Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hail to the reef: the water-sports lovers guide to ambergris caye, belize

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THE ANCIENT MAYA LOVED FISHING AND paddling. They were so eager to access the water sports off the coast of Belize that they dug a narrow channel across the dangly southern terminus of the Yucatan Peninsula as a shortcut for their canoes. This created a 24-mile-long island, and during their heyday, up to 10,000 Maya lived in fishing villages and trading centers on this caye.

After the Maya came the buccaneers and pirates, who named the island for the invaluable dollops of sperm whale-poop found on Ambergris' beaches and which sold, bizarrely, as perfume and an aphrodisiac. It took 1,000 years for the island's population to return to Maya numbers, but only the last decade to jump another 50 percent. Condos and resorts have replaced tribal villages, and San Pedro--Ambergris Caye's sole town, romanticized by early tourists for its sand streets and occasional golf cart--is now a bustle of little trucks and cars crowding a (gasp) paved road. On Ambergris' waterfront, visitors find dozens of water-sports operations perched on piers above fleets of bobbing boats. Several bars, restaurants and small guesthouses front the towns narrow-stretch of sand, with souvenir sellers and sandwich makers lining the back streets. The islands lures, however, remain the same as they have for millenniums: water sports and precious gifts from the sea.

lay of the land Ambergris Caye is a skinny strip of sand backed by mangrove wetlands. Dozens of spindly piers reach from the shoreline like galley oars, underpinning the islands transportation system. Water-sports operators collect clients from hotel docks, and small outboard ferries run the island on a regular schedule, stopping wherever passengers flag them down. Based at Fidos Dock in San Pedro, the taxi boats operate on set fares from S8 to $13, depending on the distance from town.

There are more than 100 places to stay on Ambergris, ranging from back-bay budget bunkhouses to flat-out fabulous beach villas, along with rental homes, condos, and specialty fishing lodges and dive resorts. Most hotels string along the beachfront wall-to-wall near San Pedro, with more breathing space (and generally more sand) as you move north or south.

No matter where you shack up, your focus will be Ambergris Caye's front yard: the Belize Barrier Reef, aka the Mesoameriean Reef, aka the Big Coral Kahuna, second in size only to the Great One Down Under. Belize's 190-mile-long bulwark of living coral atop prehistoric reef grows so close to Ambergris that it actually touches land at Rocky Point, on the island's north end, just below the old Maya canal that serves as the national border between Belize and Mexico. The reef stands about a half-mile offshore along the rest of the caye, close enough to swim to--though that's not recommended on account of boat traffic. Fortunately, myriad options exist to gel you out to the awe-inspiring barrier reef.

diving Scuba diving built modern Ambergris Caye, with traveling divers "discovering" this reefside island back in the late 70s. Short boat trips to amazing sites, reliably clear water, friendly locals, and beach shacks serving burritos and cold Belikin made it a divers dream destination. None of that has changed, though the recent building spree shocks many longtimers and there are. real concerns regarding development's impact on the health of the reef. On the positive side, visitors now find a surfeit of reliable dive operators, lodging options and, of course, beer shacks.

Ambergris dive boats range from small lanchas to larger craft capable of handling a dozen bubblers, with a la carte rates averaging $40 per dive and packages reducing the cost considerably. A typical scuba trip begins with a deep dive on the outer reef. Coral grows right to the surface, and white water marks the reel crest in all but the calmest seas. Your captain navigates across the reef through a narrow channel--usually Tuffy Cut--and turns north or south, choosing from more than 40 named sites. Seaward of the crest, the barrier reef builds into massive spur and groove formations, which are natural coral architecture consisting of parallel fingers pointing to deep water, with sand-floor canyons in between.

Ambergris Caye deploys a permanent buoy system to prevent damage to the reef by anchors, and boats tie oft on the floats to drop divemasters and their groups. Once everyone is in the water, the boats cast off and follow the bubbles, picking up divers as they ascend; it's all very easy and safe.

