Belize marches to its own drumbeat. Geographically part of Central America, the former British Colony identifies more with the laid back English-and-Creole speaking Caribbean islands to the East than it does with its bordering Spanish-speaking neighbors. Culturally and ecologically diverse, Belize offers such a dizzying array of choices for visitors that the most difficult part of your trip might be deciding what to do first.
To help you out, we’ve narrowed things down to four general ways to experience (pardon the pun) the UnBelizable. Plus, if you're trying to work out where to stay, we've got options for different budgets.
1. Head under the sea
Blessed with close to eighty miles of nearly-unbroken reef, Belize might be the best spot in the Northern Hemisphere to kick your fins beneath the waves. Belize’s Barrier Reef lets you explore fantastic coral formations while coming face-to-face (or face-to-fin) with kaleidoscopic tropical fish, colourful crustaceans and even the massive whale sharks that come to spawn in mid-spring. If you’re an advanced diver, challenge yourself with a deep dive at the Blue Hole - possibly Belize’s most popular dive spot. Even if you’re sticking to snorkelling, there’s plenty to see within swimming distance of most of Belize’s Central Cayes.
Get started: Run by the lovely Patty Ramirez, Placencia-based Splash Dive Center caters to divers of all level.
2. Go caving
Underwater exploration too tame? Then dive into the underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal (also known as ATM). The journey begins with a hike through lush jungle, followed by a brief and bracing swim (with helmet and headlamp) through icy waters to the cave’s entrance. From here, it’s three miles of walking, climbing, and crawling through blackness and past strange rock formations until the cave’s sacred main chamber is reached.
If all this sounds a bit strenuous, dispense with the climbing and crawling entirely by opting for a cave tubing trip at Nohoch Che’en, just east of Belmopan. After a 45-minute hike through the jungle (during which your guide might teach you a thing or two about jungle survival, offering you a few surprisingly tasty insects) you’ll hop on a sturdy inner tube and float peacefully through an underground network of caves filled with schools of eyeless cave fish, stalactites and ceiling art painted long ago by Mayan artists. To beat the crowds, try a sunset trip.
Get started: A cave tubing pioneer, Vitalino Reyes has top-notch equipment and begins his trips with an informative nature walk.
3. See Mayan Belize
Cayo is where you’ll find Belize’s grandest Maya sites. Spread out over nearly 65 square miles, the ancient city of Caracol is said to have once been home to between 120-180,000 people (to put this into perspective, modern Belize’s population now stands just above 300k). Outside of a handful of students and archeologists, modern-day visitors will have Caracol to themselves as they explore the temples, palaces, plazas and markets of the city which once rivalled nearby Tikal in military power and political influence.
The highlight of Caracol is the Caana, or 'Sky-Place', which at 141 feet is still Belize’s tallest building. If you’ve got less time on your hands but still want to experience Ancient Maya splendor, Xunantunich - just 20 minutes outside of San Ignaciao - is considered one of Belize’s most impressive Maya sites. After taking a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River, you’ll walk through bird- and butterfly-filled jungle until reaching a complex of temples and plazas that date back to the early Classical Maya period. Once there, you can explore a number of structures and plazas, and even climb to the top of 130-foot high El Castillo for a spectacular 360-degree view.
Get started: Caracol cannot be accessed by independent travelers, so you’ll want to get a guide in San Ignaciao. Xunantunich is easily accessible from either San Ignaciao or San Jose Succotz.
4. Belize for slackers
Many visitors to Belize steer clear of activity entirely, instead choosing to exert as little energy as humanly possible. If your preferred activity is 'slacktivity', you’ll be in good company in Placencia, a chilled-out beach town offering great restaurants, lively bars, and a long stretch of sand filled with palm trees, hammocks and low-key hotels and guest houses. If Placencia’s pace is too quick for you, then an hour’s drive north (on partially unpaved roads) brings you to Hopkins, a laid-back beachfront village renowned for Garifuna culture, cuisine and drumming. Hopkins still too busy for you? Hop on a boat to Thatch Caye, Tobacco Caye or even distant Glover’s Reef, tropical islands offering adventures in idleness in all budget ranges.
Get started: No further instruction needed. But when in Placencia, stop by Rumfish y vino for the best Mojito in Central America.
Where to stay
Eco-friendly meets Tropical Chic at Thatch Caye Resort, a great island base for aquatic activity such as kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving or chilling on the beach drinking Mojitos.
Black Rock Lodge is a unique eco-lodge located on the Macal River in the Cayo District, and a great mid-price base from which to explore the nearby jungles and ruins.
On a budget? Trek Stop has basic but beautiful screened-in (and environmentally friendly – check out the composting toilets!) cabins on a hill overlooking the Mopan River and nearby Xunantunich.