Rustic chic, off the beaten path, eco-luxury, understated elegance – these are phrases that have been attributed to the Central-American adventure destination, Costa Rica. These words (and more) can also be used to describe the much smaller country of Belize. Although small, it’s not lacking in adventure – with Mayan ruins peppered throughout the country, the second largest barrier reef in the world and some of the coolest cave hikes into the Mayan underworld that I’ve ever been on, the only thing that you can’t do in this country is hike up a volcano or go surfing (the waves are way too chill) – although paddleboards and kayaks are abundantly available throughout the coastline.
What I like better about Belize than Costa Rica is that it can be done in a long weekend. I tend to recommend a week at least for Costa Rica - it's a much bigger country and the travel times in between places make it hard to do it in just 4 days.
It only takes about 5 hours to travel to Belize from NYC and it’s only two hours from Miami or Houston.
A much smaller country than Costa Rica, it takes just a little over an hour to fly by plane from Belize City in the north of the country to the sleepy southern beach town of Placencia. So you can get that Central American adventuring without the long crazy transfer times of Costa Rica.
A quaint and under traveled destination, the international airport of Belize only has four gates. There are only three highways across the country so renting a car and driving from one city to the other isn’t hard. The locals are also incredibly welcoming – everyone speaks both English and Spanish.
Although most tourists end up going to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, I honestly much more prefer the laid back, less touristic vibe of the fishing village of Placencia.
We stayed at Turtle Inn – a Francis Ford Coppola Resort – his second one, after he turned his family retreat in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve near San Ignacio into a jungle escape called Blancaneaux.
A truly relaxing and beautiful property, it was really hard to leave the Balinese inspired vibe of our beachfront eco-retreat.
With no TV’s or air-conditioning (it really didn’t need it, since the breeze from the ocean was sufficient to keep you cool), it’s a true escape from the fast-paced city life.
I was surprised to even find Indonesian food in the middle of Belize, but I would have to say that I wasn’t complaining. The (dare I say it?) handsome general manager, Martin had dinner with us and told us the special meal was a inspired by a Dutch-Indonesian colonial tradition – Rijsttafel: a plethora of small Indonesian dishes like Sateh Ayam (Grilled chicken skewer with peanut sauce), Krupuk Udang (Shrimp Crackers) and my favorite Oseng Terong (Eggplant stew). I would say that we ate very well here.
The food was really top-notch, but don’t expect it to be inexpensive. There is also a wine cellar being built that houses Coppola's wine, along with bottles from other vineyards. The lobster when it’s available in season is also very good. Lobster season in Belize opens on June 15 and closes February 15. Placencia hosts a lobster festival in June usually lasting a whole three-day weekend that includes a mega beach party and even a Ms. Lobsterfest beauty pageant.
Although we were there for lobster season, we sadly missed the actual lobster festival by a weekend.
Turtle Inn also does its part to contribute to the local community. It greatly supports scientific research done by The Belize Turtle Watch Program and is active in conserving the largest barrier reef in the Caribbean (the second largest in the world, after the one in Australia).
We took a day trip with Splash Belize Dive Center to the closest reef, which was on Silk Caye – which was approximately an hour and a half long ride by boat. Composed of three islands, Silk Caye is an atoll along the Belize barrier reef. You can snorkel around each of the three tiny islands – there is one that is totally inhabited by birds.
Home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, the snorkeling and scuba diving in Belize in phenomenal. It’s probably the best that I’ve seen ever – although I still haven’t made my way to Australia.
This was the first time I swam with stingrays, eagle rays, loggerhead turtles and nurse sharks in the same location.
If you are planning on going out onto the reef, wear a rash guard and/or a lot of sunblock. I definitely got sunburnt while snorkeling.
In between Placencia and San Ignacio is a small swimming hole called St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park. Not to be confused with the Blue Hole National Park in Ambergris Caye. This is not the world-famous atoll, but a small, beautiful and tranquil swimming hole in a national park where you have to pay a small fee to get in. But it’s totally worth it.
Nestled within Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Blancaneaux Lodge, the first of Francis Ford Coppola's Eco-lodges is truly an escape from city life that you can make as idyllic or action-packed as you want it to be.
There are lots to do but at the same time nothing to do at Blancaneaux Lodge – you can lazily hang out on your hammock all day breathing in the fresh air and not be bothered by anyone, or you can partake in the myriad of activities that the property offers.
