The Essentials of Belize

The country of Belize is a great place to start as an introduction to Central America. Although you may hear some Creole and Spanish spoken, English is the official and most common language spoken. At only about 180 miles long and 68 miles wide, the small size of Belize makes it relatively easy to explore much of the country in a short period of time.

If you feel comfortable enough, rent a car. Belize is fairly easy to drive through, but watch for unexpected ginormous speed humps in the road that seem to come out of nowhere, especially when approaching towns. We were sent flying into the air on more than one occasion while trying to pay attention to scenery and signs instead of the contour of the road.

Overall, Belize is an affordable country, but some of the coolest stuff to see and do is quite expensive. Add a couple tours for two people to your itinerary and you’re already set back a few hundred dollars.

The Jungle

The first leg of our trip was spent in Belmopan, a stunning jungle area in the middle of the country. We stayed at a mid priced jungle lodge called The Sleeping Giant. When we turned off the highway and bounced over the long dirt road up the hill, we were sure we were mistaken and would be attacked and robbed. But arriving at the lodge was truly a dream. The grounds were expertly landscaped, the pool is fabulous, and the individual bungalows and interiors were beautiful. You can stroll down the path to the river and go kayaking at your leisure or hike through the jungle to the lookout tower. We enjoyed most of our meals at the lodge because the food was delicious and reasonable; we could usually share a meal and feel quite full. Where this quaint resort really shines is with its staff. They go above and beyond to get to know you, always call you by name, and give you the opportunities to make the most of your stay.

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Along the highway, not far from Sleeping Giant Lodge, is the Blue Hole. It’s a quaint little swimming hole, maybe worth a quick stop. Nothing to write home about, but if you get the right lighting, it can be a beautiful color.

Despite the cost, there is one tour that just can’t be missed while in the jungle, and thats the ATM tour. Actun Tunichil Muknal is a cave and Mayan archaeological site near San Ignacio in the jungle. If Mayan culture interests you, or ancient artifacts and skeletons, or just swimming and climbing through underground caves, this tour is worth your time (and money). Of all the organized tours I’ve done in my life, this one may top them all. I would go back to Belize just to do it again.

I don’t want to give anything away. You should come without too many expectations and I want you to be blown away. However preparation is important so you can enjoy the experience to the fullest. You will do some easy hiking and cross a couple rivers. You will be wet most of the day, and the water in the caves is cold. Wear shoes that cover your toes so you don’t stub one underwater on a rock. You will climb on the rocks to view the artifacts but will be required to take your shoes off. Bringing or wearing socks is important so the rocks don’t hurt your feet. Bring extra clothes to change into afterwards. You cannot take pictures inside (hence why I have none); they have been prohibited because some idiot dropped their camera on an ancient Mayan ceramic piece at one time. So don’t even try. The tour company will provide you with a headlamp and helmet, but if you’d like to bring your own, brighter headlamp, it might be beneficial. Now a big warning: if you’re claustrophobic this will be tough for you. If you’re not already claustrophobic, you may discover that you are. You’ll be climbing through some very tight spaces in deep water. You’ll also be climbing up and down some large boulders. If all of this sounds awesome to you, you will thoroughly enjoy this experience.

Another common tour is a day trip to Guatemala. The ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal date back to the 1st century. Seeing them makes for a long day, but if you’re interested in history and archaeology, its a comfortable day trip.

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The Beach

Our next leg was spent near Placencia on the coast. We didn’t stay right in town, but rather a few miles out of town at a quiet beach resort called Singing Sands with little huts on the beach. Without a rental car, we would’ve been incredibly bored and much too far from town. We drove back and forth to Placencia for nearly every meal.

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Placencia is small and easy to walk around with lots of little restaurants and beachfront bars to explore. I think we got gelato every day (sometimes twice per day) and the seaweed shakes were good too.

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Let’s get one things out in the open right away. If you’re going to Belize for postcard beaches, powdery white sand beaches fringed with palm trees, you’re probably going to be disappointed. I wasn’t because I had read and looked at plenty of travelers’ photos ahead of time, instead of the photos taken by hotels and tour companies that only present the most idyllic shots.

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The reality is, many Belize beaches are washed up with garbage tangled in a mass of stinky sea grass. It can be better or worse depending on the time of year and the currents. Sorry to burst your bubble. Your Instagram snap of your lounge chair view with your toes and a pina colada will be tainted with styrofoam and heaps of sea grass in the background. But the good news is some hotels clear it all out each morning before you wake up, so you can have that perfect “seeming” beach.

But…here’s some more good news. There are over 400 lovely little islands called cayes (pronounced keys) dotted along the Belize Barrier Reef (which also happens to be the second largest coral reef system in the world). Some cayes are inhabited with luxury private resorts, others are secluded and visited only by the birds. Many of these cayes do provide that ideal, postcard perfection. How you get there is up to you. There’s a ridiculous number of tour companies that offer varying day trips, and most hotels are contracted with one of those companies. Do your research ahead of time, look at pictures taken by travelers on Trip Advisor, read reviews, and shell out some money to do what you really want.

We took a day trip from Placencia to Silke Caye and it was lovely. We snorkeled with huge rays and turtles and had a nice lunch on the little island.

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The Island

My last few days in Belize were spent on the popular Ambergris Caye. We splurged on a private two-person plane to fly us from the coastal town of Placencia to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye to get an aerial view of the famed Great Blue Hole. I hesitate sometimes to splurge on expensive experiences while traveling, but I don’t recall ever regretting doing so. The pilot took us over an old shipwreck stuck on the reef, over and around the Blue Hole, and then dropped us off on the island.

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On the island, we rented a golf cart for the three days, which is the main mode of transportation. We stayed in a small complex called Coral Bay Villas, which was more like an apartment with full kitchen and separate bedroom, and a patio that opened up to the pool and beach.

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The most popular tour that most people do on Ambergris Caye is snorkeling or diving at Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, both just a few miles offshore. Trips are usually half days and leave from the hotel docks both morning and afternoon. Many species of fish, rays, eels, and nurse sharks make this a good tour, although the currents and somewhat rough water at Hol Chan Reserve caused me some issues with motion sickness.

Diving is, of course, one of the most popular activities in Belize. To learn more about diving in Belize, read Top 5 Belize Dive Sites.

Take your time to explore the island on the golf cart. Drive up and down the coast, stop at various beaches and restaurants along the way. Use Yelp or Trip Advisor to get recommendations for meals and bars.

Last piece of advice is to be safe. Don’t go places alone, stay in populated areas, and keep your wits about you. If possible, avoid carrying a purse or wearing flashy jewelry. Belize is a lovely country, but their rate of crime is not something to shrug off. Be alert.

I hope this trip overview has provided some insight into Belize travel and itinerary ideas. If you’ve explored Belize yourself, tell us about it in the comments and make some recommendations!

And if you get lucky, maybe you’ll get selected to copilot the little plane back to the mainland.

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