More than 200 cayes (pronounced “keys” and derived from the Spanish cayo for “key” or “islet”) dot the blue waters off Belize’s eastern coast. They range in size from barren patches that are submerged at high tide to the largest, Ambergris Caye —25 miles long and nearly 4.5 miles across at its widest point. Some cayes are inhabited by people, others only by wildlife. The majority are lush patches of mangrove that challenge the geographer’s definition of what makes an island (that’s why you’ll never see a precise figure of how many there are).
Most of the cayes lie within the protection of the Belize Barrier Reef (almost 200 miles long), which parallels the mainland. Without the protection of the reef—in essence a breakwater—the islands would be washed away. Within the reef, the sea is relatively calm and shallow.
Beyond the reef lie three of the Caribbean’s four atolls: Glover’s Reef , Turneffe Islands , and Lighthouse Reef . An atoll is a ring-shaped coral island surrounding a lagoon, always beautiful, and almost exclusively found in the South Pacific. The three types of cayes are wet cayes, which are submerged part of the time and can support only mangrove swamps; bare coral outcroppings that are equally uninhabitable; and sandy islands with littoral forest, which is the most endangered habitat in Belize due to development pressure. The more inhabited cayes lie in the northern part of the reef and include Caye Caulker , Ambergris Caye , St. George’s Caye , and Caye Chapel .