Ambergris Caye. Belize is a small Central American country blessed with a very large reef. Formerly known as British Honduras, it’s tucked on the southeastern quadrant of the Yucatán Peninsula, between the Quintana Roo province of Mexico to the north, Guatemala and Honduras to the west and south, and the western extremes of the Caribbean to the east. With much of its original rainforest intact, Belize has become a favored ecotourism destination in recent years for birders and those hoping to catch a glimpse of a jaguar, as the big cats still thrive here. Divers and snorkelers have long known Belize for the attractions of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which stretches over four hundred miles along the entire Belizean coast, north to Quintana Roo, and south to parts of Guatemala and Honduras.
Ambergris Caye. The crystalline waters off Ambergris are a snorkeling and
diving paradise—as well as a paddling paradise.
For many, the phrase Ambergris Caye is synonymous with Belize. The Ambergris Caye island—thirty-five miles northeast of Belize City—attracts the lion’s share of international visitors, thanks to a mix of tourist infrastructure and easy access to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Beyond the clear, sheltered Caribbean waters west of the reef, Ambergris has countless channels, lagoons, and mangrove marshes that are best explored by kayak. For Lori-Ann Murphy, kayaking around Ambergris means one thing: fishing. (Ambergris, incidentally, takes its name from the intestinal secretions of sperm whales, which the giant mammals occasionally vomit.)
“A kayak gives the angler or explorer access to the inner lagoons that big boats can’t reach,” Lori-Ann enthused. “The lagoons of Ambergris Caye provide a safe nursery for the big three of saltwater flats fly fishing—bonefish, permit, and tarpon. The angler can get out of the boat and wade onto fish that are feeding way up in the lagoon on a high tide. For the explorer, kayaking offers up-close and personal exposure to some of Belize’s beautiful birds, including roseate spoonbill or even a great horned owl.”
Ambergris Caye. Much of the paddling on Ambergris Caye is of the do-it-yourself nature, though lodges like El Pescador can provide good maps highlighting fishing hot spots, good birding locales, and secluded picnic/swimming spots. If you’re especially ambitious, you can set out to tackle the route established for the Ambergris Caye Belize Lagoon Reef Eco-Challenge, a sixty-mile race that happens each June. The event was created by Ambergris businessman and environmentalist Elito Arceo to build awareness among his fellow islanders about the beauty of the lagoons on the backside of the island—lagoons that sometimes received less notice but were facing increasing development pressure. The circuit winds north from the town of San Pedro through a maze of lagoons and mangrove channels, finishing the first leg at the Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, where the Mesoamerican Reef joins the mainland and Belize borders Mexico. (The park and reserve protect forty-one square miles of habitat that is home to jaguars and nesting loggerhead and green sea turtles.) The next day paddlers head south along the reef. “Professional kayakers come from all over the world to compete,” Lori-Ann continued, “though paddlers of all levels are welcome to participate.”
“The Bacalar Chico Reserve is going to be a great kayaking destination,” Lori-Ann added. “It was once the site of a Mayan settlement; in fact, the Mayans built the channel that now separates Mexico and Belize. (Ambergris Caye is actually not an island at all but an extension of the Yucatán.) There are several ruin sites that still have yet to be explored. The reserve is currently being developed by the Belize Fisheries Department. Part of the plan is to establish a camping/kayaking concession in the park.”
Ambergris Caye. The fish that call the flats and reefs around Ambergris Caye home attract anglers and snorkelers from far and wide. And on rare occasions, those anglers and snorkelers attract attention from another of the island’s denizens—saltwater crocodiles. Though American saltwater crocodiles are the largest member of the crocodile family (averaging twelve feet in length, with specimens reaching over twenty feet), they are not as menacing as their Nile and Australian cousins, which take hundreds of human lives each year. They are generally most active at night, feeding on small mammals, birds, fish, and crabs—though when they show up on a flat, wading anglers tend to take notice. “One day I was fishing with Wil Flack (who owns Tres Pescados, a fly shop in San Pedro) out on a flat we’d kayaked to,” Lori-Ann recalled. “Wil was on the opposite side of this small lagoon, and we were both sunk up to our knees in the mud. There were armies of bonefish coming toward us. Suddenly I saw a large dark shape coming across the flat—a fish? ‘Wil, it’s a tarpon!’ I shouted. The dark shape took clearer form when its long tail moved from side to side. ‘Lori-Ann, it’s a croc!’ Wil yelled. Indeed it was. Wil kept fishing, but I was paralyzed. The crocodile moved between us and stayed there for what seemed like a very long time, though I think it was only thirty seconds. Finally it swam away.
Ambergris Caye. “At the end of the day, I said to Wil, ‘Can we just talk about the fact that we were wading with a crocodile?’ Incidentally, the bonefishing was stellar.”
Lori-Ann Murphy is a registered nurse by training, but in 1994, she decided to leave the health-care field to become a fly-fishing guide and launched Reel Women Fly Fishing Adventures, which leads angling adventures in Idaho, Montana, and beyond. In 2009 El Pescador, a resort in Belize, asked her to become its director of fishing, a role she thoroughly enjoys. Today, she splits her time between Belize and the western United States, living a life of fly-fishing.
If You Go to Ambergris Caye:
Getting to Ambergris Caye: Ambergris Caye is reached via Belize City, which is served by several carriers, including American Airlines and US Airways. From Belize City, it’s a twenty-minute flight to San Pedro via Tropic Air.
Best Time to Visit Ambergris Caye: Conditions are conducive to kayaking (and fishing) throughout the year, though there’s a bit more rain in the summer and always the chance of hurricanes in the early fall.
Guides/Outfitters: Lori-Ann Murphy can help steer kayak anglers in the right direction.
Level of Difficulty at Ambergris Caye: Less experienced kayakers exploring the mangroves may need a map; those kayaking to the reef should have moderate experience.
Accommodations at Ambergris Caye: El Pescador hosts anglers and ecotourists and can help kayak anglers find their way. Most of the other hotels on Ambergris Caye have kayaks available.
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