12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Belize
Belize brims with natural beauty. A top spot for eco-tourists, this fascinating country lies in Central America, between Mexico and Guatemala, and was known as British Honduras during its colonial days. Few countries offer such a rich diversity of ecosystems packed into a relatively small area. In addition to the world's second largest barrier reef, Belize is home to dense jungles with howler monkeys and jaguars, mountain pine forests, palm-fringed beaches, bonefish flats, rivers, caves, and coral atolls rimmed by fish-rich reefs. Not surprisingly, diving and snorkeling are superb. The Great Blue Hole is a UNESCO World Heritage dive site, and anglers flock here from all corners of the globe for fantastic flats fishing and deep-sea adventures.
Apart from all the natural jewels, Belize's friendly people are one of its top assets with origins as diverse as the landscapes. Mayans; Mennonites; English; Creoles; Mestizos; and the Garifuna people, of mixed Amerindian and African descent infuse an evocative mix of cultural influences. Visitors can learn about the ancient Mayan culture at the many relatively untapped archaeological sites. Though the capital of Belize is Belmopan, Belize City is the gateway to the country. Most travelers fly in here and explore the surrounding attractions before departing for adventures further afield. Besides diving, snorkeling, and fishing, travelers can kayak lagoons, cave tube along subterranean rivers, hike through jungles and pine forests, view stunning wildlife in its natural habitat, or simply collapse in a hammock and relax in this tropical paradise.
1 Ambergris Caye
Just off the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, laidback Ambergris Caye is the largest of Belize's 200 cayes and a prime tourist destination. Off the coast, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is one of Belize's most visited diving and snorkeling sites. It's named after the Mayan for "little cut" and is one of seven reserves within the Belize Barrier Reef system, which is the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Top attractions in the reserve include a cut in the reef with steep coral walls; Cat's Eye, a crescent-shaped sinkhole; and Shark Ray Alley where divers can enjoy close encounters with nurse sharks and southern stingrays. The island's main town is the fishing village of San Pedro, a colorful jumble of clapboard houses, stray dogs, and clucking chickens, with cute cafés and hotels. Golf carts and bicycles are the most popular modes of transport, although these days an increasing number of cars and trucks zip along the sandy streets. The Ambergris Museum and Cultural Centre traces the island's history from the ancient Mayan traders to the present day. Saltwater fly fishing enthusiasts come to Ambergris Caye to cast their lines for bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook, and barracuda.
2 Lighthouse Reef Atoll and the Blue Hole
The farthest from shore of Belize's three atolls, Lighthouse Reef Atoll is nirvana for nature-lovers and divers. Six cayes surround a turquoise lagoon with gleaming white-sand beaches, coconut palms, and fascinating coral formations. The top draw here is the famous Great Blue Hole, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Natural Monument. Plunging into the sapphire-toned sinkhole, divers can see bizarre limestone stalactites protruding from the steep walls, and if they're lucky, the resident school of reef sharks. Half Moon Caye is the most visited caye of the atoll. Also a World Heritage site, the Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is a bird sanctuary that shelters a colony of about 4,000 red-footed boobies and many other species of birds. Nature trails lead to observation platforms with bird's-eye views of nesting boobies and frigate birds. Visitors can also explore the island's lighthouse and relax on the beautiful beaches, while divers love the excellent wall dives and abundant marine life around the island.
