Women Outside, Fall 1998
Adeventure Classics: Diving
Belize is yet another application of the adage that real beauty is more than skin-deep. This ecotourism mosh pit, just south of Mexico's Yucatžn Peninsula, presents well enough on the surface, but underwater it's spectacular. The world's fifth-longest barrier reef and some of the best diving waters in the Caribbean lie just off its shores.
These seas are most famous for the Blue Hole, a cavernous limestone sinkhole that plunges 480 feet down from the shallows of Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Worth a visit, sure, but first bypass the Hole for Glover's Reef, the most southerly and least trafficked of Belize's three half-moon-shaped atolls and home to Manta Resort, situated on a 12-acre speck called Southwest Caye. From the boat, Southwest Caye first appears as a tiny smudge of green, fronted by an 80-square-mile lagoon and backed by an inky blue sea stretching east to Aruba. Then thick stands of palm trees, honey-colored sand, and a tidy row of guest cottages come into focus. You're greeted by Manta's dive master, Bill Clark, given a brief lecture on the hazards of falling coconuts (seriously), and escorted across the freshly raked beach to your cabana. Equipped with a double bed and a ceiling fan, a hammock, a clothesline, and a hot-water shower, it's clean and spare and all you need for a week spent mostly underwater.
Descending the Wall
Most of Clark's prized sites aren't more than 20 minutes away by dive boat, and on the trip out he'll prep you on the resident marine life: parrot fish, sea fans, anemones, and barracuda. Still, nothing he says will prepare you for what you'll see as you swim down the Wall, a sheer underwater cliff that drops 1,000 feet through a tangle of coral and manta rays, sponges and angelfish, before pitching another 1,000 feet into blackness. On the shallow side of the Wall, there are green moray eels and feather duster worms, but follow its edge deeper, past giant clusters of brain coral, and you'll have only wide-open water in front of you. The Wall is why you're here, and in a week you'll get only a taste of it.
Eight-day, seven-night dive packages at Manta Resort start at $1,350 per person, double occupancy. Rates include the two-and-a-half-hour boat trip from Belize City, plus all meals, tanks, and weight belts. No matter what your ability, Manta offers dives three times a day (and night dives on alternate evenings). A four-day certification course costs an extra $350 per person, including equipment. For nondivers who've come along, Manta offers flats-fishing packages ($1,850 per person per week). Call the resort for reservations at 800-326-1724.
While your regulator sits idle between dives, snorkel out to the mangroves across the narrow boat channel or search out the blue-ringed octopuses hiding in the lagoon near the dining room, a hut on stilts above the water. Schools of silvery bonefish frequent the shallows in front of the cabanas. Wake up early and take some casts before breakfast, but be advised: The fish in the lagoon are hip to anglers' lures.
If you're intent on seeing the Blue Hole's stalactites and schools of butterfly fish, sign on with Reef Divers for a full-day trip. As most scuba groups descend to 130 feet, this is not a dive for novices ($175 for a three-tank dive; 011-50-120-3134). Slickrock Adventures (800-390-5715) operates a rustic sea-kayaking camp at the northern end of Glover's Reef Atoll. Accommodations are very Gilligan's Island — thatch-roofed cabanas, no running water or electricity — and the paddling is near perfection. Ten-day trips cost $1,695 per person.
The closest atoll to Belize City, Turneffe Islands is renowned for its miles of bonefish flats; the deep water outside the atoll is prime territory for red snapper, marlin, and blackfish tuna. Base yourself at one of Turneffe Flat's air-conditioned duplexes, where weeklong, everything-included fishing packages cost $2,493 per person. Call 800-815-1304.
Fly nonstop to Belize City from Houston, Miami, New Orleans, or Los Angeles on American, Continental, or Taca airlines ($453-$595 round-trip). Visas are not required, but set aside $10 for the departure tax upon leaving the country.