Snorkeling in Belize – Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley

Boat Captain

The morning had been delightful.  My nap had been enjoyable and now it was time to get to work. Eager to finally have a chance to see the reef and go for a swim I quickly booked the trip, tried on my fins and snorkel and then made my way down to the boat.   The captain and guide (pictured above) quickly appeared, jumped in the boat, introduced himself and then we were off.  As luck had it the trip only had a total of 3 people booked on it and after a brief detour down the coast to pick up the other two we were skipping across the surf towards the reef.

Hol Chan Snorkeling Crew

As we made our way towards the reef and Hol Chan Marine Reserve I quickly got acquainted with the other two people on the trip – Mannie and Catherine.  We shared the usual details, made sure we had sunscreen on, and then set to putting on our gear – just as we arrived at the Hol Chan Reserve.

The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, which in turn is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.  The Mesoamerican reef is the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world.  Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  The Belize Barrier Reef itself is home to more than 100 species of coral and a wealth of marine species.  The Hol Chan or “little channel” in Mayan is a break in the reef that serves as a major gathering point for marine life.

The following video has a mixture of video from both Hol Chan and the 2nd stop along our trip – Shark Ray Alley:

As we jumped into the shallow water we kept in mind the requests our guide had made – don’t touch the coral.  Don’t chase sea turtles and above all don’t stand on the reef.

Before long we were snorkeling along as our guide pointed out various interesting fish popping his head above the water just long enough to call out the name of the animal or coral we were looking at. It was incredible.  The fish were relatively tame and prolific. The coral was vibrant and diverse and the water was crystal clear and as warm as bath water.

As we snorkeled along we encountered hundreds of fish, a nurse shark and even a small sea turtle…and then as quickly as it had begun it was back into the boat and off to the next destination.

Snorkeling with Sharks at Shark Ray Alley Belize

Shark Ray Alley

As we hooked the anchor rope and tied up to the buoy we quickly realized that a greeting party was already eagerly waiting for us.  Our hosts?  A group some 10 or so nurse sharks ranging between some 4 and 6 feet in length.  As we pulled on our snorkeling gear and paused for a quick photo or two our guide chuckled at our slight anxiety encouraging us to jump in and join our surprisingly gentle hosts. Eager to oblige I paused just long enough to snap this photo before slipping over the side…careful to make sure I didn’t land on one of the sharks.

Snorkeling in Shark Ray Alley Belize

It was an exhilarating experience.  Despite the knowledge that nurse sharks are largely harmless, and that these were basically pets – it was still enough to get my heart racing.  I was doing it – one of my main goals for the trip: to swim with sharks.  It was every bit as enjoyable as I had hoped.  The sharks were gorgeous, friendly and at times nearly within reach.

I quickly realized that the sharks had a system.  Drawn by the sound of the boat’s engines they’d approach, spend several minutes circling and waiting for chump or bits of food used to bait them in by guides, and then as the food supply dried up or failed to appear would move on to the next boat to arrive.

The sharks were anything but alone though! Our guide pointed out boundaries for us and then set us free to wander at will.  As I snorkeled along enjoying the reef, vibrant colors of the reef fish and incredible mixture of large schools of fish, small solo fish and large predatory fish I could not help but smile. No small task since the smile inevitably broke the seal on my snorkel and flooded my mouth with saltwater.

Large schools of large yellow tailed jacks and permit followed the Shark’s lead as they schooled in the shade the boats created.  All the while I dove, barrel rolled and floated along the barrier reef.  Truly, it is a must see stop along any trip through Belize.

San Pedro Sunset from Boat

Tired, thirsty and with pruning hands we made our way back to the boat and prepared for the quick (albeit windy) ride back to San Pedro.

Sunset in San Pedro

As the sun slipped away and the evening settled in I paused briefly on the dock to reflect.  Enjoying the sunset and letting the richness of the experiences i’d enjoyed over the last 24 hours sink in.  Truly, it had been an incredible day.