Snuggled on the end of a 26-kilometer sandy peninsula, Placencia is a popular fishing village and beach resort. Travelers come here to bask on the beautiful white-sand beaches, eat fresh seafood at the excellent restaurants, fish, kayak the lagoon, and dive and snorkel in the Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. In the village, brightly-colored clapboard houses raised on stilts line the narrow concrete path where fishermen used to transport fish in wheelbarrows. Near Placencia, Laughing Bird Caye National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with hiking trails and coral reefs. Swimming, snorkeling, sea kayaking, and diving are popular activities here. The traditional Garifuna village of Seine Bight is also located on the Placencia Peninsula and offers a glimpse into the unique culture of these fascinating people of Amerindian and African heritage. From Placencia, nature lovers can organize a cruise through the mangroves on the Monkey River to see birds, howler monkeys, and crocodiles.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Placencia
4 Turneffe Islands Atoll
A paradise for divers and anglers, Turneffe Islands Atoll encompasses more than 200 coral islands surrounding a lagoon. It is one of three atoll reefs in Belize's waters. Seascapes here range from crystalline flats to creeks and lagoons. Corals shimmer in the clear waters, and the atoll is a nursery for many different marine species including grouper, snapper, trunkfish, and the famed bonefish, which lures saltwater fly fishing enthusiasts from around the world. In particular, the vast flats on the eastern side of the atoll are ideal for casting a fly line or snorkeling in the shallows. Divers will find some excellent wall and current dives around the atoll, and the varied marine life includes eagle rays, nurse sharks, dolphins, conch, and turtles. Most of the resorts in the atoll are specialized diving and fishing lodges, however visitors can pop over for a day trip from Belize City, Ambergris Caye, and Caye Caulker.
Location: Central Barrier Reef System
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Turneffe Islands
5 Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve
Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary is a haven for nature buffs. The mountainous tropical forest here protects an impressive array of wildlife including jaguars, ocelots, pumas, anteaters, tapirs, monkeys, and snakes, although sightings of the cats are rare. Birders will also love it here. Toucans and scarlet macaws are among the 290 species recorded in the preserve. The best way to explore the sanctuary is on the extensive web of trails. The Waterfall Trail is one of the most popular with a cascade and swimming hole, while Ben's Bluff Hiking Trail is more challenging but offers rewarding views of the basin. Guided tours are also available. Be sure to wear protective clothing and take plenty of water.
Location: Southern Highway, Dangriga
6 Caye Caulker
A diamond in the rough, Caye Caulker is a hotspot for backpackers and budget travelers. This tiny island, fringed by mangroves and coconut palms, lies about 24 kilometers south of Ambergris Caye. In 1961, Hurricane Hattie divided the island in two, creating an area called the Split, which is now a small public beach. The area north of the Split is quieter and less developed. Travelers come here to completely chill out. Golf carts and bikes are the main mode of transport on the sandy streets, and the small guesthouses are rustic, but comfortable. Although Caye Caulker lacks the picture-perfect tropical island beaches some may expect, visitors can organize trips out to the reef to swim, dive, and snorkel. The Caye Caulker Mini-Reserve features nature trails with labeled flora and fauna.
Location: 24 kilometers south of Ambergris Caye
Accommodation: Where to Stay in
7 Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve offers a soothing contrast to the tropical humidity of the coast. The higher elevation here keeps daytime temperatures cool and offers a welcome respite from mosquitoes. Hiking among the pine forests, visitors can explore cool gushing rivers, waterfalls, pools, and caves, although in recent years, the pine beetle has devastated many of the trees. One of the top attractions within the reserve is the Río Frio Cave & Nature Trail, once used by the Maya as burial grounds. A river runs through the center of the cave. At the Five Sister Falls, five cascades spill into a beautiful pool. For a refreshing dip head to Río On Pools where small waterfalls connect a series of pools carved from granite boulders. The slabs of rock are great for basking in the sun after a swim. Also called Hidden Falls, Thousand Foot Falls are surrounded by hiking trails. Visitors can enjoy beautiful views of the area from the observation platform here.
Location: Cayo District
8 Lamanai Archaeological Reserve
Nestled in lush jungle on the banks of the New River, Lamanai is the most famous archaeological site in northern Belize and one of its largest ceremonial centers. Lamanai means "Submerged Crocodile" in the Mayan language, and images of crocodiles have been found on the excavated buildings, pottery, and figurines. Traveling to the site is an adventure in itself. An hour boat ride up the New River provides frequent wildlife sightings, and the dense jungle lends a wild feel to these ruins, which are still not completely excavated. Lamanai was occupied the longest of any Mayan site. In the 16th century, the Spanish found a thriving community here, and the ruined churches reveal attempts to convert the Maya. The archaeological site features more than 900 structures as well as a museum with exhibits of pottery, obsidian, figurines, and jade jewelry. Highlights include the Mask Temple, Temple of the Jaguar, and the High Temple, which visitors can climb for panoramic jungle views.
