Here's a little information from the new Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize (copyright 2000 Belize First, http://www.turq.com/belizefirst/
Where Visitors Go in Belize
Ambergris Caye is the top visitor destination in Belize. Beginning in the early 1950s, and accelerating beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, this was the first area of Belize to develop for tourism. It remains the most popular destination in the country. And for good reason: It offers a variety of sand and sea activities, a spectrum of hotel rooms from budget to deluxe, good restaurants, and the option of land tours. While tourism is the leading activity and considerable development has occurred, the streets are still sand, golf carts are still the main type of transportation, and no building is over three stories. There are no big cruise ships vomiting day trippers, as on many Caribbean islands. Visitors feel safe and comfortable here. Snorkeling (from a boat) is excellent, and the recreational diving is good. You’ll love it here if you like a laid-back resort atmosphere without too much commercialization. For more information on Ambergris Caye, see the Fun, Free and Easy Guide to Ambergris Caye (see BELIZE FIRST, Vol. IV, No. 3 which will be republished as an expanded stand-alone guide in 2001) and the Belize First Guide to the Belize Cayes and Coast (Equator, 2001).
Cayo District is a close number two as a visitor destination. About 20 years ago, the first small jungle lodges began operation around San Ignacio. Now, there is a flourishing mix of hotels, cottages and jungle lodges near San Ignacio and in the Mountain Pine Ridge, along with a lot of natural attractions and outdoor activities — canoeing, caving, hiking, horseback riding, to name a few. The country’s most accessible Maya ruins are here, as well as Caracol, in its heyday in the Classic Period a larger city-state than Tikal. And speaking of Tikal, Cayo is the Belize gateway to that astounding site. For many visitors, Cayo is the turf in the Belize surf ‘n turf trip. You’ll love it here if you like outdoor activities and an uncrowded “Wild West” atmosphere. See the Wonderful West/Cayo section.
Betwixt Belize City and San Ignacio, Belmopan is the down-sized capital of Belize, but the attractions are not in the capital itself but in the countryside. The Belize Zoo is here, as are several excellent jungle lodges. Along the scenic Hummingbird Highway and nearby are barely explored caves, wild rivers and national park areas. You’ll love it here if you like scenery or politics, or both. See the Hummingbird/Belmopan section.
In recent years, the Placencia peninsula has been undergoing a boom (a Belize-style boom, anyway) with the development of about a dozen new small beach resorts and new restaurants, adding to the existing inventory of small high-quality inns and budget hotels. Building lots have been sold by the score, to foreigners who think they’d someday like to live by the sea. At the same time, the peninsula hasn’t changed that much: Seine Bight is still a very poor Garifuna village. Placencia, a Creole village, still has its long winding sidewalk, and the largest grocery is the size of your living room. The beach is still a pleasant, narrow 16-mile long stretch of sand. The reef is almost 20 miles offshore here, but there are closer cayes for good snorkeling. You’ll love it here if you want a little bit of the South Pacific in Central America. See the Turquoise Coast/Placencia section.
Caye Caulker slowly is going up-market, but it remains mostly a budget version of Ambergris Caye, with small locally owned hotels and modest restaurants. Some think the island is a little funky; others say it’s just laid-back. Diving and snorkeling are similar to Ambergris Caye. You’ll love it here if you like a small, easy-going island with budget prices. Look for a new report on Caye Caulker in the Belize First Guide to the Belize Cayes and Coast.
When romantics dream about the Caribbean, with coco palms swaying in the tradewinds and the reef just steps off the sandy shore, the remote cayes are what they’re dreaming of. Belize has more than 400 islands in the sea. Almost all of them are tiny, most are unpopulated and many are incredibly beautiful, with sandbanks backing up to gin-clear water. A few, around Belize’s three atolls, are as South Pacific as you can get in this hemisphere. So what’s the catch? Why do visitors to remote cayes number only a few thousand a year? Because they are remote and small and difficult to get to. Airstrips are rare; boat trips out to them are expensive and may involve puking your guts out in that gin-clear water. With exceptions of a few expensive dive resorts, accommodations are mostly basic, with limited or non-existent running water and electricity. Tropical storms and hurricanes periodically destroy what accommodations there are. There are few places to eat, and no places to shop. But for those who want to get away to a deserted tropical island, a visit to South Water, Little Water, Northeast, Ranguana or other remote caye could be the experience of a lifetime. You’ll love it if all you want is sun, sand and sea. Look for a new report on the cayes in the Belize First Guide to the Cayes and Coast (Equator, 2001).
