Located at the northernmost point of Central America's east coast, Belize is like the middle child between older sister Costa Rica and younger brother Guatemala in terms of tourism and infrastructure. Tourism is starting to pick up steam in a few areas slooooowly, but many of the experiences—from driving on unpaved roads to scaling steep Mayan ruins without safety barriers—are still authentically raw.
This 10-day Belize travel itinerary covers three main areas in the country, isn't rushed and leaves plenty of time for relaxation in between several adventurous pursuits. For those who don't have 10 days to play with, you can certainly hit the highlights in less time, pick one or two of the spots and catch domestic flights instead of driving like we did.
Before we get started, here are a few things to know about Belize:
- While pricing is typically in Belizean dollars, everyone accepts American dollars. The exchange rate from Belizean to U.S. dollars is 2 to 1.
- The official language is English—surprise! The most diverse language, however, is Belizean Creole, followed by Spanish, Garifuna, Mandarin,
- This isn't the place you go for amazing beaches. There are cute (read: small) beaches, but you need to get away from the mainland by boat to enjoy the beautiful water and bypass the seaweed-y shores.
- It’s friendly and feels safe for the most part, but it is still third world. You have to keep your street smarts about you—don’t wander down dark and desolate roads alone and do your main driving during the day (there are tales of bandits at night).
- When you are driving around the country, the speed bumps sneak up on you and aren't always marked so watch out!
Recommended Belize packing list:
- Rashguard for surfing, scuba diving, caving activities
- Bathing suits
- Flip flops
- Versatile sport shorts that wick away sweat
- Your comfiest maxi dress
- Natural sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher
- Easy-to-carry backpack
- Bug repellant (disclosure: there is nothing natural about this chemical-laden bug spray, but it's long-lasting and works when you're battling major mosquitos in the jungle)
- Refillable, insulated water bottle
Itinerary: Day 1-4
International flights fly in and out of Belize City. Don't stay the night here (it feels rough and there's nothing worth seeing). Hightail it to Ambergris Caye (pronounced "am-bur-griss key"), an island and the country's main tourist destination just north of Belize City. Once you've cleared customs, go to the main hall of the terminal and check in to your domestic flight to Ambergris' San Pedro. While you can take a taxi to a ferry to Ambergris, don't. Save your time and the ferry fun for later when you go on a day trip to Caye Caulker (and thank me later for talking you out of the longer haul on this overstuffed mode of transport). Plus, the flight is exciting due to the small plane—if you're lucky and get on the plane first, the pilot might let you sit in the co-pilot seat—with gorgeous views of the bright-blue ocean and islands.
There are no car rentals on Ambergris, but the golf cart rentals sure are fun. They are the only mode of transport besides boat taxi so I highly recommend it to explore and zip around faster than you would otherwise. Many hotels and resorts also offer bike rentals, but depending on where you stay on the island, you might still want the golf cart.
In full disclosure, I waited way too long to book my accommodations (for the coveted vacation week between Christmas and overlapping New Year's eve) and had to "settle" for a place at one of the larger resort properties. Don't get me wrong, it was beautiful, but unique, boutique hotels and rentals are more my speed. From my research before and during the trip, I recommend these two spots:
1. Casa Azul. This is the place to be if you like being more secluded, but still want people around. It sits farther up on the island's Eastern shore. There are only two expansive standalone units with 20-foot ceilings and rooftop lounges that sit on 11 acres of beachfront and share a round pool and private dock out front. It feels luxurious (but not over-the-top), very private, yet there's a party right next door at the Rojo Beach Bar and Lounge, which is run by the same owners. Even if you don't stay at Casa Azul, a must is a stop at this super-fun beach lounge and bar. Plan a half day there at least—it's nothing but relaxation, and you'll move between beach, hammock (I fell asleep in one), plunge pool (separate from the pool at the villas) and bar stool. What else could you ask for on a Belizean vacay?
2. Victoria House. This is the place to be if you want to be closer to town and prefer more of a hotel experience. When I was planning my destination wedding two years earlier, I seriously considered Victoria House as a top contender at the recommendation of two close friends who had stayed there. I ended up in Costa Rica instead of Belize, but I remembered why this special place was on my radar to begin with when planning this trip. The boutique resort features 42 rooms of varying sizes, from casitas to suites to staterooms, and feels very private though it's walking (or biking or golf carting) distance to San Pedro. Super convenient in every way.
