Viaventure’s Insider Guide to Belize
If Belize were a restaurant, you would look at the long and varied menu and ask yourself, “How can one little place possibly offer so many choices?” And that’s the beauty of Belize! In this “Insider Guide to Belize,” Viaventure’s Belize experts help narrow it down.
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The top experiences in Belize from a local perspective
At 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 square miles), Belize is roughly the size of Wales, easily traversable and stunningly diverse and easily traversable. The geography features hundreds of tropical cayes and a magnificent barrier reef in the Caribbean Sea and pristine rainforests teeming with wildlife and dotted with Maya temples throughout the mainland.
With a fascinating mix of Maya, Garifuna, Latino, and other cultures, Belize offers an overwhelming collection of experiences. Pablo Ramirez has years of exploring the Belizean countryside and designing unique itineraries. In this guide to Belize Pablo, Viaventure’s top travel specialist, shares his choices to help our clients and their guests sort through the over-stuffed menu of travel options.
Favourite place: Placencia
“If I had to choose one destination in this guide to Belize, I would put Placencia at the top of my list,” Pablo says. “The town itself is a rustic, overgrown fishing village at the southern tip of the Placencia Peninsula. It has a beautiful beach and a fun assortment of bars, restaurants, cafés, and dive shops.
“Placencia also offers two waterfronts, the Caribbean and a pristine lagoon that provides habitat for an amazing assortment of wildlife,” Pablo explains. “On the Caribbean side, our guests enjoy snorkelling, relaxing on the beach, and playing with water toys, such as kayaks and paddleboards, or venturing out for sport fishing.
“On the lagoon side, we often see manatees, saltwater crocodiles, dolphins, manta rays, and a wonderful population of birds in and around the mangrove islands.”
Up and Coming: Hopkins, a beach experience without the crowds
Set on a welcoming curve of white-sand beach, Hopkins is a coastal Garifuna fishing and farming village of about 1,000 people, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Placencia. With tourism still new here, the locals fish, carve canoes, weave baskets, and make drums.
Wandering past colourfully painted clapboard houses, visitors can find simple, family-run restaurants, small art galleries, shops, and the distinctive Garifuna vibe. Hopkins is home to several excellent beach resorts where guests can relax by the ocean, set out on day trips to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (a jaguar preserve), or go diving, snorkelling, or sport fishing along the Belize Barrier Reef.
“Hopkins is a new, up-and-coming beach area,” Pablo says. “Our guests can get away from the crowds and experience a small, authentic beachfront community.”
Favourite snorkelling spot: Silk Cayes
From Placencia, Pablo recommends hopping aboard a boat to go snorkelling and diving along the Belize Barrier Reef, part of the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and the second-largest in the world.
Amongst the reef’s 450 cayes is a cluster known as the Silk Cayes, small beautiful coral islands that Pablo rates as the top snorkelling spot in all of Belize.
“At the outer reef sites of Pompion and Ranguna, we often see schools of colourful reef fish and lobsters, crabs, shrimp, snapper, and barracuda,” Pablo says. “And the coral formations are just incredible.”
The Silk Cayes also delight guests with beautiful beaches, and its basic amenities (restroom facilities and picnic tables) help make it a fun-filled, day-long adventure that the whole family can enjoy. The experience includes an authentic Belizean lunch, after which the party heads to a spot just inside the barrier reef for more snorkelling with a good chance of seeing turtles, Southern stingrays, eagle rays, nurse sharks, and, of course, more amazing coral gardens.
Famous for: ‘Grand Slam’ of fishing
Sportfishing guests love to attempt the “Grand Slam” of saltwater fly fishing — catching a tarpon, a permit, and a bonefish on the same day. Our guide to Belize says the top spots to base yourself for fishing are Ambergris Caye and Placencia or at one of the lodges out on the islands (Atolls). “We provide full or half-day tours from either destination, not just for fly fishing but for reef and deep-sea fishing, too, whatever our guests prefer. We can also book complete fishing packages for individuals and groups as well as more unique fishing trips on your own private catamaran” Pablo says.
Favourite area for culture: Toledo
When travellers want authentic cultural experiences, Pablo’s first choice is the less-visited Toledo District in Southern Belize.
“Roughly half the population is Maya, while Creoles, East Indians, and Garifunas make up the rest, so we offer unique experiences that introduce our guests to the various cultures,” Pablo says. “Our cultural experiences also spotlight cacao, which thrives in the Toledo area and was revered by the ancient Maya.”
A favourite experience takes guests into orchards where cacao grows in the shade of native trees and alongside pineapple, coffee, papaya, avocado, and allspice crops. A Kek’chi farmer walks visitors through all the steps that transform cacao into delicious, Maya Gold organic chocolate, inspired by the local Maya “kuhkuh” drink.
In indigenous towns like San Pedro Columbia or San Antonio, Pablo’s guests participate in a living Maya experience, which showcases a Maya family home as it would have run 50 years ago, before the modern world began to encroach. Kek’chi Maya family members demonstrate the traditions of their ancestors as they converse with guests about their culture and history.
Visitors roll up their sleeves and get involved in preparing a meal, roasting and grinding beans for a Maya cacao drink, making tortillas, or weaving baskets and fabrics. Outdoors, guests walk a forested trail to learn the types and uses of traditional plants, herbs, and spices.
Pablo introduces guests to clothing, tastes, and rhythms of the Garifuna culture at a nearby village where Garifuna people have made their home since the 1800s. After dressing in colourful Garifuna clothing, visitors stroll through the community gallery, sip fresh coconut water from a just-picked coconut, and help prepare a popular Garifuna dish for lunch.
