In the Orange Walk district, in Northern Belize, lies one of the largest Maya ruins in the country: Lamanai. It is accessible by road but I arrived after a one-hour boat ride up the New River. The name “Lamanai” is roughly translated as “Submerged Crocodile.” Apparently, there was once a thriving population. The ruins may date back to 700 B.C. and estimates put the number of structures, which are part of the ruins, at around 700 buildings; however, less than 5% has actually been excavated. Thick jungle, filled with howler monkeys, birds and jaguars, conceal the remaining structures. The walk through the jungle from the landing dock is certainly evocative. Tall palm trees form a dense ceiling and thick underbrush conceals everything around the path, still littered with pottery shards and artifacts because excavation is still ongoing. The Mask Temple has the most well preserved details but the view from the top of N10-43 (or High Temple) is thrilling. I don’t recommend it for those who are afraid of heights because the climb down is steep and challenging. If you can make it, it’s worth every moment of struggle. I am no expert judge, but I would revisit Lamanai again in a heartbeat; of all the Maya historical places I have been, it was the most interesting and complete in terms of narrative and historical detail. A museum toward the entrance to the complex could easily take an entire afternoon to get through because of the volume of information it houses.
AFAR sent Ambassador Kirsten Alana on a trip to all 7 regions in Belize to learn what it truly means to "Discover How To Be.” We are pleased to bring you the 7x7 Guide to Belize with Kirsten’s recommendations from each region.
Discover the 7 Regions of Belize
Quite used to tourists by now, the resident sea turtles of the reefs off Ambergris Caye are ideal models to try and capture grace underwater. While the diving is spectacular it is not necessary - it's a snorkelers paradise just off shore!
Anywhere whose address is "Mile 8" of a pot-holed dirt road is my type of place (even when your busted rental car shocks are creaking and only one headlight is working because the battery has bounced out of place). Arriving at Mountain Equestrian Trails Lodge is truly a reward; not only because it takes a bit of bumpy work to get there, but because it is more reasonably priced and packed with more authentic charm than the well-known upscale resorts of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. The small staff of horse-riding adventurers embraces you like family and makes everyone's stay a personalized experience with their endless knowledge of the land, animals, history, surroundings and active excursions. The rooms are cozy kerosene-lit Spanish bungalows with palm-thatched roofs. The Cantina, the central hang-out spot where meals are drinks are served, has electricity and Wi-Fi so that you're not completely off the grid but with views like the one pictured, you could care less even if you were.
Anya Fernald, a former director of Italy’s Slow Food Foundation, has dreamed up the ultimate foodie getaway in the jungles of Belize. Belcampo’s 12-room lodge is set on a 3,000-acre farm that grows tropical fruit, coffee, cacao, and striped purple sugar cane. These crops are the focus of the one-, three-, and five-day educational courses that Belcampo’s Farm and Food Center will start offering this November. Taught by leading food and drink artisans, such as Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut-Chocolat and rum expert Martin Cate, classes might include making bacon-smoked chocolate bars or distilling your own rum over a fire. Courses start at $85. Punta Gorda, 501/722-0050. Photo by Tara Donne. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
After a long and arduous day of driving hours over bumpy roads and climbing up and down the pyramids at Caracol, my wife and I were dying for some relief. We were about halfway back to San Ignacio, Belize when we saw the famous Blancaneaux Lodge. I looked over to my wife and suggested we pull over and get a cocktail and relax for an hour, before subjecting ourselves to the relentless washboard road again. Anyhow, one drink led to another and before we knew it, neither of us could drive or even wanted to get up. So, we ended up paying for a very expensive night at this posh, Coppola owned resort. Coupled with the night we already paid for at our original lodge and these cocktails really added up. We put the cost of our "travel emergency" out of our minds for the rest of the evening and enjoyed the luxurious confines to the fullest.
Learn authentic and traditional cooking from Maya women on site in hotel's own traditional maya kitchen. We learned to cook tamalitos, corn tortillas, and caldo. What a (tasty) treat!
My girlfriend and I were wandering along the beach and saw this pier beckoning us to stop and stay awhile. We did and had a magically glorious sunbathing experience, including swimming with barracuda under the dock, a diving contest and swimsuit photo shoot to beat the band. Best part was we had this slice of paradise all to ourselves.
