1. Ambergris Caye
With its plentiful outdoor activities, this 25-mile-long island off the coast of northern Belize caters to the snorkeling and diving set. The island was originally inhabited by the Mayans to serve as a far-extending trade route, spanning from present-day Mexico to as far south as Honduras. Today, Ambergris Caye welcomes thousands of visitors seeking easy access to the barrier reef that surrounds the island. Snorkelers and intrepid divers alike will want to explore Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Most of the diving and snorkeling shops and instructors are found in San Pedro, including the Belize Pro Dive Center, Tuff E Nuff Tours and Scuba School Belize, which all offer a variety of daily excursions. Prices vary depending on the type and length of tours, plus any certification fees for diving.
When you’re not underwater, explore San Pedro, Ambergris’ main town. Here you’ll find beachside restaurants, lounges, shops and luxury hotels. You’ll notice the difference between this tourist hub and the more urban Belize City as soon as you step onto its cobblestone streets, which are filled with golf carts and bicycles, rather than cars.
It’s easy to get around Ambergris Caye by golf cart. There are multiple rental companies in San Pedro and rates range from $65 USD per day to about $200 USD for a week.
You can reach Ambergris Caye by boat or plane from Belize City.
2. Great Blue Hole
Plunge into this deep blue hole and you’ll discover imposing ancient stalactites (calcium deposits resembling icicles) and coral fringe. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 — along with six other areas surrounding Belize’s barrier reef — the Great Blue Hole remains one of the world’s most distinguished scuba sites. Created approximately 10,000 years ago after a cave roof crumbled in, this blue channel contains underwater tunnels, caverns and rock formations.
You’ll likely spot marine life lining the coral wall at the surface of the hole. As you descend about 410 feet below sea level, you’ll discover the stalactites, but it’s unlikely you’ll encounter many underwater creatures (except the occasional shark!). Even if you’re not a diver, recent visitors recommended snorkeling around the hole and the nearby reefs. Make sure to visit in the dry season, with ideal weather conditions most likely in April and May.
Image from: http://www.belizeadventure.ca
The Great Blue Hole is located about 43 miles off the coast of Belize along the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. You can visit the Great Blue Hole with a number of dive services that operate out of Belize City, San Pedro andCaye Caulker. In addition to operator fees, be prepared to pay an extra $40 USD to dive and snorkel at the Great Blue Hole.
3. Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Facing the southern edge of Ambergris Caye, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the oldest reserve in Belize. Its name translates to “Little Channel,” in reference to a coral-filled gap in Belize’s immense barrier reef. Encompassing 3 square miles, this densely populated aquatic zone is a sanctuary for stingrays, eels and sharks, among other creatures.
The reserve is separated into four parts: the mangroves, the reef, the sea-grass beds and the most recently added Shark Ray Alley. Because of its diversity, the reserve has flourished as a hot spot for scuba divers and snorkelers. Recent travelers said Hol Chan Marine’s crystal clear waters and abundant sea life make it a prime spot for snorkeling and diving.
The reserve is located about 4 miles southeast of San Pedro in Ambergris Caye. To get here, you’ll need to book a boat and a guide from Caye Caulker. A visitor’s center, which can provide more information on the reserve and its inhabitants, is located on Caribena Street in San Pedro and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
4. Caye Caulker
Just about 20 miles north of Belize City sits Caye Caulker, a 4-mile-long, sun-soaked island that boasts superb diving and snorkeling spots and a relaxed tropical ambience. Though the island is mostly uninhabited by locals, visitors flock to the restaurants, shops and hotels perched at the northern tip near the Split (the area where Hurricane Hattie parted Caye Caulker into two halves in 1960).
Like Ambergris Caye, this remote island offers a broad range of snorkeling, scuba, sailing, kayaking and fishing services to nearby sites located along the surrounding barrier reef. There are also some unique attractions like the manatee preservation site, Swallow Caye.
Even if exploring under the turquoise waters isn’t for you, those who visit the caye say it’s the perfect place to leave your watch behind, walk around barefoot and dine on fresh seafood.
You can reach Caye Caulker by water taxi or plane from Belize City.
