Top 10 things to do in Belize
In addition to sheer beauty and near perfect weather, Belize is blessed with an amazing diversity of flora, fauna, landscapes and people. There areso many things to do that visitors can get overwhelmed, especially when planning a Belizean vacation, so I’m listing my ten favourites. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the top things to do in Belize I recommend to friends and visitors:
Starting from the coast and working inland:
Easy to catch coming from or going to the airport and travelling west. While not the San Diego or Sydney, this is one of my favourite zoos in the world, mostly for its very Belizean, casual character and the intimacy with the animals, who look quite content in this uncrowded environment. I don’t know of anywhere else that you can admire jaguars from so close. Don’t miss this little gem.
I’m always surprised how many people don’t realise how close one of the world’s great natural treasures is to North America and Canada. This is the second largest barrier reef in the world, next to Australia’s, and is often called the largest living barrier reef. It contains miles of one of the most vibrant and beautiful eco systems on the planet, and the ideal place for snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, fishing, sailing or just exploring. It and the almost 200 tiny islands, or cayes, scattered along to are home to an amazing assortment of marine life, including dolphins, manatees, huge rays, enormous whale sharks. Diving along it is like entering an endless tropical aquarium.
If it amazed Jacques Cousteau it’s a good bet you’ll be impressed as well.Almost perfectly round and some 1000 feet (.4km) across and over 450ft (137m) deep, it is one of the world’s most unforgettable dive experiences.
Belize’s Blue Hole was once a giant cave on dry land way back in the Pleistocene period, and as you descend the almost perfectly vertical and smooth walls and encounter coral ledges at 69, 161 and 299 ft (21, 49 and 91m), you’ll see giant stalactites and stalagmites from that period, and the 200ft (61m) visibility brings it all into sharp relief.
In addition to the Blue Hole itself, there is also nearby Half Moon Caye with its impressive Wall, featuring colourful corals as well as an abundance of fish and marine life, and Long Caye has the “Aquarium”, another spectacular dive with incredible coral formations and fish along with turtles, giant rays and dolphins who don’t seem to mind the human intrusion into their world.
While on the subject of caves, one of the real and until relatively recently undiscovered treasures of Belize is the network of Maya ceremonial caves, of which the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, or Actun Tunichil Muknal, is the crown jewel. My first excursion into this mysterious underworld was simply mind blowing. Recently stumbled upon by geologists, this stunning relic of Maya spiritual worship is chock a block with pottery, artefacts, altars and the skeletal remains of sacrificial victims, including the famous crystal maiden, the intact, arms akimbo skeleton of a young woman that over the years has become coated with calcium carbonate, giving her a glittering, sparkling appearance in the torch light. This is a sight that will remain in my head forever, and is just part of the incredible ATM experience.
You need a certain level of fitness, as it involves swimming into the cave entrance across a jungle pool, wading along an underground river and doing some climbing, but the guides are outstanding, it’s safe, and the experience of a lifetime.
Another way to experience the sacred Maya Underworld is by taking a cave tubing tour such as those offered at Caves Branch. Floating into and through the caves on inner tubes with headlamp beams casting eerie shadows from rock formations and stalactites adds to the sense of mystery and adventure. Exploring traces of ancient Maya civilisation while floating through huge natural cathedrals and rock formations millions of years old will definitely give you a different perspective on time and man’s interaction with nature. Check on current conditions or when planning a trip with your hotel, tour operator or the web, as tours are subject to water levels that change during the dry and rainy seasons.
From the depths to the heights, next up is Mountain Pine Ridge; another one of Belize’s lesser known but in my view must see spots. Once an island when much of Central America was underwater, the receding ancient sea carved crags and formations resulting in waterfalls and great swimming holes. The rolling hills of Caribbean Pine trees, beautiful fresh air and clear skies make it a delightful drive, especially during warm weather. Bring along a picnic lunch or snacks and stop by the Rio On Pools for a refreshing dip and great scenery. It’s a great picnic and hang out spot, and you’re not far from the Rio Frio Cave, another less visited and truly lovely stop on any Mountain Pine Ridge tour. It is known as a Maya ceremonial spot, and with a lovely beach, amphitheatre setting and sunlight pouring in from both ends where the Rio Frio River passes through, it is easy to close one’s eyes and imagine crowds of Maya participating in sacred rites.The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve contains the Hidden Valley or Thousand Foot Falls, the highest in Central America. All in all, it’s a pretty, refreshing area to drive around in, and a stop at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge for an excellent pizza, lunch or drink is a nice break.
