If you go
Hotels: With both of our hotels, I asked questions and refined reservations via promptly answered emails. Rooms were $90-$120 per night, an amazing price given the locations and quality. The staffs were friendly and helpful, arranging for us taxis and top-notch excursions.
Midas, San Ignacio: midasbelize.com
Sea Dreams, Caye Caulker: seadreamsbelize.com
Shuttle Service: We recommend William, of course: williamshuttle belize.com
Snorkeling: We were very happy with Hicaco Tours, which charges $35 per person for a half day and $65 for a full day. Phone: 011-501-602-6263. Or email adorable Stephanie at Sea Dreams (her dad owns the business).
Restaurants: Too many good places to list. June is lobster season, so at least one of us at every meal ordered lobster. Restaurants are reasonably priced, easily under $15 per person without drinks.
Here are some standouts:
The Guava Limb Cafe, San Ignacio: Still new, this pretty little restaurant is already receiving rave reviews. It features unusually prepared haute cuisine, from seafood to steak to vegetarian, at non-haughty prices.
Ko-Ox Han-Nah, San Ignacio: You might have to wait for a table at this bustling place that offers international cuisine, from burritos to curries to Korean chicken.
Wish Willy, Caye Caulker: This restaurant is a backyard party. Guests sit at long picnic tables under white Christmas lights and help themselves to beers from a cooler. The menu is written on a blackboard. When we were debating what to order, Willy announced he'd decide for us. He brought us plates of lobster and fish. We didn't complain.
The other day, my son Matt texted me from college with an unsolicited, stray thought:
“Belize was so much fun.”
Such wistfulness, and four months after the fact. Now, that’s a good vacation.
My husband, Mike, and I decided on Belize for a family trip abroad after looking at the expense, multiplied by four, of Ireland or Vietnam. We wanted to go somewhere exotic enough to lure our young adults into a week with Mom and Dad.
I knew very little about Belize before booking round-trip tickets for $400 per passenger. Here are just a few things I would learn from Fodor’s, websites and – best of all, of course being there:
• The Central American country, located on the warm Caribbean Sea, borders Mexico to its north and Guatemala to its west.
• This was British Honduras until gaining independence in 1981. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America.
• Belizeans, their language and their cuisine embrace a mix of cultures – Caribbean, Mexican, Mayan and Creole. Menus commonly offer enchiladas, black beans and rice, plantains, shrimp and jambalaya. Most Belizeans speak both English and Spanish, and we met some who were trilingual and even quadrilingual.
• I balk at generalizations about citizens of another country, but I will make this exception: Belizeans are about the sweetest people you will ever meet, and with a wry sense of humor. Every night over dinner we’d play a game: Who has been your favorite tour guide so far? Favorite waitress? Hotel receptionist? Taxi driver? We could never agree on a “first place” because we so liked them all.
• Belize and Guatemala are home to dozens of stunning Mayan sites – the ruins of villages built 2,000 years ago.
• One-third of the 560-mile Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – the largest coral reef system in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – hugs the shoreline, making Belize a mecca for scuba divers.
• Belize has more than 200 small islands, called cayes. The liveliest and most popular for tourism is the largest, Ambergris Caye. We stayed on the more laid-back Caye Caulker.
• Room rates go down a bit June through October, when Belize gets more rain. We went mid-June and the weather was wonderful – even on the one day a storm blew through. Advice: Don’t Google weather reports two days before your departure. I did, and panicked when I saw a succession of lightning-bolt and dark-cloud icons.
• Bugs weren’t the presence I’d imagined. Nary a cockroach in sight. We brought gobs of deet, but mosquitoes seemed to be on hiatus.
• Belize is divided between two equally delightful terrains – the jungle and the beach.
A developing country in unfamiliar parts, Belize initially struck us as more intimidating logistically than it really is. You don’t really need a travel agent or an all-inclusive setup, as we originally contemplated. You don’t even need to reserve a single excursion. Your hotel can help you with that when you’re there, which allows you to seek opinions from locals and remain flexible. You just need a travel book, TripAdvisor and, in our case, William Hofman – whose stature grew in our minds to almost mythical proportions that were confirmed when we actually met him. William runs a shuttle service between the jungle and Belize City, a congested town that most vacationers pass through only as an airport and water-taxi hub. I happened on William’s contact info while researching hotels – and what a find! Poor guy probably got weary of my emails picking his brain and seeking reassurances about this and that. Oh, and another thing you don’t need is a rental car, although that’s the way a lot of tourists get around. For us, it was less expensive and stressful to use shuttles and taxis.
