Ambergris Caye is the largest of the 200-plus cayes (islands) located off the Belize coast. Only half a mile from the Barrier Reef, the island is a top destination for scuba divers and snorkelers. The island offers a wide variety of water-oriented activities – swimming, fishing, sailing, windsurfing, and jet-skiing – as well as nature hiking, bird-watching, bicycling and even a small Maya ruin site on the island.
A recent issue of Islands Magazine featured a list of the Top 10 islands across the world that are most desirable to call home. Here is a snippet of why Ambergris Caye made the list:
“The budget-friendly properties available a few flip-flop steps away from the beach, an exuberant expat community and the vibrant streets of San Pedro earned this Central American island a place on our list. It’s pretty easy to move here, too, since immigration policies are friendly, the locals speak English and it takes about two hours to reach Belize from Florida. Once there, life on Ambergris Caye entails lazing the days away on star-white beaches, spending afternoons snorkeling the world’s second-largest barrier reef and enjoying nights at beachfront barbecues with newfound friends.”
Ambergris Caye is the most popular destination in Belize, for expats and travelers. There are good reasons for that: Ambergris Caye has a pleasant, laid-back attitude. Folks are friendly. There’s a wide selection of hotels and restaurants and quite a few little shops. And of course, there’s the Caribbean – big and blue and beautiful. This isn’t a large island. It’s only 25 miles long and 4 miles wide at its widest point, about one-half the size of Barbados. Much of the island is low mangrove swamp, and there are a dozen lagoons.
Accommodations and restaurants are available for all budget levels but tend to be on the high end. Ambergris Caye receives cooling trade winds most of the year, which keeps the temperature down. The island is twenty-five miles long; its width ranges from a few hundred feet to over four miles. Northern Ambergris Caye is separated from the southernmost tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula by a small channel.
Ambergris Caye’s biggest tourist draw is the Barrier Reef that runs parallel along the entire coast. The reef is a quarter mile from the beach making snorkeling and diving easily accessible. The island’s seaside is a charming collection of piers and dive shops that offer tours to the different dive sites, the outer islands, and of course to the Great Blue Hole. Certified scuba lessons in NAUI, PADI, and SSI are widely available. One of the most popular dive sites is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a ten-minute boat ride from town. The reef’s beauty and richness has made Belize a world-class SCUBA and snorkeling destination.
The experienced Caribbean traveler will recognize San Pedro Town immediately: In some ways, it’s the Caribbean of 30 years ago, before the boom in international travel, a throwback to the days before cruise ships turned too many Caribbean islands into concrete mini-malls hustling duty-free booze and discount jewelry. There are just three north-south streets. Wood houses and shops, painted in bright tropical colors fading quickly in the sun, stand close together. Newer buildings are reinforced concrete, optimistically girded for the next big hurricane. Many people still get around by foot and bicycle, though the packed sand and concrete cobblestone streets are busy with golf carts – keep a close eye, as the electric ones sneak up behind you silently – and, unfortunately, an ever increasing number of pickups and cars. In fact, there are so many taxis and private cars that there are occasional traffic jams downtown.
English and Scottish Pirates
Ambergris Caye was a favorite hiding place of English pirates during the 17th century as they began to raid Spanish ships for treasure. In the mid-18th century, refugees fleeing civil war in the Yucatan Peninsula migrated to Ambergris Caye. The primary economic activities were fishing and coconut production. In the early 20th century, the fishermen of Ambergris established cooperatives and San Pedro became a prosperous fishing community.
Ambergris Caye was formed by an accumulation of coral fragments. That, along with the silt deposited nearby from the Rio Hondo created a delightful piece of terra firma where people have been making a living from pre-Columbian times as fishermen. The caye is made up of mangrove swamps, 12 lagoons, a limestone plateau and sandy ridges. The largest lagoon fed by 16 creeks is a 2.5 mile long Laguna de San Pedro on the western side of the island. San Pedro proper sits on a sand ridge at the south end of the island. The Caribbean Sea surrounding the island offers rich fishing grounds and has supported inhabitants for the past 500 years.
Tourists began visiting Ambergris in small numbers in the early 1960’s and began growing rapidly in the 1980’s. A recent editor from U.S. Boat Magazine describes Ambergris Caye thus: “A week gives you enough time to get in some wonderful sailing, but if you can stretch it to ten days to three weeks, you’ll have a chance to see the interior of of the country as well. You should begin your trip by flying into Belize City and then hopping on a small plane to Ambergris Cay, to pick up your boat. The flight to Ambergris Cay alone is reason enough to visit Belize, as you gaze far below at the many-colored reef and three of only four coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere – Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse and Glovers Reef.”
Ambergris Caye – The Town
San Pedro Town, located in the south of Ambergris Caye, is about a mile long and only a few blocks wide. Some streets are still made of sand which is great for walking around barefoot and bad for motor vehicles. The main street Pescador Drive is concrete faux-cobblestone. Once a fishing village, San Pedro and the entire island are now mostly focused on tourism and real estate development. The island has more than 70 hotels and dozens of restaurants. Most of the hotels are owned by Americans, Canadians and Europeans; a study showed that only about 15% are owned by Belizeans. Expats still of working age who aren’t involved in the hospitality industry often gravitate to selling real estate
There are now too many cars; and the vehicles of choice (besides feet and bikes) golf carts, which are available for rent create rush hour traffic jams. San Pedro is a laid-back town, and most of the activity happens near the waterfront. San Pedro Town is clustered with wooden houses, some with English Colonial or Spanish architecture, others Caribbean style. Gift shops, boutiques, bars, cafes, and restaurants abound on Barrier Reef Drive and Pescador Drive – the two main avenues in the town. A short walk in town and you’ll experience the warmth of the San Pedranos and witness the ease of their island lifestyle as they go through daily life. Barefoot, tee-shirts, and shorts are standard island dress code.