Another great thing about Mountain Pine Ridge is that it’s on the way to:
This is the largest Maya site in Belize and the size of this huge metropolis keeps growing as research continues toreveal new sites. The largest temple, Caana, at 140 feet( 42.672m) is still the tallest man made structure in Belize. Standing on top of this magnificent structure and taking in the jungle panorama stretching for miles in either direction brings home not only the immensity of the Maya Empire, but the spectacular beauty of this area.
Caracol thrived throughout the Classic Period of 250 -950 AD and by 650 AD was much larger than present day Belize City, with over twice the population and a vast network of causeways radiating out from the city centre like spokes on a wheel. It was a mighty city state with huge influence throughout the Maya Empire, eventually defeating powerful rival Tikal in the 6th century AD. The urban planning and engineering to maintain a city this size in an area without water resources other than rain is one of the most stunning achievements of the ancient world.
Today the Caracol site encompasses more than 30 sq mi (78 sq km) of the Chiquibul National Forest, with an excavated urban centre consisting of three main plaza groups surrounding a central acropolis with two Maya ball courts and other buildings. The visitors’ centre isvery informative and all in all Caracol is another definite don’t miss while in Belize.
Back down off of Mountain Pine Ridge on the outskirts of San Ignacio Town is one of my favourite Maya Archaeology sites, Cahal Pech. Certainly not as grand or ornate as some other sites, Cahal Pech is an intimate, easy going glimpse into ancient Maya life and architecture. Settled around 1000BC and abandoned by 800 AD it went through several periods of development and is a dense little site, with some 34 structures, including courtyards and Maya temples packed into two acres. The royal palace, where you can walk through the rooms and recline on the rulers’ stone beds is a highlight. The visitor’s centre and small museum provides a perfect introduction to the Maya of Belize and sets one up nicely for tours of the larger sites. Good to include in a walking tour of San Ignacio town.
Xunantunich is another accessible, easy and beautiful little site to take in. A hand cranked ferry takes passengers and two cars at a time across the Mopan River at the Maya village of Succotz, and then it’s a short trip up the hill to the Temple of the Stone Maiden, as Xunantunich is known locally.
Within the central square mile of Xunantunich are six plazas with over 26 temples, royal residences and other structures. The main pyramid, El Castillo, at 130 ft (40m) tall, is the second largest man made structure in Belize (after Caracol), and is known for an finely wrought elaborate frieze running along the topmost, or later structures. The view from the top takes in Guatemala and the Macal River Valley with the Maya Mountains in the distance and is well worth the climb. Don’t forget the camera!
Tikal was the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya – and it shows in the magnificent architecture, broad causeways, proliferation of stelae (carved historical monuments). In its peak during the Classic Period Tikal was home to as many as 90,000 people and had developed an intricate water catchment and agricultural system. If I could visit only one ancient Maya city this would be it; the setting is beautiful, the architecture and scale amazing and the ambience just wonderful. Sitting atop one of the main temples surroundedby the immensity of the Peten’s rainforest and lake system, the tops of huge distant pyramids poking out of the dense misty forest, the birds, curious jungle animals and jungle sounds help you imagine what life must have been like in this rich, enigmatic civilisation.
These are my personal top ten things to do in Belize. Of course there’s much more – beautiful canoe trips down Belize’s rivers, jungle horseback and mountain bike excursions, sailboat charters, jaguar reserves – you can even affordably rent your own island. But I challenge anyone to go through the list above and tell me that Belize isn’t one of the most interesting, enjoyable, fascinating and affordable destinations on the planet. After many years of repeat visits, I’m still a very enthusiastic fan and I’m sure you will be too.
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