THE MESOAMERICAN REEF

Exploring the Western Hemisphere's biggest and longest barrier reef & islands

> 1 month of traveling across the Mesoamerican Reef in Honduras & Belize <

We still clearly remember how the idea was unleashed. It was one of those cold winters in Denmark, and we had arrived back from a fantastic trip to Sulawesi – actually, our third trip during three consecutive years to Indonesia – and we wanted to do some more island hopping and diving, but wanted something different from our beloved Indonesia and the SE Asian region. So, we turned our eyes to the western hemisphere, towards Central America. And there is was, in the atlas, in front of our eyes: the Mesoamerican barrier reef.

 

The Mesoamerican barrier reef – also popularly known as the Great Maya Reef – stretches over 1000 km from Isla Contoy at the tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula down to Belize and Honduras’ Bay Islands. It comprises several offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, costal lagoons and a few larger islands. It is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Its Australian cousin, the Great Barrier Reef, is only double the size, yet the Mesoamerican Reef is in its own way more remarkable. It’s the proximity to land and the intimacy of its connection with inshore habitats that sets it apart from its Pacific counterpart. Here, the provinces of mangrove, sea grass, and coral reef are bound so tightly together by currents, tides, and mutual need that it’s really not possible to tease them apart. In many sections, the reef begins within a few hundred meters offshore and as much as 10 km offshore in others.

 

We did a tour of the Reef that took us to the three Bay Islands off Honduras – Isla Roatán, Isla Guanaja, and Isla Utila – onwards to the Cayos Cochinos Marine Park, and finishing in Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Isla Roatán had splendid beaches and great diving. Isla Guanaja gave us that off-the-beaten track feel with probably the best snorkeling just off our doorstep. Isla Utila was the typical backpackers' haunt with sandy streets, cheap digs and cheap food. We might call it the "Koh Tao" of Central America. The Cayos Cochinos archipelago, placed in the middle of nowhere, 30 km northeast of La Ceiba, was our little gem. It has two larger islands covered with thick tropical forest and ringed by white sand beaches, as well as 13 smaller sandy cays. We found the surrounding waters and reef to be simply magical. Belize's northern cayes, i.e. Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye, Hick's Cayes, Cay Chapel, and several others, was the sort of place where we'd string up a hammock on the beach, and dance the night away to a reggae beat. Next morning, we’d explore caves, canyons and coral gardens underwater and come face to face with nurse sharks and stingrays.

For more island hopping adventures in Central America, check our pages on the Corn Islands in Honduras and the Bocas del Toro islands in Panama. Additionally, in Central America we criss-crossed all countries, and climbing the wild Volcanos of Guatemala.

 

 

Selected pics:

MesoamericanReef.jpg
MesoamericanReef.jpg
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La Ceiba
La Ceiba

Arrival in La Ceiba harbour - after a 14h bus trip from Tegucigalpa via San Pedro Sula - and looking for the local ferry bound for Isla Roatán. The north cost follows the Caribbean sea for several hundreds of kilometers and is home to the Garífuna people. Sambo Creek nearby is a fishing village with basically one dirt road, a few ramshacke huts and some homey rooms for rent. It is the only jumping off point for the Cayos Cochinos, and you have to go to Sambo Creek to arrange a ride.

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Cayos Cochinos fishermen
Cayos Cochinos fishermen

Cayos Cocohinos consists of two small islands, Cayo Menor (Cochino Pequeno) and Cayo Major (Cochino Grande), and 13 small coral cays. The archipelago is placed in the middle of nowhere, 30 km northeast of La Ceiba. The two larger islands are covered with thick tropical forest and are ringed by white sand beaches. The 13 cays and surrounding waters were declared a marine reserve in 1994, and thus all marine and terrestrial flora and fauna within a 460-square-km area is protected from fishing.

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Girls on Chachauate Cay
Girls on Chachauate Cay

The men are fishers, while the women produce bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and other ornaments. If you are lucky, you can join the children to school. They sail across the sea to Cochino Grande everyday, where a small school is placed inland.

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The remote Cayos Cochinos
The remote Cayos Cochinos
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Arrival in the Cayos Cochinos
Arrival in the Cayos Cochinos

We stayed for two nights with the locals in the tiny Garífuna settlement at Chachauate Cay. Several families will happily rent you a room in their rustic house which is an experience in itself. Homes have sand floor, no running water, no electricity, and only a communal town latrine. Expect a foam mattress and a thatch roof over your head.

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View towards Cochino Pequeno
View towards Cochino Pequeno

Th sister island, Cochino Major, offers several hiking trails. One of the trails leads to the highest point on the island and the lighthouse. Once there you can enjoy the spectacular view of all the Cayos Cochinos.

