Right on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, this little tropical country is a fascinating blend of creole culture with Spanish, Amerindian and even German influences. Whether you’re interested in a few relaxing days by the beach or an exciting adventure through the tropical jungle, Belize will surely satisfy your every need.
This fascinating location just south of Mexico boasts tropical weather and one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Though Belize’s origins date back to thousands of years ago, this region was colonized for the first time by English settlers and pirates in the 17th century, known as the Baymen. During the 19th century the British Empire declared this region a British Crown Colony and it remained under the British influence for over a century, when, in 1981, Belize became independent.
This beautiful country boasts a rich variety of wildlife thanks to its tropical climate and a very low population density. More than 60 percent of Belize’s surface is covered by forest and just 20 percent is covered by cultivated land, cities and villages. That makes the perfect environment for one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, with hundreds of animal species and one of the largest barrier reefs in the world.
With such a marine diversity, it’s no wonder that Belize is one of the top destinations for scuba divers, snorkelers and other water sports enthusiasts.
The capital of Belize is Belmopan, though the largest city is Belize City. Until 1970 this was the actual capital of the state, but it was almost completely destroyed during Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Because of that the Government of Belize was moved 50 miles inland from Belize City, in Belmopan. However, the former capital is still the most important economic and industrial center in Belize, not to mention on of the most popular destinations in the entire country.
1. Blue Hole
The most famous landmark in Belize is without a doubt the Blue Hole. A 300 meters wide vertical cave just off the coast of Belize City, the Great Blue Hole, as locals call, is a diver’s paradise. Over 120 meters deep, this cave was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago and it is believed to be one of the largest blue holes in the world.
Nature enthusiasts, who can also practice scuba diving, love to spend their holidays here, discovering the large variety of fish species including the Caribbean reef shark. Some lucky divers were able to spot hammerheads sharks and bull sharks in this area.
The actual hole is surrounded by an island of coral called Lighthouse Reef, which makes the entire area look more like a lagoon. When the water is crystal clear, which is most of the times, tourists can admire the entire underwater universe form a boat, including some 10 meters long stalactites and stalagmites that are right below the surface.
Experience divers can venture as deep as they can in order to discover all the amazing cave formations hidden underwater. It is said that the deeper you go, the water gets even clearer and all the incredible formations can easily be admired.
The famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau was the first one who discovered the Great Blue Hole of Belize, and he was so taken aback by its beauty, that he immediately declared it one of the best scuba diving sites in the world. That is still true to this day and because of that, thousands of tourists gather in Belize every year in order to have this exciting and wonderful experience.
Those who don’t have a scuba diving permit can admire this breath taking natural wonder from above. With just a few dollars, tourists can rent small airplanes and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the entire Blue Whole in all its magnificent glory.
2. Belize City
Though it is no longer the capital of Belize, Belize City is actually the largest metropolis in the entire country. What is more, the city is the economic and industrial hub of the country and also the largest port.
This city was funded by British colonists in the 17th century, but the actual settlement dates back hundreds of years before, when it was a Maya city called Holzuz. Nowadays, Belize City still maintains its old, colonial charm with cramped little streets and small houses.
Because of it less than advantageous location, right on a small peninsula protruding into the sea, Belize City is always in danger because natural disasters like flooding, hurricanes or fires. The most serious one recorded was hurricane Hattie which, in 1961, wiped out almost the entire city. That is when the authorities decided to move the Belize Government in the more secluded city of Belmopan.
However, Belize City is a great vacation destination, especially for tourists who love to spend their time off at the beach. This is the most popular city in the entire Central America. Since it is a former British colony, Belize’s main language is English, which makes it an even more convenient destination for most tourists.
Getting around the city is very easy, especially by foot. What is more, tourists are encouraged to explore the surroundings of the city either by hiring a boat or a small airplane.
The actual city is divided into two areas – the North Side, which is safer and has most of the city’s touristic attractions and the South side. These two areas are connected by three bridges – the BelChina Bascule Bridge, also known as the Belize-China Bridge, the BelCan Bridge, known as Belize-Canada Bridge and the original Belize City Swing Bridge at the mouth of Haulover Creek, which is also the only manually operated bridge in the world that is still functional.
One of the most important landmarks in Belize City is the St. John’s Cathedral, the first cathedral to be built by the colonists here. Dating back to 1812, St. John’s Cathedral’s extraordinary structure has survived many hurricanes and floods, throughout the centuries.
