As you enter the airport, t-shirts adorned with sayings such as “You Better Belize It!” and “Don’t Stop Belizing!” hang from shop windows. But a visit to this Central American country is anything but generic. With beaches and sea life inhabiting the barrier reefs, rainforests and jungles hiding Mayan ruins, and pine forests with stunning waterfalls you can swim in, there’s a lot to see and do. Our quick trip (5 days including 2 days spent mostly traveling) was action-packed and yet somehow still leisurely. Everything you can hope for in an extended long weekend.
We dived off the Pompion Wall, part of the outer barrier reef where we could look down at the abyss, scaring some moray eels along the way before relaxing with lunch on the tiny Laughing Bird Caye. Schools of snapper, a stingray and giant barracuda on our second dive made it thrilling even if we weren’t as deep.
We even saw some dolphins on the boat ride back to Robert’s Grove where we stayed in Placencia, a small town a little more off the beaten path than the very touristy Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker islands nearer to the airport. (Most will take a quick puddle jumper flight on Tropic Air or Maya Island Air to get to either the islands or other towns within Belize once landing at the main airport.)
Despite all the conch shells we saw on our dive, the season had just ended. On every menu, conch was replaced with shrimp or lobster. (No disappointment here and very impressed that Belize is concerned with over-fishing.) Food options tend to be the same at most places, so choose wisely. With a tip from Trip Advisor, we dined on fritters loaded with lobster, fish tacos with a fruit salsa and grilled snapper with a cilantro cream sauce next door to the hotel at the Quarter Deck. Portions were huge- consider sharing an entree, especially after 5 giant fritters.
Avoid the awful housemade bitters at Robert’s Grove and grab drinks in town at Rumfish y vino, easily one of the trendiest places in Belize. Their jalapeno infused mango margarita and cucumber infused gin fizz rivaled any cocktail you can find in the US. Or hang with the ex-pats at the Pickled Parrot, a bar recently bought by a couple from my hometown (a very random surprise!). Just down the beach are the popular Tipsy Tuna and Barefoot Bar, which we were told are a lot livelier during the season. But go now if you want to avoid the crowds because Placencia might not be sleepy for long — a new international airport is being built.
Next we headed inland for a 3 hr ride, including a ferry crossing, to explore the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. With no rain in the rainforest, it took us a minute to realize that the umbrella our driver offered was meant to ward off the sun. We declined and managed to get some great photos of this sacred temple and minimal sunburn.
Our choice to stay at Gaia Riverlodge inside the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, was an adventure in itself. Covered in mosquito and other assorted bites, I have my battle scars to prove we bested the jungle nature trail walk at Gaia. So far no botflys! But itching aside, it was worth it.
It’s not every day you can hike down through thick layers of palm and mahogany trees with spiders, birds and lizards the only creatures in sight.
And you end up by the waterfalls where you can cool off with a swim in the freshwater pools around the falls. You can also reach the falls by walking 300 steps down from the reception area (and up again) or a tram ride if you’re lazy. It’s beyond idyllic and amazingly not man-made.
Although I rarely make my posts about hotels and service, Gaia was good enough to warrant a note and nod to stay there. Javier pointed out the baby birds in the nest just outside our room, and he and Nigel made sure our every need was met.
Service was impeccable, with everyone calling you by name. Oswald, the bartender, also makes some mean drinks. I was particularly fond of the Gaia Kiss, even if it was green. The food was good and decently priced too, which is surprising given that it’s not easy to dine off-site, which we did one night. We couldn’t resist taking a peak at Blancaneaux, Francis Ford Coppola’s resort nearby. But besides the pool, it had nothing on Gaia except higher lodging prices and tour costs. Service was awkward, and the food certainly wasn’t any better, though the shrimp wrapped in bacon as an amuse bouche was a nice touch. Live and learn. Plus, nothing beats listening to the waterfalls as you dine or fall asleep every night.
The only downside to staying at Gaia is that it’ll take at least a 2 hr bumpy roundtrip ride everyday to get out of and back to the resort (roads are NOT paved here). So plan your excursions wisely and make sure you have enough time to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings.
One you won’t want to miss is the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave tour, which is a full day. (No cameras are allowed now because several insensitive tourists dropped them, damaging the artifacts and remains, so I borrowed the pics below.) You start by traversing the roaring river 3 times (no bridges) during a 45 minute walk through the jungle. Then you end up at the entrance to the cave.
Once you endure the swim in cool water and rocky climb, at times narrow enough that you can barely squeeze your head through, then you’re rewarded with incredible stalactites and stalagmites, as well as ancient pottery.
After a further grueling climb up rocks, you take off your shoes and proceed to climb a little higher where you encounter a ladder that leads you to the altar where the remains of what may have been a young Mayan princess. Apparently, the Mayans were experiencing a drought and hoping to appease the gods.
It was a truly incredible experience that may soon be closed because of how disrespectful tourists can be. So please be mindful of where you are, find a guide that is knowledgeable and respectful and take in the experience without destroying it. Our guide, Ben, is an archaeologist and schooled us in the history of the Mayans, the excavation process and the damages tourists have caused to the cave.
If weather prevents you from entering the ATM cave (sometimes the water is too high to cross the river), there are several other caves in the area to visit as well. And countless Mayan ruins yet to be discovered or excavated.
When in Belize make sure you take a few days to try to experience its varied cultures and sights. As always, I wish I had a few more days to explore.