The Water Way: Discovering Belize by Boat

With hundreds of islands and few roads, a sail, paddle or propeller becomes the preferred power source.


Between the green jungles of coastal Belize and the Caribbean Sea, there is a lagoon filled with more than 200 tropical islands. Known as Cayes, but usually pronounced “keys,” these dollops of land range downward from 25-mile-long Ambergris Caye to postage stamp-sized spits of palm and sand that may support a single fishing shack or remain totally wild. A few are served by small airports or landing strips, but the only way to reach most is by boat. Fortunately, traveling by water won’t require sea legs, since these islands rise from relatively shallow water and sit in the leeward shelter of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Boat travel can involve anything from a quick dash on an island ferry to a weeklong paddle through the wilds. Here are some of our favorite options for discovering Belize’s island and ocean treasures.

Paddler’s Paradise

Belize Kayaking

The islands and lagoon inside Belize’s barrier reef are ideal for kayaking. Photo: Istock

Many of the Belize cayes are within sight of each other, which makes them ideal for multi-day kayak adventures. Several operators offer guided tours of up to a week’s duration through the central and southern cayes. These small islands, with names like Buttonwood, Little Water and the Silks, are either wild or sparsely populated. Some nights are spent in small eco lodges, others camping on sandy beaches, with plenty of time to swim, snorkel and fish mixed into days of moderate paddling. Kayaks, meals and camping gear are included.

Taxi Service

Water taxis connect mainland settlements such as Belize City, Corozol and the Mexican port of Chetumal to many of the inhabited northern cayes. The fleet ranges from outboard-powered skiffs, where passengers share open-air benches, to air-conditioned cabin boats with bus-like seating. Fares also run the gamut. You can pay $10 for a one-way small-boat passage from Belize City to Caye Caulker or $90 for a round-trip between Chetumal and Ambergris Caye on an express ferry. Routes usually travel from mainland ports to individual cayes, but with a bit of planning, it’s also possible to create an island-hopping itinerary.

Belize Pier with Sailboat

Sailing catamarans are ideally suited to cruising the shoal-laden waters of Belize. Photo: Curt Brush Wyler/Thinkstock

Sail Away

Steady trade winds, quiet anchorages, beach bars and protected waters are the kind of stuff that makes up any cruising sailor’s dream. Belize’s favorable geography and sailing conditions haven’t escaped the notice of charter boat companies, and a number now offer both bareboat—self-operated—and captained sailing charters through the southern cayes. Highlights of a week afloat could include lingering on the dazzling white sands of South Water Caye, snorkeling fish-laden reefs at Tobacco Caye, joining the party at Whiprat Caye’s Urchin Bar, or taking the dingy into the bird sanctuary at Man-O-War Caye. When it’s your boat, it’s your call.

Going Below

Belize Diving, Lighthouse Reef

Divers explore Belize’s Lighthouse Reef. Revised photo credit: Photo: Tobias Mueller-Prothmann/iStock

This one is for the divers: The best way to experience all of the country’s underwater wonders is aboard a dedicated liveaboard dive boat. Over the course of a week, you can descend into the mysterious Blue Hole, follow giant tarpon through coral tunnels, hover over precipitous walls and glide among sunlit forests of elkhorn coral. With itineraries that allow up to five dives a day, this trip that would seem heavenly to any die-hard diver, but less appealing to a non-diving spouse. If diving is just part of a mixed bag vacation, you’re better off checking into one of the many resorts in Ambergris and elsewhere that run daily trips to nearby reefs and—weather permitting—the offshore atolls.