Family fun in Belize
Children can see the endangered black howler monkey at Belizeâs Community Baboon Sanctuary. (Tom Boyden/LPI)
Belize has many of the key ingredients needed for a quality family holiday: it is affordable compared to other Caribbean destinations, and it is safe compared to other Central American destinations. But the best reasons for families to visit Belize are the same as for everybody else: wildlife encounters, action and adventure, and plenty of fun in the sun.
The vast network of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Belize provides a safe haven for wildlife that delights animal-lovers of all ages. However, animals and birds are elusive, and children do not usually have the patience or endurance to find them -- unless you know exactly where to look.
The Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS) is a grassroots conservation operation that occupies about 20 square miles, spread over several Creole villages in the Belize River Valley. It is all private property, but the landowners have pledged to preserve the habitat of the endangered black howler monkey (which Belizeans call “baboons”). The result has been an impressive increase in the primate's local population, which now roam freely around the surrounding area. From the CBS visitor centre in Bermudian Landing, local village guides lead short nature walks that provide an up-close introduction to a resident troop of black howlers. The monkeys are wild, but they are accustomed to visitors, and more importantly, the guides know where they hang out, so kids can see the monkeys howling it up in their natural habitat.
To see other species of indigenous animals, visit the Belize Zoo. This unique 29-acre facility provides a home for animals that have been orphaned, injured or rescued from captivity. Kids get to look at wildlife that is unlikely to be spotted elsewhere, including big cats like jaguars and ocelots, as well as the Belizean national animal, Baird's tapir. The bonus is that the zoo is relatively porous, meaning that alongside the resident wildlife, you will also come across creatures that have come in from the surrounding jungle, such as agoutis, iguanas, snakes, squirrels and jungle birds of all sorts.
Action and adventure
Travellers visit Belize to explore mysterious Maya ruins, lush jungle trails and deep, dark caves. This might not sound exactly like a family vacation, but actually, nobody loves action and adventure more than kids. Most of the country's adventure tours and activities can easily accommodate children and teenagers, though they are generally not appropriate for toddlers and babies.
The private jungle lodge at the Caves Branch Adventure Company is set on 90 square miles of adventure wonderland. Visitors can go horse riding, cave tubing, jungle walking and river kayaking, and guides are specially trained to make sure that the tours are safe and engaging for travellers of all ages. The on-site accommodations are also perfect for families: kids love to sleep in the tree house suites or bathe in the exotic outdoor showers. Best of all, children under nine stay and play for free.
Sun and sea
Thanks to its 240 miles of coastline, Belize is the perfect place to pursue all kinds of saltwater activities, many of which will also thrill children. Older kids and teens might enjoy sailing, windsurfing and kayaking, and children as young as five or six can go snorkelling and spy on the creatures that inhabit the coral reef.
An ideal base for a sun and sea holiday is Ak'bol Yoga Retreat and Eco Resort on the north island of Ambergris Caye. The rustic retreat is about two miles north of San Pedro, the country's biggest seaside resort town, providing easy access to all of the aforementioned water sports. Ak'bol is designed with families in mind, with a swimming pool and play area on the delightful grounds. The Kids' Clubhouse offers hours of entertainment, including children's yoga classes, nature walks and other activities specifically for little people. At the end of the day, families can retire to eco-chic thatch-roof cabanas, with a cosy loft space providing the perfect place for kids to sleep.
Mara Vorhees is co-author of the Lonely Planet guide to Belize.