In order to learn more about this great city’s culture and history, tourists must take a tour of the Museum of Belize. A former prison during the British occupation, this perfectly restored building houses many displays which depicts the rich culture of this country from its over 300 year history to the thousands of years old Maya legacy.
However, a stroll through the quaint little streets of the former capital will also give you a closer look into the traditions and cultures of Belizeans. The best place to experience that is definitely Battlefield Park, a narrow park which is lined with street vendors selling tropical fruits and traditional food. No matter your budget for this trip, the best way to experience the local cuisine is here. From traditional rice and beans, to a large variety of tacos, tamales and numerous types of desserts, street food sold here is a far more delicious option than any other restaurant in the city
For those who love to indulge in some retail therapy while on vacation, the best shops are on Albert Street and in Fort George area. Here tourist can find small fashion boutiques, jewelry stores and many gifts shops, all at very reasonable prices.
With such an impressive Mayan legacy, it’s no wonder that one of the most visited places in Belize is the ancient Mayan town of Xunantunich. About 80 miles west of Belize City, in the Cayo region of the country, this 9th century ruins are perched atop of a hill overlooking the Mopan River. The site consists of 25 palaces and temples, and it will take an entire day just to walk around them.
In Maya language, the name Xunantunich means “the maiden of the rock” or “the stone woman” and the site used to be a ceremonial center from the Classic Period. The name “stone woman” also refers to a local legend about a woman who locals belie to have inhabited the site at the end of the 19th century. According to local lore, the woman was dressed in white, had glowing red eyes and appeared mostly in front of one of the largest structures on the site, “El Castillo”, where she would just disappear into the stone walls of the temple, when people would try to follow her.
Xunantunich was explored for the first time in the 17th century by a British medical officer. Since them a large number of Maya artifacts were discovered on the grounds of this site, but most of them were lost throughout the years. Since then a number of archeologists have tackled numerous excavations, some of them unearthing different statues, stone structures and friezes.
The main part of the site spreads on about one square miles of land and it includes more than 26 temples and palaces. Xunantunich is divided into four sections, most of them lined with small houses.
The most popular structure of Xunantunich is “El Catillio” temple, a 130 feet tall structure, the second tallest one in the entire country (after Caracol archeological site), which is located right in the middle of the archeological site. The structure has a pyramid shape and, near the peak, it’s decorated with several friezes depicting celestial phenomenon, the tree of life and the birth and life of several Mayan gods.
Though it is usually considered the main temple of Xunantunich, El Castillo is actually a complex of several structures including a shrine and an administrative center for the ancient rulers.
Tourists who dare to venture all the way to the top of El Castillo will be rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views in the entire country of Belize. What is more, during sunny days, visitors can see the entire Cayo District with the surrounding jungle, the Maya Mountains and even the Guatemalan Peten District, near the border.
Usually visitors start their trip from the village of San Ignacio where several different organized trips are offered to curios tourists.
Xunantunich is surrounded by lush jungle with a wide variety of animal species. That is why the best way to explore the site is by foot. That way tourists can get the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful wilderness and even spot howler monkeys along the way running among the ruins.
4. Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
Belize has some of the most diverse ecosystems in the entire world, and more than half of its land is covered by forest, which means many parts of the jungle were declared wildlife sanctuary. Nature enthusiasts have the opportunity to discover the rich wilderness housed in the Crooked Tre Sanctuary.
A 16,400-acre labyrinth of lagoons, savannas and creeks, this park is one of the most beloved destinations for bird watchers and conservationists. This area is particularly popular during the dry season, when large populations of migratory birds find refuge on the wetlands of this park.
About 30 miles away from Belize City, the park is over 300 years old and houses rare bird species like black-collared hawks, chestnut-bellied herons and the impressive jabiru storks, which is the largest flying bird in the Americas.
However the Crooked Tree Sanctuary also houses several species of iguanas, howler monkeys, turtles and crocodiles. Most of these species can easily be spotted throughout the entire area of the wildlife sanctuary.
The best way to explore this natural park is by hiring a canoe, that way you’ll be able to see up close all these incredible species. Though bird watching is a popular activity throughout the year, during the dry season, between November and May, is when literally thousands of birds flock in the area taking advantage of the shallow water and easy food resources.
