Belize may only be the size of the state of Massachusetts, it is large in character and diversity. The incredible barrier reef – the world’s second-largest – beautiful beaches, and lush jungles draw more and more visitors each year as people discover this relatively untouched island gem.
It’s the 1,400 Mayan ruins, however, that continue to amaze as visitors come to explore one of our oldest and most incredible civilizations.
Belize, once called British Honduras, is an island off the coast of Central America south of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was the last British island colony to gain its independence, although it is still a member of the Commonwealth. Belmopan has been its capital since 1961, following severe hurricane damage to the previous capital, Belize City. The entire island is 8,867 square miles in size.
More than many Caribbean islands, Belize has a history steeped in South America, with half the population of mixed Spanish and Mayan descent. This island is very much Mayan territory, made up of rugged mountains to the south as it spreads toward the ocean with more than 170 miles of beautiful coastline. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef in the world and is surrounded by lesser islands called cayes.
The Mayas who lived here were a part of a major civilization that spanned thousands of years. Mayan society erected great buildings within organized societies with millions of people at a time when much of the known world was still hunter/gatherer territory. Columbus was the Mayas’ first contact with Europeans as England began to establish settlements. Mayan presence can still be felt in the many major ruins that are Belize’s major tourist destination. By the time Columbus and his friends arrived, much of the great Mayan society had deteriorated, probably as a result of natural disasters.
The descendants of the old Mayan culture make up much of modern Belize and have kept alive many of the ancient cultures. Most of them live in traditional fishing and farming villages and grow Mayan staples such as corn and cacao, both of which find their way in plenty of local dishes.
One Mayan tradition that has survived and has become accepted by much of the modern medical community is herbal healing. To this day, the use of jungle herbs, such as lemongrass, oregano leaves, allspice, and many others are still a part of Belize culture. Many visitors to the island come to visit the local herbal healing shops.
Languages of Belize
English is the official language of Belize, the only Central American country where this is the case. However, there are several dialects. One-third of the inhabitants speak Creole when dealing with non-official matters. Approximately half the Belize population speaks Spanish, a throwback to Spanish colonization.
While most of the descendants of ancient Mayas know English or Spanish, ten percent of citizens speak distinct Mayan dialects, Kekchi, Mopan, and Yucatec, which have no relation to either English or Spanish.
The Belize Dollar is the official Belize currency. It is pegged to the U.S. Dollar at a 50 percent ratio – two Belize dollars will always equal one US dollar.
The US dollar is accepted, and visitors can bring up to $5,000 into the country.
What Is Belize Most Known For?
Just because Belize is a small island does not mean it does not offer lots of activities. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a paradise for beach-loving swimmers and divers. The Scuba School Belize provides both diving lessons and certification as well as tours. And that is just the beginning.
The Blue Hole
The Lighthouse Reef Atoll is what divers seek. Six cayes border a perfect turquoise lagoon and white beaches with swaying palm trees. It is believed to be the best diving site in Belize. The Great Blue Hole is a clear-blue sinkhole set within the atoll’s lagoon, and visitors might even see a school of sharks here.
The Half Moon Caye is a natural shelter for boobies and frigate birds; it’s the ideal place to simply relax. Billionaire Richard Branson commented on the Blue Hole, “There we were, venturing to the bottom of one of the world’s largest sinkholes, an unexplored legend of the deep filled with Mayan mysteries and myths of monsters and wonder.”
The small beach town of Placencia is one of the reasons visitors continue to flock to Belize. The peninsula is 16 miles of fabulous ocean, golden beaches, and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Mayan ruins. The peninsula is known for its delicious Kriol seafood. While on the peninsula, visitors can enjoy a cruise down the Monkey River to marvel at the local wildlife.
Twenty-five-mile-long Ambergris Caye is Belize’s largest caye. Its history goes back to Mayan times, with many descendants living here. This is the place where one can hear a genuine Mayan dialect. Mostly, however, visitors come for the barrier reef and the fabulous diving. Restaurants serve freshly caught seafood. The caye’s only town, San Pedro, is a charming and relatively undiscovered fishing village with a population of 10,000. Ambergris Caye, with the blue water, palm trees, and high-end resort accommodations create an Instagram-perfect picture and an ideal beach vacation.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve
Belize has the world’s first jaguar preserve, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where visitors may catch an actual glimpse of a jaguar. It is a haven for endangered bird species such as the King Vulture and the Scarlet Macaw.
This tropical rainforest sanctuary, however, offers much more. Visitors can tube down the South Stann Creek River and hike for a cooling swim at a nearby waterfall. A tour will guide them through the rain forest, point out its medicinal plants and the resident noisemakers – all those howler monkeys swinging and arguing in the trees. If possible, visit the Che’il Chocolate Factory at the preserve’s entry and take a tour of their cacao processing system while stocking up on delicious chocolates.
