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By Rick Frehsee
Perched at the outer edge of a geological fault line that roughly parallels the coast, the Belize Barrier Reef is a continuous ridge of undersea mountains. Off Ambergris Caye (the northernmost island and most popular destination for divers), the reef rises to the surface 1,000 yards from shore. Shallow coral gardens give way to pinnacles and canyons that line a deep wall. The area between the reef crest and the drop-off is a hot zone for divers. Spots like M and M Caverns surround divers with huge formations, pocked with ledges and swim-throughs.
From Caye Caulker to Belize City and further south to South Water Caye, the barrier reef provides a shallower drop-off, often closer to shore. At English Caye Banks, several coral ridges rise from deep water, steep-sided like a Maya pyramid. The temple at its summit, is a fairyland of sponges and gorgonians. Once on a dive here, I encountered a grouper spawn comprised of hundreds of animals. Off Salt Water Caye is a series of precipitous canyon dives, immense formations of coral sloughing off and disappearing in the deep blue. Diving here is like gliding along an underwater Grand Canyon.
Seaward of the Belize Barrier Reef are three immense coral atolls, formations that are perhaps even more unique and pristine than the barrier reef itself. Turneffe Islands Atoll (the largest and the closest to the mainland) offers unlimited diving adventures with more than 70 named and established sites.
Almost directly opposite the Blackbird Caye Resort are a series of wall dives such as Sponge Canyons that typify the undersea topography. These sites are blessed with sponges of every shape, size and color including huge barrel sponges, some taller than a diver, and handsome golden tube and strawberry red sponges surrounded by bouquets of black coral bushes. Surprises such as turtles, Eagle Rays or even mantas are possible on any dive.
One of the most spectacular dive sites in all of Belize is found only minutes from the Turneffe Island Lodge. Here, as a result of swirling currents is a natural feeding station for the entire food chain, mixing reef and pelagic fishes into dense schools. Every dive I have had here has been memorable.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll (the farthest from shore) features many of Belize’s most famous underwater sites. Number one on the list of must-do dive experiences is the Great Blue Hole—a nearly perfect circle of blue in the center of the atoll. A descent into the Great Blue Hole is not for the faint of heart. For the first minute or two, you drop through an emerald world devoid of anything to focus on. Then, you enter a natural stone-lined cathedral, its ceiling dripping with monstrous stalactites, some 30 feet long. Divers wind their way through the maze of dripstones as though exploring an ancient temple supported by gigantic pillars.
In contrast, diving the reefs and walls that surround this beautiful atoll are sunlit, light-hearted experiences. Halfmoon Caye Wall, at the southern end of the oval, presents a shallow drop-off lined with huge nuggets of coral lying on a sand bottom. Piercing the wall is a series of tunnels and swim-throughs. Schools of pelagics are frequently seen out in the blue. Equally spectacular, is a series of wall sites on the outside of Long Caye and others at the northern end of the reef, just off Lighthouse Reef Resort, the only resort on the atoll.
Glover’s Reef is the most southerly of the atolls and the least visited by divers. It is also the smallest, though at 15 miles long and four miles wide, it is a lifetime of dive discovery by itself. Glover’s has the distinction of a slightly deeper lagoon riddled with more than 700 patch reefs. Along the outer eastern edge are dozens of shipwrecks that have accumulated over four centuries. More than 40 dive sites are known, however, due to minimal traffic, none are yet moored. Drift diving is practiced almost exclusively. My favorite site is Hole in the Wall—a seemingly unending series of mountains, canyons and cliffs that line the sponge-decorated drop-off. Barracuda, in larger numbers and sizes, appear here more than anywhere else in Belize.
Above water, natural and cultural attractions abound. Only hours away from your favorite dive site are mountains cloaked in greenery, bisected by winding jungle rivers and accented by the protruding bone-white, temple-topped Maya pyramids. The Maya Mountains, the Chiquibul wilderness, the Vaca Plateau, Mountain Pine Ridge and the Cockscomb Mountain range are all mesmerizing vistas where charming resorts support a variety of outdoor activities. Here, you can visit sprawling ancient Maya sites, explore yawning caves, ride horses through the forest, hike, swim, mountain bike, kayak or canoe yourself into a lather, before returning to the spa-like hospitality of your jungle lodge. The ancient Maya considered many of the mountaintops as sacred sanctuaries for their gods of nature and vegetative abundance, while caves were the domain of a watery underworld and were thus beset with death gods. Pyramids were the analog of sacred mountains. Temples that capped the pyramids were often lined with earth monsters; doorways represented a natural cave and the entrance to the underworld.
You will no doubt be mystified and enchanted by the vestiges of an ancient American civilization that reached its peak while Paris was still a small village. If not, you will still be mesmerized by its surroundings. What sets apart Maya ruins from those of Egypt or Rome is the jungle. Here, stone and sky and forest intermingle; the ruins and vegetation often claim the same space. Ancient Maya architecture is most often a visual poetry of moss and shadow, where the hands of man and nature are blended together. Of the hundreds of Maya sites, there are at least 15 that are partially restored and accessible to visitors—each has its own character and appeal.
Just north of Belize City is Altun-ha, a medium-sized Maya site cradled in a cohune palm forest. To the west is Lamanai, accessed by boat via the scenic New River Lagoon. In the west, Xunantunich is found via a hand cranked ferry over the Mopan River and El Pilar, as much jungle park as a city of ruins. The greatest of the Maya sites in Belize is Caracol, in southwestern Belize. The tallest temple, Caana, rises 145 feet off the jungle floor—still the tallest man-made structure in the country today. In the south is Lubaantum, with its perfect cut-block masonry, and Nimli Punit, with huge hieroglyphic-engraved monuments strewn across the forest floor. And, while hiking through the jungle, if you should stumble upon a great gnarly mound that hits at the outline of more ruins, do not be surprised. You are in Belize, where world-class diving can be combined with exploring one of the richest archaeological zones in the world.
• Aqua Dives Belize (800)
• Hugh Parkeys’ Belize Dive Connection (888) 223-5403 www.belizediving.com
• Peter Hughes Diving (800) 932-6237 www.peterhughes.com
• Sea Sports Belize (011) 501-235505 www.seasportsbelize.com
• The Blue Hole Dive Center (011) 501-262982 www.bluedive.com
• Blackbird Caye Resort (888) 271-3483 www.blackbirdresort.com
• Manta Resort (800) 326-1724
|BEST TIME TO VISIT: Year-round tropical destination.
TOPSIDE CLIMATE: Average temperature 86°F.
WATER TEMPERATURE: January through April: 79-82°F; June through October: 84 to 85°F.
EXCHANGE RATE: 1.00 (USD) = 1.97 BZD (Belize Dollar)
TIME DIFFERENCE: Eastern Standard Time minus 1 hour (Central Standard Time year-round).