Lifestyle

Belize: Paradise for divers and snorkelers

By Jerry Vaughn, Travel Talk

For those looking for incredible scuba diving, snorkeling, white sandy beaches and warm sun, Belize is a great destination.

Belize rests on the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala. It is an exotic, English-speaking adventurer’s paradise, just a few hours away from three major United States cities. Almost half the country has been preserved as nature parks and reserves, including tropical forests teeming with wildlife and hiding mysterious Mayan ruins, and 174 miles of coastline featuring the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.

The reef and the country’s numerous offshore cayes (pronounced “keys”), or atolls, have made this one of the world’s most desirable destinations for scuba divers and marine researchers. You can explore places like the famous “Blue Hole,” a collapsed submerged cave of enormous size.

Archaeologically, Belize is fascinating too, having been the site of mighty Mayan cities from around 1000 B.C. until the inexplicable disintegration of that great civilization around 900 A.D. There are believed to be thousands of Mayan ruins in Belize, of which about 600 have been discovered and excavated, many now open to tourists.

Like most Caribbean countries, Belize was occupied by British and Spanish colonialists over the centuries before gaining independence (only lately recognized by neighboring Guatemala, which laid claim to the territory) in 1981. Today, it is a happy-go-lucky multi-ethnic nation of warm friendly people that are very welcoming to the tourists on whom the country’s economy relies heavily.

The main urban city (although not the capital) is Belize City, which offers attractions like a world-class zoo, a new museum, historic buildings and the Maya site of Altun Ha. Basically though, Belize is a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travelers. There are not many nightclubs, expensive shopping venues or fancy restaurants, but there is plenty of opportunity for diving, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, bird watching, kayaking and exploring.

Belize offers some of the best and most varied diving in the world and has the added benefits of excellent weather conditions and clear, warm water. At 185 miles long, Belize’s barrier reef is the second longest in the world, and the largest in the western hemisphere. Most dive trips are organized at one of the cayes or offshore atolls that are located between the mainland and the barrier reef.

The Blue Hole is Belize’s best-known dive site, and at 1,000 feet across and 460 feet deep, it is an awesome spectacle. There are a number of professional dive shops on the main cayes, which service divers with air and well-maintained diving and snorkeling equipment. The instructors working out of these shops provide full PADI and NAUI certification, and referrals for divers wanting to complete their open water certification. In the unlikely event of a diving accident, Ambergris Caye has a hyperbaric chamber.

Ambergris Caye is the most popular destination for tourists who come to Belize for the superb diving and snorkeling. It is close to many of the best dive sites including the Lighthouse Reef and Turneffe Islands. Other popular cayes are Caye Caulker and St George’s Caye. Snorkelers and divers are almost guaranteed to see stingrays, schooling jack and the more common reef tropical species such as groupers, angelfish, parrot fish and barracuda. Spot turtles and sharks may well be sighted too.

Belize’s climate is temperate and marked by two distinct seasons, the rainy and dry. There is a notable transition from the one to the next. Rainfall during the rainy season occurs between June and November with rainfall averages ranging between 60 inches in the north to 160 inches in the south. Except for the southern regions, the rainfall is variable from year to year. Average temperatures range from 81 degrees along the coast to 69 degrees in the hills. The coldest month is January and the warmest temperatures are experienced in May.

There is a wide choice of lodging in Belize from luxury hotels to simple island cabins and everything in between. Whether you are looking for a romantic beach hideaway for your honeymoon or a comfortable rainforest lodge for some exciting eco-adventures, there are many to choose from. Depending on your interests, and if you can spare the time, the ideal trip to Belize should combine both the rainforest and the reef.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way and can be reached at jvaughn@worldvoyagervacations.com.

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