Ambergris Caye -- With that laid-back attitude that makes Belize so easy, you might not expect there to be so many things to do here. Much more than a parasailing haven where tourists toy around on catamarans or sunfish or lounge around on the beach waiting for their one lazy walk to town, Belize and its cayes have more land and water activities than most Caribbean destinations. Here's a rundown on what you can do when visiting Belize.
With your base as Ambergris Caye or one of the beach areas down south near Placencia, most activities can be handled by your hotel or by any of the activity companies that operate from a hotel's long boat dock or in-town location. (Prices for the following excursions are based on departures using Ambergris Caye as your home base. They can vary from other locations.) The more experienced and well-priced tour companies are Sea-Rious Adventures (tel. 011 501/226-4202), which specializes in trips to Mayan ruins such as Lamanai, water tubing through ancient caves, and beach barbecues on the many remote islands off the Belizean coast. Jaguar Adventures Tours and Travel (tel. 011 501/223-6025; www.jaguarbelize.com) offers day trips to inland jungle areas, horseback riding excursions and treks as well as itinerary planning for longer trips.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
Interested divers should check out the Sea Horse Dive Shop (tel. 800/991-1969; www.belizescuba.com) in Placencia for detailed information on dive packages. Packages include a whale/shark diving tour with two tanks for $150 and snorkeling tours for $40 to a variety of locales. A single room on the beach located at the Tradewinds, the hotel housing the Sea Horse, start at $35 or $70 for a cabana. Open water certification starts at $350.
If you're in Belize, you can check out the Fantasia Diveshop located off the dock at the Victoria House (tel. 011 501/226-2061; www.victoria-house.com) or any of the dive shops around town. Prices for scuba equipment rental start at around $36 for a regulator, B.C.D., mask and fins. Half-day charters taking you anywhere you want to go along the Southern section of Belize's reef start at around $225. Two-tank dives cast approximately $60 with night dives starting at around $50. Diving with manatees starts at $95 with a $15 park entrance fee. All guides are PADI-licensed dive instructors. For beginning divers, most Belize diveshops offer instructions and certification courses for both people who take the course section at home and people who don't. All meals are included on full-day dive tours, and lunch and all drinks are included in half-day tours. Full certification from classroom instruction to shallow water dives to deep water dives costs approximately $400. Allow four days for the entire course and certification test. To finish the course which includes two to four deep water dives starts at $250.
Snorkeling, which in Belize can be just as exciting as scuba diving, is a less costly undertaking. Snorkeling with sting rays and ten feet nurse sharks, a bit unnerving at first, starts at $30 plus $10 for a park entrance fee to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve thick with moray eels and photo opportunities as schools of groupers and an old tortoise or two scamper by. Hol Chan is like swimming through a round channel of the reef where waters are crystal clear and neon-colored fish seem unfazed by their human counterparts diving under for a view. A night snorkel where fish come alive like sparkling stars in the sky starts at $40. A trip to the Wreck, a section from the wreckage of a 40 to 50 foot boat near Caye Caulker starts at $175 for a half-day charter. Equipment rental is not included in the price of the trip.
For fisherman looking to try their strength reeling for conch, grouper or even barracuda, catch and eat charters are available with seasoned fisherman. By seasoned fisherman, we mean men Belizean men in their 50s and 60s who have made a living taking charters out to sea and have passed on the tradition to their sons the way their father passed it on to them. Boats can be on the old-fashioned side, but, hey, if it ain't broke, they don't fix it. I saw a guy catch a five-foot barracuda with teeth that looked like a piranha's. A full-day charter with a midday barbecue of fish (hopefully what you catch) and chicken starts at $275. A full-day charter that visits the ocean side up and down the reef starts at $255. All fishing equipment and bait is included in the price of the trip. Most hotels will cook up your catch for a smaller fee than their normal meal prices. We feasted on a large grouper cooked with rice and beans and onions and bell peppers in a simple garlic and oil sauce.
With over 600 identified species of birds in Belize, it's almost impossible to return home without seeing some rare species. Scarlet Macaws and Collared Aracari Toucanet aren't as easy tosspot as Cranes, Pelicans, Seagulls or Boat-billed herons, but whether toying around on a boat or busing through the country, interesting species are everywhere. Many resorts offer guided birding and you can even get guided tours of bird preserves such as the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary (www.belizeaudubon.org/html/parks/ctws.htm). Birding days cost roughly $35 with half-day bird charters starting at $175. If you're lucky, you might see the rare Orange-breasted Falcon. We didn't, but we did see a Jabiru Stork. February to May is the best months to see the bulk of Belize's bird species.
Mainland tours range from tubing excursions to baboon sanctuaries to visits to the Mayan ruins. A combination visit to the famous Mayan ruin of Altan Ha and Maruba Resort JungleSpa starts at $80. The full-day tour leaves at 8 am and returns around 5:30 pm. You take a boat through natural canals where they filmed the famous Harrison Ford get-away-from-it-all film Mosquito Coast. From the canals, you can see crocodiles, iguanas, and incredible bird species. You'll also visit a small Belizean village known for mahogany carvings of bowls and masks. From there an old school bus takes you to the ruins of Altan Ha. Dating back to 1000 A.D., Altan Ha, meaning Water of the Rock, is the location where archeologists found the largest carved jade artifact ever found. A commercial center connecting Mexico to Panama, Altan Ha caused historians to place Belize as the possible center of the ancient Mayan world. Altan Ha is remarkable in its simplicity, but mind-altering in its grandeur.
If you get tired climbing to the top of the three Mayan temples of Altan Ha, then you can relax those tense muscles at Maruba Resort Jungle Spa (tel. 800/627-8227; www.maruba-spa.com), the second half of this day trip. Maruba is so relaxing, heavyweight boxers such as Lenox Lewis come here to recuperate after major fights. Set amidst jungle brush, Maruba offers full-service massage services such as mud baths and Japanese herbal baths. Using minerals and ancient medicinal treatments, Maruba offers a healing and pampering to rival any other Caribbean location. Treks and horseback rides are available through the spa. The spa's restaurant serves chewy game and other jungle specialties. The grounds are punctuated by quiet areas for reflection and many disconnected suite-type rooms for complete privacy. It's an incredible place for an inland honeymoon. Spa treatments vary in price with simple mudbaths starting at approximately $50.
Other inland trips include cave tubing and visits to the Belize Zoo. A combination boat tour to the cave tubing areas starts at $75 plus $60 for airfare to and from the caves. Add $40 to make it a full day to visit the Belize Zoo, known for its collection of jaguars and the wild and animated black howler monkey.
Sailing trips that include snorkeling stops start at $85 per day. A trip to the popular Caye Caulker, the more bohemian of the Belizean offshore islands, begins with some light sailing over what seems like communities of starfish. The water is so crystal clear you can make out the rigid pores or suction cups on the starfish crust. A sunset sail costs $50. Champagne is not included.
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