12 Top-Rated Things to Do in Belize
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Belize may be petite sized, but few other destinations offer such a variety of landscapes and things to do as this Central American country. Dense jungles and ancient sites on the western edge, and the Caribbean side's gleaming cayes (islands) and their proximity to the second largest barrier reef in the world, make Belize a mecca for eco-travelers and adventure seekers.
Explore Maya sites, swing from the tree tops, and jump into refreshing pools under waterfalls in the Cayo District. Swim with sharks and snorkel with myriad marine life in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Check off diving the Great Blue Hole from your bucket list. Animal lovers will delight at sightings of jaguars, pumas, and howler monkeys in nature reserves, and birders will get a thrill at seeing exotic red-footed boobies and frigate birds on remote cayes.
The only Central American English-speaking country, Belize makes it easy to explore its natural wonders, with roads connecting its biggest cities of San Pedro, San Ignacio, and the capital city of Belmopan and other villages. Daily flights operate to the popular attractions, like Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. You can drive from one end of the country to the other in just two hours.
Don't forget to pack your boots, bathing suits, and reef-safe sunscreen, and to help plan your vacation, check out our list of the top things to do in Belize.
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1. Snorkel Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Belize boasts underwater marine life that's second only to the Galápagos Islands. Hol Chan Marine Reserve, one of seven reserves in Belize located within the UNESCO Site of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve system, is the best place to visit for snorkeling and diving.
The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve is part of the 600-mile-long MesoAmerican Reef System, the second largest of its kind in the world. A short boat ride from San Pedro in Ambergris Caye will bring you to the reserve, where you can jump into the warm waters for incredible underwater views.
Southern stingrays, turtles, and an array of colorful fish glide gently beneath the waves among the colorful coral reefs. In 2018, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve system was taken off the endangered world heritage list after dedicated efforts were made by the government to curb oil drilling, overfishing, and coastal overdevelopment.
2. Swim with Sharks at Shark Ray Alley
At the popular Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, visitors get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with nurse sharks and stingrays. The four- to five-foot-long nurse sharks are bottom feeders and are generally harmless to humans, as long as they aren't encroached upon.
Shark Ray Alley came to be when local fishermen used the area to clean off their daily catches, attracting nurse sharks and rays to the morsels left behind. Now, whenever they hear the boats, they come in droves for a meal.
When you visit Shark Ray Alley, your guide will attract the sharks with small fish as you swim near them from a safe distance. Rest assured, you can still get a good view from the boat if you choose not to jump in. Snorkeling and diving activities in the reserve are heavily monitored, so make sure to go with a company that has permission to bring visitors.
3. Fly above or Dive the Great Blue Hole
Once a cave with massive stalactites and stalagmites, it collapsed underwater when the sea took over. It now sits 450 feet below the surface at The Great Blue Hole, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This submarine sinkhole, with a patch of deep blue water surrounded by shallow turquoise waters, is located in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. This attraction is an incredible sight from above on a helicopter tour. The tour also brings you over to the Turneffe Atoll island cluster.
Beneath the surface, those with a scuba diving license can experience natural wonders of ancient underwater tunnels, bizarre limestone formations, fringing coral, sharks, and sea life of all kinds. Although Belize enjoys year-round warm weather, the best time to go diving is in dry months, between April and June, when the weather conditions are ideal.
4. Go Bird-Watching at Half Moon Caye
You can combine a trip to the Great Blue Hole with a stop over at Half Moon Caye atoll, located in the southwest corner of Lighthouse Reef Atoll. This World Heritage Site is a must-visit for birders who can gaze upon rare red-footed booby birds and the magnificent frigate birds nesting in the Ziricote thicket. You can hear the cacophony of screeches and squawks coming from the island as you approach.
A viewing platform accessible by a trail lets you get up close to these birds. You can see the booby birds starting from December, and their chicks from March until August. The caye is also known for its crystal-clear surrounding waters, making snorkeling a marine lover's dream come true.
5. Soak Up the Sun at Ambergris Caye
As the largest caye (island) in Belize, Ambergris offers a number of things to do. Whether you want to relax in a hammock on a beautiful beach, go fishing or sailing, or take a food tour, there's something for everyone in Ambergris Caye.
The main town of San Pedro, with golf carts (its main source of transportation) zooming by on its narrow streets, provides a good base for visitors, with seaside resorts and PADI operators taking guests to The Great Blue Hole and Shark Ray Alley. Some of the best beaches in Ambergris Caye lie on the southern shore, fronting resorts like Ramon's Village Resort and Banyan Bay Suites.
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6. Chill at the Split at Caye Caulker
Arguably the most charming of all the cayes in Belize, the five-mile-long Caye Caulker, located 20 miles north of Belize City, is a laid-back spot that sees a lot of backpackers, budget travelers, and sun worshippers. Choose to stay a few days, enjoying fresh ceviche, shopping at local stores, and taking day trips to nearby islands. Don't be surprised to see stray dogs running alongside golf carts and bikes.
