The Perfect Week in Belize

One way to see as much as possible of Belize is with a “rain forest to reef” package. Split your week between adventures in Western Belize’s Cayo District and R & R on the North Islands—either Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker.

San Pedro, Belize
Hol Chan Marine Reserve, located just a few minutes’ boat ride from San Pedro, is the place to go for snorkeling in Northern Belize. This small, protected area (Hol Chan means “little channel” in Mayan) is home to part of Belize’s barrier reef, which is the second largest in the world (after Australia‘s reef), and the largest healthiest. There are many tour operators out of San Pedro that can take you out for a half-day of snorkeling the reef, and you’ll see colorful coral, rainbow fish, and manta rays, among other marine life. Make sure your guide brings you to Shark Alley, where nurse sharks come to feed on the fish scraps boats leave behind. There, you’ll be able to swim mere feet—or even inches, if you dare—from the creatures.
Belize’s top two tourism hot spots, Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, are its two most populous islands, some 21 miles off the coast of Belize City. In San Pedro, Ambergris Caye’s main town, tourists spend their days diving, snorkeling, and fishing: The coral reef’s white froth is visible less than a mile from shore. Nights are for partying and bar-hopping. The southern and northern ends of Ambergris are more suited to seclusion and romance. Sister island Caye Caulker is a smaller, laid-back Caribbean version of the two, with sand-only streets (no cars here), more local eats than fine dining, and a deeply rooted Creole culture. Caye Caulker’s offshore adventures and treasures include a marine reserve, mangroves for kayak exploration, and breathtaking sunsets. Hop on the ferry to experience both.
Pescador Dr, San Pedro, Belize
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. What started out as a take-out burger window in 1974 eventually became a sit-down restaurant serving lovingly prepared Caribbean dishes such as conch soup and fritters, mojo de ajo, fried green plantains, and street corn. During high season you might have to wait in line to eat dinner at the restaurant, but most of the time, there isn’t much delay. Save room for dessert. Elvi’s Kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Beachfront, Barrier Reef Dr, San Pedro, Belize
Blue Water Grill is an open-air restaurant right on the beach in a quieter end of San Pedro. Simple and rustic in its decor, with wood walls and colorful paintings, it’s a space that allows the food to be the star of the show. Breakfast features good, predictable Belizean favorites such as fry jacks and scrambled eggs with beans, but dinner is the real attraction. The crispy fried pork dumplings with hoisin peanut sauce, served over an arugula, hearts of palm, and daikon radish salad, was my favorite dish, though the Mongolian-style ribs, the bacon-wrapped filet mignon, the key lime pie, and the crème brûlée were also delectable.
Mile 29 Western Hwy, La Democracia, Belize
This zoo in incredible for a few reasons: obviously, primarily for the animals there. Being in Belize, there are jaguars, ocelots, scarlet macaws... everything you wish you could stumble upon when hiking in the rainforest (if only hiking boots were less noisy!). Most noteworthy perhaps are the scarlet macaws, which are endangered. If you like to research places before visiting, you MUST read, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott: it tells about the Scarlet Macaw, Belize itself, and Sharon Matola- the woman who started the zoo and fought to save the macaws a while ago. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to hold a boa constrictor (I did!) or meet Matola, who my friends ran into while touring the zoo.
Beachfront, Ambergris Caye, Boca del Rio Drive, San Pedro, Belize
This understated beach bar is one of Ambergris Caye’s best-kept secrets that is quickly getting out. Owned by “Wayo from Cayo”, Wayo’s has become my regular hang out spot over the past two years. Wayo and his wife Dee can be found at the bar every day, often sharing a drink with many of the regulars. They’ve developed longstanding relationships with countless locals and a number of tourists, many of whom come back every few months to see Wayo and the crew. The main bartenders, Ruby and Archie, will not only serve up some great drinks, they are a wealth of information on what to do and see in San Pedro. You’d be hard put to find a more chill spot to relax right on the beach. Be sure to try a local specialty — the Michelada. Made with beer and a mix of spices, this is Belize’s version of the Bloody Mary and the best cure for a hangover! Open daily, 10am to midnight.
Belize City, Belize
And here we go – down into the deep blue sea, at the Great Blue Hole, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most remarkable underwater kingdoms the world has to offer. I didn’t get a change to visit the stalagmites and stalactites deep down in the hole – I’m not quite ready to go that deep as a diver – but I was able to explore much of what the hole has to offer. Even burgeoning divers like me can get down with their crew and explore a world they never knew existed. GoPro Hero3+ Silver | Aperture f/2.8 | ISO-100 | Shutter 1/610 sec.
