Awarded Best in Travel 2022
With one foot in the Central American jungles and the other in the Caribbean Sea, pint-sized Belize is packed with islands, adventure and culture.
Reefs & Cayes
Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world, after Australia's, and with more than 100 types of coral and some 500 species of tropical fish, it's pure paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers. Swimming through translucent seas, snorkelers are treated to a kaleidoscope of coral, fish, whale sharks and turtles, while divers go deeper, investigating underwater caves and walls and the world-renowned Blue Hole.
Add to this island life on the sandy cays, where you can spend your days kayaking, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, fishing or lazing in a hammock, and you've got a perfect tropical vacation.
In the Jungle
Inland, a vast (by Belizean standards) network of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas offers a safe haven for wildlife, which ranges from the industrious parades of cutter ants to tapirs, noisy howler monkeys, or the shy jaguar. Birders aim their binoculars at some 570 species, which roost along the rivers and lagoons and in the broadleaf forest. Keen-eyed visitors who take the time to hike can easily spot spider monkeys, peccaries, coatimundis, gibnuts and green iguanas. Even the showy keel-billed toucan – the national bird of Belize – occasionally makes an appearance in public.
In the Land of the Maya
Belize is home to one of the world's most mysterious civilizations – the ancient Maya. The Cayo District and Toledo's Deep South are peppered with archaeological sites that date to the Maya heyday (CE 250–1000), where enormous steps lead to the tops of tall stone temples, often yielding 360-degree jungle views. Explore excavated tombs and examine intricate hieroglyphs, or descend into natural caves to see where the Maya kings performed rituals and made sacrifices to their underworld gods. In the south you can appreciate the culture today by staying in village guesthouses and by learning the art of chocolate-making.
Action & Adventure
Whether you're scuba diving the Blue Hole, ziplining through the jungle canopy, rappelling down waterfalls or crawling through ancient cave systems, Belize is a genuine adventure. Head to Cayo District where you can tube or canoe through darkened underground river systems or hard-core spelunk in renowned Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. Ziplining is virtually an art form in Cayo and Southern Belize where you can sail through the jungle at half a dozen locations. Horseback riding is well organized and hiking is superb in national parks, such as Mayflower Bocawina National Park, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Shipstern Nature Reserve and Río Bravo.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Belize.
At the southern tip of Ambergris, the 6.5-sq-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve is probably Belize's most oft-visited diving and snorkeling site. It offers spectacular coral formations, plus a rich abundance and diversity of marine life – not to mention its proximity to the cays. Hol Chan is Maya for 'Little Channel,' which refers to a natural break in the reef known as Hol Chan Cut. The channel walls are covered with colorful corals, which support an amazing variety of fish life, including moray eels and black groupers. Although the reef is the primary attraction of Hol Chan, the marine reserve also includes sea-grass beds and mangroves. The sea grass provides a habitat for nurse sharks and southern stingrays, which lend their name to Shark Ray Alley. Snorkelers have the chance to get up close to both species, due mainly to the fact that the animals are used to getting fed by tour boats. All dive operators and nautical tours offer trips to Hol Chan. For information and displays on marine life, visit the Hol Chan Visitors Center.
Set on a leveled hilltop, Xunantunich (shoo-nahn-too-neech) is one of Belize's most easily accessible and impressive Maya archaeological sites. Getting here is half the fun, with a free hand-cranked cable ferry taking you (and vehicles) across the Mopan River. Xunantunich may have been occupied as early as 1000 BC, but it was little more than a village. The large architecture that we see today began to be built in the 7th century AD. From AD 700 to 850, Xunantunich was possibly politically aligned with Naranjo, 9 miles west in Guatemala. Together they controlled the western part of the Belize River valley, although the population probably never exceeded 10,000. Xunantunich partially survived the initial Classic Maya collapse of about 850 (when nearby Cahal Pech was abandoned), but was deserted by about 1000. The site centers on Plazas A-2 and A-1, separated by Structure A-1. Just north of Plaza A-2, Structure A-11 and Plaza A-3 formed a residential 'palace' area for the ruling family. The dominant El Castillo (Structure A-6) rises 130ft high at the south end of Plaza A-1. El Castillo may have been the ruling family's ancestral shrine where they were buried and/or represented in sculpted friezes. Structures A-1 and A-13, at either end of Plaza A-2, were not built until the 9th century and would have had the effect of separating the ruling family from the rest of the population, possibly a response to the pressures that came with the decline of Classic Maya civilization at that time. You can climb to the top of El Castillo to enjoy a spectacular 360-degree view. Its upper levels were constructed in two distinct phases. The first, built around 800, included an elaborate plaster frieze encircling the building; the second, built around 900, covered over most of the first and its frieze. The frieze on the east end of the building and part of the western one have been uncovered by archaeologists; these depict a series of Maya deities, with Chaac, the rain god, probably the central figure at the east end. The friezes you see today are replicas, with the originals underneath for safekeeping. South of El Castillo is a partly overgrown area of lesser structures (Group C) that were abandoned as the city shrank after 900, leaving El Castillo (formerly at the center of the ancient city) on the southern edge of the occupied area. There's a visitors center just past the ticket office. Inside are archaeological finds from the site, including pottery and jewelry, an interesting burial site and explanations of the El Castillo friezes. To reach the ruins, take the ferry in San José Succotz village, then it's about 1 mile uphill to the parking lot and ticket office. Any bus from San Ignacio can drop you at the ferry point.