Caye Caulker is another quaint fishing village with great diving, quite similar to Ambergris Caye. It is more budget-minded and very popular with backpackers and other travelers on a budget. Rooms are less expensive here. It is a “chill out and laid back” type of place.
Lamanai Archaeological Reserve
Located by the New River, the Lamanai ruins are one of the most important Mayan ruins in northern Belize and have been around since the 16th century. It is undoubtedly best to see the ruins with a tour guide, most of which leave from Orange Walk Town and take a scenic cruise 26-miles up the river to reach the ruin. It’s hard to go wrong with this tour.
Lamanai itself houses three large temples. The Jaguar Temple is a part temple and part residential structure. The Mask Temple contains burial tombs. The High Temple (as its name suggests) has an incredible view.
Best Regions to Visit in Belize
The Northern Cayes & Atolls
The Northern cayes are close to Belize City and are probably the most frequently visited area in Belize. Tourists expect – and get – close to picture postcard-perfect beauty. In addition, the Northern cayes have an abundance of lodgings for every budget.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is said to be one of the best snorkeling sites in the world. Fishing is great here, and the further out anglers go, the larger the fish get, with plenty of marlin and tuna to be caught. This is also the home of the stunning Great Blue Hole.
Southern Belize is more undeveloped than Northern Belize. Here, travelers will find laid-back fishing villages such as Placencia, which has become very popular. Another beach town, Hopkins, is also much visited. Located by the Sittee River, Hopkins may be small, but it has several popular resorts, including Hamaasi, which received one of the Top 25 Hotels in the World Travelers’ Choice Awards.
Activities in Hopkins include hiking and ziplining in Bocawina National Park, cruising the Monkey River, and visiting the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve.
Toledo is the southern-most region of Belize and is extremely rural, made for true nature lovers, with untouched rainforest and caves to explore. The primary village in Toledo is Punta Gorda, which has plenty to offer Belize visitors. The Mayan sites Lubaantun and Uxbenka are here and are always filled with visitors.
Within the Rio Blanco National Park are a number of gorgeous waterfalls called the Rio Blanco Falls. Visitors can hike to the falls, then cool off with a refreshing swim. Punta Gorda is known for its delicious chocolate, which is produced here with local beans. This is one of the places where the world-famous chocolate brand Green and Black gets its pure cacao beans.
The Cayo District & Western Belize
While nature rules much of Belize, it certainly dropped the gavel on the Cayo District. This is an area overwhelmed with lush greenery and a system of fabulous caves. Sixty percent of Cayo has been declared a wildlife sanctuary. It is a naturalist’s Eden.
The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are located in Cayo near San Ignacio across the Mopan River, and access to the ruins is by ferry only. It is a true wonder of creation and a top destination in Cayo. There is a lot to see at the ruin, and a guided tour is strongly suggested to get the most out of this visit. The tour begins with a hike up a large hill. The entire site consists of 25 separate structures that can be entered and explored. The tallest structure, the 130-foot El Castillo pyramid, was living quarters and shrine to the Mayas. It is almost intimidating in its hugeness. Once you have reached El Castillo, enjoy the incredible view of Belize and neighboring Guatemala.
While in Cayo, visitors shouldn’t miss the amazing Barton Creek, The Mother Nature Network has called Barton Creek “one of the most beautiful cave destinations in the world.” The rock formations are fascinating. To the Mayas, they served as an ancient burial place. For adventurous visitors, there are waters in the caves for swimming, but perhaps the best way to experience the caves is on a guided canoe cruise.
The Best All-Inclusive Hotel or Resort in Belize
BelizeanDreams Resort in the village of Hopkins is determined to make dreams come true, which is why it has won several Travelers’ Choice Awards, as well as TripAdvisor Hall of Fame awards.
The resort’s all-inclusive romance package includes daily meals and unlimited drinks, and a private dinner served at any location within the resort. The all-inclusive diving package includes daily meals and drinks, as well as several dives in the Blue Hole Atoll, depending on the length of stay.
Best Resort or Hotel for Couples in Belize
Blancaneaux Lodge is located in Belize’s Cayo district surrounded by fabulous jungle scenery and waterfalls and the seashore. There are choices of restaurants, with the spa offering rejuvenating couple’s massages.
It offers a perfect honeymoon package that includes three nights in the honeymoon cabana and four nights in the beachfront cottage. All meals are included in the package, as is a couple’s spa session at the Sunset Spa, and a canoe cruise to the Barton Creek Cave.
Best Resort or Hotel for Families in Belize
The Almond Beach Resort by Jaguar Reef has its own private beach surrounded by a barrier reef, making it perfect for all water sports.
It is located near the Monkey River and Sittee River for easy river cruises. Accommodations include rooms, suites with private pools, and honeymoon cottages right by the water. Adults love the pool-side Tiki bar, while everyone looks forward to the beach barbeques.
The onsite restaurant is known for its seafood. The resort has a children’s pool and babysitting services. It is the 2017 winner of the Tripadvisor Hall of Fame Award.