Belize came as a great surprise to us. We’d planned it as a kind of beach break on our way from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to the mighty Tikal in Guatemala. It lived up to our expectations in Caye Caulker, where we extended our three-day stay to 10, but as we chatted to other travellers it soon became clear that there was much more to explore on Belize’s mainland than we had first accounted for.
Belize isn’t a large country, with a population of around 400,000 it’s the second-smallest country in Central America, and is often overshadowed by countries like Costa Rica. But it’s saturated with Mayan sites, wildlife-rich experiences, and opportunities to explore the local culture. The mix of Creole, Latin American, and British food is also enough to make you want to stay in Belize a little longer than you had originally planned.
Spanish isn’t the main spoken language in Belize like in the neighbouring countries of Mexico or Guatemala. In the late 1800s Britain encouraged pirates and seafarers to go and log Belize for its teak and mahogany, along with other natural resources.
Much of the workforce at that time was made up of slaves taken from Africa, and Belize remained a British colony for a long time finally gaining independence in 1981.
Belize is unique in that it's the only Central American country where English is the official language - making navigating road signs and asking for directions super easy. It’s a diverse country though, although mainly Christian there are many different ethnic groups living in Belize including Creole, Maya, Garifuna, East Indian, and Mennonite.
It’s best not to assume that everyone speaks English - 63% of the population speak the official language, while Spanish is also widely spoken by around 57% of Belizeans.
Usually, it would be ill-advised to travel with anything other than local currency, but Belize has made it easier than ever to be a tourist here. The Belizean Dollar is tied to the United States Dollar at 2:1 and you can use them interchangeably without losing out to any exchange rates. You will often get change in Belizean Dollars so starting off with USD is absolutely fine.
ATMs in Belize can be unreliable and are sometimes quite expensive to get money out from, so it’s best to bring USD with you. Though you shouldn’t need to exchange money, exchanges are usually just unlicensed locals operating on the street, so it’s best to try to avoid relying on exchanging a lot of cash here.
Belize isn’t a budget destination, but it doesn't have to be expensive either. Using local transport and staying at budget accommodation is possible, but to travel comfortably allow for a budget of between 100 to 200 USD per day.
Double rooms come in between $30 to $60 a night, meals can cost anywhere between $4 and $30 (depending on whether you eat local or at international restaurants), entrance to archaeological sites cost less than $10 and guided day tours are usually around $100+.
It pays to plan ahead when travelling in Belize, while some sights like the Blue Hole and ATM Cave are unmissable, you can choose where to visit them from to save big on hotels. The well-developed Ambergris Caye attracts the crowds, but the nearby island of Caye Caulker is a smaller and less busy alternative. Accommodation is also much more reasonably priced and the ferry ride from the mainland is actually shorter.
Another affordable place to stay is in the Garifuna village at Hopkins which offers one of the most unique cultural experiences that you can have in Belize. Although many head straight to the southern shores of dreamy Placencia, a stop here offers beautiful beaches as well as an insight into the traditional dances and cuisine of this interesting culture.
It’s not the only culturally interesting place in Belize either. The Orange Walk area of Belize is home to many Mennonites while the Belize River valley is one of the best spots to get to know Belize’s Afro-Caribbean culture. Explore Crooked Tree and Bermudian Landing to spot wildlife and stay in historic villages with sumptuous Creole restaurants around every corner.
Belize offers a surprisingly diverse array of cuisine with many good quality international restaurants in tourist hotspots like San Ignacio.
But it’s the street food here that will leave a lasting impression, grab a pupusa at the market in San Ignacio or fill up on a staple like rice and beans, panades (deep-fried corn flour crescents filled with fish or beans), or chicken stew. Other local favourites include tamales, tostadas, and garnaches (beans, cheese, and onion in a fried tortilla).
Mom-and-pop restaurants can be found almost everywhere, offering home-style meals sometimes from the owners' very own personal kitchen. One of the best meals we had in Belize was sitting on the front porch of Meldy’s humble stilt-house in Caye Caulker, eating freshly fried chicken straight from her kitchen. There are no menus here, just turn up to see what she has in from the market on the day.
Of course, local food is much cheaper when compared to eating out in international restaurants. Local drinks are the same, you can buy Belizean beer, pop, or spirits for much cheaper than imported ones.
Fruit is also a cheap snack, it’s fresh and abundant in Belize appearing at many roadside stalls and small village markets.
Belize is not only home to 17 national parks, but it also has more than 100 protected areas. It’s a great place to come wildlife spotting, with tours and jungle lodges offering an easy way to explore these unique places. One of the most important jaguar preserves in the world is in Belize.
