Belize flies under the radar of Central American destinations, but it’s a pocket-sized powerhouse when it comes to adventure pursuits.
Bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east, Belize is the odd one out in Central America – the only nation where English is the official language, despite a melting pot of cultures spanning Maya, Mestizo and Garifuna. Off-shore lies the world’s second-largest barrier reef (after Australia’s great one), while inland you’ll find jungle-strewn Maya ruins, remote treks and some of the craziest caves in the Americas.
There are few diving destinations in the world as magnetic as the Blue Hole on Belize’s Lighthouse Reef. Seen from the air this deep-blue 300m-diameter watery pupil, rimmed by a shallower aquamarine iris, is the visual icon of diving in Belize. The descent into the sinkhole is relatively deep – up to 40m – and inky dark, despite the clarity of the water. The nerve-racking but exhilarating part is gliding beneath the limestone overhang and along the underwater walls. Most dives are sub 10 minutes, but it’s an otherworldly underwater experience not to be missed.
Kayaking around the reefs and cayes off the coast of Belize is sensational, but for a real adventure head out to far-flung Glover’s Reef Atoll, a string of islands a two- or three-hour boat ride from the mainland. Formed by a submerged mountain ridge, the reefs and lagoons here are an unsurpassed paradise for kayakers, divers and snorkellers, while the chilled island lodges exude the ultimate castaway feel.
The 4.8km-long Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), Cave of the Stone Sepulchre, is a breathtaking subterranean experience, taking you deep into the underworld that the ancient Maya knew as Xibalba. An obligatory guided tour, best organised in San Ignacio, will take you through freezing rivers, blackened holes, past walls of calcite flowstone and Maya artefacts, until you reach the spine-chilling calcified skeleton of the cave’s namesake ‘Crystal Maiden’ – a centuries-old crystallised sacrifice of a young girl. It’s tough going and you will get very wet, but you’ll be kitted out with hard-hat, headlamp and led by an experienced guide into a world that leaves many people humbled and weak-kneed.
The Caves Branch River floods another underground network, Nohoch Che’en Caves, providing ideal conditions for cave tubing. After a short jungle trek, you climb into a rubber tube and float through the darkened caves, where stalactites and strange Maya paintings on the cave walls are illuminated by your headlight. For a more extreme adventure, a guide will take you on a full day spelunking trip deep into the system, wading through streams, scrambling over rocks and emerging into the extraordinary Crystal Cave.
Flying through the jungle canopy on a zipline (flying fox) is a thrilling experience, and Belize does it well with at least six set-ups scattered around the country. Hooked to a safety harness you zoom from tower platform to platform, crossing rivers and canyons and climbing ever higher. Calico Jack’s in Cayo features a canyon swing and a cable walk, while at Mayflower Bocawina you can fly down Belize’s longest zipline then rappel down a waterfall. Perhaps the most remote zipline is at Blue Creek in the Toledo District (Deep South), which is reached by a 40km 4WD drive followed by a jungle trek.