Belize’s pristine barrier reef and offshore atolls

Just looking at a map and photos, it becomes clear that Belize is highly attractive to visit by sailboat with its long, beautiful barrier reef along which many small cays line up and offer shelter for hundreds of secluded anchorages. Somehow entering Belize by boat has developed a bad reputation within the sailing community in recent years. Not only have fees for the immigration process and cruising permit increased, but worse, we were also told the entry process can be lengthy and unclear. Others before us have published their experience with officials and ports of entry, but depending on the time and port fees and processes all seem to differ immensely. Since we already got this close and heard about the unique diving on the second largest barrier reef in the world, we did not want to skip this country. Additionally we had a friend fly in to visit us, so we decided to swallow the price of sailing Porky to Belize. And good thing we did!

It turned out that the immigration process was not as bad for us as expected. We dropped our anchor in front of Punta Gorda’s concrete pier completely unprotected from swell and any wind ranging from North to South. Luckily the day we checked in was blessed with very light and rare west winds allowing Porky to calmly sit at anchor while we stepped foot into the new country. After only 14 miles from Livingston, we were surprised how different the Belizean town was compared to Guatemala. Generally the streets seemed cleaner, people were very friendly and everyone spoke English. It almost felt as we travelled back in time to our stay in the Eastern Caribbean islands.

After clearing in with the ministry of health, immigration and customs, ministry of agriculture and port authority, we were ready to move freely. Even though Belize has stricter rules as other countries and cruising fees are more expensive, we were positively surprised how easy and straight forward the clearance process was. Our favorite rule that we spotted on one of the large hangouts at the customs office was the mandatory license for importing cake forms. The rule seemed ridiculous to us to be listed as one of main regulations, as well as the ban of importing any fresh produce from a country only a few miles to the south, but at the same time we accepted the country’s effort to protect their environment and wildlife. The strict rules regarding health and food, pests or animals onboard were somewhat irrelevant for us. Still surprised that we haven’t spotted any unwelcome roaches or bugs onboard since our month at the dock in Guatemala’s jungle, we only had to admit to carry some fresh produce for our own consumption. Without being boarded, we were simply asked to dispose of our few onions, garlic, pumpkin and oranges.

Before the wind turned east again, we motored into the mangrove cays north of Punta Gorda to enjoy the life at anchor again. A constant fresh breeze hit us in the face, and was funneled below deck by our wind-scoops. No waves or wake from boats were banging against Porky‘s stern. We were again in complete solitude in beautiful nature. To put a cherry on top of the cake we even caught a big jack and made ourselves a delicious first dinner for the first night in Belize.

To be in Placencia in time to welcome our friend Seth onboard, we zick-zacked our way through the mangrove cays and shoals of the Port of Honduras Bay the next day. Even our cruising guide was not always accurate and satellite images overlaid on Navionics were our biggest help to find a safe way. The water was murky from the river estuaries nearby making eyeball navigation impossible. At that point we did not know yet that most reef navigation in Belize will be just as tricky. We motored along the coast to a very protected bight near Monkey Cay and tucked away behind the mangroves, which we later found out when we explored by dinghy, was a huge labyrinth of small channels and passages leading through large areas of mangrove swamps.

On the way to Placencia we used the light wind to hoist our spinnaker for the very first time. The huge, colorful light wind sail expanded in the light breeze and pushed the boat forward. The first time since the Rio Dulce we found a few other liveaboards anchored in the cute little town of Placencia. Many hotels, bars and restaurants can be found along the main street and famous long sidewalk. After welcoming Seth onboard and enjoying some delicious local food, we motored to Rendezvous cay, a small island on the barrier reef. We struggled at first to find a deep enough entrance through coral reef into the shallow anchorage, but eventually trusted our cruising guide’s heading. Oscar, the current owner of the private island greeted us on his paddle board and invited us to see the island where allegedly Ringo Star used to have a holiday house.

With only a weeks time before Seth had to fly back home, we excited the barrier reef the next day to sail to the offshore atolls. We had bottlenose dolphins play in Porky’s wake when we motored through a cut on the eastern most part of the barrier reef.

We entered Glover’s reef and anchored behind the shallow reef surrounding the atoll. A dive resort with a dive shop was friendly towards us and filled up our scuba tanks. We enjoyed sunset drinks at the resort’s bar with view at anchorage. The next day we did our first drift dive with Porky. While two jumped in the water with their dive gear, the other two motored along the reef with a good lookout for the surface marker buoy. The dive’s highlight was a group of dolphins who swam in Porky’s bow wave while Daniel and I started descending to the reef. Interestingly enough we did not seem nearly as interesting to the dolphins as the moving boat but we got a good glimpse of them when Max drove past us. Whenever we moved the boat in Belize many playful dolphins swam with us or we spotted shy manatees slowly diving down below. Both are always exciting sights!

Next we had a beautiful day sail to lighthouse reef, our second atoll to visit in Belize. The anchorage is in the lee of a rugged island where we only found only two small rustic dive resorts. Again, the dive master and staff was very friendly and welcoming and filled our tanks. We were ready to spend hours within the coming days to explore this large reef. When we started the first dive, we came through a small crevice in the rocks where large tarpons, barracudas and jacks were hiding. In the deep blue we spotted a large and small black tip shark on the hunt. We swam next to impressive overhangs were the healthy reef drops a few hundred feet deep into the dark blue. The following dives along the reef certainly did not disappoint either. We could have stayed here forever but Seth time with us was coming to an end and we were also slowly running out of fresh food.

