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 Mayan traders between AD 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.

Four-eyed butterfly fish along the Belize Barrier Reef. Photo © Lebawit Lily Girma.

Four-eyed butterflyfish along the Belize Barrier Reef. Photo © Lebawit Lily Girma.

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: Mayan trading, fishing, and agricultural settlements that were inhabited from at least AD 300 to 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 Mayan period to modern times. The reserve also contains evidence of Spanish and English habitation during the colonial period, including several Spanish-period shipwrecks offshore.

A ranger station in the northwest area of the park has a visitors center (tel. 501/226-2833) and displays of area history, including old glass bottles and Mayan relics found within the reserve. A picnic area offers a barbecue.

Accommodations and Food

The best place to stay nearest Bacalar is on a beautiful 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. This is the best option for folks who want to feel like they are on another island, not for people who want to drive golf carts, party, and be “in the mix” (though all the standard tours are still available, probably with a little extra transportation cost).

Tranquility Bay Resort (U.S. tel. 800/843-2293, from US$139) is the only resort on the island where you can snorkel directly from the beach to the reef. Every evening, tarpon, barracuda, and eagle rays swim under the lights of the dockside restaurant, appropriately named The Aquarium. There’s 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 a refrigerator and a microwave. The cabins have Belizean hardwoods, Mexican tiles, and spectacular ocean views. The resort offers free use of kayaks, which can cover a lot of ground at this site, and there is an on-site dive shop. Fishing, snorkeling, scuba, and sailing trips are available.

Getting There

Most Ambergris dive shops and a few tour companies that do dive and snorkel trips to Bacalar Chico are based in San Pedro. Start with Seaduced by Belize (tel. 501/226-2254, US$105 pp) and Searious Adventures (tel. 501/226-4202, US$90), or arrange a trip with Tranquility Bay Resort (U.S. tel. 800/843-2293).

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Belize Cayes.