West Street
Pop’s Restaurant is on a side street close to the heart of San Ignacio. Colorful booths and brightly painted walls welcome you in, and the menu focuses on breakfast, served all day. Pop’s feels cozy, the kind of place you want to linger over several cups of coffee. Most guests are locals, who rave about the breakfast as being the best in town, but visitors are enthusiastically welcomed. Most meals come with fruit and I thought their fry jacks were the best I had in Belize. Pop’s is open from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., every day.
No visit to Ambergris Caye is complete without an afternoon at the Palapa Bar. Situated at the end of a dock surrounded by turquoise waters and cool breezes, Palapa Bar attracts a mix of locals, travelers, and some of the coolest bartenders on the island. On a warm day, eschew the barstools and opt instead to float in inner tubes beside the dock; you can even have cold buckets of Belize’s Belikin beers lowered down to you. In addition to beer and standard cocktails, fun creations like Scotty’s Palapa Punch (three different types of rum, triple sec, mango, pineapple, and a squeeze of lime) offer some island-inspired refreshment. Up in the palapa, recommended items from the menu include sausage dip, pulled pork sandwiches, and the immense half-pound burger. Palapa Bar is 1.5 miles north of town and easily reached by golf cart, taxi, bicycle, or water taxi, which drops you right off at the dock.
Western Highway (Westbound)
On the banks of the Macal River, at the edge of downtown San Ignacio, you’ll find a sprawling Saturday market where everything from shoes and clothing to housewares and fresh produce is for sale. Local people shop for supplies and gather to catch up on gossip at the food stalls. The market is somewhat divided between produce sellers and souvenir vendors, but as the market has grown, the separation seems to have floundered a bit. Leave enough time to wander every aisle and stall to ensure no gem is left undiscovered. Locals recommend the tacos and pupusas as the best choices for lunch, and the snow cones topped with evaporated milk for a snack. Buses also park just next to the market in a dirt lot, so transportation is not difficult if you’re coming from outside of town.
San Ignacio, Belize
I found this striking wall mural while walking around in San Ignacio, Belize. There are a lot of hand painted advertisements on empty walls acting as billboards. Safe sex is a big issue in Belize, as it is thoughout Central America, and this no nonsense mural really drives home the consequences of unprotected sex.
Xunantunich Rd, Belize
The Cayo District is home to many of Belize’s ancient Maya sites, including one of the largest, Xunantunich. Located atop a ridge near the Mopan River and the Guatemala border, Xunantunich’s “El Castillo,” the main pyramid, is certainly the most impressive. Visitors who brave the steep steps to the top are rewarded with unsurpassed views into Guatemala and neighboring areas of Belize. While the climb up can be pretty steep and rough, there are other routes to get down along the backside that make the descent a little easier. It took me multiple visits to finally gather the courage to climb to the top, but I’m grateful I did, as the views were absolutely worth it! Organized tours to Xunantunich often combine with other activities like zip-lining, cave tubing, or even trips to the Belize Zoo. Travelers who wish to explore all of Xunantunich’s six plazas, which contain more than 26 temples and palaces, should plan to book a private tour or visit on their own.
Beachfront, Buccaneer St, San Pedro, Belize
Good breakfast spots are on the rise in San Pedro, but one of the most beloved places to grab a bite will always be Estel’s Dine by the Sea. Aside from its perfect beachfront location where you can eat with your toes in the sand, the food is pretty darn good as well. At Estel’s, you won’t find menus on the table; you must walk inside to check out the board. Don’t be surprised to find a crowd on the weekends, especially Sunday mornings. Just follow the smell of Charles Jr.’s famous BBQ specialties cooking on the grill, and you’ll understand why people are ordering plates of ribs first thing on Sunday! Aside from some impressive barbecue, Estel’s has a number of dishes that might leave you feeling the need to return once or twice more for breakfast. Personal recommendations include the Mayan Eggs, which is scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and sausage, served with a side of refried beans and fry jacks, or try the breakfast burrito. Don’t forget the Marie Sharps hot sauce on top! Breakfast is served all day. Closed Tuesdays.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
“The Hol Chan Marine Reserve. You can swim with sharks and stingrays at Shark Ray Alley and you are pretty much guaranteed to see a huge variety of fish and other sea life. All of our guests are excited when they come back from a day there after seeing the many shades of the sea, which is 82 degrees and crystal clear, while the skies are usually blue and the sun bright, bringing out all the colors below. Huge fish, sharks, sting rays, sea turtles — you never know if there is going to be a dolphin or manatee joining everyone. The sea is our playground.” Kirsten Miglio, owner Ak’boL Yoga Retreat
Undoubtedly, one of the most popular dishes in Belize is “Rice and Beans,” usually served with stewed chicken, beef, or pork. Locals pronounce it “rice n beans with stew chicken” and it’s available almost everywhere throughout the country—from food stalls to resort restaurants. The signature red color comes from red recado, an achiote-based paste common in Belize and other parts of the Yucatan peninsula.
