San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize
Photo: Alex Robinson/Getty

Mayan ruins and jaguar-filled jungles make Belize much more than just a beach and dive mecca.

By Bob Curley

Belize is a big country with a small population, leaving plenty of room for exploring and serenity-seeking on the country's mainland or its stunning little islands (cayes), all of which are protected by the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef. People with a passion for adventure will find extensive trails to hike and caves to explore, but Belize is equally welcoming to visitors who want nothing more than a cocktail made from locally distilled Travellers rum, a beach chair, and a cerulean horizon to contemplate.

Laughing Bird Caye
Photo: Jane Sweeney/Getty

The Best Beaches in Belize

The Placencia Peninsula in southern Belize has 15 miles of sandy beach backed by lush vegetation and plenty of bars and restaurants, many lining the long, narrow boardwalk bisecting Placencia Village.

The Garifuna village of Hopkins faces five miles of low-key beaches surrounding a crescent bay, suffused with indigenous culture. 

Many of Belize’s best beaches are on its offshore islands, some only accessible by boat.

  • Laughing Bird Caye is an easy day trip from Placencia, an atoll 11 miles offshore on a segment of Belize’s barrier reef.
  • The Sapodilla Cayes are part of a protected marine reserve, with clear waters ideal for snorkeling right off the beach.
  • Likewise, Half Moon Caye is part of Belize’s national parks system and is home to, in addition to great beaches, a population of red-footed boobies and rare seabirds.
  • Tiny Caye Culker retains the laid-back vibe that led many people to seek out Belize’s islands in the first place.
Diving in Belize
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The Best Things to Do in Belize

Go Diving: Exceptional diving and the charming fishing village of San Pedro make Belize’s largest island, Ambergris Caye, its most popular, too. Just offshore is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, whose famous dive sites include the aptly named Shark Ray Alley. Tour and dive boats venture out daily to the Great Blue Hole, the famously deep sinkhole on the Belize Barrier Reef that is also spectacular when viewed from the air.

See Wildlife: Jaguars prowl the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve, and very lucky visitors may spot one of these big cats on a guided hike; if you want a sure thing, the Belize Zoo also has jaguars among its 150 species of native inhabitants.

Soak in the Local Culture: Belize’s ancient Mayan culture is revealed in archaeological sites like Altun Ha, Caracol, and Cahal Pech, while visitors will receive a warm welcome at Hopkins Village and Dangriga Town, centers of Belize’s Garifuna culture, which has roots in West Africa.

Lazy Lizard on Caye Caulker
Alex Robinson/Getty

The Best Restaurants and Bars in Belize

At Elvi’s Kitchen in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, live music and fresh seafood are served up daily at this anchor of the Ambergris Caye food scene for more than 35 years.

While in San Pedro, try El Fogon for traditional rice and beans and other local Belizean food, and don’t stress about the wait — like most good restaurants in Belize, your meal is made to order, and that takes time.

Also on Ambergris Caye, Rum + Bean, on the grounds of Mahogany Bay Village, pours strong brew, has thrillingly fast wifi, and rum on the shelves for when it’s that time of day. In fact, Mahogany Bay is quickly becoming a dining destination unto itself: its open-air Taco Shack is open for breakfast and lunch, and Jyoto Japanese Cuisine has a fresh and innovative approach to sushi, sourcing local catch. And at Mahogany Chocolate, the artisanal chocolates—think bonbons, pralines, truffles, and even drinking chocolate—are made from 100 percent Belizean cacao. 

For beach bar sunsets washed down with a Belikin beer, stick your toes in the sand at the Palapa Bar on Ambergris Caye or the Lazy Lizard on Caye Culker.

When in Garifuna country, Chef Rob's Gourmet Café in Hopkins Village serves locally sourced and internationally informed upscale steaks and seafood.

Be sure to sample hudut, a traditional coconut fish stew, at a local eatery like Innies or Tina’s Kitchen.

The Best Places to Shop in Belize

What it lacks in subtlety, Tourism Village in Belize City makes up in selection: the main shopping area catering to cruise-ship passengers has both permanent shops and street vendors selling locally made crafts and other souvenirs.

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For finer artwork and crafts, stop into the National Handicraft Center on South Park Street.

Barrier Reef Drive is the main shopping drag in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, while the Beach Bazaar in the heart of Placencia Village has a mix of inexpensive and higher-end goods. Popular take-homes include hardwood crafts — particularly bracelets made from rare, spiral-patterned ziricote wood — and edibles like locally harvested and produced chocolate and the famous Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, the latter best acquired on a tour of the factory in Stann Creek, near Placencia.

Cayo Espanto overwater bungalow
Photo: Julien Capmeil

The Best Hotels and Resorts in Belize

Beachfront luxury and eco-resorts are what Belize does best.

Cayo Espanto is a Caribbean private island resort that’s a great jumping-off point for snorkeling trips to Hol Chan and bird-watching tours led by the Belize Audubon Society.

Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club, Curio Collection by Hilton on Ambergris Cayee features British Colonial-style cottages and a cluster of excellent drinking and dining venues, as well as a gracious Great House and pool, all within walking distance of each other.

The Matachica Resort and Spa is the other upscale resort on Ambergris Caye, with thatch-roofed casitas on a pristine beach. Belize’s first eco-resort, the Lodge at Chaa Creek has beautiful luxury accommodations, but you can still book a budget stay at the resort’s Macal River Camp.

Copal Tree Lodge (formerly Belcampo) trades the river valley for a hilltop location overlooking the jungle, part of a 3,000-acre working farm.

Owned by Academy Award-winning filmmaker turned hotelier Francis Ford Coppola, the Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn show both faces of Belize luxury: the lodge has 20 cabanas set alongside waterfalls on the Privasson River, close to Mayan ruins, while the inn is a Plancencia beach resort with a hint of Balinese design and a Thai-style spa.