You can hardly talk about Belize without mentioning the enormous Barrier Reef that lies just off of its coast to the east. The clear turquoise waters, the abundance of marine life, the amazing snorkelling, diving and fishing opportunities – all are wonders of nature to behold whether you are face to face with a Green Moray Eel 30 feet underwater, or on the shore in a hammock drinking Panty Rippers (a sweet local drink with rum with pineapple juice). The Belize barrier reef (a section of the Meso-American Barrier Reef System) runs roughly north-south along the coast beginning just offshore of northern Ambergris Caye and extending all the way to southern Belize, where it is 15-20 miles from the coast. The existence of the reef and its relative location from the shore is part of the natural history that has created the types of beaches and islands that you can encounter in Belize today. It creates the currents that shape the Belize shoreline so it must be considered in any discussion about Belize’s beaches.
There are two main types of coast line in Belize: island coast and mainland coast. Both have extensive areas that are covered with mangrove forests, and other areas that are exposed with strips of beaches. Yet there is a major difference between the two types of beaches that form, a difference that is most spectacular when you take a moment to pick up a handful of sand and take a closer look.
Island Beaches, such as those found on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, are beautiful white beaches that contrast with the many shades of blue that you see when looking offshore. But pick up a handful of the beach, and you will notice that instead of being made of sand (ground up rock), the beach is predominantly comprised of ground up coral reef. Take a moment to let that sink is as you dip your toes in the warm water. The islands are literally made up of ground up coral that has accumulated over the millennia as the reefs have grown and died, have been smash to bits by hurricanes and deposited by currents, as ocean levels have risen and receded. Indeed, where the "sand" is coarser, you can find whole pieces of coral and shells all over the place. Take a closer look: you're holding onto a fascinating bit of geologic history!
Now it must be honestly stated that the beaches on Belizean Cayes are not world class beaches in and of themselves – when you compare them to the sprawling beaches of Cancun and Tulum in Mexico, the Belize beaches are not as wide and are typically much smaller. Likewise, it is not pleasant to wade in for a swim right from the shore at many island locations because the gentle currents that lie between the reef and the Cayes favor the development of placid lagoons where sediment and seagrass accumulate – making an ideal and essential nursery for all of the marine creatures that thrive out on the reef, and slightly mucky wading conditions near the shore. (To address this, nearly all the resorts have long piers extending out over the water to swimming areas where the water is deeper.) The presence of the reef just offshore of the Belize Cayes softens the type of wave action and currents necessary for the accumulation of large beaches; instead we have a narrow white shore bordering shallow but glimmering turquoise lagoons.
But you know what they say about countries with small beaches – it's not the size of the waves, it's the motion of the ocean. What Belize’s islands lack in beach size, is more than compensated for by their close proximity to the reefs, which offers immediate access to a wide range or marine adventures. The area between the shore and the reef is also a shallow playground for snorkelling, kayaking, boating, sailing, fishing, paddle boarding, parasailing, and being mesmerized by the spectacular range of colors in every shade of green and blue. One of our favorite activities when visiting Ambergris Caye is simply going for a walk along the coastline, where instead of an uninterrupted beach, you have an amazing variety of sights, sounds and landscapes (and the opportunity to pop into a bar or restaurant). Heading north of the bridge along the shore, you go in and out gardens, through winding coconut palm lined paths, and past private residences and gorgeous resorts, gaining a different view into the rich life of the island at every turn.
Belize’s mainland coastal beaches, which accumulate in places such as the Placencia Peninsula and Hopkins along the Belize Central Coast, do offer considerable stretches of uninterrupted sand beach, though it is quite a different texture and feel than the coast out on the Cayes. The sand that comprises these beaches is made up of what most sand in the world is made out of: ground-up rock that has travelled down from the mountains in rivers and has been deposited along the coast. In Belize, most of this sand was originally granite from the Maya Mountains, and the beaches have a beautiful golden tone. There is gentle wave action at these beaches on windy days and in most locations, the swimming is good right from the shore. When visiting Placencia or Hopkins you could grab your lover's hand and go on a proper beach stroll that would take many hours and offer multiple swimming opportunities and quiet places to dig your feet into the sand and break out a bottle of wine while you take in the breeze.
However, it must be noted that these beaches are still not as sprawling as those in places like Cancun, nor is the sand as smooth and fine. This is partially due to the presence of the reef again, which softens the wave action and currents that would grind the sand into fine powder and deposit it along the shore in broad swaths. However, one good trade-off to not having a "world class beach" is that Belize has avoided being developed into an endless chain of really big beach hotels. Instead, most of the development has been done on a smaller scale with a view to maintaining the natural beauty of the area and offering peace, quiet, and an emphasis on low impact water adventures. Anywhere that there is a beach in Belize, snorkelling, fishing, and diving opportunities are not far away. In fact, the snorkelling and dive locations are often less crowded when you take a trip out to the reef from Placencia or Hopkins as the reef is a bit father from the shore that it is from Ambergris Caye.
Of course like all beaches in Belize, sooner or later the dream beach walk comes to an end as it eventually turns into mangrove forest. But be grateful that they mangroves are there are they are integral to the health of the marine life cycle, and the reefs wouldn't exist without the nursery grounds provided by the mangrove forests. In areas of stronger currents like points and the windward side of many small cayes, the mangroves are the only thing that keeps the neighbouring beaches from washing away. Mangroves also harbour an abundance of wildlife including amazing water birds, dolphins or even manatee who shelter near the mangrove forests. (The Monkey River Boat tour out of Placencia, which takes you through the mangrove lagoons and back into the jungle, is a world apart from that of the sea and is a great tour for wildlife viewing.)
Whether you are out on one of the Cayes or the Mainland, the Belize coast generally faces to the east. The sunsets are great, but the sunrises are even better. If you take the opportunity to get up for one sunrise during your trip (and preferably get in the water), you'll be rewarded with an experience you'll be unlikely to forget anytime soon.