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Scuba Diving & Snorkeling

So why do people bother to come here if there is no beach and you can't go swimming right off the shore? They come for the spectacular coral reef, turquoise waters, and seemingly endless visibility. Less than a quarter-mile offshore is the longest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere. The Belize Barrier Reef is second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing are the main draws here. All are consistently spectacular.

Within a 10- to 20-minute boat ride from the piers lie scores of world-class dive sites, including Mexico Rocks, Mata Rocks, Tackle Box, Tres Cocos, Esmeralda, Cypress Tunnel, and Rocky Point. A day's diving will almost always feature a mix of steep wall drops and coral caverns and tunnels. You'll see brilliant coral and sponge formations, as well as a wealth of colorful marine life. On good dives, you might see schools of spotted eagle rays, watch an octopus slither amongst the coral and rocks, or have the chance to swim face to face with a sea turtle. Nurse sharks, moray eels, and large barracuda are also commonly sighted.

There are scores of dive operators in San Pedro, and almost every hotel can arrange a dive trip, either because they have their own dive shop or they subcontract out. Rates are pretty standardized, but you should be able to get deals on multiday, multidive packages. While it's often tempting to purchase all-inclusive dive packages before coming to Belize, this limits your flexibility; for example, if the weather and water are really rough, you're already committed, although you might prefer taking an inland tour to a Mayan ruin over a rough dive.

For reliable scuba-diving service and reasonable rates, contact Amigos del Mar (tel. 226-2706; www.amigosdive.com), Aqua Dives (tel. 800/641-2994 in the U.S. and Canada, or 226-3415; www.aquadives.com), Ecologic Divers (tel. 226-4118; www.ecologicdivers.com), or Patojo's Scuba Center (tel. 226-2283; patojos@btl.net). Most of these companies, as well as the individual resorts, charge BZ$100 to BZ$140 (US$50-US$70/£27-£37) for a two-tank dive, with equipment rental running around BZ$30 to BZ$60 (US$15-US$30/£7.95-£16) for a complete package, and BZ$16 to BZ$24 (US$8-US$12/£4.25-£6.35) for a mask, snorkel, and fins.

For more adventurous and truly top-rate diving, you'll probably want to head out to the Turneffe Island Atoll, Lighthouse Reef, and Blue Hole. Most of the dive operations on the island offer this trip, or will subcontract it out. It's about a 2- to 3-hour ride each way (in a fast boat) over sometimes rough seas. You'll definitely want to choose a seaworthy, speedy, and comfortable boat. Most day trips out to Turneffe Island or Lighthouse Reef and Blue Hole run around BZ$280 to BZ$500 (US$140-US$250/£74-£133) per person, including transportation, two or three dives, and tanks and weights, as well as lunch and snacks. All the above-mentioned operators offer day and multiday trips to the outer atoll islands and reefs. Prices average around BZ$600 to BZ$900 (US$300-US$450/£159-£239) for a 2-day trip, BZ$800 to BZ$1,200 (US$400-US$600/£212-£318) for a 3-day trip.

If you've always dreamed of learning to scuba dive and plan on spending any time on Ambergris Caye, you should consider taking a course here. Resort courses will give you a great 1-day introduction into the world of scuba diving, including a very controlled shallow-water boat dive. These courses cost BZ$280 to BZ$360 (US$140-US$180/£74-£95). In 3 to 4 days, however, you can get your full open-water certification. These courses run between BZ$700 and BZ$1,000 (US$350-US$500/£186-£265), including all equipment rentals, class materials, and the processing of your certification, as well as four open-water and reef dives. All of the above-mentioned dive centers, as well as many of the individual resorts here, offer these courses.

Take Care -- There is a lot of boat traffic (some of it quite fast and furious) running up and down the coast of Ambergris Caye, so do not try to swim or snorkel from shore out to the reef. Unfortunately, over the years, more than one swimmer or snorkeler has been run over by a speeding motorboat.

The Perfect Plunge -- If you're hesitant to take a tank plunge, don't miss a chance to at least snorkel. There's good snorkeling all along the protected side of the barrier reef, but some of the best is at Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which are about 6.4km (4 miles) southeast of San Pedro. Shark-Ray Alley provides a nice adrenaline rush for all but the most nonchalant and experienced divers. Here you'll be able to snorkel above and between schools of nurse sharks and stingrays. Hol chan is a Mayan term meaning "little channel," which is exactly what you'll find here -- a narrow channel cutting through the shallow coral reef. The walls of the channel are popular with divers, and the shallower areas are frequented by snorkelers. Some of the exciting residents of the area are large, green moray eels; stingrays; and nurse sharks (harmless). The reserve covers 13 sq. km (5 sq. miles) and is divided into three zones: the reef, the sea-grass beds, and the mangroves. Most combination trips to Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve last about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, and cost around BZ$60 to BZ$100 (US$30-US$50/£16-£27). There is a BZ$20 (US$10/£5.30) park fee for visiting Hol Chan, which may or may not be included in the price of boat excursions to the reserve.

