Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma (2015)
My first trip to Belize lasted three weeks, courtesy of a two-week extension and a stiff airline change fee. But I felt no remorse: this small country had surprised me with its mind-boggling diversity in both nature and culture.
“The Jewel,” as Belizeans affectionately call their home, has a spectacular reef—the second-largest in the world—with premier diving and snorkeling. A handful of its 200 offshore islands offer the kind of seclusion and dreamlike surroundings that continue to provide both luxury and romance.
For those willing to explore deeper, the rewards are even richer. Virgin rainforests with more than 30 percent protected land. The largest cave system and the tallest waterfall in Central America. Riverbanks that are home to hundreds of singing birds, giant iguanas, and roaming jaguars. Miles of turquoise Caribbean water and golden sand, all a mere one- to two-hour hop from the interior. A dazzling array of marinelife—from whale sharks to the rare seahorse.
Beyond its natural wonders, Belize is an unexpected cultural and sensory feast. This is a Caribbean country at heart, with splashes of ancient Mayan, African, and European influences. That mélange underpins every aspect of life, from a cuisine of coconut rice and beans and fish stew with mashed plantains to annual celebrations of both Caribbean and Latin Carnivals.
Xunantunich near San Ignacio
In Belize, no two days are ever the same. Canoe down to the farmers market to sample fresh pupusas. Scour ancient Mayan ceremonial caves and cool off under waterfalls. Drink cashew wine from a Kriol vendor and hike through rainforests filled with medicinal trees to the roar of howler monkeys. Or laze around a beachfront village all day and dance barefoot to Garífuna drums at night.
Even all this barely scratches Belize’s surface. This small country with a big heart will continue to surprise and teach you; and that’s the jewel you’ll take home with you.
Garífuna jankanu dancer
Hopkins Village beach.
tortilla making in a Mayan village
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
This stretch of coastline, islands, and swampy lowlands includes former capital Belize City, still the hub of Belizean city life and the heart of its colonial past. A few historic sights and events, such as Carnival and the Museum of Belize, make it worth a quick visit, even for a day. Whether or not you appreciate the city’s unique grit and Caribbean texture, don’t miss nearby attractions like The Belize Zoo, The Community Baboon Sanctuary and surrounding Creole villages, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, and Altun Ha.
Belize City Carnival
The Northern Cayes
This group of islands is the most visited part of Belize. Ambergris Caye lures with swanky beach resorts, endless bars, and plentiful restaurants. Caye Caulker, just down the reef, offers a less dizzying pace with an authentic, Caribbean vibe and opportunities for snorkeling at The Split or viewing manatees at Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary. The northern atolls of Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Reef Atoll offer spectacular wall diving, beautiful beaches and bird life, and Jacques Cousteau’s old favorite, the great Blue Hole.
Belmopan and Cayo
Once the heart of the Mayan civilization, Belize’s western interior offers a remarkable selection of outdoor activities. Explore the Mayan archaeological sites of Xunantunich, near San Ignacio, or Caracol, further south. Wander the Belize Botanic Gardens, spelunk through Actun Tunichil Muknal—one of the world’s most amazing caves—or overnight in a jungle lodge on the Macal River or in the Mountain Pine Ridge, where you can dip in several waterfalls. While the capital of Belmopan can largely be skipped, don’t miss the surrounding countryside along the beautiful Hummingbird Highway, snaking south through the district to some of the most beautiful parks, including St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park.
Southern Coast and Cayes
Dangriga is the center of Belize’s Garífuna population, with an Afro-Caribbean beat, cultural and outdoor activities, and a strategic location close to Billy Barquedier National Park. Just down the coast, lazy Hopkins has long stretches of beach, and plenty of dining and accommodation options, as well as a strong Garífuna vibe. Further south, the Placencia Peninsula, is the home of “barefoot perfect,” 16-mile beaches and the low-key but touristy village of Placencia. The surrounding Stann Creek District offers some of the best hiking in Belize, including Mayflower Bocawina National Park in the Maya Mountains, through which five waterfalls cascade, and the world’s only jaguar preserve at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a hiking haven. Off the coast of Dangriga, the Southern Cayes of South Water and Glover’s Reef Atoll offer spectacular diving and snorkeling, while Laughingbird Caye National Park, off the coast near Placencia, is a World Heritage Site.
