If you’re lucky enough to be headed to Belize, here’s what you should see (and eat).
Belize, formerly British Honduras and the place whose town called San Pedro is the alleged inspiration behind Madonna’s 1986 hit, “La Isla Bonita,” is a fascinating Central American country with a stark dual personality, with delights to be found in either camp. (You will find that “this is where I long to be,” is a relevant Madonna lyric in either case.) It is also a place that has become more and more accessible to Americans, especially during the rise of discount travel and budget economy class, requiring only half a day’s time from most U.S. airport hubs.
In even just a scant two days it is possible to get a good long look at both of Belize’s unique faces, from the inland ruins and rainforest to the island tiki and tacos. If quick and dirty travel to Belize makes itself available to you—looking at you, Scott’s Cheap Flights—then by all means, carpe Belize. (That’s “seize the Belize.” Belize it or not, any and all clever Belize-based word play has already been done.)
What to Expect
When one googles “Belize” and clicks “images” what one will find is scores of photos of cerulean waters, the infamous Blue Hole, and palm tree-studded sands of the sort that are typically synonymous with the idea of “paradise.” What you are actually looking at are pictures of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, two tiny islands off of the coast of the capital, Belize City. And herein lies its dual persona; The vast majority of Belize life takes place inland, among the Mayan ruins and rainforest. The coast of the mainland has some beaches, but the coast near Belize City is largely brackish and unswimmable with converging jungle rivers, and generally doesn’t make for good tourism promo. Cerulean sells.
If what you want to do with your quick trip to Belize is post up at a thatched-roof palapa bar on one of the cayes to soak up the sun, tiki cocktails, and warm Caribbean waters by day and then party with other travelers by night, then by all means, do that. Likewise, if you want to take it to the jungle for 48 hours of Indiana Jones-esque adventures, then that is also a fine idea. (Look up Actun Tunichil Muknal—i.e. “ATM cave”—which makes Machu Picchu seem adorable and quaint by comparison.)
But here’s the thing…You don’t have to choose! With even just a two-day itinerary, it is possible to do both. Culture and conch shells. Mayans and mayhem. Find yourself a place to sleep in Belize City or thereabouts for one night to set yourself up logistically for both inland and island exploration in equal measure.
Day 1: Mind Your Mayans
Meaning “submerged crocodile,” the three imposing temples at the site are just a couple of millenia in age, making the Tower of London seem positively adolescent, but are nonetheless available for climbing and generally marveling at the triumph of architecture and design accomplished literally in the Archaic period.
The journey includes a wonderful homemade lunch of typical Belizean fare including chicken with rice and beans, and plantains. Cautiously help yourself to the ecstatically fiery condiment of pickled onions and habanero peppers. The Belizeans are very serious about spice, and the “help yourself” aspect of this buffet lunch means that nobody will try to protect you from your own heat-seeking bravado.
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Until you can enjoy some Belizean sunshine, you can enjoy some Belizean heat.
Speaking of heat, at this point, you’ll be retaining plenty of it, in body as in mouth. Time for a little soak? Bacab Eco Park, located along your way back to Belize City from Lamanai, boasts a vast and attractive pool nestled within a low-key botanical garden. Before you ask why a “tropical paradise” such as Belize would require such a thing as a giant swimming pool, please revisit paragraph two above. Also, Belize is hot. Very hot, and not just because of a fevered love of habanero peppers. Bacab is a great place to cool off for a couple of hours, perhaps with a local Belikin beer or two…or…three…or…you know the drill.
Head back toward Belize City, and if you’ve been time-efficient, you may catch the small but mighty Museum of Belize before closing. Built in what was formerly Her Majesty’s Prison, this cultural treasure is an eye-opener for content on slavery and colonial Belize history.
For your evening, find a bar and grill with a view of the water such as Hour Bar to take in the sunset, some seafood, and several icy rum cocktails.
Day 2: Paradise Found
Reward yourself for your full day one itinerary with an even fuller day two itinerary, island-style. Getting to Ambergris Caye requires a cheap ferry (about 90 minutes) or a relatively inexpensive plane (about 15 minutes), but in either case you might want to book accommodation on the caye and travel back the following morning to catch your flight as all routes off of the island stop around 6 p.m.
Once off the boat or plane you will be inundated with mercenaries trying to get you to rent a golf cart, but for your single day this is largely unnecessary. The town of San Pedro is compact and walkable. Like Madge, I also fell in love with San Pedro.
And for good reason. Some people’s notion of paradise might be cerulean waters and palm trees, but here’s mine: breakfast tacos. San Pedro has all of these, as well as a high concentration of local foods in a small landscape, and Brad’s Belizean Food Exploration Walk is a perfect way to take in as many local goods as you can handle, from relics of colonial rule such as meat pies, to tortillas right off the press, to neighboring El Salvador-inspired pupusas, to chocolate and coffee and pastries and rum creams, among others. (Oh my.) And of course the simple rolled tacos, eaten in sets of three—we watched a young Belizean man take down nine. You will not need to eat for the rest of the day. (Clairvoyance: you will anyway. You’ll definitely want to find the wherewithal to stop at Brad’s restaurant, Iguana Juan’s, for a coconut mojito.)
Then I trust you know what to do when warm, turquoise Caribbean waters are nearby and hungrily lapping at the shore for your attention. Unsure? How about a tranquil, relaxing, snorkeling with the sharks excursion at Hol Chan Marine Reserve? Or, if the combo of multitudinous carbs and shark encounters seems like a digestively bad idea, just pass out on the beach, or in a chair on the deck of a surfside tiki bar such as Palapa Bar, where you’re likely to end your day anyway, with live music and livelier crowds, best enjoyed with a hand wrapped around another coconut mojito or other such libation. (Belize’s top cocktail is the unfortunately-named, if simple and delicious, Panty Ripper.) Easy, breezy, Belize-y.
A final, random traveler’s tip whether you choose this itinerary for your short stay or any other: the best Chinese food I ever had outside of China was in Belize. Belize Chinese? Better Belize it.
Header image courtesy of De Agostini/Getty Images.