Credit: Photos: Belize Tourism Board
Harbouring some of the earth's least-spoiled landscapes, Belize offers tranquil shores and pristine beaches.

From Pyramids To Parrot Fish: It’s Great To Get Down To Earth In Belize

By Tim Johnson

It came exactly as described – a blue hole. Located deep in the Belizean rainforest, this cold, aquamarine swimming spot called the Blue Hole was like something out of a postcard, or a dream.

Shaded by the thick jungle canopy, it was fed by springs and drained by a small waterfall. And it was all ours – my group of friends were the only visitors that day.

We stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped in, washing away the heavy tropical heat in the cool, blue waters. It was wonderful, and it was just our first adventure in this lovely nation.

A tiny, former-British colony, Belize has been attracting eco-tourists for decades, but it has just recently stepped into its own as a premiere world destination.

Gaining its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, Belize is an English-speaking nation of just over 300,000 that’s surrounded by Latin America – a curious place that mixes together Commonwealth values in a tropical setting. My friends and I would learn that it is a country where the adventures are real, close to the ground and unforgettable.

Most travellers head straight to the coast or deep into the jungle, to one of the country’s many eco-lodges, but we chose instead to start in Belmopan, Belize’s small-city capital.

Following the destruction of Hurricane Hattie, which levelled Belize City in 1961, the capital was moved 80 kilometres inland to Belmopan, which at the time was little more than a sleepy backwater. Now it bustles with both commercial and government business, and for us it served as the perfect, central striking-off point for our daily excursions.

The day after our swim in the Blue Hole, we decided to experience some of the area’s famous Mayan history. This part of the Yucatan was a hotbed of Mayan settlement, and the location of Belize’s premiere Mayan site of Xunantunich, which is pronounced ‘zoo-nan-too-neech’. Mayan settlement began in Belize as early as 1500 BC, and the region became the beating heart of the civilization between 250 and 900 AD.

Mayan monuments: The Altun Ha ruins are located just 50 kilometres north of Belize City.

Arriving at the site, we spent the morning walking around the various pyramids. There are some 26 temples and pyramids at the site, most of which have been excavated to reveal intricate handiwork and impressive engineering. At the main pyramid, we climbed to the top, enjoying the cool breezes and views over the surrounding, densely-forested area, which stretched all the way to Guatemala.

Next, we visited the smaller attractions around town. We stopped in at the Belize Zoo. Now, I’m not normally a zoo person – I’d always rather see animals in the wild – but this was a very different kind of zoo. Featuring only animals from Belize, we viewed everything – some125 animals in total, from snakes and iguanas to tucans and the tapir, Belize’s comically ugly national animal.

We also visited the local markets in Belmopan, spending an entire afternoon shopping for fresh fruit before whiling away the hours sitting at the picnic table in front of our guesthouse, peeling and eating incredibly juicy pineapple, papaya, mangoes and star fruit.

And then we headed for the coast. From Belize City we chartered a speedboat, which carried us out to the Cays.

Belize’s coastline is part of the giant Mesoamerican Reef, which is second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Running from Cancun all the way down to Honduras, the Belizean portion of this reef is about 300 kilometres in length.

After days of inland heat, the coastal breezes were welcome, and we zoomed out to a tiny, sandy spot called Goff’s Cay, which resembled a stereotypical desert island in every way. With just 18 palm trees and a beach, there wasn’t much to see at Goff’s – on land, anyway...

So we took to the waters. I can honestly say it was the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced, and we spent hours in that warm, crystal-clear Caribbean water.

Encountering an extremely rich subaquatic ecosystem, we spotted comical parrotfish, moody barracuda, giant brain coral, and even a couple of nurse sharks.

Exhausted from spending almost the whole day swimming, we gathered on Goff’s silky, sandy beach, sitting with our legs in the water as the sunlight waned. After a week of earthy adventures we were tired, but glad that we had a chance to experience Belize at its very best.

Belize Must-Dos

Traditional celebrations in Orange Town Walk. To locals, Orange Walk Town is known as ‘Sugar City’. Legend has it that the sugar from this region is responsible for the ‘sweet’ demeanor of Belizeans.

Stay at an Eco-Lodge: Belize is home to some of the finest ecologically-friendly rainforest lodges in the world. To truly experience the pleasures of the jungle, try a place like the Lodge at Chaa Creek, which began its existence in the 1970s as a retreat for hippies that was reachable only by dugout canoe. It has since developed into a full service resort, complete with iridescent butterfly farm.

Alternatively, movie buffs will enjoy Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge. The famous director visited Belize in the early 1980s, fell in love with the country and purchased the then-abandoned lodge as a family retreat. Now open to the public, this 20-room luxury hotel is set in the Maya Mountains and features on-site waterfalls.

Eat Belize: In a country with hundreds of kilometres of coastline, it’s not surprising that Belize offers some of the freshest seafood in the world. Indulge in shrimp, lobster, conch and a variety of other delicious crustaceans. And like other countries in the region, rice and beans are the staple here. For local cuisine, try out Nerie’s II Restaurant in Belize City, which offers everything from curried lamb to lobster, or the Caladium Restaurant in Belmopan, a super-local place that offers Belizean favourites like fried fish and coconut rice.

Punta Gorda: This, the southernmost town in Belize, takes a bit of effort to reach – either a flight or a very long drive from Belize City – but many travellers note that it’s worth the trip. The nearby Lubaantun Mayan Ruins are usually quiet and not crowded, and legend has it that the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull, an enigmatic artifact that has puzzled researchers since its discovery in 1924, was originally found here.

You can fish in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, just north of town, swim in a waterfall at Rio Blanco National Park, take part in one of the local jungle walks, which will get you an up-close-and-personal experience with a crocodile, or just do a little shopping at PG’s, a local farmers’ market.

Soft Adventure: Belize has plenty of opportunities to get your adrenaline pumping. Raft or kayak one of its inland waterways or head up into the canopy for a zipline adventure. Aerial Trek Canopy Tour, near the interestingly-named town of Jaguar Paw, provides eight zip platforms and plenty of thrills.

Ambergis Caye: Adrift in the Caribbean, Belize’s largest island has become home to thousands of expats from North America. It’s not surprising, as the island is home to many beautiful beaches, as well as a couple of top-notch marine reserves that welcome divers and snorkelers. And there’s excellent food, there, too. Try El Patio, which offers food and drinks right in the beach, or Portofino Restaurant, where dinner comes with a complimentary ride under the stars.

Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve: Covered in Honduras Pine, this 430-square-kilometre reserve in central Belize is home to some amazing wildlife, including cougars, jaguars, ocelots, tapirs and crocodiles. It also offers a number of great opportunities for outdoor adventures – hiking to waterfalls, delving into the park’s amazing cave system, and plenty of trails for hiking and mountain biking. Then you can cool down at Rio On, a popular swimming spot.

Check out the watering holes of Caye Caulker, which also offers some of the best windsurfing and fishing in Belize.

Caye Caulker: The down-to-earth, relaxed sister to Ambergis, Caye Caulker, which is about eight kilometres long and less than two kilometres wide, is the place to get active. With its robust east wind, it’s a prime location for windsurfers, and the shallows that lie just off the island, it’s one of the best places in Belize to cast your fly for bonefish. Alternatively, you can take the manatee tour, which will take you up close to these giant, gentle creatures as they surface, or head to the island’s only village to kick up your heels. Caulker is home to some excellent nightlife, at places like the I&I Bar and Café which, with its rustic wood plank seats, is the island’s favourite watering hole.