Ambergris Caye (pronounced am-BUR-gris or Am-BUR-grease Kay) is the largest of some 200 cayes that dot the coastline of Belize. Ambergris is part of a wide limestone peninsula dangling south from the Yucatan coast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Ambergris is 25 miles long and a little over a mile wide, in some places, and it is located in the clear shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea just off the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
The history of the island goes back to the days of the Maya, European Pirates and Mexican Refugees who fled during the Caste Wars. The descendants from Mexico make up most of the island's population today. The economy of the island was once dependent on the coconut industry, followed by the fishing industry, but it is now dependent on tourism.
Most Ambergris residents are of Mexican ancestry and speak Spanish among themselves. Early in Belize's history, its northern neighbor even laid claim to the island. Ambergris Caye has about the same land area as the Caribbean island of Barbados, although much of Ambergris is uninhabitable mangrove swamp.
Her coastline is protected by the 190 mile long Barrier Reef, the second largest living coral reef in the world (with the first being off the coast of Australia). In Mayan times, Ambergris Caye was a trading post. The Marco Gonzales ruins at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye and the Basil Jones site to the north, as well as the many recently excavated "home sites" in the heart of San Pedro Town give evidence to a former Mayan population of 10,000. The narrow channel that separates Mexico and Belize was dug by the Maya to provide a trade route from the bay of Chetumal to the Caribbean.
The island's name is a holdover from colonial days and refers to a waxy substance found in sperm whale intestines that was once used in making perfume. Some say that ambergris washed up here regularly during the colony's early history, but marine biologists are skeptical. They maintain that whales have never been common in this part of the Caribbean and argue that sighting of ambergris have always been very rare.
Following the Maya came the whalers and buccaneers and the ancestors of present day residents who were fisherman and workers in the coconut plantations. Today tourism has replaced fishing as the major source of income for the islanders although the mahogany skiffs are still in service for charter fishing and diving.
Fishing was once the Caye's principal industry, but within the last 20 years tourism has taken over. Many fishers now use their boats exclusively to cater to visitors needs; snorkeling, sports fishing, diving, and manatee watching. San Pedro, the island's only town, offers a wide choice of hotels, restaurants, bars, gift shops, outfitters, and travel agencies to suit every recreational interest and pocketbook, although food and services are relatively expensive here.
The island's biggest tourist attraction is the Belize Barrier Reef that runs parallel along the entire coast of Belize. The reef is only a quarter mile from the beach of Ambergris Caye making diving accessible. The island's seaside is jammed with jetties and dive shops which offer trips to the different dive sites and to the Great Blue Hole. There are also certified scuba lessons in NAU, PADI, and SSI. One of the most popular dive sites is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is only a ten-minute boat ride from town. The reef's beauty and richness has put Belize among the top ten dive destinations in the world.
Ambergris Caye is a food lovers paradise. Local cuisine is abundant featuring the Belizean favorite of rice and beans, stewed chicken and potato salad. Local foods are influenced by the Spanish and Mexicans with dishes such as Chimole, Escabeche, Panades, Salbutes, Garnaches, Tacos, Bollos, Tamalitos, Tamales and Burritos.
Of course seafood is a common delight, with feasts of succulent lobster, conch and a delicious array of fish, squid, muscles, scallops and even shark. Most restaurants specialize in seafood dishes. However, lobster and conch are seasonal so be sure to check what is in season before ordering.
Added to this array are the exquisite taste of seasonal tropical fruits such as pineapples, bananas, star fruit, cantaloupe, soursap, watermelons, oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, may plums, figs, blackberry, mangoes, craboo, and much more. Or, if you 're in the mood for something different, there are several restaurants that feature European, Cajun, Indian, Chinese, and Jamaican cuisine.
Ambergris Caye has many small settlements on the north and south of the main town, San Pedro. People who acquire land on Ambergris Caye and make it their home tend to give names to their pieces of paradise and as more people move into the area, the names are often adapted by all. Each area has its unique features that both visitors and locals have come to love and enjoy.
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