Rojo Beach Bar. We mentioned it above but this place has seriously delicious food for foodies. Frankly, from the sushi to the ribeye tacos, I was blown away by the fare. It's (mostly) local, it's fresh, it's in season and it's served with thoughtful presentation. The beer is ice cold, there are tropical tunes jammin' on the speakers and the owner's dogs sunning in the sand. Again, it doesn't get much better.
Blue Water Grill. I spent New Year's eve here and it did not disappoint at all. It's right off of the beach in San Pedro and has a lively atmosphere with live music on some nights. The menu, heavy on seafood, is simple yet fresh. Like, that mahi mahi filet was just swimming over yonder earlier in the day. I also found the service to be on it.
Scuba diving. Belize has the second largest coral reef system in the entire world (Australia with its Great Barrier Reef has the first). This is the PERFECT place to explore the world that lives underwater. If you have any interest, get your scuba diving certification before you go. In fact, that's exactly what I did. Just make sure you allow enough time to take the scuba course and pass the written and pool tests in your hometown before finalizing your certification with your "checkout dives" here. The water is crystal blue and warm, has great visibility with hardly any current and boasts a coral reef with a plethora of marine life = everything you could ask for in a first real dive, or, in my opinion, any dive for that matter. For advanced divers (with at least 24 dives under their belts), there's also the amazing Blue Hole, a giant submarine sinkhole with stalactites about 50 miles offshore.
Snorkeling. If breathing underwater is not your speed, the snorkeling is also totally legit and fabulous. Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are approximately 4 miles south of San Pedro and are host to a large number of manta rays and nurse sharks (don't worry, these guys are gentle and have no interest in eating your hand). It's definitely the most popular tourist location for snorkeling and diving tours, but also one of those that you just have to do 'cause you're there, and that's what you do...and it's still amazing.
Day trip to Caye Caulker. Take the ferry from San Pedro over to Caye Caulker, a tinier island than Ambergris, for the day to check out how the other half lives. Just kidding. But this is definitely one of those places you go to be totally cut off from the world. There's not much to it so after a walk around and a poke into some of the tourist shops to stock up on your Better Belize It t-shirts, head straight to the Lazy Lizard, a bar on the beach, and enjoy sunning, dipping into the water and people watching.
After a few days of chillaxing in Ambergris, depart for the mainland.
Itinerary: Day 4-7
Now it's time to rent a car to explore inland Belize and the Cayo district. Opt for an SUV with four-wheel drive—you never know when a road off of the main highways can turn potholed. You can do that from the airport in Belize City. I highly recommend getting a map (remember those?) from the rental car agency and having them show you how to get where you are going. Yes, you can also use GPS on your phone or rent one for the car, but it really can't hurt to have both, just in case. I remember the real, live map coming in handy, especially when navigating out of Belize City and onward.
Cave tubing. Along your drive on the Western Highway to the Cayo district in western Belize, stop for a cave-tubing adventure. There are several locations to do this, but I preferred one that is a little less traveled than some of the hard-core tourist locations that pack in tubers like sardines. Crowded cave? No thank you. Book a private tour with Belize Inland Tours and head to St. Herman's Cave, one of a plethora of underground caves that run for miles throughout the country, near the inland Blue Hole. The approximately two-and-a-half-hour excursion began with an easy hike through the jungle during which I learned about the native flora and fauna and had the chance to taste a termite (it tastes like wood, by the way). Next, with headlamp lit, we descended a stone staircase into the mouth of St. Herman's Cave, boarded our inner tubes and floated single file on few-feet-deep water. I prayed that both the bats and ancient Mayan spirits who reside here would not make an appearance, and leave us to enjoy the stunning stalagmites and stalactites (rock formations that grow down from the ceiling or up from the bottom of a cave, produced by the precipitation of minerals from dripping water). Wear water shoes, a bathing suit and bug repellent, and bring a change of clothes. I get cold easily so a long-sleeve rashguard was helpful, too.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (a.k.a. ATM). Those without claustrophobia issues should experience the thrill that is ATM. It's a wild adventure not for the faint of heart that requires a swimming start as you enter the underground cave filled with Mayan ruins and skeletons. Book a tour guide through your hotel or in advance as there are limited daily tours to this historic and spiritual space. The walk through the cave was largely through water, sometimes just covering my ankles, sometimes my whole body, as I ducked down to swim under and through some rock formations. We climbed rock walls as we went deeper and deeper into the enormous, pitch-black (never been so thankful for a headlamp) cave. My guide instructed our small group to follow the person in front of us and step exactly where they stepped. I had to call upon my yoga breathing at some points to calm and focus my brain as it began to tell me stories of how if our guide croaked for some reason we'd all be stuck, cold and wet, with no clue how to get out. When we reached a musty-smelling plateau, we were told to remove our shoes as it was a sacred burial ground. In wet socks, we crept by Mayan human sacrifices and offerings to the gods. ATM is not anything that you would be allowed to experience in the U.S.—first, there were way too many safety issues; second, historical artifacts like these would have been on display behind glass or ropes. It was thrilling, frightening and exhilarating. Would I do it again? Hell no. Am I glad I did it? Hell yes.
