Tucked away on the Caribbean coast of Central America, Belize probably has the most dive favorable coastline in the Americas. The world's second longest barrier reef, which stretches nearly 1,000 kilometers/600 miles, officially called the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef, sits right off its coast. The only coral atolls in existence outside of the Pacific are part of Belize and there are dozens of cays on which to castaway. The experience starts at the northern end of the barrier reef on Ambergris Caye, an island that radiates the dive life with its easy access to top dive sites, its laid-back beach vibe and abundance of beach bars. Heading south from there takes us along a myriad of famous dive regions and sites. Turneffe Atoll, Lighthouse Reef, Caye Caulker, the Great Blue Hole, Half Moon Cay, Glover's Reef, the Elbow, Gladden Spit, all of these names tend to make divers salivate. While you could simply over-indulge in wall, drift, big animal and macro dives, you'll need to at least cast an eye towards land in Belize. Mayan ruins, bird watching, jungle treks, and even cave tubing are just a starter kit to the Eco-wonders of topside Belize. Small though it is, Belize is a country that could steal away your dive adventures for years.
About a 10-minute hop by air from Belize City, Ambergris Caye is crammed with diver delights, such as famed HolChan Marine Reserve and Shark-Ray Alley where you can get nose to nose with nurse sharks, spotted eagle and stingrays and heaps of friendly fish.
Coral atolls and ultimate dive escape go hand in hand, and Turneffe is literally surrounded by a fairy ring of great wall diving and healthy coral gardens. Eat on a beach, sleep on a hammock, dive all day long.
Well known as a cultural hub in central Belize, Dangriga also makes for a great launch point for dives to the barrier reef, especially southern Turneffe or Glovers Reef.
Great access when whale sharks show up between March and May off Gladden Spit, which is almost due east of Placencia.
When to go:
The best time is probably between April and June, with the rainy season kicking in after that through November.
Marine Life Seasons:
Mutton and Cubera snapper spawn under the full moon, drawing whale sharks to feed on them during full-moon weeks from March through May. Sea turtles nest on the sandy beaches from June to August.
When to Get the Best Deals:
April to September
What to Pack:
A 3/2 mm wetsuit, insect repellent, sunscreen, water shoes or hiking shoes for jungle and Mayan ruin excursions, lightweight material clothing and DAN card.
Seasonal averages: 25°C/77°F in winter and 28°C/84°F in summer.
Seasonal averages: 23°C/75°F in winter and 30°C/87°F in summer.
Belize Dollar. Credit cards are accepted in many places.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
What to Eat:
The food reflects the many cultures that have migrated to Belize, but like many places in Central America, rice and beans dominate most meals. Seafood is readily available with conch fritters being the perfect choice for a starter and fish stewed in coconut milk served with mashed fried green plantains for the main course. Try Fry Jack (deep-fried dough) or Johnny Cakes (biscuits) with butter and jam for breakfast.
What to Drink:
Belkin is the local beer and rum mixed with fruit juice is very popular, although you can also mix your rum with coke. For something adventuresome, try a seaweed shake - a blend of dried seaweed, cinnamon, milk, and some nutmeg.
Visit Mayan ruins, especially Xunantunich; go cave tubing on the Cave Branch River; bird and wildlife excursions along the New River or Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary; the Belize Zoo.
Customs and Culture:
Belize is a melting pot of people who arrived in Central America over time from around the world. Belizeans are easy-going people who warmly welcome travelers and are eager to share their culture and country.
Monkey River Festival, May; Garifuna Settlement Days, November; Taste of Belize; Battle of the Drums, November.
Electricity and Internet:
110 volts and 60 Hz. Good Internet connectivity in cafes and major hotels.
Drink the water?
Safe to drink in most cities.
English is national language, but Spanish is widely spoken.
Amazing Marine Life
While the "whale" reference in its name refers to its mammoth size (up to 12 meters/40 feet), this spotted goliath is actually the world's largest fish.
Weighing in at as much as 1350 kilograms/3000 pounds, these gentle mammals looks something like a cross between a walrus and a pug dog. They are curious and gregarious by nature, often surfacing near boats and docks.
