Belize has it all: beaches, mountains, jungle, you name it. You better Belize it!
What started as a “sisters trip” turned into a family vacation when my parents decided to hijack the trip I planned for my sister and I. Despite the unexpected addition, we had a blast in Belize and would recommend everyone to go!
When we arrived in Belize City, we didn’t waste a minute. We rented a car from Crystal Auto and drove west towards San Ignacio. Our first stop was at the Xunantunich Ruins buried in dense jungle. To get to the ruins, we had to drive onto a small ferry that took us across the river to the other side where we continued driving another mile or so before arriving at the entrance of the park. At the entrance, we paid approximately $5 USD (or 10 BZD) per person to enter. The park was well-maintained by the grounds-keeping staff there. Because we went in the middle of the day, it was uncomfortably hot and humid, which made finding shade all the more important. The upside was that there was barely anyone there. We saw two other small groups, but that was it. You had the choice of hiring a guide to give you a tour around the park, or to tour the park on your own. We chose the latter, and just eavesdropped when we could around other groups.
We stayed in a nearby homestay less than 3 minutes away from Xunantunich. There weren’t many local food options in the area, except for the overwhelming presence of Chinese restaurants. We asked our host where we could go for a quick and easy meal. He led us down the road to this papusaria at the corner of a main intersection. The owners were super sweet and generous. They even taught me how to make papusas! There isn’t really a name on this restaurant, as it is just a simple set up under the awning of their house. By far the best papusas I’ve ever had!
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave
We dedicated the entire next day to the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave tour. Two things to note: First, please don’t try going there on your own. In fact, going without a tour guide is a illegal. Second, no cameras or GoPros allowed. Yes, you read that right. Sorry, you won’t be able to Instagram this trip…it’ll have to be remembered in that noggin of yours! You are asked to leave everything behind before trekking to the cave. Don’t try sneaking in your camera or GoPro either, it’ll get confiscated. I won’t lie, I was pretty disappointed at first, but when you don’t have all that technology and distraction, it’s actually really nice. I was more aware of my surroundings and really took in the beauty everything around me. So that being said, I apologize that I don’t have any pictures of the ATM Cave. Long story short, a couple years ago some idiot dropped his camera on top of a thousand year old skull and from there on out, no more cameras inside or around the cave. There are a few pictures of the cave circulating the internet prior to the incident. I recommend seeing experiencing this tour for yourself though. It actually does live up to the hype. It’s an unforgettable experience! Be sure to bring clothes you don’t mind getting wet and dirty in, and a good pair of shoes (sandals or water shoes, but no flip flops!) I wore my Tevas and swimsuit underneath my clothes.
The next day we made our way back towards Belize City to catch the next ferry to Ambergris Caye. (Yes, we were moving fast!) There are two ways to get there—by ferry or plane. Online sources say the ferry/water taxi takes around 2 hours to get to Ambergris. However, I think it really depends on weather conditions. Even with the stop at Caye Caulker, we made it to Ambergris in 1.5 hours. The ferry ride isn’t as brutal and long as it sounds. Although we could have taken a bigger (but not that much bigger) boat, we decided to go with Ocean Ferry, which was the cheapest of the water taxi options. The only downside is that Ocean Ferry has fewer departure times, but if you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere, it’s a great option especially since it goes just as fast as the other water taxis. The staff were also really nice and accommodating!
Ambergris Caye is a popular take-off spot for day excursions and diving.
Because we arrived in the afternoon, we rented a golf cart ($45 per day) and drove around the island aimlessly. Most of the island is paved, but for the parts that weren’t, the golf cart was still able to navigate along the rocky dirt paths.
My sister and I wanted to snorkel Tres Cocos, so we followed Google Maps which then dropped us off at The Dive Bar. We parked along the side of the road and walked towards beach. At the bar, we asked the bartender what area was best for snorkeling and he pointed towards the break, motioning at the kayaks propped against the wall. We thought it was a short swim away at first, but at second glance, it was definitely a lot further than it looked. When my sister and I were debating whether we should rent a kayak or not, the bartender told us we could borrow one for free as long as we bought a drink at the bar. I was going to buy a drink anyway so that worked out perfectly! After we finished our long island iced tea, we grabbed a kayak and paddles and began rowing towards the break. It was much further than we expected and the water was very rough. We ended up getting to the break, only to realize the water was too rough to snorkel, so we headed back. Almost an hour later, we finally made it back to shore. Exhausted, we both plopped down on a nearby hammock hung between three coconut trees. As we rested, I pointed out all the coconuts that were perfect for a refreshing drink. Subsequently, I climbed atop a picnic table and pulled one down. Now to crack it open…The bartender handed me a butcher knife because that’s all he had, but we made it work!
We drove to Secret Beach as the sun was starting to set and made it just in time for the sunset. It was really peaceful as all the crowds had already left and the small shops were closing for the day. There was a lovely pier and several neat spots for pictures.
We stayed at the Sandbar Beachfront Hostel that had their own bar and restaurant on site. I planned to do my diving with Belize Pro Dive Center, but was convinced by staff at the hostel that the onsite dive center, Belize Celebrity Diving, was a better deal. In some ways, it was. Had I done it again, I might have gone elsewhere.
I was pleasantly surprised that I was the only diver, while my sister and two other girls came along to snorkel. Our first stop was Hol Chan Marine Reserve. I think it was completely overrated, to be completely honest. However, that may have been attributed to the fact that the dive master led me somewhere on the outskirts away from where the main crowd of divers were. I get that he wanted me to enjoy a more ‘personal’, and perhaps ‘off-the-beaten path’ experience, but I honestly didn’t see much besides a couple coral, fish, and a large moray eel—which was probably the highlight of it all.
