Ambergris Cay: Beach Bum Central

Ambergris Cay in Belize has some of the Caribbean's top diving--then again, the scruffy island is also one of the world's best spots for doing nothing at all

We proceed to Shark Ray Alley, so named because it's where those friendly nurses and southern stingrays congregate. Swimming a few feet below the surface with one ray alongside you and another on the ocean floor is both thrilling and discomfiting. The rays are mostly harmless, as Tony demonstrates when he proffers a morsel of sardine to a curious stingray, then picks the ray up with both hands. Along with hugging a shark, this is every San Pedro tour guide's favorite parlor trick; all the guides agree that Steve Irwin's death was a freak occurrence.

Wednesday evenings at San Pedro's beachfront bar scene mean one thing: the chance to watch a chicken do its business (yes, that kind of business). If your ticket matches the numbered square the poultry performer poops on, you win $100. The World-Famous Chicken Drop has gone down at the Spindrift Hotel's Pier Lounge every Wednesday at 6 P.M. for 18 years. You pay 50¢ for a number picked from a jar, toss back a few happy-hour drinks, and gather around an outdoor pen to see how fast fresh coconut and half-cooked bacon travel through the animal's system. "That'd make anybody crap," promises Pier Lounge owner Jan Brown, a 63-year-old former Texan who recently posed seminude, à la the film Calendar Girls, to raise money for San Pedro's new primary school.

One gambler gets to drop the chicken in the pen, and this week, the honor goes to a brunette named Stacy, one of a dozen buddies from all over the U.S. who have been on the island for a week. Her instructions are to gently shake the chicken three times. "Then you gotta blow up its butt for good luck," Jan insists. Stacy shakes, gamely blows, and the chicken totters on the very square it lands on for 10 seconds, and then . . . plop. The hundred bucks goes to Jason, another member of the group. Jan then reveals the unofficial rule: The winner has to clean up the mess.

"How many of you went diving today?" Jan asks the crowd. "Anybody see a ruin?"

"Anybody see a pool?" Jason retorts. "Anybody see some horseshoes? I saw the bottom of a bottle."

Indeed, you'll probably spend a lot of time just staring at the Caribbean, Belikin beer in hand. Might be at a bar, might be at a restaurant, might be at a resort--and not necessarily the one you're staying at. Most beaches are small, and the tepid water is thick with sea grass. The entire shore of Ambergris is public, which makes it easy to hop from bar to beach to resort.

The Xanadu Island Resort, where I stay for the last part of my trip, proves suitable for sitting around and not doing much of anything. Its freshwater pool is beachfront and surrounded by palm trees. My loft suite comes with a full kitchen and the use of a bike and a kayak. There's a hammock on every porch.

After checking in, I walk the mile into town to El Fogon, a tiny palapa restaurant tucked a block west of the airstrip. Fogon means "hearth," and that's what dominates the dining area: fresh-cut wood stacked up beneath three iron burners. Tender "stew beans," as opposed to the more commonplace Creole beans and rice, taste like peppery smoke itself, melting in my mouth.

One of my neighbors at Xanadu is Mark Wilson, a Brit who first came to Belize in 1988 and has been back a dozen times since. "It's the biggest f--ing jewel in Queen Elizabeth's crown," he says. Earlier in the week, Mark was sitting at Estel's--a place where you can get a drink before the stroke of noon, and breakfast well past it--when a cornrowed Creole named Ernesto passed by with a load of freshly filleted barracuda. After a brief conversation, Ernesto sold Mark on a fishing trip, including snorkeling with manatees on the side. Mark and his girlfriend, Angell Crosland, graciously allow me to third-wheel.

Most manatee tours venture 30 miles down the coast, but Ernesto (who's 43, looks 30, and has a voice like Mike Tyson's) knows a spot that's closer. He and his goateed partner, Oliver (who sports a 30-stitch spearfishing scar on his right wrist), launched their two-man operation, Cari'Bean Tours, just last year, though they've worked for other operations for years.

It's nice just to be out on open water, to see the turquoise shimmer of the Caribbean without the muddled undertone of sea grass. Angell and I are both total novices at fishing, and we enjoy reeling in little snappers and grunts, never mind the fact that my ratio of caught fish to lost bait is one to four. We also don't have any luck trolling for 'cudas, and soon enough, it's time to put away the rods and go snorkeling.

Led by Ernesto, we swim and swim, and then swim a little more. The current isn't strong, but this close to the reef, the waves are bouncy. We make a long circle and appear to be heading back to the boat, but Ernesto peels off in another direction. He gives us the "quiet" signal; just like that, we're 10 feet behind three manatees. The big gray beasts swish slowly through the ocean. When they surface for a breath, we come up with them and get a good look at their whiskered snouts.

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