Belize City, Belize
Belize’s liveliest time of the year comes in September, when the entire country celebrates independence for three entire weeks leading up to Sept. 21. The major towns and cities host various events, and a countrywide calendar is published on Sept. 1, allowing you to follow along with the fun wherever you might find yourself in Belize. The most popular events are a steel pan concert called Pan Yaad, held in Belize City, and two full-blown carnival parades. Belize City Carnival, with soca and Caribbean music blaring, is held in mid-September, while Orange Walk Carnival takes place on Independence Day and celebrates Mestizo heritage. Take advantage of low-season fares to get a unique culture-filled experience in Belize in September.
San Pedro, Belize
From the first time I set foot on the island of Ambergris Caye, Caramba became my favorite restaurant in San Pedro. And that’s not changed, even ten years later. Rene Reyes, Sr. and his wife Patty have done a remarkable job with the restaurant. Every season brings something new and exciting – whether it be décor changes, menu enhancements or even new cocktail creations. The Reyes’ sons Jonathan and Renesito are now involved in day-to-day operations, keeping Caramba one of the long-standing family-owned and operated businesses on the island. Personal recommendations include Conch Fritters (seasonal), Sopa de Lima, Fish Tacos, Pibil Pork Sub and the Coconut Shrimp. Any of the seafood dishes are spectacular – go for the Maya or Tour Guide cooking options. Be sure to try one of bartender Charlie’s cocktails, like the Strawberry Beerita, King Margarita, or a special mojito. Not a drinker? Caramba has some of the best fruit smoothies on the island. Closed Wednesdays. Check Foursquare for current specials.
One of Caye Caulker’s best beach bars is also its friendliest. Set right on the Split—a narrow channel dividing the island’s north and south portions—Caye Caulker’s most social corner invites tourists and locals to gather for a swim off an extended dock, or to enjoy a cocktail and music. Lazy Lizard’s recently upgraded look includes a variety of umbrella-covered wooden picnic tables, seating under palapas, and a new beach extension with steps leading into the shallow sea areas for easy entry. On the menu, you’ll find typical bar bites: burgers, fish tacos, and full meals like a lobster plate. The bar holds occasional full-moon parties, live music, family-fun days, and beach volleyball tournaments.
Black Coral St
If you’re in San Pedro on a Tuesday or Thursday night, head over to Wahoo’s Lounge on Front Street for the weekly Chicken Drop. It’s definitely one of the most unique experiences you’ll have on your Belize vacation. Place your bets, watch the lucky person who gently blows on the chicken’s butt and sets him loose on the bingo like board. As you can probably gather by now, expect the chicken to wander around until he finds some lucky person’s number to poop on. Join in the festivities by yelling for your number, as the pot can easily get up to several hundred dollars (Belize). However, before you are quick to run up and claim your winnings – guess who has to clean up the chicken poop?
Gallon Jug Estate, Orange Walk District, Belize
Though Belize is replete with Maya sites, including some spectacular archaeological examples that are open to the public, Chan Chich may well be the only hotel in the country that can claim to sit atop a known former Maya site. In the late 1980s, owner Barry Bowen sought and received permission from the country’s Department of Archaeology to build on the site, whose plaza was beyond repair. No doubt guests are surrounded by the spirits of ancient Maya as well as actual artifacts that remain hidden in the soil around the lodge. Accommodations are individual casitas and cabanas decorated with local art, fresh tropical flowers, and simple but sturdy furnishings. The hotel is part of the historic 130,000-acre Gallon Jug Estate, which is, among other things, a private nature preserve. Guests enjoy wildlife spotting on the property, whose staff has kept a running list of the bird species seen here: the current count tops 350 types.
Cayo Espanto, Belize
Cayo Espanto is one of those fantasy vacation spots, the kind that one might think exists only in daydreams. But this private island actually is the stuff of dreams, with powdery sand and private beaches lapped by the clear Caribbean waters, doting service, and plenty to do—or not. Cayo Espanto, one of Belize’s hundreds of cays (off-shore islands), sits three miles off the coast of another Belizean island, San Pedro, and can boast what few other properties can: a location right along the second-largest barrier reef in the world.

Each of the seven villas occupies its own private slice of the cay, and an excess of amenities is included: airport pick-up service, boat transfers to and from the island, personal butler service, three customized meals per day, snacks and drinks, and all non-motorized activities, including the use of kayaks and a sailboat. Villas are painted in tropical hues and are exceedingly comfortable, with windows that open right up to ocean views. Some have private infinity-edge plunge pools.
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