My number one goal in life has always been to see as much of the world as possible. Every year, one of my resolutions is always to visit at least one new country, and in 2022, I capped off the end of a very busy fall travel season for work with a trip to Belize. If you’re considering Belize for your next vacation and searching for a Belize travel guide, look no further!
Belize is a small Central American country located on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. With a population of just over 400,000 people, Belize is a laid-back and welcoming destination that offers a wide variety of attractions and activities for travelers of all types.
Here is my personal Belize travel guide to the locations I visited this past year, along with just a few reasons why Belize is the perfect travel destination:
Beautiful islands and beaches
Belize is world renown for its scuba diving, as it’s located directly on the second largest barrier reef in the world. The Belize Barrier Reef is a series of coral reefs that forms the largest coral reef system in the northern hemisphere. It is located along the eastern coast of Belize and is a part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which stretches from the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to the Bay Islands of Honduras. The Belize Barrier Reef is home to a diverse array of marine life, including over 500 species of fish, hundreds of species of coral, and many other types of marine plants and animals. It is also an important economic resource for Belize, as it supports the country’s tourism and fishing industries.
In 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was created to preserve the reef, which is, amazingly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reserve system includes seven protected areas that cover over 1,400 square kilometers of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds. These protected areas are managed by the Belize Department of the Environment, which works to conserve the natural and cultural resources of the reef system and promote sustainable development in the region. Despite its protected status, the Belize Barrier Reef faces a number of challenges, including pollution, overfishing, and climate change. These threats damage the coral reefs and disrupt the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem.
I found Belize to be a perfect travel destination in lieu of visiting Mexico, a country that I’ve frequented. It was far more relaxed and less crowded than the over-touristed and over-built shores of our southern neighbor. Belize has a long history of protecting its natural resources, including its beaches, and has implemented strict regulations to ensure that these areas remain unspoiled. As a result, many of the beaches in Belize are clean, pristine, and uncrowded, making them the perfect place to relax and unwind. Additionally, Belize is home to a number of small, locally-owned hotels and resorts, which offer a more authentic and personalized experience than the larger, more commercialized resorts that are common in Mexico, which I’m not a fan of. So, if you are looking for a peaceful and relaxing beach vacation, Belize is definitely worth considering.
Rich cultural heritage
Belize is a melting pot of cultures, with a rich history that includes the Maya civilization, the British colonial period, and a vibrant Creole community. I was really shocked to learn that Belize is an English speaking country! I had no idea until I arrived there, mistakenly assuming we would be speaking Spanish. Visitors can learn about the country’s diverse heritage through its many museums and cultural centers, or by visiting ancient Maya ruins and other historical sites. We were able to visit a ton of Mayan Ruins (more on that below).
Belize was known as British Honduras until 1973 and was a British colony from the late 17th century until 1981, when it gained independence. We had the good fortune of learning this from our numerous very friendly cab drivers who loved to talk about how proud they were of their fairly recent independence.
Incredible natural beauty
Belize is home to a wide range of ecosystems, including rainforests, mangrove forests, coral reefs, and more. This makes it an ideal destination for nature lovers, with plenty of opportunities for hiking, birdwatching, and other outdoor activities. The western part of Belize is home to a number of tropical rainforests, including the Maya Mountains, which are home to a number of protected areas, including the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, the Chiquibul National Park, and the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. In addition to the Maya Mountains, the western part of Belize is also home to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, which is home to a number of pine forests, as well as the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to a number of jaguars and other large cats. Conveniently, Belize is a pretty small country so renting a car and seeing a lot of it is absolutely possible in a short amount of time. We really enjoyed our time in Western Belize (more on San Ignacio and the jungles of western belize in my Belize tour guide below).
Belizean cuisine is a delicious blend of Caribbean, Mexican, and Central American flavors, with a heavy emphasis on seafood. Visitors can enjoy traditional dishes like rice and beans, fry jacks (a type of fried dough), and the national dish of Belize, stewed chicken with rice and beans (which we LOVED and ate a ton of). There is weirdly a lot of pie, which Gabe wasn’t mad about. And again – seafood, more seafood and more seafood. I wanted to eat ceviche until I got tired of it (I didn’t).
Belize is a budget-friendly destination, with relatively low prices for accommodation, food, and activities. This makes it an ideal destination for travelers on a budget, or for those who want to stretch their travel dollars further. Getting there is extremely reasonable if you live in the south central part of the US, and a little bit of a heftier (and more lengthy) situation if you’re coming from the western US, but still worth it.
