If the ancient Mayans had a buzz word destination, it was probably Belize. With beautiful shores and lush mountains, it’s a popular destination even today, offering adventure, discovery, and a low-key, relaxing atmosphere. With so much to do, where do you go for the best of Belize?
The Best Place to Visit
Most people come for two things: Mayan Ruins and the Barrier Reef. Happily, both are easily reached from nearly anywhere in the country; it’s not what you would call “vast” (just a little smaller than the U.S. state of Vermont).
If you’re looking for city life, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Belize City is the largest in the country, with about 58,000 people, and the country’s only international airport. Whether you arrive by ship or plane, you’ll start your Belizean vacation here. You might want to stay here, too. A variety of tours can take you to all the sights you’ll want to see. If your style is more DIY, planes, buses, and water taxis, can get you almost anywhere in the country without taking all day to do it.
San Ignacio, near the Guatamalan border, and Belmopan are the other recognized cities in Belize. (Everything else is either a town or village.) Belmopan is notable as the smallest capital city in the Americas, with a population of just over 16,000, and one of the world’s newest capital cities. San Ignacio is a little larger and, interestingly, boasts the nation’s largest Chinese and German Mennonite populations.
When should you go? Find out why we think Summer is the Best Time to Escape to Belize!
Belize was home to at least three distinct Maya territories, with a combined population that exceeded one million. (Today’s population is nearly 388,000.) There are at least 600 recognized Mayan sites across the country, which are the second largest source of tourism. While sites are spread throughout the country, the Cayo District is the best place to go for a healthy dose of Mayan ruins, along with lush jungles over rolling hills, and eco-attractions like animal preserves, jungle tours and underground river tubing.
Making San Ignacio your base camp will put you near the Caracol Archaeological Reserve, the Xunantunich temple complex, and Cahal Pech Mayan ruins and museum. Caracol is the country’s largest Mayan ruin site. The grounds cover 30 square miles with five plazas, an observatory, and more than 35,000 identified buildings (not all are fully excavated). Among them is a 140-foot pyramid. Climb to the top, and you can say you stood atop a temple more than 2,000 years old and still the tallest building in Belize!
[Tweet “You’ll have to look elsewhere for city life. The best of #Belize is adventure, reef to ruins.”]
A little further away, but still close enough for a day trip, are two more major sites. Altun Ha was a Mayan trade center, and site of the Temple of the Green Tomb. Elite priest-kings were buried here with pearls, jade, and pottery. Nearby is Lamanai, the longest-occupied Mayan site in the world. The name means submerged crocodile in Yucatec Mayan. You’ll find plenty of carved crocs, and maybe a few living ones, too! You will also see three major pyramids, the elaborately carved Mask Temple, and a 16th Century Spanish church.
Hungry for more Mayan discovery? The UNESCO World Heritage Centre Tikal National Park is just across the border in Guatemala. A typical day trip from San Ignacio should be $150US or less, per person.
Belize Barrier Reef
Technically, it’s the Mesoamerican Reef. This is the largest coral reef in the Atlantic Ocean and northern hemisphere, and second largest barrier reef in the world! It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stretching more than 500 miles along the coast of five countries, from Mexico to Honduras.
In Belize, the reef kisses the shore in the north, angling out to about 25 miles off shore in the south. It’s home to 70 species of hard coral and 36 soft corals, 500 species of fish, and literally hundreds of invertebrate species. Maybe more; 90% of the reef has yet to be researched, and biologists estimate only 10% of the reef’s species have been cataloged.
With protected parks for diving and snorkeling, it’s no wonder the Belize Barrier Reef is the country’s top tourist destination, drawing nearly half of all visitors. Much of the reef is within the protected Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which includes the waters around Ambergris Caye, and popular snorkel sites Shark Ray Alley and Mexico Rocks. Because it is a protected area, you’ll need to book a boat and guide to get there.
Super Special Spots: Bacalar Chico & the Great Blue Hole
Another notable area for snorkeling is Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve. The UNESCO World Heritage Site sits on the northern end of Ambergris Caye, where an ancient Mayan canal turned the peninsula into an island. The park includes a 15,000-acre marine reserve, and 12,000 acres of land, and has a small museum with exhibits on the region’s history and biology. In the surrounding beach forest, you might spot one (or more!) of the six cat species native to Belize, or an endangered White-lipped Peccary.
Instead of being just a reef environment, Bacalar Chico is a salt marsh ecosystem, and supports an unusually high biodiversity. In addition to reef species, lucky visitors might spot dolphins and manatee! Within the reserve, is the Rocky Point, where the reef touches shore. It is home to the country’s largest nesting beach for Loggerhead and Green sea turtles, with a large number of Hawksbills, too.