Punta Gorda and the Deep South
Forest and reef, river and ruins, caves and ridges—all await the small handful of visitors who get off the beaten path into the “deep south” of Belize. Whether you follow the Cacao Trail through Punta Gorda or take a private drumming lesson at one of the Garífuna drum schools, don’t miss the opportunity to sign up with a homestay program in the Mayan villages, where you can immerse yourself in everyday life. The archaeological site of Lubaantun begs exploring, as do the beautiful waterfalls at Río Blanco National Park and Blue Creek Cave. Farther off the coast, Sapodilla Cayes offers top-notch snorkeling and diving.
Northern Belize is often skipped by travelers—unless they’ve heard about Chan Chich Lodge, a unique rainforest eco-lodge at the Gallon Jug Estate, where Belize’s wild cats are often spotted, or the gorgeous accommodations at Lamanai Outpost Lodge, set amid the remote, vast Mayan ruins of Lamanai Archaeological Site. Both are set deep in the bush and are as popular with birders and naturalists as they are with archaeologists and biologists. Aside from these draws are the hubs of Orange Walk Town and Corozal. Corozal is a great launching pad to nearby picturesque Sarteneja, home of Belize’s traditional wooden sailboat building.
If You’re Looking For …
✵ CULTURE: Visit Belize City, Dangriga, Hopkins, and Punta Gorda.
✵ DIVING AND SNORKELING: Visit the Northern Cayes and the Southern Coast.
✵ HONEYMOONING: Visit San Pedro in the Northern Cayes, book a jungle lodge in Cayo, or escape to Glover’s Reef Atoll off the Southern Coast.
✵ A BUDGET ADVENTURE: Visit Caye Caulker, Cayo, or Hopkins.
✵ A FAMILY VACATION: Visit Caye Caulker and Cayo.
✵ WILDLIFE: Visit Crooked Tree near Belize City, Cayo, the Southern Coast or Orange Walk.
Know Before You Go
When to Go
High season is mid-December through May, a period many travel agents will tell you is the “dry season,” in a vain effort to neatly contain Belize’s weather patterns. In many years this is true, with sunny skies and green vegetation throughout the country during the North American winter. However, November can be dry and sunny, while December, January, and even February can play host to wet cold fronts that either blow right through or sit around for days. The weather has become more unpredictable each year, like most places in the world.
June, July, and August technically form the rainy season—which may mean just a quick afternoon shower or rain for days. This also means significantly discounted accommodations. August is most popular with European backpackers, while December and February are dominated by North Americans. Some tourism businesses shut down completely during the month of September and part of October, the peak of hurricane season.
Your best bet? Be prepared for clouds or sun at any time of year. A week of stormy weather may ruin a vacation planned solely around snorkeling, but it could also provide the perfect setting for exploring the rainforests or enjoying a hot tub in the Mountain Pine Ridge.
Passports and Visas
You must have a passport that is valid for the duration of your stay in Belize. You may be asked at the border (or airport immigration) to show a return ticket or ample money to leave the country. You do not need a visa if you are a citizen of a British Commonwealth country, Brazil, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, the United States, or Uruguay. Visitors for purposes other than tourism must obtain a visa.
Technically, a certificate of vaccination against yellow fever is required for travelers aged older than one year arriving from an affected area, though immigration officials rarely, if ever, ask to see one.
In general, your routine vaccinations—tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio—should be up to date. Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for all travelers over age two and should be given at least two weeks (preferably four weeks or more) before departure. Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for travelers who will have intimate contact with local residents or potentially need blood transfusions or injections while abroad, especially if visiting for more than six months. It is also recommended for all health care personnel and volunteers. Typhoid and rabies vaccines are recommended for those headed for rural areas.
The vast majority of travelers arrive in Belize by air at Philip Goldson International Airport, nine miles outside Belize City. From the airport, short domestic connections are available around the country. A few travelers fly into Cancún as a cheaper back door to Belize; once there, they board a bus or rent a car and head south through the Yucatán Peninsula to reach Belize, or catch a bus and a boat over to the Northern Cayes.
Belize is small and extremely manageable, especially if you fly a domestic airline from tiny airstrip to tiny airstrip. You can also get around by rental car, taxi, or bus, which is most affordable. Another option is to let your resort or lodge arrange your airport transfer and all tours.
Water taxis are another way to get around in Belize, especially to and from Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker and the mainland; there are regular daily routes between Belize City and these islands.
dock on Caye Caulker