Location: Orange Walk District
9 San Ignacio
Lying in a valley between the Mopal and Macal Rivers, San Ignacio is a great base for exploring the tourist attractions of the Cayo District. Top on the list here are the archaeological sites. Xunantunich, perched on a limestone ridge overlooking the Mopan River, is perhaps the most famous. El Pilar is one of the largest archaeological sites in Belize, but little of its history is known, since excavation only began in 1993. Visitors can explore the ruins and surrounding jungle on the vast network of nature trails. Close to San Ignacio, the popular Cahal Pech Archaeological Site is relatively small and includes an excellent museum. For a subterranean adventure, visitors can explore Che Chem Ha Cave and the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, which shelters skeletal remains and Mayan pottery vessels. At Barton Creek Cave, adventure seekers can canoe or tube-float along a river that flows through the cave for about one and a half kilometers. Other highlights in the region include the Chaa Creek Nature Reserve and the Iguana Conservation Project, where visitors can cuddle these charismatic creatures. San Ignacio is also a launching point for adventures into the beautiful Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve.
Location: Cayo District
10 Belize City
Once a Mayan fishing village, Belize City was the country's capital until 1970 after Hurricane Hattie wreaked havoc. Today, it's Belize's largest city and commercial center; a busy port, which welcomes cruise ships; and the country's main gateway. Ramshackle Victorian buildings jostle along the narrow streets in town, but despite its gritty exterior, the city has a fascinating past featuring Mayans, colonial days, hurricanes, and fires. To learn more, visit the Museum of Belize, housed in a former prison; pop into Government House; or explore the Old Belize Cultural and Historical Centre, a museum, beach, and restaurant all rolled into one. Built in 1923, the Belize Swing Bridge connects the south and north sides of the city and is the world's only manually operated bridge of its kind. A short drive from the city, visitors can explore the Altun Ha Archaeological Site and the excellent Belize Zoo, which emphasizes conservation and education. This is a great place to see many of the country's native creatures in natural surroundings, most of which are rescue animals, including jaguars, tapirs, toucans, and howler monkeys. Since the city sits at the mouth of the Belize River, on the Caribbean coast, anglers will find excellent fishing opportunities a few minute's drive from the center of town.
11 Altun Ha Archaeological Site
Altun Ha is one of Belize's most famous ruins and is easily accessible from Belize City. Mayan for "Rockstone Pond" or "Water of the Rock," Altun Ha was an important trading post and ceremonial site as well as an agricultural center. Visitors can explore 13 temples and two main plazas at the site. The Temple of the Masonry Altars, dating from the early 7th century, is the largest of the temple-pyramids and the most significant structure. Visitors can climb to its top for beautiful 360-degree vistas. Excavation of the Temple of the Green Tomb uncovered the crypt of a Mayan priest-king, and many of the accompanying artifacts remain intact, including pottery, pearls, jade pendants, and stingray spines used in Mayan bloodletting rites. A famous discovery at Altun Ha is the Jade Head. This sculpted mask of the Mayan Sun God is the largest carved jade object found in the Mayan area.
Location: 48 kilometers north of Belize City
12 Caracol Natural Monument Reservation
On the Vaca Plateau, 152 meters above sea level, Caracol is the largest archaeological site in Belize. The ruins of this Mayan city are tucked deep in the jungles of the Chiquibul National Park, near the Guatemalan border. It's interesting to note that Caracol was once larger than Belize City and supported twice its population. The warriors of Caracol were known for their military victories, defeating both the powerful cities of Tikal and Naranjo. Today, visitors can see the carved altar stone depicting these victories. Another interesting feature is the 43-meter-high Caana (Sky Palace) pyramid, Caracol's tallest structure. It's also the tallest human-made structure in all of Belize and offers breathtaking vistas of the site and surrounding jungle from the top. Although Caracol was abandoned by its human inhabitants centuries ago, the ruins are teeming with wildlife. Cats, howler monkeys, and many birds are found in the forest here, and toucans often inhabit the pyramids. Beyond Caracol, a series of limestone karst caves are believed to be the largest of their kind in the Western Hemisphere.
Location: Cayo District