In early January I had the wonderful opportunity to partner with Westjet in exploring Belize, one of their newest nonstop destinations. I would recommend it as a great place for travelers going out of the country for the first time, adventurous families, honeymooners, and those looking for spectacularly accessible diving.
Only four hours by plane from Toronto, Belize is close, tropical, and very safe. While I love the foreign feeling of other languages, currencies, and voltage systems there is something to be said for how convenient it is being in Belize. All electronics can plug in without adapters. American money is accepted almost everywhere at a rate of one U.S. dollar to two Belizean dollars, and it’s the only country in Central America with English as the official language. It’s also a relatively small country, making travel times between the coast and inland areas much shorter than other places.
As it was our first time in Belize we wanted to see a little bit of everything. We decided to split our trip between the verdant jungles near San Ignacio and the dive haven of San Pedro, a small town on Ambergris Caye. While one week was not nearly enough to explore the dozens of islands, cayes, or ancient ruins, I do feel we got a nicely balanced taste of what makes this country such a joy to visit. Here’s what we did, in hopes that it sparks your imagination or helps you with trip planning!
Our home for the first three nights was Chaa Creek Lodge, an eco resort ten minutes down the single lane dirt road from San Ignacio airport in the Cayo region. The “airport” itself is fantastically small – just a building in the middle of a large field with open pasture land and green rolling hills on either side. Neat rows of bell peppers, tomatos, zucchini and other vegetables lined the edges of the road on our way to the 400 acre private nature reserve where Chaa Creek was built in 1981.
“Wildly civilized,” Chaa Creek’s motto, perfectly sums up the experience of staying in a villa in the middle of the Belizean jungle. Each villa seems designed to fit with it’s natural surroundings. Their layouts are unique, but all incorporate the same luxurious dark wood interior and open architectural style.
“In addition to sharing our homestead, we always endeavored to share our love for what makes Belize so special, and the need to protect this vibrant yet fragile ecosystem. Sensitive construction and creative recycling have always been a part of our development.“
~ Owners Mick and Lucy Fleming
My favorite touch was the outdoor jacuzzi tub on the deck overlooking the Macal river. Each night I soaked in the sounds of the nearby bamboo forest, steam rising from the warm water as a light rain sprinkled on my skin.
Our first day in Cayo, we spent horseback riding to Xunantunich with Hanna Stables. This relaxing ride took us along the Mopan river and finally across it via a hand crank ferry. Our guide was a professional jockey who was equally as keen to share his knowledge about horses as he was about archeological findings. The ruins date back to 700 A.D., yet they remain remarkably intact. For the best view, walk up the narrow stair way of carved stone steps to reach the top.
The next day we drove an hour and half to tube through the 9 million year old caves of Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archeological Reserve. It’s like a Disney ride come to life – except naturally made and rich in history, making it exponentially more interesting. Picture an emerald green river slicing through limestone cliffs, then topped with dense trees and lazily hanging vines. In the 35 minute hike through the forest to reach the jump in area, we passed more monkeys and wildlife than people (a ratio that I always appreciate). Over the next hour we rode the river’s current through huge tunnels with stalactites hanging from the ceiling. It was rad and and way more fun than I expected it to be. A guide is required, but honestly you’ll want one because the cave system is a fascinating part of ancient Mayan culture.
Once in San Pedro we traded misty mountain streams for the azure blue ocean. White sand, blushing pink sunrises, and light breezes under the shade of a palm tree might tempt you to be lazy on land – I urge you to resist. The real gem of San Pedro lies underwater. I have high standards for diving and I was throughly impressed by the health, water clarity, and abundance of marine life found here in the second largest coral reef in the world.
We stayed at Ramon’s in little beach villas just a stone’s throw away from the water’s edge. The bar next to the restaurant whips up delicious smoothies. Each morning, smoothie in hand, we would board one of Ramon’s many dive boats and head out for the day.
Blue Hole and Crescent Caye require a two hour boat ride each way, but were TOTALLY worth the transit time. The Great Blue Hole, the largest submarine sinkhole on Earth, is considered to be one of the top ten dives in the world. Our guide Edgar led us on a silent, deep, and surreal dive where we meandered in and out of ancient stalactites the size of houses. I have nothing else to compare it to in my experience underwater.
Just past the Blue Hole is Crescent Caye. This caye is tropical paradise personified. We frolicked around it’s crystalline waters all afternoon, had a picnic, and admired the gorgeous pastel pink conch shells… Just look at the photos, it’s glorious.
Our last dive day was equally as memorable, but featured a very different kind of underwater environment than we had seen so far. Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley are a quick 10 minute boat ride from shore with a maximum depth of about 20 feet. Snapper, jacks, small tropical fish, hawksbill turtles, and gorgeous spotted eagle rays inhabit the channel, while a couple hundred yards away you can choose to swim with the resident nurse shark and stingray populations. Both areas are protected and used to seeing visitors so the wildlife tends to be delightfully inquisitive. The vibrant coral reefs are what really struck me – delicate purple fan corals, intricately corrugated brain corals, and the aptly named elkhorn corals, jutting like underwater antlers, a few feet below the surface for all to enjoy.
Restaurants We Tried
At Chaa Creek Lodge, we ate all meals at one of their property’s two restaurants. I cannot emphasize enough how excellent their food is. Being in an agriculturally abundant area shows in the freshness of their ingredients, but their service and selection are also top notch.
There are many restaurants scatter throughout the small town of San Pedro. Most are within a 5 minute golf cart drive from Ramon’s. The Truck Stop was my personal favorite. This new age collective has an artsy outdoor feel with multiple “mini-restaurants” made from repurposed shipping containers. I had the stone-fired pizza (YUM). For more authentic regional cuisine try Elvi’s Kitchen. We left there absolutely stuffed from Elote (street corn) conch fritters, coconut fish curry, and lobster.
Feel free to ask me any questions about our trip or click here to book your own!