Belize travel guide: Caye Caulker
We absolutely loved our stay on the tiny, very walkable island of Caye Caulker. The vibe is a bit like Costa Rica: excessively laid-back. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle, book yourself some time on this intimate island full of friendly locals.
One of the main attractions of Caye Caulker is the abundance of water activities. We booked an all day boat excursion through one of the snorkeling and diving agencies that was perfect for us: the first stop was the Marine Reserve where Gabe was able to scuba and the rest of us, who are not certified, were able to snorkel. After that, we made two more stops to snorkel amongst nurse sharks and manatees!
In addition to snorkeling and diving, Caye Caulker is also a great place for fishing if that strikes your fancy (though we didn’t). The island is home to several fishing charters that offer guided tours and all the necessary equipment. You can catch a variety of fish, including bonefish, tarpon, and permit.
Caye Caulker is also a great destination for those looking to relax. Make sure you spend a day hanging out at the Split and kick it at the Lazy Lizard, a popular spot for sunbathing, swimming, and drinking. There are also several beachside bars and restaurants where you can enjoy a cold drink and ceviche while watching the sunset.
The island is relatively cheap compared to other Caribbean destinations, with budget-friendly accommodations and dining options. You can easily find a cozy guest house or apartment for a reasonable price on Airbnb. We REALLY enjoyed staying in one of Bobbi’s Airbnbs – it was well appointed, very clean and comfortable and she’s an excellent host that’s clearly got a great biz going on the island.
- We spent almost EVERY sunset on the island at the Pelican Sunset Bar – the food is great, the drinks are solid, and prices are reasonable (there’s a 2 for 1 happy hour every day) and it’s the perfect location for – you guessed it – sunset.
- The owner of the Iguana Reef Inn and Beach Bar is originally from Austin, TX, which was a fun fact. Every day at 4 PM you can hang out on the beach, have a cocktail (or five), and let stingrays pet your feet.
- Maggie’s Sunset Kitchen was my standout favorite for the best food in Caye Caulker. Lobster season runs June 15 through February 15 and you can basically eat completely reasonably priced lobster every meal of the day if you so choose!
- Chef Juan’s Kitchen and Pastries and Chef Kareem’s Unbeliezable Lunch were other stand out favorites. Kareem is only open for lunch, he’s cash only, and he’s renowned around the island for his jerk chicken!
Belize travel guide: San Ignacio
Welcome to San Ignacio, Belize! Located in the Cayo District of western Belize, this town is known for its rich Mayan history and ruins, lush jungle and greenery, and adventure activities. Visiting San Ignacio was the highlight of our trip to Belize for me; I think you would be remiss to visit Belize without a stop in San Ignacio and Bullet Tree Falls.
San Ignacio is about 3 hours west of the coast and easily accessible by rental car. We used Crystal Auto Rental, whom we found to be incredibly easy and reasonably priced. They are also the only rental car agency that allows you to drive the car into Guatemala (an extra processing fee and some permitting and paperwork are required, which they take care of for you), which we wanted the ability to do just in case we wanted to visit Tikal. The brand new western highway is easy to drive and for most of San Ignacio a two-wheel drive vehicle is fine, but I’m glad we had 4WD for access to our jungle treehouse which was situated at the end of a fairly bumpy unpaved road in Bullet Tree Falls. I can say with certainty that the photos on this listing do NOT do it justice – it was an absolutely magical stay in the middle of the jungle, complete with a couple of rowdy border collies on the property, access to the nearby river, and a private pool.
Explore the Mayan ruins:
San Ignacio is located near several ancient Mayan sites, including Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and nearby Tikal in Guatemala. These ruins offer a glimpse into the history and culture of the Mayan people, who inhabited this region for over 1,500 years. Cahal Pech is easily accessible in the interior of San Ignacio and while beautifully maintained, is on the smaller side so an hour or so of exploring here is more than adequate.
Xunantunich we found particularly impressive and I would recommend hiring one of the English speaking guides waiting outside the site before the river ferry. The guides go through a college-style year long program in order to become specialized in their areas in Belize and we found the anecdotes and stories our guide shared with us to make the experience of visiting this very large ceremonial site helpful and interesting.
