Belize - Reef and Rainforest Adventures in the Mayan Heartland
Formerly known as ‘British Honduras’, Belize is a green jewel of a country. Wedged between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south, the interior is largely covered with rainforest. Belize offers a veritable naturalist’s paradise.
Unlike many other Central American countries, Belize recognized early on that its natural diversity is its greatest treasure. Although a small country, much of it has not been developed but is kept as reserves and national parks. The topography ranges from low mountainous to lowland rainforests and swampy grasslands, savannah, and lagoons near the coast in the north of the country.
Belize prides itself of having the second largest Barrier Reef in the world. It skirts the whole length of the country and supports a vast number of patch reefs, shoals and a beadlike chain of over 1,000 islands known as ‘Cayes’. Huge expanses of mangrove forests protect most of the coast and much of the Cayes. The Cayes are quite unique and offer a great base for divers, snorkelers, marine biologists and beach bums alike. Three large coral atolls, which lie outside the barrier reef are a mecca for divers. The continental shelf ends dramatically and the ocean beyond drops by over 10,000 feet.
The central interior, with its rainforest covered limestone mountains riddled with caves, rivers, and waterfalls, offers adventures of a different kind. Hiking, riding, nocturnal guided nature walks, spelunking and canoeing are just a few possibilities. For botanist, naturalists, and birdwatchers the vast natural diversity of this country is a treasure to behold.
Archeologists and history buffs can also enjoy many a field day exploring ancient Maya ruins and temples. For adventurers the Maya ruins of Belize hold a special attraction – their remoteness and inaccessibility has kept development at bay. The journey to get to them is often an adventure in itself, although there are also some that are reasonably easy to get to, such Altun Ha, just outside Belize City, or Xunantunich and Cahal Pech, in the vicinity of San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border. Others, like Caracol or Lamanai, are more difficult to access. To visit Caracol, the largest Mayan site in Belize, it is best to book a day tour, while Lamanai can best be visited while staying at Lamanai Outpost Lodge, which is right next door.
The cultural mixture of Belize is unlike any in Central America. Once a British colony, the English influence is still quite apparent in some areas. English is one of the official languages, although the soft Creole accent makes it uniquely Caribbean. Those, who feel linguistically challenged when traveling in Spanish speaking parts of Latin America, will feel relieved that they will be readily understood in Belize, even if English is their only language. Ethnically, Belize is home to Mayans, Garifunas, Creoles, and Mestizos as well as a significant community of Mennonites, who have settled mostly in the northern regions of Orange Walk District and Cayo District. And there are also groups of Chinese, Indian, and Lebanese populations, as well as North American and European immigrants from various countries – truly a remarkable mix considering the small population size of only about 390 000 inhabitants.
Tikal – Temple of the Jaguar[/caption]Belize is one of the most important centers of Mayan civilization – perhaps even THE most important one. The proximity to the coast with a good river system to the interior certainly would have given it some strategic importance. Fact is that there are more Mayan sites per square mile in Belize than in any other Central American country. Over 600 sites have been discovered so far – and new ruins, which had long been swallowed by the jungle, are continuously being discovered. A stela found in the 1990th informs us that Caracol, Belize’s biggest Mayan City, won a major battle against Tikal, its rival to the north, which up until then had always been regarded as the most important of all Mayan sites. Due to lack of funding, most of Belize’s archaeological sites remain quite undeveloped, which adds a great sense of explorer’s excitement when visiting these places. Many are not open to the public at all, as digs are still going on. Others are quite inaccessible – another factor that has contributed to leaving the spirits of the ancient Mayans in peace, where elsewhere they have been chased out of their ancestral abodes by the glowing lights and fanfare of modern-day commercialism. However, those that can be visited cannot fail to give a strong impression of this once mighty civilization.
Where to stay
Belize is a popular destination, especially for North American visitors. The fact that English is spoken and that this tiny country so ideally combines beautiful coasts, amazing snorkeling, diving, and fishing as well as fabulous rainforest adventures, wildlife, and Mayan mysteries all within fairly easy reach, make it a number one destination for get-away holidays and short breaks, for those who enjoy slightly more active and adventurous holidays than the nearby Mayan Riviera to the north has to offer.
