It may be corny, but it’s true what they say…..Belize is truly UNBELIZABLE! We spent 7 nights in Belize in the spring of 2018, splitting our time between Ambergris Caye and mainland Belize and we were absolutely blown away. We chose Belize because we didn’t know anyone who had gone there…plus, we could hop on a plane in the US and land in Belize by 11:30 a.m., AND the flights were wide open, so flying standby wouldn’t be an issue. We knew we could get the beach on Ambergris Caye, and we love the Caribbean Sea, so that was a no-brainer, but neither of us had ever experienced a true jungle so we figured we’d get the best of both worlds and do it all! While the Belize Barrier Reef is the 2nd largest reef in the world, about half of the country also houses an incredible rainforest, 80% of which is protected by the government! As it turns out, Belize is SEVERELY underrated. The country was absolutely breathtaking…and WASN’T overrun with tourists. We got the best of the Caribbean Islands, mountain views, ancient ruins, and jungle adventuring all in one tiny country over the course of a week! If you haven’t heard of Belize you need to check it out and add it to your bucket list immediately!
Ambergris Caye is one of over 450 offshore Cayes (islands) off the eastern coast of Belize, sitting right in the Caribbean Sea. It is the largest island in Belize, and is where many of the tourists that DO go to Belize end up at some point. The island has a very low-key vibe and offers just enough to do to not get bored, but not too much to the point where it’s crowded and super touristy. To get to the island, you have to either take a small little island-hopper plane, or a water taxi (ferry). We chose to do the water taxi since it was cheaper. We took a cab from the airport in Belize City to the water taxi terminal ($25), which was about a 20 minute ride. Once at the water taxi terminal, we bought tickets for a one-way ticket to Ambergris Caye ($28/person). There are scheduled departure times, so plan accordingly if you can, the schedule is usually posted online here. Our 100-person taxi boat left at 1:30, stopped at Caye Caulker to drop off passengers and pick up new ones, and arrived to Ambergris around 3:15.
First stop, Ambergris Caye!
Our FAVORITE day on Ambergris Caye was spent snorkeling on the Belize Barrier Reef, hands down! We went on a half day tour with Searious Adventures (check them out on Instagram, at their website, on Facebook, and/or Tripadvisor) and had an incredible experience with them! They offer different tours, some of which go to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, but the tour we went on was to the Mexican Rocks, which is an extension of Hol Chan, which is part of the reef, which is the second largest reef in the world. During our time, we visited 2 different snorkel sites at the Mexican Rocks…the weather obviously dictates where you can go, so if it’s too wavy or windy in certain areas your options may be limited. We left the dock at 8:30 a.m., did a few pickups from resort docks, and came back at 12:30 for a 4 hour total trip. The cool thing about the trip is that it’s (obviously) via boat ride, so you get see the island from a different perspective as you cruise by, so it’s kind of like getting a tour in and of itself just to GET to the snorkel site. Our guides Jose and Eddie were fantastic and we had an amazing time with them. They knew answers to everyone’s questions about the history and the sea life, and they pointed out all kinds of fish and coral and told us what everything was. They even got eels and turtles to come out of hiding and had lots of great stories to tell. Our group had about 12 people, which was then split into groups of 6, each of which followed either Jose or Eddie. It was really a great setup because you could stick with a guide and see everything he pointed out, or you could wander a bit and explore on your own as long as you are within eyesight of the group. During our half day tour we were able to see and swim with a sea turtle, eels, sharks, stingrays, lion fish, Spanish lobster, “Dory” fish, and all kinds of snapper and other types of fish and coral. As swimmers who have only ever snorkeled off the beach on our own, participating in an actual snorkel tour and seeing that much wildlife was an absolutely incredible experience. If you make it to Belize, I HIGHLY recommend checking out Searious Adventures for a snorkel tour….with Belize’s huge reef, it’s the best place to snorkel around! For those interested, Searious also offers a variety of other packages, including mainland tours of caving, zip lining and ruins exploration, and sailing excursions. Their snorkeling options even come as half-day or full-day trips, and have several different tour sites that you can choose from…check them out!
