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Beyond Dangriga: Offshore Cayes & Glover's Reef Atoll

The Tobacco Caye range of mangrove cayes lies just 16km (10 miles) east of Dangriga. A little farther south sits South Water Caye. Beyond the barrier reef and farther out to sea is Glover's Reef Atoll.

Tobacco Caye itself is just 2 hectares (5 acres) large, with about five different lodging options set more or less side-by-side. You can walk from one end of the caye to the other in about 3 minutes, and that's at a leisurely pace.

South Water Caye is a little bit larger than Tobacco, but you can still walk from one end to the other in about 5 minutes. Nevertheless, the vibe here is slightly more spacious and luxurious than that on Tobacco Caye, although there's not anything approaching real luxury here, either.

Located just a stone's throw from the south end of South Water Caye, the Smithsonian Institute of Marine Research occupies all of the tiny Carrie Bow Caye. Your lodge can make arrangements to visit the caye, meet with resident scientists, and use their beach, which is one of the sandiest in the area.

The largest caye in the area, Man-O-War Caye, is a bird sanctuary and major nesting site for the magnificent frigate, or man-o-war. A tour to the caye is an impressive sight, with hundreds of these large sea birds roosting on and circling above the tiny caye. As part of their mating ritual, the males inflate a huge red sack on their throats to attract a mate. In addition to the frigates, the island also is home to a large community of brown boobies.

Coco Plum Caye is another isolated and tiny caye in this area, with one small resort that features a handful of individual wooden bungalows spread around the small, sandy island. If you want to stay here, contact Coco Plum Island Resort (tel. 512/786-7309 in the U.S., or 520-2041 in Belize; www.cocoplumcay.com).

A visit to snorkel, dive, or stay out on these cayes usually involves passing through, or staying within, the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, which includes Tobacco Caye, Carrie Bow Caye, Cocoplum Caye, and Man-O-War Caye. Admission to the reserve costs BZ$10 (US$5/£2.65) per person per day. This fee will either be collected by your hotel, boat taxi driver, or tour operator.

To the east of these cayes, and beyond the barrier reef, lies Glover Reef Atoll, a stunning natural coral formation featuring an oval-shaped central lagoon nearly 35km (22 miles) long. Named after the British pirate John Glover, the steep-walled reefs here offer some of the best wall diving anywhere in the Caribbean. The entire atoll is also a marine reserve, and in 1996 it was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. Inside the usually calm lagoon, patch reefs are a wonderland for snorkelers.

Finally, fishing for bonefish, permit, and tarpon is excellent throughout this area. There are no established independent operators. All the local hotels can usually arrange to set up a fishing trip, however.

Getting There -- Boats to the outlying cayes leave from the south shore of the Gumagurugu River or North Stann Creek in front of the Riverside Café, just down from the bridge. The going rate is around BZ$30 to BZ$50 (US$15-US$25/£7.95-£13) per person one-way. Most of the boats hold between 8 and 10 people, and they leave whenever they fill up. If you already have a group together, you can hire one privately and set a definite return-trip pickup time. To rent a whole boat, the going rate is from BZ$400 to BZ$500 (US$200-US$250/£106-£133) round-trip for up to 10 people to Tobacco Caye. The ride takes around 30 to 40 minutes to Tobacco Caye, depending on how fast a boat you book. Add on about 20 to 40 minutes and between BZ$100 to BZ$200 (US$50-US$100/£27-£53) for either South Water Caye or Glover's Reef Atoll. Alternatively, you can catch a ride with the folks from Pelican Beach Resort (tel. 522-2044), who run out to South Water Caye daily and charge BZ$136 (US$68/£36) per person each way.

Note: You really should have a reservation before heading out to one of the lodges on these cayes, as there are very limited options and they fill up fast during the high season. Try to arrange your transportation when booking a room.

Where to Stay & Dine on the Outer Cayes -- All of the options listed here are self-contained lodges and resorts, meaning you will be taking all of your meals at your hotel. Fishing, diving, and multiday adventure packages are available at all of the places listed below.

In addition to the lodges listed below, Blue Marlin Lodge (tel. 800/798-1558 in the U.S., or 522-2243 in Belize; www.bluemarlinlodge.com) is a semiupscale outfit on South Water Caye specializing in dive and fishing packages.

However, if you want luxury out on Glover's Reef Atoll, you'll want to check in with Isla Marisol Resort (tel. 866/990-9904 in the U.S. and Canada; www.islamarisolresort.com), which has a collection of individual cabins on Southwest Caye.

