Our flight left Wichita Eisenhower National Airport at 6 a.m., and at 2 p.m., we were climbing into a small boat, joining two other couples for an afternoon of snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea. There are few tropical destinations as convenient to reach from Wichita as Belize, which is why the Central American country is one of the few places we’ve visited more than once.
On our first trip, we flew from Wichita to Houston to Belize City, where we took a small airplane to the southeastern coast to explore the beach resort area and jungle around the Placencia Peninsula. This time, we visited the country’s largest island, Ambergris Caye, just a 15-minute flight from the mainland via Tropic Air aboard a 14-seat, Wichita-built Cessna Caravan turboprop. The flight felt more like a sightseeing tour than transportation.
Besides the relatively short flight time, Belize is an easy getaway because it shares our central time zone, is the only country in Central America where English is the official language, and most places readily accept the U.S. dollar, which has a 1:2 exchange rate with the Belize dollar. Belize borders Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and the south and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
Tropic Air lands in San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye, the northernmost of 200 cayes off the coast of Belize. The population of the entire island is about 25,000, with more than half living in San Pedro. The island is 25 miles long, and its width ranges from a few blocks up to about a mile. Besides taxis and a few service vehicles, you won’t see many vehicles. Instead, the streets are full of golf carts driven by residents as well as tourists.
We stayed about a mile south of the town’s center, at Xanadu Island Resort, and found it easy to walk or ride the resort’s free bicycles everywhere, except for one day when we rented a golf cart to explore a few areas north of San Pedro. Close to the resort is a grocery store, convenience shop, bakery serving delicious morning pastries and even a New York-style bagel shop. The walk into the heart of San Pedro was about 25 minutes along the beach.
One of the main draws of Ambergris Caye for tourists, including us, is the proximity to the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and the second longest in the world. The reef runs the entire length of the island and is just a 20-minute boat ride away.
Our snorkeling outfitter on our first afternoon, Lil’ Alphonse, picked us up from Xanadu’s dock and whisked us away to Mexico Rocks, a coral patch in the shallow waters midway between the reef and the island. It is protected from ocean swells and currents, making being in the water comfortable and visibility excellent. Alphonse, who grew up fishing and swimming in these waters, usually captains the boat, and he or one of his crew guides snorkelers in the water, pointing out formations and sea life. We saw flower, elk-horn and giant brain coral formations along with a rainbow of fish, rays, sea turtles and nurse sharks. After a few hours in the water, we sipped Fanta out of glass bottles and headed back to the resort.
The next morning, we headed back out with a different outfitter, Searious Adventures, to explore two of the country’s most popular snorkeling spots, Shark Ray Alley and Hol Chan Cut. Searious picked us up from our dock, and our guide served us homemade coconut tarts on our way to our first stop. Shark Ray Alley was teeming with gentle nurse sharks and Southern stingrays, attracted by fish scraps several other outfitters had dropped in the water. I preferred the genuine setting at Hol Chan Cut, a break in the reef that attracts bigger fish species. We saw an assortment of fish, including a school of barracuda, and my husband witnessed a Spotted Eagle Ray breaching.
All three of these snorkeling destinations are part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which means fishing and diving/snorkeling activity is controlled in order to protect ocean life. You must hire a boat to visit the sites, and the tours are always guided. A park fee is charged for each person, but that cost is usually included in your excursion price.
The rest of our weeklong visit was focused on exploring on land, from relaxing by the pool or at one of the resort’s oceanfront cabanas to visiting the not-so-secret Secret Beach (there’s a billboard pointing the way) to discovering the island’s food and culture.
We had our best meal from a well-known roadside palapa, picking up jerk chicken from Robin’s Kitchen and walking back to our resort to enjoy it near the property’s manmade waterfall. Our cheapest meal was at Neri’s Tacos, where you can get 10 tacos for $2. Our most expensive meal was $90 at Hidden Treasure, where we enjoyed a candlelit anniversary dinner under an exotic hardwood roof with rose petals on our white-linen-draped table for two.
The best way to sample the island’s food and learn about its history is through Belize Food Tours, a walking food tour started in 2016 by San Pedranos. My three-hour lunch tour made seven stops at mom-and-pop kitchens. I ate a Mayan taco at one of the island’s oldest restaurants; drank raw sugar cane juice, rum cremes and a flight of Belize-made Belikin beer; and tried for the first time shrimp and conch ceviche, Salvadoran papusas and a paleta, a Mexican popsicle made with fresh fruit and juice. The tour ended at the beachfront boutique of Belize Chocolate Company, a family-owned business making chocolates using Belizean-produced cacao, cocoa butter and cane sugar.
Before we left Belize to return to Wichita, we flew back to the mainland and hired a guide to take us to Altun Ha, about 30 miles north of Belize City. Belize was once the center of the Mayan civilization, archaeologists believe, and this is one of the most visited of the ruin sites because of its accessibility and the discovery of the famous jade head in 1968.