Belize marches to its own drumbeat. 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 it does with its bordering Spanish-speaking neighbors. 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.
To help you out, we’ve narrowed things down to four general ways to experience (pardon the pun) the UnBelizable. Plus, if you’re trying to work out where to stay, we’ve got options for different budgets.
1. Head under the sea
Blessed with close to eighty miles of nearly-unbroken reef, Belize might be the best spot in the Northern Hemisphere to kick your fins beneath the waves. Belize’s Barrier Reef lets you explore fantastic coral formations while coming face-to-face (or face-to-fin) with kaleidoscopic tropical fish, colourful crustaceans and even the massive whale sharks that come to spawn in mid-spring. If you’re an advanced diver, challenge yourself with a deep dive at the Blue Hole – possibly Belize’s most popular dive spot. Even if you’re sticking to snorkelling, there’s plenty to see within swimming distance of most of Belize’s Central Cayes.
2. Go caving
Underwater exploration too tame? Then dive into the underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal (also known as ATM). The journey begins with a hike through lush jungle, followed by a brief and bracing swim (with helmet and headlamp) through icy waters to the cave’s entrance. From here, it’s three miles of walking, climbing, and crawling through blackness and past strange rock formations until the cave’s sacred main chamber is reached.
If all this sounds a bit strenuous, dispense with the climbing and crawling entirely by opting for a cave tubing trip at Nohoch Che’en, just east of Belmopan. After a 45-minute hike through the jungle (during which your guide might teach you a thing or two about jungle survival, offering you a few surprisingly tasty insects) you’ll 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.
3. See Mayan Belize
Cayo is where you’ll find Belize’s grandest Maya sites. Spread out over nearly 65 square miles, the ancient city of Caracol is said to have once been home to between 120-180,000 people (to put this into perspective, modern Belize’s population now stands just above 300k). Outside of a handful of students and archeologists, modern-day visitors will have Caracol to themselves as they explore the temples, palaces, plazas and markets of the city which once rivalled nearby Tikal in military power and political influence.
The highlight of Caracol is the Caana, or ‘Sky-Place’, which at 141 feet is still Belize’s tallest building. If you’ve got less time on your hands but still want to experience Ancient Maya splendor, Xunantunich – just 20 minutes outside of San Ignaciao – is considered one of Belize’s most impressive Maya sites. After taking a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River, you’ll walk through bird- and butterfly-filled jungle until reaching a complex of temples and plazas that date back to the early Classical Maya period. Once there, you can explore a number of structures and plazas, and even climb to the top of 130-foot high El Castillo for a spectacular 360-degree view.
Get started: Caracol cannot be accessed by independent travelers, so you’ll want to get a guide in San Ignaciao. Xunantunich is easily accessible from either San Ignaciao or San Jose Succotz.
4. Belize for slackers
Many visitors to Belize steer clear of activity entirely, instead choosing to exert as little energy as humanly possible. If your preferred activity is ‘slacktivity’, you’ll be in good company in Placencia, a chilled-out beach town offering great restaurants, lively bars, and a long stretch of sand filled with palm trees, hammocks and low-key hotels and guest houses. If Placencia’s pace is too quick for you, then an hour’s drive north (on partially unpaved roads) brings you to Hopkins, a laid-back beachfront village renowned for Garifuna culture, cuisine and drumming. Hopkins still too busy for you? Hop on a boat to Thatch Caye, Tobacco Caye or even distant Glover’s Reef, tropical islands offering adventures in idleness in all budget ranges.
In fact, some of our most beautiful places can only be accessed on foot. Or hoof.
Horseback riding tours can be arranged through many resorts or tour operators. Popular tours travel through the jungles of the Cayo District, or you can see Maya sites like El Pilar, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech.
In northern Belize, you can find horseback riding at the Mennonite community of Blue Creek. Saddle up and explore unexcavated Maya mounds and the farmlands and planes, stretching across the region. It’s a ride you surely won’t forget.
Cruise ship passengers touring downtown Belize City on a locally made minivan
Thinking about the top Belize attractions and what to do in here? Well there are countless activities to keep you busy. Sun, sand and beach, tropical rainforests, mountains, extensive cave systems (the largest in Central America), the mostly unexplored remains of the ancient Maya civilization, diverse cultures, people and music.
There is so much to see that even the most jaded traveler will have an experience that will leave lasting memories. The Belize.com editors have compiled this Belize Attractions – Top Ten Things To Do In Belize List to get you started.
