If you're into water sports, you'll be in ecstasy on Ambergris. San Pedro is awash with tour companies and individuals organizing scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, sailing, kitesurfing, swimming and fishing trips.
Many hotels have their own dive shops that rent equipment, provide instruction and organize diving excursions. Numerous dive sites are within a 10- to 15-minute boat trip from San Pedro. Among the most popular (and affordable) is Hol Chan Marine Reserve, south of the island, and Esmeralda in front of the school.
Quoted prices sometimes don't include admission to the marine reserves, which is BZ$20 for Hol Chan, BZ$20 for Half Moon Caye and BZ$60 for the Blue Hole. Many companies also quote prices without including equipment hire so make sure you confirm what is included.
A one-tank local dive including gear costs from BZ$100 to BZ$150; with two tanks it's from BZ$150 to BZ$200. Night dives are BZ$120 to BZ$140, including a headlamp. Three-day open-water dive courses cost about BZ$1100, including equipment. E-learning courses, which allow you to do the reading and tests online before your trip, have gotten popular, and cost around BZ$750 (plus the online course fees). A one-day Discover Scuba Diving course (offered by most of the dive shops) costs around BZ$320.
Day trips further afield to the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef (three dives) including park fees cost around BZ$700 while Turneffe trips (three dives) cost from BZ$500 to BZ$700.
There are lots of independent dive operators around town, many of whom also run snorkeling and even mainland tours. Prices are fairly similar but quality varies wildly; diving here is a big investment so it's worth shopping around and spending a little extra if necessary to go with a crew you're comfortable with.
Feature: Around Ambergris: Where to Dive & Snorkel
You may not have too much choice about where to drop anchor, as dive masters usually choose the best sites based on weather conditions.
This snorkeling site, 15 minutes from San Pedro and with a maximum depth of just 8ft, is a unique patch of reef towards the northern end of the island. Visitors will enjoy the shallow cluster of corals, including the Montastrea annularis corals, which are unique to the Northern Shelf Lagoon. Many small invertebrates inhabit the turtle grass and coral heads, while abundant fish life includes grouper, snapper, grunts, filefish and more. Mexico Rocks was declared a marine park in 2015, and a BZ$20 park fee was introduced.
Boca del Rio (Christ of the Abyss)
The underwater terrain at Boca del Rio, a half-mile northeast of San Pedro, is a spur-and-groove system, featuring rolling coral hills and sandy channels. This is one of the few sites with healthy staghorn coral as well as plate corals. Around 90ft, there are big coral heads, barrels and tubes, and turtles are often spotted here. A short swim away is a statue of St Peter that resembles Jesus, which gives this site its alternative name, 'Christ of the Abyss.'
Tres Cocos is a bit deeper than most dive sites around San Pedro, with coral heads rising up to 50ft and a wall with spurs that spill out from 90ft to 120ft, but there's also a shallow snorkeling area nearby. The marine life here is wonderful, with a thick growth of star corals, big plating corals, red rope sponges and soft sea whips, and gorgonians on the upper reaches of the spurs. The place is renowned for shoals of schooling fish, including snapper, horse-eye jack and spotted eagle rays.
Tackle Box Canyons
About a mile offshore from downtown San Pedro, this great site offers big, steep coral grooves. There are swim-throughs in many places along the drop-off on the way to the outer reef. Gray angels, redband and stoplight parrotfish, and blue chromis hang out along the outer wall, and it's not uncommon to spot marine turtles here.
Tuffy Canyons, about 1.6 miles south of San Pedro, is marked by deep grooves and a long, narrow tunnel. This high-walled passage leads to an opening at 80ft to 90ft onto the reef drop-off. Look for some attractive sponges in the deeper reaches, and the occasional eagle ray or dolphin pod passing by. Marauding nurse sharks hang around the entire dive.
Due to chumming, this San Pedro dive site was once the spot to see nurse sharks and grouper. The feedings have stopped and the fish have moved elsewhere, but the site remains worthwhile for its pronounced undercuts that provide habitat for arrow crabs and shrimps, as well as drums of all sizes. The coral growth here includes flower coral, thin leaf lettuce coral and some nice stands of the rare pillar coral. There are also some good swim-throughs nearby.
Hol Chan Canyons
Four miles south of San Pedro, this site, part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, is famous for its dramatic canyons and ample sea life, including eagle rays, stingrays and shoaling schools of fish. The canyons are lined with large coral, which hides black snapper, chubs, schoolmasters and mutton snappers, as well as moray eels and channel crabs. Yellowtails are ubiquitous, but you might also spot tarpon. The dive maxes out at about 70ft.
