As a travel writer, I’m frequently asked to name my favorite destination. I’ve always answered Belize. The Central American country is a gorgeous blend of sandy beaches and Mayan jungles. It offers a never-ending menu of adventures during your stay. Here are 10 of my favorite things to do when you visit Belize.
Visit Mayan Ruins
The ruins of more than 600 Mayan sites dot the Belizean countryside, some more accessible and impressive than others. If you have limited time, visit Altun Ha, located just 30 miles north of Belize City. (Its main temple is featured on the label of Belize’s favorite beer, Belikin.)
Because it is so close to Belize City, Altun Ha is popular with cruise ship tours. For a quieter experience head west. Caracol and Xunantunich, both located near the Guatemalan border, boast the country’s two tallest Mayan ruins. Cahal Pech in San Ignacio has more than 30 structures. Further south, in the Toledo District, the trading center of Lubaantun includes 18 plazas and three ball courts.
Tube Through a Cave
One of the most unique and popular activities during the time you visit Belize is cave tubing, an activity popularized by Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company & Jungle Lodge nearly 20 years ago. Seven-mile floats with Anderson’s company begin near the mouth of the cave and continue into its depths, past stalagmites and stalactites, to an area filled with Mayan pottery, figures, and other artifacts.
If you’d rather hike into a cave, book a trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal, a Mayan burial site featuring four skeletons and artifacts. The cave adventure requires some swimming, climbing, and squeezing through tight spaces, so it is recommended only for those who are physically fit.
Make Mayan Chocolate
Love chocolate? Visit a cacao farm in the Toledo District to learn how the raw beans become chocolate. Several lodges and guides offer tours, but I highly recommend one that takes you to Eladio Pop’s farm. The enthusiastic farmer opens his home for cacao-making demonstrations and lunch.
Another option is to attend the district’s 3-day chocolate festival in May. Not traveling then? You can find Mayan chocolates available throughout Belize. Watch for Goss Chocolate and Belize Chocolate Company in markets and gift shops while you visit Belize.
Try Stew Chicken When You Visit Belize
Roadside restaurants displaying Belikin beer signs serve a dish I crave so much when I’m away that I learned to make it at home: stew chicken. The chicken is simmered in mild Latin spices and plated with rice, beans, coleslaw, and a fried plantain. Order a Belikin for a tasty meal under $5.
Along the coast, seafood shacks replace the stew chicken eateries. Come after June 15 for fresh lobster for under $20.
Learn to Play Garifuna Drums
Even though I can’t keep rhythm at all, I still had a great time trying to play the native Garifuna drums. Some accommodations offer complimentary drumming classes—I enjoyed mine during a stay at Hickatee Cottages in Punta Gorda—others, like Cotton Tree Lodge, charge for a much more extensive experience. You can also take a class at the Lebeha Drumming Center in Hopkins.
Overnight in the Jungle
Jungle lodges in Belize range from basic accommodations powered by generators to luxury, five-star properties. It doesn’t matter which you choose, plan to spend the night in the Belizean jungle.
I’ve stayed at several jungle lodges and resorts, and Ian Anderson’s Cave Branch Adventure Company & Jungle Lodge remains one of my favorites. When I stayed, I sipped rum on my patio overlooking the jungle’s canopy, showered in my room’s outdoor shower, and fell asleep with the windows open listening to howler monkeys.
Come Face-to-Face with the Wild
You’ll likely see wild animals if you spend the night in the jungle. To see even more, plan a day trip to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary, 33 miles from Belize City, is the country’s best birding spot and home to howler monkeys, crocodiles, turtles, and iguanas. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is the world’s first jaguar preserve.
Of course, there are no guarantees when you visit a sanctuary. For a guaranteed animal encounter, stop at the Belize Zoo, located at mile 30 on the Western Highway.
Explore San Pedro on Ambergris Caye
Although it’s the most popular Belizean destination and packed with tourists, San Pedro on Ambergris Caye has a certain charm. Live bands play until early morning hours at beachside bars, and some of the country’s best restaurants, including Elvi’s Kitchen, are in San Pedro. The island is also the gateway to unparalleled snorkeling and scuba diving.
In addition to the crowds, San Pedro is also known as Belize’s most expensive destination. To have a more laidback and less expensive island experience, head to nearby Caye Caulker instead.
Snorkel with Colorful Fish
Once overfished and depleted, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve now teems with sea life and is considered one of the best snorkeling destinations in Central America. Expect to see stingrays, sea turtles, grouper, snapper, and scores of vibrantly-colored fish.
Most tours combine a stop at Hol Chan Marine Reserve with a trip to nearby Shark Alley, where you can swim with nurse sharks.
I’m not much of a snorkeler, but I snorkeled here and would do it again.
Scuba Dive the Great Blue Hole When You Visit Belize
No doubt you’ve seen photos of the Great Blue Hole, a limestone sinkhole about 50 miles east of Belize City. The quarter-mile dark blue circle stands out against the turquoise waters of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. While the aerial view is definitely a “wow,” divers come from around the world to see the coral, angelfish, and even sharks below the surface.
It’s an expert dive, but you can also snorkel around its edges. If you have the chance to go, take it.
Belize definitely offers some great adventures. Also, this is a great destination if you are new to international travel—nearly everyone speaks English and you can spend US dollars. It's a great way to ease into travel abroad. You will look forward to a return trip and in finding more great things to do the next time you visit Belize.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.