Sky, Sand, Sea, Sun, Sharks – Ambergris Caye, Belize


In this era of increasingly painful airline travel we have been very grateful that we’re on a road trip.  However, there are times when flying is the best option. Luckily, flying to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye in Belize via Tropic Air was a delight. Our flight was low key, easy, efficient, comfortable and scenic and delivered us to world of sky, sand, sea, sun and sharks.

We arrived at the municipal airport in Belize City about 10 minutes before our flight was scheduled to leave. After checking in at the Tropic Air desk in what was, essentially, a tool shed with lights, we cleared security by flashing some i.d. and then we got our boarding passes–big re-usable color-coded cards.

In the last of a downpour we climbed on-board a plane that was so small it looked  like we could pick it up if all of the six assembled passengers worked together. Once on board we got no big safety speech. No lame crew jokes (it’s a plane not a vaudeville show people). No chummy introduction from the captain. No infuriating announcement that there will be no food/pillows/blankets/magazines/cabin pressurization.

By the time we’d fastened our seat belts (minus the patronizing demonstration from the non-existent flight attendants) we were already pulling onto the runway which, from where we sat, looked like it was constructed roughly 4.5 inches above the water line. For the next 15 minutes we cruised low and steady over the clear blue water out to the San Pedro airport where we landed without circling even once. What a pleasure!

Check out our in-flight video and see for yourself:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-1FVxj3ppU[/youtube]

The new Tropic Air terminal in San Pedro is substantially more sophisticated than its tool-shed counterpart in Belize City. There’s A/C, a big tubular aquarium and the 208 Lounge upstairs (named after the Cessna model the airline mainly flies) which promises “Not airport prices. Keeping it local!” Again, what a pleasure!

Now, if you’re picturing the town of San Pedro or the island of Ambergris Caye as some kind of undiscovered hideaway where you’ll string your hammock between a couple of palms and live off of coconut water and fish you barter for with local fishermen you’re more than a decade too late.

Modern San Pedro is a developed tourist destination with all that implies from guest houses to coffee shops to souvenir stores to guides plying their services to drink specials and ladies’ nights. It is not unpleasant–the streets are still walkable and the vibe is still low key and the beach is still gorgeous. And, at the end of the day, Ambergris is still the kind of place where the local greeting is “Smile! You’re on vacation!”

Beach bungalows at Matachica Beach Resort.

Toward the far northern end of Ambergris Caye, past San Pedro and the thick of the hotel and resort developments (some of them resemble horrid condo buildings) that have engulfed it and spread outward, things begin to thin out a bit. The north end is where we were headed since we were staying at Matachica Beach Resort.

One of the two pools at Matachica Beach Resort.

We were picked up at the airport by hotel staff in a golf cart (love those things) then we got on one of the hotel’s boats for the 10 minute ride along the coast of the island to the resort itself. It’s always a good sign when they take your welcome cocktail order and radio it in so it’s waiting for you when the boat docks and our time at Matachica just got better from there.

Sunset from the private pier at Matachica Beach Resort.

A luxury beach bungalow at Matachica Beach Resort.

Read our piece about Matachica for iTraveliShop for more–including news about their brand new bigger and even better beach bungalows and new huge infinity edge swimming pool.

One of the biggest draws of Ambergris Caye is the chance to get in the water in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve with a wide array of sea life including sharks and stingrays which thrive in the shallow, warm, fish-rich protected waters of the reserve.  Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the oldest marine reserve in Belize, covers about three square miles of ocean and reef and the reserve is divided into four zones.

We spent the afternoon of our first day on Ambergris snorkeling around Zone A, the Hol Chan Channel.  The water was shallow and clear and warm and we had a lovely time with fish, sea turtles, moray eels, eagle rays and other reef creatures.

Check it out in our snorkeling video, below:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hd0WZGb8_TQ[/youtube]

Next we went to Zone D in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a place called Shark Ray Alley. True to its name, nurse sharks, southern stingrays congregate here in large numbers.