For the more adventurous traveler, Island Expeditions (tel. 800/667-1630, or 604/452-3212 in the U.S.; www.islandexpeditions.com) and Slickrock Adventures (tel. 800/390-5715, or 435/259-4225 in the U.S.; www.slickrock.com) run various multiday kayak and dive tours to small camps and lodges on private, isolated cayes of Glover's Reef Atoll.

En Route South: Where the Wildcats Roam

Weighing up to 91kg (200 lb.) and measuring more than 1.8m (6 ft.) from nose to tip of tail, jaguars are king of the new-world jungle. Nocturnal predators, jaguars hunt peccaries (wild piglike animals), deer, and other small mammals. The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 1990 as the world's first jaguar reserve, covers nearly 388 sq. km (150 sq. miles) of rugged forested mountains and has the greatest density of jaguars in the world. It is part of the even larger Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve, which was created in 1984.

The forests within the preserve are home to other wildcats as well, including pumas, ocelots, and margays, all of which are very elusive, so don't get your hopes of seeing them too high. Few people do, but a good guide may be able to find you some tracks. Other mammals that you might spot if you're lucky include otters, coati-mundis, tayra, kinkajous, deer, peccaries, anteaters, and armadillos.

The largest land mammal native to Central America, Baird's tapir, is also resident. Locally known as a "mountain cow," the tapir is the national animal of Belize. A tapir can weigh up to 272kg (600 lb.) and is related to the horse, although its protruding upper lip is more like an elephant's trunk.

Much more easily spotted in the dense vegetation surrounding the preserve's trails are nearly 300 species of birds, including the scarlet macaw, the keel-billed toucan, the king vulture, and the great curassow.

Trails inside the park range from gentle and short to quite arduous and long. Many offer wonderful views of the Cockscomb Mountains and lush forested valleys. There are quite a few waterfalls and swimming holes. During the dry season, you can even climb Victoria Peak, which, at 1,122m (3,681 ft.), is the country's highest mountain. This trip takes several days and requires a permit and local guide. For more information, contact the Belize Audubon Society (tel. 223-5004; www.belizeaudubon.org). Admission to the park is BZ$10 (US$5/£2.65).

Caution should be exercised when visiting the preserve. In addition to jaguars, which can be dangerous, there are also poisonous snakes, including the deadly fer-de-lance. Always wear shoes, preferably boots, when hiking the trails here.

The Belize Audubon Society co-manages this park, and even offers a few private cabins and some dormitory sleeping options inside the sanctuary. Rates run between BZ$20 and BZ$30 (US$10-US$15/£5.30-£7.95) per person for dormitory-style accommodations, or BZ$120 (US$60/£32) for one of the cabins, which can sleep up to six persons. Alternatively, you can stay down near the information center near the highway at the Tutzil Nah Cottages (tel. 520-3044; www.mayacenter.com).

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is located 9.7km (6 miles) inland from the Southern Highway, some 32km (20 miles) south of Dangriga. The turnoff and entrance to the sanctuary is at the roadside village of Maya Center. This is where you'll find the sanctuary's information center, and where you'll pay your BZ$10 (US$5/£2.65) entrance fee. This is also a good place to check out some of the art and craft works at the neighboring shop run by the Maya Center Women's Group and to hook up with a local guide. I've heard great reports about local guide Greg Sho, who can often be found at Greg's Bar, his other business, located right on the side of the highway before the entrance to Maya Center. Any bus heading south to Placencia and Punta Gorda will drop you off at the entrance. From here you'll have to hike the 9.7km (6 miles) or hire a local taxi for around BZ$30 (US$15/£7.95) round-trip.

A Nearby Back-Bush Nature Lodge

Nestled at the foot of the Maya Mountains is an interesting little ecolodge, Mama Noots Jaguar Lodge (tel./fax 670-8019; www.mamanoots.com). With a collection of comfortable rooms, as well as camping and dormitory facilities, the folks at Mama Noots are located in the heart of the Mayflower Bocawina National Park. The park protects the small and barely excavated Mayflower Mayan ruins, as well as vast expanses of tropical forests. There's excellent hiking and bird-watching on miles of trails leaving from the resort, including a couple of wonderful waterfalls. All of the electricity is provided by an inventive mix of solar, hydro, and wind generators. A pure mountain spring provides the water. Multiday packages with transportation provided from Dangriga are the preferred means of visiting this little lodge. Contact them for details.

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.