People are always asking what the “don’t miss” things to do in Belize are. Oh, where to begin? Do you want to spend your time in the Caribbean? Or do pristine rainforests and rivers attract you? How about exploring Maya temples and ancient cities?
For such a small place there’s just so much to see and do that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Having been pressed, I decided to name my personal top three, but that was so hard I had to add at least one more.
So here we go…
Number One: Belize’s Wild West
While Belize is known as a diver’s paradise (and we’ll get to that later) more and more people are discovering the magic of inland Belize and the lush Cayo District. And why not? Where else can you go, in just a couple hours driving, from seacoast, through broad savannah and rolling green pastures to increasingly deeper bush turning to jungle? Along the way you’ll notice a change from the lilt of coastal Creole to more Spanish speakers. You can even take a hand cranked ferry across the river to Spanish Lookout and hear German spoken in the large Mennonite farming community there.
It’s very easy and relatively inexpensive to hire a car in Belize, which leaves you open to a whole range of adventures. But for the more budget mined, a bus ride will get you to San Ignacio, the gateway to the west, and from there you can arrange day trips to fascinating Maya archaeological sites such as Cahal Pech, which is right in San Ignacio, Xunantunich and the delightful El Pilar.
There are rivers to swim and canoe, bush walks to take and so many things to explore it would take a separate post to even list. You get the point. Belize’s civilised Wild West is a must see.
Number Two: Island hopping in Belize
Nowhere in the Caribbean is island hopping easier and more fun than in Belize. With literally hundreds of tiny islands known as cayes straddling the stunning Belize Great Barrier Reef there’s an endless supply of white sandy beaches and Robinson Crusoe adventures.
And easy and popular option is to go to Ambergris Caye, either by water or flying into San Pedro, spending some time there and then taking water transport to the smaller, more intimate Caye Caulker. Being so close to the Belize Barrier Reef you can snorkel right off the beaches and feel as if you’re in a tropical aquarium. Of course, for the more ambitious there’s incredible scuba diving in places like the Blue Hole, the Half Moon Caye wall and countless others.
Sea kayaking is another great way to familiarise yourself with Belize’s maritime treasures, as you can get to places larger vessels can’t. And with Hobie and other cats along with a variety of small sailing craft for hire, your Belize island hopping options are endless.
Number Three: Explore Belize’s Maya past (and get to know the present day Maya communities)
We touched on it above, but Belize’s own Mundo Maya stretches the length and breadth of the country and is in no way confined to the west. To the north you’ll find Santa Rita at Chetumal and the Lamanai site in Orange Walk, and closer to Belize City is Altun Ha, easily recognised from the ubiquitous Beliken Beer logos around the country. Down south there are places like Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, and even Ambergris caye has the Marco Gonzales site for a take on the sea going Maya. We’ve mentioned just the tip of the Maya iceberg out west, and saved the biggest for last – the ancient metropolis of Caracol refreshingly high up on the Vaca Plateau of the Cayo District.
Due to its location, this one’s a bit more difficult to get to, but well worth it, as you get a real sense of just how majestic the ancient Maya cities were. And, having had a population of well over 150,000 at its peak, with no natural ground water sources, you get an understanding of how resourceful these ancient urban planners were.
Belize was the heartland of the Maya, and just crammed with remnants and ancient artefacts of this rich, enigmatic civilisation. But a word of caution; once you scratch the surface, you may well become an obsessive Mayanist. It happens.
And don’t bypass the chance to visit Belize’s Maya villages. Visitors are always welcome in villages, and there is a unique Maya homestay program where guest are invited into a Maya house to stay and take part in day to day activities such as preparing meals and participating in farm chores. Not much has changes in Maya village life over the centuries, so it’s a great way to experience Maya culture. You can ask at Chaa creek or visit http://www.southernbelize.com/homestays.html to learn more.
The Lodge at Chaa Creek has many Maya and Maya experts on staff and can get you out to all the major sites, including Tikal in Guatemala. The onsite Natural History centre, Maya Medicinal Plant Trail and the Maya Organic Farm that supplies the restaurant are all great resources for learning more about this fascinating culture.
Number Four: Chaa Creek
With so many other choices, how to end this short list? Far from being a shameless plug (at least remove the shameless bit), I felt the need to include Chaa Creek because in all honesty, it is Belize’s “destination within a destination” and a one-stop Belizean adventure. Consider what you get while staying there. In addition to the casual luxury Chaa Creek is famous for, you have run of the 365 acre private rainforest nature reserve with the pristine Macal River running through it. Miles of secure, well-maintained trails linking over 70 Maya archaeological sites are prefect for hiking and horseback or mountain bike riding. The stables house horses for every level of riding skill, there’s a fleet of canoes (try a canoe trip down river to San Ignacio Town. You just lazily paddle down and they’ll pick you up and drive you back to the resort) and there is a wealth of activities and tours on offer. With a lovely swimming pool, Hilltop Spa, the aforementioned Maya features, a great bar and lounge and lots more there’s plenty to do. Or not do, if you’re inclined to just lounge in a hammock with a good book and cool drink listening to jungle sounds.
For the more budget minded, there’s the Macal River Camp with casita, or private bungalow-style accommodation, each with its own veranda. Home style meals are served in a common dining area, and you’re also welcome to use the Lodge’s restaurant and facilities. A pleasant walk from the main resort, it has a lovely back-to-nature feel.
There you go. It wasn’t easy to pick the top few, and I could easily go on with a dozen more excellent adventures to be had in this amazing little country. But if you tick these off, your life will be infinitely richer for the experience, and I guarantee your appetite will be whetted for more.