On the Caribbean coast of Central America to the south of Mexico and the east of Guatemala lies the tiny country of Belize. One of the smallest countries within Central America, with a mere population of around 382,000, Belize has an incredible amount to offer the intrepid traveler. Belize’s lush jungle, stunning barrier reef, plethora of ancient Mayan ruins, rich culture, and downright natural beauty make it a haven for adventure junkies, nature lovers and those wanting to experience island life on one of its many cayes (islands). Furthermore, Belize is Central America’s only English-speaking country making travel much easier for those who don’t speak Spanish or Creole.
After exploring much of Central America and particularly falling in love with the beauty Costa Rica, I personally wasn’t sure how Belize would compare. I had honestly never truly given Belize a thorough review, as I had only visited Belize City and one of her lovely cayes for a day trip when we were on a family cruise years ago. But that one visit to paradise was enough to whet my appetite for more and instill a desire to return for a full blown week long adventure. The only challenge was that I would be traveling alone.
After careful research, I found the perfect way for me to visit Belize without my usual traveling companions, my family. I joined a small-group tour with G Adventures, a Canadian-based company with a focus on responsible travel and tourism. I had learned about G Adventures years ago when I heard its inspiring founder Bruce Poon Tip present at a travel blogging conference in Toronto. I was instantly impressed with his vision and passion for sustainable travel through G Adventures’ for Good Programs around the world. I was thrilled to see G Adventure’s Belize Trip used local tour guides, drivers and locally-owned hotels for all the stays, and also included three G for Good Program visits where we could support the local community. I booked the trip in early December and anxiously awaited the departure just as winter in Minnesota was gathering steam.
For her tiny size, Belize has a wealth of natural and cultural resources to offer travelers whether it be an easy beach vacation on one of Belize’s cayes, an exploration of Belize’s multiethnic culture and ancient archeological ruins or an active adventure filled with hiking, caving, zip-lining, snorkeling and more. Furthermore, in comparison with eco-tourism star and popular Costa Rica, mainland Belize is relatively undiscovered and there are many attractions in which you can have almost the entire place to yourself especially if you go when the cruise ships aren’t in port. Per the World Tourism Organization, in 2017 Belize had about 1.4 million visitors while larger more popular Costa Rica had approximately 3.2 million, and most of the tourists who come to Belize are on a cruise meaning their visit is usually only for a day.
What Makes Belize Magical
What makes Belize unique is her combination of natural wonders and archeological jewels. Given her tiny size – Belize’s mainland is about 180 miles long by up to 68 miles wide – one can easily explore a variety of Belize’s immense diversity in a week. There are five key regions: The Belize District, the Northern Cayes, Northern Belize, Cayo District and Southern Belize and you can also easily tag on a day visit to neighboring Guatemala to see the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal. There is plenty to offer yet planning your trip can be a bit daunting given all the choices. (Check out this country map of all the awesome places to visit in Belize).
The Highlights of Belize
If you are looking to get a taste of all Belize has to offer, then it is best to spend a few days checking out each of the main highlights: The Barrier Reef, the jungle, some of the Mayan ruins, the culture, adventure and nature and of course a visit to the cayes.
Belize was first put on tourist map by its extraordinary barrier reef which is the second largest barrier reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) stretching over 185 miles along Belize’s coastline. The reef comprises seven key marine reserve zones, over 400 cayes and three atolls and is home to the world famous Blue Hole that drops over 400 feet into the deep blue ocean. With over 100 types of coral and 500 species of tropical fish, the reef is an underwater paradise for divers, snorkelers and anglers from around the world.
One thing I love about Belize is it offers the best of both worlds: The jungle and the sea. While the crystal clear Caribbean sea graces the entire east side of the country, the mainland of Belize is covered in lush tropical jungle. About 40% of Belize’s land and sea is protected in some manner through national parks, national monuments, wildlife sanctuaries, and forest, marine and nature reserves. Belize has an estimated 570 species of birds that enjoy the labyrinth of internal rivers, lagoons and jungle forests blanketing Belize. Jaguars are popular throughout the jungle of Belize as well as pumas, ocelots, monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, and coatimundis which look similar to a raccoon. Wildlife and bird-watching trips are a popular activity within Belize’s jungle.
