The second smallest and least populated nation in Central America, Belize has a widespread reputation for its incomparable dive sites, which range from shore diving in shallow water to the 200-foot deep Blue Hole. This extraordinary country has the longest unbroken barrier reef in the western hemisphere, 185 miles of coastline and 400 cays dotted with luxury rentals, resorts, villas and thatched-roof cabanas. “Tourism... was up nearly six percent for 2013 in both stay-over and cruise sectors,” said the Honorable Dean Barrow, PM of Finance and Economic Development. It’s a country that offers visitors opportunities to snorkel, sport fish, sail, sailboard, sea kayak and scuba dive.
Several dive operations on the Pacific side of this country are located in the Gulf of Papagayo, Playa del Coco and Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste. Divers find pinnacles burgeoning with marine life, underwater arches coated with bouquets of coral and sponges and mysterious chimneys.
Traveling south to Jinetes de Osa, guides take divers to the protected biological reserve of Caño where they encounter devil rays, turtles, white tip reef sharks and dense schools of fish, which obliterate the sunlight.
Water temps are cooler than on the Caribbean side, averaging 74 degrees with 65-degree thermoclines during the dry season (mid November through March) and 78-85 degrees during the the wet season. Dive operations take divers to Isla Catalinas (Cat Island) and Isla Murcielagos (Bat Island), where they can see schooling fish, southern stingrays, manta rays, turtles and seahorses. With warmer water and calm seas, bull sharks often appear around Isla Murcielagos.
Los Cóbanos is the most popular site in the country for diving. During the summer, and with favorable conditions, divers get up close to moray eels and swim with angelfish, eagle rays and green turtles. Visibility drops considerably in the winter (April to November). Alternative dives are arranged to the crater of Coatepeque Lake. Here, species include catfish, rainbow bass and zebra fish.
There are a few more dive sites in Guatemala than El Salvador and those share the same marine life. Lake Atitlan is a high-altitude volcanic caldera, which filled after its eruption nearly 85,000 years ago. To avoid decompression sickness, PADI, the official dive organization, suggests divers visiting the site remain at one of the authentic Mayan villages along the rim for 18 hours before returning to sea level.
Bordered by spectacular coral reefs, the Honduran archipelago on the Caribbean side is comprised of five islands that have been thrilling divers for decades. Sunlight cuts through the plankton-free water, illuminating shallow coral ledges below and revealing bouquets of sea plumes and lavender fans gracefully swaying to the rhythm of the sea. At sites in Roatan the seaward facade plummets to 200 feet and is a pastiche of quivering deepwater lace coral. Natural inlets in the reef make beach dives possible and enjoyable both day and night. A black coral forest greets divers in Utila, where they’ll encounter whale sharks and spinner dolphins. At 1,200 feet, Guanaja rises from the water like a south-sea film set. Underwater, a cargo ship lies on her port side, encrusted with a proliferation of corals and sponges and is home to green moray eels and whopper-sized Nassau and black groupers. At Cayos Cochinos, schools of fish are back on the north side of Cayo Grande. Thanks to conservation efforts, lobsters, conch and reef fish grow to maturity in the shallow undercuts of the wall that surrounds Cacahuate Island. www.honduras.com
Tourism is in its infancy on the pair of islands located 43 miles off the Atlantic side of Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast. The Corn Islands (Great and Little Corn) are surrounded by a reef ecosystem, where a variety of corals, sponges, tropical fish, eagle rays, snapper, jacks, pompano, sharks and turtles are commonplace. Locally owned scuba operations on both islands offer guided dives to reefs. Dive packages (accommodations and dives) are very reasonable as are restaurants and street food. British Airways, Copa, American and United fly from major cities to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua and from there, twice-daily flights connect to Big Corn Island. From Big Corn, visitors take a 30-minute boat ride to Little Corn Island.
Previously known for the abundance of marine life by sport fishing enthusiasts, the volcanic coral encrusted pinnacles surrounding the islands of Coiba, Jicaron and Canalas, off the Pacific Coast of Panamá have become popular with sport divers. At 30 feet, they can swim with an array of colorful fish that inhabit lattices of soft coral and watch for sharks cruising along white sand chutes. Late August and early September is prime time for whale sharks and humpback whale encounters. Orcas sometimes cruise the waters hunting for humpback calves.
On the Atlantic side the sites surrounding the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and Portobello are easily accessible. Trips to these sections provide divers with the opportunity to capture marine life that takes sharp eyes and a macro lens to spot fluted nudibranchs, sea horses and snapping crabs. The dry season (February to April and September through October) brings in spotted eagle- and manta rays and turtles. www.visitpanama.com