Nurse sharks looking for a handout around our boat as we arrive at Shark Ray Alley. These small-mouthed, non-aggressive sharks look a bit like slugs with fins and their skin feels like sandpaper.

Marine life is attracted to Shark Ray Alley because local fishermen have cleaned their catch at this spot for decades and the animals have become accustomed to an easy meal of scraps. Whenever a boat approaches the sharks, fish and rays swarm assuming its a fisherman about to toss some delicious fish guts into the water. As we prepared to jump in and snorkel around the water was thick with nurse sharks.

Such a high concentration of wild animals of any sort gets your attention. Make them sharks (even gentle nurse sharks) and you get our full attention. Once in the water, we were able to snorkel amongst the nurse sharks, who seemed almost bored of humans.

Check out our Shark Ray Alley snorkeling video, below, to see some of what we saw:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3fP8awYk5w[/youtube]

Over the next two days we were back in the water doing some SCUBA diving. There are many dive shops on Ambergris Caye but we chose to Ecologic Divers for a number of reasons including the fact that they really are trying to be a green diving company–they sponsor clean-up projects and offer free dive instruction to  local high school students who participate, for example. We also liked the large number of locals they employ at every level and the playful professionalism of the owners and dive masters.

Ecologic Divers’ office and dock in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Our first day on the boat with Ecologic we hit the Hustler’s Special dive site which had a nice gentle current and produced a spotted eagle ray a remarkable amount of gorgeous coral and intriguing deep gouged-out canyons below us. Then it was on to the Tres Cocos dive site which was similar to Hustler’s Special in a lot of ways.

Karen and Eric checking out the wet stuff off Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Some of the beautiful reef life we saw while SCUBA diving near Ambergris Caye, Belize (photo courtesy of Ecologic Divers).

Karen negotiating a trench during a dive near Ambergris Caye, Belize.

A banded shrimp and two brittle starfish inside a sponge (photo courtesy of Ecologic Divers).

Our second day of diving took us to the Tiburon Canyon dive site where we saw five nurse sharks in first three minutes of the dive plus a loggerhead turtle. We finished up with The Tackle Box, a dive site that was teeming with colorful reef fish–the most we saw on any of the four dives we did in the area.

Did we mention that the Ecologic dive staff did all the hard work (like lifting tanks) and even gave us refreshingly fragrant hot towels on the boat between each dive?

 

GLAD WE HAD

Our Mares masks and fins and our Oceanic regulators and dive computers. Ecologic Divers happens to have top-shelf, clean, well-maintained gear in its rental room but many dive shops don’t.

We  fit right in wearing our Costa del Mar sunglasses–everyone from our Tropic Air pilot to boat captains to dive masters wore Costas to cut the glare off all that water.

A waterproof housing for our Flip video camera (good up to 30′ deep) which let us shoot the snorkeling video in this blog post.

TRAVEL TIP

Anyone interested in getting to Ambergris Caye/San Pedro from Chetumal in southern Mexico can do it directly via high speed water taxi without going through Belize City. The trip takes about 90 minutes one way (plus customs and immigration formalities which have been reported to involve some delay). The fare is $60US round trip.

Read more about travel in Belize

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6 comments on “Sky, Sand, Sea, Sun, Sharks – Ambergris Caye, Belize

  1. Great post guys. And excellent underwater shots. We were in Cay Caulker in 2003 and didn’t make it to Ambergris Cay.It looks awesome, much more developed than Cay Caulker. It would have been nice to sample both islands. Oh well, next time.
    Thanks for the tips on the boat to Chetumal, I don’t think that was an option when we were there. Only taxis to Belize City. But, then again, we were those rare few that enjoyed Belize City and met some amazing people.

  2. Your travel info on Belize is very well detailed,and I thank you for the incredible videos. With your permission I will forward to clients of mine wanting to buy a condo in San Pedro Ambergris Caye- I KNOW they will love the Hol Chan video to !!

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