Belize is a beautiful mix of garifuna, Mexican, Mayan and other cultures. just outside of San Ignacio are amazing maya ruins, rainforest, jaguar sanctuaries... Mountain Pine Ridge is a beautiful mountain area near San Ignacio where you go up a dirt road with a rental car or there are many outfitters in San Ignacio who will drive you up on a day trip. see amazing waterfalls, go on hikes and check out rio frio cave which has a 65 ft entrance and goes back like a tunnel with cool pools inside. it seems like another world looking out into rainforest. San Ignacio is only a couple hours from Belize city. you can bus from Belize airport easy! I took this shot of an NGO group I was shooting last year.
This is just the beginning of the beauty and adventure you'll experience at Actun Tunichil Mukna Cave. Skeletons, waterfalls, sink holes, and experiencing the majesty of total darkness just as the ancient Mayans did.
A short boat ride north from San Pedro will deposit you onto a portion of Ambergris Caye that feels worlds away from any town or city. Once ensconced in a private bungalow on a private beach, there isn’t much to distract the guest from complete enjoyment of the charms of Caribbean water, sunshine and the slower pace that characterizes day-to-day life in the North Islands. Massage therapists are available, as are spa services and a full range of excursions and activities can be arranged via the concierge. 13 exclusive villas are available, one of which includes a steam room and private infinity pool, while other villas either feature beach access, jacuzzi tubs, private outdoor showers or decks that stretch over a salt water lake. El Secreto’s full-service restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a bar is poolside in the main lodge. Rates begin around $3,000 for a three-night stay, and more information is available at www.elsecretobelize.com
Many people go to Belize and head straight for the islands and who could blame them? But just north of the international airport is the Classic Maya site named Altun Ha. Altun Ha is a small site, but has been wonderfully restored. The site provides sunseekers and divers an easy opportunity to mix in some culture, before heading off to the sea.
The speed of our boat slowed and in the distance I could make out the white water of waves breaking over the reef. A few boats seemed to be anchored just before that point and bobbing in the water between the boats were the telltale signs of snorkelers and divers, a pair of fins here and a water spout or two there. Though the water was choppier than I was used to while snorkeling, I was so excited at the prospect of another chance to visit with the abundant life under the sea. Our boat stopped, and then I looked directly into the turquoise water around the boat for the first time. It was instead gray and brown, and writhing in a way that’s unnatural for the ocean. When our guide told me to suit up and get ready to jump in, the look on my face must have needed no words because he laughed and so did the rest of my companions. “You want me to do what?” I asked. After a bit of back and forth, some chumming of the water and eventually, summoning whatever courage I possess, I jumped into the water. Classic case of fear being so out of touch with reality. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is an incredible place where four different zones allow you to interact and swim with docile nurse sharks, stingrays and all manner of colorful fish.
I was so nervous watching them. Daddy had daughter on his back crossing the suspension bridge. Daddy had no free hand holding daughter because he had both his hands tight on the bridge to maintain balance. Once you've got to the other side, the only way back is crossing the bridge again. That's called 'giving mommy (me) heart attack, twice!'
The massive ruins of Caracol were once a major Maya metropolis in prehispanic Belize, during the Classic Period. The majority of the site is yet to be reclaimed from the forest, but the structures that have been uncovered are truly impressive. The main structure is still the tallest building in all of Belize and places you "on top of the world." The jungle surrounding the site is teaming with wildlife, and a pair of binoculars come in handy. The ruins are located south of San Ignacio along the rough Mountain Pine Ridge Road. There are several worthwhile stops on the way, such as Rio Frio Cave and Rio On Falls, but the best stop is a cool libation at the Blancaneaux Lodge Bar.
The pot-holed dirt road into the small fishing town of Hopkins Village dead ends at this pier that seems to go into an endless horizon. After hiking through jungles and driving through the lush mountains of the Hummingbird Highway, this was a refreshing site to stumble upon.
