Editor’s note: I have been to Belize twice, and have loved it both times. I’ve stayed in an eco-lodge, gone cave tubing, and explored Mayan ruins at Altun-Ha. This article by Sam gives a taste of what the country has to offer. For all of his articles, click here.
I have started a competition with some fellow travelers, how many flights have you had to cancel due to COVID-19? It is a game where there are no winners, and for those of us with wanderlust, we are already thinking of where our next trip should be. To answer that, another question is, where are Americans allowed to travel? For the wintertime, my travel suggestion is Belize, which is scheduled to open on August 15 to Americans.
Belize is starting to get discovered as a cheap alternative to the Maya Riviera of Mexico and the tourist haven of Costa Rica. Though Belize is one of the smallest (roughly the size of New Jersey), newest (independence declared in 1981), and least populous nations (383,000) in mainland North America, there is an abundance of activities for whatever your interests are and however you like to spend your vacation. A welcome addition for many travelers as well who might be intimidated by language barriers elsewhere in the Americas is that prior to independence, Belize was a British territory known as British Honduras and today is the only nation in Central America with English as the official language. With Belize’s increasing popularity as well, there are numerous direct flights from the United States.
So now to the main question, what is there to do in Belize? For starters, Belize’s Caribbean coastline is home to the largest coral barrier reef in the western hemisphere, second globally only to Australia’s. This natural wonder makes Belize a snorkeler’s and diver’s paradise, especially for those who dare to try diving the Blue Hole; however, beware, many expert divers have died attempting this feat. A particularly special place for snorkelers and divers at any level to go is the Shark-Ray Alley, where you will snorkel alongside docile nurse sharks and giant rays. In terms of where you stay, you can go to the more developed northern coast of Belize to San Pedro Ambergris Caye, where you will find many tourists and a lively town with incredible seafood. A fun game that locals gather to play and gamble on is Chicken S*** Bingo, where a chicken walks around on a giant bingo board while onlookers bet which square the chicken will defecate on, if you are correct, BINGO! You win! Despite the number of people, you still get a sense of escape as the only vehicles allowed in the area are golf carts. One downside to the north is that you will not getting the incredible sandy beaches due to the barrier reef, so if you want a nice beach with a quieter atmosphere, head to the southern coastal town of Stann Creek.
Though Belize is not particularly populous, it enjoys a wide variety of cultures. There are large demographics of Mayans, Afro-Caribbean people, Asians, Kriol people, and Mestizo (mix of European and Mayan descent), which is evident in the cuisine and the various languages that you will see written throughout the country. To truly immerse yourself in the culture, I recommend going inland to the city of San Ignacio. Though San Ignacio is the second largest city in the entire nation, its population is only 20,000 individuals. The city, however, does boast its own airport, which I can say is without a doubt the smallest airport that I have ever experienced, being the approximate size of a one bedroom home, making me regret arriving the standard two hours early to catch my eight person plane. The flight between San Ignacio and San Pedro was one of the most scenic that I have experienced, where I could look down and see jungles and even a nurse shark from the plane, and made three stops in the hour journey to pick up packages.
What a gorgeous flight!
In San Ignacio, you can stay at many eco-lodges, and enjoy ziplining in the jungle or trekking the ancient Mayan cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) that still has skeletons, ceramics, stoneware, and stalactites. Sadly, I was rained out of visiting the ATM cave due to unsafe water levels, but it gives me a reason to return because nowhere else will you feel more like Indiana Jones than here. In close proximity to the town as well are numerous large Mayan ruins like the ancient megacities of Caracol and Xunantunich, which rival their more famous counterparts in Mexico. However, if you desire visiting one of the most famous Mayan capitals, the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala can be easily accessed (check Guatemalan restrictions for Americans during COVID prior to going) for a daytrip from Belize as they are less than two hours drive apart. While at Tikal, you will feel small among the towering pyramids that look out over the dense jungle. These structures predate Chichen Itza by hundreds of years as Tikal’s peak as the Mayan capital spanned from the years 200-900 CE and its population of 100,000 exceeded that of Chichen Itza as well. To date, a majority of this ancient metropolis has yet to be uncovered, but still contains fascinating sculptures that have been exposed. While there, I also spotted toucans, spider monkeys, tarantulas and a delightful creature called a coatimundi.
Back in San Ignacio, part of the joy is to relax on a hammock by the pool in the jungle after an action-packed day. Go into the town to explore their flea market and walk around to the various craft shops and try the restaurants; my favorite restaurant was a simple Mayan restaurant in a yellow shack with its name spelled in giant letters across it, “KO OX HAN-NAH”, which appropriately means in Mayan “Let’s Go Eat.” Many of the hotels also will serve a different cuisine each night to represent the different ethnic groups within Belize, with my favorite being the steamed Mayan fish wrapped in a banana leaf.
If you are looking for a great place to go on a budget with incredible activities, beautiful scenery, ancient history and cultural diversity, I have the place for you, you better Belize it!
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