Belize had been near the top of my bucket list for 20 years before I visited in January. It’s nature/wildlife attractions are equally impressive to the ecotourism in Costa Rica, but with less crowds. It’s also among the few places we’ve explored in-depth that we’re dying to return to.
There are so many great tourist attractions in Belize, it’s difficult to narrow them down. From the islands and impressive barrier reef system off the Caribbean coast to the remarkable Mayan ruins on the western border, Belize is blessed with a bounty of beautiful places to go and exciting things to do.
Consider what follows a mere sampling of the incredible adventures this Central American hotspot has in store…
From Guatemala to Panama, every country in Central America boasts its fair share of beautiful beaches. But the beaches of Belize are especially impressive because of their pristine natural state and relative lack of crowds.
The Placencia Peninsula is home to the country’s longest stretch of mainland beach, with plenty of resorts, restaurants and nightlife for these seeking lively action. But those seeking peace and quiet can find it among the fine white sands of Seine Bight and Maya Beach.
The 5-mile long Hopkins Village Beach is equally serene, and offers a excellent opportunity to connect with locals from the famous Afro-Amerindian village. Their colorful Garifuna culture reflects their historically West African ancestry.
BELIZE BARRIER REEF
Stretching from Cancun south to Honduras, the 560-mile Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is a woefully under-recognized world wonder. It’s also the second largest coral reef system on the planet after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The Belize Barrier Reef makes up more than one-third of that distance, straddling 190 miles of the country’s coastline. The reef was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and remains vital to Belize’s fishing and tourism industry.
Scuba diving and snorkeling the reef attracts nearly half of the nation’s 260,000 annual visitors, making it Belize’s top tourist attraction. The myriad walls, pinnacles, holes and reef flats are home to an exceptional array of aquatic life, including more than 70 hard coral species, 35 soft coral species, 500 species of fish and hundreds of invertebrates.
From the brilliant blues of the Mediterranean in Greece to the endless cerulean shades found in the islands of Tahiti, we’ve been blessed to explore some of the world’s most beautiful bodies of water. But, for my money, the Caribbean is pretty hard to beat in terms of stunning scenery.
Everyone has seen striking aerial photos of the Blue Hole, which was made famous by marine conservation legend Jacques Cousteau back in the 1970s. But the truth is that you don’t have to Scuba dive in order to appreciate the sheer beauty of the Caribbean’s tranquil waters.
In fact, our biggest regret about our week-long trip to Belize earlier this year was that we spent so much time exploring the country, we only had a few precious hours to sit on the beach and soak it all in. We will definitely rectify that mistake in the near future!
COCKSCOMB BASIN WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Encompassing 128,000 acres on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains, the land that makes up Cockscomb Basin was mostly used for logging mahogany and cedar until 1982.
That’s when grad student Alan Rabinowitz (now CEO of Panthera, the world’s leading NGO for big cat conservation) was commissioned to study its jaguar population. Eventually his research determined that the area contained as many as 600 jaguars– the highest concentration ever recorded.
Declared a no-hunting zone in 1986, and expanded to connect it to the Bladen Branch Nature Reserve in the early ’90s, the sanctuary boasts exceptional biodiversity. Though we saw no jaguars during our visit, there are Howler Monkeys, Crested Guans (a turkey-like bird), Tapir, Deer and dozens of tropical bird species to be spotted there.
Belize boasts more than 200 offshore islands, many of which are known as cayes (“small, low-elevation, sandy islands on the surface of a coral reef”). Only 20 or so of these cayes are inhabited, and many of the uninhabited ones seem completely untouched.
Half Moon Caye’s crescent-shaped beach is a protected turtle-nesting site, and half of the island is a protected red-footed booby sanctuary. Ambergris Caye is a popular tourist hot spot, but you can head to the north or south sides of the island to find isolated stretches of beach all to yourself.
Other, lesser-known spots worth checking out include South Water Caye, Laughingbird Caye, Southwest Caye, the Silk Cayes and the Sapodilla Cayes.
Located south of Belize City near Dandriga, the small fishing community in and around Hopkins Village has preserved the remarkably rich Garifuna culture for hundreds of years.
The Garinagu people (whose language and culture is called Garifuna) descend from shipwrecked Africans whose ancestry can be traced back to the Yoruba, Ibo, and Ashanti tribes of West Africa. After making their way to Central America, they intermarried with Carib and Arawak Amerindians, and came to be known by the British as “Black Caribs.”
Today, their lively music and dance, traditional food and colorful clothing offers a mixture of African, Amerindian and Spanish influences that’s unique to Central America. To learn more about Garifuna music and culture, try a drumming lesson at the Lebeha Drumming Center.
MAYAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES
Part of the southern Maya lowlands of the Mesoamerican culture area, Belize has been an important center for the Maya as early as the Preclassic era (2000 BCE–200 CE). As a result, the country boasts an array of spectacular archaeological sites that should be a must-see for history buffs.
Located near the Guatemalan border in the Peten rainforest, Caracol was historically the largest and most important site. The ancient city was the epicenter of one of the largest Maya kingdoms. It remains remarkably impressive today, with remains of thousands of structures still waiting to be excavated.
Other significant archeological attractions in Belize include Cerros, one of the earliest Maya sites; Lamanai, the longest continually-occupied site in Mesoamerica; and Xunantunich, a civic ceremonial center for the Maya during the Late and Terminal Classic periods.
With considerably less development than neighbors like Costa Rica and Panama, Belize is truly a nature-lover’s dream come true.
Watersports enthusiasts can snorkel, Scuba dive, fish, sail and windsurf. Animal lovers can get their fix at seven wildlife sanctuaries. Hikers will find more than a dozen National Parks and three Nature Reserves to explore, some of which allow overnight camping. There are also plenty of places where you can zip-line or go horseback riding.
Two of the most popular tourist attractions in Belize involve caves: Exploring the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave, which contains many relics and skeletons from the Mayan era, is an incredible experience for anyone who doesn’t get claustrophobic. And cave tubing is among the most popular pastimes in Belize City.
PORT HONDURAS MARINE RESERVE
Established in 2000, this protected marine reserve in Belize’s Toldeo district covers around 100,000 acres of biodiverse coastal ecosystem.
Divided into separate general use and conservation zones, it encompasses over 100 small cayes, mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs. Some of the cayes (such as the Snake Cayes) are idyllic, uninhabited and attract few tourists. Others, such as Hunting Caye, are frequented by day-trippers from Belize and Guatemala.
The marine life found with the reserve’s boundaries is obviously spectacular. But the main reason for conserving Port Honduras was the sizable population of West Indian Manatees that live there.
WEST INDIAN MANATEES
Found in waters stretching from the U.S. Atlantic seaboard down through Central America to the coast of Brazil, the West Indian manatee is a gentle, curious creature. Growing 9-11 feet in length and weighing 450 to 1,300 pounds, it’s easy to see how they earned their nickname, the “sea cow.”
Though typically found in shallow coastal areas, manatees can also live in fresh, brackish and saline water, including shallow rivers and estuaries. They’re known for swimming right up to boats, kayaks and even swimmers, which may explain why weary sailors often mistook them for mermaids.
Currently listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, manatees are increasingly endangered due to habitat loss and vessel strikes. Having had interactions with them in Florida and the Peruvian Amazon, I can assure you that once you’ve seen a manatee in the wild, you’ll want to do just about anything you can to protect them.
Fortunately, Discover Corps’ Caribbean Manatee Adventure offers a rare opportunity for travelers to do just that! –Bret Love; all photos except Manatee & Sea Turtle by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. Along with his photographer wife Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.