Before I went to Belize, anyone I spoke with who had already been, told me that I had to have a meal at Elvi’s Kitchen. Now having met her, I understand why. Ms. Staine sat down with me in San Pedro and her humility and wisdom were evident in her gentle manner of speaking and in the way she answered my questions concerning her fame, her career that started back in 1974 and the wonderful restaurant. The menu at Elvi’s Kitchen is uncomplicated and unpretentious, with a great depth of flavor and a remarkable combination of ingredients. During high season, you might have to wait in line to eat dinner at the restaurant. Most of the time, there isn’t much delay and I would recommend saving room for dessert. Elvi’s Kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The coral island of Caye Caulker has the motto "go slow," which is reflected in the attitude of both visitors and locals. We arrived at the Split by speedboat from Ambergris Caye. The narrow waterway that divides the island in two provided the perfect opportunity for snorkeling, where we saw tropical fish gathering around the remnants of a crumbled wall that’s fallen to the bottom of the sea. The docks that criss-cross the water are made for sunbathing and soaking up the sociable atmosphere of the island. It also happens to be one of the best places on the island to enjoy the Caribbean sunset. Drinks are provided by the nearby Lazy Lizard, famous for its delectable piña colada made with local rum. Swimming is easy on either side of the Split, but be wary in the deeper water of strong currents and the frequent speedboats that zip through, often with little regard for swimmers. If you’re willing to risk the hazards though, you’ll be rewarded by watching schools of colorful fish, huge starfish and rays swim in the vicinity. The absolute calm of the island allows you to relax in the shallows of the lagoon, where you can hear nothing but the lapping of water and the occasional shout from one local to another. It’s easy to forget that time even exists here.
The Actun Tunichil Maknal Cave (Cave of the Stone Sepulcher or ATM cave) can be found in the Tapir Mountain Reserve, about a 45-minute bumpy Jeep ride east of San Ignacio, Belize. It's a protected area, so you will need to join one of a few licensed tours to go there. Once in the rain forest, its a fairly easy 45-minute hike in which you walk through a few shallow river crossings. Then you put a helmet on, swim into the cave (water is usually over one's head) and then hike, crawl, swim, and climb ladders about 1.5 kilometers into the "underworld" where the Mayas believed the gods lived. Toward the end of the cave is "The Cathedral," where 14 skeletons of sacrificed Mayas have rested for over 1,000 years. The most intact skeleton, "The Crystal Maiden," is calcified, giving it a sparkling, surreal appearance. Numerous pottery fragments also litter the floor. Bats, freshwater crabs, crayfish, catfish, scorpions, and predatory spiders have made the river and cave their home. We only saw the bats and one spider. Otters have even been seen in the cave. I liked that there were no ropes or walls separating visitors from the skeletons and pottery, but this has resulted in one tourist stepping on and crushing a skull. Please be careful. One of my favorite things in Belize.
Blue Water Grill is an open-air restaurant right on the beach located in a quieter end of San Pedro. I’d been told their food was excellent more than a few times before finally getting to enjoy a meal there myself. Both my meals lived up to the hype. Simple and rustic in its décor with wood walls and colorful paintings, it’s a space that allows the food to be the star of the show. Breakfast is good and features predictable Belizean favorites such as fry jacks and scrambled eggs with beans, but it is dinner that is the real attraction. The Crispy Fried Pork Dumplings with Hoison Peanut Sauce served over a Petite Salad of Arugula, Hearts of Palm and Daikon Radish was my favorite dish, though the Mongolian Style Ribs, Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon, Key Lime Pie and Crème Brulee were also delectable. Blue Water Grill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner beginning at 7 a.m. with a bar that serves drinks until 10 p.m.. More information can be found at www.bluewatergrillbelize.com
John and Ellen left their home countries (Australia and the United States) to build a life in Belize where, far from the rat race that plagues life in so many other countries, they could open a restaurant, The Maya Beach Hotel Bistro, and have the time to connect with people in a way that might deliver a sort of intangible happiness. Whether their passion for life makes the food so good or whether John’s talent is simply deserving of a Michelin rating he might never receive, I don’t know. I do know that I can’t get the craving for their garlic and goat cheese appetizer out of my head, I can still close my eyes and taste the complex flavors of the lamb and feta salad that I enjoyed, and I have never tasted anything that humbled the mere peanut in the way John’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream Pie does. The breakfast burrito was the most wonderful meal I have ever begun a day with. Simply put, the best meals of my entire time in Belize were enjoyed at Maya Beach Hotel Bistro. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Maya Beach Hotel Bistro is open to hotel guests and the general public for three meals a day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
When I was a kid, I visited a place called Mackinac Island. No cars are allowed and most people get where they need to go via their own two feet, a bicycle or one of the many horse-drawn carriages that populate the busier streets along the harbor. So when was told that no cars were allowed in San Pedro, except those needed for maintenance, I felt a simple nostalgia for the experience of my childhood and I wondered what form of transportation locals favored on Ambergris Caye. It turns out, golf carts rule the road in and around San Pedro and if you’re going to enjoy your stay, renting a cart is the best way to fit right in! Our cart was procured through Island Golf Carts and while there are a number of options in town I thought their terms, pricing and service were the very best.
