Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize—Belize Barrier Reef Snorkeling from Ambergris Caye

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Interested in snorkeling at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize?

If turquoise blue waters teeming with plantlife and fish sounds appealing, look no further than a Belize Barrier Reef snorkeling excursion from San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, to see the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

When I traveled to Belize with a friend recently, we wanted to do a handful of things. Near the top of our lists was snorkeling at the Belize Barrier Reef.

Ambergris Caye is the closest island to this water wonderland, so we settled on a stay in San Pedro. It’s a great place to visit, and snorkeling and scuba diving near the reef are among the top things to do in the area.

What can you expect from Belize Barrier Reef snorkeling? Read on to find out all you need to know to visit and why you should.

snorkelers in the water, bright blue water, boat in the distance, snorkeling ambergris caye, belize barrier reef, snorkeling belize barrier reef

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Belize Barrier Reef—A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Belize Barrier Reef runs the length of Belize, parallel to the coast. It is nearly 200 miles long (190 miles, or 300 km). The reef is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which runs for over 600 miles from Mexico to Honduras.

This reef is the world’s second-largest coral reef system, second in size to the Great Barrier Reef near Australia. And though it’s the second largest, it’s considered the largest living reef in the world now.

This area has hundreds of small islands (cayes), abundant marine life, and incredible corals. This is the place to be if you’re looking for a tropical scuba or snorkeling adventure.

In 1996, it was designated a UNESCO site. If you have read other posts on my site, you know I’m obsessed with UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Whether manmade or natural, they are some of the world’s most incredible and interesting places to visit. The Belize Barrier Reef certainly falls in that category, and it’s a must-see if you go to Belize, particularly if you stay near the shore.

Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize

Part of the Belize Barrier Reef is in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. It’s easily accessible from Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, and even Belize City. This is one of the area’s most popular places for snorkeling and scuba diving.

There are four sections in this marine reserve:

  1. Hol Chan Cut
  2. Shark Ray Alley
  3. Seagrass Beds
  4. Mangroves

Of these areas, the most popular are the first two, the Cut and Shark Ray Alley. Most of the boating and snorkeling tours in the area visit these two sections of the marine reserve.

At the Cut, you can snorkel through a channel in the reef. There, you’ll see many different types of coral and marine life.

In Shark Ray Alley, you’ll see docile nurse sharks. The boats usually chum the water, and the sharks come to feed all around you.

Visiting the marine reserve has a cost, but most tours include it with their cost.

Nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley

What to Wear for Belize Barrier Reef Snorkeling

When going on a Belize snorkeling adventure, you have options for what to wear. Most people will wear bathing suits. But it’s a good idea to wear a rashguard over it that has SPF protection from the sun.

Even if you wear sunscreen or sunblock, the water will wash it off, and you’ll be at risk for sunburn. Nothing can put a damper on a beach trip like getting a scorching sunburn!

If you do wear sunscreen, please wear something that’s reef-friendly. You don’t want to damage the delicate reef environment.

You can also wear a lightweight wetsuit or dive suit. If you’re scuba diving, wearing a wetsuit is a good idea. If you’re snorkeling, you can go either way.

Many of the dive shops have wetsuits available. Some will be included in the tour cost (ours did), and others may charge you for them.

I wore a bathing suit with a rashguard and felt comfortable. My friend, who went scuba diving, borrowed a light wetsuit.

Our dive shop also provided gear for the tour. I got a snorkeling mask and tube, and my friend got her diving gear. She was also taught how to use it, as it was a little different than what she had used before.

marine station at the entrance to the water, white marine station painted with blue logo, san pedro belize, ambergrid caye belize, belize barrier reed, belize coral reef, belize barrier reef snorkeling tours

Sea Life at the Belize Barrier Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef is an incredible place to go snorkeling, as it has one of the world’s most diverse aquatic ecosystems. In this area, you’ll see a lot of marine life, including spotted eagle rays, moray eels, sea turtles, and many colorful fish.

You may also see manatees, dolphins, groupers, southern stingrays, spiny lobsters, and more.

When we went, we saw spotted eagle rays, a sea turtle, nurse sharks, and a wide variety of colorful reef fish. I also got to see a conch, which was interesting!

You’ll also see a lot of different varieties of coral. There are over 100 coral species, including soft and hard coral, in various colors and shapes.

up close shot of nurse shark in the water, san pedro belize, belize reef, belize snorkeling
Nurse shark

Best Time for Belize Barrier Reef Snorkeling

People go snorkeling in Belize throughout the year. Visibility remains good year-round once you escape the mangrove areas near the shore. And water temperatures are reasonably consistent as well.

