Belize Reef

The Greatest Barrier Reef? Belize

The Belize Barrier Reef vs. the Great Barrier Reef

Belize Reef

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia may be the most famous coral reef in the world, but it is not necessarily the best place to experience the wonders of the marine environment. If your travels also take you to Central America, consider a trip to Caye Caulker, Belize, where you can visit the world’s second biggest barrier reef, The Belize Barrier Reef. Here, not only does pristine coral await you, but the Caribbean vibe of Caye Caulker makes for a superior snorkeling trip all round.

Cost of snorkelling

Australia is expensive when you’re backpacking. A full-day snorkeling trip from Port Douglas (including equipment and lunch) will set you back about £100, but in Caye Caulker it’s about £30 for the same deal. And the price of snorkelling was as far as I looked in Australia – you can imagine that diving was far beyond a lowly backpacker’s price range.

Yet in Belize even the price of doing a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) qualification is reasonable. In March 2011 it was shaping up to be only £220 with a reputable company. Just make sure your travel insurance covers you for diving. If it doesn’t, you can get day-by-day cover from one of the few insurers that let you start a policy once you’ve already left your home country, but it’s an extra cost to bear in mind.

Island life

Belize Turtle

Caye Caulker has a lot more going for it than just its reasonably priced reef trips; here you’ll get a real taste of Caribbean island life. Things move slowly on this island: there are no concrete roads, just sandy ones. And there aren’t many cars; the main way to get around here is by a golf buggy! Or you could just walk; the island is only five miles long and less than one mile wide, after all.

There are plenty of restaurants and bars, many with their own gimmick or specialty cocktail to keep you partying late. One bar has swings for seats, and a homemade contraption dangling from the rafters built to give five drinkers a shooter at the same time (it can get messy!). And of course you can’t go to Caye Caulker without watching the sun go down at the split – the name given to where the island is divided in two. Happily there’s a bar, the Lazy Lizard, perched right on this spot, where you can watch the beautiful sunset to the chilled out beat of reggae – whilst swimming in the water, if you like.

Wildlife on The Belize Barrier Reef

But, although relaxing on Caye Caulker is great, most people get out to the reef at least once during their visit to the island. Like the Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, just like its Australian counterpart, vast stretches are protected by national parks so, as you can imagine, both are rich in biodiversity. And although both have experienced severe bleaching in recent decades (probably due to climate change), from my personal experience, The Belize Barrier Reef seemed to be a lot less damaged and bleached in comparison.

Moreover, a greater array of wildlife was on display in Belize. On top of the myriad glimmering, tropical fish swimming beneath me, there were green turtles, eagle rays, sting rays, and nurse sharks (shoals of the last two swimming right beneath the boat!). And this was just snorkeling, remember: if you choose to dive in Belize, you can go down into the Great Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Laid-back atmosphere of Belize

Belize Sunset

There is one final reason why I preferred my day-trip snorkeling on The Belize Barrier Reef, and that’s the overall laid-back atmosphere of Belize, and Caye Caulker in particular. In Australia the trip was run from a huge motorized boat with 100 other people. The water got so crowded when we all jumped in that you had to be careful not to crash into one another.

But in Belize we were on a small sailing boat with a capacity of about 12. Although we did pass a couple of other boats during our trip, when we were in the water it felt as though it was just us and the reef – our very own ‘Finding Nemo’. And to top it all off, on the gentle sail back to the island at the end of the day, we all kicked back watching the sunset as the captain played some reggae and served us with (plenty of) rum punch.

That day-trip snorkeling in Belize stands out as one of the highlights of my entire round-the-world trip, so if you happen to be in Central America, I thoroughly recommend you go to Caye Caulker and pay a visit to The Belize Barrier Reef: it may not be called great, but I think you’ll find it is.