Most restaurants serve fresh seafood (lobster and conch and the Belizean national dish (spicy stewed chicken, served with a delicious rice and bean combination cooked in coconut milk.) Mexican, Italian, and Chinese food are also available, as well as pizza. The best bargains in town are the freshly made tacos, burritos and rice and beans sold by street vendors in the evenings, and the Lions Club steak and chicken barbecue held every Friday and Saturday night.
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye town has many bars and full-fledged nightclubs for dancing off your feet. Musicians from the mainland are brought to San Pedro for Saturday night beach parties, where everyone is invited; no-host bars are set up on the beach for these events. Several important fiestas are held in San Pedro each year; the biggest one is the Costa Maya Festival, a six-day event that showcases a different Central American country every night. Ambergris Caye has a great social scene – as of 2018, some residents say too much.
Getting To Ambergris Caye
You can get to Ambergris Caye via water or air. Puddle jumpers (small aircraft) depart the Belize International Airport and the Belize City Municipal Airstrip every hour to Ambergris Caye. The trip is about 20 to 30 minutes depending on equipment. There is also air service from Corozal Town, The City of Belmopan and Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye’s poor cousin. The flight costs U.S. $135. return depending on what deal your travel agent can arrange. Water taxis are easily available from downtown Belize city. Typical round trip cost is U.S. $27.50 from Belize city, and U.S. $45. from Corozal Town.
Things To Do On Ambergris Caye
If water is your goal, then Ambergris is the place. Jump in. The reef opens a hatch to a fascinating world below. Stand on any eastern pier at dawn and listen to the surf break over the reef. Look closely for staghorn and elkhorn corals piercing the surface. Three quarters of Belize visitors snorkel the reef and another quarter fish — two activities that kids can enjoy too.
Popular Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a five-square-mile underwater park, just four miles and 15 minutes south of San Pedro, where the snorkeling and diving are fabulous. With gentle rays gliding under the boat, jump into this giant natural aquarium full of vibrant parrot fish, royal fairy basslets, groupers, snappers, barracudas, even moray eels. In shallows of just 10-35 feet, visitors admire delicate sea fans, iridescent sponges, and thick brain, staghorn, and star corals, all glowing with color. Attentive guides point out the varied marine life and offer helpful hints on how to defog a mask and find the best views. Pay attention to guides when they warn never to touch, bump, or stand on corals. One careless contact can damage their delicate ecosystem, even injure the swimmer. Stay far enough away to avoid accidents.
Usually combined with Hol Chan, Shark Ray Alley thrills even the most experienced snorkelers. Swim with nurse sharks and rays in water just 6-8 feet. Feel the smooth skin of their powerful bodies — an experience not soon forgotten. Horse-eyed jacks, blue tangs, gray snappers, and trigger fishes gather here as well. Mexico Rocks, a beautiful area 15 minutes north of San Pedro, features excellent visibility and shallow water. Inhabitants include horse-eye jacks, Nassau groupers, lobsters, barracudas, sand sharks, and spider crabs. Watch tiny tropical fish with blue neon spots dart between the branches of coral colonies.
At Tres Cocos, on the same tour, rich orange elkhorn corals vibrate with coral polyps building their colonies. Swallow Caye provides habitat for the West Indian manatee. Some tours combine manatee watching with snorkeling at Goff’s Caye and Coral Gardens. A half-day of snorkeling averages US$40 with equipment. Morning is best for viewing marine life. A dozen boats, run by professional tour operators, lead giddy divers through wondrous mountains of coral. Walls, grottos, and canyons teem with alien life. From Ambergris Caye, reach stunning underwater landscapes in as little as seven minutes. Dive one great site in the morning; return for lunch; then take off again in the afternoon or evening.
Excursions to the outer cayes include the celebrated Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef Atoll, and Turneffe Islands Atoll. Check out the Aquarium dive site on Long Caye. Hol Chan makes a great spot for dive instruction because of the shallow water. Many resorts offer their own operators and packages. Rent a kayak, parasail, sailboat, sail-board, or jet ski. Enthusiasts who prefer to stay dry can witness the undersea panorama on a glass-bottom boat ride. Or take a sailing excursion to nearby Caye Caulker. Tour boats leave in the morning, stop for snorkeling along the way, and return in the afternoon. Water taxis also allow easy day trips. By chartering a boat, adventurers can explore coasts and outer cayes on their own schedules. Optional captains, crews, and provisions can be arranged.
Ambergris Caye has a very active social and party scene. Weekends of course are for partying but residents organize various activities to keep the social scene busy. Charity and fundraising events for worthy causes are common during the week. Annual events include the Costa Maya Festival, Carnival – nothing much compared to the Belize City or Orange Walk Carnivals but still fun, and the requisite annual Lobster Fest that most all tourist spots now run.
Article Updated January 2022