Dive guide | Belize and Honduras
Discover the diving and other highlights of Belize and Honduras including chocolate, sex and dancing…
Before I even arrived in Belize I was in love with the place. Why? On sale at the airport was Goss chocolate (‘Taste the Tropics! 100% natural organically grown on the shores of the Caribbean Sea’). Oh yeah! I’m not just here for the diving, you know.
Wiping the delicious brown evidence from my upper lip, I phoned Mark from Splash, a well-run dive centre at my first Belizean destination, Placencia. Nitrox? Check. Wetsuit? ‘Oh, I dive in nothing,’ he solemnly informed me. ‘That sounds very exciting!’ I marveled. ‘No! No, I mean…!’ The man would have to get used to my sense of humour.
Placencia lies at the bottom of a long, narrow peninsular in southern Belize. I would have been happy to camp on the beach, but my digs turned out to be opulent – the upmarket Chabil Mar Villas is a beachside property set in lush, tropical gardens. And my fridge was stocked with local chocolate, so breakfast was taken care of. At 8.30am I reported to Splash where I met the warm and accommodating owner Patty Ramirez, and an associate called Marco whom she described as ‘a troublemaker’. Hah! I was going to get on with these people.
This was confirmed when boat captain Lennox told me he enjoyed a local dance called the punta. ‘What does that involve?’ I asked another crew member. ‘Oh, rubbing on each other in time to the music,’ he replied without a hint of embarrassment. ‘You try to cum the girl and she tries to cum you.’ This was a fascinating piece of education for a psychologist/ sex therapist – the word ‘cum’ actually being used as a transitive verb! I must confess I looked forward to being introduced to this dance. So let’s see: chocolate, sex and dancing already, and I haven’t even gotten wet yet (insert joke here). Belize could be my all-time favorite dive destination.
Belize lies in the Caribbean Sea, bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. Well-known for whale shark sightings, Belize boasts the longest coral reef in the northern hemisphere (185 miles), which draws more than 200,000 divers every year. The reef is home to more than 70 types of hard coral and around 500 species of fish. On my first morning, we headed out to Silk Caye North Wall. The light rain, typical for this time of year, was abating. ‘Any current?’ I asked. ‘Unlikely!’ was Mark’s reassuring reply. Not that I’ve got anything against currents; I was just a little chocolate-logged.
We descended 20m into warm, calm water with fantastic visibility, startling an eagle ray that had been enjoying a solo cruise just off the ledge. Nice start. A tangled school of yellow and white snapper soon crowded out the viz, with an enormous black grouper posing behind them. Writing furiously on his slate, Mark proved a fantastic source of marine creature identifying – not only their names but their gastronomic features. ‘Orange file fish,’ he wrote at one point. ‘V. good eating! Roasted!’ The word ‘roasted’ was thickly underlined. By the time we’d spotted an enormous coral crab and a couple of spiny lobsters – the largest I’ve ever seen – all I could think of was white wine, ginger and shallots.
The reef seemed wonderfully healthy – pristine fans and barrel coral aplenty. Wait – what was that? Behind a massive outcrop of boulder star coral we spied a long, finned tail – a nurse shark having a snooze? No, it was a gargantuan Nassau grouper. Then again, maybe it was a Goliath grouper? I was unsure, but my God, they get to some size out there! I also encountered chartreuse morays, spotted morays, and scores of lionfish – again very sizeable specimens. But hogfish, damselfish, squirrelfish, queen triggerfish, spotfin butterflyfish – all of them were dwarfed by the slow-moving marbled, black, tiger, Nassau and Warsaw grouper that commanded a great deal of the marine space.
I do enjoy hanging out with grouper. They’re smug, pouty bastards, but I love them – they’re fish with attitude! And how lovely to be able to see so much undersea life while diving in such a leisurely manner, with no currents to contend with, perfect water temperature (83˚F/ 28˚C), a healthy reef, few other divers around and fantastic viz. It was as perfect and easy a dive as you can ever get, followed by lunch with my favourite dining companions ever – two amiable loggerhead turtles turned up, looking to share our delicious Belizean chicken and rice.
