Belize


Belize destinations

about With one foot in the Central American jungles and the other in the Caribbean Sea, pint-sized Belize is packed with islands, adventure and culture.

Reefs & Cayes

Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world, after Australia's, and with more than 100 types of coral and some 500 species of tropical fish, it's pure paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers. Swimming through translucent seas, snorkelers are treated to a kaleidoscope of coral, fish, whale sharks and turtles, while divers go deeper, investigating underwater caves and walls and the world-renowned Blue Hole.Add to this island life on the sandy cays, where you can spend your days kayaking, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, fishing or lazing in a hammock, and you've got a perfect tropical vacation.

In the Jungle

Inland, a vast (by Belizean standards) network of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas offers a safe haven for wildlife, which ranges from the industrious parades of cutter ants to tapirs, noisy howler monkeys, or the shy jaguar. Birders aim their binoculars at some 570 species, which roost along the rivers and lagoons and in the broadleaf forest. Keen-eyed visitors who take the time to hike can easily spot spider monkeys, peccaries, coatimundis, gibnuts and green iguanas. Even the showy keel-billed toucan – the national bird of Belize – occasionally makes an appearance in public.

In the Land of the Maya

Belize is home to one of the world's most mysterious civilizations – the ancient Maya. The Cayo District and Toledo's Deep South are peppered with archaeological sites that date to the Maya heyday (AD 250–1000), where enormous steps lead to the tops of tall stone temples, often yielding 360-degree jungle views. Explore excavated tombs and examine intricate hieroglyphs, or descend into natural caves to see where the Maya kings performed rituals and made sacrifices to their underworld gods. In the south you can appreciate the culture today by staying in village guesthouses and by learning the art of chocolate-making.

Action & Adventure

Whether you're scuba diving the Blue Hole, ziplining through the jungle canopy, rappelling down waterfalls or crawling through ancient cave systems, Belize is a genuine adventure. Head to Cayo District where you can tube or canoe through darkened underground river systems or hard-core spelunk in renowned Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. Ziplining is virtually an art form in Cayo and Southern Belize where you can sail through the jungle at half a dozen locations. Horseback riding is well organized and hiking is superb in national parks, such as Mayflower Bocawina National Park, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Shipstern Nature Reserve and Río Bravo.

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Belize City is the historical (if no longer the actual) capital of the nation, making it an interesting place to spend a day or two. Its ramshackle streets are alive with colorful characters who represent every facet of Belize's ethnic make up, especially the Creoles. And while the urban scenery may involve the occasional fetid canal or run-down neighborhood, it also features handsome colonial houses, seaside parks, bustling shopping areas and sailboats that bob at the mouth of Haulover Creek.

You might find Belize City menacing, but you certainly won't find it dull. And while it doesn't top the list of Belize tourist destinations, visitors often admire the city's raffish charms and cultural vibrancy. Lately the government has gone to greater lengths to make tourists feel safe, with some success. But the city remains markedly less relaxed than the rest of Belize, and its reputation for poverty and crime persists.

Sights

Practical Tip: Avoiding the Cruise Crowd

If you intend to explore the sights in Belize District and eastern Cayo District, it's worth planning your itinerary around the cruise-ship schedule. Stop by or call the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) office to find out which dates will have cruise ships at port. On these days you'll want to avoid destinations and tours that are within striking distance of Belize City, as they will be overrun with cruise-ship passengers. The most popular day trips for cruisers are the Maya ruins at Altun Ha and cave-tubing at Nohoch Che'en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve.

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Activities

Although most divers and snorkelers base themselves out on the cays, it is actually quicker to access some of the best sites directly from Belize City. Some hotels in the city offer their guests diving and snorkeling outings, and you can also organize ocean or river fishing through Belize City adventure outlets.

Diving

The usual scuba destinations are the barrier reef, Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve and Lighthouse Reef. Prices (excluding equipment) range from around BZ$250 for a two-tank dive at the barrier reef, to BZ$585 or so for a three-tank dive at Lighthouse Reef (usually including the Blue Hole).

Snorkeling

Snorkeling day trips to the barrier reef start at around BZ$180 per person.

Fishing

Around Belize City, anglers have their choice of rivers, flats, channels, cays, mangrove islands and barrier reef. The most frequently hooked species include snook, permit, tarpon and bonefish, and trips start at around BZ$800 for four people.

Sleeping

Accommodations are found both north and south of Haulover Creek. The top-end places are to the north, and most of the midrange and budget places are to the south. A few new spots have popped up near the regional airport.

