Basking in the iridescent blue hues of cool Caribbean waters are dazzling islands found both inside and outside the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Hundreds of picturesque islands lining the entire coast are why many visitors end up in Belize. The islands are called cayes (pronounced “keys”) and total about 450 including those on the outer atolls (island formations outside the barrier reef). Some are tiny mangrove specs of land inhabited only by birds, but others are islands with thriving villages and towns. These pristine islands are washed by cool Caribbean waters and studded with palm trees that sway gently in the Trade Winds. With tropical weather, colorful birds, a laid-back atmosphere and welcoming islanders, they are the perfect place to get away from it all.
Most of the islands lay only a stone’s throw away from the barrier reef, acting as convenient springboards to some of the best diving, snorkeling and fishing in the world. Test your angling skills on the teeming fisheries, or discover Belize’s vibrant underwater world with colorful corals, unique geological formations and exotic marine life. The shorelines of the islands are perfect for a variety of watersports such as kayaking and windsurfing, while the beaches are ideal for beachcombing. The larger cayes, like Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, offer laid-back atmospheres with friendly islanders and endless relaxation. Divers and anglers might want to escape to the coral atolls, where picturesque islands are your springboard to countless waterborne adventures. All of the cayes also have a diversity of wildlife including many species of birds and flowering plants as well as particular treats like nesting sea turtles and iguanas.
Many of the cayes’ names date back to the days of pirates and buccaneers. Bannister Bogue is a channel named after a pirate who later became a logwood cutter in the late 1600’s, while Gallows Point was where criminals and freebooters were hanged. The pirate John Colson anchored his ship at Colson’s Caye, but today lobster fishermen use these mangroves to collect booty of a different sort. The most historic of all the cayes, just 9 miles from Belize City, is St. George’s Caye. It was here that the British buccaneers defeated the Spanish invaders in the famous Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798. The fishing village of Caye Caulker was originally settled by Mestizos (mix of Spanish and Maya) fleeing the Caste War in Mexico’s Yucatan in the late 1800’s. On a curious note, Ambergris Caye is not really an island, but a 25-mile peninsula extending from the Yucatan and separated from Mexico only by a small channel originally dug by the ancient Maya.