Our afternoon dive at Silk Caye Canyon was just as pretty and calm, ending in a marine Last Supper reenactment as a turtle voraciously devoured a sponge, with French angelfish, queen triggerfish and others crowding around for scraps. ‘Don’t mess with me,’ the turtle’s over-the-shoulder look seemed to say, ‘I’m eating.’
Not only was that my idea of a perfect dive day, but at dinner that night my interest in local culture was rewarded by the arrival of Garifuna percussion musicians who followed virtuoso trance-inducing sonic drumming by dancing with incredible passion and zest. And by the way, I did learn to dance the punta – and the shake-shake as well. Details unavailable. Whatever happens in Placencia… probably stays on Facebook!
Next day, diving at Trick Ridge seemed rather pointedly appropriate. I was treated to lovely fans, spotted drum fish, horse-eye jacks and banded coral shrimp. The second dive at Rosella’s Garden was just as enchanting.
The next stop was Ambergris Caye, an island in northern Belize close to Mexico.
Checking into Ramon’s Village Resort – one of the most conveniently-designed dive hotels I’ve ever stayed in – I was startled by the graphic carving hanging above the reception desk. It depicted a Mayan warrior performing a sacrificial rite, about to plunge a dagger into a prone naked female. ‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘Is that likely to happen to me here?’ The desk clerk grinned. ‘Only if you fail to pay your bill.’
Duly warned, I headed to the jetty – conveniently positioned opposite the bar, with dive shop on site – and pleaded to be taken on the famous Esmeralda dive. Mark from Placencia had recommended it, saying it had the wow factor, and I wanted to see why.
It didn’t take long. As we descended to 20m, four or five friendly nurse sharks were waiting for us. They swam very close, almost inviting us to stroke them (dive master Adolpho claimed they sometimes allowed it). These sharks followed us everywhere like a gang of puppies. Eventually there were six or seven, at least two of them around 4m long. Remoras joined in, and a green moray did a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ sight gag for us. It seemed the circus was in town. ‘How much did you pay those nurse sharks?’ I asked Adolpho when we surfaced. ‘A lotta fish,’ he joked.
But to be honest, the tame clowns were unnecessary because, throughout this region, the marine-scape itself is utterly stunning. I cruised blissfully through absolutely gorgeous narrow gullies encrusted with healthy gold-coloured coral. In fact everything seemed to be golden – large gold-hued barrel pots, gold sponges, entire fields of golden fan coral, waving in time together like the feathers of a million showgirls.
I couldn’t think of many dive locations that could rival this for sheer beauty. Our second dive, The Border, was almost as gorgeous, with large barrel sponges and purple sea fans – plus green morays, Atlantic spadefish, and quite a few lobsters. Next day, the dive at Tackle Box started with a descent to a deep sandy-bottom canyon at 30m. The viz was incredible, allowing a view of coral-encrusted hillocks on either side. Playful nurse sharks showed up immediately, which almost seems to be the norm for dives in this region. A few minutes later they lost interest in us, vying with each other for a piece of dying lionfish. (Divers are allowed to spear this invasive species in Belize – in fact it’s encouraged, because they voraciously devour juvenile fish that are deemed vital for the reef’s future ecosystem.) Our second dive, in the same general area, featured a couple of well-used swim-throughs, more nurse sharks, and a flock of spotted eagle rays flying in formation beneath the drop-off at more than 40m. Spectacular.
But it was my last dive of the day – a shallow descent into the diverse, horseshoe-shaped Hol Chan channel in Belize’s oldest marine reserve – that really tickled my fancy. My guide was Mr T, an impish Mayan veteran with a sense of humour I really appreciated. In his 34 years of diving he’d seen it all, and knew Hol Chan like the back of his hand.
First he guided me to a calm, sandy bottom where we hovered to watch lurking southern stingrays and green turtles negotiating space with crowds of snorkellers splashing about just above them. Then we edged our way into the channel itself. Carefully avoiding the current in its centre, we hung out with the other smart beings, sheltered by the rocks and coral on either side. These shelters were utterly crowded with schools of jacks, yellowtail snapper and large grouper of many varieties – they looked at us as though to say ‘You’re the newcomers – back off!’