With 2 waterfalls on property, the man-made one right off the pool area or Big Rock Falls, the one approximately a 45-minute hike /15 minute bike ride away, and a stable full of happy horses. The property also offers horse drawn carriage rides through the woods, if you’re into that sort of thing. This is the place to be if you want to reconnect with the nature - there is a lot of fresh air for sure. There are also complimentary bikes on property to borrow and use to explore.
We biked to Big Foot Falls and swam around for a bit. I really wish we could have spent the whole day there. We could have asked the lodge to pack a picnic for us.
While the remoteness of Blancaneaux was incredibly rejunevating, driving up and down the roads to it were not. Thank goodness that the property has an airstrip so there is an option to fly from Placencia.
Our awesome driver/tour guide, Zachary, born and bred in San Ignacio, took us to his favorite local restaurant, Lydia’s.
We met Lydia herself and she cooked us a lunch of Belizean rice and beans and fish. A little bit of her homemade hot sauce was enough to set our mouths ablaze. It was incredibly delicious though and super affordable. It was only 12USD for 3 plates of food and beer! US dollars are widely accepted in Belize so we didn’t even need to change our money at a currency exchange. That made it super convenient to get around and buy things.
San Ignacio is a quaint little town – the second largest town in Belize and certainly one of the friendliest. Everyone seemed to know each other and they were certainly super curious about us. They chatted with us in a friendly, totally non-creepy way.
While in San Ignacio, we stayed in Ka’ana Boutique Resort, a luxury property in San Ignacio – only 5 minutes away from town. the hospitality here was really one of a kind. The general manager Wolfgang and his wife Anoushka really go out of their way to make you feel at home. And we definitely felt like we were guests in their home.
We stayed at one of Ka’ana’s new pool villas so it was incredible and very different than the other properties we were at. Geared towards a traveler who wants to still be connected to the world, instead of disconnected, there was air-conditioning and television.
We also visited the nearby Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, which were so close. We went to Hanna Stables and got on horseback to the ruins. I highly recommend this. It was such a fantastic experience – especially if you like horses.
Led by the owner of Hanna Stables himself, Santiago, who grew up on this land, we rode horseback through the forest and across a river aboard a hand-cranked ferry. We bumped into a couple who were getting married at the ruins. Belize is the only country in the world that allows wedding ceremonies to be performed at the sites of Mayan ruins.
I really enjoyed being at the Xunanutich ruins. There are small compared to the other Mayan ruins I’ve been to in the Yucatan peninsula, but I really enjoyed the experience of being at a ruin that was still under excavation. Our guide, Eduardo, worked on the excavation site prior to being a guide and would point to what looked like a mountain and tell us that under that dirt was a great Mayan structure where they recovered porcelain plates from. I really enjoyed the intimacy of this smaller Mayan site.
After our tour, we rode our horses with Santiago to a small Mayan Village and had another fantastic lunch at a local eatery Benny’s Kitchen.
This was one of most fantastic cave tours I’ve been on and although I have no photos to show for it because photography is forbidden, I would highly recommend doing this. Our guide told us that this was the cave the Mayans went to connect with their ancestors and the Mayan underworld and that they would go into the cave high on mushrooms. We did not do that on this trip, but I imagine it would have been such a crazy vision quest to go through a dark cave, holding nothing but a torch, in that mentally-altered state. I grabbed some photos off the Pacz Tours website - the tour operator we used to explore the cave. Tourists are not allowed to enter this cave without a licensed guide.
I loved Belize so much that I decided to come down again for my birthday. This time, we flew down to a small town in the Southern part of Belize, Punta Gorda, known locally as P.G., the capital and largest town of Toledo District with a population of about 5,000 people. It was a tiny town, indeed, but with a huge heart - Belizeans are known to be incredibly friendly and warm-hearted.
We were picked up from the town's airport in an open-air 4x4 jeep and driven through Punta Gorda by our guide, Desmond - who was voted best guide of the year in Belize - and we could definitely see why. A local who grew up in Punta Gorda, he knew everyone in town and was very knowledgable and charismatic.
Once we passed the town, we drove into the grounds of Belcampo Lodge, through a farm with a beautiful organic garden, grass-fed chicken and many happy pigs.