Most visitors see Corozal only as an overnight stop on the road from the Yucatán to the Belize cayes or Cayo, but Corozal in fact is one of the undiscovered jewels of Belize, with friendly folks and low prices on the beautiful Bay of Chetumal. In the northeast corner of Belize are Shipstern and Sarteneja, out-of-the-way place you’ll enjoy if you like being among the first to discover an area. There’s not a lot to do, but it’s a great place to do it. You’ll love this part of the country, if you want to slow down and enjoy a Mexican-Belizean experience. See the Sugar Coast/Corozal section.
The reputation (worse than the reality) of Belize City frightens most North American tourists, which is too bad, because Belize City offers a side of Belize that you don’t get to see elsewhere. It’s a busy, bustling and colorful port city with excellent restaurants and pleasant hotels. Nearby, and much more peaceful, are a wealth of interesting things to see in rural Belize District, including the Community Baboon Sanctuary, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary and Altun Ha. You’ll love it if you don’t bring misconceptions in your luggage. See the Belize City section and the Unbelizeably Central section.
The Hopkins area is what Placencia was like just a decade or so ago. Expats are moving in to Hopkins, a friendly Garifuna village that got telephones only a couple of years ago, and to “real estate subdivisions” nearby. New small seaside hotels are going up in Hopkins and Sittee Point. Although at times the sand flies can eat you alive here, you can get in some excellent fishing and beach time, with day trips to nearby Cockscomb and boat trips to the reef. You’ll love it if Placencia is too developed for you. Dangriga, the largest center for the Garifuna in Belize, gets visitors interested in cultural tourism. See the Garifuna Coast section.
Belize tourism promoters refer to Punta Gorda, Toledo District as Belize’s outpost. It’s certainly that, the jumping off point for unspoiled Maya villages and for onward travel to Guatemala and Honduras. At present, few tourists venture this far south. Over the next few years, however, as the Southern Highway resurfacing is completed and the road is (possibly) extended into Guatemala, this area will take off — again, by Belizean standards and at least in the dry season — in tourism development. Come see it now. You’ll love it if you want an ends-of-the-earth ambiance. See the Deep Green Coast/Toledo section.
Farms, jungle and wildlife are about all you’ll find in rural Orange Walk District. Orange Walk Town itself is not of much appeal to visitors, but once you’re away from town, this is authentic Belize. Several of Belize’s best jungle lodges are located here. You’ll love it if you’d be happier living in 1940 than today.
National Parks and Preserves
About two-thirds of Belize land area is still forested, and about 37% of the country’s land is protected, in reserves and national parks.
Among the major parks and preserves in Belize are:
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve, Stann Creek District. The world’s first jaguar preserve, this lush jungle reserve of more than 100,000 acres is a must-see for anyone interested in natural Belize. New trails are open to Victoria Peak, one of the highest points in Belize.
Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, Lighthouse Reef. Belize’s first nature preserve, Half Moon Caye is a beautiful island on Lighthouse Reef, with 10,000 acres of surrounding reef.
Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, Cayo District. More than 300 square miles of nearly unpopulated land in Western Belize. Controlled logging is allowed.
Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, Orange Walk District: More than 200,000 acres of jungle, including mahogany forest, in Orange Walk District, privately managed by Programme for Belize.
Other national parks and preserves include:
• Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Crooked Tree
• Community Baboon Sanctuary, Bermudian Landing
• Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, Ambergris Caye
• Blue Hole National Park, Hummingbird Highway
• Five Blues Lakes National Park, Hummingbird Highway
• Hol Chan, Ambergris Caye
• Shipstern Nature Reserve, Corozal District
• Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, Belmopan Area
• Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve off southern Belize (proposed)
• Manatee Preserve, Belize District (proposed)
• Laughing Bird Caye National Park, off Placencia
• Guanacaste National Park, Belmopan
• Port Honduras Marine Reserve, off southern Belize
• Slate Creek Preserve, Cayo District
Top Maya Sites
Belize has an estimated 2,000 Maya sites, of which only about a dozen are open to the public in an organized way. Most are unexcavated, and probably hundreds or thousands remain undiscovered, hidden in the bush. Of the dozen or so “major” ones, the wonderful thing about them is that they are almost totally untouristed. Unlike in the Mexican Yucatán or even at Tikal, where hordes of visitors swarm over the ruins, in Belize you may be alone with the caretaker, or one of only a handful of visitors, at an ancient Mayan city.
These are the most interesting Maya sites in Belize.
Caracol: The largest known site in Belize, and larger in area even than Tikal, this Classic Maya city-state was rediscovered in the 1930s but only since 1985 has excavation been underway. With an improved access road, it is now easier than ever to visit this awe-inspiring place. Caracol’s highest pyramid is still the tallest man-made structure in Belize. The drive to Caracol is beautiful and not difficult, except in wet weather. A new visitor center at the site is now open.