Belize is also famous for the natural phenomenon known as The Great Blue Hole. That’s a romantic name for what is essentially a giant sinkhole, albeit one with UNESCO World Heritage status. Its deepest point is 407-feet down, and a network of caves features stalactites formed when the area was above sea level. Some think the caves may extend for miles inland. Surprisingly, there’s not much to see besides a big, dark hole, though the surrounding Lighthouse Reef is beautiful.
While there are many tour operators who can take you there, diving in the Great Blue Hole requires a special certification. The most dramatic views, though, are from the air. A good number air tours – by helicopter or airplane – are available from Belize City.
Island Life / Beach Life
If you’re going to Belize for the water, you’ll likely stay on one of the major islands, Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. They are great choices for proximity to the reef. Unfortunately, that’s also why they are not known for their beaches. Despite a lack of long, sandy beaches, Ambergris Caye is the most heavily promoted destination in the country. While there are a number of hotels and restaurants, you won’t find the plethora of name brand resorts common in other Caribbean destinations. You will find an array of water sports, and tours bound for both reef and ruins.
The Placencia Peninsula is the nation’s booming beach town, boasting the country’s only stretch of golden sand. Once you’ve had your fill of tranquil beaches, you can explore the peninsula’s nature reserves and Mayan ruins. The area is also known for its Kriol (or Creole) cuisine. Activities near Plecencia Town include banana farm tours, rain forest zip lines, and the Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve.
We haven’t forgotten about Punta Gorda! The country’s southernmost town is known as the “real” Belize. It is popular with expats for its easy, comfortable lifestyle, and with fisherman for deep sea fishing. Punta Gorda is the gateway to the southern highlands, and neighboring Guatemala. A bus ride from Belize City will take five to six hours, but flights are about $150 to $200.
We want to point out a few resources that were hugely helpful in learning about, and planning our trip to Belize:
- San Pedro Scoop, written by an American expat on Ambergris Caye, has tons of details about lodging, attractions, and life on the island and throughout the country.
- Belize Tourism Board is a wealth of information and inspiration for travelers.
- Belize.com has information on everything from travel and activities, to real estate and relocation, just in case Belize really sinks its hooks in you.
- Belize Bus & Travel Guide has a lot of in-country transportation information, including bus schedules.
- Maya Island Air and Tropic Air are the two airlines that service Belize.
- TravelLatte has used Viator when planning tours, activities, and cruise excursions. Several Belize activities are hightlighted below.
- Find hotels in Belize with hotels.com.
Ready to Go?
If you’ve been wondering where the best place in Belize is, we probably haven’t done a very good job of answering. We really like Ambergris Caye but, truth is, there isn’t A best place. Instead, we’ve given you some options to consider, depending on what you’re most interested in doing or seeing. Luckily, you can do it all from just about anywhere in the country.
So are you ready to go? Or maybe you’ve already been! Either way, we’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, even questions about Belize. Just leave us a comment! If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for our updates (All wham, no spam!) or sharing with your friends on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter with the buttons below. (A million thanks in advance!)
Where to Find More
Get acquainted with our favorite Central American destination with these posts:
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Belize has been on our travel wish list! Hard to decide what to see, multiple trips might be needed. Some ruins and snorkeling are a must though! Thanks for the tips!
We agree – multiple trips! We haven’t done even half of what we’d like to “in country,” and we didn’t even take our traditional lazy day of lounging by the pool there! There is plenty more to do besides reefs and ruins, too – we may need to do a part two. Which, of course, means we need to go back to Belize. Gosh darn… 😉 Thanks for reading, Cathy!
We have not been to Belize, or anywhere else in Central America. You article is inspiring me to go. Thanks for linking up this week, #wkendtravelinspiration!
Hi Jim – We think you guys would love it! The laid back atmosphere is nice, and there’s plenty of opportunity to explore the country, or just relax and enjoy. Being an English (mostly) speaking country makes it an easy introduction to Central America, too. We hope you decide to go! Thanks for the comment.
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The Blue Hole has been on my radar for a few years! Instead of snorkeling I think I would like to see it from the sky like the pic you took 🙂 The sanctuary looks lovely as well. Hope to see you this week on Fly Away Friday!
Hi Janine – We’ll be there, with more from Belize! We were excited by the idea of diving in the Great Blue Hole, until we did more research. Turns out, it’s a pretty technical dive, and doesn’t have a ton to see. From the air is the way to see it! Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you over on #FlyAwayFriday!
