Ambergris Caye remains best known among the scuba diving community for the easiest access to the Blue Hole, its vibrant marine life, and the protective barrier reef just a half-mile offshore.
Yet there’s so much more.
Location and History
Belize, on the southeast portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, and the youngest Central American country, gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981.
Ambergris Caye, founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from the wars in the Yucatan, is a quick, scenic 13-minute prop-plane flight from the Belize City Airport on Tropic Air or Maya Air. It has one city, San Pedro, named for Peter, patron saint of fishermen.
Click here to see my time-lapse video from the flight from Belize City to Ambergris Caye.
For United States visitors, attempting to escape cold winters, the best time to visit Belize remains December through April. Tropical heat, with temperatures 75 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, is offset by the tradewinds. The rainy season, officially from May through February, is most active from May through July. San Pedro experiences less rainfall (40 inches) than the southern portion of the country (140 inches).
San Pedro has become the most popular tourist destination in Belize. Protected areas include Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, and the Belize Barrier Reef.
Pro Tip: You must purchase a park permit to snorkel or dive.
And there are fun outdoor experiences nearly everywhere you look.
1. Town Activities
At the Town Square, there’s a playground for the children, or the young at heart, to play and take photo opportunities.
Games can be found at various resorts along the beach, from chess to Jenga, shuffleboard to cornhole. And, of course, good old-fashioned horseshoes.
Sightsee for the best souvenir, the best beach, or the most amusing sign. My favorite was the coconut sign at Banyan Bay.
You can create your own scavenger hunt and play by teams finding these signs and fun adventures.
Renting a bicycle is a great way to get around the area. Even trying it just once to go further afield makes for a different kind of adventure. It allows you to be closer to the local population and experience life as they do than as a tourist.
And kayaks are always fun, offering a new perspective on the surroundings.
Ramon’s Village Divers is the oldest and most respected dive shop with Rick Sutherland managing since 1989. I found Rick to be quick and efficient while easygoing… quite the balancing act. He’s able to easily size up divers to get them outfitted properly in record time.
Pro Tip: Since the water remains a balmy 82 degrees Fahrenheit, most divers don’t wear scuba suits, but you may want a shortie for the Blue Hole dive.
The shop maintains a PADI 5-star IDC Resort status and has ongoing courses to improve your own scuba skills.
Among the most famous diving destinations, the Blue Hole is a limestone sinkhole, shaped like a martini glass, only a quarter-mile in diameter at its narrowest point and roughly 480 feet deep. During our dive briefing, we were warned that we’d have 90 seconds to descend the 60 feet to the entry point and, if any diver struggled, they’d be forced to abort and return to the boat. The emergency oxygen masks stationed at 30 feet were pointed out on the descent.
Our group, even with inexperienced recreational divers, descended easily and followed the dive master’s instructions explicitly. Our cameras weren’t rated to descend that deep and the water is cold and dark at that level. So, do not expect to get photos of the Blue Hole dive itself.
Following the divemaster who carried a torch, we swam among stalactites and columns, letting us know that this area, at some time in history, was once a dry cave.
Our time at the base was only 7 minutes. It’s a long 7 minutes, but it’s worth doing once.
The additional dives with that trip, including Half Moon Caye and the Aquarium, are spectacular, with colorful coral, a wide selection of marine life, and birds (blue-footed, red-footed and masked booby) you’re not likely to see in many other places. And your camera is rated for the depth (60 feet) so you can take plenty of pictures.
Additional dives from San Pedro include the adrenaline-pounding Whale Shark Dive and the atoll dives (Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the Turneffe Atoll) and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve are a great way to get your scuba legs back in order before making the big dive.
Pro Tip: You’re most likely to see whale sharks during migration each spring.
With plenty of sunscreen ready for your back, it’s time to snorkel. Rent your equipment from a local tour operator or bring your own.
Pro Tip: Take care while swimming between docks as it could be difficult for boats to see you.
But once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll want to take your own boat or go on a tour to explore Lighthouse Reef and Turneffe.
4. Beach Walking
I’m a firm believer that every tropical vacation deserves a daily walk on the beach, or six (walks).
And here, especially south of town, you’ll want to be sure to wear good walking shoes if you expect to walk any distance along the beach. Ocean trash washes up on the shore each morning. Even the monthly efforts of the scuba club can’t keep the beaches clean. Wear gloves and take a trash bag on your daily walk if you’re able to contribute to the effort.
The closer you get to town, the less debris you’ll see as the hotels and restaurant staff clear the beach each morning.
There’s a surprising lack of shells along this beach. But it’s good exercise as you walk along the east side of Ambergris Caye.
If you take a golf cart north over the bridge and head west, you’ll reach (not so) Secret Beach. The beaches reveal more of the soft white sand you’d expect from the region. This is an excellent spot to walk.
In addition to your daily walk along the miles on the east side of Ambergris Caye, many tour operators offer day trips into the jungle for hiking.
Good hiking boots or walking shoes are recommended (no flip flops) as are long sleeve shirt, hat and pants tucked into your socks to reduce your exposure to insects and animals.
The Ruins north of Secret Beach make an easy day trip from San Pedro.
Or take the boat over to Belize City to the Altun Ha Safari Tour.
Altun Ha Safari Tour
This is a combination jungle river ride and Mayan ruins exploration. On the leisurely river trip through unspoiled jungle, you are certain to see native iguanas, monkeys, crocodiles, and tropical birds. Maybe even dolphins and manatees.
Landing at the ancient Mayan ruins of Allun Ha, you’ll witness Mayan culture, tour this Mayan trading center, and see the largest jade carving ever found. Take the time to walk up the temple to get a panoramic view of the miles of untouched jungle. You can take a short jungle walk to the ancient Mayan reservoir. On the return trip, you’ll go through the baboon sanctuary, where wild baboons entertain you with their howls.
6. Cave Tubing
Take a boat to Belize City where you’ll take a short bus ride to the interior jungle of Belize. As part of a tour, you’ll walk through the jungle. Your guide will teach you about the native flora and fauna. Then, you’ll hop into your own personal inner tube, strap on a headlight, and take a relaxing ride downstream where you’ll view Belize’s massive underground cave system. Your headlight will illuminate the spectacular caves and fantastic stalactites and stalagmites.
Many think that any day on a sailboat is a good day. While I agree, it’s a bonus to be able to sail at sunset.
And the sunsets from Ambergris Caye are wondrous.
Take your significant other or a group and rent a sailboat and crew for a few hours to enjoy the best the area has to offer. Be sure to have your favorite refreshments, a drink, wine, and cheese, or ginger snaps for those that tend towards seasickness.
It’s a beautiful sail for a fast but exquisite sunset. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll catch the green flash that can occur right as the sun crosses the horizon.
In Belize, things we do for fun are often free. Socializing more likely includes hiking or swimming, strolling along the beach, or grilling outdoors. Or going to the open-air bars where you’ll find live music or games to play.
Simple pleasures. Quality time.
Isn’t that what so many of us are searching for?
Whatever your age, there is something for every outdoor enthusiast to enjoy in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.