Lamanai: This was an important Maya community for three millennia, and this site has buildings dating back to 700 B.C. The setting is beautiful, at the edge of the New River Lagoon. You can drive here, via an all-weather road, though the approach by boat is inspiring.
Xunantunich: This Late Classic site is small but impressive. Don’t miss the view into Guatemala from El Castillo, a 135-foot tower that is the second-tallest structure in Belize. A plus is its easy access from the Western Highway — you cross the Mopan River on a small hand-cranked ferry. There is a visitors center.
Lubaantun: Not by any means the largest, most important, or most impressive site, Lubaantun has a mysterious appeal. One reason is its setting, near the remote villages of Toledo with their population of present-day Mayans, some of whom may shyly offer to sell you crafts or small trinkets at the Lubaantun site. Another is the famous Crystal Skull, which may or may not (most experts say not) have been discovered here in 1926 by the daughter of archeologist F. A. Mitchell-Hedges. A third is the style of construction, of carefully hand-cut limestone blocks laid without mortar. Lubaantun is on an isolated ridge near the village of San Pedro Columbia off the Southern Highway.
Che Chem Ha Cave: Many caves in Belize contain Mayan relics. This one, on private land in Cayo District, can be visited on a guided tour. Most who make the effort to see this come away awed by the pottery which dates to the time of Christ. One access is via a long drive on the “hydro road” from Benque Viejo.
Among other highly interesting sites: Cahal Pech, El Pilar, Altun Ha, Cerros, La Milpa, Nim Li Punit and Uxbenka.
Scenic Drives in Belize
Belize does not have the drop-dead breathless scenery of highlands Guatemala or Costa Rica, but Belize’s small population, uncut forests, and diverse ecosystems provide a uniquely Belizean brand of beauty.
The Hummingbird Highway from Belmopan to near Dangriga is hands down the most beautiful drive in Belize. It is also the best road in Belize and completely paved. The beginnings of the Maya Mountains, green and lush, are interrupted by the occasional citrus farm. These limestone hills are laced with vast networks of caves.
The road to Caracol begins with the bone-jarring routes from Georgeville or San Ignacio into the North Georgia-like scenery of the Mountain Pine Ridge. But once beyond Augustine/Douglas DeSilva village, the real beauty begins. It is a vast and unpopulated area, close to Guatemala, and the road, though improved, is still no superhighway. When the butterflies are flying and the sky is blue, this is a magical, if rough, trip to the ruins of Caracol.
The road from Orange Walk Town to Sarteneja provides glimpses of beauty to make up for the unpaved roadway. En route from Orange Walk Town, you’ll see the Progresso Lagoon, prosperous Mennonite farms, and the isolated villages of Chunox and Sarteneja, on the Bay of Chetumal. A new ferry across the New River in Corozal Town makes this a faster trip from northern Belize.
Most people fly to Chan Chich Lodge at Gallon Jug, but driving the road to Gallon Jug is a better way to see some of the real Belize (advance permission is needed to travel the privately owned sections of this route). You’ll pass Mennonite and other farms, small rural villages and plenty of wild bush. As you drive through Programme for Belize and Gallon Jug lands, you’ll likely see lots of wildlife. This is also one of the region’s last remaining mahogany forests. The road to Lamanai, which turns off at San Felipe Village, is also a great drive.
Diving and Snorkeling
The diving and snorkeling in Belize is literally world-class. It rivals the best diving in the South Pacific and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Dive destinations in Belize can be divided into two categories---the barrier reef and the atolls. Contrary to what you have probably read elsewhere, Belize’s barrier reef, at about 180 miles in length, is not the second-longest in the world. It’s actually the fourth or fifth longest, behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which is almost a 1,000 miles long, two reefs in New Caledonia (which some count as one reef and others two), and the reef at Fiji. Most reef diving is done on the northern part, particularly off Ambergris Caye. Here the reef is just a few hundred yards from shore, making access to your dive site easy. The farther south you go, the farther out is the reef, until it’s 20 miles or more offshore of Placencia.
But the best diving is around the atolls -- Lighthouse, Glovers and Turneffe. These are 30 to 50 miles offshore. The cayes and the atolls are covered in detail in the Belize First Guide to the Cayes and Coast.
Expect to pay from US$40 to $65 for a two-tank dive in Belize, plus rental equipment. Resort courses and dive training also are available.
More people snorkel than dive, and the snorkeling is great in Belize. The only problem is that in most cases for the best snorkeling you need to take a boat out to the reef. Snorkel trips run from US$15 to $50 per person, depending on the length and where you go. Individual sections of this guide give information and prices on snorkel trips.
