This country has everything — stunning white sand beaches, turquoise water, rainforests bursting with wildlife, and ancient culture
Sometimes we want it all. Beaches and mountains. Rainforests and ancient ruins. An exotic escape without traveling too far. Belize offers the full scope of these, and it’s the only English-speaking country in Central America, making it a welcoming destination for Americans. It’s also ideal for shorter getaways — depending on the airline and any connections or layovers, total flying time from Phoenix to Belize City should be less than six hours.
Known as British Honduras until 1973, and gaining independence in 1981, this tropical gem has a long English history. Settlers came for the phosphorescent blue waters and lush, fertile soil. Today, tourists come for the friendly atmosphere, roomy beaches, and diverse landscape. Stay for a while, and you may find yourself talking like a local, in Kriol, an English-based Creole language that has a relaxed cadence matching the laid-back lifestyle.
Belize may have one of the lowest population densities in Central America, with just 15 people per square mile, and getting around is simple. Air taxis make regular stops in coastal towns, and water taxis will shuttle you to and from the barrier islands. Even if you stay in one place, you’ll never get bored.
Belize Barrier Reef
Belize is home to the largest reef system in the Northern Hemisphere. The Belize Barrier Reef spans 185 miles, encompassing more than 400 cayes (islands) and three atolls. It’s a dream for scuba divers and snorkelers, with hundreds of different fish species and more than 100 types of coral.
The Maya were the first people to settle in Belize around 2600 B.C. Remnants of Maya culture are everywhere, from pottery fragments along the trails to fully unearthed temples preserved and open to visitors. You may feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of Indiana Jones as you approach a moss-covered Maya temple. Informational signs and trained guides will teach you the history of each site. For a list of ruins, visit the Belize Institute of Archaeology site at nichbelize.org.
The southern district of Belize is relatively obscure, but offers some of the country’s best cultural tours. Take a daytrip to San Felipe Village’s IXCACAO Maya Belizean Chocolate, a family-owned artisan business. There, you can tour the cacao farm, watch the beans being processed, and even participate in the process — including tasting the final product, of course! For more information and reservations, visit ixcacaomayabelizeanchocolate.com.
Whether your goal is to see a toucan, hike to a waterfall, mountain bike along rolling hills, or zip line over the rainforest canopy, you won’t be disappointed. Chiquibul National Park is a great place to start. It’s the largest protected area in Belize, encompassing 264,000 acres in the Cayo District near the Maya city of Caracol.
Thousands of caves pepper the landscape in Belize, and many are accessible. They range from easy walk-ins to tight caverns that require squeezing, crawling, and climbing. Blue Creek and Caves Branch are famous for their underground waterfalls. Other caves feature Maya artifacts like pottery and ancient burial grounds. Some outfitters, like Caves Branch Adventure Co., offer overnight caving expeditions in addition to day trips.
Belize offers prime sport fishing year-round, and it’s one of the few places on Earth where you can fish a Grand Slam — catching a bonefish, tarpon, and permit all on the same day. Local guides abound and most provide all the equipment.
If you want to dine like a local in Belize, stroll an open-air market and sample the brightly colored fresh produce, including pineapple, bananas, oranges (they’re often green, but tasty), papaya, plantain, and, of course, locally made chocolate. Foodies also will enjoy Belizean restaurants, which feature Maya- and Latin-influenced foods. In Belize City, try Bird’s Isle at 90 Albert Street or Tender Bar & Grill on Fort Street.
You won’t be disappointed with any beach in Belize, but a few stand out as favorites. The Placencia Peninsula is the longest stretch of beach in mainland Belize. It sees a lot of visitors, but also offers amenities in the form of bars, restaurants, nightlife, and recreation. For a quieter option, head to Hopkins Village Beach, 40 minutes south of the town of Dangriga. With picturesque blue water, coconut trees, and scattered bungalows, Hopkins is what you think of when you picture Belize. If you really want to immerse yourself in the beach experience, take a water taxi to one of Belize’s famous cayes like Half Moon, Ambergris, South Water, or the Sapodilla.
If you’d like your tourism dollars to go toward preserving the country’s natural resources, look for hotels and tour packages that advertise ecotourism or sustainable tourism. Choose dive operations trained in reef preservation, rainforest guides who emphasize preserving local wildlife and trees, and hotels that offer water conservation and composting. Organizations, like the Audubon Society and the Toledo Ecotourism Association, offer information about protecting the land and wildlife.