If ever a country deserved the designation “small but mighty,” it’s Belize. Usually compared in size to U.S. states like Maryland or Massachussetts, the Central American nation just below Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula packs a lot in. Here you’ll find adventure in spades—whether it’s diving the world’s second largest barrier reef, viewing Mayan ruins, or exploring interior rain forests—along with plenty of delicious food and a characteristically warm welcome. I recently returned from a springtime trip, and it was striking how many other visitors were clearly on return visits. The country holds a special place in the hearts of many. Here’s a primer for your first or next trip: the best things to do in Belize.
Fly over the Great Blue Hole
Belize’s most internationally famous landmark (per guidebook front covers at least) is the striking Great Blue Hole. An enormous marine sinkhole that’s about 1,000 feet across and 400 feet deep, it’s home to a variety of sharks, coral, and the occasional boatload of divers ticking one of the world’s natural wonders off their list.
The best way to see it is via a flyover with the region’s airline, Tropic Air. In spring 2023, I joined a small group for an aerial view, sitting behind the pilot—who snapped a bunch of pics as he circled it, just like the rest of us.
How to visit
Tropic Air flights depart from San Pedro, Caye Caulker, and Belize City Municipal several times a week, passing over the Belize Barrier Reef (and on our trip a big shipwreck) and last about an hour. Several operators offer dive trips.
Snorkel or dive the Belize Barrier Reef
The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996, is the largest in the Northern Hemisphere (and second largest after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), with seven protected areas, three atolls, and some 450 sand and mangrove cayes. It’s teeming with life; more than 500 species of fish call it home alongside corals and mollusks galore. Scuba Diving magazine has a comprehensive roundup of places to dive in Belize outside the Great Blue Hole.
How to visit
I joined a group on a 28-foot skiff to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, some four miles from San Pedro, a city on on Ambergris Caye, to snorkel among the fish. On the way over, an enthusiastic family returning to the spot told us the experience would “ruin” other snorkel trips. But while the dip did indeed deliver on marine life, it was somewhat oversubscribed with humans. At one point I counted 15 people encircling a lone turtle. (Later in the week I took a boat tour to a reef in the protected Bacalar Chico Reserve and got to swim in similarly impressive waters alone.)
Swim with sharks
The Hol Chan boat tours continue on to Shark Ray Alley where the adventurous or foolhardy (hello) can jump backward off the boat into waters teeming with nurse sharks, attracted by chum tossed overboard by the guides. It’s at once a serene and unnerving experience, twisting and turning in the water with these benevolent predators (who are largely harmless to humans).
How to visit
Boats depart Ramon’s Village Resort in San Pedro for the 2.5-hour trip at 9 a.m. or 2 p.m. and offer the chance to snorkel or dive (or even get PADI certified). The departure jetty has changing rooms, lockers, and a shop with sunscreen and other essentials.
Fill up on fry jack . . .
The best days in Belize start with some fry jack, little triangles of deep-fried dough that accompany breakfast. I ate them a lot in San Pedro: with Mayan pirishpak (scrambled egg, tomato, onion, and habanero) at the appropriately named Fry Jack House; with sausage, beans, and egg at a table right on the water at Estel’s Dine by the Sea; and accompanied by huevos rancheros and the best coffee of my trip—a creamy latte—at D’Family Café. The latter is an especially good spot that’s not on the tourist map. (Literally, it’s not printed on the tourist map that hotels hand out.)
. . . but don’t miss out on Garifuna cuisine
The Garifuna population has its roots in Africa and the Caribbean, and modern communities live in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize. Their language, dance, and music have been inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. The best place to witness their dance and drumming—while eating some unforgettable food—is at Black and White Garifuna Restaurant.
Here, over a bowl of hudut, a creamy fish stew of snapper, coconut milk, plantain, cassava, and a bright orange pepper, washed down with a couple of Belikin beers, I witnessed a lively performance—frenetic rhythms, barefoot dancers in colorful skirts—and a sobering video on the group’s history. Songs and stories recounted tales of woe—the group has been displaced and exiled several times—but also encouragement, as one drummer told me afterwards.
How to visit
The experience costs $40 for adults (plus the cost of the food and drink). Performances begin in early evening. Check its Facebook page for reservation details and updated times.
And, really, just gorge on a Belize food tour
Good food is simple, unfussy, and easy to come by in Belize, whether it’s rice and beans, conchinita pibil, ceviche, tamales, or conch soup. The evening walkaround with Belize Food Tours in San Pedro stops at around half a dozen places over three leisurely hours, feeding you more than enough for the evening along with multiple drinks, including a rum tasting.
Our guide Felipe stuffed us with a variety of delights from small, locally owned restaurants: beef tacos and chimichurri at Big Taste, pork and cheese pupusas, and more. My personal highlight was tiny, family-run Briana’s Food Place, where the salbutes, Belize’s answer to the tostado, puffed corn tortillas topped with shredded chicken, cabbage, onion, tomato and jalapeno, were worth the price of admission alone.
How to visit
Belize Food Tours’ Savor Belize Dinner Tour is priced at $72. The company is Belizean owned by a brother and sister who grew up on the island.
Explore Mayan ruins
Belize is dotted with ancient sites, ranging from the temples of Altun Ha, a short drive from Belize City and featured on the country’s favorite beer, Belikin, to the far less visited Lubaantun in the south of the country.
I was among the very few people wandering around the plazas and temples of Xunantunich, close to the Guatemalan border and not far from the country’s second-biggest city of San Ignacio. While many people in this region make the trip to Tikal across the border, this site offers a host of discoveries and chances to reflect on the ancient civilization. Even getting there is an adventure, with a hand-cranked ferry taking pedestrians and a handful of cars across a river first.
How to visit
The Belize Tourist Board has a map of their locations. You can visit the likes of Xunantunich on your own for a nominal entrance fee of a few U.S. dollars, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you join a well-reviewed tour.
Head into the jungle for adventure
Adventure travelers are spoiled in Belize: Many head to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave near San Ignacio, where a jungle hike leads to a labyrinth of underground tunnels and caverns full of Mayan artifacts (and some human remains)—accessible only by swimming through a flooded entrance. Others might go tubing through national parks and other Mayan sites. Still more take to the nation’s network of ziplines. And frankly, you could do it all given the reasonable prices and compact nature of the country.
More things to do in Belize
Belize offers numerous other things to do and places to visit, including:
- The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary with its protected jaguars
- The relaxed island of Caye Caulker and the southern beach-side hot spot of Placencia
- Bioluminescence tours
- Bird-watching opportunities
- Chocolate tasting at Ajaw in San Ignacio
- The Green Iguana Conservation Project at San Ignacio Resort Hotel, where the threatened reptiles are nurtured and released
Where to stay in Belize
I stayed at Black Rock Lodge, one of Belize’s original ecolodges and a real jungle hideaway several miles down a private and bumpy lane. Here, hearty breakfasts set you up for a day of adventure; a hillside hot tub and a swing into the adjacent river cool you off at sunset. Howler monkeys in the nearby trees serenade you (in their own demented way) after dark.
In San Pedro, I stayed at Xanadu Island Resort, a beach-side hotel with some impressive environmental credentials (the hotel is Green Globe Certified), pool and hot tub, and super-helpful reception staff. Guests can rent motorized golf carts, which is how most of San Pedro gets around.
Several major airlines, including Delta, American, and United, fly into Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport (BZE) near Belize City. Tropic Air handles all the local flights to the islands; look for a representative with a clipboard in the small terminal. Many hotels offer shuttles from the airport and car hire is available.