Though small, Belize has everything one would want from a place to visit. Flanking its coastline lies white sandy beaches fringed by palms and the lapping waves of the turquoise blue sea. Dotted further out to sea are the picture-perfect islands, archipelagos and the second longest barrier reef in the world, beaten only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Most visitors head straight from the Cayes, but those who venture further inland are treated to steamy jungles teeming with wildlife and ancient Mayan temples.
Belize reef is the second largest in the world Photo by Rivigan
The country is squeezed in between Mexico and Guatemala, and though its often thought of as Latin America, it has a distinctly Caribbean vibe. Some Spanish is spoken, but the official language is English, making it far easier to travel through and interact with locals. Over a third of the country is protected, offering some of the largest swathes of pristine forest on the continent.
For those looking for adventure, there are plenty of things to do in Belize - hiking, horse riding, scaling ancient Mayan pyramids, adrenaline inducing watersports, diving, snorkeling, caving, spotting jaguars or visiting wildlife sanctuaries. Expert local guides are well trained and ensure you make the most of your time.
There’s also plenty of accommodation for different tastes and budgets. Small eco lodges nestled in the forest make up close wildlife encounters a daily occurrence, while beachfront villas on the Cayes offer a base for some serious rest and relaxation.
Belize is not known the world over for its cuisine, but you’ll be surprised at the variety and freshness. In season, lobsters are sold in abundance of the islands and coast, typically simply barbequed and covered in lemon butter. Fresh zingy ceviche made from conch, tomatoes, and cucumber, though different from its Latin American counterparts, is equally delicious. Fry jacks, similar to doughnuts without the sweetness, are filled with everything from cheese to beans make for a hearty breakfast and meat pies often bought from cyclists who ply the streets are a throwback to British colonial rule.
The Belize Cayes are one of the highlights for tourists. This Belizean archipelago ranges from tiny uninhabited islets to larger islands with towns. The most famous and largest is Ambergris Caye. Visitors have been flocking here for years for sun, sea and exclusive hotels. It became so famous, Madonna created a song about the island’s capital. The smaller Caye Caulker has a more intimate atmosphere. It’s possible to walk around the island in an hour or so and has become a mecca for snorkelers and scuba divers. For super exclusivity, there are several private islands with luxury villas for rent, though they are out of reach to everyone other than the ultra-rich.
Orange Walk is in the north of the mainland. Though the town itself is nothing special, the mixture of Creoles and Mayan Indian cultures means there is plenty to do, see and eat including some interesting markets. The town also serves as a gateway to this wild part of the country. Head out into the rainforest with your guide to discover lagoons, rivers and an enormous range of fauna including manatees, jaguars, exotic birdlife and monkeys. Be sure to visit Rio Bravo Conservation Area, the largest of its kind in Belize and one of the best places for spotting wildlife. Chan Chich Lodge in Gallon Jug created a private conservation of 30,000 acres and another great place to watch wildlife.
The capital of the Cayo District in the west of Belize is San Ignacio. The town is used as a base by many for exploring the dense forests of wildlife and the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich and Caracol. It’s also possible to easily cross over the border here into Guatemala and visit the ancient Mayan citadel of Tikal. Guides will take you out on wildlife spotting adventures, walks along the jungle trails, horse rides, jaguar spotting trips and 4 x 4 vehicle tours. Limestone caves and caverns used by the Mayans for sacrifices can be found across the region and can be explored. Adventurous types don’t have to miss out on comfort. Lodges like Chaa Creek and Blancaneaux allow exploration of Cayo in serious luxury.
Ancient Mayan pyramids in the jungle of Belize Photo by Deanna Keahey
Belize lies at the top of Central America. Sharing a large land border to the west is Guatemala, while the Yucatan region of Mexico sits above. Formally British Honduras, the country regained independence in 1981 and was named Belize. It remains part of the British Commonwealth, like Australia and Canada.
Belize is neither fully Latin America, nor is it fully Caribbean and takes influence from both of these regions. The coastline, islands and capital are English speaking, and feel more like there Caribbean neighbors. Further inland, more Spanish is spoken (though English is still the official language) and there are more people with Central American and Mayan heritage.
Without meaning to sound cliché, Belize has something for everyone. Adventurous trekking, cycling, horse riding, zip lining, climbing and caving can all be found in the mountains and forests further in land. Scuba diving, snorkeling, watersports and the beaches are the reason most visit the coast or islands.
Truly one of the natural wonders of the world and a mecca for scuba divers, the Great Blue Hole sits around 70 kilometers from the mainland of Belize, near Lighthouse Reef atoll. The huge sinkhole measures up at 300 meters wide and over 100 meters deep and attracts divers from around the world who come to swim in the crystal-clear waters. Bull, hammerhead and reef sharks can be seen here as well as many other colorful reef fish. This is not a dive for the uninitiated, and those who visited must have logged more than 20 open-water dives. A few years ago, it was named as one of the ten most amazing places on earth by the Discovery Channel. As impressive is taking in the Blue Hole from the air. Several small airlines offer flights over the wonder to appreciate its almost perfect circular shape.