Eating

Most of the fancier restaurants are in the hotels in the Fort George and Newtown Barracks districts, north of the Swing Bridge; you'll find some reliable local restaurants in the commercial area south of the Swing Bridge. You can also chow down very happily at some of the bars around town.

Drinking & Nightlife

Top-end hotel bars are one focus of Belize City social life. It's more fun than it might sound, pulling in a range of locals, expats and tourists. The best of the city's nightlife is, fortuitously enough, located in the relatively safe Newtown Barracks area in the north of town.

Entertainment

For spectator sports, the main venues are the MCC Grounds, for football and cricket; Rogers Stadium for softball; and the Marion Jones Sporting Complex, which is used for various events.

Shopping

Schlocky souvenirs are in abundance at the Tourist Village and Tourist Village Flea Market, while Albert St and its side streets are the main local shopping corridors. Decent gift shops are situated within the Museum of Belize, the Radisson, the Princess Hotel and in Old Belize, outside the city.

Travel with Children

Belize has some special ingredients for a family holiday. It's both affordable and safe, especially compared to other Caribbean destinations, and it's small and easy to navigate. Belizeans are famously friendly, and traveling with kids will often break down barriers between tourists and residents, sometimes opening doors to local hospitality.

LGBT Travellers

Male homosexuality only became legal in Belize in 2016, when the Supreme Court found the anti-sodomy laws to be unconstitutional. The country's first official Pride march was held in 2017. Generally speaking, Belize is a tolerant society with a 'live and let live' attitude. But underlying Central American machismo and traditional religious belief mean that same-sex couples should be discreet. Some useful resources:

(www.iglta.org) General information on gay and lesbian travel in Latin America.

Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com) Includes some listings in San Pedro and Cayo District.

Undersea Expeditions (www.underseax.com) Gay and lesbian scuba-diving company that sometimes offers live-aboard trips to the Blue Hole.

What to do in Belize City

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Placencia, a true beach-holiday strip poking out from the mainland, is enduringly popular with North American expats and tourists. Perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula, the village has long enjoyed a reputation as 'the cay you can drive to' – a fully paved 27-mile road heads off the Southern Hwy via Maya Beach and Seine Bight to the tip of the peninsula. Placencia can be a lot of fun, but how you feel about it really depends on what you're looking for.

If it's laid-back ambience, varied accommodations, boat access to private islands and some of the best restaurants in Southern Belize, this beachfront hangout may be for you. During the full moons of May and June especially, divers and snorkelers are drawn here as whale sharks come to feed in the nearby waters.

Activities

Diving, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking and trips to inland adventures are all available from Placencia and there are plenty of operators who can organize activities.

Diving & Snorkeling

Placencia is close enough to a plethora of cays, reefs and dive sites to make it a good base for diving and snorkeling. The more distant the area, the more expensive the trip. Most operators will charge around BZ$250 to BZ$300 per person for a two-tank dive on an inner reef site such as Laughing Bird Caye. Longer outings to spots such as Glover's Reef or the Sapodilla Cayes should be around BZ$350.

For some sites you may need to add admission fees of between BZ$8 and BZ$30. March, April, May and June are especially good months to see whale sharks in the area, particularly either side of the full moon when plankton blooms are abundant. Most dive operators also run snorkeling trips. A snorkeling day trip to nearby cays, often with a beach BBQ included, costs from BZ$100.

Fishing & Sailing

Opportunities for fishing are equally amazing, and in the waters off Placencia you can troll for barracuda, kingfish or tuna; spincast or fly-fish for tarpon, bonefish or snook; and bottom-fish for snapper or jack.

Sailing is also popular in the waters around Placencia. In addition to Belize's cays and other ports, Río Dulce in Guatemala and Honduras' Bay Islands are close enough to sail to.

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Sleeping

Many of Placencia's accommodations span the budget and midrange spectrum, while more upmarket resorts are further north around Maya Beach and the airport. Places fill up fast, especially in high season, so book ahead or expect to pay a premium. During low season some places close, but others offer discounts of 25% or more.

Eating

Placencia stands out as having the best restaurants and diversity of cuisine in Southern Belize, from street BBQs and Italian gelati to high-quality resort restaurants. If you're looking to stock up on supplies, there are a number of good Chinese-run supermarkets.

Look out for the numerous fast-food shacks doing Mexican street food or Belizean staples, such as Brenda's on the main waterfront.

Drinking & Nightlife

Placencia is low key but still the best place in Southern Belize for partying, with some good beach bars and a nightclub.

Orientation

The village of Placencia occupies the southernmost mile of the peninsula. On the eastern side is a sandy beach; between the beach and the road is a narrow, pedestrian-only footpath known as the Sidewalk.

