Highlights the best Belize has to offer, from art and culture to fun-packed activities; we've even found the most inspiring place to enjoy the views from.
Worth getting out of bed for...
- Buried deep in the Chiquibul Forest, Caracol is one of the most impressive Mayan sites in the country. Climb the Temple of Caana, Belize’s tallest structure, and marvel at the rainforest canopy from the top. Look out for howler monkeys and toucans.
- Arts and culture
- The Mayans left their mark on Belize, and there are some awe-inducing sites. Highlights include the sacrificial altars, capstones decorated with hieroglyphics and carved ball courts uncovered from the jungles of Caracol, as well as the pyramid temples and stucco friezes of Xunantunich. Contrast Cahal Pech, a small site on the Macal river with many buildings condensed into an unfeasibly tiny area, or venture into Guatemala to take on the mammoth Tikal, capital of a vast Mayan empire and – in its 700AD heyday – one of the greatest cities in the world.
- Something for nothing
- Belize is a bird-watcher’s paradise. With 300 square miles of unspoilt woodland to perch in, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve attracts more than 500 species of feathered flutterer. Look out for keel-billed toucans (the national birds), orange-breasted falcons or rare king vultures. If the birds prove too flighty, there’s also brilliant butterflies and colourful bromeliads to feast your eyes on.
- Saturday’s popular open-air market in San Ignacio is ideal for stocking up on pepper sauce, local honeys and jam. Find skin-softening, natural glycerin soap and colourful embroidered huipiles textiles at Caesar’s Place (Western Highway, mile 60) that make great gifts and souvenirs. In Placencia, you can collect wooden handicrafts such as the distinctive ziricote animal masks, jaguar sculptures and coconut mermaids from little stalls along the sandy sidewalk. Ambergris Caye is the proud motherland of ‘Pantyripper’, an ominously named blend of pineapple juice and coconut liqueur – you can pick up a bottle at the Rum, Cigar and Coffee House on Pescador Drive (+501 226 2020). Try DandE’s on the same street for frozen custard on the hoof.
- Tikal – one of the most astonishing sets of Mayan ruins in Central America – is a 90-minute drive into Guatemala from the western Belize border. The jungle trek to get there is as inspiring as the ruins themselves: the moment when you first see the temple-tops towering over the mist-hugged forest canopy is unforgettable. You can organise trips from Belize City or San Ignacio; see www.tikalpark.com for details.
- Best beach
- Both San Pedro and Placencia have white-sand beaches and clear blue Caribbean seas galore, but for the most unspoilt coastal frolic, boat out to the Turneffe Islands for desert-island bliss.
- Perfect picnic
- Take a packed lunch and head off to wallow in the natural granite waterhole of Rio on Pools in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. On the way back, pop into the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch (+501 820 4017) for an eyeful of natural colour.
- Go on a subterranean journey through the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave system in the Tapir Mountain Reserve in Cayo District to see thousand-year-old Mayan burial remains. If circumnavigating rock pools and clambering over boulders sounds too strenuous, but you still have a taste for underground adventure, Blancaneaux Lodge can arrange a guided canoe trip into Barton Creek Cave – its dramatic stalactite-moulded interior was originally used as a sacrificial site.
- Belize has the second longest reef in the world, and the diving here is spectacular. Take the two-hour boat ride from San Pedro and dive the Great Blue Hole, a collapsed underwater limestone cave that forms a black circle in the turquoise water. Experienced divers can admire the unbeatable view into its unfathomable depths or drop below the rim at 40 metres to explore the eerie stalactites and glimpse Caribbean reef sharks. Snorkel or scuba with Amigos del Mar (+501 226 2706; www.amigosdive.com), one of the most respected dive schools in San Pedro, or try your hand at catching a tricksy bonefish or glimmering tarpon in the shallow waters of the reef. The Tides Dive Shop (+501 523 3244) opposite Turtle Inn in Placencia can arrange for you to swim with whale sharks.
February/March The whole of Belize celebrates Carnival, but nowhere throws its heart into the festivity quite like San Pedro. Elaborately costumed parades cross the city, and people celebrate by covering each other in coloured powder and lipstick. 9 March Baron Bliss Day: an original commemoration of one of Belize’s most philanthropic residents. . There are celebrations throughout the country, including a harbour regatta outside the Baron Bliss lighthouse in Belize City. The lighthouse forms the baron's tomb, erected in memory of his love of the sea. March/April Easter Fair in San Ignacio is a family-focused festival, with musical, games and sporting events. August Deer Dance Day in San Antonio is a fascinating hybrid of Christian and ancient Mayan culture, involving ritualistic dance, a staged ‘deer hunt’ and greased pole climbing. 21 September Independence Day is marked with cultural, religious and sporting events nationwide. A beauty pageant crowns Miss San Pedro. 12 October Pan-American Day or Columbus Day celebrates mestizo (Spanish/Mayan) culture with nationwide races, fiestas, regattas and beauty contests.