Shark Ray Alley
Only snorkeling is allowed at this perennially popular spot, which is in a shallow part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Shark Ray Alley was traditionally a place for local fishers to clean fish, and the creatures attracted to the fish guts soon became a tourist attraction. As the name implies, the area is known for the big southern stingrays and mooching nurse sharks that come right up to the boat when it first arrives. Horse-eye jacks also abound.
Right in front of the town school, this 50ft to 75ft dive features a spectacular series of deep canyons covered with flourishing soft corals. There is an amazing variety of marine life in the area, including grouper, dolphins, nurse sharks, moray eels and eagle rays, not to mention an astonishing array of tropical fish.
The most popular destinations for snorkeling excursions include Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley (BZ$90 including park fee) or Mexico Rocks and Tres Cocos (BZ$100). Snorkeling operators usually offer two daily half-day trips (three hours, two snorkel stops), departing at 9am and 2pm.
Full-day snorkeling trips to Bacalar Chico at the northern tip of Ambergris (six hours, three stops) go for around BZ$200.
Many dive boats take snorkelers along if they have room, but snorkelers sometimes get lost in the shuffle on dive boats, so you are better off joining a dedicated snorkel tour whenever possible. Unfortunately, snorkel tours do not often run to Blue Hole, so if you have your heart set on snorkeling around the edge of this World Heritage Site, you'll have to tag along with the divers.
Do not attempt to swim out to the reef from the island as fast boats are unlikely to spot you in the water. You can snorkel around a number of docks around San Pedro including the one at Ramon's Village, but do not venture out beyond the buoys. The docks do not support the extensive life that the reef does, but the snorkeling is free.
The most reliable offshore manatee-watching is off Swallow Caye near Belize City. Being a marine reserve, visitors are not permitted to enter the water and you'll spend the visit watching the animals surface.
Tours from Ambergris Caye usually include a lunch and snorkel stop, in addition to a cruise through the manatee habitat. This trip is slightly cheaper (and travel times are shorter) from Caye Caulker, where folk are also working on manatee conservation.
The all-day tour with Searious Adventures includes lunch and two snorkel stops, as well as a viewing of the manatees at Swallow Caye. The BZ$180 fee does not include park fees (adult BZ$10, child BZ$5).
When conditions are favorable, it's also possible to spot manatees frolicking in the channel between San Pedro and Caye Caulker. Here it's permitted to dive in and snorkel alongside the animals. Local snorkel guides will know if there are any around and can organize trips to see them.
Although there are some sandy beaches around the island, especially in front of big hotels, which truck in sand to furnish their waterfronts, San Pedro is not a classic Caribbean swim-from-the-shore destination. Sea grass at the water line makes entering from the sand unpleasant, so you'll mostly be swimming from piers in waters protected by the reef.
When you do this, watch carefully for boats: there's plenty to see down under if you snorkel, but you often can't see or hear if a boat is coming your way. Have someone look out for you.
Secret Beach is a wonderful place to swim, but it's quite a trek from San Pedro, while Ramon's Village Pier is the best spot in town. The further north or south you go on the island, the fewer people there are on the piers.
All beaches are public and most waterside hotels are generous with their deck chairs, but a proprietorial air is developing about the piers, which are also supposed to be public.
San Pedro draws fishing enthusiasts who are anxious to take a crack at Belize's classic tarpon flats, which cover over 200 sq miles. The ultimate angling accomplishment is the Grand Slam: catching bonefish, permit (best from March to May) and tarpon (best from May to September) all in one day. In the reef, fishers get bites from barracuda, snapper, jacks and grouper.
Deep-sea fishing is less of a drawcard; most people are here for the reef. There are, however, stories of giant marlin caught out in the deep beyond.
Fishing is mostly on a catch-and-release basis, but your fishing guide might clean and cut your catch if you intend to eat it. In addition to fishing specialists, some of the dive shops also offer fishing trips.
Ambergris is ideal for wind-powered sports: the offshore reef means the waters are always flat, but there is no shortage of breeze to power your craft. The windiest time of year is between January and June, when the wind speed is usually between 12 and 20 knots.
The North Island is a wonderful place for a cycle. With the breeze off the ocean and the palms shading your path, you can ride all the way up to Matachica Beach Resort and beyond. Just follow the sandy path that runs along the beach from the Reef Village Resort in Tres Cocos. There are a few places to stop for a fruit smoothie or an ice-cold Belikin beer along the way. Rent bikes from one of the shops in San Pedro town.
If you have come to Ambergris Caye for a bit of rest and relaxation, you may want to schedule a massage at one of the waterside spas.