Had Rachel Sainsbury and her family been deterred by the infamy of Belize City, they would have missed the amazing adventures the country had to offer.

“WE ADVISE you to exercise a high degree of caution in Belize because of high levels of serious crime.”

Not great reading from the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website as I began to research one of my bucket list destinations.

Belize, the land of the infamous Blue Hole, Caribbean beaches and a rich tapestry of cultures.

Surely this small country couldn’t be that dangerous?

With a bit more research, stories about tourists being murdered earlier this year emerged, along with tales of gang crimes and a surprising statistic — according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Belize has the third highest murder rate in the world.

It’s little wonder, then, that many people ask whether or not the lure of this Caribbean jewel is worth the risk?

The stunning view at San Pedro, a small town on the island of Ambergris Caye.

The stunning view at San Pedro, a small town on the island of Ambergris Caye.

Having just visited for three weeks with my young family in tow, I would say yes and ask “what crime”?

Rather than a dangerous, crime-riddled country we found chilled-out beaches, stunning reefs, a happy fusion of cultures, pristine mountains and rivers, vibrant festivals, a unique music scene and above all genuinely friendly and welcoming locals.

INSIDE THE DANGEROUS PARADISE

Sure, many of the locals are doing it tough. Prices are high and wages are low, but as one local told us, everyone looks after each other and most people don’t go hungry.

There’s so much more in Belize that the crime plaguing the capital city, such as the amazing landscapes surrounding the Mayan Mountains.

There’s so much more in Belize that the crime plaguing the capital city, such as the amazing landscapes surrounding the Mayan Mountains.

And with tourism their prime industry, Belizeans seem genuinely happy to share their patch of paradise with visitors.

So many times we were stopped in the street just for a chat to say hi and “welcome to Belize”.

Digging deeper we realised that most of the crime is in Belize City, between local gangs. For this reason we avoided the cities and stuck instead to the coast and the mountains.

Given Belize is one of the smallest countries in Central America, and the least densely populated, we thought we’d spend a week, maybe two, chilling on the beaches and doing some diving.

The idyllic island of Half Moon Caye is at the southeastern corner of Belize’s famous Lighthouse Reef atoll.

The idyllic island of Half Moon Caye is at the southeastern corner of Belize’s famous Lighthouse Reef atoll.

After the first few days we were hooked and stayed nearly a month. If we’d had time we would have stayed longer.

We arrived knowing little about the place and left knowing that we most definitely will be back.

ESCAPE THE CITY

So what makes this small Central American-slash-Caribbean nation so captivating? I could say diving the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef.

Diving into a deep ocean hole to a depth of 43 metres, with reef sharks circling and the narcs setting in. Bucket list item. Tick.

Or I could say swimming with whale sharks at Gladden Spit. Jumping into open ocean and coming face-to-face with an eight metre-or-so sea giant has to be up there as one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Anyone for a drink? You can’t beat the location of this bar and restaurant on Ambergris Caye, the largest of Belize’s Caribbean islands.

Anyone for a drink? You can’t beat the location of this bar and restaurant on Ambergris Caye, the largest of Belize’s Caribbean islands.

Or perhaps tubing down the Macal River in the Mayan Mountains, just our family, with toucans and eagles soaring above. Pretty special.

It was all those things and more. After five days in Ambergris Caye, where we dived the world’s second largest barrier reef, went fishing and generally chilled out, we drove south to Hopkins, a sleepy beachside town halfway down the country.

As luck would have it we stayed at a place where, according to locals, the best chef in Belize has a restaurant.

Rob’s Cafe certainly didn’t disappoint. Run by Chef Rob, a Dutch expat, the food was sourced locally and was a wonderful fusion of local and international flavours. Ever had a tomato cappuccino? Mouth wateringly delicious.

Snorkelling at the Great Blue Hole. Belize boasts the second-largest coral reef system in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Snorkelling at the Great Blue Hole. Belize boasts the second-largest coral reef system in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

CHOCOLATE, LOBSTERS AND GRINGOS

Our next stop was the furthest point south we could drive, Punta Gorda. Like so many other places in Belize, here we experienced hospitality like no other.

In this part of the country the Mayan and Garifuna cultures are strong, uniquely different but living harmoniously together.

There’s also a long established Mennonite community, and we had to take a double take when we saw bearded “gringos” trotting down the highway in their horse and cart.

We stayed in the jungle, swam in a thermal river and found some thrill seeking as we leapt off a 10 metre rock face into the swirling waters of Rio Blanco, swollen after a night of heavy tropical storms.

Fishing at Ambergris Caye.

Fishing at Ambergris Caye.

We dined on fresh fish and prawns, listened to Garifuna drumming, and spent a day making chocolate at Ixcacao (“ish-ca-cow”), in the Mayan San Felipe village.

