Of all the places I’ve visited in the last few years, Belize may have surprised me the most. The beautiful natural scenery, uninhibited adventure, incredibly friendly people and more-than-reasonable prices made this Central American paradise one of my favorite destinations. I only spent a week in Belize, but I made the most of the experience. If you only have a short time to visit, here are five things I highly recommend doing in Belize.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave Tour is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had while traveling. This cave, located in the Cayo District near San Ignacio, is one of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites in the country. There are several skeletal remains, calcified ceramics and artifacts throughout the cave. In order to reach them, however, you need to do some walking, swimming and climbing.
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve done cave tours before, but nothing quite like this. In the U.S., and many other countries, caves are equipped with lighted walkways, bridges and railings to keep people safe and dry. Not in Belize. We swam in water up to our necks, climbed along limestone and squeezed through tightly spaced rocks, with only the headlights on our helmets to light the way. In order to see the burial site, we had to climb a tall limestone rock face (without the help of a ladder), and pull ourselves up to a ledge.
Despite it being a challenge, the ATM tour is something I encourage everyone to try. The physical aspect makes you appreciate what’s at the end of the journey. The caves reveal an ancient world and a way of life we could never truly understand. Even though I was drenched at the end of it, I loved how natural an experience it was, without anything man-made obstructing the beauty of the cave.
There are a number of ruins and temples sprinkled around the western portion of Belize. You really can’t go wrong with whichever one you choose to visit. We picked Xunantunich, which means “maiden of the rock” and is located close to the Guatemalan border. We arrived early in the morning—and I would highly recommend this in order to avoid a lot of crowds and get some good pictures without a lot of photo bombers. As we walked amid the ruins, a heavy fog hung over the moss-covered stone temples. It was eerie, yet serene. From the trees, we could hear the load, haunting calls of howler monkeys as they leaped from branch to branch. After the sun burned off most of the fog, we climbed up to the top of the highest ruin (133 feet), where we had a gorgeous view of the jungle and neighboring Guatemala. The site includes six major plazas, more than 25 temples and palaces and a small museum where you can learn about the history of Xunantunich.
A few other options to visit include Caracol, located on the western edge of the Maya Mountains within the Chiquibal Forest Preserve; Cahal Pech, which sits on a hill that overlooks San Ignacio and Santa Elena; and Lamanai, one of the largest Maya ceremonial centers, which sits on the banks of the New River Lagoon.
This was not something we originally thought we would see when we were in Belize. But we were driving from Belize City to San Ignacio, and it was right off the road, so we decided…why not? It was one of the best decisions we made the whole trip.
The Belize Zoo started as a small, backyard zoo in 1983 to house a collection of animals. Soon, it was developed into a 29-acre zoo and education center that exhibits over 170 animals, all native to Belize. The zoo was a great introduction to the animals of this country. It gave us the chance to get closer than I ever imagined we could to some of the most incredible creatures. The Belize Zoo is unlike any in the U.S. The zoos I’m familiar with keep animals a good distance away from people, and they are separated by strong iron fences, cement walls and deep moats. In Belize, animals and people are separated by little more than chicken fence. I was mere feet from monkeys, parrots and even jaguars, but I never felt unsafe.
I know it sounds a little sentimental, but I really did learn a lot at the zoo. It was an educational experience, and one I would do again in a heartbeat. Plus, it’s incredibly affordable, only $15 for adults and $5 for kids.
The Local Fare and the Local Beer
Belize is known for both its fresh seafood and its local brew: Belikin. Even if you aren’t a beer fan, try it at least once, because it’s not distributed outside of Central America. The best meals can be found off-the-beaten path. The one time we picked a restaurant that was along the main thoroughfare, we were disappointed with the food and the service (and it was much more expensive than other options). Speak to the locals and ask them for the best place to eat. Our second night in San Ignacio, we followed the recommendation of our guide and went to a place called Cenaida’s, hidden on a quiet street away from the bustle of the city center. We dined on coconut curried fish, complete with a super fresh and well-seasoned fillet, coconut flavored rice, black beans and vegetables. Simple, but delicious. Two meals and four Belikins, all for under $25. There are many of these eateries throughout Belize, you just have to do a little searching to find them.
Snorkel in the Belize Barrier Reef
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef straddles the coast and is protected by the country’s reserve system. The Belize Reef is a 190-mile long section that is part of the 560-mile Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef. Popular among snorkelers and scuba divers, the reef provides a diverse underwater landscape that includes walls, pinnacles and reef flats, and is home to hundreds of coral and fish species.
The islands of Belize are the best launching point for a snorkel expedition. We started from Caye Caulker, a small island located about 20 miles northeast of Belize City. There were a number of companies on the island offering snorkeling tours, and we organized ours through the hotel since it was a convenient option and the company they use was highly recommended. The tour ran about 3 hours, and we made three stops along the reef.
The first stop, the local reef, introduced us to many of the local species that call the reef home. I can’t even recall how many kinds of fish and crustaceans we saw, but with every turn of my head, our guide was pointing out something new. The next stop was the Coral Garden where we could explore on our own and see the diversity of the coral structures. The last stop was Shark and Ray Alley, where the guides tossed food into the water to attract dozens of sharks and stingrays. I was reluctant to get in the water, for fear of being bit or stung, but the guides assured me that they would not attack, and as long as I kept my distance from the stingray tails, I would be fine. I was still very nervous, but I’m glad I experienced it—as short lived as it was.
Longer snorkeling tours will take you to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where you may be lucky enough to see Manatees. Check with the operators to see what tour options they have to make sure you find the right one for you.
A quick note: If you’re a scuba diver, the most famous dive site in Belize is the Blue Hole. It’s over 900 feet across and just over 400 feet deep, with a diverse collection of fish, sharks and corals. Dive depth is usually 130 feet, which gives you a decent view of the coral formations and a good opportunity to see reef sharks. If you’re just looking to snorkel, I would not advise going to the Blue Hole.
These were true highlights of my trip, and are just a few of the many things you can do in Belize. When I go back, I hope to explore more of the Southern portions of the country, including Santa Cruz, Placencia, Payne’s Creek National Park, and Punta Gorda, among others.
If you’ve been to Belize, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the best places to visit and things to do!