Ambergris Caye, features dive shops, waterfront restaurants, and tiki bars along its small sandy streets. You’ll also find white-sand beaches on Ambergris, although many hotels use piers so swimmers can pass over protected sea grass rather than wading through it for a swim. The less visited and more laid back Caye Caulker has no beaches to speak of, but along with Ambergris, it offers outstanding opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and kayaking.
Belize’s three coral atolls—Grover’s Reef, Turneffe Atoll, and Lighthouse Reef—take you far from tourist towns to secluded lodges on islands surrounded by unparalleled diving, snorkeling, and fishing excursions. All of Belize’s cayes and atolls are only about a one- to two-hour boat ride from mainland marvels such as the ancient Maya ruins of Caracol, the biodiverse Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, the beaches of Placencia, and the Garifuna culture of Dangriga.
Ambergris Caye – Endless Stretches of White Sand and the Reef at your Doorstep.
The largest of Belize’s islands, Ambergris Caye runs parallel to the magnificent Belize Barrier Reef. Once home to the ancient Maya (they created the island by digging a channel between it and Mexico), Ambergris is located 56 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Belize City and is accessible by boat or plane. It’s a popular destination for diving, snorkeling, sailing, fishing, kayaking, and windsurfing; trips to nearby Caye Caulker and the mainland are easy to plan, too.
“Ambergris is located 56 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Belize City and is accessible by boat or plane. It’s a popular destination for diving, snorkeling, sailing, fishing, kayaking, and windsurfing.”
Formerly a fishing village, San Pedro is the island’s only town; its sandy streets are lined with waterfront restaurants, hotels, tiki bars, and dive shops. Visitors to Ambergris should note that in order to protect the caye’s natural environment, Belizean law prohibits the removal of coastal sea grass. Properties do their best to clean up grass that washes up on shore, but it’s not uncommon to find a bit of sea green next to your cold bottle of Belikin.
Caye Caulker – Laid-back, uncomplicated, and close to the Barrier Reef
Just 8 km/5 m from end to end, Caye Caulker is the quieter, less expensive, and less developed alternative to Ambergris Caye, which lies 30 minutes away by boat. Expect a relaxed, shoes-optional vibe, with weathered clapboard houses, a handful of makeshift souvenir stands, and small art galleries. Sand streets are car free (locals get around by bike, golf cart, or on foot) and simple local eateries offer home-cooked lunches of spiny lobster, conch, or red snapper. Caye Caulker has no real beach, but it offers exceptional snorkeling and scuba diving along the Belize Barrier Reef.