Here, visitors can also spot cashew trees which grow in large numbers throughout the park. What is more, local communities use cashews in winemaking and even some local dishes like a much flavored stew. Since this tree grows in abundance in these parts, the villages around the Crooked Tree Sanctuary celebrate the Cashew Festival every May.
Another popular Maya archeological site is Caracol, about 25 miles south of Xunantunich site. Located right at the foothills of the Maya Mountains, Caracol is over 500 meters above sea level and covers about 50.000 acres, which is larger than the entire area of Belize City, thus making it the most extensive Mayan site in Belize, and one of the largest one in the world.
The site, which dates back to 1200 BC, was discovered by a local in 1937, while trying to find new mahogany trees to exploit. Then, British archeologists initiated several excavations in the area, discovering 40 stone monuments.
Nowadays, there are over 260 structures per square kilometer, which makes this site one of the largest ancient Maya cities in history. It is estimated that, at one point, Caracol housed more than 150.000 people. The name Caracol is a modern name derived from Spanish meaning snail shell, after the winding road that leads to the site. In Maya language, the name of this area is translated by “Three-Hills Water”.
There are several monuments worth seeing throughout the entire site, but the largest and most impressive one is the pyramid of Caana, or “Sky Palace”. This temple is the tallest (141 feet) and largest man made structure in Belize. Believed to have been completed in 800 A.D., Caana houses four palaces and three temples. From the top of the pyramid, tourists get to admire another impressive 360 degrees view over the entire jungle surrounding the site.
Apart from this structure, Caracol houses about 35,000 known structures and over 100 tombs.
Visitors should make sure they start their trip early. The site lies deep in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, and the only access road to the site snakes around the lush jungle, from the Chaa Creek. If they start their journey before sunrise, visitors will get the rare opportunity to spot jaguars, tapirs and ocelots while driving through the jungle towards the site.
6. Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is the largest island in the country, right in the northernmost waters of Belize. This is the largest of several islands that can be found in this area of the Caribbean Sea. Ambergris Caye is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belize and one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Usually, tourists in search for large beaches and quiet resorts choose this island for their vacation.
The first inhabitants of this island were a Maya community which used to live here in Pre-Columbian times. Since then, there were very few man made modifications to this area, which is basically a ring of sand surrounding a mangrove swamp. The only town on Ambergris Caye is San Pedro alongside several villages and resorts.
The island became a top touristic destination four decades ago, but, despite its growing popularity, it has remained a largely untouched place with small lodges, quaint shops and a very relaxed atmosphere.
Ambergris Caye is crossed by three main roads and several smaller, unpaved ones connecting them. The best way to explore the area is by renting a bike or simply walking. The most popular middle of transportation for locals is golf carts.
Though there aren’t many landmarks on the island, the breath taking white sand beaches are reason enough to spend at least a few days in this paradise. If you’re tired of lying back on the beach, then a more adventurous option would be snorkeling or scuba diving around the stunning Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the longest one in the Western hemisphere and the second largest one in the world, right off the coast.
The island has no high rise hotels or large supermarkets, and the beat food is usually found at street vendors. Most tourists enjoy immersing themselves completely in local culture and traditions and for that they even try their hand at fishing and cooking their own catch. Barbequing on the beach is also a favorite pass time and the prefect circumstance to socialize with locals and find out more about this island’s exciting history and traditions.
7. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife
The first jaguar reservation in the world, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife is known for its incredible mountain views, numerous waterfalls and, most of all, its rich bio diversity. Nature enthusiasts and conservationists flock to this national park in order to get the opportunity to see up close jaguars, tapirs, gibnuts, howler monkeys, snakes and over 300 of bird species.
Just like most areas in Belize, Cockscomb Basin was inhabited by Maya population since 10,000 BCE, but the area was rediscovered as recently as the end of the 19th century. Most of the forest is largely untouched to this day and covers over 150 square miles of tropical forest at the foothills of the highest mountain in the country, the 3,675 feet tall Victoria Peak.
Though the entire jungle in Belize houses many jaguars, this area is completely dedicated to conserve the natural habitat of this rare species. In the early 1980’s the alarming decrease in jaguar population all over the globe raised many concerns, but several scientists discovered a large number of these cats in this area. Therefore, in 1986, Cockscomb Basin Reserve was declared a wildlife sanctuary with a “no hunting” decree in order to protect the jaguar population and all the other species housed in this area.
