Strapped in and dangling from a cable, I cautiously peer over the tree stand. My heart is in my throat. Somehow, the lush dense green of the rainforest almost lessens the severity of a 140-feet drop. Before I know it, I’m gliding effortlessly over the treetops and marveling at the beauty of this island gem (in between giddy girl screams, of course). Belize has completely won me over.
Zip lining thorough a tropical rain forest is just one of many jaw dropping experience visitors can add to their bucket list. Sacred caves and ancient Maya temples, world-class diving and snorkeling, and memorable dining options are just a few to consider.
Situated between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize encompasses the best of both worlds. On one side, you’ll find Central American jungles, on the other side – the Caribbean Sea. With that map, it’s no wonder Belize a primary port of call for many cruise lines. That was the case with us – just an excursion day. After one visit, though, I decided just one day here would never be enough.
Our zip-lining adventure took place in Caves Branch Archeological Reserve, southwest of Belize City. Many local tour guides are available, and packages can often include zip lining and cave tubing (which we also did).
The Caves Branch system was a beautiful introduction to the world of cave exploring. Our tour began with a 30-minute hike – not too strenuous, but just enough to assure us we worked off that morning’s breakfast buffet. Weaving through the cavernous wonderland, it was easy to understand why Maya priests believed these to be the gateway to the Underworld. Mysterious and beautiful, the caves seemed to come to life when flashlights spilled along the walls.
We booked our excursion through Cave-tubing.net, and were very impressed. Our group was much smaller than others there, and we felt less “herd like”. Being able to actually hear our guide as we floated through the caves was a big plus, too.
Throughout Belize, there are lots of other cave systems, and many are part of a forest or nature reserve. The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, part of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, includes a hike through jungle streams and a brief swim. Vacationers get to see massive pots, Maya ceremonial chambers, and human skeletal remains embedded in the caves limestone.
A more vigorous workout is required for the Che Chem Ha Cave, but the reward is worth it. A 45-minute uphill hike leads you to the cave entrance, decorated with Maya motifs and beautifully preserved Maya pots. A guide will lead you through the system, which includes climbing ladders to reach some of the chambers.
When the Maya people weren’t conducting ceremonies in caves, they were building amazing temples. Believed to have been at the heart of the Maya civilization that dominated Central America from 250 to 900 AD, Belize has the greatest concentration of Maya sites – over 1,400 recorded.
You can get to most of them fairly easily – group tours, or public and private transportation. I recommend making use of local guides to gain the best perspective of the cultural significance and architectural elements.
Some of the best-preserved sites include Caracol, El Pilar, and Lubaantun. Caracol, “the Snail” can be found in Chiquibul National Park, It was once the largest Maya center (more than 150,000 people). Caana, or “sky palace”, the impressive 140 foot pyramid remains the tallest man made structure in Belize.
El Pilar, located in the Cayo District, stretches over the Belize/Guatemala border. Over 25 plazas and 12 pyramids dot about 100 acres. It’s also a great spot for serious birders. You’ll find collared manikins, honeycreepers and a variety of flycatchers throughout the sub-tropical forest.
One mile from San Pedro Columbia Village in the Toledo District is the site of Lubaantun. The unique process of cut stones fitted and laid without mortar makes this an architectural treat. It was once a major center of political, religious, commercial and ceremonial activities from 730 to 860 AD. It is also known as the site where the famed Mitchell Hedges crystal skull was found.
The Toledo District also has more than 50 traditional Maya villages to visit once you leave Lubaantun. Here, you can immerse yourself in the Maya culture by stopping by the quaint man made huts and tasting the local cuisine of homemade tortillas and chicken stew.
While there’s obviously a lot to take in on land, time along Belize’s coast is well spent. Scuba fans and snorkelers will find something new every dip. Belize boasts the longest unbroken reef in the western hemisphere, the Belize Barrier Reef. In addition, there are atolls, fringe and patch reefs, and over 400 islands offering countless dive and snorkeling locations year round.
Well known and often photographed is Blue Hole, part of the Lighthouse Reef system. This perfectly circular limestone sinkhole was formed by the collapse of a series of caves and caverns, and is the largest underwater sinkhole in the world. It measures 300 feet across and 412 feet deep. Divers can weave through intricate stalagmites and stalactites; spy an abundant variety of fishes and vibrant reefs of lettuce coral.
Close by is Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, one of Belize’s largest protected areas. It encompasses 10,0000 acres of the atoll and 15 square miles of surrounding waters. Day trips leave from Belize City or San Pedro to the 44-acre island within the monument. Also, tours can also be arranged from larger hotels.
Visit the western side of the island to seek out the Red-Foot Boobies which nest in the thicket. It is one of only two colonies in the entire Caribbean. Mangrove Warblers, Ospreys, Magnificent Frigates, and more than 98 species of birds have been spotted on the island.
Nearby reefs and intertidal zone yield bountiful biodiversity – sponges, mollusks, fishes, and more. You might even scope out a Loggerhead or Hawksbill turtle, as they arrive onshore annually to lay their eggs.
Where To Stay
Since the Belize Barrier Reef stretches the entire shoreline and eight marine protected areas are within Belizean waters, snorkeling off any part the main island coast will be fruitful. As is the case wherever you call home during your stay on Belize. Depending on what you’re looking for, there are many options to fit the bill. Here are a couple of suggestions.
I’m a big fan of helping others when you can. One of the (many) reasons I love the Lodge at Chaa Creek is their philosophy of giving back to the community. Ten percent of all room revenue goes into local educational, environmental and community programs.
This 365-acre all-inclusive preserve is a stunning marriage of luxury and laid back comfort. Chaa Creek is nestled in the rainforest near the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and hugs the banks of the Macal River. Guests need not venture far for adventure. Swimming, an onsite butterfly farm, canoeing, horseback riding, rainforest tours, Maya medicinal plant tours, and a natural history museum are all options on property.
The best alarm clock, in my opinion, is waking up to the sounds of the jungle. You may even spy exotic birds, monkeys, jaguar, or deer. Accommodations include suites, cottages, villas, and casitas. Each varies in style and setting, yet retain a high standard of furnishings.
The Turtle Inn, part of the Coppola resort family (yes, of the Francis Ford variety), is an oceanfront haven in Placencia. A coral reef just of the shore from this 25-room Balinese inspired resort provides amazing diving and snorkeling opportunities.
Photo courtesy of Turtle Inn
Photo courtesy of Turtle Inn
Private screened porches, spacious living rooms with separate sitting areas make a stay here seem like home. Well, maybe a bit better than most homes.
Here you’ll also have access to three on-site restaurants – The Mare, Turtle Inn’s flagship restaurant, boasts fresh seafood and traditional Italian fare; Gauguin Grill (Balinese inspired cuisine); and Auntie Luba’s Kitchen (for authentic Belizean fare) – as well as two bars, a dive shop and a spa.
Ready to go? Dust off that passport start writing that “what to pack” list!