Caracol. There are Mayan ruins, and then there are Mayan ruins. If you are up for a full-day adventure (about 6.5 hours), head to Belize’s largest Mayan site, Caracol, deep in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. The site covers over 80 square miles with 30,000 structures. At its peak, it is said to have supported a population of more than 150,000 people. It was rediscovered in 1934 and it is still undergoing excavation to uncover all of its massive structures. Book a tour through your hotel.
Blancaneaux Lodge. The drive to the 78-acre Blancaneaux, which was movie director Francis Ford Coppola’s private family retreat before he opened it up to the public in the 1990s, included about an hour of bouncing on dirt roads with potholes the size of ravines (thank God for the SUV with four-wheel drive). Every minute of that bouncing was worth it, though... The boutique, secluded resort with its lush landscaping felt like paradise. The Honeymoon Cabana, one of 20 thatched “houses” of varying sizes and configurations on the lush and well-manicured property, embraced my muddy, sweaty self (coming straight from St. Herman's Cave) with its rustic-chic vibe, complete with a four-poster, mosquito-netted bed, bright local textiles and carved-wood furnishings. I fell head over heels for the scene and sound: this cabana sits right on Privassion Creek and rushing water lulled me to sleep each night…at about 9 p.m. Without television or good WiFi (you can log in at the main house), the constellations, which I attempted to study via a provided telescope, were the only entertainment. Sounds divine, right? It was.
After long days of activities and exploration—or relaxing pool time and spa treatments at the Blancaneaux—there's no reason to head back out after showers and naps to find your dinner fare. The hotel boasts topnotch cuisine in both of its restaurants, Montagna (Italian with fresh pastas and brick-oven pizzas) and Guatemaltecqua (Guatemalan with to-die-for rustic stew). The two utilize organic herbs and veggies from the resort’s own extensive garden (complete with one of the largest composts I've ever seen). Make sure to snag a reservation at Guatemaltecqua early on in your stay as it only has a handful of tables and books up quickly. Afterwards, don't miss one of the best piña coladas on the planet, made with fresh coconut and coconut water, from Jaguar Bar at the main house.
Itinerary: Day 7-10
Ready for some sun, sand and sailing, after three days, I departed for Placencia. The three-hour scenic drive provided a landscape that varied from sparse pine forest to small and ramshackle third-world towns to dense jungle to miles of citrus groves to crystal-blue ocean and seaweed-strung beaches. Incredible.
Placencia sits at the end of a narrow, 26-mile sandy peninsula, with one side a beach and the other side a lagoon and boat slips.
Chabil Mar Villas. The 20 individually designed condos on the beach, with amenities such as two pools and a private pier with lounge area, is only a 10-minute beach walk or 3-minute drive from Placencia Village, which made it a cinch to explore this beach town’s little tourist shops and restaurants.
Don't miss Ms. Brenda’s roadside jerk chicken in Placencia town. Another favorite: Rumfish y Vino, a Central American-style gastropub and its exquisite Caribbean Fish Stew—I had it two nights in a row! The buzzing local hotspot was a great place for people watching, too.
Of course, Placencia offers plenty of excursions via adventure outfitters ready to whisk you back into the jungle, but you've already done that. So... There is one big must-do when in Placencia: charter a boat and head out for a day on the sea. Explore the gorgeous little isles, such as Laughing Bird Caye, which are scattered all around and snorkel or scuba dive whenever possible to swim with whale sharks, manta rays, sea turtles, parrot fish and more. But most of all, kick back and relax. You've earned it.
Though I was fully rested and ready to re-enter the “real world” with quality Internet service by our last day, I wasn't quite willing to say a final adieu to this Central American gem. For about five minutes, I seriously contemplated a beachfront property investment and began looking at real estate flyers posted around town. Instead, I bought a bunch of local hot sauce purveyor Marie Sharp's tongue-smacking habanero pepper sauce to feel the warmth of Belize every time I pile it onto my tacos. (And thank goodness I can replenish my stash via Amazon, as it's become my fave!)
Ready for more Badass Travel? Find culture, relaxation and adventure in our Thailand Itinerary here.