As our plane descended toward the island of Ambergris Caye, the ocean below revealed every shade of blue, lush green archipelagos and pockets of life dotting the coast. Color electrifies every corner of Belize, from the radiant stilted houses of Hopkins Village to the multi-hued barrier reef. Smiles are as commonplace as the tourists who are welcomed to the Central American country. Walking the streets, you might hear people singing for no particular reason, enjoying a cold beer in the morning or riding golf rental cars to the edge of town.
Although it has the lowest population density in Central America, each part of Belize feels distinctly its own. The history of its people is rich and diverse. Mayan culture flourishes in Belize through historical ruins, relics, food and language. In Southern Belize, the Garinagu people celebrate Garifuna culture with West African traditions and communal gatherings.
Belize also provides the best nature has to offer, with the second largest barrier reef in the world. Sixty-two percent of its land mass is rainforest. Whether you’re exploring the jungle, dancing to the sounds of Garifuna drumming or swimming with sharks, finding something that interests you in Belize is easy. Narrowing it down may be the hard part.
If you’re visiting Belize for the first time, here are three areas worth visiting with very different vibes.
Located off the northern coast of the country, Ambergris Caye is Belize’s largest island and a haven for tourists. San Pedro is its only town and easy navigable by foot, bike or golf cart. Beach bars, local cuisine and nightlife are all accessible on the island, as well as world class snorkeling and diving.
If you’re looking to just relax, head to Palapa Bar and Grill. You may even see a stingray swim by as you sip a cocktail and look at the ocean below. If you’re feeling adventurous, head to Hol Chan Marine Reserve to swim with nurse sharks and stingrays. There are also daytrips to the infamous Great Blue Hole, a large sinkhole off the coast and a world-class destination for divers.
At night, the center of town comes alive as locals and visitors walk to grab a beer or have dinner before the party gets started. El Fogon restaurant is a favorite near the airport, with a deep fried fish that will leave you wanting to come back the next day for a second portion.
Another favorite, Elvi’s Kitchen, highlights locally caught seafood with a savory twist. Elvia Staines, affectionately known as Doña Elvia, opened the restaurant 39 years ago as a takeout window. Today, it has grown into a gathering place for locals and tourists alike who sit under the restaurant’s original palapa tree. On Friday nights, visitors can enjoy a Mayan food buffet. Dishes available include Pibil (pork), mole, tamales, Mayan pepper, sauces and handmade corn tortillas. For head chef Jenny Pinelo, serving these dishes honors her Mayan heritage. Belizean cuisine includes the typical rice and beans, but the coconut milk used to marinate the rice at many restaurants gives it a sweetness that’s worth every bite.
For romance, Hidden Treasure restaurant is just that, a treasure in Ambergris Caye with an outdoor garden and a friendly staff. Don’t miss the ribs, marinated in Garifuna-inspired seasoning. Once you’re done eating, there are plenty of bars and clubs to dance the night away under the stars.
There is nowhere I’ve been in the world quite like Hopkins village. Time stands still and culture is as vital as breathing in this small town. Traveling down its main dirt road in a golf cart, I saw the remnants of West African culture mixed with island life all around me. These descendants of West African transplants intermarried with local populations of Arawaks and Carib Indians and their tradition still exists in everything from the food to sounds of this southern village.
A traditional dish that can be found at most restaurants is called “hudut.” It is made of mashed plantains called fufu and fish coconut stew. On Friday nights, the drumming tradition of Garifuna culture comes alive at Driftwood Bar on the beach, where local artists travel from around the country to show their craft.
At the beachfront restaurant Love on the Rocks, Chef Rob and his staff offer a selection of meats to cook on your own lava slab. In the distance, the ocean waves compete with the sound of the sizzle on your table. It is a unique eating experience that feels as intimate as being at home.
Hopkins is also just a 30-minute boat ride from the second largest barrier reef in the world. I arrived to the azure blue waters with my mouth wide open. Never before had I seen such clear water and rich marine life below.
Sibun National Forest Reserve in Belmopan
About an hour away from Hopkins, down Hummingbird Highway and into the beautiful Mayan Mountains, jungle life awaits. In the Sibun National Forest Reserve, over 100,000 acres of untouched wilderness creates an ideal atmosphere for hiking, kayaking and bird watching. At the end of a hike from Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge, my view from the top revealed the sleeping giant himself, a silhouette etched from the mountains of a large man against the skyline.
Sibun is also an ideal base for visiting ancient Mayan ruins like Xunantunich, the second tallest Mayan ruin in Belize. The Tikal ruin in nearby Guatemala is also accessible by car. Because archeologists consider Belize to be the base of Mayan civilization, a trip to the country without exploring its rich history would be a mistake. Fortunately, it’s hard not to meet a person who is willing to share a story or two about their lineage with you.
What I’ll remember most about my trip to Belize is how much I had yet to explore when I left. To me, that is the best kind of vacation—the one that leaves you wanting to come back for more.
Ambergris Caye: Grand Caribe
Hopkins: Almond Beach Resort
Sibun National Reserve: Sleeping Giant Lodge