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Belize | Sailing cruise in the Belizean cayes

Let’s be honest, we’re not seasoned sailors, but we do love sailing and the freedom it entails. There’s something about being on the water that brings joy and a sense of liberation. So, when the opportunity arose to join my brother on his sailboat, we didn’t hesitate. Plus, after crossing the Atlantic, he’s got that sea legs thing down pat!

After a delightful first week in Martinique, we embark on a 10-day cruise in the warm waters of Belize ⛵

At anchor at South Water Caye
At anchor at South Water Caye (Copyright © Olivier Delausnay)

Why should you choose Belize for your next sailing adventure?

Located between Mexico and Guatemala on the edge of the Caribbean Sea lies Belize, a small country teeming with treasures. We stumbled upon tropical forests, ancient Mayan sites, and idyllic beaches in Ambergris Caye during a previous trip. This time, we venture offshore to explore the cayes; the paradise-like islets sprinkled along the world’s second-largest coral reef.

Are you looking to discover the wonders of Ambergris Caye? Discover more in my article: “Belize | 2-day getaway to Ambergris Caye, the most beautiful island in the world
➜ Also, check out the account of our first Belize trip here: “Belize | Family escape from the jungle to the heavenly beaches

Coral reefs in Belize
Coral Reefs in Belize (Copyright © Olivier Delausnay)

Easy navigation

Belize isn’t often the first Caribbean destination that comes to mind for a sailing holiday. However, with a subtropical climate and postcard-perfect landscapes, this hidden gem is a true paradise for boating enthusiasts.

The ideal destination for family cruises, this stunning archipelago boasts calm anchorages fringed with palm trees. Crossings between islets are short and sweet, and thanks to a constant easterly trade wind moving at 10-20 knots, along with a reduced swell between the coral reef and coast, sailing conditions are a dream. With a tidal range between 30-60 centimeters, this paradise has it all.

Breathtaking anchorages

Stretching approximately 1000 kilometers, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, runs alongside the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The predominant part of the coral reef is safeguarded by Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which encompasses 960 square kilometers and comprises 3 atolls (Turneffe, Lighthouse, and Glover), 7 marine reserves (Blue Hole, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Hol Chan Marine Reserve) and around 450 cays.

A cay (or key) is a low-lying island formed by tides and wind on coral reefs, accumulating sand and other debris layers. While most frequently used in the Caribbean, the term applies to islands in Florida (the Keys) and Australia.

Belize Cayes
Belize Cayes (Copyright © Olivier Delausnay)

Unlike Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, which tourists overrun, most of Belize’s cayes are infrequently visited due to their remote location and being largely uninhabited. These cayes boast stunning, white sandy beaches lined with swaying coconut palms, or covered with lush mangroves, providing a backdrop for peaceful and secluded anchorages. Sheltered from strong swells by the coral reef, tranquil waters invite visitors to swim and enjoy the fantastic underwater exploration.

➜ The shallow waters around coral reefs and sandbanks can make navigation challenging. It’s wise to enlist an experienced skipper, especially since the Belizean authorities may seek compensation from anyone who collides with or damages a reef.

When is the best time to go sailing in Belize?

Although it is possible to sail easily year-round in warm Belizean waters, conditions from June through October are humid and rainy. Tropical storms or cyclones can sweep the area between September and October.

From November to February, the weather is cooler thanks to the northeast trade winds. However, strong gusts of wind (known as ‘northers’) can be treacherous and make many anchorages uncomfortable.

The best time to sail in Belize is during the dry season, from February to May.

➜ During the peak tourist season, boat rentals are in high demand. It is best to reserve at least six months in advance for the best rates and availability. For the holiday season, such as Christmas and New Year’s, reserving a year in advance is highly recommended to ensure the best options.

What type of boat should you choose in Belize?

When selecting a boat for navigating Belize, several factors must be considered. These include the type of activities you plan on doing, the number of people on board, your level of navigation expertise, and your budget.