5. Cayo District
Travel west of Belize City and you’ll discover a cluster of ancient Mayan sites, rolling hills, gorgeous sunsets, tranquil butterfly gardens and verdant jungles. In the heart of the Cayo District sits San Ignacio, a small town that boasts traditional culinary dishes and affordable hotels.
Start your tour just 6 miles south of the town at the ancient Mayan ruin Xunantunich. Set along the Mopan River and less than a mile from the Guatemalan border, the temple at Xunantunich was once a civic ceremonial center for the Mayan people.
From there you’ll likely want to drive about 60 miles south on the George Price Highway (also known simply as the Western Highway) to the expansive Caracol Archaeological Reserve. The largest Mayan ruin site in Belize, Caracol dates back to 1200 B.C. and served as a home to as many as 120,000 people. The grounds cover 30 square miles and include five plazas, an observatory and more than 35,000 identified buildings, although not all are full excavated.
The site welcomes visitors daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission costs $10 to $15 BZD (about $7.50 USD) for each site.
6. Placencia Peninsula
Imagine tranquil beaches topped with rustling palm trees and backed by pastel-colored beachfront villas and calm Caribbean waters. This is Placencia, Belize’s rapidly booming beach town. Stretching across a 16-mile-long peninsula, Placencia boasts a myriad of nature reserves and underwater sanctuaries along with postcard-perfect vistas. The area offers the only golden sands on mainland Belize.
While you’re visiting Placencia, consider a trip to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and the nearby Mayan sites. The Monkey River — which contains crocodiles, howler monkeys, boas and iguanas — is also worth checking out. Plus, don’t forget to sample some of the peninsula’s cuisine — the area is known for its Kriol (Creole) seafood dishes.
Placencia is located about 130 miles south of Belize City and can be reached by car along the Southern Highway. You can also opt to fly into the Placencia Airport, which is about 20 miles north of the peninsula.
7. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
In Belize, jaguars rule the land. And the best place to catch a glimpse of these striking wildcats is Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. This sprawling reserve was founded in the 1980s to protect Belize’s endangered species. Today, Cockscomb also houses ocelots, pumas, peccaries, tapirs, king vultures, armadillos, otters, along with hundreds of native birds. The sanctuary contains 12 miles of nature trails that span across the 150-square-mile sanctuary. You’ll likely only have time (and strength) to mosey up a few marked trails, so choose wisely.
Recent visitors praised the reserve’s beautiful scenery, but some noted the trails are challenging. Still, most said the hikes were worth it simply for the picturesque vistas of the southern tip of the country.
The reserve welcomes visitors every day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and entry costs $5 USD. You can reach the sanctuary by car from Belize City, a drive that takes about two and a half hours. If you’re planning to drive, head on Western Highway, take a left at Hummingbird Highway, turn right on Southern Highway and then make the turn at Maya Center.
Increase your chances of seeing active wildlife by visiting at the beginning of the rainy season or on cooler, cloudy days when animals are more likely to be active.
8. Belize City
Belize City, the country’s business epicenter, splits into two distinct areas: the North and the South. Haulover Creek separates the two regions; however, travelers can pass between the North and South by crossing the Swing Bridge. On the southern side of the bridge, you’ll find a lively market and shopping area. North of the bridge lies Fort George, an upscale neighborhood that beams with tropical banana trees and a lighthouse overlooking the harbor. Most of the action in Belize is oriented around the city’s peninsula, which extends outward to the Caribbean Sea and peers over the northern cays. You’ll likely want to spend minimal time in the inner city and instead use the area as a base for exploring nearby rural rainforests, cays, and Mayan ruins.
Recent visitors praise Belize City’s close proximity to the cays and atolls, but highlight two major drawbacks: little activity within the city and a heavy crime rate. One VirtualTourist user advises, “For tourism activities, you can use this as a hub, but there’s not much to do in Belize City itself.” While Belize City’s crime rate remains high, it has decreased significantly over the past 10 years. Although crimes against tourists are uncommon, those venturing into the inner city should avoid flashing any expensive objects. At night, opt to take a taxi or rental car rather than exploring on foot. Taxi fares start at about $6 BZD (roughly $3 USD).
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