Hol Chan Marine Reserve: Unbelizeable Snorkeling in Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker is not the type of place you go to with a long list of things to do. You’ll more than likely just end up spending your days sipping Belikins and floating in the turquoise Caribbean waters anyways. And trust me, you’ll be fine with it. But there’s one activity that you have to do on Caye Caulker — a snorkeling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

Belize is actually home to the second largest barrier reef in the world. This means Belize offers some pretty incredible diving and snorkeling. Think colorful coral, huge schools of fish, sea turtles, graceful rays, and friendly nurse sharks.

Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve are two of Belize’s most popular tourist attractions. You’ll see brightly colored signs all over Caye Caulker offering full and half day snorkeling trips out to these hot spots. It can be overwhelming to choose who to go with.

I decided on Raggamuffin for a few reasons:

  1. Their commitment to sustainability. Unlike other tour groups, they don’t participate in the harmful practice of handling or feeding the sharks and rays. We saw other groups grabbing at marine life and trying to ride the sharks (seriously). They also don’t use any single-use plastic or styrofoam to serve up their delicious food (and rum punch) on board.
  2. They are the only tour company that goes out in sailboats. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll get to go out on their huge catamaran. Pull out your soft smile and condescending wave when other tour groups zip by you on their cramped speedboats.
  3. The crew is incredible. Raggamuffin has been operating tours around Caye Caulker since 2002 and they are the most trusted and reputable tour operator on the island.

The Stops

We took a short walk to a small dock on the other side of the island and our guide bought a bag of sardines from a local woman. We watched in delight and horror as he waved the frozen fish above the water and giant tarpons splashed through the surface to grab a bite. Out of nowhere he was passing the bag around letting us practice our predator-feeding skills. I’m proud to say I left the scene with all of my fingers.

Waiting for the fishies to bite

Got one!

After that we boarded the beautiful catamaran and hit the open road (sea).

After a little while our driver stopped the boat and told us they had spotted a manatee. Our guides handed out the snorkel gear and gave us the okay to get in the water. I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing a manatee out in its natural habitat. Manatees need space to come up for air so we couldn’t get too close but holy sea cow it was amazing watching it swim around.

Holy sea cows!

A short while later the boat made another unexpected stop when a friendly sea turtle was spotted. Once again, we all got out and observed the beautiful creature swimming around in his ocean home. I swam with sea turtles in Mexico so I took this as an opportunity to practice my free diving and ask my guide for some tips. He sat patiently in the water as I flopped around and tried to get deeper than a few feet under the surface and then gave me pointers when I came up for air. Talk about a guide who goes above and beyond.

Our third stop was another unexpected one — exploring a shipwreck covered in corals. This was a barge that sank some 20+ years ago. Throughout the years its become an artificial reef and some friendly sea life now calls it home. I had never seen a shipwreck before so this was definitely a treat.

Next up we visited the star of the show — Shark and Ray Alley. Here, wild nurse sharks, stingrays, and schools of fish swarm the boats in hopes of being fed. This attraction is essentially manmade. For years, local fisherman cleaned their catch of the day in this area located just inside the reef. Nurse sharks and southern stingrays began congregating in the area on the lookout for scraps.

OOOOH LET’S NAME THE ZONES

It was a thrill being face to face with wild sharks and rays. Despite knowing full well neither were interested in snacking on me, I still lost my breath a few times when one passed right by my head.

I couldn’t believe how much marine life we had already witnessed — sharks, stingrays, turtles and manatees, oh my! But our day wasn’t over yet. Our last stop of the day was the famous Hol Chan Marine Reserve. 

‘Hol Chan’ is Mayan for “little channel”. The channel is about 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep. On either side of the channel are huge formations of coral that are home to more than 500 species of fish. The reef isn’t spectacularly colorful but it is much healthier than most of the coral I saw in Thailand. At one point our guide pointed out a little opening in the coral. Before we knew it he was diving into it and a couple seconds later he came out the other end. Several of my braver co-tourists took their turn but I wasn’t confident enough in my breath-holding abilities to attempt it.

After awhile, we boarded the boat again and began our hour-long journey back to Caye Caulker. The guides broke out the bottomless rum punch and ceviche (vegan for me) and cranked up the reggae.

spoiler: vegan ceviche is pretty much just salsa

Queen of the rum punch

They dropped us off on the other end of the Split, at their beach club called Koko King. This may be an inconvenience for some, as you have to take a boat back to the main part of the island, but I didn’t mind at all. Koko King has an awesome beach bar, inner tubes to float in, a pool (for a fee) and a water trampoline. The perfect place to sit back and watch the sun go down. Plus we got wristbands that allowed us to use their water taxi service for free, which came in handy for the Full Moon Party they were hosting at Koko King later that night.

The Good

This was by far one of the best days I spent in Belize. The boat was amazing, the snorkeling was unbelizeable, and the free-flowing rum punch was icing on the cake. I had an incredible crew — if you ever take a Raggamuffin tour say hi to Carlos, Chris, Shaq, and Jerry from me. The crew is a lot of fun but extremely professional at the same time. Shaq took some incredible pictures and videos for me while I was snorkeling and pointed out all the different kinds of coral and marine life.

I also really appreciate their commitment to sustainability. Although their website says they participate in feeding the sharks and rays, they did not do this on my particular tour.

The Bad

Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley were also extremely crowded. I got bumped into quite a bit and took a few fins to the face. This is not a reflection of Raggamuffin, or any one tour company, but don’t go on this tour expecting to have intimate one-on-one time with the animals.

Would I recommend this tour?

The crew

100%. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime type experience. Raggamuffin goes above and beyond to ensure that all of their guests have an incredible tour.


*Disclaimer: I received a complimentary tour from Raggamuffin. As always, all opinions are my own. I would never promote a company that I don’t wholeheartedly believe in. 

By | 2017-11-19T15:12:43+00:00 November 16th, 2017|Belize, Central America, Uncategorized|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Sharon November 18, 2017 at 11:38 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the recommendation of this tour. We will follow through on it. Such great underwater shots also.
    Sharon recently posted…Are full face snorkels safe for kids? How to choose the best one.

    • Leah November 19, 2017 at 2:29 am - Reply

      Thanks Sharon! I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did!

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