Ixcacao’s motto is “chocolate will save the rainforest”, and you can see how. Cacao trees are planted, along with a diverse range of plants that provide food and medicine, under the rainforest canopy.

No slash and burn here. Life is simple, but the people seem at one with their environment and are happy and healthy.

The best way to get around on Ambergris Caye.

The best way to get around on Ambergris Caye.

The only thing I didn’t love was the spiders, especially not the huge black, hairy tarantula (almost the size of my hand) I saw picking its way across the grass just outside our bungalow.

But I guess that made the whole thing a bit more adventurous. A different kind of danger, and I survived to tell the tale!

After that it was all about lobster. We headed north to Belize’s prettiest beach town, Placencia, to indulge ourselves at the annual Placencia Lobsterfest.

Three days and nights of lobster, any and every which way you can eat it. Grilled lobster. Lobster ceviche. Lobster quesadillas. Lobster kebabs. Lobster burgers. Lobster fritter anyone? Is there such a thing as too much lobster?

Finishing touches. Pictures: Gary Burchett

Finishing touches. Pictures: Gary Burchett

Prized catch at Placencia Lobsterfest.

Prized catch at Placencia Lobsterfest.

Not when it’s served beachside by people smiling from ear to ear, accompanied by the local Belikin beer (chocolate stout anyone?), live music and some rather suggestive twerking in the background. As the locals would say, “unBelizeable”.

We did manage to fit in a quick trip to Gladden Spit to dive with whale sharks, which as I have mentioned was utterly amazing. But after that, it was all about the lobster.

We gorged ourselves on lobster, danced on the beach and chatted to locals and tourists alike. Never once did we feel we were in danger, not even slightly. It seems the locals have missed the memo.

The kids kick back during a relaxing day at Lighthouse Reef.

The kids kick back during a relaxing day at Lighthouse Reef.

SEEKING ADVENTURE

We left town on a high, and drove one of the most beautiful stretches of highway we’ve seen, the Hummingbird Highway.

As we drove towards the Guatemalan border we began to ascend into the mist shrouded mountains, marvelling at the birds and at how clean and pristine the countryside was.

We spent our final three nights at Black Rock Lodge, an eco lodge nestled in a canyon on the Macal River.

The rare red-footed booby, spotted at Half Moon Caye.

The rare red-footed booby, spotted at Half Moon Caye.

Our days were spent watching toucans, falcons, hummingbirds and an array of birdlife through telescopes on the restaurant balcony, night time animal spotting and horse riding through the jungles exploring almost forgotten Mayan caves.

To cap it off we indulged in one of my favourite activities of all — tubing. Grab an inner tube, walk an hour upstream and make the plunge. After that, we let the river take us home, through the canyon and over rapids.

And what about the Mayan ruins?

This is the most dangerous things got in Belize — getting up close to whale sharks at Gladden Spit.

This is the most dangerous things got in Belize — getting up close to whale sharks at Gladden Spit.

Having been on the road for nearly seven months we opted to miss the ruins — the kids were a bit “ruined out”, and we saw a lot in Mexico, and Tikal was just around the corner.

And it gives us a definite reason to come back. Along with the reefs, the rivers, the mountains, the wildlife, the chocolate.

And of course, the lobster.

The sleepy village of Hopkins is home to one of the best restaurants in Belize.

The sleepy village of Hopkins is home to one of the best restaurants in Belize.

PLACES WE RECOMMEND

Almond Tree, Corozol: Great border town stay, and a jump off point to Ambergis Caye. We left our car there for five days completely safely.

Coco Beach Resort, Ambergis Caye: Best. Pool. Ever. Huge rock platform in the middle of the pool to jump off, complete with waterslide and poolside pina coladas.

Parrot Cove Lodge, Hopkins: Cozy beachside hotel, home of Chef Rob’s Cafe. A meal not to be missed.

B & B Suncreek Lodge, Punta Gorda: Hospitality like no other. Stay in your own jungle bungalow and enjoy the slow pace.

Overlooking the spectacular Great Blue Hole, a giant submarine sinkhole in the middle of Belize’s Lighthouse Reef.

Overlooking the spectacular Great Blue Hole, a giant submarine sinkhole in the middle of Belize’s Lighthouse Reef.

Ixcacao Chocolate: Tour the rainforest farm, eat mangoes from the trees and learn how to make smooth, delicious chocolate the traditional way.

Belize Ocean Club, Placencia: Quiet luxury outside of Placencia, right on the beach.

Black Rock Lodge, Macal River (near San Ignacio): Eco resort stay that beats no other. Three nights just wasn’t enough.

Rachel Sainsbury is a travel writer, digital producer and teacher. She is currently travelling indefinitely with her husband and two children through Central America. Follow their travels at www.udreamido.com.