Exploring the City of San Pedro in Belize

San Pedro Ramshackle Dock

Rested, well fed and eager to explore San Pedro I rolled out of bed and just barely remembered to throw on my swimming trunks before stumbling out into the open 2nd story porch area that led to my room.  With sleep still heavy in my eyes I wandered over to the railing and looked out – taking in the beauty of the ocean, the long docks with their splintered, old gray boards and the plethora of sailing and motorized boats that sat along the coast.

San Pedro in Belize

As I stood watching the water, a group approached the tour operator’s booth at the bottom of the dock immediately in front of my hotel.  As tidbits of the conversation drifted up to me, I realized it must be just shy of 9 o’clock.  Curious, I kicked on my flip-flops and made my way down to the booth.  Asked a few lazy questions and then had to make an immediate decision as the woman informed me that the last boat for the morning trips was just pushing off. I opted to wait until the afternoon and waved the boat along, eager to compare pricing and ask around for tips on which trip to take.

San Pedro in Belize Resort Hotel

Eager to explore I set off down the beach.  Heading in the direction that led me away from town.   The plethora of docks and boats stretched into the distance and remained largely the same.  However, the buildings along my right hand side – nestled just off the beach – quickly changed from wooden buildings to lush resorts decorated with vibrant tropical plants and palm trees sandwiched into every spare inch.

The Back Streets of San Pedro Belize

Eventually tiring of the beach I cut inland to the main road that runs parallel to the beach.  From there I made my way around the small, local, airport which serves Mayan and Tropic Airlines.  Beyond the airport I quickly found myself on hardened sand streets populated largely by golf carts.  The homes were a mishmash of building materials, thrown together into colorful and often teetering structures built on tall stilts.   As I wandered the small streets I quickly became familiar with the multitude of roaming rasta-men.

Their approach varied, but the general gist was always the same. Money.  From pleas and sob stories about how they just got out of jail and were no longer selling drugs (which inevitably was followed up by an offer to purchase drugs when I refused them money), to seemingly inquiries to help me find whatever I was looking for (the helpful good Samaritan who inevitably would end up asking for a tip) and the more blatant who skipped a story all together and just offered drugs under their breath.  Though unfortunate and at times slightly uncomfortable I quickly learned what to expect and how best (and safely) to send them along their way lamenting the lack of a handout or sale.

The truly unfortunate thing is that unlike the rastamen most Belizeans are incredibly helpful. I say unfortunate because the rastamen make it difficult to differentiate between who’s sincere and who’s just looking for a few extra dollars – leaving tourists uncomfortable and often resulting in a much more defensive response to the local’s innate charity and helpfulness than is deserved.  Most of the Belizeans I met were truly the embodiment of what I’ve always pictured the people of the Caribbean as. They are eager to help, eager to lend the minute or two it takes to walk you down the street to whatever you’re looking for and happy to talk and share stories with perfect strangers.  So, travel tip: If you find yourself in Belize – make the effort to give them the chance.  At times it means you’ll have to give an uncomfortable no…but most of the time it’s well worth the added risk!

Taco Stand

As I continued to explore I stumbled upon a booming taco stand. The place had a number of golf carts parked in front and a disorganized group of people standing at the window jostling for position.  The place was one of the busiest restaurants I’d seen in the whole city and looked to be the preferred lunch place for the local community. As I stepped up and ordered 5 tacos I quickly learned why.

San Pedro Belize

The lady looked at me quizzically, frowned and asked in a slightly rushed but patient voice, “You know that the tacos are 3 for $1 BSD ($.50 USD), right?” – I chuckled slightly embarrassed and ordered 12 with a drink.  As I watched them being prepared I realized that they were slightly smaller than normal street tacos and made of stewed chicken with coleslaw wrapped in a normal sized corn tortilla. They were delicious – and after another plate of 6 I knew I’d found what would become my favorite hole in the wall in San Pedro.

San Pedro Docks

Eager for a nap I made my way back to the hotel, settled in for a quick snooze and then made my way down to the dock at 2PM to book my snorkeling trip. The cost was $35 which included fins, mask and guide.   More on that to come soon! Stay tuned!

