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Belize

Barrier Reef and Rain Forest

By Patrick O'Donnell
Contributing Writer
The small country of Belize has some of the best preserved rain forests and coral reefs in Central America. I know this from firsthand experience because I visited both of these biodiverse ecosystems during a recent trip to this small country.

The first half of my two week trip was dedicated to checking out aquatic animals while snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef and the second half was spent experiencing the rain forests that cloak much of the interior of Belize.

Belize Barrier Reef

The two biggest barrier reefs in the world are the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the Meso-American Reef that parallels the coasts of the eastern Yucatan, Belize, and northern Honduras. The section in Belize is often called the Belize Barrier Reef or Great Belize Barrier Reef and is renowned for harboring some of the highest reef diversity in the entire Caribbean Sea.

Like many travelers visiting the Belize Barrier Reef, my Belize adventure began on beautiful Ambergris Cay. This popular Belize destination acts as the perfect starting point for exploring the Belize Barrier Reef because a number of diving and tour operators are based here, there are plenty of accommodations from which to choose, and you can dine out at a different excellent restaurant every night of the week (at least I did).

Although I saw Nurse Sharks and sea turtles on a glass bottom boat tour of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and snorkelled the beautiful reefs at Caye Caulker, the high point of this first week in Belize (and probably for the entire trip) was a snorkeling tour to Turneffe Atoll. When I signed up for it, I wasn’t even sure if the tour would happen because they said that 6 people needed to sign up and that it was weather dependent. However, enough snorkelers signed up by the next day and the weather forecast looked good so off we went to Turneffe on my second from last day on Ambergris Cay.

The ride to the reef was a quick trip by motorboat over deep blue water. Flying fish occasionally appeared off the prow, and we saw two pods of dolphins before we reached the mangrove-covered islets of Turneffe Atoll. The reef at Turneffe was incredible and unlike Caye Caulker, we had the waters to ourselves. Well, ourselves and schools of glittering fish, more Nurse Sharks, brightly colored Triggerfish, and at least two dozen other exquisite fish species. The water was so clear that I kind of felt like I was swimming in some huge, outdoor aquarium.

The entire day was spent on the reef except when we ate lunch on a nearby deserted beach. The whole experience was nothing short of incredible, and even more so because we were greeted by a stunning sunset as we motored into San Pedro on Ambergris Cay.

Belize Rain Forest

It was hard to top my time on Ambergris Cay, and I admit that my stay in the rain forests of Belize didn’t match up to the incredible snorkeling, but I’m still glad that I split the trip into two main parts.

I stayed at the well known (and expensive) Chan Chich Lodge and don’t see how I could have chosen a better, more comfortable way to experience the rain forests of Belize. During the thirty minute charter flight to Chan Chich, I was impressed by the huge amount of unbroken rain forest that I was flying into and was thrilled to imagine all of the jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, toucans, and other rain forest animals that called the jade green jungle home.

I went on several guided walks in the forest and actually saw very few animals, but apparently that’s par for the course in the rain forest. Nevertheless, I still saw two species of monkeys, agoutis (imagine a tailless, terrestrial squirrel), and an Ocelot (!). Most mammals stay hidden in the dense vegetation, but at least the birds were easy to see and included toucans, flocks of screeching parrots, and gorgeous little Red-capped Manakins.

Although rain forests in Belize aren’t as diverse as the Amazon, pretty big areas of forest are well protected which makes it easier to see a lot of animals, including Jaguars. I wasn’t so lucky but a couple staying at Chan Chich when I was there actually did see one on a guided night walk.

Belize merits more than one vacation

I would go back to Belize in a second although it would be pretty hard to choose between fantastic places such as Turneffe Atoll and a list of other sites I have yet to experience.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

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October 06, 2010

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