When I met two swaggering Aussies in Belize, I expected the been-there, done-that attitude that often accompanies well-inked passports. After a few dives, I asked why they'd traveled so far. "We love the Great Barrier Reef," one said. "But Belize the atolls and islands it's just awesome. And you've got all
these exploits on the mainland. It's the full package, mate."
Luckily, little Belize has an enviable bounty of natural assets. The compact, English-speaking nation possesses enormous swaths of protected rainforests alive with toucans, howler monkeys, jaguars and tapirs. Scores of mystical caves and underground rivers hold Mayan secrets, and earthy, inland villages seem like they germinated from the jungle.
Belize's 185-mile barrier reef is the world's second largest. There are hundreds of world-class dives you've never heard of virtually all with 100-plus feet of visibility. Marine life is just as epic, with upward of 400 fish species.
Belize almost holds the monopoly on Caribbean atolls, having three of four. Charles Darwin called this trio "the richest and most-remarkable coral reefs" in the region. The three atolls each have their own personality and distinct attractions. Closest to Belize City, Turneffe Islands Atoll is the largest. Each dive site is an underwater maze with spur-and-groove formations that spill into abysmal drop-offs. The must-dive is the Elbow, a fishy freefor-all where diverse currents and a 3,000-foot wall shuttle in pelagics like a conveyor belt.
Farthest from shore, Lighthouse Reef Atoll is the only one that's resort-property free. It offers diving as pristine as when Jacques-Yves Cousteau explored the area in the '70s, ultimately descending into the now-iconic Great Blue Hole. This spot might be just about bragging rights if it weren't so extraordinary. The almost perfectly circular sinkhole is a quarter-mile in diameter and more than 400 feet deep. Divers can ogle gargantuan, angled
stalactites formed some 15,000 years ago.
To the extreme south, least-visited Glover's Reef Atoll winds 40 miles and offers 200-plus feet of visibility underwater. A World Heritage Site, it holds at least 660 shallow patch reefs and some of Belize's most-intact coral gardens. Emerald Forest Reef is a standout, named for massive elkhorn coral that dominate the reef crest surrounded by a circus of basket, rope and tube sponges scribbled wildly with color. Beyond the atoll, diving can become a thrill ride. Upwellings from the 2,000-foot abyss just a stone's throw from the atoll's eastern fringe make for extremely strong currents. These nutrient-rich waters satiate every layer of the food chain, including pelagics such as whale sharks, hammerheads, and reef and tiger sharks. It's enough to inspire even the most wet-traveled dive adventurer.