Shipwrecked on the way to San Pedro

Shipwrecked in Belize

After a relatively early start I set off to catch the 11AM bus from Playa del Carmen, Mexico down to Chetumal, Mexico.  The plan was to cross the border into Belize, head to Corozal and then catch a water taxi or cheap inter island flight from there out to the famous barrier islands – most likely to San Pedro.

The truth is I didn’t have a hostel lined up, was a little anxious about the lack of a guide book and had no clue how the border/ferry/bus was going to work out.   After overshooting the bus station I backtracked and eventually found it, pausing only at a Walmart like superstore to pick up batteries, albondegas and a small thing of Spanish rice from the deli counter which I intended to eat as an early brunch.

Once at the bus station, however, I ended up spending about 25 minutes in line waiting to purchase my ticket.  Hungry but more concerned about missing my bus I left the food in my bag and watched the minutes tick by.  Just before 11, with ticket in hand I let out a resigned sigh and made my way from the ticket counter to the bus gate.  Seconds later I was on board a nice ADO bus located behind the only window in the bus that had the ADO logo painted across the glass (completely obscuring the view).  Slightly frustrated that I would be spending the next 5 hours crossing Mexico without a view I settled in, smiled at the elderly Hispanic woman sharing the row with me and pulled out my book.  My stomach roared from time to time but without a fork I dared not pull out the food and dive into it until I saw a sign that others were doing the same.

Three hours into the bus ride the bus stopped for 5 minutes, people rushed out and returned with tacos.  Wishing I had taken the opportunity to grab a taco i contented myself by finally diving into what had been intended to be a late morning snack.


The rest of the bus ride was uneventful.  I read the first book in C. Descry’s Spy Trilogy, watched an animated movie or two in Spanish and listened to music. At the Bus station in Chetumal all of the tourists on the bus were quickly approached by a large man who spoke excellent English.  He said there was a new direct ferry from Chetumal straight to San Pedro that cost $30.  Eager to bypass the border hassle, added expense of Corozal and headache most of us opted to give it a try.  As we disembarked I noticed two travelers, who I’d later learn were Canadian.  I introduced myself, asked if they were doing the ferry and if they were interested in sharing a cab to the harbor – as luck had it they were.   The ferry left at 4 we were told leaving us just 15 minutes to get our ticket, get a cab and get to the harbor.   The three of us (myself, another Alex and Jenna) quickly found ourselves in a cab racing across the streets of Chetumal. In typical form the cab also had another random passenger which he dropped off about halfway across town.  We took the brief 10 minute drive to get acquainted.

Fisherman at the Chetumal Pier

Once at the pier we anxiously watched our watches, wondering if we’d be forced to go through customs and miss our boat.  It was 4:00 on the dot.

The San Pedro Ferry
We shouldn’t have bothered worrying.  We stood in line for a good 20 minutes on the end of the pier.  Customs consisted of a small kiosk set up in front of the boat with 4 military personnel reclining lazily with automatic weapons and a desk clerk behind it.   By 4:30 we had our exit stamps and piled onto the ferry.  There was a storm blowing in from the ocean bringing with it stunning clouds with gorgeous rays of light piercing through to spotlight various pieces of the surrounding country side.

Sunset in Chetumal Mexico

Luckily, despite the weather on the horizon the water in the bay was flat and absolutely gorgeous.  Running pleasantly late we started what we expected to be a 1.5 hour high speed ferry trip on a relatively small boat to San Pedro.

We pushed off and began to get to know each other better.  Working through the usual questions about work, school, passions and trip duration.   About 15 minutes into the boat ride we all paused as one of the local ladies began making noise and running around going through her bags.  Unsure and with a little anxiety, we quickly spotted a boat approaching from the shore at high speed. The captain cut power as they approach and we quickly realized it was customs – not pirates.  They searched the boat quickly before sending us back on our way.

The first hour was delightful.  The sunset was incredible, the clouds continued to offer a stunning backdrop to beautiful scenery and the fresh scent of the open ocean was invigorating.  The sunset was spectacular.  Then there was a crunch.  A second louder crunch and then a smack, crunch, thump, thump, crunch.  The boat went from blasting across the smooth open waters inside the great barrier reef to a total standstill.

