There is so much to do and so much to see in Belize I definitely recommend taking at least a week to go explore. For those who live in the south though, it could be an easy weekend trip as it is only two hours and a half from Houston, Atlanta and Miami. A round trip from LA can get as low as $400 if you book enough in advance.
The three areas that I had a chance to explore on my trip were San Ignacio, San Pedro and the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. I never made it to the south of the country but I hear it is pretty incredible down there as well.
The best time to visit is from late November to mid-April. You’ll probably want to pass on visiting during April and May, when humidity mists the tropical landscape and temperatures reach triple digits. Expect showers from June to mid-November and strong winds.
They take US cash everywhere down there at an exchange rate of $2 Belize to $1 US. This exchange rate doesn’t really change. There is also free Wi-Fi almost everywhere (hotels, restaurants, airports etc.) so there almost isn’t a need to put your phone on an international plan.
All international flights land in Belize City but I would recommend not spending any nights there as there is not much to do. One excursion that is a must though is Cave Tubing and that is usually out of Belize City. If possible try to do it right when you land and have the company pick you up at the airport. If you decide to go directly to San Ignacio after Cave Tubing, you can arrange for them to drop you off there.
There are a few Cave Tubing companies but I would go with CaveTubing.bz ($75 US per person + tip and no deposit needed). Vitalino, who owns the company, is very responsive and makes sure you have a great experience. They provide lunch and refreshments (make sure you have their rum punch!) as well as free pickup and drop off within Belize City. Jose was my tour guide and was awesome. I would try to get him if possible. You hike about 30 minutes through the Belizean rainforest, learning about all the plants and trees and what they are used for, and then tube down the Caves Branch River through spectacular cave systems that the ancient Mayas regarded as a sacred underworld and home to many powerful gods.
I would highly recommend to not do this on a cruise ship day (cruise ship days are usually Mon-Thurs) as they usually get 2000 people from the cruises doing this tour daily. I changed my plans to do this tour on a non-cruise day and it ended up being a private tour as we were the only people in the river that afternoon and I think that really added to the experience. Vitalino is also very flexible with what time you would like to take the tour on non-cruise ship days.
Belize is known for two main things: the diving and the ruins. San Ignacio Town is the main town in the Cayo District of western Belize and is an ideal base to explore ancient Maya cities. Xuantunich is one of Belize’s most easily accessible sites as it is only a 15 minute drive from San Ignacio town and it is a beautiful site. A tour usually costs around $50 per person (which includes the site fee, tax, a guide, and transportation).
Caracol is another Maya site (the largest in Belize) that is supposed to be incredible but it takes two and a half hours to get there from San Ignacio. Unless you are really interested in Mayan ruins, I would suggest only sticking with Xuantunich.
If you want to visit a Maya site without staying in San Ignacio for a night or two, another option is visiting Altun Ha which is about a half hour drive north of Belize City. The area around the Altun Ha is rich in wildlife including armadillos, bats, squirrels, agouti, paca, foxes, raccoons, coati, tyra, tapir and the white-tailed deer.
Besides seeing the ruins, there are many other things you can do in San Ignacio. At the San Ignacio Resort (where I stayed), there is an iguana conservation that you can visit for $9US where you can learn about iguanas, feed them and hold them. If you decide to take this tour, I highly recommend that you wear a long sleeve shirt or at least a t-shirt as the iguanas do scratch you.
The San Ignacio Resort was a great hotel and if you go, I would recommend staying there. It is walking distance to the town, unlike the Lodge at Chaa Creek and Mystic River Resort. There isn’t much to do in the town but it is nice to have a few dining options other than the hotel. Two good restaurants in the town are Martha’s and Hanna’s.
Another tour that the San Ignacio Resort offers is the Medicinal Trail tour ($9US) where you learn about the medicinal plants and herbs found along the trails. If you do cave tubing with Vitalino, they pretty much include this tour as you are hiking to the caves. If you decided to opt out of cave tubing, this might be something worth looking into.
Guatemala is only a half hour drive from San Ignacio and if you are interested, you can find a local tour guide to take you across the border to explore a bit in the town of Melchor de Mencos. It only cost us $50 + tip to get a driver to take 6 of us there. There is a tourist exit fee though of $18.75US that you have to pay when leaving the country. When coming back into Belize, don’t try to bring in beer as they will not let you even bring one. They will let you drink it in customs though, before walking back into the country.