The most happening place to visit on the island is the Split, created as a result of Hurricane Hattie in 1961, which divided the island in two. Today, the Split is a small public beach and the best place to mingle with other travelers, eat delicious food, and savor the warm waters as you snorkel or swim. It's a common sight to see visitors on their beach chairs and benches by the water enjoying refreshments.
7. See Mayan Ruins in Cayo District
The heart of the Belizean Mayan world lies in the western part of the country in the Cayo District, which is home to several pre-Columbian archaeological sites. Visitors can walk among the ruins of Xunantunich and Caracol, boasting the two tallest structures in the country.
Xunantunich, near the border of Guatemala, features an impressive 127-foot El Castillo pyramid and sits on a ridge overlooking the Mopan River. It was once a ceremonial center for the Mayan people and features a complex of temples and plazas. Climb to the top of the pyramid for panoramic views of the surrounding jungle.
Caracol, the mother of all Belizean Maya sites, sits in the foothills of the Maya Mountains in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. At its height, it may have spanned more than 70 square miles and supported a population of 120,000, larger than the current population of Belize City. Without any source of water, the people survived on rain water and agriculture.
The site now is so off the beaten path that you won't find many amenities, so come prepared and allocate time to wander the plazas and pyramids (among which is Sky Palace, the tallest man-made building in Belize at 143 feet). Base your stay in San Ignacio, a small town with affordable jungle lodges and wonderful food.
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8. Discover Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
Located in the heart of the Cayo District is the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, established in 1944 to preserve Belize's pine forests. Adventure lovers will find tons of activities here, starting with exploring the Río Frio Cave, where a 65-foot entrance greets visitors, and a river runs through the center of the cavern. Take the well-maintained path along the river, admiring the stone formations, and stop by at the sandy beach at the other end to enjoy a picnic lunch.
The reserve contains the highest waterfall in Central America at Thousand Foot Falls, which in reality is 1,600 feet. This ribbon of water originating from the Maya Mountains cascades down the Thousand Foot Falls into the creek below. If you are lucky, you may spot the rare orange-breasted falcon in the surrounding vegetation.
Other popular waterfalls, like the Five Sisters Falls and Big Rock Waterfalls, cascade into pools where you can swim and cool off on hot days. Add some thrill to your trip with ziplining at Calico Jack's, which also features an extreme swing that's only for the dare devils.
9. See Jaguars at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
Belize has the biggest population of jaguars in the world, and that's because a combined 250,000 acres have been set aside for these wild cats to thrive. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in the Stann Creek District of south-central Belize, together with Bladen Nature Reserve, provide habitat for the endangered jaguar. Cockscomb sanctuary encompasses 128,000 acres of rainforest in the Maya Mountains.
Go on an evening guided tour to spot these elusive wild cats, and you may also spot other nocturnal animals like puma, ocelot, jaguarundi, and margay. During the day, the sanctuary is an ideal place to spot scarlet macaws, keel-billed toucans (the national bird), vultures, and hawk species. Be sure to bring your insect repellent, and your intrepid spirit.
10. Stroll through the Belize Zoo
If your schedule doesn't allow you to see the country's animals in the wild, the Belize Zoo is your next best bet. Located along Mile 25 George Prince Highway, the 29-acre zoo hosts many native species. The zoo started in 1983 to provide a home for animals used in documentary films about tropical forests.
There are no iron bars here; visitors get to see animals in enclosures that are as close to their natural habitats as possible. Around 175 animals representing 45 species, from jaguars to howler monkeys, live at the zoo. The Belize Zoo also operates as a rehabilitation center for rescued and orphaned animals.
11. Rappel Down the Black Hole Drop
If Caracol is the mother of all Maya sites, the Black Hole Drop in the western part leads the list for caves in Belize. The edge of Actun Loch Tunich, a massive sinkhole in the Maya Mountains, sits 300 feet above the basin and 200 feet above a forest canopy that grows from within.
Rappelling down to the bottom of the sink hole is not for the faint of heart, but if you are up for it, trained caving guides help you descend using a system of rappelling ropes. You'll have an exhilarating rush as you make your descent and pass through the verdant forest canopy. Some tours offer a picnic lunch at the bottom of the drop, which you'll need as the climb up involves climbing over rocks and ladders.
Keep in mind that reaching the sinkhole requires an intense hike through the jungle, so be prepared for a full day of adventure.
12. Savor Chocolate the Mayan Way
Belize is known as the cradle of chocolate, as evidence showed Mayan Indians were fond of drinking a chocolate beverage daily. The Toledo District in southern Belize is the center of most of the chocolate production today. Visitors can combine a visit to a Mayan site at Lubaantun ruins with learning about the role of chocolate in the Mayan culture. Visit a cacao farm and see how the beans are grown and transformed into chocolate.
Eladio Pop Chocolate company in San Pedro Columbia village offers an eco-tour of the organic production of cacao, and combines it with delicious tastings and a Mayan-style lunch served at their hilltop restaurant. During the three-day annual Toledo Cacao Festival in May, you can taste local food and have a trip to local cacao farms.