Belize has a wide range of accommodation options, from very simple to extremely luxurious. The most popular beach destinations are Ambergris Caye, the largest of the Cayes, Caye Caulker, which is more popular with a more laid back crowd and the central coast, from Dangriga to Placencia, which has become quite the ‘hotel zone’ along the coast. We offer Hamanasi Beach Resort in this region, which is located in Hopkins but is set a little bit apart from the other hotels in that area. Apart from that, there are also some beautiful all-inclusive resorts out in the Cayes, such as Turneffe Flats, which let you forget about the outside world altogether. For those who enjoy a more active, off the beaten track adventure, we offer fabulous sea-kayaking tours in the southern Cayes, Lighthouse Reef, and Glover’s Reef. Some even combine with a couple of days on the mainland.
Inland, the most popular area is the central region between Belmopan and the Guatemalan border. Here, you’ll find a number of great jungle lodges, such as Caves Branch or Pook’s Hill, which offer classic activities such as visiting the ATM cave, nature walks or archeological tours. Closer to San Ignacio there are also some great lodges such as Table Rock Lodge, hidden in the jungle and overlooking the Macaw River.
More off the beaten track lies Lamanai Outlook Post, situated on the shore of a lagoon, right next to Lamanai Ruins. This is a great option for those seeking to combine comfort and adventure, and particularly great for birders.
Even more off the beaten track, in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve of the Maya Mountains, we offer the beautiful and exclusive Hidden Valley Inn. But by far the least visited region of the country is the deep south, which has preserved its Mayan heritage to a greater extent than any other region of Belize. In this region we offer Cotton Tree Lodge, which is a beautiful lodge, a few kilometers inland, where visitors can not only experience the beautiful remote jungle and Mayan sites in that region, but also visit native communities and learn much about the Mayan culture and way of life, participate in native cooking classes or learn about the process of making chocolate.
Belize has a small international airport (Philip Goldson International Airport, BZE), which receives international flights from the USA and some regional neighboring countries. The airport lies about 20min outside of Belize City. Other towns in the country are serviced by small aircraft and only have airstrips. Many domestic flights depart from the international airport, but some depart from the domestic airport (Belize City Municipal Airport, TZE), which is located almost in Belize City itself.
International Airlines that fly to Belize: American Airlines, Copa Airlines, Delta, TACA, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and U.S. Airways provide non-stop flights to BZE from Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City and Miami in the US and Cancun/Mexico, Flores/Guatemala, San Salvador/El Salvador, La Ceiba, San Pedro Sula, and Tegucigalpa/Honduras as well as Panama City/Panama.
Upon departure, international visitors must pay a departure tax at the airport, which currently (2018) is US$37.50.
By air: All areas are serviced by short and inexpensive hopper flights and hotels will pick you up and return you to the airstrip or take you directly to another destination.
Domestic Flights are handled by Tropic Air (TA) and Maya Island Air (MIA).
By car: Like in any other country, it is possible to rent a car in Belize and find your own way around. However, it is not always as easy as reading the maps and aligning what you see to the actual territory can be a challenge. Many roads are not paved and become little more than washed out river beds after the rainy season, making it necessary to opt for a 4×4 if you want to venture off the major highways. We don’t offer self-drives in Belize as we feel that there is no need to take the risk (damage to the car, theft, robbery on lonely roads) as getting around with the hopper flights, or with the hotel’s own shuttle service is a much better option.
To get to the Cayes: To go to Ambergris Caye you can take a short flight or the water taxi from the pier in Belize City. All Cayes are serviced by water taxi. The southern Cayes can be accessed via Dangriga.
By bus: There are basic bus services that run throughout the country, but schedules change frequently, so always ask locally for up to date information.
Belize uses Belizean Dollars (BZ$) which has a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar at BZ$ 2 = US$ 1.
Belize lies in the same time zone as Wisconsin or Arkansas (CET -6 GMT).
English is the official language but Spanish and Creole are also commonly spoken.
Belize uses 110V AC and the same plugs as the US.
National Parks & Protected Areas
Find out more about Belize’s protected areas at Belize Audubon Society