Among other words of wisdom, William recommended our first hotel, the incongruously named Midas. One of his drivers chauffeured us in the two-hour drive from the airport to our delightful rain forest inn, just outside the colorful village of San Ignacio.
We stayed in adorable side-by-side cabanas, each with a hammock on the front porch. During breakfast on the restaurant patio, we could admire iguanas and cute furry critters called gibnuts, aka pacas, roaming among our lush surroundings.
On our first day, we hired a taxi driver for a few hours to take us to Belize Botanic Garden – 45 gorgeous acres of native and exotic plants. A well-versed (and, yes, lovely) guide told us about flowers, trees and plants heretofore unknown to us. The preserve offers an inn, The Jungle Lodge, where guests overnight in paradise.
Afterward, we dropped by the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm, which has a screened-in breeding center. We thoroughly enjoyed walking among the fairy-like creatures, but this is not a must-see if you are short on time.
The following day held perhaps the most spectacular travel experience of my life. We took a three-hour van ride to the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala – a worthwhile all-day time commitment.
We made a fairly easy, 45-minute hike through the jungle as monkeys played in the trees above. The ancient village encompasses mysterious pyramids, which hardy souls (like Mike, Erin and Matt) are allowed to climb. I did make it atop the one temple at which stairs have been added – and took in the spectacular view captured by George Lucas in his first “Star Wars” film.
Most extraordinary is the acropolis at the village’s center. At one point, our guide asked us to close our eyes as we walked through a gateway to a scene overlooking the city’s quad. We opened our eyes to an unforgettable, otherworldly panoramic scene of mystical stone structures.
After four nights in the jungle, it was off to Belize City to catch a water taxi to Caye Caulker. To our surprise, William himself picked us up that morning.
A rugged, chatty transplant from the Netherlands, William gabbed the whole way, regaling us with amusing and poignant stories about life in Belize – with its beauty and its poverty. At their budget-rate Cocopele Inn in San Ignacio, he and his girlfriend feed kids free breakfasts every morning so they won’t go to school hungry.
We landed on Caye Caulker after a 45-minute ride on a packed double-decker boat. The islet is but 5 miles long and 1 wide, but it packs a lot of charm into a little space.
We immediately fell in love with our hotel, Sea Dreams, owned by a Texas couple who founded a local high school so islanders wouldn’t have to commute to Belize City. More expats doing good things.
Our rooms were in a courtyard shaded by an enormous rubber tree. Upstairs was the cutest little outdoor bar, overlooking the sea and glittering sunsets. There, we sampled fruit drinks carefully crafted by a darling young woman who told us about growing up on the island. We also happy-houred with other hotel guests, most of them American, sharing restaurant suggestions. The room rate included a delicious breakfast in the same scenic location.
On our last (sniff) day in Belize, we joined an all-day snorkeling excursion – like Tikal, an amazing adventure.
I must admit I was apprehensive. First, I get seasick (luckily, I only felt queasy for a brief spell after lunch on the boat). Second, I can feel panicky snorkeling, irrationally imagining every few minutes that I’m about to drown. In Maui, I’d discovered that paddling around on a bodyboard solved that problem, but our boat only had bulky life jackets.
We motored for half an hour toward the reef. Our fantastic guide and his assistant stopped at least six times for us to slip into the water. For the first few stops, he patiently held my hand as we swam. After I gained some confidence, I relieved him of his duty.
We observed bright schools of fish, turtles, docile sharks and, thanks to our determined guide, a gentle manatee – a sighting that often eludes divers. By day’s end, we all felt that we had really accomplished something grand.
None of us was ready to leave the next morning. In the words of my son, Belize was so much fun.
Tropical waters and abundant coral reefs make the Central American nation of Belize a magnet for divers.
Great food and a lively atmosphere belie the humble exterior of Ko-Ox Han-Nah restaurant in San Ignacio.
Susan Christian Goulding admired a temple during the six-mile hike through Tikal, an ancient Mayan village in Guatemala.
From left, Mike, Susan, Matt and Erin Goulding take a break from exploring the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.
A tour guide revealed cobalt-blue wings at the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm in the rainforest of Belize.
A sailboat drifted by the shore of Caye Caulker, Belize, which is on the Caribbean Sea.
Souvenirs can be purchased at all manner of shops.
They like their parties on Ambergris Caye, the largest of Belize's hundreds of islands.
Erin Goulding relaxes in a hammock at Sea Dreams hotel on Caye Caulker.