1. Dangriga and Hopkins Village
Impromptu beach party with Garifuna musicians at Hopkins Village.
If you are searching for the real Belize, beyond the facade of painted-over made-for-the-tourist destination, Dangriga and Hopkins is as close as it gets. Dangriga is known as the Culture Capital – the birth place of the world-famous Punta Rock music genre and a hotbed for the continuing evolution of other indigenous music forms such as Paranda music. Dangriga Town is the capital of the Stann Creek district. Hopkins is a quaint village few miles the road on the way south.
Dangriga does not have many beaches and it can be described as grungy. It has more of an urban nature where you go to immerse yourself in the local culture especially during festivals and celebrations like National Garifuna Day on November 19.
Hopkins is smaller but has a marvelous beach and a way laid back village lifestyle. The beautiful beaches at Hopkins have sparked development of many new resorts and hotels in the area but the village itself remains a cozy and relaxed family-type environment.
Both Hopkins and Dangriga are Garifuna settlements; the people are a distinct ethnic group emanating from the intermingling of West African slaves and indigenous Amerindians from South America. The Garifuna originated on the island of St. Vincent and arrived here in the 1800s via Honduras, reason why most Gariganu (plural of Garifuna) have Latino surnames.
The Gariganu have their own language and rituals separate from the Creoles who they resemble due to their shared West Africa heritage. Both Dangriga and Hopkins are the type of places where, if you are lucky, you may get invited to an impromptu dance party, which will include drumming and genuine Garifuna culture. Both destinations are accessible by the southern highway by public transport or private motor vehicle, or you can catch a local flight or even a boat ride.
2. Maya Ruins and Temples
Maya dancer at Lubaantun in southern Belize.
Maya Ruins are one of the main Belize attractions and make the country stand out from other one-dimensional destinations, you know, manufactured beaches, concrete roads and franchise fast food joints on every corner.
The area was once the very center of the ancient Maya Civilization and they have left their mark in one of the largest concentrations of temples and underground ritual chambers, as well as a magnificent repository of art in gold, jade, obsidian, pottery, elaborate stone carvings and paintings.
This vast civilization that reached its apex when Europe was in the Dark Ages virtually disappeared about a thousand years ago but their descendants remain in the indigenous Maya consisting of various sub ethnic groups including the Yucatec, the Mopan, the Ketchi and the Xol. Some of the best known Mayan sites include Xunantunich, Caracol, Altun Ha and Lubaantun. But we suggest you make up you mind after looking at our Top Ten Maya Sites To Visit In Belize.
3. Take a Hike
The country has one of the lowest population densities in the world ranked at 209 out of 239 countries – a little under 400,000 inhabitants spread over 8,868 square miles (22,960 square kilometers) – that is about 1 person per 36 square miles. This rank is right up there with The Pitcairn Islands (U.K.) that have a population of 67 inhabitants spread over 1.9 miles.
Biking through the rainforest
Taking a hike or mountain bike tour in those wide open spaces is a popular way to get around, have fun and learn more about Belize.
Most jungle resorts have nature trails, guided or self guided. On these trails you can hike along well defined paths that include proper signs and unobtrusively marked points of interest. Various plants and trees will have little signs with their local and scientific names, and in some case their medicinal use.
One such area is the Don Elijio National Park named after noted Maya Shaman Elijio Panti. Other resorts have scientific and nature conservation points of interest such as butterfly or iguana breeding programs and nature trails that outline these programs.
Other visitors may just decide to take off on their own. The country is well served by bus transportation. Armed with a Map Of Belize and print outs from websites such as this one, you can plan your own itinerary. Just jump on a bus and take off.
4. The Beaches
On the beach with a little surf in Toledo.
A coastline that extends some 270 miles along the gorgeous Caribbean Sea has you covered if you love the beach, snorkeling, diving or plain beach combing or relaxing on a hammock strung between two coconut trees. Some of the best beaches are on Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Placencia, Hopkins and southern Belize.
Thanks to the Barrier Reef that protects the coast, our beaches are relatively safe. Thus you will not see much surf or undercurrents. For adventure on the high seas you need to venture outside the reef – this offers spectacular deep sea fishing and SCUBA for the adventurous.