It was a wonderful place to observe a great variety of fish staying relatively still in one place. Even the sullen grouper – Nassau, black and marbled – were enjoying this kind of fishy day spa, peacefully basking in the filtered sunlight and massaged by a gentle current. At one point I almost lost my reg because I was laughing. Sheltering beneath an overhang, I couldn’t help noticing that one of our neighbours – an enormous, noble-featured cubera grouper – bore a striking resemblance to my dive guide. The two wise old men stared each other down until the grouper nastily showed his teeth – unusually large and threatening – causing Mr T to back away with an amused grin. I got the sense those two went way back.
The rest of the channel was no less exciting, with a cornucopia of spotted eagle rays, turtles, filefish and green morays. Then, just before sunset, I found myself at a site called Shark Ray Alley. In this famous location, people are no longer allowed to enter the water in order to feed the sharks, but they throw sardines from their boats to the scores of small brown nurse sharks. The sharks fight over each scrap, along with remoras and a plethora of smaller fish that apparently have become conditioned to be so excitable they have a tendency to bite your ear if you get in the water.
Ambergris is a wonderfully entertaining dive destination. For little exertion you can see many wild marine creatures amid healthy reefs, and have fun ashore as well. On previous trips to Belize I have stayed on the outer reefs, well positioned for day trips to Turneffe Atoll, Lighthouse Reef Atoll and the famous Blue Hole to the north, as well as Gladden Spit to the south during whale shark season. But Belize boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world, and its many marine reserves scattered throughout the region – not to mention the Blue Hole National Monument (one of Jacques Cousteau’s top three dives – ensure that wherever visitors decide to be based they’ll find fabulous diving.
Pamela’s top dive sites
Placencia: Silk Cayes and Trick Ridge
Ambergris Caye: Hol Chan and Esmeralda
Turneffe Islands: The Elbow and Front Porch
Lighthouse Reef: Blue Hole and The Aquarium
Glover’s Reef: Long Caye Wall and South West Wall
Gladden Spit: Whale Sharks! Around the time of the full moon from April to June, you can watch them congregate to feast on snapper spawn. Blue water sites are carefully monitored with a limit on the number of boats that can enter the prime area, and you may have quite a wait. Choose an experienced operator and take plenty of sunscreen. No guarantees, but I’ve seen them on four out of five amazing, close encounter, blue water dives.
At 90 feet at Laughing Bird Caye South, not far from Placencia, lies the remains of the unfortunate tugboat Miss Pamela. Hmm. Least said about that the better.
Where to Stay
Placencia: Chabil Mar Villas www.chabilmarvillas.com. Splash Dive Centre (www.splashbelize.com) is just across the road.
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye: Ramon’s Village Resort www.ramons.com. Dive centre is onsite (PADI 5 Star/Instructor Development Resort)
Glover’s Reef: Isla Marisol www.islamarisolresort.com. Excellent diving, fishing and kayaking onsite. Also offer whale shark excursions.
Dugong/West Indian Manatee spotting
Belize’s mangrove forests that line much of its coastline allow for hideouts for these gentle creatures. Spot them at Swallow Caye Marine reserve near Belize City. Tours are led by a guy named Chocolate. I love this place!
Hundreds of species inhabit or can be seen off the Cayes. On Glover’s Reef, for example, you can see ospreys and rare seabirds.
Bonefish are caught on a catch-and-release basis throughout the Cayes. Turneffe Island Flats and Caye Caulker, among other places, boast fishing lodges.
There are spectacular caves to visit on the Belize mainland, such as Rio Frio and Barton Creek.
You can enjoy Garifuna dance and music, or see the fascinating ancient Mayan cities of Lamanai and Caracol. The annual Belize City Carnival takes place in September, and a Lobster-Fest takes place every June in Placencia, Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker.
