Belize: more than just a blue hole
Belize is best known for its Blue Hole, a paradisiacal looking hole in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. One that has already adorned many travel guides and postcards. The funny thing is that I had a fantastic trip in Belize without seeing the Blue Hole. There is so much more to see, to do, to undertake than I thought as a semi-seasoned traveller. Belize even stands at the forefront of the eco-tourism movement. Little did I know. I would like to take you to this fantastic island. Or no, wait a minute, Belize is not an island. First let us help clear up this misunderstanding.
Belize is not an island
Belize is located in Central America, south of Mexico, east of Guatemala, and north of Honduras. Belize has hundreds of amazing offshore islands but is not an island. Its location on the eastern coast of Central America, however, is perfectly situated between intriguing dense jungle to the west and the Belize Barrier reef on the east. Mayan ruins are scattered all over this beautiful green jungle, which makes it a perfect destination for adventure seekers, culture enthusiasts, animal aficionados and yes even beach bums.
Belize for the adventure seeker
Going into the Mayan underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre” is an unforgettable experience. Literally: you cannot take any camera into the caves, so you will have a completely zen, smartphone and camera free day. The rules to enter the cave are very strict and you can only sign up for this tour with an experienced guide.
After a walk through the jungle and carefully taking in the instructions you follow the guide into the dark cave while swimming and clambering, without touching all the beautiful stalagmites and stalagtites. In this cave they have found Mayan pots, vases and even human bones. You will once again receive important instructions to walk around here in order to not damage anything. Whether this has been a place of ritual sacrifice is not completely clear, but it is certainly exciting and magical. National Geographic rated it as the number 1 Sacred Cave in the world!
We did this amazing tour with Maya Walk tours. I would consider the caving to be moderate, but some passages are quite narrow, so please keep that in mind. The ATM cave is situated near San Ignacio in the Cayo District. There are other tour operates offering this activity there as well.
The exclusive nature of the ATM visit and the way these tours are accurately organized, made it a very unique experience. I was pleasantly surprised by their recommendations to bring reusable cups and bottles to ensure responsible travel. While diving a bit deeper into this subject I came across some interesting information on Belize and its ecotourism. No other country in the world can show a greater percentage of its land mass dedicated to natural reserves, parks, and preserves. Belize also invests in community-based tourism projects to support locals in rural areas. Of course, it is up to the tourist to play a crucial role in this eco-tourism story!
Belize for the culture enthusiast
There is nothing so magical as walking through a pristine jungle and seeing beautiful Maya temples rise up over all the trees. Belize is the ideal place to get in touch with the ancient Mayan culture.
The Mayan civilization originated about 2,000 years before Christ and extended over Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. Most cities experienced their heyday between 250 and 900 AD and were well known for their development in art, culture, architecture, astronomy ... What remains of that ancient culture now, are beautiful ruins in the jungles.
Some of the most interesting Mayan sites in Belize are: Lamanai, Altun Ha, Caracol, Xunantunich and many more. We had the chance to visit Caracol.
Caracol is situated in the Cayo District and is the largest known Mayan ruins in Belize. It is a bit harder to reach than the other ones, but definitely worth the 2-hour drive because of the scenery of the Pine Ridge Mountains and the feeling of remoteness once you get there.
It is a grand site with amazing temples that you can climb to enjoy the fantastic view of the forest reserve.
Tip: don't forget to stop at the Big Rock Falls waterfall or Rio on Pools for a refreshing dip and/or an Instagrammable photo op!
We also did this tour with Maya Walk Tours.
Belize for the Nature Lover
Placencia is the perfect base to visit some of Belize's most interesting nature reserves. Once a sleepy fishing village now a peninsula with a mix of luxurious hotels and more low-key beach resorts. One common factor: palm-lined sandy beaches. A dream!
Spotting jaguars...or not
Cockcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is recognized internationally as the world’s first jaguar reserve. The area consists of more than 50.000 acres of tropical rain forest, and is sponsored by the Belizean government and multiple private organizations. It is also known for its spectacular waterfalls, mountain views and nature trails.
A very experienced guide took us on a hike to look for animals. He explained that the sanctuary was created in 1986 to protect the natural habitat of the Jaguar, and now it is also officially a national park. Here you can not only see jaguars, but also pumas, red tigers, ocelots, agoutis, ant-eaters, tapirs, tree frogs, iguanas and more that 290 bird species.
He talked about medicinal plants. Take in consideration that you probably won`t see any jaguars. We didn't spot any either but like the saying goes: `you won`t see him, but he certainly will see you`. At the end of the hike we also totally forgot the fact that we did not spot any jaguars because we went tubing on the river and rock sliding (which basically means rock descent under a waterfall). A fun day packed with interesting rain forest facts and learnings and close to nature activities.
TIP: please stop at the souvenir store "Maya Centre Women’s Group Gift Shop" at the entrance of the park. They had an interesting selection of gifts like necklaces, hair pins and more.
We did this tour with Dtourz. Doyle really know his medicinal plants and is a real local. He has even got a burger named after him at Barefoot Bar. Doyle's Delight has cheese, bacon, eggs, all the good stuff
I had never heard of a manatee until I saw one!
Another fun thing to do in Placencia is to take a boat drive through the mangroves to Monkey River Village.
On the way you will already see some manatees and you have the chance to see dolphins and tropical crocodiles. On land, a guide will be there to guide you through the jungle to spot monkeys. Spotting monkeys is always great but what I found more interesting was spotting all the birds together with our guide from the boat. After the tour through the jungle we went to the River Monkey Village for a walk in this fisherman`s town and a good lunch.
But the best was still to come: On our way back, we had to chance to see manatees. They surfaced a few metres from our boat to then quickly disappear again. Truth is, I had never heard of a manatee until I saw one. I guess that made my day. Learning about a new specie and seeing it with my own eyes.
There are plenty of travel agencies in Placencia that offer this kind of tours.
Belize for the beach bum
After all that adventure, it's time for some relaxation.
Belize is not an island, but the clear waters in the Caribbean Sea are dotted with beautiful islands where it is wonderful to stay.
The possibilities are endless, from private islands to expensive seaside resorts to the wonderfully relaxed Caye Caulker. An island at about 30 kilometres from the coast of Belize where there is a real "Take it easy" vibe. Ideal for the budget traveller.
The island is divided in two by a canal called the Split where you will find a nice bar, and from where you can take a boat to Koko King, a white sandy beach with a resort feel including all facilities.
What makes this island completely fantastic is the absence of cars and the beautiful pastel coloured houses. It is an island to have fun and relax without the clichés of a heavy party island because that is not the purpose of this island. The island is not overloaded with restaurants either, but there is plenty of choice. From fresh fish to pasta, from pancakes to perfect grilled cheese sandwiches.
Favourite breakfast spot: Amor y Cafe (grilled cheese sandwich for life)
We went snorkelling with Ragga Muffin Tours
We stayed at the Seaside Cabanas (jacuzzi on the top floor rooms!)
Caye Caulker is also a good base for visiting the Blue Hole and for undertaking many diving or snorkelling trips. Because I have an inner ear problem, we always snorkel and the waters of the Belize Barrief Reef are perfect for that. From swimming between the sharks to spotting Nemos.
And last but not least, let's talk Rum Punch. A tasty cocktail that is a Belizean favourite with pineapple, orange, coconut and rum. Great for those lazy afternoons at the beach. And isn't drinking local liquor some form of eco-tourism as well? ;-)