2.) Secret Beach
Our other 2 days on the island were spent mostly at Secret Beach, which is the best beach on the island. The beach is really no secret at this point, but it has only been accessible by land through a drivable path within the last 2-3 years, before that it was only accessible by boat. Since we stayed “North of the bridge” in Tres Cocos (more about where we stayed here), the drive was only 30 minutes by golf cart, and golf cart rentals are normally about $50/day. It’s definitely a bumpy ride over an unpaved road, but it’s enjoyable to see the scenery of the island and is definitely worth it to get to such a beautiful beach. When we were in Belize in the spring of 2018, they had feet of seaweed piled all along the eastern coast, turns out, it was an unusually bad year for seaweed, so you didn’t want to swim at any other beach other than Secret Beach, which made the drive even more worth it. The best spot at Secret Beach is actually the Secret Paradise Beach Bar , which has it’s own cove and is more private than the nearby cove next to it. Pro Tip: order the ceviche, it’s fabulous!
3.) San Pedro
San Pedro is the main town on the island, and is the hub through which you arrive and depart. The airport and the water taxi dock is here, so you will inevitably be here at some point. It’s also the most touristy area and is where most of the restaurants and shops are located, so you’ll probably spend a decent amount of time here. There’s something around every corner – and half of the buildings are waterfront, so, even better! Would definitely recommend spending some time strolling through the streets and getting lost in the alleys.
We love checking out the local cuisine wherever we go, so we made it our personal mission to talk to all the locals to find THEIR favorite spots. For your convenience, we’ve compiled that list here 🙂
Second stop, Mainland!
Because we wanted to experience the jungle, we planned to stay 3 nights right outside the capital of Belmopan, which is right in the middle of the country. Our resort was the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge (read that review here), which was right in the middle of the rainforest itself, and was the coolest experience! We spent one full day driving around mainland Belize, and the other full day just hanging out on the resort grounds where we hiked up a jungle mountain, biked through orange groves, and paddleboarded down the river (all for free!)….all of that is included in the review of the lodge mentioned above if you’re interested in that, but the other activities we did are listed below!
1.) Xunantunich Ruins
The Xunantunich ruins (zoo-nan-too-nitch), which translates to “Stone Woman”, are located right outside the town of San Ignacio, which is right near Belize’s western border with Guatemala, so it is a bit of a drive unless you’re staying in San Ignacio. However, we loved the 1.5 hour drive from Belmopan because we got to drive straight across the country and see more of Belize, which was really neat. We had a rental car so we drove ourselves without a problem, but you can book tours that include transportation pretty easily. When you first arrive, you have to cross the river using a ferry. The ferry takes cars and walkers free of charge, but tips are appreciated, especially since it’s a hand cranked ferry. It’s not a large river and only takes a few minutes to cross. From there you drive (or walk) up a paved path until you see buildings and a parking lot. Bathrooms, gift shops, ad park services are located there, and you will need to pay $5/person as a park entrance fee, so make sure you have cash! After parking there is a quick 5 minute walk uphill to get to the ruins, which are pretty much all in one place. Be sure to bring sunscreen and water because it is sunny and hot in that main open area, and sneakers are recommended. It looks like most visitors hire a tour guide, which you can either come with if you booked a tour or you can hire when you get there. We didn’t get a guide because we were just wanting to breeze through and we were in and out within 45 minutes, but I hear that the guides are worth the money, especially if you want to really learn about the ruins and history. There aren’t any informational signs on the grounds as you walk through, so if you are really caring to know about everything
then I’d recommend renting a guide, although there is a small building with lots of informational plaques on the walls of it’s rooms that you can read if you want. The ruins themselves were absolutely INCREDIBLE and was one of the highlights of our trip. We had visited Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico, but these were even bigger….plus, you can climb on them since Belize hasn’t made ruin climbing illegal. We climbed all the way to the top of the biggest structure, the main temple of El Castillo (Spanish for “The Castle”), which is over 130 feet tall and is the second-tallest building in Belize. The views from the top of the temple were absolutely BREATHTAKING, and you can see all the way into Guatemala! We loved walking up the stairs and through the dark stone corridors of the temple, and meandering through the grounds and the rest of the structures as well. It really is an unbelievable experience to walk in the same steps as the ancient Mayans did over a thousand years ago. Since the ruins are surrounded by jungle you also get the chance to see a variety of wildlife, including lizards and monkeys too! Pro tip: go early in the morning to avoid the crowds….we left our resort at 7:30 a.m. in order to arrive at the ruins by 9:00 on a Thursday and were the only ones in the park, which was incredible! From what I’ve heard, it’s almost never empty like that, as there are tons of tour buses and cruise excursions that roll in and crowd the area, so I’d recommend biting the bullet and getting up early that day 🙂