Kayaking adventures are available in many parts of Belize, but Turneffe Atoll’s protected, shallow waters in particular lend themselves well to being explored by this method. Both novice and advanced kayakers will enjoy seeing the biodiversity of this portion of the reef system. Twenty-five species of birds are found just on Blackbird Caye, abundant coral gardens can be seen from above the water, dolphins are easily spotted because they come to feed and rest within the atoll and mangrove creeks provide ample places to seek out other creatures via kayak. Double kayaks are most common, with single being available by request on a limited basis. Choose to stay at Blackbird Caye Resort and all arrangements can be made directly through the resort as a package or à la carte, for which prices begin at $40.
Caana, or Sky Temple, at Caracol archaeological site in western Belize, is one of the largest, most impressive pyramids in the Maya world. Even more than a thousand years after it was built, Caana remains the tallest manmade structure in all of Belize. Caracol is located at the end of a long, red-clay road near the Guatemalan border. On December 21, 2012, the Belize Institute of Archaeology issued special camping permits and off-hours access to travelers. The reason? 13 b’aktun: the completion of the Maya Long Count calendar.
Driving in any direction on the Hummingbird Highway, it would be hard to miss this white shack surrounded by cars, in a small clearing immediately next to the road under the shade of a very large tree. Ms. Bertha’s Tamales has little signage, but no signs are needed for locals. Everyone knows about Ms. Bertha Lisbey and her tamales. They are said to be the best in Belize. One of her spiced, gooey chicken-and-corn tamales is a perfect break. Pair it with a hot sauce she has been making almost as long as the tamales, and a cold soda in a glass bottle. Since Ms. Bertha is now 75 years old, some days it is her daughter who’s the one serving loyal customers and first-time visitors, drawn by the stories that you’ll hear in every corner of the country. The small shack can serve hundreds of tamales a day during peak season yet each one is prepared with the same attention and love. Everyone sits on benches, patiently waiting their turn. There aren’t many places to stop along the Hummingbird Highway, but that’s not the only reason you shouldn’t pass by Bertha’s without turning in. Make sure you stop.
The Phoenix is a little slice of paradise on the edge of San Pedro, featuring more modern architecture than most buildings in town, as well as modern amenities. Rooms are one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom condominium suites that feature luxurious eat-in kitchens, bathrooms with walk-in showers and Jacuzzi tubs, large living rooms and laundry facilities. Each suite also has a balcony or patio, and almost all suites are just steps away from one of the pools which are the focal point of the resort. The larger main pool cascades into a shallower lower pool and is saline chlorinated, as is the 55' long lap pool. A pool bar is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Red Ginger restaurant is open daily for breakfast lunch and dinner as well as brunch on Sunday afternoons and serves a tapas menu on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. There are also business services, an on-site spa, and fitness and yoga centers. Rates begin at $325 per night during low season for a one-bedroom beach view suite.
At the Belize Zoo, you can see more than 150 animals, representing over 45 species, all of which are native to the country of Belize. During my visit, I loved seeing the toucans, symbol of the country and colorful mascots for tourism. However, it was my time inside the jaguar habitat that was most memorable. I stepped through a double gate, past a heavy fence and into dense jungle where I had to follow a path that ended in a cage smaller than a dining room table. The cage had a small bench inside and I was instructed to sit on that bench. The next thing I knew, I was face to face with a jaguar. I could see the individual hairs that make up its fur, I felt its tongue on my forehead and its massive teeth were close enough to alert me to the seriousness of my position if I was in any way careless. Yet with a ranger accompanying me inside the cage, who talked to the jaguar and seemed in control the entire time, I was more than safe enough to be able to relax for just a minute and enjoy being so close to one of nature’s least understood cats. There is no cat that is larger or more powerful in the Western Hemisphere than the jaguar and being in such close proximity to one is, in my opinion, one of the few things in Belize that should absolutely be classified as a “can’t miss.” Inquire at the information desk, when you purchase your zoo admission, about the jaguar experience; a limited number of times are available per day and every visitor must be accompanied by a ranger.
If one meditates atop a Mayan ruin, one is certain to ascertain magical, mystical and ancient powers. Cassidy on top of Xunantanich overlooking Guatemala and Belize.
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