Diving in Belize

Our family has always had an interest in traveling to Belize.  Our university offers programs there for students interested in teacher certification and MBA degrees; we've heard our friends talk very positively about the country.  For the past two years, we've traveled to Bonaire over Christmas so decided to do something different this year.  We booked our trip through BayAdventures and planned 4 days at Ambergris Caye and 3 days inland at a resort called Windy Hill.  As with all of our experiences with Al Bay, travel arrangements went off without a hitch - rooms were ready, transfers were on time, local airlines had our information.  Flight arrangements were with American Airlines for the international jump and Maya Island Air for local flights.  No problems coming or going.  The local airline flew a mixture of small aircraft, from the really small single reciprocating engine Cessnas, to large single engine turboprops.  Local air travel was, to say the least, informal but highly competent and on time. The Sunbreeze is just across the street from the Tropic Air baggage/check in desk below.  A porter picked up our bags and we all walked to the hotel.

All photos were taken with an Olympus 5050z with a PT-015 housing, ULCS arms and tray, and a YS90DX strobe used underwater.

As an aside, the hyperbaric facility can be seen just behind the Maya Island Air building in the right picture.  We stayed at the SunBreeze resort.  Our room was newly renovated, very large and clean.


Aqua Dives Belize is the onsite Dive Operator.  Dives were satisfactory but we'd probably not choose this operator again.  There were engine problems while at sea on several boats, and one dive in which an attempt was made to assist an 85 year old man who had almost no physical ability to dive, to dive on a 85ft profile. 


Dive runs are offered in several formats.  Typically, 1 tank dives are done 4 times a day - out to a site beyond the reef and then back in for a surface interval.  Longer, all day 3 tank trips are offered to the Blue Hole plus other more distant sites.  The weather was rainy on two of our dive days and the sea was rough, four to six foot, possibly higher, swells so we elected not to try it.  Inside the reef dives are offered to the Hol Chan Cut area and to Sting Ray and Shark alley. 

We had booked six single tank dives and stuck to this plan, enjoying the beach, pool, and town in the afternoon and evenings.  We had from 7 to 14 divers onboard; there appeared to be no separation by ability level. Profiles in the area beyond the reef surf line typically started at 40ft, followed canyons in the coral to about 90 feet or a bit more, and then a return in another canyon back up to 40ft and then the safety stop and surfacing.  Entry was giant stride and reboarding was done by grabbing a trailing line and pulling oneself to the ladder, cut into an opening in the side of the boat near the stern.  This made reboarding in the seaway a bit easier than coming over the stern.  Briefings were okay.  Nitrox in both 32 and 36 percent blends is offered but must be picked up on the way out at another operator.  A separate freshwater container was available for cameras.

In practical terms, we often surfaced well away from the boat and in several groups.  No one was required to surface when other divers surfaced so long as 750psi remained in a particular divers tank.  That was a good thing; some divers surfaced after 15 minutes or so.  The problem was that those surfacing later faced either a long swim (against briefing instructions) in the seaway or a wait up to 20 minutes or so for pickup.  Take a surface marker tube.  The boats are low in the water.  There were no pickup problems other than the wait.  Crew consisted of one divemaster and a boat driver.  The boats had first aid kits and oxygen, but no radio (cell phone only).

Many Belize divers use liveaboards.  If your only reason for going is diving, this might be the better way to do it as the "trophy" dives are all 1 to 2 hours boat ride away from shore - that's a lot of bouncing and they leave at 6:00 AM from Ambergris Caye.  However, we had a lot of fun and saw some great stuff at the close in sites.

Dive site names are as best I remember them. Pictures start on Dive 3

Dive 1 Cypress Tunnels December 28, 2003

The weather was rough, high wind, occasional blowing rain, seas in the four to six foot range beyond the breaker line.  We descended to the tunnels and proceeded to move through them, single file.  The overhead coverage is rather long for this type of thing.  I didn't take the camera down; I'm glad I didn't.  Not many photo ops and the tunnel was fairly tight.  A good dive light was a plus on this dive as otherwise, everything was shades of green, brown, and blue-grey. 

This was a dive in which a real problem occurred. When I and my daughter reboarded, the next divers up were from the rear of the string of some 10 divers to pass through the tunnels.  They were hopping mad.  Apparently a newly certified diver in front of them had panicked and begun flailing away with arms and fins.  Silting occurred, reducing visibility.  The two trailing divers had to constantly move the problem diver forward and get him clear of the coral.  They said their computers were well into the yellow when they finally emerged.  Fish sightings involved small black grouper, grunts, and other assorted tropicals.  Visibility was variable, 40 feet or so in the shallow parts, 70 feet plus deeper down.   Substantial surge was present at all but the deepest part of the dive. 

