I always mentally categorized Belize with Mexican beach resorts like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta – accessible, tropical vacation spots that cater to American tourists. Belize hadn’t ever made it near the top of my travel list…until I found myself looking at my AAdvantage account, wondering how I could most creatively spend my miles and spotting a deal for Belize. And just like that, I was scheduled to arrive at BZE 37 days later.
As I began to read up and orient myself to this coastal sliver, I became increasingly excited reading about the cayes, diving, snorkeling, boat charters, beaches, jungle, biodiversity, primate sanctuaries, tropical birds and Mayan ruins. All of my preconceived notions were flat out wrong. Belize is a popular destination for good reason!
After a quick 10-mile, $25 taxi ride from the airport to Bella Sombra Guesthouse, I was in Belize City. The most notable attractions are Museum of Belize, National Handicraft Center and Baron Bliss Lighthouse; but upon arriving, I was underwhelmed with my surroundings and decided to head straight out of town. But first, I appreciated local cuisine (jerk chicken platter) at Nerie’s.
I arranged for a car through Crystal Rental, located not too far from the airport. The free pick up service is a huge plus. Despite what I read about driving in Belize that made me nervous to drive alone, many of the roads were recently paved and renting a nearly brand new rental car made me feel safe.
My first stop was in town at Travellers Liquor Museum and Heritage Center. I’m always up for sampling local brew and was intrigued to taste their blackberry and cashew wines. (Neither suited my palette.) While I enjoyed the walk through, the barrel aged rum gave me a splitting headache. But the Kuknat coconut rum with pineapple juice was tasty!
Not too far out of town is Old Belize which has a history museum and a landlocked resort called Cucumber Beach. With a giant waterslide and pumping music, it seemed prime for a spring break beach party. Because they charge a cover—and more importantly, because any time spent there is a waste considering how close the breathtaking Belizean cayes are—I treated this more as a restroom stop than a destination.
A well-traveled friend recommended cave tubing, a popular stopover activity for cruise ship passengers. When reading reviews to evaluate companies, it seems that a few of the sticking points are whether tour guides carry rafts for guests through the jungle; and the amount of information shared during the guided tour. Since I’m what the sites refer to as an “overnight guest” (non-cruise ship passenger), I also valued a free pick up in Belize City, which Butts Up Cave Tubing offers – along with other activities like zip-lining and ATV jungle tours. However, I couldn’t get them to return my emails for anything so I ended up calling the day of to join an existing tour group and driving myself to the limestone caves known as Nohoch Che’en. (If you do the same, look for the Caves Branch Outpost on the east side of the road. Oh, and be sure to pack water shoes; otherwise you’ll have to rent them.)
The caves aren’t far from Belize Zoo, regarded as the finest zoo in all of the Americas—and hands down, my top experience in mainland Belize. The designers smartly sectioned off parts of the jungle to give the animals as natural of a habitat as possible. I was filled with child-like wonder, watching a toucan and macaw move about and staring in wonderment at animals I had never seen in person before, including a jaguar named Junior Buddy, male and female Harper Eagles, a tiger cat and black panther named Lucky Boy. As I wandered about, I repeatedly thanked myself for making the journey. Perhaps next time I will spend the night at Belize Zoo!
With a little more time, I would have traveled north to see the Mayan ruins, namely Altun Ha. (Another famous ruin, Lamanai, is much further…not as the bird flies but because of the highway configurations and because reaching this site requires a ferry.) Tours recommend four hours, including an hour of travel time each way from Belize City with the least expensive tours starting around $40 USD. Next time.