Once the favorite hideout and playground of pirates, the Northern Cayes are Belize’s greatest tourism draw, and with good reason. These postcard-perfect islands offer quick access to the Belize Barrier Reef and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a dizzying array of outdoor activities, and enough lodging, restaurants, and entertainment options to fit celebrity and backpacker budgets alike.

Located close to Belize City, the Northern Cayes are ideal for adventurers short on getaway time. This cluster of islands includes the iconic Great Blue Hole and two of Belize’s three atolls—Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef—for world-class diving, snorkeling, and fishing. And that’s not all: As the most tourist-ready region in all of Belize, the Northern Cayes host an estimated 70 percent of visitors for their first Belizean experience. This fusion of local culture with a constant stream of international visitors makes for one lively scene.

The sun sets over the horizon turning a dramatic cloud covered sky from golden to deep purple.

Sunset at Caye Caulker. Photo © David Taus, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Avid divers tend to stay on one of the atolls to minimize travel time to top dive sites; otherwise, it’s a two-hour boat ride each way from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. Ambergris, generally referred to as San Pedro, attracts those seeking constant activity—there is incessant hustle and bustle, not to mention pretty hotels and pools, chic lounges, fine dining, and plenty of bars and nightlife. Smaller Caye Caulker attracts the laid-back, off-the-beaten-path traveler, those who seek immersion in local island life, exploring sand-only streets on foot or bicycle (there are no cars here!). There’s an amusing sibling rivalry between the two cayes—larger Ambergris Caye considers Caye Caulker slow and boring, while the smaller caye is content with the lack of noise, paved roads, and crowds. In reality, each has a varied slice of Belize to offer, excellent water sports, and island fun, and neither is a wasted visit.

Planning Your Time

A common dilemma is whether to stay on Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker, each unique in rhythm and scenery. The good news is that they are a mere 20-minute water-taxi hop away from each other, with tours available from either base.

Ambergris Caye’s foodie treasures and luxury accommodations attract travelers seeking both excellent diving and nonstop nightlife. San Pedro is considered the “trendy” part of Belize, with more resorts, bars, lounges, eateries, and general day-to-day activities than most of the country. There’s a steady buzz here, and events take place year-round, attracting not only visitors but also Belizeans from the city seeking a quick, fun getaway. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most popular dive and snorkel site in Belize. Located on and around the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve hosts an incredibly diverse array of wildlife and offers excellent snorkeling and diving.

Caye Caulker’s slower yet rhythmic Caribbean vibe will appeal to the laid-back visitor while still offering excellent diving opportunities. The Split is the favorite go-to swimming and sunset rendezvous spot on the island. Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, at the north end of the Drowned Cayes, is a protected area with nearly 9,000 acres of sea and mangroves to explore.

Outside these two cayes are the upscale Turneffe Islands, with diving opportunities at The Elbow and Lighthouse Reef Atoll, home to the some of the best dive spots in the world—Half Moon Caye and Long Caye.

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Belize.