Taking the Kids: Sun, sand and adventure in beautiful Belize
There they go! At least seven nurse sharks, some 10-foot long, trailed by a baby. There's a giant Southern Ray moseying along, a school of horse-eyed jacks with their distinctive big eyes and the beautiful blue and black Tang fish.
Wow! We are in the Hol Chan Marine Preserve located just inside a huge barrier reef just a few miles from San Pedro, Belize, on the island of Ambergris Caye. This is some of the most spectacular snorkeling I've enjoyed in many years.
No wonder. Belize boasts more than 500 species of fish and marine life. The water is so clear you can see the reef, sea turtles, rays and more from a kayak too. Another plus: San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is only a half-mile from the Barrier Reef -- no long boat ride to the reef.
Belize, about the size of Massachusetts with a population of only 370,000, is a tiny country on the east coast of Central America, bordering Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south and the Caribbean Sea to the east. It's the only country in Central America where English is the official language, where U.S. dollars are accepted and which is relatively safe.
The preserve, our guide Bernie Badillo from Belize Pro Dive Center explains, is huge -- 22 square miles and teeming with tropical fish and healthy coral -- brain coral, sea fans that are waving at us and star coral. Night dives and snorkels are popular here, especially to see nocturnal creatures like octopus, moray eel and squid.
This is a great place to learn to scuba dive (you can do most of the course online with PADI and do the certifying dives in the warm, clear waters teeming with fish. In some spots, it's only four-feet deep (perfectly clear water) and at its deepest, 29 feet.
Belize has long been famous for its barrier reef, the second largest in the world, and requisite fishing and watersports. Belize is equally famous for birding -- with over 600 species. It's not uncommon to spot 50 species in one day, orange breasted falcons and keel-billed toucans among them.
This is also a place where you can keep to your budget (most snorkeling trips are well under $100) or enjoy the ultimate luxury of an all-inclusive private island stay at Cayo Espanto with an entire staff to take care of you in your private villa.
Adventurous travelers are now also venturing inland to places like Chaa Creek where they can explore caves by canoe or tube and visit ancient Mayan sites -- with more than 600, Belize is considered the Maya heartland, offering the largest concentration in all of Central America.
We also discovered it's a place for great eats -- like coconut chipotle fish with coconut rice and fried plantain at Elvi's Kitchen, the oldest restaurant on the island. The thatched roof and sand floors are a homage to the way Ms. Elvia grew up. Now in her 80s, she still makes the restaurant's hot sauce (check out Belize Food Tours in San Pedro).