If there's any knock on Ambergris Caye deep dives, it's that many of the sites are similar. The delights, though, exist in the details. A basic dive profile means following the guide into a groove between spurs and finning toward the open ocean. At the end of the spur, you're a spacewalker floating in the big blue, eyes peeled for a glimpse of fellow travelers such as manta and eagle rays, whale sharks and reef sharks. Then, you round the spur and head back up the next groove, into shallower water, where you're almost guaranteed to see nurse sharks. The best sites--Esmeralda, M&M Caverns, Cypress Tunnel, Victoria Tunnel and Paradise Canyon--stand out because of their elaborate swim-throughs: caves that lead from one groove to another, or areas where coral has grown so effusively as to roof over from spur to spur.

The favorite spot for the day's second or third dive, or for stellar night dives--and one of the best shallow dives in the world--is Hol Chan (explored in more detail on page 72).

Ambergris Caye's professional dive guides are very well trained and understand the value of their natural resources. "This isn't a Disney World ride out here," says Ernesto "Buju" Leslie, who works with Ambergris Divers. "If we destroy the reef, we can't just build another one."

full-day reef trips Lying within striking distance of two out of Belize's three coral atolls, several Ambergris Caye operators offer special daylong dive and snorkel trips. Scheduling a three-dive-plus-pienic expedition to Turneffe Atoll's coral walls (about $170), or to Lighthouse Reef Atoll's Great Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye National Monument (about $240, including park fees), will definitely spice, up your week of diving.

As Belize's most famous dive site, the Blue Hole demands particular mention. A trip from Ambergris to the Blue Hole means a sunrise pickup and a three-hour boat ride each way Though the dive itself is an ethereal experience--you take a quick vertical descent to a narcosis-inducing 130 feet, ducking under an ice-age overhang with thick limestone stalactites and possibly seeing sharks that have wandered into the hole--it's over very fast. In truth, the Blue Hole is more impressive from the air than underwater. That's not to say a trip isn't worthwhile, but you'll probably enjoy the day's wall dives and the visit to the bird sanctuary and beaches of Half Moon Caye more than the "saw it and got the T-shirt" dive into the Blue Hole.

For those who want to do the dives but skip the six-hour boat ride, Astrum Helicopters (astrumhelicopters.com) offers the ultimate Blue Hole trip--including that "Earth's staring eye" aerial view. A Bell chopper will arrange a pickup on Ambergris and fly you out to meet a dive boat at the atoll.

snorkeline You can see a great deal around Ambergris Caye using just a mask and snorkel. The island is not known for its beaches because, in most areas, there's only a narrow fringe of sand, as lawns of turtle grass grow right at the water's edge. For snorkelers, though, this is a boon. Strap on your fins and wade in at a spot safe from boat traffic, and you're instantly floating amid schools of minnows being hunted by needlefish and occasionally divebombed by brown pelicans. In the grass below, conch slowly lurch along a bottom decorated with a prickly collection of urchins and sea stars. Look carefully and you'll see peacock flounders and yellow stringrays. camouflaged against the sand, while razorfish and tilefish show off their best defense by doing kamikaze dives into the soft bottom.

Hotel piers are also do-it-yourself snorkel spots, as they commonly attract schools of snapper, baby tropicals, trunkfish and puffers, along with all manner of invertebrates, like, shrimp, that cling to the pilings. If your hotel is close enough and your arms strong enough, you can even paddle a sit-on-top kayak out to the reef. Make sure to ask the hotel for a tether line you can hold onto while snorkeling, and don't cross the reef crest into open water--there's plenty to see on the back reef. Do check the weather, winds and currents before you go, and tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.

Ambergris Caye's snorkel operators primarily head to one or more of the area's marquee sites on each half-day trip ($20 for a single stop; $35 for two stops). A 20-minute boat ride inside the lagoon brings you to Mexico Rocks, where large mounds of star coral combine with 29 other species of hard coral to create the only patch reef near the caye. This garden of coral stands shoreward of the main reef, offering protected waters, and attracts thousands of small fish and plenty of invertebrates like lobster and crabs.