You sure know how to make a girl get excited about visiting Belize! The photos look absolutely amazing! Thanks for all the tips! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you again this week! xo
Hi Kana! If you’re excited now, wait until you read what we’ll be sharing next on #FlyAwayFriday! 🙂 Thanks for reading, and we’re glad you’re excited – it may be an up and coming destination (ish) but it has a lot to offer!
Great options, I’d have to do “Ruins & Reefs”. Looking forward to next week’s houseboat post!
Hi Shona – That houseboat adventure was so fun! It’s actually not ruins or reefs…maybe I should change the title. 😉 Thanks for reading! We promise, you’ll enjoy the next installment from Belize!
Thanks for the information, we are heading to Belize in November on a cruise and have very little knowledge about this area. Looks like snorkelling is a must! #feetdotravel
How’s that for good timing? The snorkeling is fantastic!! We’ll put up some video from our snorkeling in the coming weeks. If we had to pick between that and exploring ruins, we’d go for the snorkeling. But, if you do like Mayan archaeology, Belize is an amazing opportunity. Many sites are just now being excavated, so there are new discoveries quite often. Hope you have a great cruise, and good visit to Belize.
Oh wow, Belize looks absolutely stunning!! Do you know if there is a Zika-virus threat (like in Mexico)?
Hi Esther – Honestly, it has its less-than-stunning parts, being a developing country. For the most part, though, gorgeous! There is a threat of mosquito-borne infection. In fact, the health ministry has signage at the airport to help, and they strongly recommend repellents with DEET. The problem is worse inland, but even on the islands we ran into mosquitoes a few times. The Centers for Disease Control has a Level 2 Alert of Zika in Belize posted August 8, 2017. Good question!
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Belize looks like a destination where ancient culture and beautiful nature satisfy any traveler’s desire. Your post is very informative and a good guide to get around in Belize. I’d love the snorkeling part. Coming from the Seychelles, our last travel destination where the reefs predominantly died because of global warming, I’d love to see some living coral.
I loved visiting all the Mayan ruins in Belize, they really are a highlight of the country. If I had to pick a favourite it would have to be Caracol, it’s just an immense site. Love this overview of the country and it’s got me wanting to return and see spots like Plascencia and Punta Gorda for sure #theweeklypostcard
Hi David – Thanks for the comment. Just goes to prove that there is always more to explore, even in a small country! And Belize is an intriguing one, with all of the ruins plus the reef. This was one trip where research was fun and frustrating: you quickly realize there’s no way to see everything you want to in just a week or two. Then, when you get there, you find even more! So we are eager to go back, too.
Wow, thanks for sharing, Belize are on my bucket list for quite some time now and your tips are more than welcome. Plus your beautiful photos make me wanna visit them now 🙂
Hi Urska! There are some places we visit that are a joy to share, and Belize is one of them! Belize really hadn’t been on our bucket list, but the reef was. The more we learned about the country, the more we knew we had to go. We would encourage you not to wait too long to visit. The country is getting more mainstream attention, and we feel like it won’t be too long before large-scale development starts moving in. No time like the present, right? Thanks for your comment, Urska.
OK so I want to visit Belize as I heard it was amazing, but I didn’t actually know just how amazing until now! It literally has everything … you now I’m a scuba diver so the underwater world is phenomenal but I didn’t know about the Mayan ruins. Fabulously educational post, pinned for when I visit and thanks for sharing! #feetdotravel
Hi Angie & Sy – That’s exactly why we wanted to do this post: We’ve talked to several people who didn’t realize the ‘other side’ of Belize! Many people who don’t dive aren’t aware of the reef – and even if you just go snorkeling, it’s amazing! It will have you hooked, for sure. And those who go to see the reef and the Great Blue Hole often aren’t aware of the ruins, or the wildlife sanctuaries. (There’s another part we barely touched on!) Needless to say, we were very excited about all the country offers, and are eager to explore more. Good to hear from you vagabonds! We know how precious your internet time is, so we deeply appreciate that you spent it with us! 🙂
I have a fascination with the Mayan ruins ever since I traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula. I think I would enjoy visiting Belize. The combination of beautiful beaches and Mayan ruins seems perfect. Thank you for sharing all this useful information about Belize. #TheWeeklyPostcard
We know what you mean! Although we covered the Mayans in school, they really came to life for us in the Yucatan. Now we’re building a sort of ‘hit list’ of Mayan sites! Belize seems to have more than its fair share, for sure. Without the numbers that visit Chichen Itza, for example, you’re more able to explore the ruins. If you’re a fan, Belize definitely needs to be on your bucket list. Thanks for reading, Anda!
