(CNN) — Despite its impressive Mayan ruins and inviting climate, bite-sized Belize has long been overshadowed by Mexico and Costa Rica for sun seekers looking for an affordable winter destination.
Recently, however, an influx of new hotels and airlines adding nonstop flights to Belize seem to be a clear signal that the country’s status as an under-the-radar retreat won’t last much longer. Now’s the time to check out what this tropical haven has to offer before the travel buzz on Belize gets even bigger.
Whether you’re an amateur archaeologist, an animal lover, an adrenaline junkie or a sand-and-surf devotee, here are some of the top things to do in Belize.
Underappreciated Belize is due for its day in the sunny spotlight.
Day trips from Belize City
While many travelers often only see the inside of Belize City’s airport before catching a connecting flight to the laid-back cayes, heading north to experience the lush rainforest, or journeying to the culturally-rich south, there are many worthwhile activities if you do spend a day or two in or around Belize City.
Diving truly is the unofficial sport of Belize. When not diving the barrier reef, you’ll likely find adventure-seekers diving into the dark depths of Belize’s underground universe.
Though you won’t see the abundant and colorful creatures you’ll get when exploring the ocean, the thousand or so caves that dot the countryside are filled with nooks and crannies just waiting to be explored. There’s a lot to see within these caves, including some with fascinating Mayan ceremonial ruins.
Adventure seekers won’t want to miss an opportunity to go cave diving in the depths of Belize’s underground universe.
Caves Branch Marketing
While dive options abound throughout the interior of the country, one of the longest running and most reputable adventure operators is Cave’s Branch Adventure Company and Lodge. All the resort’s packages are centered around a different daily adventure, ranging from cave diving to birding and jungle treks.
The lodge also offers a more leisurely way to explore the country’s subterranean secrets with various cave tubing options that allow you to discover up to seven miles of cave system all from the comfort of an inner tube. Your adventure is topped off with a one-of-a-kind cavern-floor picnic complete with white tablecloth.
More a sanctuary than a zoo, the Belize Zoo contains all rescue animals. Creatures that can’t be completely healed and released into the wild remain residents.
Of course, with its verdant mountains and rainforests, Belize is as rich in wildlife on land as it is by sea. And you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you only explore one variety. Jaguars, ocelots, macaws and tapirs (picture a captivating creature somewhere between a pig and a cow) all abound in the lush jungle landscape.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to actually spot a tapir or the cute, lemur-like kinkajou, just when walking around a rainforest, which is why a trip to the Belize Zoo, about a 45-minute drive outside of Belize City, is a must.
Much more a sanctuary than a zoo, all the animals are rescues and those that can’t be completely healed and released remain on as residents.
The backdrop for the Belize Zoo is a lush jungle landscape, fully accessible to individuals with mobility issues.
The zoo was founded and is run by American Sharon Matola who came to Belize to assist with a nature documentary but then stayed behind to care for many of the animals too tame to be released back into the wild. There are numerous interactive animal opportunities, including feeding a tapir and getting licked by a jaguar. A nice bonus: The zoo is fully accessible to those with mobility issues.
Sure, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is arguably more famous, but it’s the Belize Barrier Reef that rightfully lays claim to the planet’s largest living reef. That means snorkelers and scuba divers (the country is one of the best in the world for deep-sea diving) alike will encounter a cornucopia of colorful coral and sea creatures, from curious sea turtles to parrot fish and barracudas.
Snorkelers and scuba divers will encounter a corcuncopia of sea creatures in Belize’s waters.
Belize Tourism Board
There are lots of prime locations throughout Belize’s 186 mile-long reef for sealife sightseeing, but the most popular is Shark Ray Alley.
Located off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye in the country’s oldest marine reserve, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the area traditionally attracted huge amounts of nurse sharks and sting rays because it’s where fisherman used to clean their fish, dumping the remnants into the water.
There’s a plethora of snorkeling tours to the area, and while you’re pretty much guaranteed to see a bevy of rays and sharks, you’ll get a correspondingly large number of snorkelers with whom you’ll have to share the waters.
Deep-sea diving is a popular activity in Belize, and rightly so: The country’s barrier reef is the planet’s largest living reef.
Belize Tourism Board
For less crowds but plenty of vibrant fish (if fewer rays and nurse sharks) head to the underappreciated islets of South Water Caye or Tobacco Caye. In Dangriga, you can usually catch a boat ride from Riverside Café; in nearby Hopkins, some of the larger hotels (like the incredible Jaguar Reef Resort), can arrange boats out to the cayes.