The name “Xunantunich” means “Stone Woman” in the Maya language, and it is derived from the legend of the “Lady in Stone,” a ghostly woman who is said to haunt the site. According to the legend, the woman was turned to stone after being accused of infidelity. The site consists of several plazas and pyramids (which you can climb!), as well as a number of stelae (vertical stone slabs) and altars that are decorated with intricate carvings and inscriptions. The main structure at Xunantunich is the El Castillo pyramid, which stands over 130 feet tall and is one of the tallest structures in Belize.
Xunantunich was first documented by outsiders in the late 19th century, and it was excavated and studied by archaeologists in the early 20th century. Today, the site is a popular tourist destination and is managed by the Belize Institute of Archaeology.
While many tourists visiting San Ignacio to go cave tubing through the river on inner tubes from Belize travel guide recommendations, I specifically wanted to visit San Ignacio to go caving in the lesser frequented ATM Cave. The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, is not for the faint of heart: although it’s essentially a living museum of Mayan history and artifacts and covered in absolutely stunning geological formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, and underground waterfalls, getting in and out of there is for the true adventurer. You start your journey hiking through the jungle to the cave entrance. You cross a river 3 times (there are no bridges y’all). The mouth of the cave is the river itself, which you wade into, swimming, walking and sometimes climbing through the winding corridors. Deep inside are ancient Mayan artifacts, including pottery, stone tools, and human remains, which provide insight into the rituals and daily life of the Maya people who once inhabited the area. The journey can be physically challenging, you aren’t allowed to bring anything in, and you must hire a guide. Only 125 visitors a day are allowed into the cave.
We found our visit to the ATM cave to be a truly unique and unforgettable experience. It alone is worth a visit to Belize – I’m not sure if there is any other living museum like it in the world that a tourist is allowed into.
Visit the Oxmul Coffee Farm: This beautiful coffee lover’s oasis is located just outside of San Ignacio in the nearby town of San Antonio and is home to a large family that started the first coffee roasting company in Western Belize. Started by James Mesh, Oxmul coffee is a labor of true love. Mesh was always a coffee lover and was looking to start a family business on their farm that didn’t directly compete with his community, but that brought something greatly needed to the economy of his region. After visiting nearby coffee roasters in Honduras and Costa Rica, he realized that there was no reason that Belize could not be a coffee producer as well. To this day, it is still entirely a family run affair, with the whole family pitching in. You can visit daily and learn their story and crush some coffee beans of your own to sample.
Make some time to wander through the San Ignacio Market. Although the busiest day is Saturday, the market is open every day save Sunday and, as we discovered, the only place that you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables (they are not available in the local grocery stores). Grab a papusa for breakfast and wander the aisles.
Belize Travel Guide: EAT IN SAN IGNACIO
- Our meal at the locally sourced and organic farm-to-table restaurant the Guava Limb Cafe was one of our favorite meals of the entire trip. Their brick oven turns out incredible pizza, their main dishes have a bit of Asian flair that we found refreshing, their cocktails are inventive and frosty af, and best of all: their pie selection was one of the best of the entire trip (so 5 stars from Gabe on that one).
- If you’re looking for more traditional Belizan fare, head to Ko Ox Han Nah, which offers Belizan favorites and grows their own lambs and chickens.
- Booze and Branches stood out to us as we drove into town: a large open air outdoor bar under a gigantic Oak tree that can’t be missed. Imagine our surprise when we discovered it had only been open for TWO days AND the owner’s brother is a winemaker in Lodi. They had EXCEPTIONAL wine (which was very hard to find in Belize) and we loved our afternoon there.
- On your way to San Ignacio, plan to make a bit stop in the capital of Belize, Belmopan, and eat at Everest Nepalese and Indian Restaurant. Not only is it some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had, the owner Raj may just be the most incredibly generous and accommodating restaurateur I’ve come across. He made the meal especially memorable – complete with face paint and some samosas on the house.
Places in Belize I wish I had been able to hit: Placencia, Punta Gorda, and Tobacco Caye. Places we visited that you can skip: San Pedro. Although there are some nice beaches on the north end of San Pedro (Secret Beach) and we enjoyed our stay there, it’s not necessarily worthy of a stop in my opinion. That being said, if you are looking for a destination to get scuba certified, San Pedro’s plethora of dive shops makes it very easy to do so!
Did you enjoy my Belize travel guide? If so, I’ve got more tales and travel content here on my blog. Coming up on the calendar for 2023: trips to Roatan, in Honduras, as well as Scotland, where I will *finally* see Sir Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road Tour (happy birthday to me!).
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