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Underwater Wonderland at Belize’s Barrier Reef

Times Staff Writer

This is not the first place that comes to mind when most people think about a Caribbean vacation. Few people have even heard of this tiny nation wedged between Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala.

Economically, Belize is one of the poorest countries in Central America. Sparsely populated, it’s a humid land of swampy coastal plains, mountains, rain forests and Mayan ruins hidden deep in the lush jungles. The towns are small, the streets unpaved.

What Belize does offer vacationers are dozens of palm-shaded islands just off shore, their white- sand beaches awash in the warmest, clearest, most swimmable water anywhere.

We’re talking world-class snorkeling and scuba diving in sparkling blue waters protected by a reef that is second in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

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Unseen below the cobalt swells of the open sea, this 185-mile-long Belizean barrier reef lies 10 miles off the coast, a spiny wall of coral, folded and cut through by deep canyons. Its coral gardens and giant sea fans, crannies and caverns shelter sea life beyond counting: butterfly fish, snappers, grunts and goatfish, chubs and flounders, angelfish and sharks, rays, tarpon, barracuda and sea turtles.

No Frills

The islands--called cays--are laid-back, even as vacation spots go. There are no glitzy seaside resorts or fancy restaurants. Most hotel accommodations are rustic--an overhead fan under a thatched roof, a couple of comfortable beds and a tiny shower-only bathroom.

The food is good, especially the seafood. Dressing for dinner calls for loose-fitting tropical clothes--usually shirts and shorts. Shoes are optional.

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While neither my wife Dorothy nor I were certified scuba divers when we planned this trip, our destination was Ambergris Cay, largest of the islands. Our goal was the adventure of reef diving, and learning to dive was part of the fun.

After passing a scuba certification course (you’ll need a certification card to rent equipment), we headed for Belize and Ramon’s Reef Resort on Ambergris Cay. We had considered Tahiti and several Caribbean resorts, but decided on Belize because we wanted an out-of-the-way place where the diving was good and the pace low-keyed.

Getting to Ambergris Cay wasn’t easy. There are no direct flights from Los Angeles to Belize. Both TACA International, the Salvadoran airline, and the Honduran carrier, Tan/SASHA, fly to Belize City from Houston, New Orleans or Miami. We connected with TACA in New Orleans.

Missed Connections

After spending a nice afternoon and evening in the French Quarter, we headed for the airport around noon the next day for a 2 p.m. takeoff. The 750 - mile flight was to put us into Belize City by mid-afternoon, and we were ticketed on a connecting commuter flight to Ambergris Cay the same afternoon. That was the way it was supposed to work.

However, TACA’s brightly colored jet was nearly four hours late. We missed the connection and spent an unscheduled night in Belize City at Chateau Caribbean, an old two-story hotel reminiscent of scenes from the original movie “Rain.”

A sprawling, impoverished town of 40,000, Belize City is a tangle of narrow, unpaved streets lined with rundown one- and two-story buildings. It is the largest community in this nation of 150,000 persons. Formerly called British Honduras, the country is about the size of Massachusetts. English is the primary language.

Rich Racial Mix

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Because of its location on the shore of the Caribbean and its colorful history, Belize is populated by a rich racial mix.

Most of the people here are descendants of English, Dutch and French pirates, Mayan Indians, Spanish conquerors, colonial English plantation owners and the black slaves they imported from Africa.

Historically, the economy was based on hardwood timber harvesting, coconut and sugar cane plantations and lobster and conch fisheries. Today the struggling economy is supported by fishing, some small-scale agriculture and a growing tourist industry.

Britain granted Belize independence in 1981, but the country still exists in the protective shadow of the English flag.

A small garrison of British troops and a squadron of Harrier jets remain behind to protect the 8,866-square-mile nation from the century-old territorial claims of Guatemala. The Belizean government is stable, friendly and welcomes both foreign investment and tourism.

The fledgling tourist industry attracted 80,000 visitors last year.

Most visitors come during the balmy winter and spring, when temperatures are never over 85 degrees and gentle trade winds blow across the islands.

During summer the days are hot , and occasional rain squalls blow furiously across the brassy sea. The rainy season comes in the fall, when howling storms can turn into hurricanes.

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Little to Offer

Belize City has little to offer tourists. After a night in a room cooled by a noisy air conditioner, we had breakfast early and called a taxi for the short ride to the small municipal airport.

Both Maya Air and Tropic Air operate from this strip, flying small twin-engine and single-engine aircraft. We were booked on Tropic Air.

