With its combination of magnificent Mayan ruins, white sand beaches, lush rain forests, and some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, the English-speaking nation of Belize is proof that great things come in small packages.
Bordering on Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean, Belize is the second smallest country in Central America (after El Salvador), with an area of approximately 9,000 square miles that includes numerous small islands off the coast known as cayes.
More than half of the mainland is covered with dense forests, and at its longest point Belize is 174 miles long while its greatest width is 68 miles. Long a strong advocate of environmental protection, the government has set aside approximately 20 percent of its land as nature reserves.
Belize has been attracting steadily increasing numbers of U.S. visitors as it has become better known as a reasonably priced destination offering spectacular diving opportunities. It also continues to increase in popularity as a cruise destination and is often included as one of the ports of call on Western Caribbean itineraries.
Diving is Belize’s main claim to fame due to an almost unbroken line of reefs and cayes extending for 150 miles along its coast that make up the longest reef system in the Western Hemisphere (and the second longest in the world). While many cayes are tiny and uninhabited, some, like Ambergris Caye, are sufficiently large to have built resorts that attract divers from all across the U.S. and from countries around the world.
But beyond the sea, there are also several important Mayan sites situated on the mainland, such as Altun Ha and Xunantunich; in fact, Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan sites of all the countries in Central America. And don’t forget about the magnificent Tikal, located just across the border in Guatemala.
What to See
Diving and snorkeling are number one on the hit parade of favorite outdoor activities here due to the astounding sites along the barrier reef. Some of the best dive sites lie just off Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker (and can be accessed easily from either island). A favorite snorkeling area is known as Shark Ray Alley (one hour by speedboat from San Pedro), where it’s possible to get “up close and personal” (petting is permitted) with nurse sharks and sting rays. Shark Ray Alley is part of the larger Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a three-square-mile underground water park filled with vibrantly colored fish and coral.
Ambergris Caye is Belize’s largest island and the most popular destination for visitors. Its main town, San Pedro, bustles with cars, golf carts, bikes and pedestrians. Although there are a number of resorts and hotels here, there are few real beaches here, and visitors looking to swim should head out to the end of the many piers that stretch out into the water (to avoid the sea grass closer into the shore). Ambergris Caye is a good base for snorkeling or diving expeditions, or for travelers looking simply to lie back and relax. It’s accessible by ferry from Belize City.
Caye Caulker is Ambergris Caye’s laid-back cousin — a smaller, quieter island with sandy streets and no cars. (You can rent a bike or golf cart to get around, but the island is small enough to walk just about anywhere.) As with Ambergris Caye, there are no real beaches to speak of and swimming is best done off the piers — or you can go swimming in the crystalline waters of the Split, a narrow channel carved by Hurricane Hattie between the northern and southern parts of the island in 1961. Snorkeling, diving, kayaking and simply chilling out are the prime activities here. The island is accessible by ferry from Belize City.
Belize is home to a number of excellent Mayan sites. Among the best of these is Altun Ha, a heavily excavated site that is a convenient day trip out of the Belize City. Once a major trading and ceremonial center, it consists of several impressive temples and tombs highlighted by the Temple of the Masonry Altars. Another important site is Xunantunich, located near the Guatemalan border, which can only be reached by crossing the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry. Situated here are six major plazas ringed by more than 25 temples and palaces; largest of the remaining temples is Il Castilo which is worth climbing for the spectacular panoramic view from the top. If you find yourself near the Guatemalan border, it’s worth a day trip to the ruins at Tikal, where you’ll find a number of spectacular pyramids (some over 200 feet tall). Climb one and you’ll see nothing but rain forest for miles; the city, once home to 100,000 people, is still in the process of excavation from its wild natural surroundings.
Wildlife lovers will love exploring three popular attractions in Belize. Not far from Belize City is the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, which protects a number of native Belizean species such as jaguars, tapirs and various tropical birds. A little farther outside the city are the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary (at Western Highway mile marker 30.8) and the Community Baboon Sanctuary (across the street), which is home to a substantial number of black howler monkeys.
Belize is a birder’s delight, home to more than 500 different species from toucans to egrets. Two highly recommended ways to encounter bird life are to take a guided boat trip to Laughing Bird Caye and/or a visit to the aforementioned Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.
In ancient times, the Mayans believed that Belize’s many caves were the “underworld” and revered them as sacred places. Options for exploring the network of caves include tubing or by kayak or canoe. A few of the more popular caves include Barton Creek Cave, which can be visited by canoe, and Rio Frio Cave, Belize’s most accessible cave (you can walk right in). If you’re up for a more strenuous experience, the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) is worth the effort; the well-preserved Mayan artifacts in this cave can only be reached via hiking and swimming. To protect the site, the Belize Tourist Board has only licensed a few select guides, including PACZ and Mayawalk, to offer this full-day tour.