Five miles south of San Pedro, in a turtle-grass bed adjacent to Hol Chan and a part of the same marine sanctuary lies an underwater petting zoo called Shark-Ray Alley. It could more accurately be called Shark, Ray, Turtle, Snapper, Hogfish and Big Fat Grouper Alley due to the profusion of animals that gathers here. Similar to Grand Caymans Stingray City, the site began when fishermen anchored in the calm, shallow area to clean their day's catches, attracting scores of scavengers and acclimating them to the sound of boat engines. Snorkel guides have become adept at fondling the fish, hugging large southern stingrays rays and even cradling nurse sharks upside down, putting, the sharks into a state of tonic immobility--temporary paralysis--so clients can gently stroke their skin.

hol chan marine reserve Ambergris Caye's Little Channel is a big deal. Declared a marine sanctuary in 1987, Hol Chan remains the most popular attraction in Belize--and deservedly so. This snorkel and dive site also serves as a vivid example of how well underwater parks can work. While much of the reef had been depleted of edible species like grouper and snapper, protecting this one small area allowed populations to bounce back in such numbers that local fishermen working the waters outside the park now catch more and larger fish just from the overflow.

This natural cut in the reef spans only 75 feet, so you can see all of Hol Chans shallow section in a single dive or snorkel. You could also come back every day and never tire of the experience. More than 160 species of fish, 40 kinds of coral, three types of turtle, and even dolphins and manatees have been spotted inside the park. The boat will tie to a buoy back in the sea-grass beds, and as soon as you hit the water you'll see nurse sharks and stingrays. Channels always attract marine life because of the water flow that carries food across the reef, and since Hol Chan is the only nearby inlet, its current can be quite strong at maximum ebb and flow. Your guide will judge the current and decide the best way to approach the site.

Corals and sponges grow profusely on both sides of the cut. The south side is healthiest, but there's a beautiful star-coral swim-through on the north wall. Schools of fish gather at Hol Chan in incredible numbers, and there's a good chance of seeing free-swimming morays snaking from coral head to coral head. Divers will experience stronger underwater currents, especially on outgoing tides, but if you stay low and find the current "shadows" behind bottom features, you can swim across the cut. The middle of the channel acts as a watery highway and hangout for Hol Chan's largest fish. Schools of big tarpon and horse-eye jacks slack up in the current while eagle rays fly patterns over the sand. Fat, happy grouper and hogfish, safe from hooks and spears, loll on the bottom between their hunting forays, as St- Bernard-size parrotfish lope past, stopping occasionally to chew off chunks of limestone.

After sunset, Hol Chan comes alive with the bobbing blue glow of night snorkelers and divers. Shine your light along the bottom, and it looks like a ski slope covered in moguls. Get closer, and you see that the bumps have eyes. Closer still, and a big stingray will erupt from the sand. Coral polyps extend their feeding arms, and the night-shift creatures--the octopus, cardinalfish and bright-red shrimp--join the morays working the reef. For those who've never snorkeled or dived after dark, this is a don't-miss experience.

wind sports The broad lagoon inside the barrier reef makes for a beautiful aquamarine pond ideal for sailing, windsurfing and kiteboarding. Seas break against the reef, keeping the inside waters calm, and the winds usually come from the east, so there's no worry about getting blown out to sea, February through June offers the most constant winds, usually 10 to 20 knots, but you can rely on a breeze most of the year, outside the August and September doldrums (when the ocean is often flat calm and underwater visibility is at its best).

While the winds here are not radical, the sailing area offers forever reaches and long downwinders. The calmest water lies just behind the reef, where the water shoals to two to three feet deep, making the area perfect for beginning kiteboarders. A chop builds closer to shore for those windsurfers and kiters who want to practice jumps, while advanced players head out to the reef cuts to catch air off waves hitting the crest.

SailSports Belize (sailsportsbelize.com)--on the beach at the Caribbean Villas Hotel--can hook you up with everything from rental windsurfers ($22 to $27 per hour) to kite gear ($82 per day) to Hobies ($38 to $49 per hour) to chase boats ($35 per hour). All levels of instruction are offered.