Conch Graveyard was next stop. Although there wasn’t much more than just a large carpet of conch shells covering the seafloor, it was still a neat spot to check out. Among the millions of conch shells sat a lonely boat named Monica, and the man who was cleaning the conches. The man was the only person who is licensed to harvest and clean the conches in that area. We saw turtles excitedly swim around his boat waiting for conch bits.
After a short stop at Conch Graveyard, we headed over to Shark Ray Alley. The boat operator advised us to be prepared to jump in as soon as we approached the anchoring spot. The boat’s engine is like a dinner bell for the sharks and manta rays. Sure enough, as we got closer to the spot, sharks and manta rays began crowding around the boat. Then our guides began chumming the water. We quickly jumped into the water and although we were only a couple feet away, the sharks didn’t seem to be bothered. As soon as the feed was over, the sharks dispersed and continued on to the next boat.
After a long day on the water, my sister and I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at Palapa Bar, the bar adjacent to our hotel. The bar is pretty sizeable, and the pier extends further out forming a stage at the end where lounge chairs and small tables are set up for sunbathers. A small ladder protrudes from the stage allowing guests to jump into the water and float on donuts and tubes while enjoying their drinks. Side note: All the bars in one way or another have a happy hour. And it’s usually along the lines of “Buy one get one free” or certain drinks are 50% off.
The next morning, we jumped on an early ferry to Caye Caulker. The weather was a bit overcast and drizzly, but it didn’t stop us from exploring the tiny island. You could literally walk from one end of the island to the other end in less than half an hour. We stayed at The Club At Caye Caulker, formerly known as Popeyes Beach Resort. It was a couple steps away from the ferry dock, and about a 20 minute walk to The Split. The Split divides the island into north and south cayes. In 1961, Hurricane Hattie swept through Caye Caulker and destroyed the bridge that connected the north and south cayes. Interestingly enough, the south caye is more developed and has a bigger population, whereas the north caye looks like it has been untouched since the hurricane. As you approach the island on ferry, you can see that there are developments underway on the north caye, at island life pace. I thought one of the buildings was abandoned, but one of the locals informed me it was a resort still under construction. That said, there’s not much to see or do on the north caye as most of the development is on the south caye
If you’re curious to explore the island though, you can rent a kayak from one of the shops around the Split and take it around the island. When we went, the waters were rough on the west side of the island, so we opted to row around the east side.
What is there to do on Caye Caulker? Truth is, not much. It’s a wonderful place to sit back and relax. Life on Caye Caulker is slow. (Emphasis on slow!!) You’ll hear locals yell “slow down” every so often. My sister and I did a day trip with E-Z Boy Tours to see some tarpons, seahorses, more sharks and check out the Coral Gardens. Our first stop was a quick loop around a dock where the seahorses are usually seen. They were small and blended in with the rope entwining the dock posts. It takes a skilled eye to spot them!
A short hop over to another dock featured the large tarpon that are notorious for eating right out of your hand. Careful not to get your hand chomped on! (Although I held the fish with a flat palm, the tarpon still missed and got my hand instead. Grr.) Seeing that we were feeding the tarpon, the pelicans came in full force and hung around waiting for some spare sardines. We shared a couple, then moved onto the next spot. Before we arrived at the snorkel spot, we swung by an area where manatees frequent every now and then. We saw one manatee on the surface, but didn’t get the chance to hang out with it underwater.
Similar to our experience at Shark Ray Alley, the sharks, fish, and manta rays swarmed the boat as soon as the boat came to a halt. The staff on board slowly chummed the water so the sharks and fish stuck around a bit longer than our last encounter.
The last stop, Coral Gardens, was my favorite. We were able to explore the area on our own. Coral Gardens is a shallow snorkeling spot, and better preserved than the other spots we had snorkeled on our trip. I thoroughly enjoyed swimming between shallow walls of rock and under large awnings of coral. It was truly magical. We even spotted a nurse shark resting next to large coral wall. The pictures don’t do justice.
After a long day on the water, my sister and I ventured to a coffee shop nearby called Ice N’ Beans. We stopped in without knowing that there were raving reviews online about it. It’s a small shack with a lovely patio in the back facing the ocean. It easily became one of our favorite spots on the island. The smiling staff hand you a sample of their iced latte and a small donut when you enter. So convincing! Easily one of the best lattes I’ve had in awhile! They even had the option of substituting milk for almond milk for those who are dairy intolerant, at no extra charge! Lovely staff, plenty of options, tasty eats, and a great view…definitely worth checking out!
In hindsight, I’m really glad we spent as much time each island as we did. I personally enjoyed Caye Caulker more because of how small and laid back it was. But to each their own! Your best options for cheap local food on each island are either street food (street vendors with their portable stands) or a mom-and-pop eatery. Trip Advisor has good suggestions, but they are normally the bigger and more touristy restaurants, which aren’t bad, but the prices are drastically reflected as such. Be adventurous and try out that danky little shop around the corner selling fry jacks!
On the last day, before I had to catch my flight home, we stopped by the Belize Zoo. It’s definitely not as big or overwhelming as the National Zoo in Washington D.C., but it was fascinating in its own likeness. The Belize Zoo is located within a dense forest, blending with the natural environment. It is $30 BZD (or $15 USD) for admission, which seems costly, but the money goes towards caring for the rescued animals. The staff provide a map that lead you on clearly marked trails through the zoo. I really liked that there were big signs with fun and simple descriptions of each animal. We went during the afternoon when it was sweltering hot and humid so most of the animals were napping under shade or hiding in their abodes. Regardless, it was a neat little zoo to check out if you have an hour or two to kill.
Please share your questions, suggestions, and comments below!