Belize may be small, a mere shard of glass beside the great Latin mirror of Mexico, but it is packed with a remarkable diversity of fun and fascinating places. On one side stretch the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, containing the world’s second-longest reef and an internationally hallowed dive site, the Blue Hole. On the other lies the country’s interior of rolling hills and dense jungle, full of fabulous hiking trails and an incredible array of animal and bird life. Dotted among this wild world are the evocative remains of Mayan settlements, including a city that was once double the size of modern-day Belize City. And if all this breathtaking adventure gets a little exhausting, travelers can slip off and recover among the bars and beaches of one of the country’s ultra-chilled cayes.
The Blue Hole is quite simply one of the world’s most wonderful dive sites, a submarine sinkhole descending 124 meters into the bed of the Caribbean Sea. Its sides are composed of jagged limestone cliffs, covered with fascinating underwater formations – shadowy depressions, dark caves, colorful stalactites, jutting ledges – all ripe for investigation as you descend into the hole’s indigo depths. Swishing alongside you amid this unique geology are several species of shark, most commonly Caribbean and nurse sharks, and sometimes bulls and hammerheads. Belize is a glorious destination for divers more generally: the Belize Barrier Reef is the second-longest reef in the world, supporting myriad marine species. Ambergris Caye is a good launching point for several sublime dives around the reef.
This wildlife sanctuary, located on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains, is internationally recognized as a leading site for jaguar conservation. The jaguar is the world’s largest spotted cat, and it is estimated that at least 60 of Belize’s 700 jaguars live in Cockscomb – although they are careful predators, expert at camouflaging themselves in the forest canopy, so you’re chances of seeing one are slim. But this will detract little from the area's enchantment: it's a verdant patch of cacophonous rainforest, with spectacular waterfalls, sweeping mountain views, a rich array of neotropical birds and plenty of accessible hiking trails. Beyond Cockscomb, Belize has an extensive jungle interior, with a network of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that provide a haven for 570 species of birds along with tapir, spider and howler monkeys, crocodiles, iguanas and lots more.
Belize was at the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization, particularly during its Classic Period (250-1000 ACE) when the Mayans reached their highest stage of development. Caracol is the biggest archaeological site in the country and was once a thriving Mayan metropolis supporting over 140,000 people – twice as many as modern-day Belize City. It's a breathtaking place to explore, situated in thick jungle 500 meters above sea level on the Vaca Plateau. Archaeologists have uncovered over 35,000 buildings, the tallest of which is Canaa or Sky Place, a 140-foot pyramid crowned with three temples which is still the tallest man-made structure in Belize today. Ascend its steps to examine scrawled hieroglyphics and look out over the dense jungle canopy. Other Mayan sites that are unquestionably worth visiting include Xunantunich, Lamanai and the 4500-year-old settlement of Cuello.
Scattered off the shore of mainland Belize are hundreds of "cayes," small sandy islands formed on the surface of the Belize Barrier Reef. The largest of these is Ambergris Caye, a tropical stretch of sand bordered by beautiful beaches and surrounded by the warm turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea. In characteristically leisurely fashion, it’s gradually evolved over the past few decades into one of Belize’s most popular destinations, with waves of travelers arriving to drink in the laid-back ambiance. There’s little motorized traffic and most journeys are made on foot or, if you’re feeling especially indolent, by hired golf cart. There are no monstrous high-rise hotels either, but plenty of lovely boutique places, along with an abundance of fun and affordable bars and restaurants. Activity centers on San Pedro, a picturesque village of multicolored houses, art galleries and locally run shops. Ambergris is also a great base for diving trips on the Belize Barrier Reef.
Actun Tunichil Muknal is an eerily evocative cave system that contains some of the most mesmerizing archaeological artifacts in the whole of Central America. It takes a 45-minute walk through thick rainforest to reach the mouth of the cave. Guides then lead you inside – cameras are not allowed – and you’ll pass through a series of chambers, several of which hold a diversity of Mayan crafts: pottery, ceramics and stoneware. At the end of this passageway, after a two-hour walk, the tunnel opens out into a cavern known as "The Cathedral." Here, 14 skeletal remains have been found, including the Crystal Maiden – the intact skeleton of a teenage girl, whose bones glint and sparkle with a glitter of calcified crystals. These skeletons are believed to have been human sacrifices and the cave system an intensely sacred site for the Mayans – a place where Mayan kings and shamans made ritualistic sacrifices to their dark subterranean gods.