If most zoos are maximum-security wildlife prisons, then the Belize Zoo is more like a halfway house for wild animals that can't make it on the outside. A must-visit on any trip to Belize District, the zoo has many animals you're unlikely to see elsewhere – several tapirs (a Belizean relative of the rhino) including a baby, gibnuts, a number of coatimundi (they look like a cross between a raccoon and a monkey), scarlet macaws, white-lipped peccaries, pumas and many others. But what really sets Belize Zoo apart is that the zoo itself – and in some cases, even the enclosures of individual animals – are relatively porous. This means that the wildlife you'll see inside enclosures are outnumbered by creatures who have come in from the surrounding jungle to hang out, eat, or – just maybe – swap tales with incarcerated brethren. Among the animals you'll see wandering the grounds (aka 'free runners') are Central American agoutis (also called bush rabbits), huge iguanas, snakes, raccoons, squirrels and jungle birds of all sorts.Take a night tour (one of the best ways to experience Belize Zoo, as many of the animals are nocturnal) and you'll be just as likely to see a gibnut outside enclosures as in. You'll also be able to hear ongoing long-distance conversations between the zoo's resident black howler monkeys and their wild relatives just a few miles away. The story of the Belize Zoo began with filmmaker Richard Foster, who shot a wildlife documentary entitled Path of the Raingods in Belize in the early 1980s. Sharon Matola – a Baltimore-born biologist, former circus performer and former US Air Force survival instructor – was hired to take care of the animals. By the time filming was complete, the animals had become partly tame and Matola was left wondering what to do with her 17 charges. So she founded the Belize Zoo, which displays native Belizean wildlife in natural surroundings on 29-acre grounds. From these beginnings, the zoo has grown to provide homes for animals endemic to the region that have been injured, orphaned at a young age or bred in captivity and donated from other zoos. Many of the animals in Belize Zoo are rescue cases, that is, wild animals that were kept as pets by individual collectors. The zoo makes every attempt to recondition such animals for a return to the wild, but only when such a return is feasible. In cases where return is impossible (as is the case with most of the zoo's jungle cats, who have long since forgotten how to hunt, or never learned in the first place), they remain in the zoo: perhaps not the best life for a wildcat, but better than winding up in some closet.
Once one of the most powerful cities in the entire Maya world, Caracol now lies enshrouded by thick jungle near the Guatemalan border, a 52-mile, roughly two- or three-hour drive from San Ignacio. Sitting high on the Vaca Plateau, this is the largest Maya site in Belize, having possibly stretched over 70 sq miles at its peak around AD 650. Nearly 40 miles of internal causeways radiate from the center to large outlying plazas and residential areas. At its height, the city’s population may have approached 150,000, more than twice as many people as Belize City has today. Though they had no natural water source, the people of Caracol dug artificial reservoirs to catch rainwater and grew food on extensive agricultural terraces. Its central area was a bustling place of temples, palaces, busy thoroughfares, craft workshops and markets. Caracol is not only the preeminent archaeological site in Belize but also exciting for its jungle setting and prolific birdlife. At the ticket office, a small visitors center outlines Caracol’s history and has a helpful scale model, while a museum houses much of the sculpture found at Caracol. There are toilets, picnic tables and a small gift shop. Be sure to bring food, water and, if you’re driving, a spare tire. Overnight stays are not permitted.
For those looking to kick it on the soft white sand and in the docile sea, tropical cocktail in hand, surrounded by like-minded travelers, Koko King reigns supreme. It's an all-in-one sort of beach party, with a fully stocked bar, a tasty Caribbean restaurant and a plethora of beach games and water toys – you can easily spend all day here. Arriving involves a quick ferry trip (complimentary if you spend BZ$20 at the beach, which you prove with a wristband) or self-guided kayaking, paddleboarding or swimming adventure across the Split. If you get here early, it's worthwhile to rent a swing bed (BZ$50) or a shaded spot behind the beds (BZ$25). For true Koko King diehards, on-site We'Yu Boutique Hotel (rooms from BZ$200) opened in late 2018, which comes in handy when the place throws its famous full-moon parties.
This modern museum in the Fort George District provides an excellent overview of the story of Belize, told through exhibits housed in the country's former main jail (built of brick in 1857). Fascinating displays, historical photos and documents bear testimony to the colonial and independence eras, along with an exhibit on slave history and a new contemporary art gallery. The Maya Treasures section, upstairs, is rather light on artifacts (most of Belize's finest Maya finds were spirited away to other countries) but there are some impressive examples of Maya jade, as well as some ceramics and sculpture. You'll also find plenty of informative models and explanations of the major Maya sites around the country. Other sections of the museum are devoted to Belize's coins and its insect life. The museum also has a good little gift shop.
Some of the most spectacular snorkeling in Belize happens just a short swim off the powder-white sands of Goff's Caye, a tiny, uninhabited island just a 30-minute boat ride to the southeast of Belize City. With nothing but some coco palms and a couple of palapa -covered (open-air shelter with a thatched roof) picnic tables, the idyllic island sits right beside the Belize Barrier Reef and a healthy community of resident corals, lobsters, conch, stingrays, colorful fish and more. Lots of tour operators in Belize City and around the Northern Cayes run trips here, and many include drinks and lunch. Just be sure when booking that the cruise-ship crowd isn't also scheduled to visit.
On the lush Macal Valley grounds of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, this excellent program collects and hatches iguana eggs, raising the reptiles until they are past their most vulnerable age. The iguanas are then released into the wild. On the guided tour you'll get plenty of opportunities to stroke and handle the adorable iguanas and learn much about their habits and life cycle. The tour also follows the medicinal jungle trail that winds through the forest.
Two Kekchí families in Big Falls village have opened up their homes as a cultural experience for visitors and both are excellent. The Cal family demonstrates ancient Maya lifestyle from tortilla- and chocolate-making to traditional instruments and an exploration of their self-sufficient garden. With the Chiac family, you can learn to make woven Maya crafts – baskets, hammocks or bags.