The familiarity of these large spiraled shells makes for a particular thrill when you encounter one still inhabited and living on the reef.
Take a close look under ledges and around reef structures for nurse sharks, which tend to loaf around the reefs or under ledges.
Most often found in holes, caves, and wrecks, moray eels sometimes venture out so divers can see their entire snakelike length.
Remarkable for their wide-bladed heads and quick maneuverability, these large sharks are breathtaking icons of the deep.
Also known as devil rays (for their somewhat sinister "horned" profiles), these giants soar like flying carpets through the night waters, feeding on plankton.
These coral-relatives branch in intricate, sometimes lacy patterns, decorating the underwater landscape.
Hawksbill, loggerhead, and green turtles can be found swimming in leisurely fashion or napping under ledges on many reefs. Between June and August, turtles nest on the sandy beaches of Belize.
Take a close look under ledges and around reef structures for nurse sharks, which tend to loaf around the reefs.
Spotted Eagle Ray:
Gentle giants, these rays soar like flying carpets through open water.
Top Dive Spots
Great Blue Hole:
This famous sinkhole (the only one visible from outer space) is located in the center of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, with a diameter of about 300 meters/1,000 feet and a depth of over 120 meters/400 feet. Near the recreational depth limit on the south side you can see huge stalactites and stalagmites.
Half Moon Caye Bird Sanctuary:
Located at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, this reserve is home to loggerhead and the hawksbill turtles, which come ashore here annually to lay their eggs. Below the surface on the eastern side of the atoll, enjoy the sandy bottom (with its garden eels) and the reef wall with its numerous canyons and tunnels decorated with black corals, sea fans, sea whips, multihued sponges, and a colorful explosion of reef fish. Watch for nurse sharks and giant stingrays.
Located within the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, this site (as its name suggests) practically guarantees close encounters with schools of large stingrays and nurse sharks.
Tackle Box Canyon, Hol Chan Marine Reserve:
This reserve is renowned for nurse sharks and large grouper, but also boasts more than 160 species of fish and 40 species of corals, sponges, algae, and sea turtles. A sloping shelf provides swim-throughs in the form of deep crevices, winding to the reef's outer edge where a great wall drops to depths beyond 40 meters/130 feet.
The Elbow, Turneffe Atoll:
A convergence of ocean currents at this site bring in pelagic swimmers like schools of horse-eye jacks, Atlantic spadefish, snappers and permit, as well as sharks and eagle rays. Turneffe is renowned for its sheer walls, where divers can see moray eels, turtles, rays, giant barrel sponges and large coral formations while drifting along the edge of the blue-water abyss.
IManta Wall, Glover's Reef Atoll:
Drifting along a sheer wall of hard corals, which include boulder star corals and mound corals that create unique swim-throughs. Look for star corals, nurse sharks, and groupers, as well as queen conch, trumpet conch and the king helmet conch in the sandy areas around this site.
Pinnacles, Glover's Reef Atoll:
Dramatic spires reach from a depth of 30 meters/100 feet, hosting sponges, plate corals and sea fans. Watch for hog snappers, schoolmasters, and pelagic species such as reef sharks, mackerel, tarpons, and barracuda.
This is a world-renowned spot for diving with massive whale sharks during full moons from late March through June. Also watch for the Mutton and Cuberra snapper whose full moon spawning draws in the whale sharks.
Just south of Spanish Bay, this site is protected by the Turneffe Islands, resulting in calm waters and clear visibility. The wall dive features colorful corals, giant sea fans, sea whips, moray eels, sea turtles, crabs, lobster, horse-eyed jack, blue tangs, and sergeant majors. Also look for eagle rays, nurse sharks, large groupers, reef shark, dolphins, and even hammerhead sharks and manatees.
Sitting on the southern barrier reef, this wall-diving site boasts turtles, moray eels, barracuda, king mackerel, eagle rays and southern stingrays, as well as Pedersen shrimp, gobies, cleaning stations, spotted drums, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and dolphins.