Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve
Located on and around the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve hosts an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, offers excellent snorkeling and diving, and is rich with history. The Bacalar Chico Canal is reputed to have been dug by Maya traders between A.D. 700 and 900, creating Ambergris Caye by separating it from the Yucatán Peninsula.
The reserve has a wide range of wildlife habitat; 194 species of birds have been sighted there. The landscape consists in part of sinkholes and cenotes created by the effects of weathering on the limestone bedrock of Ambergris Caye. On the eastern side of the reserve is Rocky Point, the only location in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System where the reef touches the shore. This is one of Belize’s most important and prolific sea turtle nesting sites, home to at least 10 threatened species.
In 1997, Bacalar Chico—along with the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Bacalar Chico also contains at least nine archaeological sites: Maya trading, fishing, and agricultural settlements that were inhabited from at least A.D. 300–900. A 10th site just outside the reserve boundary is regarded as especially important for its remaining wall network throughout the settlement and its potential to provide missing information about the transition from the Classic Maya period to modern times. The reserve also contains evidence of Spanish and English habitation during the colonial period, including several Spanish-period shipwrecks offshore.
Visiting the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve
There is a ranger station in the northwest area of the park with a visitors center (tel. 501/226-2833, www.bacalarchico.org) and displays of area history, including old glass bottles and Maya relics found within the reserve. There is a picnic area with a barbecue and grill. Most Ambergris dive shops and a few tour companies do dive/snorkel trips to Bacalar Chico based in San Pedro. Start with SEAduced by Belize (tel. 501/226-3221) and Searious Adventures (tel. 501/226-4202, www.seariousadventures.com), or arrange a trip with Tranquility Bay Resort (U.S. tel. 800/843-2293, www.tranquilitybayresort.com) or The Turtleman’s House (tel. 501/664-9661, http://turtlemanshouse.com).
Hotels and Resorts
The two places to stay are on a fabulous hard-packed white-sand beach 12 miles north of San Pedro. The boat ride from town takes anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes, well past the last stop on the water taxi. These options are for folks who want to feel like they are on another island, not for people who want to drive golf carts and party (though all the standard tours are still available, probably with a little extra transport cost).
Tranquility Bay Resort (U.S. tel. 800/843-2293, www.tranquilitybayresort.com, from US$139) is the only resort on the island where you can snorkel directly from the beach to the reef. Every evening, tarpon, barracudas, and eagle rays swim under the lights of their dock-side restaurant, appropriately named The Aquarium. They have a budget room just off the beach, along with seven brightly painted two-bedroom cabanas and three one-bedrooms with lofts, lining one of the nicest white-sand beaches on the island. Bedrooms are air-conditioned and each cabana is equipped with refrigerator and microwave. The cabins have Belizean hardwoods, Mexican tiles, and spectacular ocean views. They offer free use of kayaks (which can cover a lot of ground at this site), an on-site dive shop, and a handful of fishing, snorkeling, scuba, and sailing trips.
One of the most distinctive accommodations I’ve seen, The Turtleman’s House (tel. 501/664-9661, http://turtlemanshouse.com) is a stilted shack above the water built out of salvaged material (much of it pieces of destroyed docks that wash ashore after hurricanes) by Greg “Turtleman” Smith, a resident of this beach for three decades and the man who is partly responsible for the creation of the reserve and protection of its wildlife. At first glance, US$80 a night (three-night minimum) seems overpriced, but you’re paying for the location. Plus, meals are cheap, and you’ll have the sunrise all to yourself. Guests sleep in the primitive room with a solar bag shower and seagrass compost bucket toilet, then join Greg, his wife, Rosemary, and their children in their home on the island (50 feet away) for delicious home-cooked meals and cinnamon buns. Guests can also take advantage of Tranquility Bay’s restaurant and dive shop, a stone’s throw down the beach.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition