This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
Belize is a beautiful country, and visiting the city of Belize on our cruise port day was a special treat. It left us wanting more, that’s for sure! If going to Belize city is on your list, whether from a cruise or not, here’s a way you can spend one day that will leave you with wonderful memories!
From Cruise Ship to Belize City
Belize does not have a cruise port, so ships must anchor several miles out and tender passengers from the ship to Belize. It’s only about a 15-minute ride, so it’s not bad. However, it can take awhile to get off of the ship with so many passengers to transport. One of the advantages to having a ship-purchased shore excursion is getting off sooner than passengers who are taking independent tours or no tour at all.
The shore excursion we signed up for was called “Sharks, Rays, Barrier Reef Snorkel & Island Escape”. It normally costs $99 USD per person, but we were fortunate enough to win it in a prize drawing at a shore excursion orientation event on the ship (on Carnival cruises, at least, it really pays off to go to those!)
Our departure time was 9:00 am. The weather forecast predicted rainstorms in the afternoon, so we were anxious to get going! You should sign up for the earliest departure times offered for shore excursions. Because ours was complimentary, we didn’t have the option of signing up for the 8:00 or 8:30 departure times. We had to take what was left — but hey, no complaining, because it was free after all! We were escorted from the theater of the ship to the tender on Deck Zero, with bright pink labels on our clothing identifying us by our excursion name.
Our snorkeling equipment would be provided, so all we brought with us were towels, swimsuits, sunscreen, and cameras…and a little spending money, too. US dollars are accepted quite readily in Belize. One Belize dollar is worth about .50 USD, so be sure to ask which currency price is being quoted when you purchase something.
Setting out on our tour from Belize City
Once you get off the tender, you have to find your shore excursion leader. This area is known as the Fort Street Tourism Village, and there are quite a few people shopping and coming and going from ships/excursions. Look for people holding signs with shore excursion names on them. The signs usually have a cruise line logo on them, too. In our case, that was Carnival. While the excursion is set up by Carnival cruises, it is actually led by Exotic Eco Adventure Tours.
Once we found our leader, he had us line up and gave us paperwork to fill out. Yes, paperwork. Boring, huh? But it’s pretty typical to have to complete a liability waiver form for an excursion like this. We also had time to use restrooms and snap a few pictures before boarding a speedboat to take us to our island escape! Note: I do wish I had changed into my swimsuit at this time, because it was more challenging once we arrived at Caye Caulker. Also, it is common for public restrooms here to ask for tips for maintaining the restrooms and keeping them clean.
On our way to Caye Caulker!
There were 42 of us on this shore excursion, and I was surprised we all fit on the smaller speedboat we boarded. We had 21 miles to go, so I’m glad it was a speedboat! It was a fun ride, with lots of water spray — and also some great views. We passed several islands; some very small islands as well as some large enough for people to live on. One was only large enough for one home!
Caye Caulker is a small caye (pronounced like ‘key’) with one settlement called Caye Caulker village. On the north side of the island is a dense Mangrove forest and diverse birdlife. And only about a mile away is the Belize Barrier Reef.
Our group made its way off the boat, down a pier, and to the Caribe Barefoot restaurant where we used the restrooms (it was hard to change into swimsuits here because it was so crowded) and returned to the pier to pick up our snorkeling gear.
Our snorkeling excursion would be divided into two parts: 1) swimming with the rays and sharks at a shallow sandbar, and 2) snorkeling in deeper water on the barrier reef.
Swimming with Rays and Sharks!
Our speedboat took us to a sandbar a short distance from Caye Caulker. You could actually see the bottom of the ocean here from the boat. Food for the rays and sharks was thrown overboard, and sure enough they came quickly. I think they almost respond to the sound of the boat’s motor because they know food is coming. We were invited to “just jump in” if we wanted to see them closer. Not everyone did, but I think my husband and I were the first ones off the boat!
By the way, less you are imagining a ‘Jaws’ scenario, let me just explain that these are nurse sharks. They are bottom dwellers and tend to be rather docile. They do have teeth and would bite defensively if dealt with aggressively, but in general they do not pose any harm to humans. I thought the nurse sharks looked like overgrown catfish, since they do have whisker-like organs that help them sense their prey. They can get as large as 14 feet long, but the nurse sharks we saw were no more than four feet.