Most visitors are drawn to Cockscomb Basin for the promise of actually coming face to face with these magnificent cats. However, they are elusive animals so the chances to actually see one are quite small. Nonetheless, visitors can discover signs of recent jaguar activity. Even if it can’t easily be seen, the jaguar population here has reached impressive numbers, hard to encounter in other reservations throughout the globe.
Apart from an impressive population of jaguars, the park also houses a large number of pumas, ocelots, brocket dears, and otters.
Cockscomb Basin is also a true paradise for birdwatchers. More than 300 bird species live here and they can certainly be spotted with great ease along the carefully marked trails. Among the most popular are the macaw, the great curossow and keel-billed toucan.
The actual reservation is located about 20 miles south from the city of Dangriga. The only way to enter the reservation is through the Maya Center Village where visitors must pay a small entrance fee. From there, after a 6 miles drive on a dirt road or a 2 hours hike, the actual park begins.
The area has several marked trails, most of which will take a few hours to complete. The most difficult one is the trail that leads to Victoria Peak, which can only be hiked during dry season with a local guide, and it usually takes four days to complete.
The national park also has several beautiful waterfalls just waiting to be discovered among the rich vegetation. Hikers are particularly interested in seeing as many of these natural wonders as possible. During dry season, these oases are the perfect spot for swimming and taking a long deserved break while hacking for hours through the deep jungle.
8. Belize Zoo
One of the most popular attractions in Belize is, without a doubt, Belize Zoo. Just 29 miles outside of Belize City, this Zoological Garden and Tropical Education Center is home for more than 150 animals all native to this country.
The park is over 29 acres of almost intact tropical forest with lush and dense vegetation, sporadically pierced by gravel trails.
The Zoo was established in 1983 as a better home for animals which have been used in making documentaries about tropical forests. At first it was just a little Zoo which quickly developed into one of the largest educational centers in Central America. Nowadays, there are over 45 species of animals, many of them orphaned or rescued and rehabilitated. None of the animals housed at Belize Zoo have been taken from the wild. Each year over 54,000 visitors step through the gates of this park excited to learn more about the incredible wildlife which Belize has become so famous for.
Among the animals housed here, visitors will be able to admire rare species like jaribu storks, scarlet macaws, jaguars, margays, and black howler monkeys.
One of the many interesting tours that are offered by Belize Zoo is the nocturnal one. That way, visitors are able to observe up close the activity of nocturnal and crepuscular animals like tapirs, crocodiles or peccaries.
However, the main attraction of Belize Zoo is a little fellow named Junior Buddy. A young jaguar born and raised at the zoo, Junior Buddy learned several tricks in return for treats and tourists have the opportunity to safely enter a cage situated in Junior Buddy’s exhibit for a once in a lifetime interaction with a jaguar. Needless to say, this is the most popular attraction for children and adults alike.
Belize Zoo is not just a simple Zoological Park, is also an education center which focuses on educating locals and tourists about the amazing wildlife in Belize and how to protect and conserve this country’s natural resources and habitats. In fact, almost half of the visitors are pupils, usually on school trips meant to teach them more about the conservation efforts of the scientists and zoo keepers who are working tirelessly at this Zoo.
9. Actun Tunichil Muknal
Apart from its rich Maya culture, incredible jungles and breath taking beaches, Belize is also known for its large number of caves. The most important and impressive one is Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known as Xibalba or, shorter, ATM. The cave is in Cayo District, not too far from the city of San Ignacio.
The cave is also a large Maya archeological site boasting a large number of priceless stoneware, skeletons and ceramic. The most interesting artefact hidden in Actun Tunichil Muknal is the skeleton of a teenage girl, most likely a sacrifice victim, whose bones have been calcified so much so that nowadays it looks like they are made out of crystals, sparkling in the artificial light; thus its name “The Crystal Maiden”. In fact, most of the artefacts that are inside the cave have been calcified and embedded into the cave’s floor.
The Maya people transformed several rock formations deep inside the cave into altars for different offerings, decorating them with silhouettes of animals and people.
The cave was discovered in 1992 and almost a decade later it was opened to the public. There are only guided tours available, and cameras are banned because distracting tourists dropped them on thousands of year sold skeletons, irreparably damaging them.
The local guides are very diligent into emphasizing the eco-touristic side of this incredible attraction. What is more, visitors are required to take off their shoes once they reach the higher and dryer levels of the cave in order to minimize their impact on the surrounding areas.
