Belize might not be the first Caribbean country you think of for family vacations, but as Sean King recently discovered, it might be your best Caribbean vacation ever.
As I close my eyes and reminisce on a glorious first-time vacation to Belize, the sights, sounds and smells of this lesser-known Caribbean paradise come flooding back: memories of snorkeling among hundreds of tropical fish in the crystal blue waters of the coral reef and the sensation of flying over the breath-taking Great Blue Hole. Then there’s the incredible smell of silky hand-made Belizean chocolate and the joy of making traditional lunch with locals. Although, visiting an ancient Maya temple, ziplining and tubing in the jungle and listening to the hypnotic sound of rain falling on our Cabana in the heart of the rainforest, are all worthy contenders for best-in-Belize too.
There’s a lot to see and do and it’s easy to see why Belize has become a must-go destination for curious and conscious family travellers. The country’s incredible nature is irresistible, from stunning Caribbean coastline to luscious rainforest. Wildlife is everywhere at sea, on land and in the air. And all that’s before we mention the wonderful, warm and genuine hospitality.
So where exactly is Belize?
For those that don’t know it, Belize lies between the densely populated countries of Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and Honduras to the south-east. This small, independent Central American nation was once British Honduras, until independence in 1981. A tiny population of just 400K is practically outnumbered by wildlife as Belize has an astonishingly diverse array of animals and plants. In fact, no fewer than 500 types of bird, 150 mammals, 150 amphibians and reptiles, over 550 fish and more than 3,400 plant species, are at home here.
Although small, Belize offers a huge variety of adventures. So it’s the perfect destination for families looking to experience nature close-up as well as a deeper understanding of the history and culture of this fascinating part of the world. As a first-time visitor, I was struck by what a wonderfully laid-back vibe the country and its people give off. As one Belize-loving friend said, “It’s like St Barts 20 years ago”.
There is much on offer to suit all tastes, making it an ideal getaway for adventurous families. However, you also have a lot to take in. I made sure I had a full-on schedule and even so I definitely felt I only managed to scratch the surface of what’s on offer.
From lively beach resorts to tranquil rainforest
My Belize trip was split into two parts: starting at the Umaya Resort & Adventures, close to the lively beach resort of Placencia; then finishing deep in the rainforest at the Falling Leaves lodge in San Ignacio, close to the Guatemalan border.
I arrived in Belize City and took the short flight to Placencia Peninsula on Air Tropic. A glorious way to start a vacation and, with the help of the fabulous guides at Barefoot Services and Taste Belize, I was able to fully experience the magic of this magnificent country.
Belize chocolate is a taste like no other
Placencia Peninsula is a relatively small but wonderfully quaint beach resort and a perfect base to discover the wonders of Belize barrier reef and some authentic local culture.
If there’s an award for the most genuine and passionate tour-guide, then Lyra Spang from Taste Belize should be a hot favourite to win. Raised in Belize and with a smile that could light up a room, Lyra now runs her own company offering a wide range of tours. Each one puts visitors in touch with small local businesses and farms which share her genuine love for the country.
Our Taste Belize tour kicked-off with a visit to Che’il Chocolate cacao plantation to see how real chocolate is made. Of course, sampling the end product was a must and what a joyous experience! If I close my eyes, I promise, I can still taste the silky home-made chocolate ice cream.
After that sweet start it was on to the picturesque town of Hopkins for a masterclass in homemade Belizean cooking at the home of Chef Gloria. Here she taught me how to make a plate of hudut: a delicious, savoury coconut milk and fresh herb broth with pounded plantain and fresh fish. I can’t tell you what a privilege the whole experience was for this foodie.
With lunch over, it was time for another short drive and the chance to cool off in a beautiful rainforest waterfall nestled in the foothills of the Cockscomb Mountains.
Is this the world’s best snorkeling? It could be
An absolute must in Belize is to get on a guided boat trip to the barrier reef to experience some of the world’s most incredible, jaw-dropping snorkeling.
The tiny island of Moho Caye – and I mean tiny – was a good hour’s boat trip from Placencia but boy was it worth it. Once we were kitted out with snorkels and masks, our guide took us on a magical tour of the reef pointing out hundreds of fish species, including a small reef shark. In fact the insane diversity of fish I came across blew my mind and is literally something I’ll never forget.
After a break for a BBQ and picnic we then set off to another snorkelling spot where two giant turtles came so close we could have high-fived them. Although we were so enraptured at seeing these creatures in their natural habitat pretty much all we could manage was wonder-struck gazing.
Our guides also knew the best secret islands, or Cayes, to stop off for a drink, lie in a hammock, and generally get into the Caribbean vibe. So on the way back to shore we dropped off at Ivan’s Island. Here, the man himself showed us around the laid-back haven he’s been lovingly upgrading since 1997. Complete with its own bar and cute accommodation, it couldn’t have felt more authentic, especially when Ivan rocked up to the jetty with his freshly caught lobsters ready to sell to the resort restaurants.
Don’t miss the Great Blue Hole in Belize
No trip to Belize is complete without experiencing a flyover of the barrier reef and the Great Blue Hole: part of the larger Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Great Blue Hole was first brought to the public’s attention in 1971 by the legendary Jacques Cousteau, who declared it one of the top five scuba diving spots in the world. And not only did Discovery Channel name it one of the, ‘best 10 places in the world to dive’, in 2018 it featured a two-hour special entitled, Discovery Live: Into the Blue Hole.
