In Mayan times, Ambergris Caye was a trading post supporting 10.000 people. At 40 km (25 mi) long, and up to 1.5 km (1 mi) wide it’s the largest of 200 cayes studding the coastline of Belize, and lies off the southernmost tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
In fact, the Maytag’ created the island by digging a channel to provide a trade route from the bay of Chetumal to the Caribbean – and it is now the border between Belize and Mexico. Then and now, there is only one major settlement, San Pedro, built over Mayan ruins and home to most of the population of Mestizos (Maya-Spanish), Creoles, Central American refugees and Americans, all of whom have merged into a one-off community with its own extraordinary ‘Sanpedrano’ dialect – much of which is recognizable to visitors from various languages, but usually means something quite different. It’s that kind of place: quirky, fun, easy-going and very welcoming.
Visitors flock to Ambergris Caye (pronounced ‘Am-BER-grease’ because the 310 km (190 mi) Belize Barrier Reef, second only tell Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, runs parallel to the island only 370 m (0.25 mi) from the beach. It’s one of the world’s greatest dive sites, with every feature of caves, walls, columns, cathedrals and bridges, that fantasy can dream up. Even better, the reefs proximity to shore means that swimmers and snorkellers can enjoy its delights almost as much as certified scuba-divers.
The island itself is a wildlife bonanza of white, red and black mangrove and buttonwood trees; littoral forest plants like gumbo limbo, sapodilla, fig, coco plum and palmetto; egrets, orioles, kiskadees, cinnamon hummingbirds, blue herons and rose-throated becards among some 300 species; and forests full of deer, peccaries, raccoons and occasional jaguar. And the night life in San Pedro is excellent, too – especially the ‘punta’, a hip-swivelling local dance.
Population: 8,000 (2007)
When to go: November to June
How to get there: By air, via Belize city, to San Pedro; by boat (fast ferry) from Belize City to San Pedro.
Highlights: The toucans, crocodiles and howler monkeys, among many marvels at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary in the jungle.
Cave tubing, one of several adventures on jungle river expeditions on the mainland.
The major Mayan sites of Tikal, Lamanai, and Altun Ha among others near San Pedro.
Birds like the scarlet tanager, laughing falcon, white-collared seed-eater, flaming parakeet chachalaca and green-breasted mango hummingbird.
The birds are astonishing. Swimming/snorkelling among the unique aquatic life of the Zaak Ba Ajo Lagoon – with its own, small ‘blue hole’, at San Juan, north of San Pedro.
You should know:
With its abundance of first-class seafood, huge variety of seasonal tropical fruits, and combination of influences from many different cultures, the food in Ambergris Caye is justifiably famous – and it’s all local.