Compared with other reserves in Belize, the terrestrial and marine reserve of Bacalar Chico has only just begun a legacy of conservation. The park officially opened August 23, 1996, after village leaders in Sarteneja began lobbying for a reserve in an area accessible to them and a site visit by NYZS and ITCF in 1991 established the conservation value of the area. Bacalar Chico now comprises a 15,000-acre marine reserve and 12,000 acres of terrestrial reserve and has been named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It sits at the northern tip of Ambergris Caye overlooking the Bay of Chetumal and Mexico.
Aerial view of Rocky Point and Bacalar Chico
Bacalar Chico covers 130 km2 of pristine Belize Barrier Reef and Rocky and Robles Points--the only place on the mainland where the barrier reef touches the coastline. The beach front of the reef, including extensive mangrove lagoons, serves as the principal Belizean nesting area for Loggerhead and Green Turtles, breeding grounds for marine and coastal birds, and an indispensable nursery for many reef fish. The Bacalar Chico channel functions as the park's northern boundary and narrowly separates Belize from Mexico. Because of Bacalar Chico's close proximity to Mexico, a trans-national reserve encompassing Quintana Roo may develop in the future.
Beach at Bacalar Chico, Rocky Point in Distance
Much of Bacalar Chico's wildlife resembles Yucatan endemics. At least 187 species of bird, forty mammal (including all five of Belize's cats), fifty-eight reptile, and twenty-two amphibian species inhabit the area.
Bacalar Chico sits upon the limestone remains of coral reefs that once thrived in the area during times of higher sea level. Throughout the area, remnants of this reef foundation stick out, most notably at Rocky Point, where the old reef crest and back reef are exposed.
Rocky Point (inset ancient reef skeletons)
Aside from an abundance of wildlife, numerous Mayan sites lie within the area. During the height of the Mayan culture, the area served as an indispensable trans-shipment point. Merchants would paddle down from the heavily populated river valley cities inland en route to the sea beyond. Upon reaching the coast, people and goods would transfer to larger boats more seaworthy for the long trips ahead. An ancient sea wall clearly visible beneath the surface at the site of San Juan near the northwest corner of Ambergris Caye takes visitors back to a time when the beach bustled with activity. Thousands of pottery shards still litter the beach. Mayans dug out and cleared the area now known as the Bacalar Chico channel to avoid the long journey around the southern tip of the caye. The Belize Fisheries Department's ranger station is located amidst the ruins of Chac-balam, another important Maya trading center fifteen hundred years ago.
As one of Belize's newest preserves, the park is accessible only by sea from points on Ambergris Caye, Sarteneja and elsewhere on the mainland off the Bay of Chetumal. The Mexican port town of X'calak, only about twenty-five minutes away by boat, can also quickly transport visitors. Explore the diverse underworld as well on a dive. Tours to Bacalar Chico can be arranged through local tour guides. Dress lightly; wear a bathing suit, repellant and/or sunscreen, comfortable shoes or sandals, sunglasses and a hat.
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