With almost no wind a the little breeze that was on the nose, we motored towards Belize City to drop off Seth. For the night we found a sheltered anchorage in between mangrove islands about 7 miles south east of the city, called Robinson Cay. Here we celebrated Daniel‘s birthday morning and last evening together with Seth before he flew back home.

After a week with four fully grown and hungry people onboard we were running low on food and decided to use the pit stop in Belize City to stock up on provisions. It was a rainy and cold Sunday. No other tourists were on the streets and many homeless and poor people loafed around. We found a supermarket that allowed us to do a quick run through the aisles before they closed for the rest of the day. While everybody was very friendly and we did not feel threatened in any way, the constant begging for money and us carrying full bags of food made us go straight back to the dinghy, which we were allowed to keep at a gated dock of a hotel. Being Daniel’s birthday we stopped on the way inside the guarded tourist district, which is mainly used as transportation hub for cruise ship tourists going on inland excursions, to buy ice cream and to wait for the passing rain storm to stop.

Back on the boat we felt the wind pick up again and lifted the anchor to seek better shelter. In our cruising guide and on charts we found a small inlet in the mangroves of the Drowned Cays a few miles east of Belize City and sailed over. To our surprise 3 other boats were already anchored and hiding from the bad weather. A large dolphin with a juvenile played in our bow wave while we entered the protected anchorage. What a boss move to enter an anchorage! It felt good to be around other cruisers again. One German sailor shouted at us: “this is an awesome spot. You can even buy good and cheap fish directly from the fishermen. Since we weren’t lucky at all with trawling, we decided to buy snapper from the fishermen and prepared delicious dinner below deck while the rain pattered on the coachroof. When we woke up the next morning, with the storm passed but many rain clouds still in the sky, we noticed the other boats leaving. We decided to stay and spend the day in the mangroves, reading, watching movies and relaxing. The sky cleared up in the afternoon and even the two dolphins returned and circled our boat.

Next up we decided to sail back to Turneffe, the biggest offshore atoll of Belize, in the hope to refill our scuba tanks there and dive on the last atoll which we haven’t visited yet. In general the Belizean atolls represent what we imagine some remote atolls in the Pacific to be. Very little civilization, untouched nature, and incredible marine life to be observed in crystal clear water. Only that these three atolls are only a short sail from Central American mainland and not in the middle of the largest ocean.

A very exclusive dive and fishing resort is located in the south of Turneffe Reef where we hoped we could get our tanks refilled. When we approached the dock someone immediately approached us and explained us that they have a policy to only serve their guests and can’t help us. When we climbed back in the dinghy, thinking about other options (which were asking the catamaran anchored inside the lagoon whether they have a compressor or knocking on the super yacht’s hull anchored next to us), the guy returned and told us they in fact refill tanks for $15 a tank. Even though that’s by far the most we have ever paid (usually we pay between 5-10$ per tank) we were relieved and appreciated the friendly conversation with the resort’s staff while our tanks were being filled with air. On our way back the park rangers approached us in a skiff. Two very friendly and welcoming guys who introduced us to the marine park and its rules and even invited us into their base if we feel like having a few drinks in the evening. While we were talking, Max spotted a weird looking animal in the water next to the boats drifting a few hundred meters off the coast. Soon we could hear the snorting of Blacky, the dark Labrador retriever who swam all the way to the boat to be lifted inside their skiff by one of the rangers. What a curious dog! We got more helpful information about best dive sites, hiking trails and anchorages inside the marine park before we went back to the boat.

Porky is securely tied up to one of the many solid dive moorings installed by the park rangers. Even though it is a calm day with only up to 10 knots of wind, the swell on the exposed east side of the reef rock the boat from starboard to port while we squeeze into our wetsuits and get our dive gear ready. Compared to the reefs of the other atolls, Turneffe’s reef is more gradually sloped. With good visibility we could already see many schools of large jacks, groupers, snappers and wrasses circling the coral heads below us while we slowly descended. We calmly kicked against a light current. The reef looked healthy although not nearly as densely grown as Lighthouse or Glover’s. The abundance of large fish however indicated the existing balance of marine life. On our way back to the boat, drifting with the current, I turned around to look into one of the many sandy crevices when I spotted the small reef shark only a few meters behind us. A big snapper seemed to tease the only slightly larger shark who showed curiosity towards us. During the whole way back the shark and two big snappers followed us and eyed us from all sides. We have never seen a reef shark this curious and close before.

We spent our days mostly resting, diving and reading. When Porky lies in remote places, we tend to relax more. There is no outside influence that lures us into activities we just want to do to be done. No sightseeing or bars, no restaurants or rush to do something we want to check off the list. After a few days of being isolated we appreciate the proximity of a buzzing town or other sailors even more, which we then found in Caye Caulker, a touristic, laid-back town on an island in the north of Belize. We went out for dinner, enjoyed a few drinks at the beachfront bars and walked through the town’s dirtroads while observing the exotic mix of locals and sun-burnt tourists.

It is the contrast between solitude and encountering foreign cultures and places that makes our journey and the cruising lifestyle so attractive. All at our own pace.

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