There are a host of boats offering snorkeling trips, and most of the above dive operators also offer snorkel trips and equipment rental. Trips to other sites range in price from BZ$30 to BZ$60 (US$15-US$30/£7.95-£16) for short jaunts to half-day outings, and BZ$100 to BZ$140 (US$50-US$70/£27-£37) for full-day trips. One of the operators who specializes in snorkeling trips here is the very personable Alfonse Graniel and his launch Li'l Alfonse (tel. 226-2992; lilalfonse@btl.net). Snorkel gear is available from most of the above operators and at several other sites around town. A full set of mask, fins, and snorkel will usually cost BZ$16 to BZ$24 (US$8-US$12/£4.25-£6.35) per person per day.

Tip: Hol Chan and Shark-Ray Alley are extremely popular. If you really want to enjoy them, try to find a boat leaving San Pedro at or before 8am, and head first to Shark-Ray Alley. Most boats dive Hol Chan first, and this is the best way to get a dive with the greatest concentration of nurse sharks and stingrays. By all means, avoid snorkeling or diving these sites at times when the cruise ships are running excursions there. Alternatively, you may want to consider visiting a different snorkeling site, such as Mexico Rocks Coral Gardens, Tres Cocos, or Mata Rocks, where the snorkeling is just as good, if not better, and you're more likely to have the place to yourself.

Rough Seas -- The Belize Barrier Reef acts like a giant sea wall. Given the prevailing trade winds, the waters on the inside of the reef are almost always quite calm. However, a quick jaunt outside the reef can bring you into often steep and agitated seas. Most snorkeling trips stick to the smooth waters inside the reef, while scuba trips almost always head for the deeper water on the outside. Always ask about current conditions and where you will be going before you sign up for a trip, and know your abilities and reaction to rough water before venturing out.

Combining Snorkeling with Manatee Viewing -- Another trip that has recently become popular is a day trip to see manatees and do some snorkeling at remote cayes. These trips include a leisurely tour of manatee feeding sites on the way to the isolated Goff's and Sergeant's cayes, which are little more than football field-size patches of sand, with a few palm trees. These trips include all transportation, lunch on one of the cayes, and several snorkeling stops, and cost around BZ$120 to BZ$200 (US$60-US$100/£32-£53). Most hotels and tour agencies in town offer this trip; or check with Sea-Rious Adventures (tel. 226-4202).

Glass-Bottom Boats

If you really don't want to take a plunge of any sort, you can still get a good view of the reef and its undersea wonders aboard a glass-bottom boat. There are a few glass-bottom boats working Ambergris Caye. Most hotels and tour agencies on the island can book them for you, or you can contact the Reef Runner (tel. 226-2180) directly. Rates run between BZ$50 and BZ$80 (US$25-US$40/£13-£21) depending on the length of the tour, and whether or not a meal or drink is involved. Most of the glass-bottom boat tours allow time for a snorkeling break as well.

Sailing

The crystal-clear waters, calm seas, and isolated anchorages and snorkeling spots all around Ambergris Caye make this an excellent place to go out for a sail. Your options range from crewed yachts and bareboat charters for multiday adventures to day cruises and sunset sails. A day cruise, including lunch, drinks, and snorkeling gear, should run between BZ$200 to BZ$320 (US$100-US$160/£53-£85) per person. Most hotels and tour operators around town can hook you up with a day sail or sunset cruise.

Although not a true sailboat, the Winnie Estelle (tel. 226-2394; winnie_estelle@yahoo.com), a 20m (66-ft.) motor-sailer operated by Captain Roberto Smith, does a day cruise to Caye Caulker with several snorkel stops for BZ$110 (US$55/£29). There's a lunch stop on Caye Caulker, where you can dine at the restaurant of your choice, on your own account, while snacks and drinks are included on the cruise. This boat can also be chartered for longer trips to the outer atolls, or to southern cayes.

If you're looking for a longer and more adventurous time on the high seas, TMM (tel. 800/633-0155 in the U.S., or 226-3026 in Belize; www.sailtmm.com) is a large-scale charter company with operations on Ambergris Caye. Options include monohulls, catamarans, and trimarans of varying sizes. Given the shallow draft, increased interior space, and reduced drag, a multihull is your best bet. All of the boats are well equipped and seaworthy. Rates for a weeklong charter run between BZ$3,600 and BZ$18,000 (US$1,800-US$9,000/£954-£4,770), depending on the size of the boat, and whether or not you charter it bareboat or with a crew.

