Every Tuesday, Union Times will be taking you on a journey that will travel North to South, from the small underrated country of Belize to the tip of the continent in Ushuaia. If all Latin American countries thrive with unmissable landmarks, an offbeat experience is what we’re really after. From extreme scuba diving and volcano boarding to Tarzan jumping or high altitude swinging: embark on our weekly series and push your boundaries with once-in-a-lifetime adventures.
1st STOP: BELIZE & THE HOLY HOLE
Right in-between Mexico and Guatemala, the small hippy country of Belize has often been seen as nothing more but a gateway to each of its bigger and more popular neighbours. But as of today, many are the travellers waving goodbye to Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula to embark on ferries heading South. On top of the cheaper prices and smaller crowds, Belize has one particular landmark it holds dear to its heart: its reef and Great Blue Hole, listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The small country indeed benefits from fantastic marine opportunities best enjoyed from the comfort of the couple of paradise islands up North rather than the barely-developped or just-about-safe continental coastal towns. Second largest after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Belizian Reef is home to 100 corals species, over 500 types of fish and that scuba divers’ holy hole. Located about 80km off the mainland, this underwater pit (or cenote as locally called) is the go-to site lying near the center of the Lighthouse reef.
About 300 meters wide for a depth of approximately 125 meters (that we know of), the sinkhole went from fresh territory to Central American hotspot when discovered by the french oceanic explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1971. Labelled ‘bucket-list dive’ and ranked as Discovery Channel number 1 in its ‘Top 10 most amazing places on earth’, the site however isn’t fit for all kinds of divers. In the abyss, no colourful fishes and funny-looking corals but dark oppressive caves patrolled by bull and caribbean reef sharks in-between karst limestone formations and impressive stalactites.
Dive centres on the nearby wonderlands offer over 40 different sites for divers of all sorts. The luxurious Ambergris Caye or more youngster-oriented Caye Caulker islands are the most beloved spots where packages range from budget-friendly day trips to live-aboard boating adventures to helicopter tours. If the snorkelling-oriented day trip will best suit families and low-budget travellers, the up-in-the-sky ride promises unbeatable panoramas you’ll only get to see once (that is all you will be able to afford as prices often reach the 4 digits for a 4 persons flight).
Our top choice for diving passionates remains the overnight live-aboard boating trip giving access to deeper and remoter sites. For better prices, set foot on an island and start comparing various agencies then rather than booking in advance a certainly overpriced tour. If Ambergris Caye offers resorts accommodation and fancily-organized diving packages, Caye Caulker provides mostly backpackers and youngsters with lower pricing and less americanised (understand, organised) tours so which island to go for will depend on whatever floats your boat. Fares will vary depending on the length of the trip desired and whether you already possess your PADI certification or have to follow a diving course. In most cases of trips lasting over two days, unlimited day dives will be programmed in addition to a couple of dark ones for a closer peak at the mysterious nocturnal marine life.
Beginners? Fear not. The Great Blue Hole may be out of your reach for now but the Belizian Reef is still admired for its world-class snorkelling opportunities and cheaper diving course, while the limestone coral islands are perfect for exploring exotic mangroves, coastal lagoons and estuaries all in a very caribbean vibe.
When to go: Best time to visit is between December and April, January being the peak touristic month. If the temperatures tend to always be exotically warm, hurricane season from May to November is still best be avoided. The average water temperature all-year-around is between 25° and 28°.
How to get there: No direct flights from anywhere in Europe. Travellers with a budget will choose to fly with a connection through the United States and those with less spending possibilities will choose to fly to Cancun and bus their way down (approx. 10 hours, overnight ride) either to Belize City or will stop at the Mexican border city of Chetumal then catch a ferry straight onto Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye.
Cost of living; Despite being a poor country, Belize remains quite expensive, especially getting in and out the touristic islands. Accommodation are available for all budgets, from dreamy seaside resorts and private villas to cheap homestays and budgets dormitories. Prices are obviously cheaper than Europe but expect to pay double what you would pay anywhere else in Central America.
Next week: Union Times takes off to Semuc Champey, Guatemala, where bridge jumping into turquoise natural pools is the must-do jungle activity.