Trying not to look worried, the young pilot of the single-engine, six-passenger commuter plane crammed six passengers and all of our diving gear and luggage into the little craft for the 15-minute hop to Ambergris Cay.

Engine revving, the heavily loaded plane lumbered down the short runway and lifted into the air, its stall horn blaring danger warnings.

A ferry boat now makes the same trip in an hour, and seems a lot safer.

From the air, Ambergris Cay stretches long and thin in the blue-green sea, a 25-mile spit of white sand and coral covered with coconut palms and mangrove swamps.

San Pedro, the only town on the island, is a cluster of one- and two-story buildings backed onto a lagoon on one side and facing the sea on the other. The landing strip knifes directly into the heart of the village.

We spent 30 minutes in the blazing sun waiting for a five-minute ride in a rattling van that dropped us off at Ramon’s Reef Resort, a delightful collection of 16 thatch-roofed cabanas, a restaurant, open-air bar and a complete diving-equipment and instruction shop.

Island-Born Diver

Ramon Nunez, 47, a smiling, robust, island-born diver, manages the resort for an American investor, Richard Headrick of Laurel, Miss. Headrick has added 13 cabanas and renovated the restaurant.

The dive operations at Ramon’s and two other locations on the island are owned by Larry and Kris Parker, a husband-and-wife team from Shreveport, La., who are the island’s only certified diving instructors. Their staff of dive masters and guides are islanders; each owns a 26-foot outboard launch and is hired by the Parkers.

Standing on Ramon’s dock looking due west, you can see the waves breaking against the long, submerged reef that flanks the island north and south as far as the eye can see.

Inside the reef, the waters are flat and calm, the depths less than 30 feet. The sandy bottom is strewn with corral mounds and undersea gardens with hundreds of delicate sea fans. For beginners, this is a good place for an introductory dive.

We had purchased a week’s package at Ramon’s through Travel Hause, 3804 Williams Blvd., Kenner, La., phone (504) 443-2100. The agency has exclusive booking rights to this small, popular resort.

The $1,033 package includes air fare from New Orleans, lodging for seven nights, all meals and two dives a day. The dive shop supplies rental equipment, plus boat and guide. Visitors also can bring their own gear.

There are about 30 hotels and resorts of varying sizes and prices on Ambergris Cay, most of them along the beach in San Pedro, a town of about 2,000 persons.

Accommodations from $25 U.S. a night for bed-and-breakfast inns to a few luxurious condominiums that rent for $350 U.S. a night. Ramon’s Reef is one of the nicer spots. Most offer packages, but there’s also pay as you go.

Easy Money Exchange

Fishing boats charter for $75 for a half-day. Free-lance dive boats charge $20 for a single tank dive, $30 for two tanks. Live-aboard dive boats go for $250 for overnight trips to dive off the Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Reef.

Daylong trips to bird sanctuaries or Mayan ruins on the mainland are available. You can also ride the glass-bottom boats and arrange to snorkel along the reef.

The currency exchange rate in Belize is two Belizean dollars to one U.S. dollar. San Pedro has a small bank. Many of the shops and resorts take credit cards.

Because of the unexpected overnight stay in Belize City, we arrived in San Pedro late the next morning and missed our first dive.

Ramon assured us that something would be worked out. A few minutes later one of the guides who was going out to free-dive for lobster (it’s against the law to harvest lobsters in scuba gear), told us we were welcome to go along.

Within an hour of arrival we were out diving along the reef, watching our 21-year-old guide, German Alamilla, free-diving for our dinner with mask and fins.

For the next week, we went out twice each day with Alamilla and on each dive he took us to a different spot.

Once we dove at night, using flashlights that penetrated the black water like Darth Vader’s electric sword, highlighting giant parrotfish and nurse sharks. We watched a speckled eel snap up a blue angelfish and tear it to pieces. In our lights, a school of yellow-striped grunts drifted by.

Leaving Belize can be a frustrating experience, if you aren’t forewarned about the exit permit and the hectic atmosphere of the tiny, crowded terminal at Belize City’s International Airport.

The three airlines using the old, non-air-conditioned terminal schedule outbound flights at the same time. Of course, the flights run an hour or two late, so everyone’s nerves are frazzled.

Lines at airline and customs counters are long. People try to pay the $10 (Belize) exit tax, get their seat assignments, check out through customs and queue up at the single exit for the departing flights. We stood around for three hours waiting for our flight.


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