  • Sailboats are a popular choice for navigation in Belize thanks to their gentle sailing characteristics and the capacity to harness favorable winds. They offer a peaceful seafaring experience and can accommodate various budgets and crew sizes. Moreover, sailboats provide easy access to Belize’s numerous islands and reefs, endowing great flexibility for exploring the region.
  • Catamarans are loved for their stability, generous living space, and shallow draft, enabling access to otherwise unreachable areas. They provide exceptional comfort and are perfect for families or larger groups but they come with a higher rental price tag.
Sailing in Belize
Sailing in Belize (Copyright © Olivier Delausnay)

Cruise itinerary

Belize City

We depart from Montreal and land in Belize, with a brief layover in Miami. Our first two nights are spent in Belize City, enabling us to adjust gradually and manage provisioning. Because there is no supermarket on the cayes, one must think ahead and buy most of the necessary food items for a 10-day cruise before departure.

With a tiny fridge, we need to be mindful. Our usual go-to purchases are water bottles, juice, milk, cereals, pasta, sauces, and canned goods (such as corn, beans, chickpeas, and lentils). We grab a few fresh fruits and veggies for initial meals, flour to bake our bread, some cookies for snack time, and chips for the aperitif. Finally, let’s not forget some tempting bait 🎣 to switch things up during the trip 😅

After we’ve loaded all our supplies, the storage spaces are overflowing! Good thing we’re traveling light 👙 😂

After all the preparations and a good night’s sleep, we depart from the pier of Belize City with our sights set on Tobacco Caye 🏝️

Cruise ship departure pontoon in Belize City
Cruise ship departure pontoon in Belize City

Tobacco Caye

We had just set sail when the kids suddenly start fussing in the bow. Two dolphins are playing in the waves, darting from one side of the prow to the other. After a few minutes with these magical creatures, we are all enchanted by this incredible first encounter.

The journey continues peacefully. As the gentle waves rock the boat, the children drift off into deep slumber while the adults lazily plan the days: soaking up the sun, snorkeling, sipping aperitifs, and more basking in the sun 😂

We retrieve the fishing equipment to secure tonight’s dinner. A few bites, but nothing to write home about, and before we know it, Tobacco Caye looms ahead. Suddenly, a reel screeches – a sizable catch! And another, following shortly after! The fishermen are ecstatic – tonight’s barbecue just got a whole lot savory.

Before that, we must stow the fishing rod and drop anchor. We make the necessary checks to secure the mooring. Turning off the engine, we take in the breathtaking view. Tobacco Caye greets us from across the way.

Tobacco Caye, Belize
At anchor in Tobacco Caye

As the sun slowly sets, we realize it is too late to embark on a daring adventure. Instead of a Robinson Crusoe-style excursion, we jump into the water and sip on refreshing cocktails. With delicious fish in our bellies and the gentle waves lulling us, we drift into a peaceful sleep.

Early wake-up, as always, on the boat. Sipping our first cup of coffee, we watch the distant storm pass by …

Tobacco Caye under a stormy sky
Tobacco Caye under a stormy sky

After a hearty breakfast, it’s time to start exploring Tobacco Caye!

To Tobacco Caye
To Tobacco Caye

Less than an hour’s boat ride from Dangriga lies Tobacco Caye – a small egg-shaped island with a north-south span of approximately 240 meters by 125 meters. While it may be lesser known than the celebrated Blue Hole, it’s no less stunning and sits within the marine reserve of South Water Caye. Spanning almost 117 square miles, this is one of Belize’s largest marine spaces within its coral barrier reef system.

Devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the island was reconstructed from the ground up. Don’t expect any five-star resorts, shops, or nightclubs here. Instead, find vibrant, wooden bungalows that operate entirely “off the grid” without TVs, hot water, or air conditioning. This is a place to unwind and appreciate life’s simple pleasures.

At Tobacco Caye, one can unwind and disconnect while lying in a hammock, soaking in the beauty of the coral reefs.

Located at the end of the island, Tobacco Caye Marine Station is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing local and international students with experiential learning opportunities on the Belize Barrier Reef. The facility focuses on education and research, supporting learners in exploring the wonders of the coral reef.

Stingrays glide gracefully in the translucent waters of Tobacco Caye
Stingrays glide gracefully in the translucent waters of Tobacco Caye

After spending hours observing stingrays, we head to Reef’s End Bar and Restaurant on the island’s southern tip. With a terrace and deck overlooking turquoise waters, this hub for tourists, fishermen, divers, and boaters is the perfect spot to sip a cocktail at sunset and savor some Belizean cuisine.

Back on the boat, the kids pass the time waiting for dinner.

Amidst clouds and palm trees, the sunset at Tobacco Caye is simply magical.

