The Jewel of Belize

Without actually visiting the country and Island of Ambergris Caye, it might be difficult to imagine the amazing qualities of our time here on the Island. So maybe by providing a little bit of history about Belize (thanks to the Tropic Air brochure), you can dream and imagine alongside me in our adventures. Belize covers 8867 square miles (about the size of the state of Massachusetts) with a population of about 350,000. Bordered by Mexico to the North, Guatemala to the West and South, and the Caribbean Sea to the East, the topography ranges from sea level mangrove forests to mountains and jungle forests. Three atolls and the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere are dotted with hundreds of islands (otherwise known as cayes).

For entry into Belize, a valid passport is mandatory for all. As a Canadian citizen, we didn’t need to have a visa. However, a 30 day entrance stamp is the standard for all foreigners. Upon leaving Belize, I believe we need to pay a $37US per person departure tax.

The Belize dollar is ‘fixed’ at BZ$2 to US$1, and US$ are widely accepted (often given in return as change from the local vendours — in small denominations only). We discovered pretty quickly that our credit card charged a 1% transaction fee per usage (probably because we are outside of North America). Because the exchange rate for cash on hand is 2-4% better than the bank (not including the usage fee), it seems that cash truly will be king whilst we’re here on the island. Good to know for anyone considering to come to the Island. Bring lots of paper money :).

English is the official language. However, Spanish is widely spoken, as is the the Creole dialect. Creole is an interesting language, in that at times, I catch glimpses of words and/or phrases that almost seem closely linked to English slang expressions.

The majority of our time in Belize will be spent on Ambergris Caye of which San Pedro is the main town on the peninsula. Originally a fishing village, it was named after Saint Peter, the patron saint of fisherman. Ambergris Caye is the most northerly and largest of the 200 cayes off the coast of Belize and is situated 10 miles from the mainland. It hosts world class diving and snorkelling with a plethora of fixed dive sites on the barrier reef. There truly is so much to do on the island …. windsurfing, kayaking, birding, sailing (Hobie Cat rentals cost around $80US for a 2 hour hire) and kiteboarding ($80US for approximately a 3 hour lesson) are just a few of the available outdoor pursuits. slaDE will get certified as an Open Water scuba diver through PADI whilst here and I will go through a refresher course and dive to bring me back up to par (Hugh Parkey is our dive school of choice — $350US for his certification and $125US for my review + dive — all inclusive of equipment). What’s enticing about the diving here is that Ambergris Caye is closest to the World Heritage Site and 2nd largest Barrier Reef in the World (with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being the largest). This amazingcoral reef system lies a mere ½ mile / 20 minute boat ride east of the shoreline and runs the complete 25 mile length of the island (Ambergris Caye is only 4 miles wide at its widest point). As you can imagine, this super easy access to the reef distinguishes San Pedro as the diving and water sports playground for Belize and Central America. These are the most popular sites within a short boat ride: the Great Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe Islands, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, Mexico Rocks plus many other spectacular local diving and snorkelling excursions.

San Pedro town has a unique feel and charm to it, spotted with both international cuisine restaurants alongside local traditional cafes serving Belizean food and flair. The cobblestone streets are vibrant with golf cart and bicycle traffic, mingled with bustling local artists, craftsmen and vendors displaying their wares. Front, Middle and Back Street are the three main streets of town, making for easy navigation within San Pedro’s grid-system. In early 2006, a new bridge opened over the river. Until then, pedestrians crossed the channel on a hand-pulled ferry.

This new bridge provided a permanent overpass, connecting northern Ambergris with the rest of the island. With this new expansion came much more tourist development (private residences, resorts and a few restaurants + bars).

Of note: the bridge is only for golf carts, bikes and pedestrians. Golf carts are  charged BZ$5 each way, bicycles BZ$1 and pedestrians no charge.

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