- Swim with the turtles at Mexico Rocks and Hol Chan.
- Go snorkelling at the second biggest barrier reef in the world.
- Kayak over the crystal blue waters surrounding San Pedro.
- Experience the jungle and the incredible ATM cave system on the mainland.
- Relax on the beaches of San Pedro during the day and star gaze at night.
About San Pedro
We hopped off the small, single engine plane and walked along the tarmac of the tiny San Pedro airport on the island of Ambergris Caye; about a 15 minute flight from Belize City. First impression was... why did we come here?? The main street by the airport was dirty with golf carts rushing people all over the island. However, within a few minutes we had let out a big sigh of relief as we made our way down to the beach and saw the idyllic crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. Within a few hours we were on Island time and relaxing on the beach with a delicious cocktail. Second first impression...this is the life.
San Pedro is famous for having the second biggest barrier reef in the world only 250 metres offshore and as you could imagine it offers some of the world's best snorkelling and diving. San Pedro, like the rest of Belize, has so far been untouched by globalisation and does not have a single multinational chain, which means no McDonalds and no Starbucks. This makes the perfect recipe for a real authentic travel experience.
Like the rest of the Caribbean, San Pedro is tropical which means that its dry season runs from about January through to May and the wet season is from June to December. June is one of the best times to go because prices are cheaper, there are very few tourists and the wet season is not yet in full swing.
Fun Fact: Belize had a population of over 1 million people from 200 AD to 950 AD (at the peak of the Mayan Civilisation), before reducing to today's population of around 350,000. In fact, it was the first place in the world to have a population go from over 1 million people to below 1 million people; the second was Detroit, USA.
Getting to San Pedro
Best option is by plane - majority of people will fly into Belize City as it is the only International Airport in the country. You then have two options to get to San Pedro from Belize City: by plane or boat.
The flight takes 15 minutes and planes depart every hour, which don't necessarily have to be booked in advance. The plane is small - but safe - and you get amazing views over the reef. The boat, however, takes just under two hours not including the taxi from the port.
The cost of either option (approximately $US70 each way) is essentially the same once you include the taxi to the port to catch the ferry. To book a flight visit Tropic Air here or to book the ferry click here.
Things to see and do
1. Hol Chan
If you could only do one thing in San Pedro this would be it! Hol Chan, which is Mayan for "Little Channel", is located less than 10 minutes by boat from San Pedro. The small gap in the reef or the 'little channel' means that the marine life can easily get to and from the open ocean. This means that the area is teaming with over 160 species of fish, turtles, nurse sharks, eagle rays, eels and lobsters. If you are lucky you could even snorkel with dolphins and manatees although the latter is very rare.
To get to Hol Chan there are many tour groups which leave San Pedro; all of which take you on similar boats and cost about the same - approximately $US50. The best time to go is noon while the sun is at its highest point and therefore visibility is at its best.
2. Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves (ATM Caves)
The Actun Tunichill Muknal Caves was the highlight of our trip. You can only visit the ATM Caves on a tour and you are not allowed to take a camera. You will also need to bring waterproof shoes (or shoes that you at least don't mind getting wet) as well as a change of clothes for after the tour.
The tour starts with a hike along a jungle path which forces you to wade across the Roaring Creek three times before you reach the cave entrance. To get into the cave system you have to swim through the beautiful hidden entrance before reaching a point about 10 metres in where you can stand in the warm water.
Once in the cave the tour guide, assisted by the headlights attached to your helmets, takes you about 1 kilometre into the cave to the location of sacred mayan ceremonies. The hike/swim through the cave is a real adventure as you squeeze through small openings and wade through the fresh cave waters. The centre of the cave allows you to see calcified skeletons from sacrifices performed by the Mayans over 1,000 years ago along with various other artefacts.
The caves are located near the Guatemala border; about a 1.5 hour drive from Belize City. Many tour operators will organise the trip for you in San Pedro for about $US250-$300 per person which includes flights to and from Belize City, the tour, and all transport.
3. Mexico Rocks
Mexico Rocks is located slightly North of San Pedro and takes about 20 minutes to get to by boat. It does not have the same coral formations as Hol Chan but makes up for that with thousands of fish and one very inquisitive turtle. Well worth a visit but not at the expense of Hol Chan.
Kayaking in San Pedro is the perfect way to enjoy the crystal blue waters and the second longest barrier reef in the world. We organised a kayak from our hotel and took it out to the reef. Once there, we would take it in turns at swimming amongst the coral - we were lucky enough to spend a few hours swimming with a friendly turtle too!
5. Shark Ray Alley
During the 1980s and 1990s fisherman would go to what is now known as Shark Ray Alley, where they would clean their fishing equipment and throw away whatever bait of fish they did not want. Since then it has become home to thousands of fish and of course nurse sharks and stingrays.
Shark Ray Alley is visited at the same time as Hol Chan usually. The tour boat will pull up and throw some dead fish into the water as soon as you hop in - within seconds you will be swamped by 5 or 6 nurse sharks, countless fish and of course stingrays.
Nurse sharks are harmless to humans and don't attack. Though they can be intimidating growing up to 4 metres and weight up to 300kg.
The island of Ambergris Caye is long and narrow with beaches that never end. Many people explore the island on golf carts which is fun for a while but you miss out on the views from the beach. Cycling along the beach, whilst not always smooth and easy, gives you better views and a more enjoyable experience.
Eating + drinking
All the places you want to eat at in San Pedro are located on the beachfront and all offer very similar food. Belize cuisine is generally a type of Creole; a mix between African, French, Mexican and now American. The food is heavy in capsicum (peppers) and West African spices.
Tourists are warned not to drink the water in Belize which also includes ice at restaurants.
1. Blue Water Grill
The Blue Water Grill has a great set up, offers a good variety of food, and great cocktails. Try the Horny Monkey!
2. Crazy Canucks
The bar is aptly named crazy with live music nights, quiz nights and karaoke nights. It has a good selection of drinks but I wouldn't come here for the food. The crowd is generally slightly older here - but it was still fun.
Where to stay?
The Palms, which is where we stayed, is located a short walk form the main strip in San Pedro which means it is walking distance to almost everything in San Pedro. The building offers 1 or 2 bedroom apartments with amazing views over the Caribbean and the reef. Very clean and well worth the extra price tag.