However, the best time to go is generally from December to May, during the dry season. It’s also the tourist season, with crowds and higher rates.

From June to November, you may find rain showers and stronger winds. The area also gets hurricanes and tropical storms from August through October (and sometimes outside of these months).

our two tour guide sitting on the boat, ambergrid caye belize, secret beach san pedro, belize coral reef
Mikey and Paul

Can You Snorkel from the Beach in Belize?

To reach the best spots for snorkeling, you need to travel a few miles off the shore of Belize and away from the islands. There isn’t much for snorkeling right near the mainland or the islands.

The best way to see the spots is to rent a boat or go on a tour where your guide knows the best places.

The Hol Chan Marina is one of the most popular places to visit. The only way to visit this area is by boat. There isn’t much snorkeling from the shore, as the reef is a short way out, further than you’d likely want to swim.

If you’re on Caye Caulker, some good snorkeling is in the Split area. And there are some good snorkeling spots near Tobacco Caye and some of the Belize atolls. You can also visit the places mentioned in this post.

Best Time of Day to Snorkel

I’ve read that the best time to snorkel is in the morning, as the winds tend to pick up in the afternoon. This was the opposite of our experience.

We went in early March and waited a day to book a snorkeling trip to see what the day was like. The winds picked up in the mornings and often at night when we were there but were much calmer in the afternoon.

view of the clear blue water stretching out into the distance, sunny skies with few clouds
Seriously, how can you not want to swim in that??

What to Bring for Belize Barrier Reef Snorkeling

You may not know what you need to bring if you’re not a regular at snorkeling or scuba diving. The equipment you need, like a mask, fins, etc., will likely be provided for you by the dive shop.

You may have and want to bring your own if you’re a regular. Either way, here’s the full list of things you should consider bringing with you for a snorkeling excursion.

turqouise water, blue water with sunny skies, boat floating in the water, san pedro belize

Snorkeling Packing List

  1. Bathing suit—I love Land’s End bathing suits, as you can purchase tops and bottoms separately, and they have a wide range of styles and colors.
  2. Rash guard shirt with 50 SPF
  3. Snorkeling mask with a breathing tube
  4. Mask defogger (or you can spit in the mask and wipe the saliva around to keep it from getting fogged up when you use it)
  5. Fins
  6. Socks (ideally neoprene, to keep the fins from irritating your feet)
  7. Reef-friendly sunscreen (that is biodegradable and won’t harm sea life). I like Blue Lizard or Banana Boat.
  8. Water and a snack—I love my Hydroflask to reduce single-use plastics and use my Katadyn BeFree water filter bottle to filter and fill it.
  9. Float vest
  10. Hair cover, like a swim cap or bandana, to keep your scalp from burning. At a minimum, you might want to tie your long hair back to keep it from getting in your mask.

It’s not a bad idea to consider swim leggings with SPF protection as well. And men have a swim leggings option, too. And if you’re scuba diving, you may want a wet suit or dive suit (which the shop will likely provide).

Do you get seasick? If so, there are a lot of options for seasickness. Some are natural, and then there’s Dramamine or similar meds that may help. Just try them before you go, as they can make you drowsy, and it’s a good idea to see how you’ll react when not on a boat.

A float vest is a good idea in areas with a current, and we found it fairly strong by the reef. It’s also helpful so you can focus on the sea life, not swimming or keeping your head above water. The dive shop will likely provide these.

me smiling on the boat with the water and snorkelers behind me
Happy snorkelers

What Company Should You Dive With?

There are a lot of different dive shops. Some resorts and upscale hotels have them, or you can walk down the beach and the piers and find a lot.

We went with Belize Magical Adventures. They are right near where the ferry comes in, and my scuba-certified friend decided on them as they are PADI-certified.

We were very happy with them, though I’m not sure you can go wrong with most dive shops. And in particular, the tours noted in this post. The staff was very friendly and helpful, too.

entrance of belize magical adventures building, snorkeling and diving store

Other Places to Snorkel

San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is the most popular place to go snorkeling, as it’s so close to the most popular areas. In addition to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, you’ll also see other popular areas.

Two of these include Mexico Rocks and Tres Cocos. Mexico Rocks is a patch reef that is supposed to be beautiful. It’s popular with beginners and experts as well.

Tres cocos is a shallow area on the edge of the barrier reef. It has a lot of coral and different fish.

Should You Snorkel at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize?

If you love snorkeling or want to try it for the first time, the Belize Barrier Reef is a great place to go. Not only do you get warm, crystal blue waters, but there is a wide array of sea life in the area.

It’s a short trip from Ambergris Caye, though you can also go from other areas. This is one of the top spots for snorkeling in Belize and an experience not to miss!

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