Dive 2 Cypress Canyons December 28, 2003

This was an afternoon dive, the wind and rain were still around; I elected not to take the camera down on this one due to sea conditions.  This was the dive with the 85 year old man.  I didn't see him forward in the cuddy until after we cleared the reef; I would have been tempted to get off the boat otherwise.  He didn't understand the briefing, the divemaster proposed to tow him through the water, he was physically unable to do much other than walk.  We started the dive and headed down to about 80-90 feet or so, the fellow in tow with the divemaster.  About 10 minutes into the dive, the DM signaled that he was surfacing with the man and that we were to wait 5 minutes for him to return but weren't to continue without him.  Bad move.  This was covered in the briefing but was an unrealistic plan on the DM's part.  Two divers elected to go up to assist; it was well that they did. 

The rest of us waited almost 15 minutes, swimming around the canyon near our "parking" site.  No sign of the DM.  We conferred and by slate and signal elected to surface as several computers were in the yellow.  We did our safety stop and surfaced well away from the dive boat.  Pickup in heavy wind, rain, seas, took over 20 minutes as getting the old man back on board took a very long time.  The DM descended about the time we surfaced and in turn resurfaced well away from the boat. 

I had an unpleasant experience with a new regulator mouthpiece.  I'd decided to try a Comfobite - it "floats" against your upper mouth area, presumably reduces jaw clamping.  Anyway, on these two dives, after I surfaced, I had serious problems with gagging and wretching, no good reason initially as I hadn't swallowed any seawater and am not too prone to seasickness.  I recalled that I have a fairly easily triggered gag reflex from experience at the dentist.  I changed back to my conventional mouthpiece that evening, no further problems in similar conditions.  All I can think of was that in an "after dive" situation on the surface, that slight pressure on the top and rear of my mouth triggered that reflex.  This is not a reflection on the Comfobite; my daughter uses one without incident but on an interaction with a specific physical condition I have.  This probably more than the reader wanted to know, but it's one thing to think about if for no apparent reason, one tends to gag on a mouthpiece.

Sightings included a green moray, lobster, a shark in the distance, and quite a few middle sized grouper and the usual collection of tropicals.  Again, colors were non-existent at depth without a good torch.  Moderate surge.

Dive 3 Hol Chan Cut December 29, 2003

The weather had cleared on Monday, the seas were much more settled, at first.  The wind did pick up by the second dive, though.  We took two tanks per diver.  This was a shallow dive, maximum possible depth was about 30 feet.  The briefing had an odd element in it - as this was a less than 30 foot dive, it didn't count as a dive so we didn't need to worry about a surface interval.  We ended up taking one anyway; no one felt comfortable with the briefing.

Lots of schools of fish and some stingrays. The ray is touched up with Photoshop, flash didn't fire (user error, didn't have it on "Pre").  It was an easy, relaxing dive, long bottom time, with a fairly smooth profile so the shallow depths didn't hose one's ears too badly due to depth change.



Dive 4 Hol Chan Canyons December 29, 2003

This was a better dive than the previous dives.  Much more of photographic interest.  No incidents on the dive (or for the rest of the trip, for that matter).  Lots of tropicals and grouper.  Ah yes, shutter lag and fish butts. But not always.  Very heavy surge.


Dive 5 Paradise Canyons December 30, 2003

Now we're cooking.  Lots of larger fish, nurse sharks and grouper, and lots of tropicals.  Very pretty dive, sun was shining, seas were much calmer, wind had finally laid.  No incidents.  The nurse sharks were downright  forward.  I know they have been hand fed but the DM wouldn't admit to doing it; they certainly seemed to know him well.  Surge was moderate. 


Dive 6 Tackle Box Canyons December 30, 2003

Another sweet dive, unfortunately the last for this trip.  Even with the glitches in dive operations, we had a great time diving.


I liked the little juvenile Blue Tang in the top left. All pictures have possibly been cropped or modified slightly in Photoshop 7.0.  Surge was heavy.

Topside at San Pedro

San Pedro is the main community on Ambergris Caye.  It sports sand streets; virtually every restaurant in town has a sand floor.  Here are some views of the community and beachfront.  Many water sports are offered and the town is very picturesque.  Tourist transportation for those inclined to drive is by rented golf cart.


We found several restaurants which were quite nice.  Elvi's for nice extended dinners, the Sunbreeze's restaurant was okay, too.  Caliente's for lunch was good. Our family is seafood vegetarian, we had lots to choose from.

There are also several small supermarket type stores and one large, newly opened food store.  If one is inclined to cook, there's no problem in buying food.  The water taxi goes to most nearby locations.  Additionally, tours of various coastal sites can be booked.  We didn't try these, just about everything has the prefix Eco- tacked onto it; I'm not sure how accurate this usage is.