Belize has great sportsfishing. Placencia, the Sittee River/Hopkins area, Corozal Town and Ambergris Caye are among Belize’s fishing centers. Depending on your interest, there’s fly fishing for bonefish and permit in clear shallow waters, or spinning and trolling inside and outside the reef for tuna, barracuda, wahoo, snapper, shark, billfish and others. Expect to pay about US$200 to $250 for two persons per day, including the boat, guide and equipment.
Wanted: Real adventurers. Couch potatoes need not apply.
All kinds of exciting adventures await the reasonably fit in Belize. Among them:
Cayo, Stann Creek and Toledo districts boast some of the most extensive cave systems in Central America. Some caves have undiscovered Maya relics. Many have not been explored in modern times. Don’t try serious spelunking without an experienced guide.
Charter a boat and spend your days puttering around the barrier reef, snorkeling the incredible water and eating freshly caught fish. Spend your nights sleeping deeply under the stars. This is reef crawling at its best.
Sea kayaking gets you even closer to the Caribbean and the reef. You can do it alone (with careful planning), but you may be more comfortable going with one of the adventure tour outfitters. Kayaks are available for rent (some hotels offer them free to guests) in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia, Hopkins and elsewhere.
Though there’s no regular surfing in Belize -- except maybe right before a hurricane -- Belize is getting a reputation as a good place to windsurf. Easterly winds on the cayes and coast blow consistently 15 mph + for most of the year. Usually the best conditions are January through March. Caye Caulker is Belize’s windsurfing center, but you can do it off beaches in Placencia and Hopkins as well as off other cayes. Expect to pay around US$10 an hour for board rental.
Belize’s rivers range from slow tropical waters to fast-moving clear streams. The experience of rafting, tubing or canoeing the rivers can be restful, or it can be fast and furious. Hook up with an experienced guide or tour operator, grab your hat and ride the rivers!
The Maya Mountains may not be tall — the highest peaks are around 3,700 feet — but with their rugged jungle terrain and tropical heat, hiking them is a challenge for even the fittest walker. The Cockscomb Preserve is a great place to experience Belize’s mountains, and a new trail to Victoria Peak, Belize’s second-highest mountain, is now open, making this difficult trek a little less difficult.
Mountain biking is taking off in Belize. Because Belize is so lightly populated outside the cities and towns, and there are so few cars, Belize is ideal for adventuresome bike trips. The Mountain Pine Ridge is especially awesome.
Belize is not — and never will be — as big a chartering center as, for instance, the British Virgin Islands. For one thing, stiff winds, strong currents, choppy waters and the barrier reef with its hidden coral heads can make navigation dicey, even for sailors who know local waters. Here are some sailboat charter operations in Belize:
Tortola Marine Management (Coconut Drive, Ambergris Caye; tel. 501-2-63026, fax 2-63072; e-mail [email protected]
This outpost of BVI-based TMM has a fleet of catamarans (sail and motorized) for bareboat and skippered chartering. Rates vary depending on the boat and time of year, but range from around US$2,200 to more than US$7,000 a week, not including provisions. The largest cats are 46 feet and sleep 8 to 12 persons. Skippers are an additional US$100 per day, and cooks are US$80 a day plus food.
Windsong Charters (Orange Point Marina, Punta Gorda; tel. in U.S. 303-983-3739, fax 623-7352; e-mail [email protected]
Windsong offers MacGregor 26s, either bareboat or captained. Bareboat rate for a weekly charter is US$1,850. Provisioning is available from around US$230. While these boats are a good value, people who have chartered them say you can quickly get “beat up” on the choppy waters.
Golf and Tennis
The only real golf course in Belize is at Caye Chapel Golf Resort & Marina. Caye Chapel is a privately owned island about midway between Belize City and Ambergris Caye. This 18-hole, par-72 lays beautifully along the Caribbean. It’s a flat but long course, playing to over 7,000 yards, with four par-5 holes. The current cost is US$75 for 18 holes, or US$50 for 9 holes, including cart and club rental. Eventually the rate may be increased. Visitors have to make their own arrangements to get to the island and should call in advance. For more information, contact Caye Chapel Golf Course & Marina, P.O. Box 192, Belize City; tel. 501-2-28250, fax 2-28201; e-mail [email protected]
or [email protected]
Tennis players also will find slim pickings in Belize. Besides courts at the Pickwick Club in Belize City, the Inn at Robert’s Grove in Placencia has courts for guests. On Ambergris Caye, the Essene Way and Journey’s End Resort have courts, as does the high school in San Pedro.