The 400 km² Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve was originally created as a sanctuary for endangered jaguars, but they now thrive here in one of the most successful rehabilitation stories in Central America. Both here and in other remote parts of Belize there are opportunities to go caving, hiking, birding, and to learn more about tribal culture through medicinal trails.
Belize is also a paradise for divers and snorkelling, nestled on the Caribbean Sea it provides access to the vast Meso-American Reef - the second largest barrier reef in the world. From the Cayes, boat trips to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley offer snorkelling opportunities with loggerhead turtles, southern stingrays, and gentle nurse sharks.
Part of this area is also an important breeding ground for Manatees, although these are best seen from the boat so as not to disturb mothers and their calves during the breeding season.
As far as history goes, Belize has some amazing sites that are not to be missed. The Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, Caracol, Lubaantun, Altun Ha, and Lamanai all offer unique insights into past civilizations in this part of the world. You are also remarkably close to Tikal in Guatemala. From San Ignacio it's possible to take a day or overnight trip to see these epic ruins, much of which have yet to be uncovered from the dense jungle that has swallowed them over time.
Tours give such a wonderful insight into Belize's history and archaeological sites, and at places like ATM Cave you can’t visit without one. Actun Tunichil Muknal is the site of several Mayan sacrifices deep within a cave. It was said to be the entrance to the underworld and was only rediscovered in 1989.
Guided tours to ATM Cave are limited to strict numbers to protect the site, a full day trip includes a jungle hike, fully submerged river crossings, spelunking through impressive cave systems, and of course the skeletons themselves.
Other tours not to miss in Belize include the boat trips to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, and the captivating Blue Hole scenic flight or scuba diving excursion. Wildlife watching trips can also be found throughout the country, while the Belize Zoo offers a good way of getting up close to rescued and rehabilitated native animals.d
Belize City has made a name for itself due to petty crime and drug-related violence, issues that are rarely seen in the rest of this safe-feeling country. It was once the capital of British Honduras when the British Empire was in power in Belize and still has many colonial buildings - some of which have been left to slowly crumble away.
The city has seen its fair share of natural disasters like hurricanes, as well as being centre stage for the revolution during the 1900s, leaving the buildings and local economy in a negative state.
Lawlessness was the norm in Belize City for a long while, with pirates and criminal gangs running rife, civil unrest came to a boiling point here and the government was moved to the new capital of Belmopan in 1970. Belize finally became independent on September 21, 1981, and the city has had its ups and downs ever since.
Due to its rocky past, many tourists rarely get further than the bus station or the ferry dock to access the islands. The city does have a reputation for being unsafe (especially at night), but it is isolated to certain areas and many parts of Belize city are safe and interesting to explore.
Many cities come with a bad reputation and I think Belize City is no different. With a little research and planning it can be a wonderful addition to your Belize itinerary.
If there is one thing that I’d do differently next time we visit Belize it would be to hire a car. The 1950s retired American Bluebird buses do provide a cheap way of getting from A to B, but they are in no way comfortable.
I’d still recommend a short ride on one to experience the chaos as it’s the main form of transport for many locals. But they are best avoided when you have your luggage so space can be in short supply. The buses have a tendency to often stop just about anywhere to pick up entire families carrying everything from a new sofa to a hoard of chickens (hence the term “chicken bus”).
The buses also only run between major towns like Belize City, Corozal, San Ignacio, Dangriga, and Punta Gorda in the south. So getting to the more out-of-the-way sites like Caracol is impossible.
There are also no seatbelts and the legroom is distinctly lacking as the buses were originally made for small children. While taxis and private shuttles are available, they are mainly for tourists and can really add up if you use them regularly.
So it makes sense to hire a car in Belize when you are visiting the mainland, a 4x4 is preferable as many of the roads outside of the main highways are quite rough and pass through some remote areas. The scenery is also spectacular, making road trips all the more tempting.
The famous Hummingbird Highway winds its way through the lush tropical mountains from Belmopan to Dangriga, and has lots of fantastic little stops to sample local chocolate and to take dips in cooling watering holes.
Belize doesn’t often appear on must visit lists, but that makes it all the more interesting to explore and uncover for yourself. My one piece of advice would be that it’s best explored slowly; taking time to appreciate the food, culture, and pristine beaches, as well as the swathe of natural and historical wonders that the country is blessed with.
I won’t forget how friendly and welcoming the people in Belize are, proud of their country, cuisine, and diverse culture. The openness, warmth and hospitality we felt here made it a hard place to leave, and has left a lasting impression that ensures that we will return one day.