Welcome to the divers' most popular offshore caye in Belize
With the most and arguably the best seaside resorts in the country, and with a complete array of restaurants, bars, shops and dive operators, Ambergris Caye also is the focal point for offshore in Belize.
Most of the island's activities take place near the southern end in and around the village of San Pedro. Founded in 1848 and peopled mainly by refugees escaping Yucatan Mexico's War of the Castes, the little town remained an unassuming fishing village for more than 100 years. With the first trickle of tourists arriving in the 1960s, San Pedro slowly developed into a visitor's retreat.
Booming over the past decade, today there is a blend of thatch cottages, wooden colonial buildings and modern beach resorts. Still funky and charming, San Pedro's streets remain ''paved'' in sand, and no construction is ''taller than a palm tree.'' Walking, bicycles and golf carts are the preferred means of transportation.
Along the sweep of seawalls and beaches, a series of docks reach out from the shallows into deeper water. Here boats, a few bars and a number of dive operators are perched in complete view of a seemingly endless blue horizon. A frothy line of white caps marks the top of the barrier reef at the edge of visibility.
Belize's barrier reef is a robust formation of mostly lobular star, starlet and brain corals that parallels the coastline for 170 miles, 30 miles of which border Ambergris Caye. Several cuts through the reef provide access to the mid-depth reefs and drop-offs on the outside. One of these cuts, Hol Chan, is the setting of one of Belize's first marine parks. The most popular site for Ambergris Caye divers, the park provides a series of inside mini-walls and fish-filled shallow reefs.
Not far away is the now-famous shark-ray alley. Here, dozens of ''friendly'' nurse sharks and southern stingrays gather in shallow water. Snorkelers are left breathless by the swirling maze of undulating bodies and flapping wings.
Outside the barrier reef, in about 90 feet of water, lies the Amigos shipwreck. Sunk intentionally as a dive site by the Amigos Del Mar dive operation several years ago, the now broken-up wreck has become a refuge for a variety of marine life.
Most of the remaining popular dive sites easily accessible from Ambergris are a series of caverns, swim-throughs and drop-offs along the barrier reef. More than 20 sites are named and regularly visited. Typically, the dense portions of the reef segregate into huge blocks of coral separated by deep channels. The drop-off usually begins in 80 to 100 feet of water.
Ambergris achieves its status as a complete diver's destination as a result of regular trips offered to two of the three enormous coral atolls that lie seaward of the barrier reef. Fast, comfortable boats now run almost daily to a variety of dive sites, many which comprise the best diving locations in the country.
Turneffe Islands Atoll, the largest of the Belize atolls and the closest to Ambergris, is about an hour away. Turneffe features more than 70 individual dive sites of universal appeal. Of special interest is the Elbow at the far southern end of the atoll. Here is a mixing bowl of current-driven nutrients that give rise to a profusion of reef and pelagic fish life seldom encountered anywhere else in the Caribbean. Dense schools of snappers, grunts and spadefish commonly compete for space among ''walls'' of jacks and circling sharks.
Another hour away is Lighthouse Reef Atoll at the outer edge of the continental shelf. Bathed in pristine visibility, Lighthouse offers perhaps the best drop-off diving in Belize. Three dives are usually planned here: one at the Half Moon Caye Wall, featuring huge coral mounds lining a snow-white sand bank; another on the outside of Long Caye, where vertical walls are decorated with giant sponges, black coral and deep water fans; and finally, the highlight for most divers, a descent into Belize's Great Blue Hole. Bottom time here is limited, but those precious minutes spent in the cavern of huge stalactites framed against an emerald background of meandering reef sharks will be remembered forever. A picnic lunch on scenic Half Moon Caye is included.
Non-diving hours are easily filled with shopping, restaurant and lounge-hopping, and island-style nightlife. Ambergris Caye is a most pleasant combination of Caribbean ambience, excellent diving and a world of topside diversions -- a complete destination where you can stay as active as you please or, if you choose, do nothing at all.