Tour Guide to go to Guatemala: Daniella Cost: ~$50 (for a car) Duration: ~3 hours Phone Number: +501-628-8141
If you have an interest in exploring the jungle a bit more with a local, you can usually find a tour guide who grew up camping out in the jungle and who would be willing to take you. If I had more time, I would have camped out for one night. Below is the contact info of a local tour guide that I spent some time with who can take you into the jungle if interested.
Name: Jose Elias Hernandez Phone Number: +501-661-5731
San Pedro is located right on the water and is a great place to visit. The actual town is very small but there are many nice hotels that are along the coast, north from the town but not too far. We stayed at Las Terrazas Resort which was about 4 miles north of the town (a 10 minute boat ride). If going with a large group, I suggest renting one of their 2 or 3 bedroom villas which includes a delicious breakfast as it is a much better deal. If you decide to stay at a hotel a bit north of the town, I would book Dave’s water taxi as they are very reasonable and hotels will charge up to $60 a person to pick you up from the town.
Taxi Service: Dave’s Water Taxi Cost: $25 per private boat (up to 5 people), each additional person is $5 Phone Number: +501-610-4890
Something you must do if you go to San Pedro is snorkel Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley sanctuaries. Hol Chan is an incredible site with a huge coral garden and lots of marine life. At Shark Ray Alley you can get very close to all types of rays, nurse sharks and green turtles. If you stay at Las Terrazas Resort they have a Hol Chan/Shark Ray Alley tour that goes out twice a day for ~$85US. If you are a diver, the company may try to rope you into purchasing a dive for these locations but it is actually pretty shallow and if you can free dive to the depth of the scuba divers. If you can, I suggest bringing your own snorkel or swim googles (if you have some) as renting them costs $13-15 per day and the snorkeling is also great right in front of the hotels.
Another similar excursion that I really wanted to go on was the Caye Caulker day trip that included Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. I wasn’t able to go on this tour because the boat wasn’t going out the day we were in town, but I have a friend who has taken it and said that it was one of the best experiences on his trip to Belize. This is a family run catamaran, a dad and two sons sail the boat and lead the snorkels. You also get a couple hours to explore the island of Cay Caulker for lunch which is supposed to be really nice, similar to San Pedro,
There is a bike path along the beach that goes from San Pedro town all the way north, about 10 miles, passing all of the resorts. Because the path is along the shore, it is like an obstacle course biking around the docks, seaweed and palm trees but this is what makes the ride fun. Most waterfront hotels have bikes for their guests to use.
A bar you have to visit in San Pedro is the Palapa Bar. It is a great spot to watch the sunset and there are tubes attached to the bar so you can enjoy your drinks while in the water! If you plan on going here, bring some paraphernalia such as a koozie or sticker from your hometown or college to post it on the palapa!
There is also a yoga class every morning from 9am-11am at the Akbol Hotel which is one palapa north of the Palapa Bar. It costs $15US (cash) to take the class.
Two good restaurants in the town of San Pedro are El Fogon, which features Belizean cuisine and Hidden Treasure, which features Central American cuisine.
If you’re looking for a relaxed vacation spot that is less crowded than the more touristy San Pedro, look into staying at Caye Caulker which has some excellent and easily accessible snorkeling sites.
Lighthouse Reef Atoll
This is the place to stay if you are an avid diver. Located 50 miles off the coast of Belize City, the Lighthouse Reef Atoll is home to numerous dive sites including the most famous, the Blue Hole. There are only two resorts located in this atoll on Long Caye: Itza Lodge and Huracan Diving Resort.
Huracan Diving is an all-inclusive resort where you can choose from three day, four day or week long stays. I stayed here and chose to do the three-day dive package that includes five dives. Compared to diving in other places of the world, it comes out to still be reasonably cheap but this will be the most expensive part of your trip. Although the cabin you stay at is very home-like and cozy, the management at the resort is horrible. I would not recommend staying here as they were very disorganized and the main point of contact, Anna, isn’t good with communication. That being said, the dive instructor, Arthur, and the captain, Reeves, are awesome which is what made this part of my trip enjoyable.
Itza Lodge would be the better choice here though. They are located right on the water, can accommodate much larger parties and their management is great. Marcia and Jim, managers of the resort, are willing to accommodate any needs their guests have. This isn’t an all-inclusive resort either so if you are headed to the reef with non-divers, this place is perfect. You have the option to purchase individual dives and snorkel sessions separate to your lodging as well as an all-inclusive meal plan.
