Ambergris Caye (often just called San Pedro, after its only town) is the most-visited area of Belize. Located only 35 mi/55 km northeast of Belize City, its resident population of nearly 20,000 expands with tourists and part-time expats. It has more than 70 resorts, hotels and "condotels" (small low-rise condo developments managed like hotels).
Ambergris is a very informal island (shoes are optional everywhere), and you should go prepared to relax. San Pedro offers the best, most varied restaurants in the country. At night, live music and hard drinking can be found in the island's bars and clubs.
Some believe that Ambergris (locally pronounced AM-burr-griss) Caye became an island when Maya traders, seeking a shortcut from the Bay of Chetumal to the Caribbean Sea, cut a channel through the lower Yucatan.
The name comes from the days of whaling—ambergris is the substance found in whale intestines that is used in manufacturing perfumes—though whales are now rare in this part of the Caribbean.
There are three main areas where visitors stay: the town of San Pedro, the South End (or South Beach) and North Ambergris. No one area is best, but there are significant differences among the three.
San Pedro offers the most convenience—for dining, shopping and entertainment—but it also has more people and more noise. The only town on Ambergris, San Pedro has streets paved with sand and concrete cobblestones: Golf carts, bicycles and foot power are common modes of transport, although cars operated by local residents (visitors can't rent cars) have multiplied in recent years and traffic jams are starting to become common.
North Ambergris is more remote and isolated. It's for people who want to relax and who don't mind eating at the same restaurant more than once. The easiest way to get to North Ambergris is by water taxi from San Pedro (BZ$15-$40 each way), although a bridge over the channel allows golf carts to travel north on an unpaved, often muddy cart path. A road up to North Ambergris, perhaps connecting with Mexico, has long been discussed but is years away from reality.
The South End area, starting about 1.5 mi/3 km south of San Pedro, strikes us as a compromise between the other two.
things to do
The main attractions on Ambergris Caye are watersports (snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing) on and around the Belize Barrier Reef, which is just a few hundred yards off the shore of the island.
Ambergris Caye's beaches, while often beautiful, are narrow, sometimes strewn with flotsam and jetsam from boats or brought in by currents from Mexico and elsewhere, and not generally the main reason people go.
Fishing excursions can be arranged from San Pedro. You'll pay around BZ$500-$600 for a full day of reef or flats fishing, plus the cost of your fishing license and a tip to the guide.
Most hotels and dive shops on Ambergris offer twice-daily trips for snorkeling, diving, fishing and sightseeing, and night dives are also available. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is especially popular for snorkeling and glass-bottomed-boat tours. Other popular dive and snorkeling sites along the reef include Mexico Rocks (north of San Pedro, known for its elkhorn and staghorn coral) and Coral Gardens (also north of San Pedro, with huge clusters of brain coral). Dive shops on Ambergris also do full-day dive and snorkel trips to the Blue Hole/Lighthouse Atoll and Turneffe Atoll. These atoll trips require an early start and a fast boat; the open seas can be quite rough.
Some of the local boat trips include lunch and stops at Caye Caulker and other areas. Dive trips around Ambergris Caye range BZ$90-$200, while full-day, three-tank trips to the Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye cost about BZ$500. Snorkel trips to Hol Chan cost around BZ$80; Mexico Rock snorkel trips are around BZ$70; full-day snorkel trips to the Blue Hole are around BZ$360-$380. All-day snorkel trips with a stop at Caye Caulker are around BZ$140.
A few cautions: Don't touch or stand on the coral. Also, avoid visiting the reef on days when cruise ships in Belize City take day-trippers to snorkel at Hol Chan, as the reserve becomes an underwater zoo. Take care if you're not a good swimmer or have young children, as currents through the reef can be quite strong. Finally, don't consider swimming or kayaking out to the reef, except in quieter areas of far North Ambergris, as boat traffic is fairly heavy inside the reef.
Belize was founded by adventurers—pirates, loggers and roughneck settlers who carved a place to live from swamps and jungles. A few centuries later, adventurous ecotravelers found this corner of Central America, and today, Belize is a rising star among those seeking active and educational vacations.
Tourists go to see its vast expanses of rain forest, rich collection of birds and animals, a long stretch of coral barrier reef and plentiful Maya ruins. As a result, tourism now surpasses agriculture as the largest industry in Belize, generating more than one-fifth of the country's gross domestic product. About a third of a million international visitors go to Belize annually for everything from honeymoons to snorkeling, along with almost two-thirds of a million who visit briefly on cruise ships.
Of course, Belize's growing popularity is making it somewhat less wild than it used to be—especially if you find yourself in a well-appointed jungle lodge or seaside resort (even the sounds of howler monkeys can seem rather civilized when you're sipping cappuccino on the veranda).
Belize's travel infrastructure is continually improving but remains far from polished: Some areas are difficult and/or expensive to get to, and conventional resort amenities such as golf courses and tennis courts are few and far between. Belize's handful of "highways" are narrow but in fairly good condition, and getting around the country is not without its delays and challenges. We find these to be rather minor drawbacks, however. A bit of rawness just seems fitting for a place that caters to so many active travelers.
Belize City is Belize's only urban area of any size, though it and its suburbs account for fewer than 80,000 people. It is the country's commercial, cultural and transportation hub, but it is actually Belize's least-appealing visitor destination. Belize City's high crime rates (rarely a week goes by without several murders and drive-by shootings) keep visitors wary, especially around the downtown area after dark. Many quickly flee to safer and more scenic areas on the mainland or to the islands (commonly called cayes in Belize), a short plane flight or boat ride away from Belize City.
Ambergris Caye, Belize's most popular destination, offers a pleasing mix of informal living, watersports and the country's best restaurants and nightlife. Caye Caulker, Hopkins, Placencia and San Ignacio also attract many visitors. Up-and-coming spots such as Punta Gorda, Corozal Town and Sarteneja are inexpensive and almost totally unspoiled by mass tourism.