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belize ambergris caye sunrise sunset sea pierWith its combination of magnificent Mayan ruins, white sand beaches, lush rain forests, and some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, the English-speaking nation of Belize is proof that great things come in small packages.

Bordering on Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean, Belize is the second smallest country in Central America (after El Salvador), with an area of approximately 9,000 square miles that includes numerous small islands off the coast known as cayes.

More than half of the mainland is covered with dense forests, and at its longest point Belize is 174 miles long while its greatest width is 68 miles. Long a strong advocate of environmental protection, the government has set aside approximately 20 percent of its land as nature reserves.

Belize has been attracting steadily increasing numbers of U.S. visitors as it has become better known as a reasonably priced destination offering spectacular diving opportunities. It also continues to increase in popularity as a cruise destination and is often included as one of the ports of call on Western Caribbean itineraries.

Diving is Belize's main claim to fame due to an almost unbroken line of reefs and cayes extending for 150 miles along its coast that make up the longest reef system in the Western Hemisphere (and the second longest in the world). While many cayes are tiny and uninhabited, some, like Ambergris Caye, are sufficiently large to have built resorts that attract divers from all across the U.S. and from countries around the world.

But beyond the sea, there are also several important Mayan sites situated on the mainland, such as Altun Ha and Xunantunich; in fact, Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan sites of all the countries in Central America. And don't forget about the magnificent Tikal, located just across the border in Guatemala.

What to See
Diving and snorkeling are number one on the hit parade of favorite outdoor activities here due to the astounding sites along the barrier reef. Some of the best dive sites lie just off Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker (and can be accessed easily from either island). A favorite snorkeling area is known as Shark Ray Alley (one hour by speedboat from San Pedro), where it's possible to get "up close and personal" (petting is permitted) with nurse sharks and sting rays. Shark Ray Alley is part of the larger Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a three-square-mile underground water park filled with vibrantly colored fish and coral.

Ambergris Caye is Belize's largest island and the most popular destination for visitors. Its main town, San Pedro, bustles with cars, golf carts, bikes and pedestrians. Although there are a number of resorts and hotels here, there are few real beaches here, and visitors looking to swim should head out to the end of the many piers that stretch out into the water (to avoid the sea grass closer into the shore). Ambergris Caye is a good base for snorkeling or diving expeditions, or for travelers looking simply to lie back and relax. It's accessible by ferry from Belize City.

Caye Caulker is Ambergris Caye's laid-back cousin -- a smaller, quieter island with sandy streets and no cars. (You can rent a bike or golf cart to get around, but the island is small enough to walk just about anywhere.) As with Ambergris Caye, there are no real beaches to speak of and swimming is best done off the piers -- or you can go swimming in the crystalline waters of the Split, a narrow channel carved by Hurricane Hattie between the northern and southern parts of the island in 1961. Snorkeling, diving, kayaking and simply chilling out are the prime activities here. The island is accessible by ferry from Belize City.

xunantunich mayan ruins temple Belize is home to a number of excellent Mayan sites. Among the best of these is Altun Ha, a heavily excavated site that is a convenient day trip out of the Belize City. Once a major trading and ceremonial center, it consists of several impressive temples and tombs highlighted by the Temple of the Masonry Altars. Another important site is Xunantunich, located near the Guatemalan border, which can only be reached by crossing the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry. Situated here are six major plazas ringed by more than 25 temples and palaces; largest of the remaining temples is Il Castilo which is worth climbing for the spectacular panoramic view from the top. If you find yourself near the Guatemalan border, it's worth a day trip to the ruins at Tikal, where you'll find a number of spectacular pyramids (some over 200 feet tall). Climb one and you'll see nothing but rain forest for miles; the city, once home to 100,000 people, is still in the process of excavation from its wild natural surroundings.

Wildlife lovers will love exploring three popular attractions in Belize. Not far from Belize City is the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, which protects a number of native Belizean species such as jaguars, tapirs and various tropical birds. A little farther outside the city are the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary (at Western Highway mile marker 30.8) and the Community Baboon Sanctuary (across the street), which is home to a substantial number of black howler monkeys.

Belize is a birder's delight, home to more than 500 different species from toucans to egrets. Two highly recommended ways to encounter bird life are to take a guided boat trip to Laughing Bird Caye and/or a visit to the aforementioned Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.

In ancient times, the Mayans believed that Belize's many caves were the "underworld" and revered them as sacred places. Options for exploring the network of caves include tubing or by kayak or canoe. A few of the more popular caves include Barton Creek Cave, which can be visited by canoe, and Rio Frio Cave, Belize's most accessible cave (you can walk right in). If you're up for a more strenuous experience, the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) is worth the effort; the well-preserved Mayan artifacts in this cave can only be reached via hiking and swimming. To protect the site, the Belize Tourist Board has only licensed a few select guides, including PACZ and Mayawalk, to offer this full-day tour.

Beach bums looking for more expansive stretches of sand than those at Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker should head south to Placencia. This sleepy town with vibrantly colored houses is the gateway to 16 miles of white sand beaches, as well as a base for snorkeling and diving trips out to the nearby barrier reef. A fun excursion is a boat ride down the lazy Monkey River, followed by a hike through the jungle -- keep your eye out for howler monkeys.
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