By Katie McElveen
Carved into the Yucatan Peninsula just south of Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, Belize is the beach destination you might not realize still exists.
Its uncrowded, white sand beaches are dotted with casual beach bars, shady palms and the occasional hammock. Just offshore, a vast coral reef is alive with sea turtles, colorful tropical fish and graceful rays.
But that’s just part of Belize’s charm. The country is so small that less than an hour from the beach you’ll find yourself in a lush rainforest paradise filled with tumbling waterfalls, cool animals like toucans and ocelots, mysterious caves and deep rivers. Farther afield, you’ll find massive, centuries-old ruins built by the ancient Mayans. There are also cute beach towns, pampering boutique resorts and, thanks to Pleasant Holidays, one-stop shopping for flights and hotel. Here’s where to go and what to do.
More than 200 islands, atolls and cayes are part of the watery landscape off Belize’s coastline. The largest of these is Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile long slice of paradise separated from Mexico by a slender channel dug by the Mayans more than 1,500 years ago. Now known as Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, the channel and the area that surrounds it make up a UNESCO World Heritage site. Snorkelers and divers who visit this remote realm (it’s accessible only by water) often spot manatees; sharp-eyed hikers may catch glimpses of crocodiles and pumas. Tours leave from San Pedro, the cultural heart of the caye that’s home to art galleries, restaurants and waterfront cafes.
Snorkelers and divers will also find happiness under the sea at Hol Chan Marine Reserve. It protects this section of the Mesoamerican Reef, which is the second largest coral reef system in the world. Beyond the fact that you can get there in less than 10 minutes, the reef attracts a startling array of underwater creatures that includes numerous species of tropical fish, emerald-green moray eels, cooler-sized grouper, dolphin, turtles, octopus and elegant spotted eagle rays. They’re not here by accident: thanks to a chink in the reef, Hol Chan is a revolving door for sea creatures moving between the Caribbean and Belize’s calm lagoon.
STAY HERE: Elegant and welcoming, the 42-room Victoria House Resort & Spa feels more like an estate than a resort. The two-story colonial-style main building presides over a gorgeous beachfront pool surrounded by towering palms and thatch-roofed cottages. Rooms have warm wood accents and white beds draped with romantic netting. The villas and Infinity Suites have full kitchens. There are lots of on-site amenities, too, including a spa, two restaurants and free use of bikes and kayaks.
With its verdant mountains, inky caves, orchid-strewn rainforests and tumbling waterfalls, central western Belize’s Cayo District has earned its reputation as a destination for adventure seekers. Those hills just happen to be strewn with zip lines, and outfitters regularly lead kayak and inner-tube tours through the country’s underground labyrinth of caves and rivers. The Mayans used the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) for sacred ceremonies. The carvings, ceramics and skeletons they left behind sparkle from their coating of calcite, a glittery mineral common in caves. Barton Creek Cave’s dramatic geological formations have been compared to cathedrals.
History buffs can explore the ruins of Mayan temples and cities. The journey to Xunantunich includes a trip across a river on a hand-cranked ferry and a hike up a short, steep pathway alive with howler monkeys, but it’s worth it. From the top of 130-foot-tall temple El Castillo you can see over the jungle canopy to Guatemala. Just outside San Ignacio, more than 30 structures remain at Cahal Pech. Some, like courts clearly used for some type of ball sport and temples with oddly-shaped steps that made it difficult for attacking armies to reach the top, offer insight into this fascinating culture. Caracol Ruins, located within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, are also worth exploring.
STAY HERE: Amid the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, the luxurious Blancaneaux Lodge offers easy access to natural swimming holes and small, sandy beaches along Privassion Creek. Free guided tours, use of inner tubes and bikes add to the fun. Equestrians can take to the trails on the resort’s team of well-kept horses. Recover at the waterside spa, which draws on Thai tradition to relax and rejuvenate. Rooms take the form of thatched-roof cabanas filled with local art and textiles. Luxury dwellings have upgraded amenities like plunge pools, decks, river views and telescopes. Dine poolside on Guatemalan dishes or at the resort’s main restaurant that, reflecting the resort’s ownership by director Francis Ford Coppola, serves Italian specialties.
Dangriga and the South Coast
Part jungly rainforest, part beach retreat, this part of Belize brims with opportunities for adventure. Within Mayflower Bocawina National Park, sporty types can hike to the top of Antelope Falls and rappel down. For an adrenaline rush without all the work, hit the 2.5-mile zip line that winds through the canopy. Belize’s wild cats are notably stealthy. The best chance to catch of glimpse of the jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay or jaguarundi that roam the jungle in this part of the country is to book a night tour through the park. You can also visit Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary; the world’s first jaguar preserve.
The Garifuna arrived on the south coast in 1802. Share their traditions with drumming, dancing and cooking lessons. In Dangriga, beaches rim the south coastline, you can also rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak and explore from the water.
STAY HERE: If the vacation of your dreams involves a private island, you’ll find your paradise at Royal Belize resort. Here, you, your group and a 10-member staff will be the only occupants on the resort’s 7.5-acre isle, which is located nine miles from Dangriga. Fill your relaxing days fishing the flats, snorkeling and diving. There’s a five-star PADI dive center onsite and the resort is surrounded by the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. You can also take a jet-ski, kayak, paddleboard or catamaran out for a spin in the clear water. Each of the three breezy villas has ocean views — one even fronts its own secluded beach. The all-inclusive rates include meals, Wi-Fi, transport from the international airport, use of jet-skis, a catamaran, kayaks and other water toys.
Plan your Belize escape with Pleasant Holidays today! Call your AAA Travel Agent at 800-750-5386 or visit AAA.com/Travel.