Belize is often overlooked in favor of its flashy counterparts to the north in Tulum and to the South in Cartagena. For those in the country, it’s a toss-up to find the region with the most draw: The west touts the major Maya sites like Cahal Pech (as does the far north), the southern coast flaunts boutique resorts and eco-lodges, and, of course, the over 200 cayes and atolls beam with Insta-worthy perfection.
I prefer the pace of life in the Cayes—they’re the reason why I can’t stop booking tickets back to the small nation. These are six tips for getting beneath the surface of the Cayes, where you’ll quickly learn that being marooned on a Belizean island is just about the best thing that can happen.
1. Seek out the Belizean rhythm
While heading south to explore the Cayes off the Placencia Peninsula, there’s one essential stop—in Dangriga—to feel the beat of Garifuna rhythm. The Garifuna are descendants of 18th century settlers who were forced out of St. Vincent and other Central American lands due to European influence. And among the Garifuna today, drums represent a connection to their African ancestors. Learning your punta and paranda beats at the Lebeha Drumming Center shows you how generations of Garifuna are preserving their culture by teaching music and instrument-making. And if you visit in November, try to make Garifuna Settlement Day—an electric festival with reenactments and ceremonies all painted in yellow, white, and black on November 19th. There’s also heaping portions of mashed plantain soaked in coconut stew. No utensils needed.
2. Explore the atolls and mangroves
Out on the Cayes, the tune of reggae and Spanish-French Kriol fill the dirt paths. Belikin beer is always within reach, so take a few bottles on a chartered boat from the peninsula to the surrounding atolls and mangroves. Starting at the Chabil Mar Villas, you can experience Belize in its least exploited, natural form. Among many perks—including toucan sightings, beach cabanas, and hammocks with a 5-barrel rum mojito—are scuba classes to see Belize’s most abundant and diverse corals off Turneffe atoll and Laughing Bird Caye.
3. Cherish the conch and queen snapper ceviche
Tortilla chips. Lime. Tomato. Cucumber. Onions. Fresh conch and snapper. What’s not to love? I had the fresh catch with every meal—including breakfast. And at the Thatch Caye Resort, you can venture out with a snorkel, mask, and fishing gear for a lobster-and-conch hunt in one of the few open-fishing zones of Belizean waters. In the midst of the sting rays, turtles, and sharks are the tasty conch for single pickings—no overfishing in Belize.
4. Stay on a private island
The Cayes are picking up on a trend: turning atolls and mini-cayes into eco-lodges. Even Leonardo DiCaprio is in on the fun. They’re flaunting cabana-style rooms just steps from the water (it feels like you’re on a houseboat) and onboarding chefs that are fusing new ideas with the classic Belizean combination of land and sea. Make sure to try anything with coconut or fresh snapper. These secluded getaways are offered at Cayo Espanto, three miles from Ambergris Caye; Royal Belize, of the World Heritage Site of South Water Caye Marine Reserve; and Hatchet Caye, off the coast of Placencia. I loved kayaking out toward the reef and making friends with one particular female nurse shark with a crooked fin.
5. Learn to fly
Many associate Belize with snorkeling and keeping your eyes below the surface, and while there’s some seriously vibrant underwater sights, the cayes are slowly becoming known for their perfect windsurf and kitesurf spots in the tame waters inside the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. On both the larger Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker you can take quick lessons with the kite. I’d recommend taking a bike ride up and down 2-mile long Caulker before zipping around the Split under your teal blue kite. Watch for turtles meandering through the clear waters below, and end the day at the Lazy Lizard —because boozy slushies taste better when they’re green.
6. Help save the reef
The second-largest reef system in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef is the Belize Barrier Reef—and like so much of marine life around the globe, the Belize Barrier Reef is in danger. But travelers to the region can help. Skip the Great Blue Hole and set out anywhere from north to south in pursuit of the invasive lionfish. Locals, in conjunction with hotels and outfitters, are using tourism to help combat the Lionfish by hunting and eating the zebra-striped fish—which is delicious, and tastes a bit like swordfish. Hatchet Caye Resort and Turtle Inn both offer day-long hunts for the lion with lessons in spear-fishing. Best not miss because these feisty swimmers will sting you; and while not lethal, it’ll hurt. I went because I felt like a boss with a trident in hand, but for a full expedition, Blue Ventures offers a week-long Lionfish Dive where you can survey the marine life, hunt the lion, and contribute to marine research on the reef.