It may be the second-smallest country in Central America but Belize delivers across the board.
Eco-adventures by the score. Cultural heritage as diverse as the landscape. Maya temples that tower over modern man-made structures. Hundreds of islands with talcum-white sands. The world’s second-largest barrier reef. You get the idea.
On the mainland, overgrown rainforests reveal hiking trails to double waterfalls. Complex cave systems underground run underground, whilst winding rivers are best enjoyed by innertube. Then there’s the food. Aromatic, franchise-free bites can be found on every other street corner, as is the inviting Belizean spirit.
But where to start? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Belize before you even set off.
1. You’ll need at least seven days in Belize
Belize can feel like both the Caribbean and Central America all at once – and you can experience it all in a single vacation as it’s easy to cross the entire country in a one-day road trip. Still, it’s better to do things the Belizean way: unhurried.
Aim to spend at least a week here. Split your itinerary between Northern, Central and Southern Belize, and plan to stay at least three nights in each area. This will allow you enough time to enjoy your accommodation, visit the top-rated sights, and recover in between.
2. But probably won’t need a visa
A select few countries do, however. You can verify whether you need an entry visa to Belize on the Immigration Department’s website, but all visitors — even visa-free entrants — will need to apply for an extension to stay in the country for more than 30 days, depending on your citizenship.
3. Drive during the day
With rental cars costing as little as US$50 per day, it’s a doddle navigating the five major highways of Belize. However, they’re dimly lit. Besides being unfamiliar with upcoming corners, the single-lane roads are often lined with ‘sleeping policemen’, a colloquial nickname for speed bumps. They’re often unpainted too, so it’s best to stick to driving in the daylight hours.
4. Watch out for wildlife on the roads
Green signs are directional, while yellow signs warn that wildlife could be crossing. Look out for Tapir on the John Smith Airport Link Rd and Coatimundis on the scenic Hummingbird Highway.
5. Try the street food
Scooped from deep pots of fragrant stews, coconut milk-infused rice and beans are often served with caramelized fried plantain in Belize. A quasi-religious meal, everything is homemade, and some may take offense if you don’t attempt to finish your plate.
Street food is relatively cheap here, like gravy-filled meat pies that fog clear-plastic containers balancing on the bicycle handlebars. As are ‘johnny cakes’, coconut-based baked biscuits sliced and stuffed for long journeys.
Other staples include masa (a dough of ground corn) that is transformed into deep-fried favorites like panades (crispy crescents of beans, cheese, or hashed fish) and salbutes (open-faced rounds piled with shredded chicken and cabbage).
Late-night grub is often meat-heavy street tacos, pupusas (a cornmeal cake stuffed with beans, cheese, and fried pork), burritos, or a not-so-humble hotdog with bacon and caramelized onions. Any griddle on wheels will fill you for BZ$10.
6. It’s OK to drink tap water in Belize but filtered water is the norm
Whilst it’s OK to drink tap water in Belize, filtered water is the norm. It usually comes in small bottles or from a five-gallon water dispenser. Since Belize’s single-use plastic ban took effect in April 2019 (albeit excluding disposable water bottles), carrying a reusable water bottle is applauded. Hotels and resorts will have large dispensers available near the front desk if available and most restaurants will refill your bottle for free.
7. Time feels more like a suggestion in Belize
Belize offers a very slow, laidback pace of life. That goes for everything from government offices, including immigration, to public transportation. Be flexible with your plans and be patient, even on the mainland.
Public transportation is less than a third of the cost of domestic airlines like Maya Island Air and Tropic Air, but will unsurprisingly take you much longer to go the scenic route. Both the water taxis and bus routes are unlikely to leave on time, so account for 15 minutes of wiggle room.
To avoid stopping for every roadside hitchhiker along the way, when using the bus system, always choose the ‘Express’ option if your final destination is advertised on the windshield.
8. Be polite if you want to impress the locals
Locals will greet one another with the time of day and reciprocity is expected. Bidding a general, “good morning” as you enter a room goes a long way, and a simple nod of acknowledgment is returned with a smile. Residents are warm-hearted by nature, so expect to chat whilst waiting in a queue.
9. Petty crime is your main safety concern in Belize
Like any destination, it’s best not to make yourself a target for crimes of opportunity. Avoid isolated areas, don’t be flashy with money or jewelry, and don’t take public transport alone at night. Taxis are pricier but safer and easily recognizable with green license plates. Hotels will also usually have their own list of trusted drivers.
In tourist zones, some vendors may be persistent, but a polite, “No, thank you” should do the trick. Crime in Belize is largely drug- or gang-related, more notably in select pockets of Belize City. Unless actively seeking them out, the average traveler naturally bypasses infamous hotspots entirely by sticking to designated tourism zones. Beyond signage, Tourism Police are omnipresent on foot, bicycle, and ground patrols, but there’s still no better indicator of safety than your own gut.
10. Don’t forget to tip
Tourism has helped to instill a tipping culture in Belize, but it’s not an outright requirement. Some restaurants auto-charge up to a 20% sit-down service charge, so double-check receipts before (unnecessarily) adding more.
Gratuity is expected in cash for servers, appreciated for tours, and goes a long way for housekeeping, but it’s totally discretionary based on the service you experience. You can skip tipping elsewhere but taxis sometimes round up a fare as Belize has no fixed tariffs.
If you’ve received great service, you can match the 12.5% General Sales Tax on the receipt. For an exceptional tour, a 20% tip is recommended.
11. Pack some US dollars
You won’t need to carry loads of cash either, as there are plenty of point-of-sale machines and ATMs in the more popular destinations. US dollars are accepted across the country at a rate of two-to-one, though try to carry US$10 and US$20 notes as they are easier to make change. You’ll likely get smaller bills in Belize dollar bills back.
12. Don’t fear the rainy season
Belize’s rainy season (June to November) coincides with the Atlantic Hurricane Season. This means cheaper hotel rates, lower room occupancy, and better deals. Major attractions – like Maya sites, archeological reserves, hiking trails, and waterfalls – will all stay open during this period unless nature decides otherwise. All in all, it can be a good time to visit.
Flooding risks tend to subside within 48 hours and the high winds are more of a risk to your driving than the downpours. Some hotels and restaurants will close during their slowest months, like October, so check ahead.
13. Belize has decriminalized weed, but that does not mean it’s legal
In November 2017, Belize amended its Misuse of Drugs Act to decriminalize marijuana use on private property for adults in possession of up to 10g. However, be warned: selling, growing, or smoking weed on public property remains a federal offense. Despite the impression given by some, it’s best not to buy or sell marijuana.
14. The LGBTIQ+ community is generally accepted
Although homosexuality wasn’t formally legalized in Belize until 2016, it was the first former British colony in the Caribbean to overturn its anti-sodomy laws. Still, public displays of affection between same-sex couples may solicit stares here. The main tourism zones, such as Ambergris Caye, are the most gay-friendly.
15. Buy travel insurance
That said, if you do visit during the rainy season, buy travel insurance to protect your trip should a hurricane cut it short.
16. Solo women travelers are welcomed
No stranger to solo travelers or backpackers on a budget, Belize is also fairly safe for women traveling alone. Harassment will often come in the form of cat-calling but nuisances tend to back off once if you stand your ground or ignore them outright. “No,” is largely respected here, but it may sometimes require you to say it loudly.