Head to the vast forest reserve of Mountain Pine Ridge.
After overnighting in the Honduran capital of San Pedro Sula, a place where no driver stops at a red light after 11pm, things were finally looking up as I boarded a Tropic Air puddle-jumper headed for the far more beautiful, friendlier, and laid-back Bay Islands. Specifically, my destination was Roatán – a narrow, 28 mile-long tropical island to the north of mainland Honduras, just two hours south of Miami by plane.
Even the bus drive to Anthony’s Key Resort – a comfortable and well-designed divers’ haven on the western end of the island – was enhanced by the presence of a bunch of Brazilians who never missed a single opportunity to party. I mean, you have to be a dedicated party animal to have a disco lights app on your phone, don’t you? These would be my travelling companions for the next few days and I had a feeling it was going to be a blast. I was right.
Roatán has a colourful history as a pirates’ lair. Between the mid-16th and mid-18th centuries it was home to the likes of Blackbeard, Captain Morgan and John Coxen who used the island as a supply base for their raids on the Spanish mainland. Arrr!. This history is hard to forget as you travel around an island full of bars, hotels and even car rental outfits named after infamous buccaneers.
My room at Anthony’s Key Resort was simple and delightful – a private, wooden bungalow right on the water’s edge. Across the bay there was a group of buildings on a wide jetty that housed a dive shop, photo facility, stores and an impressive fleet of dive boats. The dive facilities were generally extremely well organized – they’d want to be considering the many hundreds of divers they serviced every year. But this is a top notch dive facility. I had no qualms about requesting Nitrox – my mixed gas tanks were produced and labelled with efficiency.
My first dive, at Four Sponges in the Sandy Bay area, turned out to be – as expected – a veritable field of gorgeous sponges of numerous varieties, including a number of impressive giant barrel sponges. Naturally, there were turtles cruising the area and I spied some ridiculously huge crabs. It was a pretty dive, but not as drop-dead stunning as next day’s Mary’s Place – a famous site that features truly amazing coral gardens and a unique, swim-through-cum-chimney that ascends from 30m to 20m.
The reefs here are also plagued by the invasive lionfish and, at Herbie’s Fantasy, our guide speared three small ones and fed them to a friendly grouper for our viewing pleasure. This dive was spectacular. We stopped at a range of levels – first a sandy patch at 10m, where wary razorfish and peacock flounders played hide-and-seek with us, then a 15m plateau with cowfish, filefish and other curious, middle-sized fish, before we descended down a wall leading to the sandy bottom sloping beyond 40m. I reckon the southern stingrays were well aware of our recreational dive depth limits – they stayed just out of our range.
Not far from Anthony’s Key Resort is a shark encounter business, Waihuka Adventure Diving, run by an Italian entrepreneur called Sergio Tritto. All right, I hear you: it’s controversial! But let’s not forget that America’s very first permanent shark sanctuary was launched in Roatán (the third worldwide) – an area of 240,000 square kilometres along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The people here are serious about protecting sharks. And I have to say I really enjoyed this dive. In the first place, I have a huge passion for sharks - I’m a true big-critter gal. Unlike similar shark dives I’ve experienced in other parts of the world, this was not just about sitting still and watching someone unload fish guts to create a three-minute feeding frenzy – that didn’t happen until the very end. No, on this dive the reef sharks actually allowed us to swim with them. In fact, they interacted with us as much as such wild creatures ever would with unfamiliar human beings. To be honest, at one point there were so many of them around me I was wishing I spoke shark, to say ‘Get the hell out of my space! I’m trying to swim here!’ Loaded with endorphins, we ascended happily and bragged about our experiences to complete strangers over a Mai Tai or two at Anthony’s Key Resort’s superbly rustic hillside bar.
