Belize is Beautiful… with a ‘But’
by Brenda Webb
With its sandy white beaches, cellophane-clear water, fantastic snorkelling on magical coral reefs and deserted anchorages, Belize is one of the nicest places we’ve visited in the Caribbean. But (and there is always a “but”, isn’t there?) why weren’t we cut some slack with the weather?
What we didn’t know before we sailed there is that, in winter, Belize is affected by cold fronts sweeping down from the USA. These “northers” bring cloudy skies, wind and drizzle and during our time there in January and February, one seemed to come through about every ten days.
It meant we spent a lot of time at anchor off Placencia. Many parts of Belize’s waters are uncharted and littered with reefs and shoal ground, so it’s unwise to move anywhere without good sunlight and those northers weren’t providing much of that.
As much as we loved Placencia, with its distinct Caribbean feel, colourful buildings, fantastic provisioning, funky bars and restaurants and free WiFi, we wanted to see the reefs and beaches that Belize is famous for.
There are so many anchorages in Belize that it is quite possible to be the only boat there and we especially enjoyed the southern Sapodillas for this very reason. The snorkelling was magnificent with the water some of the clearest we’ve seen in the Caribbean.
Hunting Cay in the Sapodillas has a coast guard/Immigration post. It’s not possible to clear in or out there, however a courtesy visit is appreciated. Friendly officials may call you ashore (in our case they sent a fisherman out) to check passports, which was done in bare feet under the shade of swaying palm trees with reggae music playing loudly and the odd rum bottle lying around. The area is a marine reserve, so there is a US$10 per person fee, but it’s worth it to be in paradise for a while.
Nearby Nicolas Cay has a resident caretaker who paddled out in his canoe most days for a chat. He told us where the best snorkelling was and we were rewarded with some magnificent sights — a huge stingray feeding in the sand, big grouper in the drop-off in the entrance to the reef and a multitude of colourful reef fish.
The Sapodilla and Queen Cays feature lovely white sand — something most of Belize’s northern cays are lacking. Many are covered in mangroves, which does mean you get the chance to do some manatee spotting, but it’s not quite so good for snorkelling and at dusk the bugs come out in force.
An upside is that the mangroves provide good shelter, and we spent several northers safely hidden in Bannister Bogue and behind Robinson Island. We enjoyed South Long Cocoa Cay and nearby Rendezvous Cay and both offered good snorkelling. Farther north, a second Rendezvous Cay is a daytime anchorage only and, while beautiful, does get overrun with visitors from cruise ships.
Our favourite spot in Belize was Southwater Cay — an absolute gem on the edge of the reef featuring wonderful white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and a couple of atmospheric beach bars. We did a drift snorkel outside the reef and had a school of huge tarpon taking great interest in us along with spotted rays, grouper and, sadly, the ever-present lionfish.
Owing to our two-metre-plus draft we did not explore any of the cays north of Belize City. We didn’t rate Belize City highly but the anchorage off the Fort George hotel is safe and secure in settled weather and provides easy access to taxis for supermarket runs.
The highlight of our time in Belize was always going to be Lighthouse Reef, but wouldn’t you know it, those darned northers kept us away. Our draft meant we could not get to the more sheltered inside anchorage so we would be exposed in northers. We later met up with American cruising friends who did make it and said the snorkelling was fantastic outside the reef, but they balked at the US$60 fee per person to visit the Blue Hole. Looks like we saved ourselves a bundle!
Glover’s Reef, to the south, made up for missing Lighthouse. With water ranging from turquoise blue through cobalt and inky, it was magical. The beaches on Glover’s were perfect for sundowners but it was disappointing to be told that the beach was private and we weren’t welcome. Our cruising buddies on Balvenie argued that they had paid US$10 a night (the marine reserve fee) to be here, and surely that should include being able to have a wander on the beach.
The clincher was using the line “We’ve come all the way from New Zealand to see your beautiful island”. The caretakers relented, but made it clear we had to stay near the waterline and the attitude slightly spoilt the evening for us.
Sailing inside the reef in Belize was excellent, with flat seas and afternoon trades on the beam, but the shallow water needed careful eyeball navigation. Just south of scenic Tobacco Cay we almost came to grief on a sandbar that was not shown in the Freya Rauscher guide we were using. The next day a French yacht ran hard aground in the same spot. It was a lesson for us that, while the guidebooks are invaluable, they are not infallible.
Our month in Belize was rapidly coming to an end so we cleared out in Dangriga, which we would not recommend as it’s on a lee shore and required a somewhat wet and dodgy river bar crossing in the tender. We only went there on a local’s advice and it proved slightly misleading.
Our final few days in Belize were frustrating as we waited for a weather window to head north but, once again, kept being held back by northers. Eventually we headed off in winds on the nose forecast to come aft. They never did and it was a two-day bash up the Mexican coast with the Yucatan current throwing in a bit of drama north of Cozumel.
What we saw of Belize we loved, but would temper that by making sure that would-be cruisers were aware of the draft issues and the weather. That aside, it’s a magical place and definitely worth including in any western Caribbean cruising itinerary — especially if you do it north to south with the wind behind you.
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