Sunset at Tobacco Caye
Sunset at Tobacco Caye

Helpful information

  • Tobacco Caye can be reached by boat from Dangriga, and the ride takes about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the boat.
  • Available accommodations include Tobacco Caye Paradise, The Windward Lodge, Joe Jo’s By the Reef, and Reef’s End Lodge. Although the quality of services and prices offered are quite similar across establishments, it’s worth noting that the stilt cabanas at Tobacco Caye Paradise are particularly delightful, with their decks overlooking the lagoon 🤩

South Water Caye

After spending two nights anchored at Tobacco Caye, we set sail for a short hop to South Water Caye.

The children have found their spot, snuggling in and scanning the horizon for dolphins.

Located at the heart of the coral reef, South Water Caye is renowned for its dense, red mangroves that thrive alongside coral outcrops and rare, diamond-shaped reefs known as faro.

Mangroves and coconut trees dot the shores of South Water Caye
Mangroves and coconut trees dot the shores of South Water Caye

In 1996, the government of Belize reserved the area as a marine reserve. It was later added to the list of UNESCO-protected sites. The Pelican Cayes in the southern area of the marine reserve have been identified as one of the most biodiverse marine systems in the Western Hemisphere, supporting several endemic and new-to-science species. The South Water Caye Nature Reserve has a remarkable collection of tropical fish and abundant crawfish and conch, making it a significant location for marine biologists. A lucky few may also encounter sea turtles or imposing whale sharks while exploring the reserve’s rich biodiversity.

South Water Caye, Belize
South Water Caye, Belize (Copyright © Olivier Delausnay)

South Water Caye is renowned for its dedication to ecotourism and marine ecosystem conservation. The island hosts several research stations and eco-resorts committed to preserving and practicing sustainable environmentalism. Visitors are invited to discover the reef ecosystem’s delicate harmony while participating in educational activities such as guided snorkeling tours and participation in coral restoration projects.

After sailing for a few short hours, South Water Caye emerges.

Approaching South Water Caye
Approaching South Water Caye

Eager to set foot on land, the crew wastes no time anchoring, securing the boat, and prepping the dinghy. Excitement grows among the children as they look forward to a game of Molkky!

We disembark in the island’s center at the IZE Belize (International Zoological Expeditions) dock. The institute serves as an educational hub with several dorm cabins for students studying tropical biology and reef ecology. IZE also features a bar restaurant with picturesque views of the lagoon, which attracts boaters and sea enthusiasts alike.

South Water Caye, Belize
South Water Caye, Belize (Copyright © Olivier Delausnay)

While the children play explorers in the institute gardens, we search for the perfect spot to admire the sunset.

Long chair on South Water Caye, Belize

Children’s laughter echoes through the mangroves, masking the sound of the waves that gently lap at our feet.

As the sunset arrives, not a sound remains on the pier. Even the most turbulent souls succumb to its magic 😍

Watching the sunset from IZE Belize's pier at South Water Caye
Watching the sunset from IZE Belize’s pier at South Water Caye

Our young Robinsons hold a summit, planning their next explorations before returning to the boat at nightfall. Another beautiful day draws to a close …

South Water Caye

The following day is reserved for exploring the island. As we stroll through pristine sandy beaches, mangroves, and palm trees, we care not to get hit by falling coconuts 😅

South Water Caye, Belize
Caution falling coco nutz 😂

The beautiful pastel cabins of the Blue Marlin Beach Resort are scattered throughout the island, providing stunning views of the nearby coral reef and lagoon.

Colorful cottages at the Blue Marlin Beach Resort in South Water Caye
Colorful cottages at the Blue Marlin Beach Resort in South Water Caye

Children can play on a swing at Charlie’s Bar as we sip a refreshing Belikin (a delicious Belizean beer). Meanwhile, a pelican strikes a pose on the pier …

The afternoon is spent idling by the water. The kids are so busy having fun with their giant pink flamingo float that we don’t even notice the day coming to an end.