The Belize Barrier Reef is the largest in the Northern Hemisphere, and second in the world only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and has seven protected areas. Charles Darwin once said that the reef was ‘the most remarkable reef in the West Indies’. The protected area serves as a home for many endangered species including manatees, turtles, crocodiles and migratory birds. The number of species here is impressive. Over 500 fish species, 65 different types of coral and over 350 mollusks and crustaceans. Diving and snorkeling with this marine life can easily be organized either before you travel or once you arrive on the islands or coast. Staying on Ambergris Caye gives you gives you best access to the Barrier Reef.
Belizean beaches are as close to perfect as you can get. Picture this. White powder sand shaded by coconut palms, the lapping waves of warm turquoise waters, the odd vendor selling refreshing drinks and barbecued fish. Can you think of anything quite as good? The country has over 240 miles of glorious coastline, both running along the mainland and around the islands. Your days will be filled with refreshing dips in the sea, snorkeling with turtles, digging your toes into the sand, working on your tan, gorging on fresh seafood, sipping a cold beer and swinging in a hammock. Bliss.
Parts of the Belize were encompassed into the Mayan lowlands. There have been cultures and settlements here since at least 400 B.C. though it exploded in population growth between 250 and 900 A.D. Over the last century, excavations have revealed some fascinating citadels preserved by these ancient cultures including pyramids, temples and tombs. The most impressive ruin is Xunantunich (meaning Stone Woman) located around 70 kilometers from Belize City. The site is made up by El Castillo, a building that rises 40 meters over the surrounding plaza. There are also a number of temples and a large stucco frieze. However, there are other ruins to visit including Altun Ha, Lamanai, El Pilar and Caracol which has the largest Mayan and man-made structure in Belize. Across the border in Guatemala, the seriously impressive Tikal Mayan ruins are not far away and can be easily included.
El Castillo, a 40m tall pyramid with fantastic views of the thick jungle canopy and gently rolling hills. Photo by Tinker & Rove
There are plenty of places to dive in Belize. Experienced divers can take a long boat ride out to the Great Blue Hole to swim with sharks and turtles. Alternatively, there are the three atolls of Glover, Lighthouse and Turneffe which also have some fantastic opportunities for scuba diving. Scuba divers that visit the area are never disappointed. Stingrays, nurse sharks, turtles, spotted eagle rays, dog snappers and much more can be seen. It’s not just divers that have all the fun. Belize also offers snorkelers something special. Hol Chan Marine Park centered between Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker is home to huge loggerhead turtles, eagle rays and even the rare gentle giants of the sea – manatees.
Cave tubing is fun for both adults and children. Be sure to buy your tour through a reputable travel company with well-trained guides. To reach the best place for tubing, you must first take a half hour hike through the rainforest. Embark on your tubes and float along the Caves Branch River navigating through a system of impressive caves. It was here that the Mayans sacrificed people as they believed this was the gateway to the underworld and the Gods.
Eating is often the best part of visiting a new country, and Belize is no exception. Though it hasn’t yet been recognized internationally, the food is remarkably good, particularly if you like seafood. The melting pot of cultures means Belize cuisine is a fusion. Taking influences from their native Mayan as well as Mexican, African, Spanish and the Caribbean, it’s no wonder that Belizean food is so delicious.
Nowhere else in the world can you eat lobster as cheaply as Belize. Be sure to visit the islands in season, as for half of the year they are protected to allow the population to replenish. The smaller cousin to their American counterparts, spiny lobsters can be found grilling on drum barbecues across the islands. Best eaten covered in garlic lemon butter with a cold beer, your toes buried in the sand while you look over the sea.
If you can’t make it in lobster season, fear not, there are plenty of other seafood to try. Look for the catch the catch of the day which could be anything from grouper, lion fish, snapper or barracuda and is served with simple cooked rice, beans and coleslaw. It’s not hard to find barbecued seafood, but if you are staying in Caye Caulker, be sure to walk up to Maggies, a tiny wooden shack near the split which serves up some of the best in town.
A hangover from British colonial rule, meat pies are very popular here. They also cook them well, with light flaky pastry filled with delicious gravy and minced beef. Look out for cyclists who ply their pies from boxes attached to the front. They will have a sign or be calling out for punters. Best eaten topped with some of Marie’s Pepper sauce to cut through the richness and offer some spice.
Belize is the perfect place to relax and try the cuisine
The origins of this dish are unknown but are thought to be Mayan and at least a thousand years old. Pork is marinated achiote, garlic and spices, wrapped up in banana leaves and slow cooked or grilled which imparts a rich smokiness.
Boils ups might not sound or look exciting, but they are delicious. Fish, eggs, vegetables, and meat are boiled up in chicken stock and served with bread dumplings. Typically, boil ups are found on the mainland.
These little fried tortillas are stuffed with chicken, avocados, salad and topped with the obligatory Marie Sharp’s pepper sauce. You can find them on street corners across the country and are inexpensive and filling. Perfect for those on a budget.