The rays are stingrays, and yes, they could be potentially dangerous if you attacked one or tried to grab them by the fins and catch a ride. But in this setting, they were eating and I was just watching from a few yards’ distance. I felt totally safe.
Another cool thing we saw here were lots and lots of beautiful conch shells on the sandy bottom. At one point, my husband tried to pick one up to get a closer look. It definitely had an animal inside it that caused the shell to scurry away. He was finally successful, and here is the video he captured:
Snorkeling on the Belize Barrier Reef
After spending about 15 minutes in the water with the rays and sharks, we re-boarded the boat and headed off for the reef. Here we divided into four separate groups and each group went with a trained diver to snorkel. Our diver answered questions, pointed out fish and coral to us, and kept an eye out for each of us to make sure we didn’t get lost or get into trouble. We were required to either wear a life-vest or tie its straps to one of our wrists so we’d have it nearby if it became necessary. For my husband, this was a little frustrating because it made it impossible to dive, and he likes to dive down to get a closer look at things.
I wish I had better photos for you of all we saw! As an avid photographer, this was the hardest thing for me. But I felt like I had to just enjoy the moment and all the incredible things to see, without worrying about capturing photos for my readers to enjoy. You will just have to take my word for it. It is an entirely different and incredibly beautiful world at the Belize Barrier Reef. You will see lots of different fish and many different kinds of coral. Our diver picked up a conch shell, held it out away from him and an eel instantly shot out from the rocks to snag the sea snail living inside it! Crazy!
My husband did manage to get a few photos with his GoPro. What do you think? Isn’t the coral beautiful?
Some of the fish I recognized included rainbow and stoplight parrotfish, huge schools of wrasse, butterflyfish, clownfish, trumpetfish, blue tangs, and angelfish. Their vivid colors were amazing!
Mangroves, Tarpon, and Pelicans
On our way back to the Barefoot Caribe, we passed by the Caye Caulker Mangrove forest. It is a protected forest preserve, and the tarpon that live there are also protected. Our guide showed us how we could feed a tarpon without losing a finger!
The tarpon were large (and very fast!). When they surfaced for the bait, there was a huge splash and the bait was gone in an instant! But in this photo, you can see the tarpon swimming just below the surface:
By now, the pelicans caught on that there were handouts. They weren’t about to miss out on this opportunity, even as the boat took off again. They chased us for quite awhile!
Barefoot Caribe Restaurant for Lunch
All the sun and snorkeling had made us hungry — you know…the kind of hungry where you feel you could eat a horse?! I welcomed the thought of heading back to the Barefoot Caribe restaurant after about an hour in the water. We purposely ordered authentic Belizean food: chicken stew, rice & beans, plantains, and chicken kabobs. And of course, it was all amazing — especially the fried plantains! (I was so hungry I think I forgot to take a photo of it!)
The restaurant was a great place to sit and relax and enjoy the views and breezes. It was also where many local vendors showed up to display their wares. I bought a beautiful table runner and a turtle woven from pine needles.
After lunch, we had a little time left to stroll through the village. Lots of colorful homes and hotels, open-air craft kiosks, and gorgeous white sand beaches called out for us to stay a while and make this home. But unfortunately, our excursion had come to an end and we had to make our way back to our cruise ship
Colorful Caye Caulker Village
Just look at these photos! Can you see why this would be a wonderful place to stay for awhile?
Back to our Cruise Ship
Our return was uneventful. We were more subdued on the way back to Belize, mostly worn out, but also in awe of our experiences. We had a half hour or so before we needed to board the tender, so we browsed a few shops near the dock. I just didn’t want to leave. The weather was perfect, the people were so friendly (should I have gotten my hair braided by the woman who called me “Momma”?), and the desire to blend in and slow down was very strong. Sit for awhile. Enjoy a cool lemonade. Listen to the Caribbean music. Take it all in…
I’m pretty sure I’m going back someday. Belize was magical for me. I’m betting it will be for you, too.