Ambergris Caye

ambergris caye beach

Tourists strolling on the beach at Ambergris Caye.

Ambergris Caye is the largest of the 200-plus cayes (islands) located off the Belize coast. Only half a mile from the Barrier Reef, Ambergris Caye is the premier local 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.

Accommodations and restaurants are available for all budget levels. Ambergris Caye receives cooling trade winds most of the year, which keeps the temperature down.  Ambergris Caye 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 fabulous Barrier Reef that runs parallel along the entire coast. The reef is a mere quarter mile from the beach at Ambergris Caye 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.

Ambergris Caye Archaeology

Since 1989, archeologists have been studying Marco Gonzalez, a Maya ruin site located near the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. The site is located in what is now a mangrove swamp. But the archeologists have determined that when the town was founded around 200 BC, the sea level was much lower and the environment quite different than it is today. It is believed that Marco Gonzalez was once a prosperous town and important Mayan trading center. Building and pottery remains indicate that the town reached its peak from 1150-1300 AD and began to decline thereafter, although a few Mayan families remained when the Spanish arrived in the mid-fifteenth century.

English and Scottish Pirates

What most everyone comes to Ambergris Caye for, the Belize Barrier Reef.

Ambergris Caye was a favorite hiding place of English pirates during the 17th century. 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.

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.

“Provisioning your boat is easy in San Pedro on Ambergris Cay, where you’ll find grocery stores that carry many of the same foods you can get in the United States, plus real delicacies like papaya, mangoes and – believe it or not – canned bacon. Everyone drinks Belikin beer, and it’s good to bring some extra on board to trade for fish, in the off chance you don’t catch any yourself.

“While you’re in San Pedro, you might want to buy some souvenirs. Unlike the eastern Caribbean, there’s little glitz and glitter here and no duty-free shopping. Instead, you’ll find some great wood carvings, hand-woven baskets, wonderful paintings and homemade hot sauces that will leave you gasping. (Try one that uses papaya.) Hardly anyone leaves Belize without a Belikin T-shirt.”

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.

Ambergris Caye water front and piers.

There are few cars; instead, the vehicles of choice (besides feet and bikes) are golf carts, which are available for rent. 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.

There are many restaurants specializing in fresh seafood (lobster and conch are plentiful and inexpensive when in season) 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 lots of bars and three full-fledged discos 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 – some say too much. A way to find out what’s happening is to consult the Ambergris Caye Forums where expatriates congregate.

Population Areas Around San Pedro

North of San Pedro, San Juan, is located directly north of the center of San Pedro Town. San Juan is base for the majority of the work force on San Pedro and has its own unique mixture of people from all over Belize, Central America, North America and even Europe. The Zaak Ba Ajo Lagoon is a little known spot to snorkel, sporting unique aquatic life and the lagoon’s own little blue hole. Boca Del Rio is north of the island located directly after San Juan and just before the river. A bridge wide enough to accommodate pedestrians, bicycles, golf carts and medium size motor vehicles links Boca Del Rio Area to other areas in the far north of the island. Visitors to Boca Del Rio can enjoy swimming where this mild salt water river meets the sea as well spending time at the Boca Del Rio Park.

South of San Pedro, San Pablo is a hamlet located just over a mile and a half southwest of the center of San Pedro Town and facing the lagoon. Visitors take bicycle or golf cart rides up the Avenida Del Sol that runs the lagoon’s edge in San Pablo to watch to awesome sunsets over the glassy surface of the lagoon. Swimming and snorkeling can be enjoyed along San Pablo. Mar De Tumbo is the only area on Ambergris Caye where the waves actually crash unto the shore through a small cut in the reef instead of first breaking on the reef. This is a popular swimming area located just over a mile south of San Pedro.

Other settlements include the Escalente Sub-division in the south, San Miguel near San Pablo, Sunset Coves in the south, San Telmo in the south near Mar De Tumbo, San Pedrito located along the San Pedro Lagoon, Tres Cocos in the north, Las Palmas, and the Basil Jones area.

Shops on Ambergris Caye

Ambergris Caye History And Geology

Ambergris Caye, pronounced “am-BER-gris”, is the largest island of the British Commonwealth of Belize. The island is located northeast of the country in the Caribbean Sea. Though administered as part of the Belize District, it is actually part of the northern Corozal District. Ambergris Caye (pronounced as “key”, meaning an island, derived from the Spanish language “cayo”). It is 25 miles long from north to south, and more than one mile wide. It is named after large lumps of whale ambergris which wash ashore. This spectacular Belize island is mostly a ring of white sand beach around highland in the center and north. A Maya community lived on the island in Pre-Columbian times, and made distinctive polished red ceramics, most notably small well molded figurines of animals.

San Pedro Town is the largest settlement and the only town on Ambergris Caye. There are also a number of small villages and resorts. More recently, the availability of skydiving during the winter has become a popular attraction for tourists. Tourism development of Ambergris Caye began in the early 1970s and grew considerably in the later years. The main attractions are the reef and its beaches. The reef is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Many visitors come to the country to SCUBA dive or snorkel. Ambergris Caye can be reached by air from Belize City as well as by numerous go-fast sea ferries. San Pedro Day is celebrated annually on June 27th.

Today Ambergris Caye is a bustling little town with an approximate population of 10,000 consisting mainly of Latinos and a healthy expatriate community mainly from North America. A few of Its once quaint and romantic sandy streets have been replaced with concrete cobblestones and on busy days you can actually experience mini traffic jams downtown. The island is chock full of touristy facilities such as dive shops, bars, discos, boutiques, hotels, condos and guest houses, supermarkets, two newspapers, a radio station, primary and secondary schools, a small clinic and pharmacy, and a Hyperbaric Chamber facility for diver safety, as well as a new international airport recently named the Sir Barry Bowen airport after one of the island’s greatest benefactors.

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.

Kids on the beach at Ambergris Caye

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. Stand only on sand. To help protect the park, the authorities charge an entry fee of US$10.

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. More than 35 spectacular sites offer proximity, including Cypress Tunnels at Hol Chan, Tacklebox, Tres Cocos, and Victoria Tunnels. Mooring buoys prevent anchor damage to the reef.

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.

Poolside fashion show at Ambergris Caye to raise funds for charity. Image Credit San Pedro Sun.

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. The island’s main newspaper the San Pedro Sun newspaper publishes a weekly schedule from which to choose. 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 Lobster Fest that most all tourist spots now run.