Fishing

Sport fishing for tarpon, permit, and bonefish is among the best in the world around these cayes and reefs, and over the years a few record catches have been made. If you prefer deep-sea fishing, there's plenty of tuna, dolphin, and marlin to be had beyond the reefs. Fishing San Pedro (tel. 607-9967; www.fishingsanpedro.com), The Rock (tel. 226-3200; www.belizefishfinder.com), and Excalibur Tours (tel. 226-3235) all have respectable guides and equipment. A half-day reef trolling, casting, or fly-fishing for bonefish or tarpon runs around BZ$300 to BZ$500 (US$150-US$250/£80-£133), a full day BZ$400 to BZ$800 (US$200-US$400/£106-£212). Deep-sea trolling for larger game costs between BZ$800 and BZ$1,200 (US$400-US$600/£212-£318) for a half-day, and between BZ$1,600 and BZ$2,400 (US$800-US$1,200/£424-£636) for a full day. These prices are per boat for two to four fishermen and usually include drinks, tackle, and lunch.

Hard-core fishermen might want to check out one of the dedicated fishing lodges, like El Pescador (tel. 800/242-2017 in the U.S. and Canada, or 226-2398; www.elpescador.com) on Ambergris Caye, or Turneffe Flats (tel. 888/512-8812 in the U.S., or 220-4046; www.tflats.com) out on the Turneffe Island Atoll.

Windsurfing, Parasailing & Watercraft

Ambergris Caye is a good place for beginning and intermediate windsurfers. The nearly constant 15- to 20-knot trade winds are perfect for learning on and easy cruising. The protected waters provide some chop, but are generally pretty gentle on beginning board sailors. If you're looking to do some windsurfing, or to try the latest adrenaline boost of kiteboarding, your best bet is to check in with the folks at Sail Sports Belize (tel. 226-4488; www.sailsportsbelize.com). Sail board rentals run around BZ$44 to BZ$54 (US$22-US$27/£12-£14) per hour, or BZ$144 to BZ$164 (US$72-US$82/£38-£43) per day. Kite board rentals run BZ$120 (US$60/£32) for a half-day, and BZ$180 (US$90/£48) for a full day. Weekly rates are also available. These folks also rent out several types of small sailboats for cruising around close to shore.

Most resort hotels here have their own collection of all or some of the abovementioned watercraft. Rates run around BZ$40 to BZ$70 (US$20-US$35/£11-£19) per hour for a Hobie Cat, small sailboat, or wind surfer; and BZ$60 to BZ$80 (US$30-US$40/£16-£21) per hour for a jet ski. If not, Sail Sports Belize is your best bet.

Butterfly Garden

Located about 7.2km (4 1/2 miles) north of the bridge, Butterfly Jungle (tel. 226-2911; www.butterflyjungle.bz) is a pleasant little attraction with a butterfly breeding program and covered butterfly enclosure. A visit here includes an informative tour and explanation of the butterfly life cycle, as well as a visit to the enclosure, where anywhere from 15 to 30 species may be in flight at any one time. This place is open daily 10am to 5pm, and admission is BZ$20 (US$10/£5.30) for adults, free for children under 12.

Spas, Fitness & Bodywork

While there are no full-scale resort spas or high-end facilities on Ambergris Caye, you can certainly get sore muscles soothed and a wide array of pampering treatments at a series of day spas and independent massage-therapy storefronts. The best of these includes The Art of Touch, at the entrance to the Sunbreeze Hotel (tel. 226-3357; www.touchbelize.com), and Asia Garden Day Spa (tel. 226-4072; www.asiangardendayspa.com), across from Ramon's Village. Rates run around BZ$140 to BZ$200 (US$70-US$100/£37-£53) for an hour-long massage.

If you want to work out, there's a modest health club and gym at the San Pedro Family Fitness Club . These folks also offer aerobic, Pilates, Tae Bo, and yoga classes.

Tennis

This is very far from a tennis destination, and very few hotels have courts. You'll find two lit courts at the San Pedro Family Fitness Club, on the west side of San Pedro (tel. 226-2683). You'll want to play early in the morning or late in the afternoon or evening, as it's just too hot to play tennis most days during the heat of the day. This place is a bargain: BZ$30 (US$15/£7.95) gets you a full-day pass and access to all their facilities.

Golf

There's no golf on Ambergris Caye, but guests here can arrange to play the course on nearby Caye Chapel (tel. 226-8250; www.cayechapel.com). The course is almost entirely flat, but it features a lot of water and sand hazards, as well as some stunning views. Rates for a full day of unlimited golfing, including carts, club rental, and use of the resort's pool and beach area run BZ$300 (US$150/£80) per person. Reservations are absolutely necessary. Transportation can be arranged by air, chartered water taxi, or regularly scheduled water taxi.

For a less challenging trip around the links, families might want to head to San Pedro Family Fitness Club (tel. 226-2683), which has a basic minigolf course of thin carpeting over hard concrete. A round will run you just BZ$5 (US$2.50/£1.35).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.