The very best of Belize
With almost 80 miles of nearly unbroken reef, Belizeâs Barrier Reef offers excellent diving. (Tim Rock/LPI)
Belize marches to its own drumbeat. Although geographically part of Central America, the former British colony identifies more with the laid back English-and-Creole speaking Caribbean islands to the east than with its Spanish-speaking neighbours. Culturally and ecologically diverse, Belize offers such a dizzying array of choices for visitors that the most difficult part of your trip might be deciding what to do first.
Head under the sea
With almost 80 miles of nearly unbroken reef, Belize’s Barrier Reef might be the best spot in the northern hemisphere to kick your fins beneath the waves. Explore fantastic coral formations and swim with kaleidoscopic tropical fish, colourful crustaceans and the massive whale sharks that come to spawn in mid-spring. If you are an advanced diver, challenge yourself with a deep dive at the Blue Hole – possibly Belize’s most popular dive spot. And for snorkelers there is plenty to see within swimming distance of most of Belize’s Central Cayes.
Dive into the underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal, with a bracing swim (with helmet and headlamp) through icy waters to the cave’s entrance. Three miles of walking, climbing and crawling through blackness and past strange rock formations will take you to the cave’s sacred main chamber.
If all this sounds a bit strenuous, opt instead for a cave tubing trip at Nohoch Che’en, just east of Belmopan. After a 45-minute jungle hike to the caves, hop on a sturdy inner tube and float peacefully through an underground network of caves filled with schools of eyeless cave fish, stalactites and ceiling art painted long ago by Mayan artists. To beat the crowds, try a sunset trip.
See Mayan Belize
Cayo is where you will find Belize’s grandest Maya sites. Spread out over nearly 65 sq miles, the ancient and remote city of Caracol is said to have once been home to between 120,000 and180,000 people -- to put this into perspective, Belize’s population today stands just over 300,000. Aside from a handful of students and archaeologists, visitors will have Caracol to themselves as they explore the temples, palaces, plazas and markets of the city that once rivalled Guatemala’s Tikal in military power and political influence. Caracol cannot be accessed by independent travellers, so you will need to hire a guide before you go.
If you have less time on your hands, Xunantunich – just 20 minutes outside of San Ignaciao – is another Maya site worth visiting. Take a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River and then walk through the bird- and butterfly-filled jungle to a complex of temples and plazas that date back to the early Classical Maya period.
Relax on the beach
Many visitors to Belize steer clear of activity entirely. If this is your preference then head to Placencia, a beach town offering great restaurants, lively bars and a long stretch of sand filled with palm trees, hammocks and low-key guest houses. If Placencia’s pace is still too quick, an hour’s drive north will bring you to Hopkins, a laid-back beachfront village renowned for Garifuna culture, cuisine and drumming. Or hop on a boat to Thatch Caye, Tobacco Caye or even distant Glover’s Reef, tropical islands that offer adventures in idleness for every budget range.