A must for any visitor to San Pedro, Belize, is a trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the coast of Ambergris Caye, Belize. This protected area is chock-full of marine life and beautiful corals and is easily accessed via a short boat ride from the island. Here’s a review of my recent snorkeling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Booking the tour
We booked our tour with Searious Adventures. The tour — which included a stop at Shark and Ray Alley — was relatively cheap and came out to about $95 USD for two people, which included all equipment, park entrance fees, and even some post-dive refreshments.
We actually booked our tour the day before our dive and booked it through a hotel so while you can book online you don’t always have to do so.
Searious Adventures will come pick you up from wherever your hotel is so you don’t have to worry about traveling to their headquarters and can just wait for the boat to come pick you up at the nearest dock.
Our tour had a total of 20 people on the boat so it was pretty packed. Luckily, the boat ride is only about 10 minutes away, as the marine reserve is very close. Once we arrived to our diving area, we hopped into the warm Caribbean waters and they divided us up into groups of 6, 7, and 7. From that point, each group had one guide who led them through the reef independently so the group size was definitely manageable.
Overall, everything was run pretty organized and efficiently and I can’t say I had any complaints about the service.
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The Hol Chan Marine Reserve
The marine reserve is one of the primary spots for snorkeling in the area. In fact, I think many would agree that it’s the best spot (or one of the best spots) for snorkeling in all of Belize. It’s a very popular spot and so don’t be surprised to see many other divers, both scuba and snorkelers, out and about when you arrive.
The reserve is fairly young as it wasn’t established until 1987, after concerns grew about unregulated overfishing and diving. The Belize government not only protected this area but also protected the neighboring sea grass beds and mangroves, which are all interlinked and provide support to all of the sea life, up and down the food chain.
The focus of diving at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is on the “Hol Chan Cut.” This is a naturally occurring channel, about 25 yards wide and 30 feet deep, which was always highly utilized as a means of getting in and out of the reef area. Hol Chan actually translates to “little channel” in Mayan and is where the preserve got its name.
Due to the narrow formation of the channel, it’s also where strong currents move in and out of the reef area. They day we went for our snorkel, our guide told us that the current was pushing out to sea so we needed to remain mindful at all times of where we were in relation to the channel. While this was a little concerning, we never once felt like we were at risk of being washed out to sea so just stay close to your guide and you’ll probably be just fine.
We had done a scuba dive the day before out on the reef and while it was an amazing experience, we actually came across more wildlife on our snorkeling tour. The fish were out in droves and it was difficult to keep up with all of the different types of species we were coming across! We saw parrot fish, hog fish, angel fish, grouper, huge snapper, and even barracuda! Some of the fish, such as the snapper, looked like behemoths moving through the water.
When we approached the channel, several schools of fish were swimming about below us and our guide started to point out a host of other species.
At one point a nurse shark, probably about five feet long, came into the channel and looked to be hunting something under a large patch of reef. Right next to the nurse shark, a moray eel was peering up at us after a diver prodded him out of his dark crevice.
One cool thing I wish I would’ve given a go was taking a free dive through a small hole in the reef. It looked like fun but also looked pretty deep and I didn’t have any experience with free-diving so I passed on the opportunity. Still, plenty of others were enjoying the dive through the miniature cave.
After spending quite some time at the channel we moved on to much shallower depths, where he hovered over reef in about three to four feet of water. This is when we were able to get very close views of the coral and reefs and eventually came across a sea turtle.
While there were quite a few other divers in the area, it wasn’t so swamped as to be annoying or uncomfortable, so hopefully you won’t have any major issues with that. One thing that could’ve been a little better is the timing. Our boat was running a bit late and so when we arrived to the diving area, it looked like everyone else had already arrived. I think that if we had been able to arrive a little bit earlier we may have been able to beat the crowds a bit, especially when we went over to Shark and Ray Alley.
After about an hour of diving we got back in the boat and then headed to Shark and Ray Alley. You can read about my experience there here, but in short, it was a an exciting, yet short-lived stop. When we got over there, several boats had already been there for quite some time. I’m not 100% sure, but it seems like if we had arrived there a little bit earlier we may have gotten a better response from the rays and sharks who likely would have been hungrier. Still, it was a great time and I really enjoyed getting so close to the sharks and rays.
In conclusion, a snorkel excursion into the Hol Chan Marine reserve is definitely a must-do activity at Amergris Caye, Belize. There are plenty of other places to see and explore but I’d highly recommend making this a part of your trip to Ambergris Caye when you visit!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.