Of all the Central American countries, Belize is special in many ways. First, English is the official language, which means communication generally isn't a problem. Second, Belize has both Caribbean coastline and lots of inland mountains and jungles, appealing to both beach and mountain lovers. In 2012, we traveled to Belize for the first time on a business trip. Our mission was to revitalize a tour operator business by creating photos and videos and a new website. The trip was so successful that we returned the following year to work with new clients. Based on our trips to Belize and working relationship with our business partners there, we've come to learn a lot about this unique country. In fact, we help travelers plan visits to Belize all the time.
If you're considering a trip, check out our Belize travel guide below for ideas on where to go and what to do. Looking for more travel photos from our adventure? Check out our Belize photo gallery. Note that some businesses mentioned are partners of ours, but we promise to only recommend the very best services.
The Route - Where to Stay in Belize
Our Belize travel guide itinerary has you spending one week on the beach, and one week in the mountains. Start off on the Caribbean islands of Belize before heading inland to a small fishing town. From there, you'll head into the mountains near the Guatemala border to explore Mayan ruins and caves (if you dare). Note that we recommend making this a two-week trip, but the timeline and exact route can be adjusted depending on what areas interest you.
Check out the itinerary on the map below! Can't see the map? Click here.
For starters, get oriented with Belize's location. It's a somewhat small country, bordered by Mexico and Guatemala. Thus, you can enter Belize on land via car or bus if you're coming from either of these two countries. Most international visitors arrive via airplane, landing at Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City.
Many locals warn visitors not to spend more time in Belize City than is necessary. We recommend following this advice and making your way to other towns that are much safer. Upon arrival at the airport, you have two options for reaching other areas of Belize. The quickest yet most expensive way is by Tropic Air flights. To spend less money yet spend more time in transit, catch a taxi to the Belize City Water Taxi Terminal. From here, hop in a boat and head out to Belize's two popular Caribbean islands.
Week 1: The Islands of Belize
The first stop that the water taxi makes is on a small limestone coral island named Caye Caulker. When we say small, we're serious--it's only 5 miles long from north to south. That's quite a bit smaller than its larger, more popular neighbor, San Pedro (Ambergris Caye). As a result, Caye Caulker is a lot more laid back. You won't find any motor vehicles on the island. The main mode of transportation is via bicycle or golf cart; using the latter, you can circle the island in about 30 minutes.
Where to Stay on Caye Caulker
Given the small size of the island, most accommodations and attractions are located on a long strip close to the water taxi dock. We stayed at the modest Tropical Paradise Hotel. Just down the block are more options including Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel and Rainbow Hotel. All offer almost immediate proximity to the beach. Seeking a hotel with a pool? Check out Seaside Villas, Caye Reef Condos, or Magic Island Beach Resort. All hotels are a short walk away from dining options including Lazy Lizard Bar and Grill and Wish Willy. Be sure to order freshly caught grilled lobster!
What to See and Do on Caye Caulker
Nothing is very luxurious or fancy on this island. Instead, visitors are attracted mainly by the prospect of laying low or using the island as a hub for ocean sports. The famous Great Blue Hole is popular among scuba divers and is just an hour boat ride away. Meanwhile, the Belize Great Barrier Reef (the world's second largest) is even closer. Take a snorkeling or scuba diving tour here. If you're bold, make your way to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley to swim among and hold giant manta rays and nurse sharks. Finally, boat tours to the nearby manatee sanctuary are also very popular. While you can't swim with the manatees here, you can take a guided boat tour to see them in their natural habitats.
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
If you're seeking a more lively island scene, head to Belize's largest island: Ambergris Caye. Despite being a relatively large island compared to others nearby, Ambergris Caye still lacks extremely tall hotels or huge tour buses. This leads to a laid-back vibe that still a notch up from Caye Caulker, yet not the party scene of Cancún.
Where to Stay on Ambergris Caye
There aren't many budget accommodations beyond Pedro's Inn Backpacker Hostel and Sandbar Beachfront Hostel. Instead, you'll find many mid-range and above hotels and resorts such as Xanadu Island Resort, Captain Morgan's Retreat, and The Palapa House. Most accommodations are within walking distance of restaurants and attractions. You can always rent a golf cart to get around or hitch a ride in a mini-van taxi.
What to See and Do on Ambergris Caye
Similarly to Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye often serves as a base for ocean exploration. Take a snorkeling or scuba diving trip to the Great Blue Hole, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, or Belize Barrier Reef (all described above). Or water taxi to Caye Caulker for a day of exploration. You can even plan a full day trip to San Ignacio on mainland Belize to see the mountains and Mayan ruins.
Week 2: Head Back to Mainland Belize
After you get your fill of island life, take the water taxi back to Belize City. From here, you have three options for getting around on mainland Belize. All vary in terms of duration and cost.
- Use the local Belize airline Tropic Air to fly into most major towns. This is the quickest, yet most expensive way to get around.
- Hire a taxi or private driver. It is cheaper than flying, yet not as a fast.
- Take the local public bus. This is the cheapest option, but it will take the longest.
Visit a Mainland Belize Beach Town
There are several beach towns that you can access on mainland Belize. While there are some beach hotel options in and around Belize City, your best bet is to go a bit further to seek the very best beaches. Be forewarned that the distance truly is rather far.
