Despite its small size, Belize is a mesmerizing combination of cultures and landscapes – a place that fully embraces its Central American and Caribbean roots, celebrates its diversity and takes great pride in its spectacular natural beauty.
This attitude has led to the unique and whole-hearted support of local culture and entrepreneurship. Visitors will have a tough time finding chain restaurants and hotel conglomerates; Belize’s tourism instead relies on sharing what’s homegrown. Here we’ve compiled a few of our favorite experiences that celebrate Belizean culture and its connection to the incredible natural world surrounding it.
Timotea Mesh and her colleague Josefa demonstrate how to use a traditional Maya grinding stone © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet
Learn about Maya culture with the San Antonio Women’s Group
Tucked amongst the misty, jungled hills of western Belize’s Cayo District (about 20 minutes from popular adventure travel hub San Ignacio), you’ll find the village of San Antonio, a small settlement with a history that reaches back to the area’s original Maya civilizations. Rows of modern concrete houses are punctuated by the occasional palapa (thatched roof building), while vibrant ginger flowers, towering palms and trees covered in purple blooms line the streets.
Here you’ll find the San Antonio Women’s Group; led by founder Timotea Mesh, this passionate cooperative is devoted to cultural preservation of Maya traditions. Mesh and her colleagues first began the initiative for women to explore professional pursuits outside the home and as a way to bring economic support into the community. “I like teaching, sharing with the younger generation. We want to keep everything we do traditional,” says Mesh. “And we want to expand our educational sector; eventually we would like to have a research center here.”
Visitors to the center can choose to learn about a variety of cultural traditions including Maya cooking, embroidery and pottery making. After initial demonstrations, guests are invited to try out their tortilla-making skills – turning corn into dough on a grinding stone and cooking it on the open-flame hearth – and give the pottery wheel a spin using clay mined from the very same hill as the group’s Maya forebearers. Admission also includes a tasty local lunch, so try not to eat too many tortillas beforehand – you’ll want to save room for the tamales. Visits can be organized through several local hotels, including San Ignacio Resort Hotel.
Professional guide and angler Victor Jacobs teaches the writer the art of casting a fly-fishing rod © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet
Angle away with Garbutt's Marine
The fishing boat flits across the calm Caribbean sea before gliding up to one of the many small mangrove islands dotting the surrounding flats. A rambunctious group of feeding pelicans settles nearby, carefully watching the newcomers before plunging beak-first into the school of fish below. A glance overboard reveals numerous gold and cinnamon colored starfish ambling through the sea grass, as well as the occasional stingray gliding silently beneath the water’s glassy surface. Welcome to Punta Gorda.
Nestled at the very bottom of the country (just across the bay from Guatemala), Punta Gorda is a slow-paced fishing town that serves as a popular access point to Belize’s southern cayes. “Fishing was what we grew up doing – you get off of school, go fishing, catch a snapper for dinner,” explains Victor Jacobs, a professional guide and angler who works at Garbutt’s Marine. “I could spend all my life on the water – I can’t be locked up, I need to be out, to be free.”
Garbutt’s is a family-run fish and dive outfit that has been providing tours of Punta Gorda’s waters for fifteen years, guiding beginners and veterans alike through the flats and reefs lining the country’s southern coast. The business partners with several lodges in the area to book half- or full-day fishing tours, and it recently opened its own accommodation option right on the water.
Copal Tree's Restaurant serves up dishes sourced from the property's farm and nearby communities © Copal Tree Lodge
Get sustainable at Copal Tree Lodge
A 15-minute drive outside of Punta Gorda, Copal Tree Lodge is located at the heart of 12,000 acres of protected forest. Howler monkeys bellow their greetings and colorful birds dart across the canopies as guests arrive at the spectacular compound: a luxurious main building that looks like a designer tree house, surrounded by several individual cabin suites sprinkled along the verdant ridge. The suites are outfitted with their own screen verandas (complete with a hammock), and at night you can leave the sliding door open and let the sounds of the forest lull you to sleep.
The digs are dreamy, but what really makes Copal Tree impressive is its dedication to sustainability, environmental preservation and local economy. 70% of the food served at its restaurant is grown on property and is entirely organic (the rest is sourced from nearby communities), and the farm itself is a fascinating place to explore. Joseph Vanzie – who has run Copal’s farm for nearly a decade – and his colleague Elon Ranguy guide visitors through the enchanting rows of red and green okras, callaloo, habanero peppers, allspice trees, arachnid orchids, and dozens of other fruits, vegetables and herbs, explaining the art of cultivating such fertile land; if you’re lucky, you might even go on a hunt for ripe cacao pods and vanilla flowers.
Joseph Vanzie guides visitors through Copal Tree's extensive organic farm © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet
Visitors can also book a number of local excursions that explore the Toledo District’s nature and culture – take the Toledo culinary tour, kayak the Río Grande river, wander Punta Gorda’s market, or explore Maya ruins and go for a cave swim.
Taste the best of San Pedro
Just a 15 minute puddle jumper flight from Belize City, Ambergris Caye is the nation’s biggest offshore caye and one of Belize’s most touristed areas thanks to its extremely close proximity to the country's exquisite barrier reef. San Pedro is the name of the town that takes up the major portion of its southern half, a small settlement that hums with a surprising amount of activity. Wander about the town’s boisterous center (watch out for the ubiquitous golf carts, the main mode of transport on the island), before pausing to take in the surrounding serene waters at one of San Pedro’s cozy beach bars.
WTF = Where's the food? Sample some tasty ceviche with Belize Food Tours © Belize Food Tours
Felipe Paz and his sister Dora were born and raised in San Pedro and now run Belize Food Tours, an independent outfitter that explores the town’s lengthy culinary legacy. “Belize isn’t just rice and beans,” says Paz. “Belize’s food is its ethnicities – Maya, mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian, Chinese, Mennonite, Lebanese. Our food comes from all of these cultures.” BFT explores the connection between food and local history, choosing to highlight several classic San Pedro institutions, including the small eatery Paz's own grandfather established in 1968.
The tours range in prices depending on extent, and BFT offers several individually tailored options. We won’t spoil the culinary surprises that await you, but the garnachas are finger-lickin’ good.
Bailey Freeman traveled to Belize with support from the Belize Tourism Board. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.