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Snorkeling tour. Lam Cay.
Snorkeling tour. Lam Cay.

Snorkelling and island hopping was what we did in the Cayos Cochinos. It is easy to hop around the small archipelago. Because only a few people live on the islands (cf. the population was 108 at the 2001 census), the surrounding reef is in fantastic shape and is teeming with colorful marine life.

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Girls on Chachauate Cay
Girls on Chachauate Cay

If you decide to stay in the Garifuna fishing settlement on Chachauate Key, they will serve fish and rice three times a day (yummy!). Just remember to arrange a pickup – otherwise you can be stuck for days. But that, as well, can be rewarding!

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Another snorkeling tour, Buby Cay
Another snorkeling tour, Buby Cay
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Boat boy in Chicken Cay
Boat boy in Chicken Cay
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Beach road on Isla Roatán
Beach road on Isla Roatán

Driving along Luna Beach south of West End towards the West Bay Beach were we will stay for one week and from where we can arrange diving, cycling, beach hiking, etc.

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Coxen Hole BBQ
Coxen Hole BBQ

Preparing tonight's BBQ during the morning. Many of Roatáns islanders are descendants of Arawak Indians and escaped African slaves, who morphed into the more mellow but equalliy resilient Garífuna people of today, found in seaside communities in Roatán and along Honduras' north coast.

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Yummy - with lots of garlic
Yummy - with lots of garlic
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Mangrove Bright
Mangrove Bright

Go and rent a bike - you can go around entire Isla Roatán in 12-14 tough hours. We did the West Bay - Coxen Hole - French Harbour - Jonesville - Oak Ridge - Punta Gorda - West End route. Roatán is about 50 km long and just 2 km to 4 km wide.

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West Bay Beach
West Bay Beach

Probably the best beach on Isla Roatán and one of the finest in Honduras. The clearar-than-cystal waters offers excellent snorkeling, kayaking and wrecks and big reefs a few hundred meters out in the ocean.

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Rugged coast near Jonesville, Roatán
Rugged coast near Jonesville, Roatán
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View over the West Bay Reef
View over the West Bay Reef

All of Isla Roatán is surrounded by the rich living reef and several beaches with powdery white sand and cocunut palms.

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Diving boat, Roatán
Diving boat, Roatán
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Isla Guanaja
Isla Guanaja

The easternmost of the three Bay Islands, Guanaja is a small island encircled by vibrant coral reef and several small cays. Come here to avoid the tourist "boom" that has hit Roatán and Utila.

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Self-catering kitchen, Bonacca
Self-catering kitchen, Bonacca

We stayed in a simple places in Bonacca (Guanaja town) to keep costs down. Most hotel in Isla Guanaja are in the US$ 100-500 per night range.

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Locals in Isla Guanaja
Locals in Isla Guanaja

The easternmost of the three Bay Islands, Guanaja is a small island encircled by vibrant coral reef and several small cays. Come here to avoid the tourist "boom" that has hit Roatán and Utila.

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Isla Guanaja beaches
Isla Guanaja beaches
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Bando Beach, Isla Utila
Bando Beach, Isla Utila

Isla Utila is the "Koh Tao" of the Bay Islands - at least the "Koh Tao" of the 1990'ties. It is a slow, welcoming place without cars, where people ply the sandy streets in flip flops and on bicycles. It has a strong local presence and a youthful energy.

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Ready to go diving, Isla Utila
Ready to go diving, Isla Utila

Especially the south shore has warm cystal-clear water filled with tropical fish, coral, sponges and sometimes bigger pelagics. On the north side, a plunging wall makes for great drift- and deep-diving. There is a whale shark spotting point off Pumpkin Hill Bay.

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Arrival in Caye Caulker, Belize
Arrival in Caye Caulker, Belize

Caye Caulker has long been a budget travellers' mecca. On the island are no cars and no hassels, just white sandy beaches, balmy breezes, fresh seafood, azure waters and a fantastic barrier reef at its doorstep.

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The Split, Caye Caulker, Belize
The Split, Caye Caulker, Belize

Only a short boat ride away from The Split you can really experience life under the sea at the reef.

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National pshyche at , Belize
National pshyche at , Belize

The only traffic sign on the island instructs everyone to go slow, a directive that is taken seriously. This easygoing attitute is due in part to the thriving Rastafarian culture on Caye Caulker.

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Houses in Caulker Village, Belize
Houses in Caulker Village, Belize

Caye Caulker was originally a small fishing settlement that used to live from coconut processing, fishing, lobster trapping, and boat building.

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Our hotel for one week
Our hotel for one week

It is easy to arrange day trips from Caye Calulker to the best snorkelling and diving spots

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