San Pedro Ferry

We’d run aground. In the dark.  In the middle of the channel. It was one of those things that takes a while to settle in.  How could a ferry line that runs the route twice daily run aground? We quickly learned that it was the first time they’d run the 4:00 route (after dark) and that we were only in the first throes of what would be an eventful adventure.

The 20 or so locals around us let out various cries of alarm and began throwing on life jackets while the young children in their group cried.  I looked at Alex and Jenna and talked through what was going on.  The boat was made out of fiberglass, much like a giant Pangaboat. I knew from past experience that they were almost indestructible.  We’d hit a number of rocks, but none that stopped us outright so the blow was glancing or only to the prop.  Whatever we’d hit was submerged…in a shallow area.  It was unlikely that the boat would actually be able to sink more than 4 or 5 feet even if the hull was punctured.

Once we talked it through we let out a slightly relieved laugh, opted to put on our life preservers just-in-case, and looked out the windows into the dark for a nearby island.  The barrier coast was about a mile away on the left.  A small group of islands was about the same distance away on the right.  The boat was poorly equipped for running at night…and by poorly equipped I mean it wasn’t.  There were no running lights, no flood light, no powerful on board lights. Leaving the crew to look into the murky water with small hand-held flashlights as they guessed how to get us off the rocks.

Before long a member of the crew appeared, it turned out the boat had an on board motor which meant it ran deeper than it’s outboard siblings.   They had us all move to the front of the boat which lifted the back up and off the rocks long enough to back the boat off of the submerged mount it had hit.  We then re-dispersed across the ship and were revealed, if a bit surprised, when they announced that we’d continue to make for San Pedro and wouldn’t be switching boats.

The impact itself had bent the prop which made for a rough ride and slow going.   As the hours stretched by and we slowly crawled the remaining leg of the trip we ran aground three more times.  Though luckily, these were on sandbars and not rocks.

Our faith in the captain shattered, with anxious but amused laughter driving around the cabin we waited as the boat grounded out a 4th and final time.  This time even re-locating passengers front to back wouldn’t dislodge us.  When I glanced over the side it quickly became apparent why: a glance over the side revealed a smooth, sandy bottom just a few feet under the surface.  We were in water so shallow that even at night we could see the bottom.  I’d place it at between 4-5 feet deep, max.

Finally at a loss for a solution the captain and crew called out a second boat, this one far smaller and with a set of 3 powerful outboard motors. We were told that customs had been a big issue and that they were unwilling to separate us from our bags.  Twenty minutes dragged by before the second boat arrived.  Our bags were transferred over first, then the 30 or 40 of us on the boat began to pile into the small cabin.  The end result was comical.  Sandwiched knee-to-knee, shoulder to shoulder and back to back in a dimly lit cabin cruiser it looked like a scene straight out of a news piece about illegal immigrants trying to boat from Cuba to the US in overloaded, cramped quarters.

Going through customs on the ferry

The customs agents carefully waded through the seated crowd with passport stamp and pen in hand filling out forms, stamping passports all the while moving people around to create small flat surfaces they could write on.  The cabin was so dim they had to use flashlights held by whomever was nearby to see what they were doing.

Boat 2 San Pedro Ferry Disaster

Some four hours later we arrived in San Pedro. A beautiful town situated on a large sandy area of the outer barrier reef.  The town is a resort town and picturesque with wood dock after wood dock jetting out from white sandy beaches into the crystal clear Caribbean water.  Even as we waited for our gear on the dock we were able to spot stingrays and baby barracuda in the crystal clear water below.

Tired. Relieved and eager to eat and find lodging I  got a few recommendations from Alex and Shannon’s Lonely Planet and struck off.  Before long I’d found an odd, but helpful guy who showed me where the hotel was and introduced me to the night-man who could set me up with a room.  $50 Belize dollars later or about $25 USD I had a private room with a bed, fan and shower.  From there it was for a $9 BZD ($4.5 USD) taco stand meal: The national dish.  Stewed chicken, beans and rice.  All served up with a coke to drink.  It was both delicious and a successful finale for what had ended up being an unexpected adventure.