Archeological Jewels of the Ancient Maya Civilization
The Maya, one of the most advanced indigenous groups of the “Mesoamerican” region (the name for Mexico and Central America countries before the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century), left behind an incredible network of archeological ruins of sacred temples, pyramids and cities throughout Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Belize was once known as the epicenter of the ancient Maya world which at its height of power in 250-900 AD had close to 2 million Mayans interspersed throughout its relatively concentrated geographical block in Mesoamerica.
For over 2,000 years, the Mayan Empire excelled in agriculture, hieroglyph writing, mathematics, pottery and trade at a time when Europe was still in the Dark Age. After their decline, they left behind a massive network of ancient cities and ruins, many of which have yet to be excavated. Belize alone is home to over 900 archeological sites and hosts some extraordinarily impressive ruins including Xunantunich, Altun Ha, Caracol, Cahal Pech and Lamanai to name a few. A visit to the ruins takes you back in time to a fascinating world of a highly advanced civilization.
Belize’s unique geology has blessed her with many intricate caves especially in Western Belize where the conditions for producing caves is ideal. In the eyes of the Mayas, caves were seen as a link to the underworld and their Gods thus many caves in Belize such as the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave are home to artifacts of ancient Mayan rituals and ceremonies. There are many options to explore the caves such as hiking and at time swimming in the underground ATM Cave to canoeing through the Barton Creek Cave or simply riding an inner tube down a river in and out of a few caves. It is all up to your level of adventure and comfort. But you are sure in for an adventure of a lifetime.
Belize is a multicultural country with a blend of Mestizo, Maya, Garifuna, Asian and Mennonite communities. While the official language is English, Spanish, Criol (Belize Creole), Q’eqchi’ Maya, Mopan Maya, German and Garifuna are other languages that are spoken throughout Belize. For those who love culture, you will find it in the variety of food, music and art found within Belize.
If you are in to island life and embrace the notion “go slow” as they say in the cayes, then you are in luck. There are over 400 cayes along Belize’s coastline with the North Islands being the more popular ones. You can spend some time at one of many resorts on the more developed Ambergris Caye or opt for the smaller, laid-back Caye Caulker both within a short boat ride to the reef. If you aren’t interested in snorkeling, another favorite pastime on the islands is simply swaying in the gentle ocean breeze in a hammock or else you can hang out at one of the many drinking spots.
Enjoying the Island life on Caye Caulker where walking, bicycling and golf carts are the main mode of transport
Watching sunset is a must
With so much to offer, it is hard to choose all you want to do in a week but if you do your homework before you go, you can certainly find some balance between adventure and relaxation. While I didn’t hit all the regions, I felt like I got a good understanding and taste of Belize with my itinerary that included three days each in the Belize District, the Cayo District and on Caye Caulker. I guess it largely depends on the kind of trip you desire whether it be a beach trip, snorkel/dive trip, cultural trip or a little bit of everything. For me, I always prefer a mix of adventure with culture. Thankfully G Adventures had the perfect itinerary with a little bit of wiggle room for each traveler to play around with.
If You Go:
How to Get There
There are many nonstop and one stop flights from several cities in North America. Back in September, Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines began a nonstop flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Belize City meaning I could get there in a little under four and a half hours of flying. While Sun Country does not offer flights every day of the week, I was able to fly nonstop to Belize City on Sun Country and fly on Delta Airlines via Atlanta on the flight back. Given the fact that Belize is on the same time zone as Minneapolis, I had no jet lag making it a very easy trip to do in a week.
How to Get Around
Belize is a relatively small country covering approximately 9,000 square miles making it similar to the size of New Hampshire. The roads are a mix between paved and gravel, and transportation is relatively cheap. Most travel is done by bus, however, there are also short flights available on small planes via Belize’s two airlines Maya Island and Tropic Air, and you can also access most of the cayes via ferry. Driving is relatively straightforward and given the small population of Belize, it is not too difficult.
When to Go
Belize has two main seasons: Low Season/Wet (June-October) and High Season/Dry (December – April). May and November are shoulder seasons where the weather can be a little more unpredictable but it is not as busy as high season. Obviously dry season is the best time to go as the weather is pleasant with lots of hot sunshine and a bit of humidity. I went in late February and the weather was perfect. It is best to avoid the rainy season if possible as a lot of tours and sites simply shutdown and it is also hurricane season.
For excellent travel information on what to do, see and where to stay check out the Belize Tourism website at www.belizetourism.org.
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