Drive three hours (180 miles) south of Belize City and you'll find arguably the best beaches on the Placencia Peninsula. Stretching 17-miles long, this peninsula is home to a small fishing village. But the main attraction is the abundance of white sand beaches and gorgeous Caribbean waters.
Where to Stay in Placencia
The village is small and full of restaurants and hotels, all within walking distance. Roberts Grove Luxury Hotel is your main high-end option. Mid-range options include Sailfish Resort, Palma's Guesthouse, Paradise Resort, and our personal favorite, One World Rentals. All accommodations are within a short walking distance of the beach, if not directly on the beach. Restaurants serving freshly caught seafood are also abundant. Be sure to dine at visitor favorites including Rumfish y Vino, De Tatch, and Omar's. Save room for dessert and grab a tasty gelato at Tutti Frutti Gelateria.
What to See and Do in Placencia
Beachside relaxation is the name of the game in Placencia. There's also a range of water activities including fishing and sailing, day trips to the Great Blue Hole, and swimming with whale sharks if you visit in May. During our stay, we took a day trip out to Gladden Spit and the Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. It was a 45-minute boat ride (one-way), but the trip was worth it since the destination was a pristine island in the middle of the sea. This tiny island was straight out of a postcard and offered the very best reef snorkeling we've ever done. The ocean wildlife was abundant, and we saw more tropical fish, moray eels, barracudas, and turtles than we've ever seen. We could only imagine what a scuba diving trip would look like.
Mountains and Mayan Ruins
When you're ready to dive into the mountains, head inland toward the Guatemala border. San Ignacio is a mountainous town located in the Cayo District of Belize. It's a 90-minute direct drive from Belize City, and just 10-minutes away from the Guatemala border. The town is pretty far from the beach and is surrounded by mountains and jungle. So if you venture in this far, expect to trade beaches for lakes, rivers, and waterfalls instead.
Where to Stay in San Ignacio
Unlike the islands and beach towns on Belize, San Ignacio is pretty spread out. You'll want to secure either a rental car or private driver to get around, or budget time to take the bus. Note that if you book a day trip tour, most tour operators will include transportation (but be sure to ask!). Downtown San Ignacio is a good base as it's walkable and has everything from banks, markets, restaurants, and hotels. If you stay downtown, check out the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, Windy Hill Resort, or Midas Belize.
If you're feeling adventurous or looking for a new experience, consider staying in an eco-lodge. These nature-based accommodations are increasing in popularity, and there are quite a few to choose from. Some options include The Lodge at Chaa Creek, Table Rock Jungle Lodge, Hanna Stables & Nabitunich, and Martz Farm Treehouse Cabanas. If you opt for an eco-lodge, note that most of them are at least a 10-minute drive from town.
What to See and Do in San Ignacio
There are two main reasons why tourists venture to San Ignacio: mountains and Mayan ruins. Mountain Pine Ridge is a forest reserve with hiking trails and lots of caves. Even if you're not an avid outdoors enthusiast, many tours can help you experience the caves of Belize in a variety of ways. The most gentle way is light hiking into Río Frío Cave, followed by swimming at nearby water holes and a stop at a waterfall. You can also opt for leisurely tubing at Barton Creek Cave. To up the intensity, spend half a day on a guided tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave). Finally, go on the most exhilarating tour of all by rappelling into the Crystal Cave and Black Hole Drop.
Of these tours, we opted for ATM Cave and admit that there were times when we were literally in over our heads. Even for the moderately fit person, ATM Cave is a big physical challenge that involves being in complete darkness (with headlamps) and submerging in water over your head. It's an intense yet very rewarding experience. Just make sure you select a knowledgeable guide that you trust. Our tour was with MayaWalk Tours, and we highly recommend them.
Maya Ruins Tours
Most of the Maya ruins in Belize are located near or within San Ignacio, making it a great hub for archaeology lovers. The most popular ruins are Xunantunich, Caracol, El Pilar, and Cahal Pech. All of these ruins can be accessed by car, and some even by horseback. Some are accessible by bus, but we recommend securing a private driver or guided tour for some such as Caracol. Tikal Mayan ruins in nearby Guatemala is also possible to visit as a day or overnight trip. In many cases, the Maya ruins in Belize are under constant study, so there are occasional sections that are closed or new discoveries made. Be sure to check with your hotel or host for any local updates.
Up Close with Belizean Wildlife
If you're seeking wild animal encounters, there's no better place to do so than San Ignacio. With its proximity to the jungle and general ruggedness, wildlife is abundant in this part of Belize. In some cases, you can just sit at your hotel or eco-lodge with a pair of binoculars and see and hear more tropical birds than you can name. Tropical birds such as toucans are common, as are larger animals including iguanas and howler monkeys.
For organized animal encounters, swing by the Green Iguana Conservation Project within the San Ignacio Resort Hotel to get up close and personal with these prehistoric reptiles. Tropical Wings Butterfly Farm also lets you into an enclosure with tons of local butterfly species. Finally, the Belize Zoo is also worth mentioning. Despite being located outside of San Ignacio, it's a great stop while en route to Belize City as it showcases many animals native to Belize.
Belize is a very special place in Central America that is still largely under the radar. If you're seeking adventure in a place that's not yet overrun with tourism, we highly recommend a visit. For more visuals, check out our Belize photo gallery. Have questions about planning your trip? Contact us with questions anytime! If you enjoyed this Belize travel guide and think someone else might benefit from it, please share with your friends.