Ambergris Caye is one of the great meccas of scuba diving. After all, it boasts the second-largest reef in the world, and the pearl necklace of more than two hundred coral-sand cayes that dots its 25-mile length is one of the greatest places on earth to shuffle off your fins and discuss your day’s dives over a tall cerveza. Ambergris Caye is the largest of these, and the epic reef swoops by only a half-mile off the caye’s spectacular coastline. It’s no wonder, then, that this place has such a storied history–and a lot of that history is best explored in a wetsuit.
San Pedro, the island’s major town, is the undisputed dive capital of Central America. Its dive shops can outfit divers to explore any of the wide variety of scuba diving sites along the Caye. Scuba divers are served by more than a dozen dive centers in Ambergris Caye, purveying any equipment you could possibly need (as well as PADI-certified dive instruction). There’s a lot of topside fun to be had in San Pedro, too–the Spanish were shocked by the volume of major fiestas the Mayans celebrated all the way back in the 1500′s, and not much has changed since then.
Once equipped, it’s time for your history class. Even the most amateur geologist couldn’t help but be transfixed by Ambergris Caye: the deep canyons, spur-and-groove reefs, swim-throughs and reef cuts scattered less than a mile away from the Caye are ample testament to the region’s living geologic history. Along its entire length, the reef rims a prominent fault that separates the shallow westerly sea floor from the (4,000+ meter) depths to the east. (Crossing the underwater cliff of the faultline, you stare down into the blackness of a seemingly endless wall dive.) The region’s sinkholes (cenotes), of which the Blue Hole is the most famous, were created by the exposure of limestone to rainwater during the ice ages, when the tops of the now-sinkholes were exposed to the elements.
A quick boat trip from your San Pedro dive center brings you to Lighthouse Reef and the aforementioned Blue Hole: the apex of the region’s diving history. The 1000-foot-wide sinkhole is known for its angelfish, barracuda, corals, and a prodigious shark population. In 1971, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau made this collapsed cave famous by scuba diving in to measure the depths and origin of the feature. Cousteau measured the Blue Hole at a depth of 125 meters (deeper than the PADI Open Water limit, requiring a PADI Deep Diver certification or equivalent). He proved that the Hole was formed before it was submerged by bringing ancient stalactites to the surface. The Blue Hole has since been honored by designation as a World Heritage site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Lighthouse Reef may be named for its lighthouses–of which there are many–but quite a few ships have managed to find their way to Davey Jones regardless. Shipwrecks are very much a part of the history of the region, and any Ambergris Caye dive shop can arrange for your introduction to them. Near Lighthouse Reef alone, there are six shipwrecks–three of which are diveable, and three sit high and dry on the reef. One of the oldest discovered shipwrecks is a 17th century Spanish vessel, but that isn’t the end of the story: since Ambergris Caye and its surrounding atolls all served as pirate hideaways, local lore insists that there could certainly be more to discover.