“After lunch, our guests try their hand at drumming with lessons from a Garifuna musician at the Warasa Drum School,” Pablo says. “It all makes for a fun and authentic experience of the small but thriving Garifuna culture.”
Ancient Maya ruins enhance the cultural immersion of the Toledo District. Lubaantun served as the largest ancient Mayan ceremonial centre in Southern Belize, and Nim Li Punit features the tallest stelae (carved monument) in Belize, amongst some 25 carvings at the site.
As one of Belize’s top ecotourism destinations, the Toledo District also reigns for bird and wildlife sightings, untamed rivers, spooky caves, and cascading waterfalls. “The Mayflower Bocawina National Park is like a natural playground of untamed jungle and pristine rivers,” Pablo says.
For a memorable caving experience, guests have to crawl through the mouth of Actun Yok’ Balum to enter an eerie chamber adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. Another favourite, the amazing Blue Creek Cave contains crystal-clear, mineral pools along with remnants of ancient Maya ceremonies.
Pablo’s top choice for accommodations in the Toledo District is the Copal Tree Lodge, which has 16 private suites and a three-bedroom villa, offering the best in luxury and comfort. Guests experience the magic of the jungle within the comfort of their room.
Mid-range properties include The Lodge at Big Falls, which offers nine rustic, free-standing cabanas situated on the banks of the Rio Grande, and the Hickatee Cottages bed and breakfast, with six rooms in a lovely jungle setting.
Something Really Unique: Experience safari-style glamping
For inland adventures or even island getaways, Viaventure’s new Beyond Expeditions open new vistas for guests who want to experience nature far from the beaten track. Featuring a mobile, safari-style campsite, Beyond Expeditions pamper guests with the comforts of a full-service hotel but with spacious tents, proper bedding, an en-suite bath, dining tent, and private chef.
“Our overnight tour at the Las Cuevas Research Station, in the heart of the Chiquibil Forest in Belize, enters a new dimension with our glamping setup,” Pablo explains. “Our amenities essentially expand the modest research station bungalows into a luxurious experience in the middle of the jungle.”
Guests overnighting at the Research Station can also arrive before the crowds at the impressive Caracol ruins, the largest Maya centre in Belize, located a short ride (4×4 or bike) from Las Cuevas.
Beyond Expeditions can take guests deep into jungles, private nature reserves, remote farms, or even secluded beaches or islands. Biking, hiking, and swimming/snorkelling/fishing experiences are only steps away from the tent.
“Our dream setup is at Goff’s Caye, an uninhabited island at the edge of the Belize Barrier Reef,” Pablo says. “It’s a wonderful little island with fantastic snorkelling and a powdery, white-sand beach. A luxurious overnight would be an unforgettable experience.
Introduced in 2019, Beyond Expeditions already are getting rave reviews from travellers and were featured recently in Conde Nast Traveller USA and UK editions. Available in Belize and Guatemala, Beyond Expeditions are ideal for inspiring, life-changing journeys.
See more about Beyond Expeditions on our dedicated site: http://beyond.viaventure.com/
If you have longer: Add to Maya intrigue with an extension to Guatemala
“Fantastic Maya sites in Guatemala are easily accessible from Cayo experiences,” Pablo says. “We often take guests across the border to experience the grandeur of Tikal and a unique overnight at nearby Uaxactún.”
Tikal contains more than 3,000 structures, including soaring, iconic temples, all surrounded by dense jungle teeming with wildlife. Along with the splendid architecture, guests enjoy the sights and sounds of tropical birds, howler and spider monkeys, and other wildlife in the treetops.
From Tikal, it’s just 23 kilometres (14 miles) to the less-visited Uaxactún ceremonial center, known for its still-precise astronomical observatory, and the surrounding indigenous community.
“The beauty of the Uaxactún experience is the comfortable campsite located amongst the ruins themselves,” Pablo says. “Not only do we explore the ruins, but we have a unique campsite lies within the ruins.”
The setup includes spacious tents, furnished with comfortable twin beds, and each tent sits atop a raised wooden deck, beneath a durable tarp for extra rain protection. Flush toilets and cold-water showers are available a few steps away. Guests enjoy greeting the morning on deck chairs as they enjoy coffee and the songs of tropical birds and howler monkeys.
“We also visit the village surrounding Uaxactún, and maybe play soccer with some of the kids or visit a family home and help prepare lunch,” Pablo says. “We follow the men into the forest to see how they harvest chicle, which goes into chewing gum, and we spend time with the women as they collect and package a beautiful, bright green fern called xate, which is exported globally for floral arrangements. It’s truly another world!”
Best Luxury Experience: Great Blue Hole flyover & private air charters
Visible even from space, the Great Blue Hole is a near-perfect circle of sapphire-blue water, about 124 metres (407 feet) deep and over 300 metres (984 feet) wide. The Discovery Channel ranked it No. 1 on its list of “The 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth.”
“The best way to appreciate its enormity is a flyover,” Pablo says. “We go by helicopter or plane, and the sight amazes our guests every time.”
Located near center of Lighthouse Reef, about 70 kilometres (44 miles) from Belize City, the Blue Hole delights scuba divers with its marine biodiversity, including colourful tropical fish, several species of reef sharks, giant groupers, and dazzling corals.
The Blue Hole experience is amongst the many private air charters Viaventure operates throughout Belize, providing a quick and scenic travel option for discerning guests. “Several of our high-end lodging partners, such as Chan Chich in the Gallon Jug reserve and Blancaneaux Lodge in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest, have private airstrips. Elsewhere, we use strategically located public helipads and airstrips for our private charters,” Pablo says.
Private or commercial flights also allow guests to easily extend their experiences in Central America by easily connecting to Cancun (Mexico), Roatan (Honduras), Flores (Guatemala), and other great destinations in the region.
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