Placencia's airport is about 1 mile north of the village; 6 miles beyond that is Maya Beach. Between the village and the airport lie an increasing number of accommodations, including some of the swankiest in Belize and a growing number of luxury housing units.

Travel with Children

Belize has some special ingredients for a family holiday. It's both affordable and safe, especially compared to other Caribbean destinations, and it's small and easy to navigate. Belizeans are famously friendly, and traveling with kids will often break down barriers between tourists and residents, sometimes opening doors to local hospitality.

Getting Around

Many accommodations north of the village offer free airport transfers and free use of bicycles for guests.

Taxis meet flights. The ride to or from the village costs BZ$10. A taxi from the village costs around BZ$20 to Seine Bight or BZ$30 to Maya Beach.

Cars, motorbikes and golf buggies can be hired along the Placencia peninsula; try Barefoot Services or Captain Jak's Rentals.

What to do in Placencia

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San Ignacio is the heart and soul of the Cayo District, a vibrant traveler center from where all roads and activities fan out. Together with twin-town Santa Elena, on the east bank of the Macal River, this is the main population center of Cayo, with lots of good budget accommodations, decent restaurants and frequent transport. But as much as it is geared to travelers, San Ignacio is no inland San Pedro, existing only for tourism. It has a very positive and infectious local vibe, with a bustling market and a steady influx of immigrants, mainly from nearby Guatemala. Residents are mestizos, Maya and Garifuna, as well as a bunch of free-spirited expats from Europe and North America.

Most travelers come to San Ignacio as a base for the adventures of Cayo or as a stepping stone to or from Guatemala; many stay longer than they expected.

Sights

Historical Museums

San Ignacio town has just a few sights of interest, including a significant Maya ruin.

Activities,p> Most activities – and there are many – happen outside of San Ignacio but can be organised here. Swimming is possible in the Macal and Mopan Rivers, or head to the pools at Midas Resort or Cahal Pech Village Resort.

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Sleeping

San Ignacio has the best range of good-value budget accommodations (including camping) in Belize, with a few excellent midrange places as well. More luxurious options – some of the best in Belize – are the jungle and mountain lodges out of town.

Eating

San Ignacio's compact center is packed with eateries, street-food stalls and mini-supermarkets. True to its traveler vibe, most places are good value and a few open very early to feed adventurers heading out on tour.

Locals rave about Miss Deb's food truck that parks at the Victor Galvez sports stadium on Wednesdays from 6pm to 9pm (check the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MissDebs2go).

Drinking & Nightlife

Although low-key compared to beach resorts such as San Pedro, San Ignacio has the liveliest nightlife this side of Belize City, so enjoy it!

Orientation

Pedestrianized Burns Ave has most of San Ignacio's tour operators and a good bunch of restaurants, so it's a good place to start exploring. The central plaza and market are a block to the east. San Ignacio is on the west bank of the Macal River, a couple of miles upstream from its confluence with the Mopan River – a meeting of waters that gives birth to the Belize River.

Getting There

Air

The nearest airstrip is tiny Maya Flats on Chial Rd, about 7 miles from San Ignacio. Tropic Air has three daily flights to/from Belize City. A taxi to/from town costs around BZ$40.

Bus

San Ignacio (surprisingly) has no bus station. Buses stop in the market plaza en route to/from Belize City (regular/express BZ$9/10, two hours), Belmopan (BZ$4, one hour) and Benque Viejo del Carmen (BZ$2, 30 minutes). Buses run in both directions about every half-hour from 3:30am to 7pm, with a less frequent service on Sunday.

From a vacant lot on Savannah St, buses leave for Bullet Tree Falls (BZ$1, 15 minutes) roughly hourly from 10:30am to 5pm Monday to Saturday. From the same spot, buses go to San Antonio (BZ$3, 35 minutes) five or six times a day, Monday to Saturday.

Several tour companies also run charter shuttle buses around Cayo and further afield. Sample fares include Guatemala border (BZ$50) and Belize City (BZ$150).

There are no direct government buses between Belize and Guatemala, but the Marlin Espadas shuttle runs daily between Chetumal (Mexico) and Flores (Guatemala) via Belmopan and San Ignacio.

Car

To really explore Cayo, a car is useful, preferably with good off-road capabilities and high clearance. Local car-hire companies include Cayo Auto Rentals.

There is a convenient central gas station next to the bridge out of San Ignacio.