Beach bums looking for more expansive stretches of sand than those at Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker should head south to Placencia. This sleepy town with vibrantly colored houses is the gateway to 16 miles of white sand beaches, as well as a base for snorkeling and diving trips out to the nearby barrier reef. A fun excursion is a boat ride down the lazy Monkey River, followed by a hike through the jungle — keep your eye out for howler monkeys.
Where to Eat
It’s rare to find a restaurant that doesn’t offer two staples of Belizean cuisine (often served together): stew chicken, and rice and beans. Budget travelers, take note — these simple, filling dishes are almost always the cheapest items on the menu. If you’re anywhere near the coast, you’ll also see plenty of seafood, particularly fresh conch, lobster and various types of fish. Many of these items are seasonal.
Ambergris Caye: We love dining right over the water at Palapa Bar & Grill — and we love their slow-smoked pulled pork even more. Another waterfront favorite is the Blue Water Grill, which has an expansive international menu. Don’t miss its special sushi nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Caye Caulker: Our favorite dining spot on the island is Habaneros, with its romantic candlelit veranda and its creative international menu. For a waterfront location, try the fresh seafood at Rainbow Restaurant.
Belize City: The Smoky Mermaid, located at the Great House, features a menu of fabulous lobster and fresh fish dishes. Dine outside in the shaded courtyard.
Placencia: Eaten a few too many plates of rice and beans? The rich strudel, schnitzel and dumplings at Danube — which pegs itself as “the first Austrian restaurant in Belize” — will be a breath of fresh air. Secret Garden is another nice option, nestled in a lush garden setting in downtown Placencia. (There’s a coffeehouse and spa here too.)
Western Belize: Eva’s is the bustling hub of the local tourist scene in San Ignacio — you can grab a cheap meal (off a menu of Belizean and Mexican dishes), book your next day’s tour and meet up with other travelers, all in one place. The similarly named Erva’s, also in San Ignacio, is a favorite among locals for its friendly hostess (Erva herself), generous portions and delicious Belizean specialties.
Where to Stay
Accommodations in Belize run the gamut from jungle ecolodges and beach resorts to cozy guesthouses and small hotels. Though there are some luxury properties here, budget travelers should have no problem finding affordable and charming places to stay. Rates do go up during the busy winter season; book ahead to ensure availability.
Ambergris Caye: Along with luxurious beachfront condos, the Phoenix Resort also offers a restaurant, a spa, a fitness center and two pools. A good mid-priced option is Changes in Latitudes, a friendly, six-room bed and breakfast about 10 minutes (on foot) south of San Pedro.
Caye Caulker: Offering three sunny rooms about a block from the sea, Maxhapan Cabanas is an affordable, laid-back alternative on Caye Caulker. The use of free bikes during your time on the island is a nice perk, as are the comfy hammocks on each private veranda. For an oceanfront location, try Barefoot Beach Belize with its vibrantly colored rooms and a sun deck just for guests.
Belize City: A historic landmark in Belize City, Great House oozes colonial charm with its wide porches and polished wood floors. The D’Nest Inn, located just outside downtown Belize, has elegant rooms decorated with antiques and a lush tropical garden.
Placencia: Owned by Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor, Turtle Inn is consistently rated one of the most luxurious properties in Belize. Its 25 Balinese-inspired cabanas overlook the sea. The Maya Beach Hotel is a more affordable beachfront option.
Western Belize: Active travelers will love the cabana-style rooms, adventure tour offerings and jungle location of Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge. If you’ve ever wanted to stay in a treehouse, this is your chance! For an in-town option, try Martha’s Guesthouse, offering clean, affordable rooms in downtown San Ignacio.
Where to Shop
Shopping isn’t a particular highlight of most trips to Belize, but there are interesting handicrafts and local artwork to be found here. The best buys are wooden and slate carvings. Another great gift for folks back home (or for yourself!) is a bottle of one of Belize’s local hot sauces; the most popular locally produced brand is Marie Sharp’s, which you can find in markets all over the country.
The National Handicraft Center in Belize City sells an assortment of locally produced mahogany bowls, various carvings and artwork.
The Tourism Village is the city’s main shopping area with a variety of stores, shops and restaurants. The city’s downtown area and the Marine Terminal are about five minutes away on foot, and there’s always a line of taxis waiting adjacent to the Tourism Village.
San Pedro is a hot spot for shopping, particularly for souvenirs and gifts. The bulk of stores can be found on Barrier Reef Drive. There are also a number of small gift shops along the main streets of Caye Caulker.