After a fulfilling island exploration and beach lounging day, multicolored coral potatoes await discovery. South Water Caye offers one of the few direct drop-offs to the reef from the shores. Glide through the vibrant blue waters and witness an array of tropical fish gracefully dancing around you. Although a shy sea turtle appears in the distance, its brief presence is still mesmerizing. Below, several nurse sharks rest undisturbed in the warm, tranquil waters. Despite their harmless nature, their presence still evokes excitement, and no one dares to approach them too closely 😅

Back on dry land, we take advantage of the terrace at IZE Belize, sipping on one last drink in South Water Caye as the sunset paints the sky with warm, golden hues. Once again, the view is truly magical …

Sunset at South Water Caye

Helpful information

  • South Water Caye is easily reachable by boat from Hopkins and Dangriga – the ride is just 30-45 minutes, depending on which boat you hop onboard.
  • Available accommodations include Pelican Beach Resorts, Blue Marlin Beach Resort, and IZE Belize.

Hideaway Caye

After spending 4 nights moored in South Water Caye, we’re pulling up anchor to get closer to Placencia. But before making our way to the Belizean coast, there’s one last stop in the cayes. We’re headed to Hideaway Caye!

Deserted Island, Belize
Deserted Island, Belize

Hideaway Caye is a petite island cloaked in vast mangrove forests located south of the South Water Caye marine reserve. A single-family living on the island has preserved the island’s natural state for nearly a decade.

After attaching the annex to the pontoon, we navigate through the mangrove on elevated wooden paths to reach the building serving as a reception, bar, and restaurant. Close by, a treehouse lodge caters to up to four exclusive guests. The restaurant is an essential meeting point for seafarers who dropped anchor in the vicinity and is open to the public.

At anchor in front of Hideaway Caye
At anchor in front of Hideaway Caye

The sun timidly peaks out as the fishermen cast their lines. While the day has just begun, dinner is already sorted. Such efficiency! 😂

We continue our morning by embarking on an adventure to explore the islet facing Hideaway Caye. No huts to be found here, just soft white sand, thriving mangroves, and sapphire-blue seas. An uninhabited island – a true hidden gem 🤩

Deserted island in Belize
A deserted island in Belize

Helpful information

  • Hideaway Caye is exclusively reachable by boat. If you stay on the island, a transfer will be arranged from Hopkins.
  • At Hideaway Caye, only one cabin houses a maximum of four people. Everything you need to know is available on their website.


After a final sail, we arrive at Placencia, marking the end of our cruise through Belize’s crystal-clear waters.

On the beach of Placencia
On the beach of Placencia

The Placencia peninsula is a narrow strip of land, flanked on one side by a mangrove lagoon and on the other by the Caribbean Sea, stretching for about thirty kilometers. It looks like an island and is often called the “drive-through caye”.

Placencia, the quiet fishing village at the southern tip of a peninsula, was founded by the Mayans and later became home to English Puritans in the 17th century. Although Hurricane Iris destroyed its colonial legacy in 2001 and real estate projects continue to pop up, Placencia’s vibrant wooden houses have maintained their antiquated aesthetic.

Placencia Caye, Belize
Placencia Caye, Belize

There are no available docking stations at Placencia Pier. Therefore, the best option is to drop anchor west of Placencia Caye and take the dinghy to reach the village’s vicinity.

In Placencia, the narrowest main street in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, measures just over 1.3 km. But don’t expect to find room for cars on this little route – it’s a sidewalk reserved just for pedestrians and decorated with gorgeous murals and colorful works of art.

Main street of Placencia - the narrowest street in the world
The main street of Placencia – the narrowest street in the world

More than the works of art, the window display of an ice cream shop catches kids’ attention. After 10 days at sea, that’s all they dream of 😂

Ice cream in Placencia

After a tasty break, we stroll along the main street from end to end, searching for a pleasant spot to spend our last evening. Shops and restaurants are aplenty, but none catches our eye. Consequently, we settle on a restaurant that offers a variety of options. Though not unpleasant, the meal didn’t transport us either. Could our standards have been raised significantly after ten days in paradise? 😅

Last stroll on the beach… Savoring every bit, not thinking about the end of a trip we already know will be unforgettable.

On the beach of Placencia
On the beach of Placencia

➜ Belize is a small country that offers exceptional fauna and flora, both on land and water. If you get the chance, enhance your few days of cruising with an adventure into the heart of the land, amidst tropical forests and Mayan temples. You can find more info in our article: “Belize | Travel Guide from the jungle to the heavenly beaches

➜ From Belize City, you can easily hop on a ferry and reach the beautiful destinations of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. Or you can include them in your cruise itinerary too. More info here: “Belize | 2-day tropical getaway to the stunning Ambergris Caye

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