A bevy of American tourists flies south and lands upon Central America every December. Being a travel hipster, I decided to beat the crowd by going to Belize in November. It was a transition month between the rainy season and abundant sunshine. A good bit of rain fell on me but there were still enough UV rays to transform me into one giant freckle. I have ginger tendencies and as such am constantly petitioning for public sunscreen showers to become a thing.
Why consider Belize for such a vacation? Read on and you’ll find a bounty of tropical treasures to convince you including a vibrant African culture, human sacrificial remains left by the Maya, and a little slice of paradise off the southern coastline. If a pale and anxious nerd like me can throw down in Belize then anyone can.
Even though it is billed as “the best little zoo in the world”, you’d be right to be skeptical – zoos can be terrible places in terms of both ethics and experience. Right hand to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I swear that this was one of five highlights of my trip to Belize and should not be missed.
Why? First, the animals are all being rehabilitated in some way and were rescued from dire circumstances in captivity or in the wild. Many were injured and some had behavioral problems that would cause them to be euthanized.
Second, the zoo is designed to mimic their natural habitats, with the walkways blending in between trees to maximize the size of the habitats and minimize our intrusions into their homes.
Third, the animals are just incredible, and some are very hard to spot in the wild due to being rare or elusive. Among others, we saw spider and howler monkeys, crocodiles, jaguars, puma, ocelot, and the tapir – Belize’s national animal.
This was the perfect introduction to Belize for me. I was feeling overwhelmed from crossing the border in Mexico (and being bribed along the way), dealing with an especially crazy cab driver in Belize City, and driving on a road with crazy speed bumps. Spending some time with the animals really calmed down the spirit and allowed myself and my friends to settle in.
When staying in nearby San Ignacio this ruin is an easy ten-minute drive away. At $10 BZ – $5 US at the standard 2-for-1 conversion rate – you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value for your money in Belize and Xunantunich serves as a great introduction to ancient ruin hopping. To get there, you’ll go across a hand-cranked car ferry. When you gaze upon the stone structures, you’ll be glad you’ve taken the plunge to a less touristy part of the country.
Many unglamorous things happen on trips. Let’s take off the rose-colored social media glasses and tell the real story.
- Crazy taxi driver in Belize City laughed maniacally while playing country music and quoting lyrics.
- Assaulted by insects, crabs (the animal), fire coral, jellyfish, rain, and nuclear humidity.
- Defended a female friend from being catcalled (“You look like a REAL Belizean woman, baby!”). Threatened by said catcaller and his cohorts.
- Hit a massive pothole, went airborne, almost caught on fire
- Encountered unconscious man on the road who passed out drunk at 2 pm. Friend feared he was a bandito playing possum.
- Spent last days of the trip depressed because of low energy and rainy weather.
- Had Macbook screen cracked when I checked my carry-on bag for a tiny plane
It’s okay to not feel great all the time. These things happen. Push on and tell the stories to your friends and family back home!
Imagine being inside of an Indiana Jones movie. Running through the jungle, you pull yourself across rivers with a rope in hopes of finding the entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. You dive into a pool of cool water and swim inside the gaping cave mouth, awestruck as the light fades and the cave walls are illuminated by your headlamp. Bats flutter above your head between massive stalactites with impressive features on their faces. After squeezing through tight cracks, walking through rushing water, and climbing up piles of slick rocks you discover the sacrificial altars of the ancient Maya – complete with perfectly in-tact pots and skeletons resting where they first met their grisly demise.
This is the experience of the ATM cave tour. I went with Carlos the Caveman as a guide and couldn’t be happier with the experience. Our small group of seven were enriched with knowledge and even got to sample some fresh termites on the hike in! You’ll need the protein to reap some gains after this intense experience – some physical fitness is required to get through the tour.
Here’s the beautiful entrance to the cave.
After a glut of jungle adventuring, a little rest and relaxation can go a long way. I chose to head to the south along the stunning Hummingbird Highway to reach Placencia – a peninsula with 18 miles of “barefoot perfect” beaches and resorts.
It’s important to restore your energy during a long trip – this was twenty days, all told – especially if you’re an introvert and have been interacting with guides, tour groups, and your travel mates.
I observed personal quiet time (to reflect) and hopped-up-on-coffee time (to work) to recharge my social battery. I also took a stand-up paddleboard out several times to get some exercise in; staying active helps me stave off the crazies, and makes me more palatable to be around!
4. Silk Cayes
Plenty of tours depart daily from Placencia including more ruin expeditions, chocolate and spice farms, a Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary, and of course an absolutely tropical feast of snorkeling opportunities. Silk Cayes were suggested by the staff at Maya Beach Hotel as the best of the bunch, and they were certainly fantastic.
Glide around the reefs to see schools of tropical fish and interesting rock and coral formations. Please do your best to not touch, as the reefs are in dire need of conservation! Take an underwater camera and bring back pictures to add to your collection.
After your first snorkel, you’ll be treated to a beach barbeque. Gazing out at the crystal blue waters while chowing down with some new friends is enough to make me smile just remembering it now. If the tour stopped here, it would be worth the money (I paid $85 USD via the hotel) but the highlight is still yet to come.
Our guide “Belly John” – named for his nimble figure – navigated us to waters where dozens of interesting creatures swam about in search of food. At one point I counted 10 nurse sharks swimming below me! Even though they are harmless, I couldn’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline when first hitting the water out there. I may or may not have grabbed my friends’ legs to scare the crap out of them. We spotted giant sea turtles, needlefish, and several rays, including the gorgeous spotted eagle ray which was my absolute favorite.
After getting a good night’s rest back at the hotel, I took one of the infamous “chicken buses” up the coast to experience a new side of Belize in Hopkins.
If you crave a culture shock, head to one of the Garifuna villages. Dangriga and Hopkins are the main ones, along with Punta Gorda, and Seine Bight. You’ll most likely encounter happy people singing and speaking in both Carribean/African and Belizean Creole dialects. Phrases I heard include “I’ve never worked a day in my life” and “Once you drink the sweet water of Dangriga you can never leave without coming back”. The mindset is a real shift from living in a place like America and has more in common with island life than the rest of Central America.
On November 19th the country celebrates Garifuna Settlement Day to mark the migration of African and Arawak people from the Carribean islands – notably St. Vincent – to the shores of southeastern Belize. Drinking, dancing, and local food accompany a re-enactment of the original ancestors first landing upon the shore. My time in Hopkins was, unfortunately, a bog of mud due to a particularly rainy weekend. I saw enough of the culture to want to return one day and do it up right.
See you in Belize!
Belize is a wonderful country with much to offer. I missed many things, including the popular beach destinations up north like Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. The Mayan ruins at Caracol still call my name, as does the Mountain Pine Reserve. Once I get my dive certification, I’d love to return to the Belize Reef with hopes of hitting the Blue Hole one day. Suffice it to say, this place has the hallmarks of a repeat destination.
Check out Belize Travel Blog for a more thorough list of the possibilities and build your own travel bonanza. Lorenzo has done a great job of compiling a list of activities and destinations to check out when in Belize. I’m confident you’ll have a blast planning your trip.
If you have any Belize stories, questions, opinions, or tips be sure to leave a comment below!