"We can teach anyone to sail a Hobie in an hour," says Chris Beaumont, owner of SailSports. Windsurfing takes a little longer, he says, with kiteboarding the most challenging. "It takes two 2 1/2-hour-long sessions to get up and going on a kite," says Beaumont, "but this is a wonderful place to learn."

fishing "I know, all these fish personally," laughs Gilberto "Star" Acosta, a fishing guide who's been working the waters around Ambergris for 24 years. Star charters his lancha out of a beachfront fishing lodge appropriately named El Pescador. From this and other hotel docks, Star and his fellow pros lead their clients to bonefish, permit and tarpon, hunting all the way from Ambergris' Caribbean beaches to the mainland's estuaries to find the fish (half-days average. $225; full-days $300, including lunch). The most consistent bite, though, happens right behind the island, in Ambergris' watery outback, among few mangrove caves and sand flats.

Catching all three of the flat's premier game fish on the same day earns you a coveted grand slam, and your guide will decide which species to target first. Tarpon up to 100 pounds cruise gullies between the flats year-round, and summer (June through August) brings additional flotillas of 150-pound migratory monsters into the mix. Times around the new moon tend to have the best tarpon bite, and Acosta suggests fly-fishermen use Black Death and Green Hornet flies with 80-pound shock leaders on 10- to 12-weight rods. Once you've got your silver king (all fishing for tarpon, permit and bonefish is catch-and-release only), your guide will move to the skinnier flats to look for permit. April and May are the best months for these frustratingly wary and wily fighters that grow to 30 pounds around Ambergris. Spin fishermen can cast the permit's favorite food, live crab, while fly-fishers need to use their best-tied imitation. Nine-weight rods match up well against Belize permit. The easiest--and that term is most definitely relative--of the three fish to find and catch are bonefish. They school here in good numbers and nice-size, 2 to 5 pounds (use a 6-, 7- or 8-weight rod), and will totally make your day if nothing else is biting. If you do catch your tarpon and permit, the guide will get you a bonefish to finish your grand slam even if be has to put on a barracuda costume and scare one into the boat.


Azul Resort North of San Pedro, these two 3,000-square-foot, two-bedroom rock-star villas complete with rooftop hot tubs share a pool and a nice beach adjacent to Rojo Lounge, Belize's best restaurant, which caters all your meals. From $1,995 per night all-inclusive; 011-501-226-4012; azulbelize.com

Blue Tang Inn This delightful 14-suite inn with an inviting private courtyard and pool sits just off the beach in San Pedro. All rooms have full kitchens, and rates include breakfast. From $120 in low season ($150 high): 866-881-1020: bluetanginn.com

El Pescador Fishing fanatics have been staying at this lodge and casting about with its guides since 1974. Eight luxury villas were recently added to the 13 classic rooms in the original mahogany inn. Fish stories told nightly at the bar. Rooms from $185 in low season ($275 high); villas from $280 in low season ($400 high); 800-242-2017; elpescador.com

Ramon's Village Resort This village of 61 rooms arrayed in thatch-roof (but now air-conditioned) cabanas in San Pedro is one of Ambergris' longest-running full-service resorts. Highlights include Ramon's lively atmosphere, excellent dive center, 500 feet of beachfront and Maya-theme lagoon pool. From $175 in tow season ($180 high); 800-624-4215; ramons.com

Victoria House Ambergris' class act. two miles north of San Pedro, has 29 accommodations--villas, rooms, suites and casitas--placed just so around elegant landscaping and pool. From $180 to $955 in low season ($180 to $1,140 high); 800-247-5159; victoria-house.com

story & photography by bob friel

Source Citation
Friel, Bob. "Hail to the reef: the water-sports lovers guide to ambergris caye, belize." Caribbean Travel & Life Dec. 2009: 64+. Popular Magazines. Web. 22 Dec. 2009. .

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