If you’re the big city sort, you may think that friends who consider a journey perfection only if they can roam a solitary beach without seeing another person for days on end are clueless! You love people. You love excitement. You might be in the mood for a moonlight stroll with your love, but bring on the colors, the lights and the tropical vibe–an apt description for Ambergris Caye, the largest, liveliest Belize island of all. Perched on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, Ambergris has become such a popular destination, it’s to get its own international airport down the road. Come see why travelers can’t stay away.
Things to do in Ambergris Caye
If you love to compartmentalize, Ambergris Caye is for you. The only metropolis you’ll find is San Pedro Town, a fun-loving mix of hotels, shops, markets, bars, eateries, boutiques and pure energy. Stay in town and meet all of the characters you’d find in a novel: beachcombers, young couples, ex-pats, newlyweds, kids and people speaking many different languages. They’re all here for the fun and sun.
Leave the island on excursions and be equally enchanted. The Belize Barrier Reef is just a short sail offshore, and while this spectacular landmark is a tourist magnet, new protective measures have been put into place by the Belize government and UNESCO to save this World Heritage Site from deterioration. Of course, you can visit. Swim, scuba dive and see for yourself what the second longest barrier reef in the world looks like up close.
Extend your aquatic adventure to The Big Blue Hole. Diving into this surreal circle of blue takes you downward to see fish and other aquatic creatures at different depths, so you could meet everything from shrimp to giant groupers. Deep within the hole see primordial-looking stalactites and stalagmites—plus the occasional shark or two. Make the Hol Chan Marine Reserve your fall back destination if you can’t get to the hole. Come in late spring/early summer to swim with Whale Sharks when the moon is full.
Where to eat in Ambergris Caye
Since Ambergris Caye is home to celebrities, retirees, backpackers and families, the sheer number and variety of lodgings available is staggering. Consider a stay at Victoria House, a 43-room plantation-style manse that earns five stars for lush gardens, beautiful suites, pristine beaches and a super-friendly staff. The Villas at Banyan Bay is just a short stroll from town and if a hammock on a balcony with endless views of the ocean appeals to you, it could be your vacation headquarters. The Portofino Beach Resort, with its five-star ratings, tropically-styled beachfront suites, luxury baths and spa offer the good life on steroids. The staffs at all of these properties are happy to book you on unlimited numbers of off-site excursions to Maya ruins, wildlife refuges, jungles, rain forests, sailing, diving and other land and aquatic adventures.
San Pedro Town, The Capital of Ambergris Caye
Founded in 1848, San Pedro is the colorful capital of Ambergris Caye. Way back in 1986, the world-famous singer Madonna visited San Pedro, which inspired her to write the hit song “La Isla Bonita,” which currently has over 85 million views on YouTube. The video for that song was filmed in San Pedro and many locals appear in the background behind the singer.
Officially, the population of San Pedro is only around 20,000 people, but Ambergris Caye is the most popular tourist destination in the country, bringing in hundreds of thousands of people every year. Locals are known as San Pedranos, most of whose ancestors came from Mexico. Today, most people in San Pedro speak English as a first language but are conversant in basic Spanish.
San Pedro is a lovely town, and because it’s on an island, the most popular form of transportation is by bicycle or electric golf cart. San Pedro has everything a visitor might want, including resorts, hotels, high-speed internet, banks, shops, swimming pools, and even a gourmet farmer’s market. The town has its own airstrip with regular connections to the mainland as well as a water taxi dock with connections to Belize City and nearby islands such as Caye Caulker.
And because San Pedro is a popular gateway to the nearby Belize Barrier Reef, it is home to fantastic seafood restaurants serving lobster, conch, fish, and other delights fresh-caught daily and prepared to order. San Pedro is also where you’ll find dive centers that rent equipment and offer PADI certification as well as dive/snorkel tour operators for trips to the reef, including the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley.
Popular activities in San Pedro include windsurfing, kiteboarding, sea kayaking, bird watching, fishing, sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving. San Pedro sits at the southern tip of the island, but most of the central and northern end is undeveloped, making it an ideal location for spotting birds and indigenous wildlife.
San Pedro is home to several exuberant festivals throughout the year, including a raucous Carnival, a Lobsterfest in June, and the International Costa Maya Festival in August, a week-long combination beauty pageant, street fair, and live music concert.
Because San Pedro is on an island, living expenses are much higher than anywhere else in Belize. Property prices for a beachfront condominium can exceed $500,000, and a one-bedroom apartment rental can exceed $1,000 a month. Electricity and gasoline are also more expensive in San Pedro.
