Before you book your vacation, you should be aware that there really much beach to speak of on Ambergris Caye: There is a narrow strip of sand for much of the length of the island, where the land meets the sea, but even at low tide it isn't wide enough for you to unroll a beach towel on in most places. Try walking north or south from town along the water to find a more secluded spot where you can sit and stare out to sea. Otherwise, the beachfront hotels create their own beaches by building retaining walls and filling them in with sand. You'll find the best of these at the resorts on the northern part of the island, and at Victoria House.
Likewise, swimming is not what you might expect. For 100 yards or more out from shore, the bottom is covered with sea grass. In a smart move that prioritizes the environment over tourism, the local and national government has decided to protect the sea grass, which supports a wealth of aquatic life. Beneath the grass is a layer of spongy roots and organic matter topped with a thin layer of white sand. Walking on this spongy sand is somewhat unnerving; there's always the possibility of a sea urchin or stingray lurking, and it's easy to trip and stumble. Swimming is best off the piers, and many of the hotels here have built long piers out into the sea, with steps down into the water, and usually a roped-off little swimming area. Beyond this, good swimming can be had from boats anchored out in the turquoise waters between the shore and the reef, or by taking a kayak offshore a little ways.
The closest thing to a real beach on Ambergris Caye was called Secret Beach up until the past year or so. This spit of lagoon-side land was once a locals swimming hole at the end of a bumpy, unmarked ride through the swamps. The drive hasn’t changed much, but the beach has transformed into a popular tourist destination with changing rooms, restaurants, and bars. Two short docks extend over the water from the rocky shore, and the lack of sea grass and warm, calm, and shallow water make it a really nice place to swim. Drive carefully to and from the beach, as potholes and surprisingly deep puddles can leave you stranded. This area will be developed soon enough, so enjoy it while it’s still hard to reach, even if it’s no longer a secret.
American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES) tour -- The secret to Belize’s wildlife conservation success lies in the people who fight for the species that matter to them most. The future of crocodiles in this small country is being secured by ACES (tel. 623-7920; www.americancrocodilesanctuary.org) a San Pedro-based non-profit that performs research, provides education, and relocates crocodiles as a means for conservation. An important source of funding comes from a BZ$100 per person crocodile tour ACES lead on Ambergris Caye; up to 10 guests join croc wranglers on a nighttime expedition to catch, record, and relocate the big reptiles. This is one of the best opportunities in Belize to witness (and support) conservation up close, and you’ll come away with a lot of knowledge about the misunderstood animals. Tours are scheduled by request, so contact them directly to get your time set up, and for instructions on where to find the boat.
Volunteer with the Saga Humane Society -- Like many other Caribbean and Central American countries, street dogs in San Pedro are a noticeable thread in the fabric of the community. Cats are everywhere to be found as well, usually skulking around looking for a meal. Saga (www.sagahumanesociety.org; tel. 226-3266) takes in these homeless animals, treats them in their non-profit veterinary clinic, and adopts out those that can be rehomed–BZ$50 for dogs and BZ$35 for cats. Taking adopted pets back to the U.S. (except Hawaii) is fairly common as Saga takes care of the paperwork, which consists of a simple rabies certificate. Airlines have rules and fees associated with transporting pets, so be sure to contact them in advance of departure. If you’re not looking for a new friend, they always appreciate tourists donating supplies brought from the abroad, but visitors are also welcome to stop by and volunteer their time by walking the dogs. This is a unique, and free, opportunity to give back to the community, as well as meet locals and learn more about life on the island.
Visit the Truck Stop
Drive one mile north of San Pedro and you’ll see something that looks like a slice of Portland, Oregon (think: brightly painted, repurposed container ships). It’s The Truck Stop (tel. 226-3663, www.facebook.com/truckstopbz), an extremely popular food park and beer garden. Five stationary food trucks serve up a range of cuisines, including pizza and ice cream. In the the back a deck overlooks the lagoon—arguably the best sunset spot on the island. In addition to serving food they offer a Wednesday night movie, Thursday trivia, host farmer’s markets and live music, and about a million other activities that delight tourists and locals alike.
Spas, Fitness & Bodywork
There is one full-scale resort on the island with a spa, and that is Mahogany Bay Village, a “townlette” with everything. Its brand new spa, Science and Soul Wellness (www.scienceandsoulwellness.com; tel. 615-0089), is a holistic yoga studio and spa, which offers a wide array of soothing, pampering bodywork and treatments, including Ayurvedic. Traditional massage begin at BZ$180, while facials cost BZ$150. They offer the full range of possible spa treatments, so whether you’re staying at Mahogany Bay or not, head here if you’re really looking to relax.
