Enjoy the best of both worlds on the same Belize visit
Belize, the little country sandwiched below Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and above Guatemala, is an exceptional all-around adventure destination. Only about the size of New Hampshire, its geography transitions from Mexico's flat limestone to mountainous jungles like those in the rest of Central America. As a result, nearly every kind of tropical environment imaginable exists in Belize.
The best way to sample it all in a single vacation is by choosing a central location and opting for a land/sea itinerary. This is exactly what visitors will find at Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Islands Atoll. Blackbird offers a four-day island stay specifically for diving, followed by a two-day land adventure at its sister resort, the Royal Mayan Resort and Spa, in central western Belize.
Blackbird Caye Resort is a pleasant grouping of mahogany cottages with thatched roofs perched on a white-sand beach at the edge of the sea. The resort grounds, a sprawling 1,500 feet of beachfront, are adjacent to a marine research station operated by the resort and managed by the Oceanic Society.
The Royal Mayan is an attractive, classy resort/spa perched on a hill peak overlooking the farming villages, mountains, valleys and rain forest of Western Belize.
Undersea Wonders Turneffe is the largest of Belize's three offshore atolls and the one closest to the mainland. The atoll is more than 20 miles long and about 7 miles wide, with an area of about 200 square miles. Turneffe is unique in that the 30 or so islets that surround the atoll are mostly mangroves, creating a huge marine habitat and juvenile nursery.
The well-formed reefs offshore include 46 species of stony corals, uncountable sponge species, and, of special interest, a prolific number and great diversity of schooling and solitary reef fishes. Although diver traffic is light in comparison to most popular Caribbean dive destinations, there are 70 named dive sites around the outer fringe of the atoll.
Only a few minutes offshore of Blackbird Caye are several coral gardens, perfect for snorkeling and shallow scuba diving. Ten to 20 feet below crystal waters are fingers of coral meandering across a field of sand as white as snow. Soft sea fans in gaudy purple sprout from tall coral heads and sway to and fro in the gentle swell. Coral and schooling fishes wind through the maze; angel fish, grunts, snapper, grouper, bermuda chub, blue tangs, goat fish and the seemingly endless parade of creole wrasse.
Outside the main reef, there is a nearly continuous wall that begins in about 70 feet of water. A dozen sites, again only minutes by boat from the resort, line this dropoff.
Here a chain of pinnacles announces a mostly vertical descent through alternating mountains and canyons of coral. Wire corals, colorful rope sponges and black coral trees intertwine like floral bouquets. Surprises such as turtles, eagle rays and the occasional dolphin, manta or shark are possible anywhere along the wall. Visibility averages about 80 feet and often exceeds 100 feet.
A half an hour south is the southern tip of Turneffe's outer reef, a spot called the Elbow. Here, the reef is literally decorated with groupers -- too many to count. Snappers and grunts congregate in thick schools. Offshore, large schools of snapper, goggle-eyed jacks and Atlantic spadefish hover in the deep blue. Inside the reef, on nearly every night dive, croaking sounds announce the presence of the lined toad fish, a pugnacious, zebra-striped bottom dweller, a Belize specialty and nearly unique to Turneffe.
Divers should also experience Lighthouse Reef and the Great Blue Hole. Blackbird Caye offers a regularly scheduled mid-week all-day dive trip to these sites.
The Great Blue Hole is the visual icon most often presented as the image of Belize diving -- a paradox that is as different from colorful reefs as scuba diving is from mountain climbing. Beneath the lip of this 1,000-foot circular sinkhole, you will find an emerald world of huge stony stalactites, hanging like the teeth of a medieval dragon.
After lunch on scenic Halfmoon Cafe, dives are staged at Halfmoon Caye Wall and Long Caye Wall, two of the most spectacular drop-offs in all of Belize.
Jungle Adventure After experiencing the underwater wonders of Belize, participants in the land/sea package travel inland to a scenic region of jungle, hills and caves in the Cayo district of western Belize, a few miles from the border of Guatemala.
Here you can visit the ancient Maya sites of Xunantunich, Caracol, Cahal Pech, El Pilar or even day-trip to Tikal in Guatemala -- or trek through the jungle to discover yawning drip-stone-decorated caverns nestled in tropical forest. Belize has some of the most spectacular dry caves in the Western Hemisphere. One cave, Chechem-ha, is still festooned with huge Maya ceramic pots over 1,000 years old.
Another day, you might choose to canoe down the scenic Mopan or Macal rivers, which wind their way through mountainous rain forest. In the evening, you could treat yourself to a muscle-relaxing massage or sauna at the spa-oriented resort.
Dolphin Center Opens The non-profit Oceanic Society has opened the Belize Center for Dolphin Research & Environmental Education on Blackbird Caye. A variety of programs will fill the needs and interests of researchers, students, teachers and the public. Close collaboration with Belize academic institutions and government agencies will help identify environmental issues and shape some of the research and educational objectives of the new center.
In addition to participating in the station's research, the public is invited to volunteer to study dolphins and coral reef ecology. These eight-day stints also include some recreational opportunities, such as bird watching and snorkeling. For more information, call the Oceanic Society at 800-326-7491.