The food on the island was incredible each night. Seafood is caught fresh every day and cooked by each resorts personal chefs who you will come to know well when staying there. Alcohol on the island is expensive. Because everything has to be brought in by boat, the resorts charge $5US per beer or a cocktail.
I would avoid going to the Lighthouse Reef Atoll during American Thanksgiving break as the weather the past 3 years over this week hasn’t been good. I did hear that Itza lodge has a pretty good New Year’s party though.
If you don’t plan on staying out on the reef but want to see the Blue Hole, there are day trips that leave from San Pedro and Caye Caulker that take you to there and a few other dive spots. This trip usually lasts about 12 hours (as it can take up to 3 hours to get to the reef from San Pedro) and can cost up to $400 per person. If you do not want to snorkel or dive, helicopter tours are also offered from the mainland.
For more information on the different dive sites in at the Lighthouse Reef Atoll visit: http://www.itzalodge.com/activities/dive-sites.htm.
I never made it down to Placencia but I am definitely going to go back to Belize and visit this town. This town, located in the south of the country, is known for its whale shark sightings during the months of April to June. If you plan to visit Placencia in hopes to see a whale shark, your chances are higher if you book your trip around a full moon. Below is the contact info for a dive instructor who specializes in whale sharks but also knows many others in the area if he isn’t available.
Whale Shark Dive Instructor: Arthur Westby E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Placencia is also only a 30 minute drive from the only known jaguar preserve in the world, otherwise known as Cockscomb Basin Wildlife sanctuary. This preserve covers an area of about 150 square miles so take note that a visit to the Jaguar Preserve may likely provide you with signs of recent Jaguar activity, but it is highly unlikely that an actual Jaguar sighting will occur. These animals are masters of stealth and their very existence is based on their seeing, but not being seen. There are supposed to be some pretty cool hikes in this preserve and guided tours are offered as well.
Getting from one city to another around the country can start to take up some time. I suggest booking flights on their local airline Tropic Air if going a long distance. If you are going from San Ignacio to San Pedro, a flight would be 35 minutes (~$120 depending on when you book) as opposed to a 2 and a half hour drive from San Ignacio to Belize City (~$70) and then an hour and 15 minute boat ride from Belize City to San Pedro ($20).
What to Pack
I would suggest packing carry-on if possible to avoid lost bags and waits at the airport. Also, when arriving in the country, immigration will ask for your hotel address so have that on hand. Here are a few essentials that I would recommend packing:
- Lots of bug spay
- US cash
- Advil, Antihistamine
- Waterproof sunscreen
- Passport & copy of your passport
- Underwater camera (highly suggested)
- Rashie (if you want for scuba diving/snorkeling)
- PADI certification card and dive book (if going diving)
- Good water shoes with grip (if going Cave Tubing)
- Light rain coat / Umbrella (if going during or around the rainy season)
- Anti-Malarial Pills (if staying in malarial areas)
A Few Random Facts
- Belize is the only Central American country with English as its official language; however, you will still hear a mixture of Creole, Spanish, Garifuna and Mayan languages being spoken on the street
- Belize has an uncommon species of howler monkey that is known as one of the top ten loudest animals in the world
- The locals in Belize have created some unique names for its natural wonders including Owl eye butterfly, the Swallow Tail Cattle Heart Butterfly, and the Red Footed Booby Bird, and the False Vampire Bat
- Belize has the only known jaguar preserve in the world, otherwise known as Cockscomb Basin Wildlife sanctuary
- Outside the Belize mainland is one of the world’s natural reefs known as the Belize natural reefs with 200 separate islands
- Belize has around 900 Mayan sites
- Marie Sharp’s hot sauce in Belize is one of the best – be sure to take some home!
- Marie Sharp also makes good jam that goes well with the Belizean local food Fry Jacks
- The tallest building in Belize is a Mayan temple
- Belize is home to the “Royal Rat” (a rodent named the Gibnut) which was made famous after Queen Elizabeth was served one during a visit to the country; it is considered a delicacy it is said to taste similar to rabbit
- Pepsi is illegal in Belize because there is a large Coca Cola plant in the country that employs thousands of people
- You aren’t allowed to bring beer into the country – Belikin beer has the monopoly
- Belikin Stout (6.5%) is a great beer – be sure to try one! They usually sell for $2. This thin stout has notes of caramel, roasted malts, a hint of licorice and a tinge of coffee. This is my go-to beer in Belize. This dark beer is still light-bodied enough to have a few of consecutively and still drinks refreshingly on a hot day. The flavor becomes a bit richer as it warms too.