We hopped off the jeep and were warmly greeted by a lovely staff, including the general managers, Ross & Mary Ann. Homemade cookies and a housemade welcome drink were awaiting us and we felt at home immediately. As home as you can be surrounded by the canopy of the rainforest, that is.
Belcampo Lodge is a true serene jungle escape. The lodge itself is built in the canopy of the rainforest, so when you look outside your window, you'll find yourself face to face with the tree tops and, if you're lucky, you'll even be woken up by howler monkeys.
Every morning, there was a wake-up call for us with coffee, tea or juice brought to our door so we could sip while looking out at the beautiful canopy of the rainforest. What a delight to have breakfast while the howler monkeys were having theirs too, as the sounds of loud velociraptor-like howler screams echo through the skies.
This was definitely paradise. At least, as close to a nature paradise that I've ever been to without having to hike a mountain or climb a tree.
The chef-in-residence, Chef Renee, served very creative Belizean-inspired cuisine with fresh ingredients plucked fresh from the farm. Belcampo has a great all-inclusive meal add on where all your meals, except for your alcoholic beverages, are included.
To see where Chef Renee gets her ingredients, we did an amazing farm tour where we got up close and personal with the different organically grown flora available for our consumption.
Never have I ever seen ruins that were so purposely ruined before, and yes, there is a good story behind this one. These hidden ruins suffered a sad fate early in the 20th century. British adventurer Thomas Gann used dynamite in his search for treasure. This haphazard method of treasure hunting decimated many of the ruins and hindered the possibility of any future research. Reading the story of the ruins on the walls of the museum was quite amusing as it pretty much bashes Mr. Gann's excavating techniques - or lack thereof. Although not the grandest ruins I've ever seen, walking around the ruins themselves is pretty interesting, as you imagine what could have stood there instead of this rubble had these early explorers cared more for the history of the ruins than carelessly looting buried treasures.
The ruins have also been the setting for a hoax that some have claimed to have inspired Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones adventures with the crystal skull. British explorer and expeditioner, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, claimed to have found the infamous crystal skull exploring the ruins with her father. The alleged discovery made it into British newspapers, however there is absolutely no proof to support this - some claim she never even set foot in Belize. What a mess, but nonetheless, an interesting one to see in person.
I have a weakness for caving and I was very happy to hear that Blue Creek Cave was open during our stay. There had been a lot of rain so there was a chance that we wouldn't have been able to go at all. The guides were worried because the water level could potentially have been too high and the river current too strong for it to be safe enough to navigate through. But, alas, we were lucky to be the first ones there for the season. Another fun fact: apparently, the rainforest that we hiked through to get to the cave was where Mel Gibson's film Apocolypto was filmed.
For our safety, we put on helmets and life vests as we descended into the darkness. Following our guide into the watery rapids - our headlamps were able to show us the stalactites and stalagmites.
The weather was tempestuous - slightly cloudy with scattered showers but we decided to go out snorkeling anyway. We figured to give it a try and if a storm did pass by, we could just turn back. The weather in Belize is finicky. Rains fall yet pass quickly. It could be raining at the lodge but not at the caves or at the sea.
We jumped on a pontoon boat manned by Captain Jackie - he grew up here right on the land so he knew it like his backyard and would point out different animals and plants to us. Nineteen kilometers through the rainforest later, we headed straight out into the ocean.
When we got to the ocean, we basically had the sea to ourselves. I happily jumped into the warm water to see the aquatic creatures in their natural habitat. We were quite close to the bottom of the ocean and I saw a lot of brightly colored fish, different types of starfish, lobster, and a barracuda.
What I expected to be a snorkeling excursion also turned out to be a fishing expedition. While I was snorkeling with Captain Jackie, he speared a lobster right in front of me. And then he pulled that lobster off this spear and thrusted it into the belly of another one.
With two lobsters in tow, he swam for the boat, dumped them in a bucket and let them die for our dinner. They were spectacularly delicious indeed.
I had SUCH an amazing time in Belize that I can't wait to have you go. If you haven't already, let me book your Belize vacation for you!
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Fly into Belize City (BZE)
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Belize
San Ignacio, Belize
Punta Gorda, Belize
Belikin Beer – The National Beer of Belize
St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park
Horseback Ride to Xunantunich
Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves
Snorkel Silk Caye
Blue Creek Cave
by Patricia Serrano