Southern Belize is the country's most absorbing cultural melting pot, with a strong Garifuna influence around Dangriga and Hopkins, and Belize's largest Maya population down in Toledo. Nature is rich here too, where open savannah and citrus-filled farmland give way to forested hills dotted with Maya villages and ruins.
Daydream a little. Conjure up your ultimate tropical island fantasy. With over 100 enticing isles and two amazing atolls, chances are that one of the northern cays can make this dream a reality. If you imagined stringing up a hammock on a deserted beach, there is an outer atoll with your name on it.
What a contrast is the district that shares its country's name! Belize District comprises 1600 sq miles at the heart of the country, and includes its largest population center and some of its most pristine tropical bush. Belize City gets a bad rap for its impoverished areas, some of which are plagued by crime and violence.
Stann Creek District
Bordering the Belize District to the north, Cayo to the west and Toledo to the south, the Stann Creek District covers the coastal towns of Dangriga, Hopkins and Placencia, some of Belize's least-visited cays and the amazing inland parks and jungle sanctuaries west of the Southern Hwy.
Belize City does not exactly top the list of tourist destinations in Belize. In fact, many visitors choose to bypass the country's only major urban area. This may be because the country's main attractions are natural and nautical, rendering superfluous a prolonged visit to its only metropolis.
The undisputed superstar of Belize's tourism industry, 'La Isla Bonita' is an enigma that continues to defy the odds by somehow balancing large-scale tourism development with a fun, laid-back atmosphere. Ambergris Caye remains for many visitors the archetypal tropical paradise where sun-drenched days are filled with fruity drinks and water sports.
Cayo District is Belize's premier adventure and eco-activity region. The lush environs of the Wild West are covered with jungle, woven with rivers, waterfalls and azure pools, and dotted with Maya ruins ranging from small, tree-covered hills to massive, magnificent temples. Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, El Pilar and the mother of all Belizean Maya sites, Caracol, are all in Cayo.
Placencia, a true beach-holiday strip on the mainland, is enduringly popular with North American expats and tourists. Perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula, the village has long enjoyed a reputation as 'the cay you can drive to' – a fully-paved 27-mile road heads off the Southern Hwy via Maya Beach and Seine Bight to the tip of the peninsula.
San Ignacio is the heart and soul of the Cayo District, a vibrant traveler center from where all roads and activities fan out. Together with twin-town Santa Elena, on the east bank of the Macal River, this is the main population center of Cayo, with lots of good budget accommodation, decent restaurants and frequent transport.
Toledo District (Deep South)
Bordering Guatemala to the south and west and the Stann Creek and Cayo Districts to the north, the 1669-sq-mile Toledo District encompasses an area most Belizeans refer to lovingly as 'The Deep South.' The only major town is Punta Gorda, and about half the district is under protection as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, forest reserves or nature reserves.
Dangriga is the largest town in Southern Belize, and the spiritual capital of the country's Garifuna people. Dangriga has a funky coastal vibe about it – tumbledown and mildly untidy. Despite sharing a similar ramshackle exterior with Belize City, Dangriga doesn't have a big-city feel and is generally a safe place to explore.
Punta Gorda (or PG as it's known) is a slightly ramshackle coastal settlement down in the Deep South of Toledo. Once known to travelers mainly as a port to get the boat across to Guatemala, it's increasingly attracting visitors looking to chill out in the south and as a base for exploring surrounding Maya villages and culture, and the remote Southern Cayes.
The largest Mopan Maya community in Belize, San Antonio was founded in the mid-19th century by farmers from San Luis Rey in the Petén, Guatemala. A wooden idol (of San Luis) was taken from the church in San Luis Rey by settlers who returned to Guatemala to retrieve their saint.