There is considerable diversity in Roatán. Take the Chimneys dive site for example, which is an extraordinary system of vertical swim-throughs rising from 30m that test the skills of even experienced divers. Then there are a variety of wrecks with reasonably easy access, and many nice walls, drop-offs and coral gardens. Gorgonian fans are prevalent throughout the region, as are sea rods, pillar coral, finger sponge, and encrusting sponges. You’ll almost certainly see spotted eagle rays, barracuda, filefish, yellowtail snapper, creole wrasse, parrotfish, and (if you’re good at finding them) seahorses! And the magnificent queen conch (Strombas gigas) – the reefs’ vacuum cleaner – should be seen before they all get eaten.
As a diver I found Roatán to be highly satisfying. The variety it offers within a compact area, with high-quality accommodation and top-notch dive operations, must make it a contender for one of the most convenient, value-laden scuba dive destinations in the world.
Pamela’s Best Dives in Roatán
Mary’s Place and Herbie’s Fantasy
El Aguila – a 60m cargo ship lying at 35m off Sandy Bay. It was purposely sunk in 1997, but the wreck was subsequently broken into three pieces by Hurricane Mitch. The mast towers to 15m, and there are some interesting swim-throughs – in particular at the stern. Green moray eels, spotted drums, many varieties of grouper and parrotfish play around the decks, hull and portholes.
•Prince Albert (South Shore)- a 50m cargo ship lying in shallow water. Watch out for boat traffic in the area.
•Mr Bud Wreck (French Cay) – a sunken cargo ship at 20m.
Shark dives take place at a site called Cara a Cara with Waihuka Adventure Diving Centre, www.sharkdiveroatan.com (T: 24450390)
•Aqua Adventures www.aquaadventuresroatan.com
•Las Palmas, Dixon Cove (2445-1283)
Where to Stay
Anthony’s Key Resort www.anthonyskey.com. Highly recommended: an attractive and convenient, professionally run divers’ playground. PADI 5-Star dive centre onsite. Also onsite is the Institute for Marine Sciences, a research and educational facility working with dolphins. The resort also boasts an adjacent caye where many species of birds and animals – including jaguars – can be viewed in their enclosures.
Turquoise Bay Resort. Nice rooms on a hillside between beach and inlet. Dive onsite at Subway Watersports
•Barefoot Cay www.barefootcay.com. Dive onsite at PADI 5-Star facility www.barefootdiversroatan.com. Shore diving, or boat access to such premier dive sites as Mary’s Place and Prince Albert. They advertise ‘Valet Diving’ which certainly floats my boat!
Bird watching: around 120 species of birds either live on or pass by the Bay Islands. There are some gorgeous indigenous parrots, and other inhabitants include turkey vultures, blue herons and golden-fronted woodpeckers.
Hiking. Visitors can enjoy the Port Royal Wildlife Refuge, and the Sandy Bay Forest Reserve. On the mainland, Panacam National Park is a unique natural area.
Trips to other Bay Islands – Utila, Cayos, Cochinos, Barbareta or La Ceiba.
Roatán Butterfly Garden www.roatanbutterfly.com
Rainforest canopy tours - Zip-line Tours 9970-0864
Iguana Farm, French Cay 2455-7482
Pirate Tours, Port Royal. 2435-2576. Arrr!
Fishing: Fly Fishing 24454163; Deep Sea fishing 9919-7603
Watersports: Windsurfing School, Sandy Bay 3378-8878 Kite-boarding, Marble Hill Farms www.marblehillfarms.com
Serious partying at West End. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
The Deep, Deep, Not-So-Blue Sea
There’s even a guy who takes you in a submarine to 2,000 feet!
To see colonial architecture, historic churches and fascinating living culture, visit Colosuca on the mainland. Mayan architecture can be seen in various Honduran sites, especially the ruins of Copán (5th-9th Century) on the mainland. At the time of Columbus’ first sighting, the inhabitants of the Bay Islands were the Paya Indians, whose ceremonial, burial and dwelling sites can be visited throughout the Bay Islands. The northern town of Punta Gorda is an important centre for the Garifuna people, originally a group of Afro-Caribbean ‘rebels’ from St Vincent who were shipped and marooned there by the British in 1797. These fantastic drummers and dancers have an annual celebration of their arrival on 12 April. Yübu Garifina Experience (cultural centre) 3369-0015