Then, after a fabulous few nights at the Umaya Beach Resort, it was time to head off to the rainforest to discover a completely different side to this country.
San Ignacio, deep in the rainforest and nestled on the border of Guatamala, is a three hour journey. Happily for us, this skipped along thanks to our entertaining host, Ian from Barefoot Services, who spent the trip pointing out local landmarks and regaling us with tales of local history and wildlife.
Next morning, after a delicious breakfast, it was time to hit the road again. We planned to check out some ziplining first, then we were up for cave tubing: floating downriver on a tube wearing a helmet and head torch to see where the Maya carried out their rituals thousands of years ago.
Making tortillas the Maya way
Another highlight of my Belize trip was a visit to the San Antonio’s Women’s Co-op. Originally set up by a group of local women to provide much-needed employment opportunities, the Co-op is also dedicated to preserving traditions around Maya history and culture.
Learning first hand how Maya women have made corn tortillas in the same way for hundreds of years was an eye-opener. And sitting behind the traditional potter’s wheel was an experience in itself. Although the traditional lunch made by the women in the Co-op was hard to equal. Not only was it delicious but the meal itself provided a insight into the fascinating Maya way of life: dating back centuries but still thriving today.
A haunting experience and some mighty tall pyramids
A visit to the ancient Maya archaeological site Xunantunich is another must for lovers of history and culture. The site dates back to 1200 BC, but was only discovered as recently as the 1800s by British medical officer Dr Thomas Gann.
The name Xunantunich means ‘Stone Woman” in Mayan. And legend tells of a ghost woman who’s said to haunt the site. No surprise to find it’s a major tourist attraction.
The 130-foot El Castillo is one of the tallest Maya pyramids in the world. Climb up and you have a 360° view as far as the eye can see as well as an evocative glimpse into a world dating back thousands of years. There’s also a visitor’s centre here which displays a model of the site along with photos, maps and details of significant events in the city’s development.
For even more local flavor, make sure you take in the San Ignacio Saturday farmer’s market. Here tourists and locals alike can enjoy a host of street food and handmade goods set to a lively musical backdrop.
Balancing the eco tightrope in Belize
Looking back on an action-packed week in Belize it’s easy to see why the country is growing in popularity. It fits well with more and more families looking for interactive experiences rather than lazing around all-inclusive beach resorts. However, as there’s so much to this developing nation with its rich history and natural resources, the trick for Belize will be how to balance tourism drawn to its abundant nature and wildlife with protection of the delicate ecosystem which is the main tourist attraction.
For now, the government has taken numerous steps to promote sustainable tourism practices which minimise tourism’s impact on the environment. Initiatives include an Eco-certification programme for hotels, resorts, and tour operators as well as the establishment of several protected areas to conserve the rich coral reefs and marine life. Of course, developing general environmental awareness is also vitally important as is investment in renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydro power.
So it certainly seems as if the powers that be in Belize are committed to building a sustainable green economy. This goal relies on respecting nature but also on making the most of the country’s financially viable carbon assets, like forests, mangroves and reefs, for the benefit of future generations.
Thousands of years of history to explore
The history of Belize dates back thousands of years and there’s evidence the Maya civilization spread into the area between 1500 BC to 1200 BC and flourished until about 1000 AD.
Spanish conquistadors were the first recorded missionaries, landing in the 16th century. After many years of disputes between the colonial powers of Spain and Britain, Belize was eventually colonised by the British in 1862 and in 1871, became a crown colony. Just over 100 years later, in June 1973, the country changed its name from British Honduras to Belize before becoming fully independent on 21 September 1981.
Take a look at lesser known Belize
If you’re looking for inspiration and even more reason to book a holiday in this less well-known Caribbean country, check out the upcoming four-part documentary Unknown Belize.
Directed by Galareh Darabi, it shines a light on the inspiring stories of passionate individuals who work in the country’s various conservation organisations and dedicate their lives to environmental protection.
Film director Francis Ford Coppola has also talked about his love for Belize and its natural habitat. He bought a family home here 40 years ago and has since developed a number of award-winning boutique hotels from ‘ridge to reef’, including The Turtle Inn on the outskirts of Placencia.
How to plan a Belize holiday
How to get there
Non-stop flights from Miami to Belize take from 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Where to stay
We stayed at Umaya Beach Resort & Adventure which features a range of family accommodation. Beach-side family rooms come with an en-suite master bedroom, twin bedroom and a spacious lounge with a private balcony overlooking the beach and resort pool.
Falling Leaves Lodge in San Ignacio is a good location to explore the rainforest and learn about the Maya people who live here.
Good to know
A full day excursion organised through Nine Belize – San Antonio Women’s Group Experience from $79 per person plus Xunantunich Maya Site Tour from $55 per person.
cave tubing and ziplining excursion with Nine Belize from $63 per person for a full-day.
Taste Belize Che’il Chocolate, Garifuna Cooking and waterfall full-day tour from $160 per person.
Guided Island Hopping through Go Sea Tours from $150 per person.
To follow in our footsteps visit Travel Belize and find out more about this fascinating Caribbean country.
All images © Belize Tourism Board