The Secret Beach in Ambergris Caye, Belize
Ambergris Caye is one of the most delightfully secluded spots in Belize. While the low population density and wild frontier atmosphere of the country means it’s never too hard to get some time to yourself, the lack of walk-in beaches makes Ambergris a more exclusive stretch of territory that’s only accessible by boat or a local flight with either Tropic Air or Maya Island Air. And Secret Beach ramps that level of exclusivity to a whole new level. While many of the locals are intimately aware of what Secret Beach has to offer, it’s generally an unknown variable to vacationers. That makes it the perfect place for the savvy traveler to unplug and relax free of crowds of foreigners.
It’s not that Secret Beach is hard to access, more that you just have to know how to get there. While the beach is accessible by water via a boat or jet skis, the most popular path involves a golf cart. The bumpy, singular road to Secret Beach can get you there from San Pedro Town in somewhere between 35 and 45 minutes, and it’s a delightful little trip that gives you a great view of the more untapped wilderness Belize has to offer. The path winds through the lush mangrove swamps, so you’ll want to make sure to not diverge from the trail. Also make sure to bring five dollars cash with you to get through the toll bridge. And don’t worry about getting lost. Despite its “secret” reputation, helpful signs can guide you right to the beach once you set out on the right path.
Once you find Secret Beach, you’ll discover an idyllic stretch of surf and sand that isn’t as desolate as you might have expected. A few restaurants and bars line the water, allowing you to enjoy a cold drink or a fresh meal as you bask on the sand, and there are even massage services right on the beach. Kayaks and paddleboards are both available for rental as well, and this is a delightfully shallow stretch of water. You can comfortably venture out two hundred feet and still only be standing waist deep in the Caribbean.
Secret Beach may not be such a secret anymore, and its location is slowly starting to trickle out, so there’s no better time than the present to visit. If you want to enjoy a scenic stretch of beach that’s largely bereft of crowds, book your flight sooner rather than later. Secret Beach isn’t likely to stay a refuge for locals for much longer.
Top Attractions in/near Ambergris Caye
Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Shark Ray Alley
Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve
Belize Blue Hole
Belize Barrier Reef
Getting to Ambergris Caye
Is your vacation budget limitless? Catch a commuter flight to Ambergris Caye at Belize City’s Philip Goldson International Airport or the Belize Municipal Airport and enjoy a scenic ride over Belize’s lush jungles and crystal waters. It takes about 20 minutes on either Tropic Air or Maya Island Air. Take the more leisurely option that allows you to decompress slowly: A cab from the airport gets you to the Belize water taxi center where you board a boat for the 1.5 hour journey to San Pedro. The second option is cheaper, so spend that cash on your first cocktail once you arrive!
A Brief History of Ambergris Caye Belize
Though it is now a haven for travelers from around the world, Ambergris Caye is also steeped in history.
Ambergris Caye’s position on the Southen tip of the Yucatan Peninsula meant that it began life as an important trading post for the Maya people who once ruled the region. Indeed, about 1,500 years ago, they decided to create a more optimal trading route between the Yucatan coast and Belize by creating the Bacalar Chico channel which now separates Ambergris Caye from Mexico.
The Ambergris Caye area continued to be used primarily for trading purposes until around the 16th or 17th century. By this time, the Maya people had begun to retreat further and further inland in an effort to avoid making too much contact with the European settlers who were now arriving more frequently.
In the absence of the Maya, the Europeans took ownership of Ambergris Caye. Indeed, according to local lore, pirates from the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain would regularly use the region’s many coves as hiding spots when ambushing rival Spanish ships. This story is given more credence by the fact that a number of small treasure collections have been discovered on the island – potentially left behind by those European pirates.
By the 19th century, the European pirates had left Ambergris Caye, but the region was beset by the War of the Castes. This conflict in the Yucatan drove the Mestizo and Maya people across the Bacalar Chico channel and on to the island. In 1848, these new residents formed the town of San Pedro – which is still the largest settlement on the island.
In 1869, a wealthy Briton named James Hume Blake purchased the ownership rights to Ambergris Caye for the princely sum of $625. Mr. Blake and his wife, Antonia Andrade, transformed the island into a coconut plantation and conscripted many of the island’s residents to work for them.
Though the coconut business was a successful source of income for the island for almost a century, it was eventually destroyed by a series of devastating hurricanes in the 1950s. Soon after, the Belizean government purchased Ambergris Caye from its private owners and redistributed its ownership rights to the people who called the island home.
Many of the islanders then turned to the fishing business in search of an income for their families. Lobster, in particular, proved to be a popular catch. Before long, the people of San Pedro had formed a lobster cooperative and even built a freezer plant on the island.
Though the island’s lobster industry has gone through some ups and downs over the past five decades or so, it remains one of the largest sources of income for the people of Ambergris Caye. It coupled with tourism and real estate are some of the main drivers behind the ongoing success of the island today.