Northeast of Belize City and southeast of Ambergris Caye, the snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve is one of the most popular snorkel dives due to its prolific marine life. The Hol Chan Underwater National Park is located 4 miles southeast of Ambergris Caye, which is a 15 minute boat ride. While the entire national park is about three square miles, the main dive area...
Northeast of Belize City and southeast of Ambergris Caye, the snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve is one of the most popular snorkel dives due to its prolific marine life. The Hol Chan Underwater National Park is located 4 miles southeast of Ambergris Caye, which is a 15 minute boat ride. While the entire national park is about three square miles, the main dive area is at the channel or cut in the barrier reef that is about 70 feet across in 25 feet of water. Actually, the name Hol Chan means little channel in Mayan. There are amazing formations of staghorn coral and elkhorn coral, which provide habitat for nurse sharks, southern stingrays, spotted eagle rays, snapper, grouper, green moray eels, parrotfish, sturgeon and jacks.
The snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is good yearround, but make sure to check out the cruise ship schedule since this place can get crowded. Even though this snorkeling site is quite crowded, many of the snorkelers comeback disappointed with the reef quality, quantity of marine life and water quality due to low visibility. Generally, scuba divers rave about water quality here, but snorkelers report cloudy low visibility. The best quality of water and marine life is found deeper out the cut but beware of the strong currents. The wind and surf can kickup in the afternoon, so mornings are recommended. Also, there are strong tidal currents especially in the cut mid-water; during tide change, these currents can be impossible to swim against. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve has had several snorkeler deaths over the years during rough seas, so make sure you know the conditions before heading out.
The base for Hol Chan Marine Reserve is San Pedro on Ambergis Caye. To reach San Pedro on Ambergis Caye, fly into Belize City International Airport. There are two small inter-island airlines that operate a 20 minute flight to San Pedro airport on Ambergis Caye. Note, even if you reserve a specific inter-island flight at a specific time, only after you check-in with the inter-island carrier are you really assigned to an actual flight at an actual time. While there is a ferry service from downtown Belize City to Ambergris Caye, there are only informal taxis (in personally owned vehicles) from the airport along slow roads thru run-down neighborhoods to the ferry dock, which is located in a very sketchy area. Hence, the ferry service does not tend to be a very popular option with tourists.
To reach Hol Chan Marine Reserve snorkeling, there are several dive boat charters out of San Pedro that also pick up from the numerous hotel boat docks. The Hol Chan snorkeling site is 4nm south of San Pedro. On this boat accessed snorkeling dive trip, make sure the charter boat stops at Shark Ray Alley on the way out.
After a long day of snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, you can check out Wet Willies for a cold drink. It's located at the end of a pier just north of downtown San Pedro. Alternately, another local favorite is the Green Parrot Beach Bar located in the Portofino Beach Resort about six miles north of San Pedro (they have a complementary water taxi 501-226-5096).
When considering a trip to Ambergris Caye for a snorkeling vacation, there are a few things you should be aware of before planning. First, due to shallow sea grass beds and heavy boat traffic, there really isn't any snorkeling accessible from the shoreline. A boat is definitely required to get to the good snorkeling dive sites. Even with a sea kayak, you'll need to be very careful of the fast boats and the changing offshore winds making your return challenging. Second, Ambergris Caye seems to be over flowing with trash. You can expect to find plenty of trash in the water and washing up on shore. The inland roads are lined with smelly trash, too. Third, the bugs and ants may drive you crazy until you get used to routinely using plenty of bug spray. The no-see-ums and small fire ants are particularly annoying. Fourth, the island roads are in pretty bad shape, and once outside of downtown San Pedro, you'll encounter flooding and large pot holes. Again, travel by boat is the best way to go. Keep in mind that the local water taxi is more of a water bus that stops at every dock as needed. It's a value, but can take quite some time to get up the coastline. Fifth, the price of food on the island is quite high and variety is limited. So, make sure to pack as much food in your bags when you head down. While there are numerous small markets, their prices are double those at the two Super Buy grocery stores on the island. Lastly, the dive shops are very scuba oriented and have very little or no supples. So bring your own gear and backup supplies. The general level of professionalism seems pretty laid back.
While many tourists use one of the many scuba dive tour charters companies to reach the boat access snorkeling sites, all the charters seem to offer the exact same two trips. The two typical trips combine either Hol Chan/Shark Ray Alley or they combine Tres Cocos / Mexico Rocks. You may find a tour for snorkeling along with a beach BBQ, but there is limited snorkeling and way too much time on shore at a crowded dirty beach. These snorkeling beach BBQ trips also may sell you on offering two or three dive sites during the trip, but it may turn out that you'll only go to one site. The best option to enjoying Ambergris Caye snorkeling is to stay at a resort near your desired offshore reef dives and use the resorts boat service. Alternately, you can look at the downtown San Pedro piers for a local guide with a dive permit and strike a dear for some boat services.
Overall, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the 1st most popular snorkel dive spot of all 44 snorkeling dives in Belize. Several of the better snorkeling spots are nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve including Shark Ray Alley, Mexico Rocks, Tuffy Rocks, Tackle Box Canyon, Esmeralda and Tres Cocos.
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