2.) St. Herman’s Blue Hole
The Blue Hole National park is located about 30 minutes away from the capital city of Belmopan, and was only about 10 minutes from our resort, so we stopped in to check it out on our way back from Xunantunich. It is only about $4/person to visit the national park, and offers several hiking and cave exploring options, but we didn’t have much time so we went to see the blue hole instead. This blue hole is a small jungle pool that is similar to the Mexican cenotes, if you are familiar with those. Don’t let the photo fool you, since we got there in the middle of the day it was pretty crowded when we arrived, so we went for a quick swim and then left. The water was definitely pretty cold, but we would have loved to come back and spent real time if it wasn’t so crowded and if we had had more time. Side note: this blue hole is NOT to be confused with the Blue Hole in the ocean that you can fly over or boat to that many visit to go scuba diving.
A few random things to note:
1.) While the jungle wasn’t nearly as buggy as we expected, it still had bugs present, so make sure you have bug spray.
2.) Almost all prices you will see posted are listed in Belizean dollars, which also uses the same $ symbol as American dollars. When we visited in the spring of 2018 the Belizean dollar was worth half of an American dollar. Almost everywhere accepts both the Belizean dollar and the American dollar though.
3.) For the most part, everything in Belize was super cheap, so this country is a fantastic budget-friendly option! (I’m talking like, fifty-cent tacos cheap!)
4.) We found that both on the mainland and on the island Belizeans are super friendly! We spent a lot of time talking to the locals and finding out what life in Belize is really like and what they like to do. We loved seeing all the kids walking to school in their uniforms every morning, both on the island and on the mainland, always happy and smiling. Also, Belizean children are, no joke, some the most well-behaved children we’ve ever encountered. We were in the country for a full week and interacted with a lot of the locals and not once did we see any of the kids act out. Unemployment is pretty high in the country, so a lot of mainlanders actually go to the island to work. They all work extremely hard, often working 6 days a week. Most of them told us that on their days off they do what the tourists do (at least on the island), which is eat, drink, beach, etc. All of the locals were eager to show off their country and point us to the best spots to visit. Not only were they helpful, but the Belizeans are super friendly! We had a local at the water taxi baggage claim offer to let us use his phone to call our hotel to schedule a pickup since ours didn’t work and there wasn’t wifi available. We had our taxi driver tell us everything to do on the mainland and where to go and what to avoid, and another local on the island helped us push our golf cart for a solid 30 minutes when it broke down in the dark one night. Their life isn’t the easiest, but we talked to tons of locals at the restaurants, bars, beaches, etc., and every single one of them greeted us with a smile and treated us like long lost friends. We felt extremely safe the whole time and found Belize to be an extremely welcoming country.
5.) If you do some research, you will read that Belize has a pretty high crime rate and isn’t the safest country to visit. HOWEVER, that statistic isn’t exactly relevant in the way they pull the data. Since the country is so small, a vast majority of the population lives in Belize City. The city, like any major city in the world, is of course prone to crime, which is where those statistics come from. There just aren’t as many citizens living outside the city to balance out the numbers. Most tourists don’t hang out in Belize City, so it shouldn’t be a problem, and the crime areas aren’t near the airport and water taxi terminals that ARE visited by tourists, so it’s really not scary like it sounds and there isn’t anything to worry about.
6.) The main highways are paved and easy to drive on, but there are only about 5 main highways, and all the other roads are back roads of dirt and gravel. It’s not a problem to get to Xunantunich, but if you plan on doing any additional exploring be sure to get a truck/jeep/SUV that can handle back roads. Also, watch out for speedbumps…..they really sneak up on you, especially on the highways!