Belize has two very popular islands just off the coast of the Belize City. Caye Caulker is the smaller and slightly closer one, and the one better suited to the backpacker set, while Ambergris Caye is much larger and better suited to most other visitors. Compared to resort strips in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”) looks rather primitive, but it does have a well-built tourist infrastructure combined with a unique island charm. The official language is English, albeit with a thick Jamaican-style accent, so this is a great resort area for people looking for something exotic but without having to learn a new language.
San Pedro is the village in the center of the island and everything radiates out from there. Only a few of the streets are paved, and quite crudely at that. This is the center of the Ambergris Caye nightlife and shopping scenes, and the hotels and resorts on the island are strung up and down the long east coast, to the north and south of San Pedro.
Hotels/hostels – The accommodations in Ambergris Caye come in all price ranges, with a heavy emphasis toward the upper end. There are a couple of actual hostels here if you are looking for a cheap dorm bed. There are several budget hotels and guest houses here as well, but if you are looking in this range you might also consider nearby Caye Caulker. At the middle and upper ends of the spectrum there is a lot to choose from on Ambergris Caye. From clean and professional San Pedro hotels to all-suite properties to luxury villa rentals, this is a great place to find resort-style accommodations at a price that won’t quite break the bank.
What to do – When you think of a long and thin island in the Caribbean you might naturally assume that you’ll find mile after mile of unspoiled beaches. Unfortunately Ambergris Caye is not like that. The mangrove forests grow in the salt water right up against most of the coast, so those gorgeous sandy beaches are few and far between. They are there, particularly at some of the better resorts, but this is not a place people come to just lay on a pristine beach for a week straight. The main attractions, in fact, are just off the coast itself:
- Snorkeling – Belize sits just off part of the second largest barrier reef in the world, only behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. So snorkeling, along with actual scuba diving, are huge businesses here and a real highlight for nearly every visitor. There are small companies operating up and down the coast that offer half-day and full-day snorkeling trips. They provide all the equipment in addition to a guide who is experienced in helping novices, so the ability to swim is the only requirement to having an unforgettable aquatic experience.
- Diving – If you are a certified diver, or if you are looking to get certified, you are spoiled for choices in Ambergris Caye. Just like snorkeling, this is big business here and one of the main magnets to the area. Many companies offer diving expeditions that range from half a day up to a few days, and all equipment is available for rent. The Blue Hole is a world famous diving spot and is only about an hour away by boat. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is another popular dive spot, known for larger fish than the main reef.
- Water sports – Ambergris Caye is getting more popular every year with the adventure sports lovers who come for windsurfing, parasailing, kitesurfing, as well as traditional sailing. Through most of the year the conditions here are ideal for these wind-related water activities, but there are a few months that are less than ideal. If this is your main focus make sure you research those specifics.
- Relaxing – Unlike Caye Caulker, there is plenty to do in Ambergris Caye if you’ve got the energy, but never the less, this is still a great area to just relax and maybe tour the island for a bit. Beer is cheap and the bars and restaurants are open all day and well into the night. This is a Caribbean island after all, and the setting is very inspiring for people who don’t want to do anything more active than just hang around. In between rounds of drinks, you can rent a bicycle or golf cart to tour the area in just an hour or two. There are almost no actual cars on Ambergris Caye, so even cruising around can be relaxing.
Getting to Ambergris Caye – The most popular method is to take the Water Taxi from the Marine Terminal in downtown Belize City. There are about 6 departures in each direction per day, and the trip takes about 70 minutes and costs about $15 per person. These Water Taxis are really just large speedboats that run on schedules, holding a couple dozen passengers seated on the open deck. Most of them stop in Caye Caulker on the way, so inter island transportation is easy this way as well. A flight from the Belize City International Airport to the airstrip in the center of San Pedro takes about 20 minutes and costs about $50. They leave once an hour during the day, but they aren’t the only option. Flights also leave from the municipal airport in Belize City and the cost is around $30 per person. If you’ve got a group it can be wise to get over to the smaller airport for the cheaper flights.