Windy Hill (click for slide show of our topside activities)

Briefly, Windy Hill is a resort located near the town of San Ignacio a few miles from the Guatemala border.  Mayan ruins, horseback riding, cave canoeing (tubing, kayaking as well), the Belize Zoo are just some of the activities one can take part in using this inland resort as a base.  Putatively the dry season, it sure rained a lot, particularly at night.  However, the days were cool and comfortable, if a bit damp at times. 

At Windy Hill, when you book your stay, you can generally select from a variety of activities.  We choose the Belize Zoo, Barton Caves, Xuantunich, horseback riding, and a trip to Tikal.  I have a slide show up here.

The Zoo was of interest for those who are interested in seeing some of the local flora and fauna that otherwise might be missed.  The presentation is well done.  It was rather crowded though, as it is close to Belize City and the anchored cruise ships.  Allow a couple of hours. 

Barton Caves is a limestone cave system along the Barton River.  Getting to the area involves fording a stream in several places.  A full size truck or SUV is needed here, if you do it yourself.  The Cave Tour is interesting, spiders, bats, bugs as well as some interesting commentary on it's use by pre-Columbian indigenous tribes.

Xuantunich is a large, well-excavated and presented pre-Columbian Mayan city.  It is about 3 hours from Belize City; we saw groups from the southern resorts (Hamanasi, etc) as well as from cruise ships.  It rained off and on throughout the afternoon.  Getting there involves crossing a river via a single vehicle ferry.  One can end up doing a lot of climbing.  However, the view from the main temple was great, extending well into nearby Guatemala.

The afternoon of riding was great.  We were out about 4 hours, (take some water if you do this), the rains stopped, and the views were spectacular.  Unlike many tourist oriented horseback rides we've been on, this one was a bit like diving; the guides, when terrain permitted, allowed you to run the horses across open fields if you felt you were up to it.  I hadn't done this since I was a child and had a ball, as did Elizabeth.  Again, unlike some operations, notably on Cozumel, the horses looked like ones that you might keep yourself; well fed, well mannered and in good health.  As in diving, accidents happen.  Two adults had unpleasant falls (loss of balance in one case, horse dropped down in another) but no serious injuries other than to their pride :-) .

Tikal was an interesting experience.  It was rainy, which meant that we were on mud roads for a good bit of the way on the Guatemala side.  Note my exit tax paragraph below.  Guatemala is just a few years out of a really nasty insurgency and counter-guerrilla conflict.  The election last fall before we went was only the second free election in recent history.  One Rios Mont was a candidate.  He finished third; his legacy was as dictator during the 80's and has some 100,000 peasant deaths attributed to his reign.  You could see his campaign signs up.  The winner has vowed to indict him for crimes against humanity; good luck to him in this.  The country is beautiful but a stunning contrast to Belize in terms of infrastructure, or the lack of it.

Anyway, Tikal was fun, lots of climbing, the temple that appeared in Star Wars III (the first movie c.1978) can be climbed.  Elizabeth did, I stayed under a shelter.  Take light raincoats/windbreakers if you go inland.  The "dry" season is a bit of a misnomer upcountry.

All in all, our stay at Windy Hill was a lot of fun.

It's owned, of all things, by a fellow native of Louisiana.  I'll be glad to email anyone interested in hearing more.

Departure Tax Surprise

We took a tour to Tikal, a huge ruin site in Guatemala.  Belize has a $17.50US/person land departure fee and a $20.00US air departure tax.  The Windy Hill staff thought that the $17.50 paid for the Tikal exit would be applied to the $20.00 if we departed in 48 hours.  Wrong.  We got hit at the airport the day after the Tikal Trip with the $20.00US/person air departure tax.  I emailed the Belize tourism board and confirmed that the second charge was correct.  Phew! Gets a bit expensive.  The contrasts between Belize and Guatemala were stunning.

What we would (might) do differently

The southern resorts offer some interesting land/dive activity combinations that do not require packing and moving in the middle of the week.  Hammansi looks good.

I'd probably go with Amigos Del Mar for the dive operator.  Other Rodale's members have posted very positive reviews and trip reports of this operator.  Our trip was land/dive bundled; I probably should have requested a change but didn't.  We stopped at Amigos Del Mar on the way out to pick up nitrox tanks - it looked like a solid operation.

Immunizations, etc.

Based on CDC, D2D, family doctor,  and local faculty colleague advice, we elected to take the Hepatitis A series and Malaria prophylaxis treatment.  Probably overkill but there were zip side effects from either the Hep A or the malaria medications.  As with any medical issue, consult with your personal physician.  Do note that different malarial preventatives are recommended for different destinations. 

We had a relaxing time.  We hadn't expected as much rain as we got but you take what you get and make the best of it.  I think we did.