blue morpho butterfly

Endless Travel Blog

The Unspoiled Paradise of Belize

--by Susan Hammond

I had the opportunity just a few months ago to participate in a guided tour with National Geographic by G Adventures to the country of Belize, allowing our small group of travel professionals to discover and connect with the wonderful local people in a way that was truly meaningful. This adventure took us deep into the Belizean culture, offering a greater hands-on exploration, interactions with local experts and the freedom to roam, all within the structure and security of travelling in this intimate group. This authentic nine-day experience consisted of exploring the Mayan ruins, a visit to a hot sauce factory and excursions to small local villages to get up close and personal with island life.

Formerly known as British Guatemala, Belize is a country on the eastern coast of Central America. It is the only country in Central America whose official language is English, though Belizean Creole and Spanish are also commonly spoken. Belize is bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. Since this small and diverse country is approximately the size of Massachusetts, we were able to explore a lot of it during my very first visit. What I truly love about Belize is that in just over a week, we spent time in the lush jungle of the west on the Guatemalan border, ending our journey with beach time on Caye Caulker, which is truly a tropical paradise on the Caribbean Sea.

After arriving in Belize City, our group was transported about 20 minutes from the airport to the centrally located Burrell Boom Village, which is right on the Belize Old River. We stayed in a charming jungle resort offering comfort and convenience in an exotic, tropical rainforest setting.

Our first day consisted of a full-day excursion to the Lamanai Ruins, a renowned Mayan ceremonial site consisting of over 800 structures surrounded by lush jungle. Lamanai (“Submerged Crocodile,” in Mayan) was occupied as early as 1500 B.C.

First of all, getting to Lamanai was half the fun! The short van ride led us across rivers and vast expanses of land, providing us with a true Belizean country tour. We arrived at the Tower Hill Bridge where we boarded a motorboat for a spectacular ride upriver, continuing our journey to Lamanai. The boat tour was by far the highlight (except for the Lamanai Ruins, of course, but we had to flip a coin...) of the full-day excursion. The ride was a wonderful opportunity for wildlife spotting, as well as spotting many tropical birds and spider monkeys. We even saw a couple of freshwater crocodiles floating near the river’s edge.

These caves, called ‘Xibalba,’ meaning ‘Mayan hell,’ are fascinating underground worlds.

As we continued on our journey to the western side of Belize to the city of San Ignacio, we stopped along the way to cave tube (which is an activity very specific to Belize). First, we walked approximately 30 minutes through the jungle alongside the river carrying our inner tubes (yes, we had our mosquito repellant close at hand), then happily launched the tubes in the welcomed cool water passing through dark caves and their wonderful cavities that we discovered thanks to our headlamps. These caves, called “Xibalba,” meaning “Mayan hell,” are fascinating underground worlds. In my opinion, cave tubing is a not-to-be-missed activity in Belize that you have to add to your bucket list!

After completing our drive to San Igancio and checking into our rainforest hotel on the outskirts of the city, we enjoyed a couple of free days to individually choose how we wanted to explore the surrounding countryside and attractions. Most of us chose to cross the border into Guatemala (which was an experience in itself) to visit Tikal National Park, which is the largest excavated site on the American continent, containing some of the most fascinating archeological remains of the ancient Mayan civilization. On the way back from this all-day tour, we stopped for a late lunch in northern Guatemala at a local restaurant right on Lake Peten, which is the second largest lake in Guatemala. A dip in this lake was very refreshing, plus the local cuisine was outstanding!

The second day in western Belize consisted of some of the youngsters in the group participating in a cave excursion to Belmopan, Belize’s Crystal Cave. Since I am not a millennial anymore, and spelunking is not my idea of a good time, some of us chose to go to Chaa Creek Lodge (a wildly civilized luxury resort) for the day to explore the Blue Morpho Butterfly farm, where we observed the “Belizean Blue” during every stage of their life cycle. Of course, while we were at the beautiful Chaa Creek lodge for the day, a site inspection was in order after our delicious jungle cuisine. This lodge is very proud that they were chosen to host Prince Harry a few years ago when he visited Belize as part of a Diamond Jubilee tour representing Queen Elizabeth. I came home telling my husband that I could live at Chaa Creek forever, and of course he reminded me that I still have two boys in college, so now is not a good time. Plus, he knows that I would miss the Rocky Mountains and having four seasons, so I was instantly jerked back into reality.

Leaving western Belize and travelling along the Hummingbird Highway, we headed toward the small Garifuna fishing village of Hopkins about three hours by road, south of Belize City. On the way, we stopped at the Hot Mama’s hot sauce factory, which is a true institution in Belize. This tour was a can’t-miss for anyone looking for a genuine taste of Central America. We toured the factory before indulging in some spicy flavors, and of course brought plenty home to enjoy ourselves and give as gifts.

Arriving into Hopkins later that day allowed time to explore the fascinating Garifuna culture. The Afro-Caribbean Garifuna people originated with the arrival of West African slaves who washed ashore on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent around 1635, while likely on their way to New World mines and plantations. We had a delicious dinner at the Sandy Beach woman’s co-op. They served a dish called hudut (a creamy fish stew served with mashed plantain and distinctive local flair). After dinner, we had fun taking a drum lesson and enjoyed a demonstration by these amazing local artists.

belize hammocksUpon leaving Hopkins, we drove back to Belize City and then took a short ferry ride over to Caye Caulker. This small laid-back island, consisting of 1,000 or so residents, displays the ‘no shirt, no shoes, no problem’ attitude throughout the island. The only traffic sign instructs golf carts and bicycles to “go slow,” a directive that is taken seriously. The island is an ideal base for snorkeling and diving adventures at the nearby reef. The northern part of the island—a tempting destination for kayakers—is mostly mangroves, which are home to an amazing variety of birdlife. Other than that, all visitors should be sure to schedule in plenty of time for swinging on a hammock and enjoying the breeze (which is indeed a legitimate activity on Caye Caulker).

In conclusion, my first journey to Belize allowed me to step away from my daily routine to a special place in the sun. I also got to experience some soul-recharging beach time, but with added cultural experiences that gave me a look at what life is like living in Belize. So if you enjoy photographing wildlife, hiking in the jungle or just exploring one of the longest barrier reefs in the Western Hemisphere, Belize has got it all!

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