If you want to work out, there’s a modest health club and gym in the town proper at the Train Station Fitness Club at 41 Laguna Dr. (tel. 226-4222), which has a great selection of machines and weights, as well as locally famous protein shakes. The club also has an upstairs area for classes or private workouts.
Finally, if you’re in the mood for a good yoga session, you’ll want to head just north of the bridge to Ak’Bol Yoga Retreat (www.akbol.com; tel.226-2073), which offers a regular schedule of classes for BZ$30 and intensive retreats. Rooms and individual cabins are also available here for rent, along with a largely vegetarian restaurant and small spa. Staff rebuilt the beautiful wooden oversea yoga platform after Hurricane Earl took the last one in 2016; it’s an energizing spot to do yoga.
Bacalar Chico National Park & Marine Reserve
Occupying the northern end of Ambergris Caye and its surrounding waters, Bacalar Chico National Park & Marine Reserve (tel. 605-1633) is one of the newest additions to Belize's national park system. In addition to being home to scores of bird, animal, and plant species (many of which are endemic), the park also features several ancient Mayan ceremonial and trading sites. The ranger station is, in fact, located at the diminutive Chac Balam ruins. Bacalar Chico is the name of the channel cut 1,500 years ago by the Maya to facilitate coastal trading. Just across the channel is Mexico. Nearly 200 species of birds have been spotted here, and the park allegedly contains all five wildcat species found in Belize, including the jaguar -- although your odds of seeing a cat are remote at best. However, you've got decent odds of seeing a crocodile or wild deer, and of course numerous bird species. The park is only accessible by boat. All of the local tour outfits offer half- and full-day trips to Bacalar Chico. Depending on your needs, these trips usually provide a mix of bird- and nature-watching, snorkeling, and Mayan ruin explorations. Specialist guides can be hired around San Pedro, if you want to focus primarily on any one of these pursuits. Admission to the park is BZ$10.
Excursions Farther Afield
If you've been on the island for a while or just want to see more of Belize, a host of tour operators on Ambergris Caye offer excursions to all of the major attractions and destinations around the country, including Altun Ha, Lamanai, Xunantunich, Mountain Pine Ridge, and even Tikal. You can also go cave tubing in the Caves Branch region. Most of these tours involve a flight in a small charter plane.
One of the most popular day trips is to the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha. This is also one of the most economical, as it doesn't require a flight. This begins on a powerful little boat that will whisk you over to the mainland. You'll then take a taxi to the ruins and have lunch before returning to San Pedro. Most operators offering the Altun Ha trip include a lunch stop at Maruba Resort, with the option of adding on a decadent jungle spa treatment. Prices for these trips run around BZ$140 to BZ$200 (US$70-US$100/£37-£53). A similar trip by boat and land is offered to the ruins at Lamanai.
For trips involving a flight, prices range from BZ$200 to BZ$400 per person, depending on the distance traveled and number of activities and attractions crammed into 1 day. Most hotels on the island can book these tours, or you can contact Excalibur Tours (tel. 226-3235), SEAduced (tel. 226-2254; www.seaducedbybelize.com), or Sea-Rious Adventures (tel. 226-4202).
Gonna Wash That Paint Right Out of My Hair
A modest version of the traditional Caribbean Carnival or Mardi Gras is celebrated in San Pedro -- with an odd twist -- over the weekend preceding Ash Wednesday and the period of Lent. Sure, there are colorful and lively comparsa parades, with marching drum bands and costumed dancers. But, over the years a tradition of painting has developed. This tradition predates paintball by decades. In times past, this was a fun and frivolous game between roaming bands of local residents using flour-based homemade "paints." Tourists were usually asked before being painted and their demurrals respected. Over the years, however, the painting fever has skyrocketed and gotten more aggressive: Fresh eggs and the occasional oil-based paint were introduced as weapons, and tourists are now often painted despite pleas to the contrary. It's definitely fun and a good way to meet some locals. If you get to a shower relatively quickly, it'll wash off without much hassle. Still, if you go out during Carnival, expect to get painted, and dress accordingly.
International Costa Maya Festival -- Begun as the San Pedro Sea & Air Festival, the annual International Costa Maya Festival is the largest public celebration on Ambergris Caye, even larger and more popular than Carnival. Celebrated from Thursday to Sunday in early August, the festival offers a steady stream of live concert performances, street parades, beauty pageants, and water shows and activities. When the festivities reinvented themselves several years ago, they had been transformed into a regional affair, honoring and inviting the peoples from around the Mayan world. Performers, participants, and festival-goers come from around Belize, as well as from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the five countries that comprise the Mundo Maya. San Pedro's football field is converted into the fairgrounds, and a large stage is set up at one end. Food stalls and arts and crafts booths are set up as well. Admission to most events is free, and a party atmosphere envelops the entire island.
For active, outdoor activities in and from Ambergris Caye, click here.
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.