What to do in San Ignacio

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Like many purpose-built capital cities around the world, Belmopan can seem a bit dull at first glance. Wide ordered streets, empty urban parklands and drab government buildings conspire to give it a desolate feel. The exception is the vibrant central market area, where cheap food stalls and incoming buses provide some welcome activity.

But this is the national capital, a major transport hub, a place to extend your visa and an easygoing university city with a decent range of restaurants. More importantly, it's a useful base for exploring nearby caves, national parks, the Hummingbird Hwy and most of the attractions in eastern Cayo.

Sights

The main market days are Tuesday and Friday, when stallholders come from all over the district to sell produce.

Getting Around

The city center, within the ring road, is compact and easily negotiated on foot. Taxis gather outside the bus terminal. A short fare around town is BZ$5.

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Sleeping

Belmopan suffers from a dearth of good budget accommodation but there are a few decent midrange places in town and more upmarket lodges in the surrounding region.

Eating

The market area is the place for cheap eats and you'll find more restaurants strung out along the highway west of town.

Drinking & Nightlife

For a capital city, nightlife is somnolent in Belmopan but Corkers and Bull Frog Inn have reliably lively bars with occasional live music.

Flights & getting there

Air

Belmopan's tiny airstrip is just a few miles east of the city.

Tropic Air has three daily flights to San Pedro (BZ$260, 55 minutes) and Belize City Domestic (BZ$142, 25 minutes), and two to Belize City International (BZ$190, 25 minutes).

Bus

Belmopan's bus terminal is Cayo's main transit hub, and all buses (regardless of company) heading south or west from the Belize District, as well as north and west from Dangriga (and points south), stop in Belmopan. Along the George Price Hwy, buses head east to Belize City (BZ$6, one hour) and west to San Ignacio (BZ$3, one hour) and Benque Viejo del Carmen (BZ$4, 1½ hours) every half-hour from 6am to 7pm. Along the Hummingbird Hwy, buses go south to Dangriga (BZ$7, two hours) once or twice an hour from 6:45am until 7:15pm. From Dangriga, most buses continue on to Punta Gorda (BZ$20, 5½ hours).

Transfers to Hopkins- and Placencia-bound buses can be made in Dangriga.

What to do in Belmopan

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Punta Gorda (or PG) is a slightly ramshackle coastal settlement down in the Deep South of Toledo. Once known to travelers mainly as a port to get the boat across to Guatemala or Honduras, it's increasingly attracting visitors looking to chill out in the south and as a base for exploring surrounding Maya villages and culture, and the remote southern cays.

PG spreads along the Gulf of Honduras, its compact downtown area stretching lazily for several blocks just in from the coast. The town center is a triangular park with a distinctive blue-and-white clock tower; the airstrip is northwest, on the inland edge of town. Though it lacks the beaches of Placencia, there are plenty of docks from which to take a dip in the calm waters. A good part of PG's charm lies in its unassuming character.

Activities

Aside from swimming off various docks in town, the best of the region's activities are outside PG. Numerous tour operators in town can arrange a host of activities.

Diving & Snorkeling

Offshore, some of the islands of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, northeast of Punta Gorda, offer good snorkeling and diving, especially the Snake Cayes (named for their resident boa constrictors), 16 miles out, with white-sand beaches. The beautiful Sapodilla Cayes on the barrier reef, some 38 miles east of Punta Gorda, are even better, with healthy coral reefs, abundant marine life and sandy beaches. A day trip for four costs around BZ$500 to the Port Honduras Marine Reserve or BZ$650 to Sapodilla Cayes.

Drum Lessons

Two of Belize's best drumming schools are here.

Fishing

Fishing for bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook, barracuda, kingfish, jacks and snapper is superb in the offshore waters and some coastal lagoons and inland rivers: fly- and spin-fishing and trolling can be practiced year-round. Any of the tour operators in town can help you arrange fishing and sailing trips, as well as other activities.

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Sleeping

There's a sprinkling of accommodations in PG's downtown but some of the best places are on the northern and southern fringes of town.

Eating

Punta Gorda has a number of good restaurants along Front St and tucked away in the town center.

Drinking & Nightlife

Punta Gorda has a number of bars along Front St and downtown. The town is also home to some top performers, such as the late brukdown (19th-century Creole music) queen Leela Vernon, and local punta (traditional Garifuna dance) rock favorites, the Coolie Rebels.

To find out what's on, see the PG What's Happening Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/Whatshappeningpg.

Shopping

Wednesday, Saturday and, to a lesser extent, Monday and Friday are market mornings, when villagers from the mostly Maya settlements of southern Toledo come to town to buy, sell and BBQ around the central park and Front St.

What to do in Punta Gorda

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