Though the cave is quite close to the city of San Ignacio, there is only one road that leads to the entrance of the cave, right through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
In order to explore Actun Tunichil Muknal visitors need to be properly prepared. Since it is a wet cave visitors must swim into the mouth and then make their way through water that can reach their chest. Afterwards, visitors are required to climb through a maze of dry chambers which eventually lead to a larger chamber called “the Cathedral”, filled with skeletons and artefacts. Surprisingly, this is where the real adventure begins. The 50 meters wide chamber is basically a natural museum with some of the most secluded and rare artefacts in the world. Another climb to the stone sepulcher will take visitors to the site where the Crystal Maiden lies. It takes about one and a half hour to reach the Cathedral, and visitors are warned that they must stay alongside their guides the entire time.
Apart from all these treasures, Actun Tunichil Muknal also has some inhabitants of its own. Bats, large freshwater crabs, catfish and many other tropical fish are popular inhabitants here, while lucky visitors might even spot otter or agouties hiding in the chambers of this cave.
Since the site is still largely undiscovered and it houses so many ancient artefacts, is no wonder that stories about ghosts and spirits of old Maya gods have appeared in the past couple of decades since Actun Tunichil Muknal was discovered. Make sure you spend some times in the villages close to the cave in order to find out all the ghost stories about the mysterious maiden hidden deep in the cave.
10. Placencia Peninsula
Tourists who want to immerse themselves in the local culture of Belize should definitely take into consideration the Placencia Peninsula. A dazzling stretch of land in the southern part of Belize, Placencia Peninsula boasts 16 miles of white sandy beaches right by the Caribbean Sea.
This charming 16-miles long narrow peninsula has become a popular touristic destination in the past two decades. Before then, little towns here were simply sleepy fishing villages, with very few tourists.
Now, this strip of land offers some of the most dream-like views that will surely satisfy even the pickiest visitors. At the beginning, the peninsula was inhabited by English Puritans during the 17th century, and later Spaniards rediscovered this narrow stretch of land naming it Punta Placentia, or Pleasant Point. By the 20th century the peninsula became a popular touristic destination thanks to its ideal location between the emerald blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the beautiful Placencia Lagoon.
In 2001, a hurricane severely destroyed most of the villages in Placencia Peninsula, but that only inspired developers into building more hotels, thus greatly increasing the real estate value of all villages on the peninsula.
Nowadays, the entire peninsula has a few thousands of permanent inhabitants, but that doesn’t mean that the area is mostly abandoned. Thousands of tourists swarm the breath taking beaches every year especially during dry season.
One of the best parts of this place is the fact that, because it’s so small it can be easily explored by foot or biking. In fact, there are only three actual villages – Placiencia town, Maya Beach and Seine Bight. Whether you’re interested in the more luxurious resort of Seine Bight or the laid back southern area where the busy cafes and shops can be found, the peninsula is a little universe on its own just waiting to be discovered.
Despite the busy resorts that were created on the sore of Placencia Peninsula, the area still has kept it old time charm mostly because of friendly locals who strive to keep their traditions and culture intact. This peninsula is the epitome of the entire country of Belize with an eclectic mix of Latinos, Maya, East Indian, Creoles and Chinese, alongside European and North American immigrants. That is why the best way to discover this side of the region is by venture out of the touristic spots and finds the actual gems of the peninsula – the little shops, street vendors and bustling markets, where you can discover by yourself everything this local culture has to offer.
However, the main reason for which tourists endeavor to this little corner of the world are the gorgeous beaches. The peninsula is lined with large white sand beaches that look more like a post card than an actual place. In fact, these are the most beautiful beaches in the entire country and the weather will certainly not disappoint either. The temperatures are almost perfect throughout the year with just a slight breeze.
Tourists who are interested in some retail therapy can stroll along the Sidewalk, which also happens to be the world narrowest street, where they can find the best gift shops and boutiques.
Between April and July, visitors have the unique opportunity to swim alongside some of the largest fishes in the sea, the Belize Whale Sharks. They are easy to spot around Gladden Spit and the experience of swimming with these ginormous gentle creatures is truly unforgettable.
If that’s not enough adrenaline, tourists can also take guided tours through the jungle nearby in search for howler monkeys, turtles and crocodiles. The Placencia Lagoon is also a gorgeous natural landmark that should not be missed. The lagoon houses several interesting species of rays, dolphins and manatees.