Perhaps Belize’s most unique treasure is the culture of its Garifuna people. The Afro-Caribbean Garifuna are descended from indigenous Caribbeans who mixed with Nigerian slaves shipwrecked on St. Vincent.
In the late 18th century, expelled by the British seeking to dominate the New World, many Garifuna eventually found their way to safety in Belize. In 2001, UNESCO declared the Garifuna’s language, dance and music an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” and likewise declared the language as “critically endangered.”
In 2001, UNESCO declared the Garifuna people’s language, dance and music an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
Belize Tourism Board
There are opportunities throughout the country to experience the food, music and culture of the Garifuna. In Dangriga, the largest town in southern Belize, you can visit the Gulisi Garifuna Museum.
In Hopkins, a 30-minute drive south of Dangriga there’s an opportunity for an immersive Garifuna encounter where participants can dress in traditional clothing, cook an authentic Hudut meal (fish in coconut broth) and dance and play drums into the evening.
To the north
Mayan ruins can be found in northern Belize. Visit Lamanai in the early morning to beat the midday heat and leave your afternoon open to water activities.
While archaeology enthusiasts tend to be familiar with Guatemala’s famed Tikal, Belize is also rich in outstanding Mayan ruins.
Some of the country’s better-known sites include Caracol, Lubaantun and Xunantunich.
Lamanai, one of northern Belize’s largest sites, is especially worth visiting because of its beautiful location surrounded by rainforest and abutting a lagoon. Better yet, if you go first thing in the morning (which is advisable anyway to avoid the midday heat), it’s possible to visit and have the ruins almost entirely to yourself — minus some cheeky howler monkeys.
Adding to Lamanai’s allure is the nearby Lamanai Outpost Lodge, highly recommended for its comfortable lodgings and knowledgeable guides who offer incredible river tours, as well as fascinating rainforest night walks where you may encounter some of Belize’s nocturnal inhabitants like snakes, owls and kinkajous.
The cayes and beyond
San Pedro is Ambergris Caye’s largest town. It’s known for its contagious laid-back vibe, excellent Belizean cuisine and an exuberant nightclub scene.
Ambergris Caye, Belize’s biggest island, is also the country’s most popular destination for those looking to take full advantage of the country’s beaches and water activities (the reef is just a couple hundred yards offshore).
Here, when you’re not in the water, you’ll likely spend much of your time at San Pedro, Ambergris’ largest town. Aside from a contagious laid-back vibe, excellent Belizean cuisine and an exuberant nightclub scene, San Pedro is famous for its main mode of transport: golf carts.
There’s lots to see as you walk (or putter via cart) around San Pedro. Visit the tiny town square (stopping at Miss Estela’s food cart for a terrific burger or grilled chicken), grab a cocktail at The Dive Bar and don’t miss the Belize Chocolate Company, which uses Belizean beans and cane sugar in all its sweet creations.
Don’t leave San Pedro without a visit to gorgeous Secret Beach. Unfortunately, the name belies the area’s growing popularity as word has gotten out about the charm of this once-secluded spot. Getting there is half the fun as you navigate your golf cart for about 30 minutes out of town down a dirt road.
Fuel up for the trip with a delicious and ginormous breakfast burrito at PUR’s Taco Bar, and don’t worry if your golf-cart driving skills aren’t in top form as you’re unlikely to encounter more than a handful of others on the road at any one time.
Once at the beach, try to nab one of the marvelous picnic tables in the water where you can order piña coladas served in the requisite coconut shell and enjoy marvelous grilled seafood from Blue Bayou Beach Bar.
Great Blue Hole
Belize’s Great Blue Hole is the largest known sinkhole of its kind. A helicopter tour will show off its full beauty.
Belize Tourism Board
Undoubtedly one of Belize’s most photographed assets is this otherworldly oceanic wonder. Plunging into inscrutable darkness, a seemingly perfectly circular cerulean hole pierces the ocean’s surface and leads adventurous divers into a pit that’s more than 400 feet deep.
The UNESCO World Heritage site — and largest known sinkhole of its kind — is said to have been formed when a cave collapsed during the last ice age.
You can dive it or visit the hole by boat, but to truly appreciate its majesty, the Great Blue Hold is best viewed from above via plane or helicopter tour.
Sandra MacGregor has been writing about travel, food and wine for nearly a decade. Though her home base is Canada, her wanderlust has led her to pack up and move around the globe, including living in Paris, France; Seoul, South Korea; and (most recently for two years) in Cape Town, South Africa.