Visitors looking for the ultimate secluded beaches, enticing warm waters and a laid-back Caribbean Latino style will find the cayes (islands) running along Belize’s stunning Barrier Reef, the perfect haven. More than 200 islands are spread over the turquoise waters off the coast offering a wide variety of popular attractions and activities. Visitors are sure to find the Belize vacation that perfectly suits them.
5. Jaguar Preserve (Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary)
The Jaguar Preserve has one of the most extensive jungle hiking trails in the country. Plants are identified along the trails and animals are often seen.
A bus will drop you off at the Maya Center along the Southern Highway, and from there you can catch a tour bus or taxi for the remaining 7 miles or hike it. The best part of this adventure is that the Jaguar Preserve has its own quarters available for rent by visitors.
The entrance fee is $10, camping is $5 per person/ night and the dorm is $20/ per person night; The cabins range from $40-55 per night. You must bring your own food and water, although they will rent you cooking equipment or tents. Some visitors prefer to purchase a visit to the Jaguar Preserve as part of a tour package that includes full transportation.
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was established as a result of a jaguar study conducted in the area by Alan Rabinowitz. Besides being the home of Belize’s largest cat, the sanctuary protects the headwaters of two major river systems.. Over 128,000 acres of lush jungle are surrounded by the Cockscomb Mountains.
The Jaguar sanctuary is accessible to both the casual visitor and the serious naturalist through a series of well-kept nature trails. The Victoria Peak trail is only accessible during the dry season and experienced guides are required for this mountain ascent.
6. Museum of Belize
Located just off Queen Street (one of the main downtown streets in Belize City), right next to the Central Bank in the Fort George area, you can find the Museum of Belize at the corner of Gabourel and Hutson streets. The museum is a beautifully restored brick building that was built as a colonial prison in the 1800’s, and operated as Her Majesty’s Prison until 1993.
Built on two levels several cells have been been restored to original condition complete with cat o’ nine tails, chain balls and graffiti by the original residents. Originally built to hold one man, at the time of the prison’s closing, each cell held 6 to 8 prisoners.
The prison at one time had its own bakery and reputedly produced the best bread in Belize as it had a wood fired oven.
Several national heroes in the struggle for Belizean independence were imprisoned there by the British Colonial government including parliamentarian Phillip Goldson and labour leader Antonio Soberanis.
Many other aspects of colonial prison life are covered in the permanent exhibits. The museum has an exhibition that focuses on the Maya and colonial history of the country including its rich past as a haven for pirates and buccaneers. On display are priceless Maya artifacts dating back some 2500 years.
Born in the Maya Mountains in Guatemala, the Mopan River flows into Belize and with the Macal River forms the Belize River. This primary watercourse flows across the country to the sea. Before roads were built in Belize, the rivers was the main mode of transportation and commerce. Today many outfitters rent canoes for the Mopan and Macal Rivers and powerboats are also available for fishing cruising the various rivers that include the New River, Temash, Sarstoon as well as inland lagoons.
In The River near the City Of Belmopan
Most tour companies and resorts offer Class II and III rapids (beginner level), and their guides are certified by the local tourist board. Additional instruction is given throughout the runs, which include reading the white water, learning about obstacles, and surfing the river waves.
Although it is not a wilderness river, abundant bird life and huge iguanas are encountered on the river at nearly every bend.
Many amateur and professional canoe racing enthusiasts make their way here every year for the annual La Ruta Maya Canoe Race. This race is held on time trials and begins at San Ignacio through various villages and settlements such as Banana Bank, Bermudian Landing, Double Head Cabbage and Burrel Boom before the finish line at the Haulover Creek on the sea at Belize City.
8. Go For The Big Islands
Belize has more than 200 islands – many secluded and less traveled. But we have big islands and a nice peninsula for those looking the sun and beach and amenities such as gourmet restaurants, fine wines, clubbing and the finer things in life. If this is your preference we recommend Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker and the Placencia Peninsula in the south as among the best attractions.
Belizean beach girls hanging out at Caye Caulker.
Ambergris Caye is the big island, but before that it was a peninsula of Quintana Roo, Mexico until the Mayas dug a channel through making it officially an island and eventually part of Belize. Gotta love the Mayas. Ambergris Caye is a miniature Cancun with most anything a visitor from the developed world would want. Dozens of shops, quality pizza and fast food, gourmet dining, luxury hotels and condos – some in the multi-million dollar range, golf cart traffic jams – you get the idea. Ambergris Caye has lots of space – most folks do not realize the island is larger than Barbados. So you can still find secluded areas and beaches free from the crowds.
