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!
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!)
Come back next week for our favorite activity in Belize…on a houseboat!