I want to go to Belize so badly!!! Nice to learn about other things to do besides the Blue Hole! #TheWeeklyPostcard
Funny thing is, after having been, I think we want to go back even more than we wanted to go in the first place! We know you are almost literally a world away, but definitely go if you get the chance. It feels like the country is on the cusp of bigger developments swooping in, so go soon to enjoy the smaller, quiet nature of the country. (Although, not quite as quiet if you go during winter – but still less visited than some of its neighbors.) Thanks for the comment, Lolo!
So awesome Rob! I went to Caracol and Cahal Pech when I went to Belize. We took the opportunity to go to TIkal in Guatemala. That entire area feels like a lost world. Tons of interesting sites in a not so well comprehended area (or even country). #WeekendWanderlust
Oooh – we didn’t venture over to Tikal, but would love to! You’re right about it feeling like a lost world. Without so much development – or people – its easy to imagine being back in Mayan times. We definitely want to go explore more! Thanks for your comment, Ruth!
Wow this is a brilliantly detailed post guys, well done! Packed full of useful information for visiting Belize, I now seriously want to go. The Mayan Empire is fascinating, I’d love to see some more sites, especially after we visited Mexico earlier this year. And that Great Blue Hole, I can’t stop staring at that photo, it’s unbelievable, I guess you really need to see that from the air to fully appreciate it. Oh and your reef photos are great too, love a bit of snorkelling 🙂
Hi Garth (and Phil!) – If the Mayan bug bit you in Mexico, you’d be ecstatic in Belize. 🙂 SO many sites! And, unlike most of the Mexico sites, you can get real ‘up close and personal’ with them, without tons of people around. We loved the snorkeling; really, that was the focus of this trip for us. (You’ll see that in some upcoming posts.) We would love to spend more time exploring the towns, too – by getting out to see things every day, we didn’t have so much time to do that. Another reason to go back! Thanks for the comment, gents!
Belize sounds like my kind of place 🙂 Ancient civilisations like the Mayans and the Aztecs have always fascinated me and that pyramid looks magical. I can’t believe it’s the tallest building in Belize though! My husband and I dive a lot and we’ve of course heard about the famous Blue Hole. It must’ve been incredible seeing in person!
At first, we were really surprised to hear that an ancient Mayan pyramid was the tallest building in the country. Having thought about it, though…given the hurricanes, and the lack of dense cities, it’s not so surprising. It’s still a fun fact, though! Lots of diving opportunity all along the coast, but yeah – the Great Blue Hole is incredible. Although I don’t think I’d ever go, the caves down there are very intriguing. That’s a technical dive we’ll leave to the experts. 😉 Thanks for your comment, Michelle!
Wow, I am ready to book my trip now! I would love to visit all the places you mentioned including crossing the border into Guatemala to see Tikal. Plus do my favorite, enjoying some beach time. How many days would be great to visit and see the pyramids and have beach time? I pinned this for later use! Great photos! Thanks for sharing ? #feetdotravel
Hi Stephanie – Glad we helped talk you into visiting Belize! Our plan of attack was just one location or tour each day, and then relax with some beach or pool time, or go explore town. Because most of the snorkel tours are half-day, that works well. Dive tours, and tours of the ruins are usually longer – you’ll still have free time in the afternoon, just not as much. You might want to plan a beach day if you’re mostly seeing the ruins. You can see a lot in a week, but we’d stay ten days or longer if you can. Hope you get to go soon!!
I was in Belize once – and that was as a cruise ship port so I would love to go back and stay for a longer period of time. We snorkeled the reef – and it was awesome. In fact, all that I saw was lovely. But definitely have to give it more time than a few hour stop.
Hi Jill – like most cruise stops, huh? Just enough to give you a taste and make you want to go back for more! The reef stops are beautiful, even if you just swim around for a while. Just gorgeous. Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to return and see some of the ruins, and more of the reef! Thanks for your comment!
Yes lots of good reasons to go to Belize! I would love to do some snorkeling and then see the ruins. I hadn’t thought about doing a helicopter ride but I vet it is really amazing to see the Blue Hole. #TheWeeklyPostcard.
You already have a plan – now it’s just a matter of getting there! 😉 There are both plane and helicopter tours that fly over the Great Blue Hole and some of the Cayes. For some reason, the helicopter tours we saw were much more expensive! But still, what a great way to see it! We also found airplanes that you can jump out of over the Great Blue Hole. That’s not happening. At least, not for us! #ChickenRob. 😉 Thanks for commenting, Anisa!