Caye Caulker is a a couple miles away from Ambergris Caye and much smaller and attracts budget travelers and those looking for a more village style atmosphere. Both islands are an hour away by water taxi from the mainland, or a fifteen minute flight. Placencia is in southern Belize and approximately two and a half hours drive by road. Or a half hour flight from the Belize International Airport.
Placencia used to play second fiddle to Ambergris Caye but this is changing rapidly. It’s advantages over Ambergris Caye include better beaches, access by highway, sea and air, and much more surrounding land especially in the Dangriga, Hopkins and Seine Bight areas. Added to this is the rich culture of the Garifuna with their music and traditions.
Placencia and nearby areas provide more of the real Belize experience. And from there you can drive to or hike to the vast unexplored southern Belize and even drift down to the fabled Rio Dulce and Puerto Barrios in neighboring Guatemala. From Puerto Barrios it is an easy hop by land into Honduras and other points south – think Roatan, Puerto Cortez, Puerto Limon and San Pedro Sula.
9. The Belize Zoo
Visitors to the Belize Zoo get to handle a friendly resident.
The internationally acclaimed Belize Zoo was started as a refuge for wild animals that had been used in making documentary films. An award-winning British documentary filmmaker Richard Foster made the first film on Belize wildlife here – Amate The Great Fig Tree for Partridge Films. The film is centered on the complex ecosystem that revolves around this magnificent tree found in Belize.
After completing the documentary Richard handed over the location used in the film, along with the animals, to ex pat environmentalist Sharon Matola who after years of hard work and with support from international organizations, transformed it into the Belize Zoo.
At the zoo you will not see drab concrete cells with iron bars like those common in other countries. Instead, the resident fauna are housed in as natural an environment as possible. Imagine a natural and real tropical rainforest with discreet enclosures interwoven into the trees and plants.
The zoo exhibits over 150 native animals, all orphaned, born at the zoo, or rehabilitated pets. The enclosures are described by visitors as large, airy and comfortable with natural pens.
Several of the animals native to the area are nocturnal, thus a visit to the zoo may be the only way to see them. The zoo is located 31 miles west of Belize City on the Western Highway. A related establishment, the Tropical Education Center is located across the highway and caters to wildlife researchers and students,
Bus transport passes by regularly, and if you are comfortable standing by the side of the road waiting for the next bus this is the economical way to go. You may also take a cab and ask the driver to wait for you – would cost about $60. so it might be wise to split a a cab. Some visitors make a day of it and rent a car, visiting both Xunantunich ruins, San Ignacio and the zoo in one day.
10. ATM Cave At Caves Branch – Actun Tunichil Muknal
Most prospective visitors have heard about this spectacular one day river run, better known as the ATM Cave, which travels for miles underground. The Caves Branch River is a unique river that races through the karst foothills of the Maya Mountains in central Belize.
Its headwaters lie deep underground in a mysterious cave, and after it emerges on land it flows for 30 miles through the Belize tropical rainforest before linking up with the Sibun River.
During its run through the jungle it encounters numerous limestone hills, and instead of flowing around these obstructions it plunges through them in a wonderland series of caves, some of which are more than 2 miles long – imagine roaring down river for two miles underground! The Caves Branch river passes through these caves with enough clearance for adventurers to navigate through them.
There are many tour companies that offer cave tubing packages. Most are for a medium length but adrenalin pumping run designed for Belize cruise ship visitors with limited time. Others will do the entire day if they have the time.
I was recently informed by my friend Jamaal at Pacz Tours in Cayo that tours will soon be available to to the remote, private and pristine Gallon Jug.
Gallon Jug is a large privately held tract of jungle with unmolested people friendly wildlife due to it’s protected no hunting status. You access it via Mennonite picturesque Spanish Lookout which is like a trip back 100 years in itself. Two tours for one, wildlife pics are below.
We have thousands of caves in Belize. They range from easy walks to challenging hikes that can often turn into squeezes, crawls, climbs, rappels and swims. Choose your cave accordingly.
In most caves, you’ll find extensive stalactite and stalagmite formations and pottery shards, others have ancient intact pottery (Che Chem Ha) and human remains (sometimes intact skeletons, like in Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave) and other natural formation such as underground waterfalls (Blue Creek, Caves Branch). Just about the only thing you won’t find in our caves is boredom.