The speedboat to Ambergris Caye is like a space-time transporter. One minute you’re on the dockside in Belize City, a bustling, shabby, old-school Caribbean township still boasting mainly wooden buildings as well as open drains. Then, after the rather glamorous boat ride (costing the equivalent of just £9) you arrive – face sprayed, hair horizontal -on a film set for a movie called Gringolandia. It’s pretty and quaint, but the golf carts, faux-rustic signage and American accents tell you you’re on a resort island.
But because San Pedro – Ambergris Caye’s main settlement – has been a diving base for at least three decades, it has evolved a decent ecosystem of accommodation. I found a smart, simple B&B, booked three nights and asked how I could get out to the reef. That, after all, was the real reason for coming offshore, and I wanted to get started right away. A 15-minute ride on a launch took me to a patch of bath-warm sea known as Shark Ray Alley. Part of the Hoi Chan Marine Preserve, it’s populated by nurse sharks, which were soon coming close, nipping at the tuna the pilot was feeding them. Stingrays and a couple of shy turtles appeared too, clearly used to these daily visits.
There were about eight of us on the snorkelling excursion and the skipper of the boat said it was fine to paddle out over the reef. I joined two more swimmers and we were soon on top of a glowing city of coral, sliced by deep ravines and thronged by fish of every hue. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is often ranked third in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef and the Red Sea Reef, but it stands out for its manatees and American marine crocodiles, as well as its spectacular atolls and formations such as the Great Blue Hole.
We pottered around some starfish and urchins, spied a barracuda and lost sense of time or distance. Then I saw a ray that was missing a semi-circle of wing; it had obviously been part of a large shark’s lunch. The deep waters on the eastern drop-offs of the reef are known for their reef, tiger and bull sharks. We looked at each other underwater, did that professional thumbs thing – though ours were pointing down -and swam back to our taxi home.
Ambergris Caye is definitely soft Central America. Everyone is very polite and San Pedro has lots of excellent seafood restaurants and beach bars. It also provides pleasant surprises, including giant blue crabs in the mangroves, basilisks and iguanas on the rocks, and many warbler and heron species. I cycled north to see some Mayan sites, which came as a surprise; a local told me pre-Columbian fishermen and farmers used Bacalar Chico, the name of the Mayan area, as early as AD 300. With such an abundance of attractions, it’s no wonder many people are happy to do their diving here and go straight home. But Belize surely shouldn’t be reduced to its reef and cayes. I decided to make a coastal journey south to explore the mainland.
Original rhythms – A two-lane highway runs parallel to the coast from Belize City, the former capital, to Punta Gorda in the south. It’s paved, has light traffic and affords travellers a window on modern Belize: fruit trees, shacks, grassland, scrub, occasional villages, the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Dangriga, the first major town, looked like a forgotten colonial outpost, full of gimcrack clapperboard houses raised on stilts above fetid marshland. Most roads outside the centre were dust and dirt.
The town is mainly used by visitors to get to a chain of less well-known cayes, but I opted to stay put and meet the locals. It wasn’t difficult. Out on a spit of land known as Y-Not Beach I stumbled upon Austin Rodriguez, a gent in his 80s who makes traditional drums. Around his workshop were skeins of sheep, deer and goat hide and aromatic hardwood timber. He sat in the shade of banana trees and palms, hewing out a solid block of cedar.