There is a lot of focus on reef and diving in Belize, but for inner beauty go canoeing and wild camping along the Belize River. Also known as Old River. This, and also the adjoining Macal and Mopan Rivers, just east of San Ignacio, travels for 290km of natural pathway, where local people bathe in the river, birdlife basks on limestone or jungle covered cliffs, and life takes on a real Belizean pace.
Paddling paradise, spend days just kayaking from caye to caye, cove to cove. Discover bits of the coral reef that are far away from divers and snorkelers, along traditional routes of local fishermen to places such as Billy Hawk Caye or South Caye Marine Reserve, following the line of where the Barrier Reef waves crest, or adding sails to the kayaks and letting the wind take you to all the best haunts.
Home to the culturally rich Garifuna ethnic group, direct descendants of a group of slaves who escaped two ship-wrecked Spanish slave ships in 1635. Everywhere you go, the traditional drumming and music is heard, as is the language, a French and Arawak mix. Their home is location, location, location, with the Caribbean on one side and Maya Mountains on the other. Not to be missed.
There is a north-south divide when it comes to tourism, but oh those southern belles. The cayes, the coves, the culture, and the effortless Caribbean joie de vivre. Try kayaking on Stann Creek, go hunting for Mayan temples around Toledo, Belizeís Mayan hub, or chill on the beach at Placencia, where the Lobster Festival in June is pure Belizean fun. With a lot of rum.
Although neighbouring Guatemala is more famous for its Mayan sites, Belize is also on the Mayan Trail, with over a million Mayans living here over a period of 2,000 years. The most famous sites are Xunantunich, Altun Ha and Caracol. Or check out Lamanai on the banks of the New River Lagoon which you can access by boat. Just you and the crocs on this particular Mayan Trail. And birds, in paradise.
Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world, and so not only are diving vacations the biz, full on marine conservation trips are the real biz. Heading into the quieter waters of southern Belize, conservation vacations explore the likes of Sapodilla Cayes Marine Park, identifying marine species, training for PADI qualifications, and learning how to spear invasive lionfish. Tough gig but someone has to do it.
There are two blue holes in Belize. Well, actually it is brimming with blue holes. But the two most famous ones are this inland one and the one at sea, officially called Blue Hole Natural Monument. Both beautiful. This one is a limestone wonderland of sapphire sinkholes, St. Herman's Cave, ancient stalactites and stalagmites, as well as Mayan artifacts for whom this was a spiritual underworld. And for us visitors, it's a magical world of adventure.
Pronounced Ďkeysí, these are small islands formed by a gathering of sand on top of reefs. Belize is caye central boasting over 200. The most popular are Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker both gateways for snorkelling and diving in Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Head south for the lesser known Snake Cayes, accessible from Punta Gorda and Monkey River Town, or treat yourself to private Thatch Caye, with impressive eco resort.
Most coral is illegal, except black coral which is still legally harvested in Belize and it should display the government licensed label. But responsible travelers tend to just enjoy leaving coral where it should be. In the water. Be wary of jade too, and get a certificate of authenticity otherwise you risk buying loot from an ancient, unprotected Mayan site. In fact, most jade-like jewellery is actually nephrite nowadays.
The Blue Hole is stunning, but some scuba divers find it an anti climax, after having it at the top of their dive wish lists for as long as they have had their PADI. It is very deep, so you have to be experienced, dives are often short, and the conditions have to be perfect to really see clearly. Donít let it upstage the myriad marine experiences all along this extraordinary coastline, where caye follows cove, atoll follows archipelago.
Although the largest city, and the one that tourists fly into, the capital is actually Belmopan nowadays, following Belize Cityís destruction by a hurricane in 1961. Itís still considered a stormy city by some metaphorically however, with occasional instances of crime reported, but these have fallen in recent years. Tourist areas are well policed, but it isnít really a city that evokes chilliní in the Caribbean. Unlike the rest of the country. Which is Belizean bliss.