Fry jacks are flattened dough which are deep fried to create a kind of dough pocket. This is then stuffed with any many of ingredients including eggs, chicken ham, cheese, refried beans, tomatoes and more. Best eaten for breakfast, visit any of the little fry jack shacks for a hearty and inexpensive meal. Starting at around 2 bucks, it won’t break the bank and will set you up for the day.
Another simple breakfast and a stable are johnny cakes. Resembling something similar to an English scone, these bread cakes are made from coconut milk and flour. They can be eaten several days after being baked, but they don’t improve with age. Look out for still warm, freshly baked johnny cakes which are cut open and filled with everything from beans, eggs, cheese, chicken, beef and ham.
Conch is very popular on the coast and island. Sometimes it’s simply grilled on the barbecue, but the best way to prepare it is fritters. The thick conch meat is chopped and blended with peppers, flour and garlic then deep fried until golden brown. Like most things, conch fritters are always eaten with hot sauce and works well with fresh ceviche.
Ceviche in Belize is completely different from its South American counterparts. More like a chunky salsa, Belizean ceviche is flash boiled conch, fish or shrimp mixed with roughly chopped onions, cucumber, tomatoes, coriander, peppers and lime juice. Typically, the ceviche is served with nachos. As ceviche has raw or semi raw seafood, always eat it by the coast when it’s at its freshest.
This dark sticky almost sinister looking stew is sometimes referred to as ‘Black Dinner’, but is absolutely mouthwatering. The colour comes from black achiote paste and spices. Typically, the stew is made from chicken although other meats are sometimes used. Most restaurants serve the dish accompanied by freshly baked tortillas and boiled eggs.
Like most dishes, Belize has taken influence from elsewhere and made it their own. Tamales in Belize are made using plantain leaves instead of the typically corn husks. Recipes vary across the country but are almost always served with a chicken gravy. Though they can be found on the islands and coast, they are more common inland.
The start of the year between January and March is the dry season and therefore one of the best times to explore the rainforest and Mayan ruins. Warm sunshine, relatively cool temperatures and lack of rain make hiking, adventurous activities or evening spending time on the beach a pleasure. Remember this is peak season, so book early to avoid disappointment.
The heat increases throughout April and May bringing in humidity. Though many areas remain dry, some days could be rainy. It’s still a great time to visit the Cayes and Cayo District and around Easter there are some interesting festivities, particularly if you also plan to visit Guatemala.
June is the start of rainy season, but don’t let you put this off travelling to the country . While activities may be more difficult in the heat, the rain rarely falls all day, some time spent at the beach isn’t really disturbed and helps to reduce the humidity. The lobster season starts in June and on Caye Caulker is marked by a seafood festival.
Between August and October is the low season in Belize. It’s hot, humid and storms and hurricanes are common. Some hotels close during this time to lack of tourism, but it’s cheap to visit should you decide to.
During November, the rain and heat gradually decrease and by December, the weather is back to a comfortable temperature again. Tourism begins to pick up with Christmas and New Year being particularly busy.
A picture of the jungle in Belize
Belize has many visitors and most are trouble free. Currently, there is a risk of the Zika virus, but this is low. Check with you travel nurse before travelling to see if you are at risk.
During hurricane season which runs between July and November, it’s worth checking with local authorities before travelling. Sea conditions can be more dangerous around this time, so if diving, snorkeling and swimming are a priority it may be worth picking a different time to travel. While the rains rarely cause wide scale flooding across the country, regional floods can be a problem and make travel to remote parts of the country more difficult.
Some parts of the capital Belize City have high rates of gun crime and gang activities. The city is not interesting and best avoided, particularly George Street and Kraal Road. Outside of the capital, violent crime is rare. Take normal precautions such as avoiding walking alone late at night and taking your valuables out with you. It’s wise to catch a taxi after dark, avoid getting too inebriated in bars and be careful when walking or crossing streets as pavements are almost non-existent, particularly on the islands.
In general, the healthcare system in Belize is good. Hepatitis A and B are prevalent in the country so be sure to get vaccinations before you travel. Dengue fever is also a problem and can’t be vaccinated for, so look to avoid being bitten by covering your ankles and wrists in the morning and evening, using a good quality bug spray and sleeping under a mosquito net. Depending on where you travel to in Belize, you may also need to get malaria medication. Check with your travel nurse at least a month before you travel.
Travelling from Europe can be a little tricky as there are currently no direct flights to Belize. The best way to reach Belize is via the gateway cities in the states including Dallas, Miami, Houston, Newark or Atlanta and take a transfer flight from there. Alternatively, many capitals in Europe have direct flights to Cancun in Mexico, from which you can take a flight down to Belize City. American Airlines have direct flights to Belize from Miami and Los Angeles. Delta fly direct from Atlanta and Los Angeles. Southwest serve Belize from Houston and United Airlines from New York and Chicago. If you are combining a visit to Belize with Guatemala, there is a regular service between Belize City and Guatemala City with a stop in Flores.
Cover image credits to Alan & Flora Botting