So many people avoid travel to Latin America. Many steer clear because they don’t speak Spanish. Some incorrectly believe all Hispanic nations are violent. However, there is a gem of a nation smack dab in the middle of Central America that is not only safe, it is an English speaking country still loyally devoted to Her Majesty Elizabeth II. This place is Belize.
Belize is a tiny nation in between Mexico and Guatemala on the Eastern (Caribean) Coast of Central America. Belize has a rich history reaching back thousands of years Through the ancient Maya and has been a colony of both Spain and England. In modern times, Belize has become better known for its soaring pyramids, pristine beaches, and large tracts of rainforest.
Upon Arrival in Belize City, catch a shuttle (or taxi) and head about an hour and a half inland to San Ignacio. San Ignacio is a great base to use to explore the surrounding countryside for a few days. San Ignacio has a plethora of top notch hotels, with the Lodge at Chaa Creek and Maya Mountain Lodge being two great choices. All hotels in the area will offer day trip to go birding, hiking among the local ruins, waterfalls, rainforest reserves and National Parks. Little hint: often times the best places to bird watch are at the Mayan Ruins.
For the first day in San Ignacio, I head for the closest Mayan ruins. Cahal Pech and Xunantunich (shoe-nan-two-nick) are two sites that are nearby to San Ignacio and great places to conduct bird watching. Xunantunich is famous for its main pyramid, El Castillo, which is Belize’s third tallest building and richly decorated in carvings. Xunantunich is also the larger of the two sites and is very open, surrounded by field. Cahal Pech (Place of Ticks in Mayan, bring bug spray and water) is the exact opposite. Cahal is nearly overgrown and leaves you with a similar feeling that the first Europeans must have felt when rediscovering the site.
Let me make this clear: if you have the money, skip these two ruins and have a tour operator (Don’t try to cross the border on your own, it is a huge pain) take you to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala. Tikal is the best Mayan ruin and one of my favorite places on earth.
The second day in Belize should take you (via tour operator again) to Lamanai, which means submerged crocodile in Mayan, and crocodiles you will see. The boat ride (yes, boat ride) down the New River to Lamanai exposes you to a variety of different species and is a top spot to see monkey, caimans, and sloths. Lamanai also holds the distinguishment of being continually occupied from 500 BC until the Spanish showed up, one of the longest occupations in the New World.
Lamanai is home to the second tallest building in Belize (also very creatively called El Castillo). At 130 feet tall, it is a beauty and the first thing you see as you exit the boat and head through the forest. The massive Castillo is also flanked on either side of its staircase by large, well preserved masks of the Mayan sun god, Kinich Ahau (Key-nich-A-how). These masterpieces were largely preserved thanks to Lamanai not experiencing the decline seen in other areas inhabited by the Maya around 900 AD.
Day three needs to take you to the last of this trips Mayan ruins and also Belize’s top ruin, Caracol. Caracol, Spanish for Snail, was a massive sight in antiquity with populations in the 70,000-90,000 range. Caracol sits on the end of the southernmost ridge of the Maya mountains in Chiquibil National Park. As Chiquibil sits along the border with Belize, it is become part of the Jaguar corridor, a collection of reserves and protected areas that stretch from Belize across Northern Guatemala and in to Chiapas and Campeche states of Mexico, a huge coordinated effort aimed at protecting North Americas noblest feline.
Caracol is also the most historically important ruin in Belize as in 562 AD Caracol teamed up with another ancient Giant, Calakmul in Mexico, and together they defeated their mutual rival, Tikal. For the next 130 years Caracol became the epicenter of Mayan culture, but by1050 the site was abandoned to be reclaimed by the tropical jungle. As Caracol is very secluded (doubtful you will see more than a dozen tourists) it is a great place to go birding with heavy concentrations of macaws, toucans, hummingbirds, and motmots.
Caracol to this day remains home to the largest manmade structure in Belize. Caana, or sky palace as it was known, stands a lofty 142 feet high. Crowning the top of this pyramid is a set of three temples (known as triadic).The Triadic style of Mayan architecture was popularized in the preclassic Mayan era (the period between 800 BC and 250 AD). Caana also houses four palaces along its sides which contained 71 rooms. Yes, this thing is massive.
Again, I would recommend taking one of the many tour operators based out of San Ignacio for travel around the countryside. The operators make it simple, aren’t very expensive, and are knowledgeable about what to visit. Another perk is that these tour guides can combine day tours to give you an optimal experience.
For example, many tour operators have combined a trip to Butterfly Falls, Big Rock Falls, The Rio Frio cave (commonly believed to be the entrance to the Mayan underworld), or Thousand foot falls with the Caracol visit. Butterfly is my favorite amongst those add-ons to the Caracol day tour. Unlike thousand foot falls (actually 1,600 feet) you can get close to it to get better photos and even swim in its refreshingly cool water after a hot day of climbing pyramids.
After a few days of Howler Monkeys for alarm clocks and playing Indiana Jones, head back to the Coast. Ambergris Caye is Belize’s most popular beach town, and deservedly so. Ambergris Caye is actually completely manmade, a large Channel at the North end of the island, which originally connected it to mainland Mexico, was created by the Maya over 1,000 years ago to save time on transporting goods around the Yucatan. If Ambergris just isn’t for you, Belize has over 20 inhabited Cayes and the Placencia Peninsula that are all highly recommended.
A little tip on selecting a hotel wherever you go: Head to tripadvisor.com and look at any hotels you may be interested in. Not only does Tripadvisor ask users to rate hotels (which is useful so you get an idea for the overall quality of the establishment), you can assess the most recent reviews and make sure the hotel has not had any problems of late that are not mentioned on their website. Some respondents on Tripadvisor will also give you details on what impressed them about their stay, such as hopefully a beach, and what to avoid doing while there.
Beaches aren’t the only thing aquatic adventures to be had in Belize. Belize is part of the Great Maya Reef, the world’s second longest unbroken segment of coral reef (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) stretching from Northern Campeche State in Mexico to Roatan Island in Honduras. Of course with this reef surrounding you, scuba diving and snorkeling is a must. Ambergris Caye is of course the main place to catch a boat out to one of Belize’s numerous and highly rated dive sites.
One of the most popular dive sites is the Great Blue Hole, a large underwater sinkhole that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Great Blue Hole was discovered in 1971 by Jacques Cousteau. The cave measures over 300 meters across and almost 125 meters deep and is also home to hundreds of species of fish and sharks. In 2012 The Great Blue Hole was also named one of Discovery Channels “top 10 most amazing places on earth.”
Sport fishing is another great aquatic activity available to you in Belize. Every coastal town will have a multitude of captains just waiting to take you out. While most people prefer deep sea fishing as the game is larger, I prefer reef fishing. There is no more delicious fish to eat than snapper and grouper fresh out the ocean, and if you are lucky enough to catch your fill, you may even try your luck at catching sharks. Be sure to ask your captain if its lobster season, and if so it may be worth your time to stop by his favorite lobster hole and take your luck with these delicious crustaceans.
The bottom line regarding Belize is that it is a beautiful tropical nation with a rich heritage. Inland Belize offers more waterfalls, ruins, and rainforest adventures than can be counted. Coastal Belize offers many of the world’s premier beaches and dive sites. A few days in either of these climates should be enough to satisfy the travel bug in anyone, and I fully recommend visiting both!