Here’s how to make the most of Belize — from jungle to coast

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Belize is on everyone’s radar these days, and it’s no surprise that the country has become such a desired destination. It offers all the benefits of the Caribbean, with a gleaming coastline and endless ways to immerse culturally, with the adventurous activities and wildlife for which Central America is known. Add the facts that English is the national language and that it’s a quick flight from the US, and Belize becomes the perfect tropical getaway. That’s especially true in a mid/post-COVID world, where outdoor-focused travel reigns supreme.

Belize is such a hotspot that Marriott just debuted their very first property there, Alaska Airlines announced they’ll soon be offering Belize routes, and United Airlines more than doubled their existing routes from Houston while adding new departure airports. And as two new port projects near Belize City break ground, the cruise industry is poised to bring more tourists to the country.

Still, for all of Belize’s modern appeal, it remains a culturally diverse and community-oriented country of some 400,000 people where vintage charm defines the decor, and a lack of hurriedness sets the pace. It’s a place to relax, explore, and make friends.

Belize may be a tiny country, but there’s no limit to what it can offer every type of visitor. Here is a sampling of where to stay in Belize to make the most of a trip to the Jewel of Central America.

Ambergris Caye

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Ambergris Caye has historically been Belize’s main tourist destination, with plenty of water activities, restaurants, and nightlife. The island’s main town of San Pedro features most of the action, but development in recent years has extended to its north and south, expanding ways to have fun and places to stay.

Even when compared with recent additions, Victoria House, south of San Pedro, remains one of the best options for staying in Belize. The expansive beachfront boutique property offers 42 luxurious rooms of varying types, from pool villas to romantic casitas. Their Palmilla Restaurant is renowned for its menu (including a hard-to-find Pimm’s Cup on the cocktail menu), with the spa capitalizing on the hotel’s quiet, out-of-the-way locale for added relaxation. Unless 45 minutes is what you consider walking distance to town, golf carts are available to rent directly from the property.

Once lodging is situated, there is so much to explore. Snorkeling is excellent along the protected Belize Barrier Reef — the second largest reef system in the world — either at the popular Hol Chan Marine Reserve or up north at Mexico Rocks, where fewer tourists tread. Those seeking relaxation should check out Secret Beach, a very not secret spot on the lagoon side that has been developed into a beachy destination in recent years.

Finally, don’t miss out on the culinary juggernaut that is Ambergris Caye. Belize Food Tours makes it easy to sample a range of local flavors during their fun and informative tours, while Chef Toshiya Tsujimoto has raised the bar for sushi with his restaurant, Jyoto (which has a counterpart in inland San Ignacio — Sky Sushi Bar). End the night with drinks at the newly opened Gypsy Restaurant and Cocktail Bartique, or head to Havana Cigars for the highest quality spirits on the island.

Placencia

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It wasn’t too long ago that Placencia was among the more secretive destinations in Belize. This peninsula community is lined with high-end resorts, culminating in the village of Placencia itself. This is a gateway area for many of the other cays and private islands, with as many water-based activities as San Pedro but without the crowds.

Chabil Mar is an especially enticing place to stay here, channeling the relaxed Caribbean vibe that defines the area. The beachfront resort is draped in colorful bougainvillea, with each villa accessed by a separate entrance — great for COVID travel. A unique aspect of this resort is the ability to request dining anywhere on property, whether it’s in the room, out on the water, or on the sandy beach.

Most Placencia activities are based around the water, like snorkeling at the Silk Cayes or going SCUBA diving. However, it’s near the Cockscomb Basin, a lush jungle known for being home to jaguars. DTOURZ is an exhilarating adventure into the rainforest complete with looking for the big cats, tubing on the river, and exploring waterfalls. Intrepid travelers will especially love the nighttime tour. On weekends, guide/owner Doyle Gardiner operates Doyle’s Smoke Yaad back in Placencia, a pandemic creation showcasing his cooking talents.

There is, even more, to see in Southern Belize beyond Placencia. Head to Hopkins to dive deep into the Garifuna culture, or head all the way south to Punta Gorda to experience Belize’s most remote beachfront region. Maya culture remains prominent in this area and is best explored through the Maya Villa homestay network.

San Ignacio

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Belize’s inland is primed for adventurous travel, with extensive cave networks, birding and wildlife spotting, and even a cenote called the Inland Blue Hole that rivals the well-known version at sea. Though most of these places and activities can be accessed within a day from all the major towns in Belize, given the country’s small size, San Ignacio town is at the heart of it all.

Intrepid and luxury travelers alike looking for where to stay in Belize should set their sights on Chaa Creek, a boutique resort amid 400 acres of the jungle not too far from town. Beloved for their butterfly farm,an elegant spa, and commitment to protecting the environment, Chaa Creek brings their guests right into the heart of the wilderness without sacrificing any comforts. Guests also love this hotel for its horseback riding, rum infusions, and night safari.

From there, travelers can visit various Maya ruins like Xunantunich, an impressive site overlooking the river basin, or Caracol, which remains the tallest manmade structure in Belize. Perhaps the most beloved activity in the area is the tour of the ATM, as the ancient Maya Actun Tunichil Muknal cavern is locally known. The tour takes visitors through a cave system still populated with the skeletons of Maya culture’s past. Cameras (including phones) are not allowed inside due to a past guest dropping theirs on a skull, so this is one experience that must be seen to be believed.

Island experience

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Although Ambergris Caye is an island, it’s much larger and more populated than the hundreds of tiny spits of land peppering Belize’s coast. Though many of these tiny cays are undeveloped, plenty has been built up into places that entice those wondering where to stay in Belize — ranging from glamping to ultra-luxe.

Ray Caye is an island that falls in between, leaning towards luxury. About an hour’s boat ride from Placencia, Ray Caye offers a modern, comfortable island experience with access to the best snorkeling, fishing, and other water activities in the area. Plenty of guests find no need to even leave the island, instead snorkeling around its perimeter or taking a relaxing ride on a Hobie Cat sailboat with Rasta or one of the other onsite guides.

Once on a private island, activities like exploring the mainland become limited, especially when boats back and forth are only scheduled on certain days of the week. This is something to discuss in advance with the desired island’s management, to ensure that your Belize vacation incorporates everything you want to experience.

Of course, it’s safe to say that after making friends in San Pedro, relaxing in Placencia, going wild in San Ignacio, and getting away from it all on a private island, another trip to Belize will be in the cards.