Bordering on Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean, Belize is the second smallest country in Central America (after El Salvador), with an area of approximately 9,000 square miles that includes numerous small islands -- known as cayes -- off the coast. More than half of the mainland is covered with dense forests, and at its longest point Belize is 176 miles long while its greatest width is 88 miles. Long a strong advocate of environmental protection, the government has set aside approximately 20 percent of its land as nature reserves.
Belize has been attracting steadily increasing numbers of U.S. visitors as it has become better known as a reasonably priced destination offering some of the best diving in the Caribbean. It also continues to increase in popularity as a cruise destination and is often included as one of the ports of call on Western Caribbean itineraries.
Diving is Belize's main claim to fame due to an almost unbroken line of reefs and cayes extending for 150 miles along its coast that make up the longest reef system in the Western Hemisphere (and the second longest in the world). While many cayes are tiny and uninhabited, some like Ambergris Caye are sufficiently large to have built resorts that attract divers from around the world.
Several important Mayan sites on the mainland, such as Altun Ha and Xunantunich, make for excellent day trips and are included on shore excursions by most cruise ships. As a matter of fact, Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan sites of all the countries in Central America.
Belize City, with its wooden and brick buildings, exudes some colonial charm but the downtown area also has many seedy neighborhoods, and tourists should beware of walking around the city after dark. For cruise passengers, Belize City is primarily a jumping-off point for tours and excursions to its many natural and historical attractions.
After tendering, all passengers disembark at docks in Belize's Tourism Village. Here you'll find dozens of shops, bars and restaurants from standard cruise venues like Diamonds International and Del Sol to stores with handmade Belizean crafts and foodstuffs. Other than shop for souvenirs or hang out in one of the bars or restaurants, there's not much else to see and do in the Tourism Village. If you're up for a short walk, you can exit Tourism Village and head to the Holy Redeemer Cathedral or Baron Bliss Lighthouse & Gravesite, which are both within walking distance.
Diving and Snorkeling: Underwater sightseeing is number one on the hit parade of favorite outdoor activities due to the astounding sites along the barrier reef. Some of the best dive sites lie just off Ambergris Caye. Cruise ships and charter operators offer day trips that include transportation. If you'd rather make your way to Ambergris Caye on your own, head for the main town of San Pedro, where many of the dive operators are clustered. For a list of local dive shops Google "Diving on Ambergris Caye." A favorite snorkeling area is known as Shark Ray Alley (one hour by speedboat from San Pedro) where it's possible to get "up close and personal" (petting is permitted) with nurse sharks and sting rays. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is another 3-square-mile dive site. Birders can also find much to see at Ambergris Caye; one highlight is a guided boat trip to the Little Guana Caye Bird Sanctuary.
Altun Ha: Among the best of Belize's Mayan cultural sites is Altun Ha, a heavily excavated site that is a convenient day trip out of the city. Once a major trading and ceremonial center, it consists of several impressive temples and tombs highlighted by the Temple of the Masonry Altars. You can get there with a ship excursion, private tour operator or by hiring a taxi. (Open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Xunantunich: Another important Mayan site, Xunantunich is located near the Guatemalan border, and can only be reached by crossing the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry. Situated here are six major plazas ringed by more than 25 temples and palaces; the largest of the remaining temples is Il Castillo, which is worth climbing for the spectacular panoramic view from the top. Because Xunantunich is not easy to get to, your best bet for visiting is with a tour operator. (501-608-1788)
Museum of Belize: Housed in an old prison (it served as Her Majesty's Prison from 1857 to 2002), the museum features several exhibits that explore the city's past, including the pirate years, colonial era, and natural and man-made disasters. You can even walk into a jail cell to see what the prison experience was like. (8 Gabourel Lane; 501-223-4524; open Monday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
The Belize Zoo: Wildlife lovers who would rather not venture far from the city can check out the Belize Zoo. Set on 29 acres, visitors will find more than 170 animals, representing 45+ species, all native to Belize. Highlights include jaguars, ocelots, coatis, howler monkeys and kinkanjous. (Western Highway mile marker 29; 501-220-8004; open daily 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary: This sanctuary, a little further out from the center of Belize City, is a bird lover's paradise. With more than 16,000 acres of lagoons, creeks, forests and pine savannas, visitors can spot dozens of bird species, as well as howler monkeys, crocodiles and more. (Western Highway mile marker 30.8; Open daily, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Community Baboon Sanctuary: While not the easiest of attractions to get to (you'll need to hire a taxi or rent a car), if you love monkeys, this really is the place to visit. Part of a larger "community" of villages, you'll find the Baboon Sanctuary visitor center in Bermudian Landing. The village is home to a substantial number of black howler monkeys, called "baboon" in the local Creole dialect. You'll also find an abundance of other animals including parrots, hummingbirds, turtles and more. Guided nature walks are available for a small fee. (Across the street from the soccer field in Bermudian Landing; 501-245-2009; open most days from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; email ahead of your visit to arrange a tour - email@example.com)
Jaguar Paw: One of the best spots to explore Belize's caves. In ancient times, the Mayans believed that caves were the "underworld" and were revered as sacred places. Options for exploring the network of caves include tubing or by kayak or canoe. Look for cave float tours from your cruise line or private operators, including Viator and Chukka.
On Foot: The only way to get around the Tourism Village is on foot, but its small, taking no more than 10 minutes to get from end to end (without lots of browsing, that is). You can also get around Belize City on foot fairly easy, though streets are not well marked and you might need to ask a local for directions.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available at Tourism Village as well as in the city and at hotels. Taxis do not have meters and although most drivers charge a standard fare, make sure you determine the fare before getting in so as to avoid being burned upon arriving at your destination. Look for the green license plate of licensed taxis. There are also water taxis and ferries that depart from the Marine Terminal to the outlying cayes, including the larger resort cayes such as Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. A trip from Belize City to San Pedro, the largest town on Ambergris Caye, takes around 80 minutes.
By Rental Car: It's also possible to rent a car although drivers should be wary. The poor condition of many roads leads to many traffic accidents. Hertz-Safari (#1, Goldson Lane; 501-223-5395) is your best choice in town.
Belize City is not the best port for beaching it up, but you will find a couple of options if you absolutely must spend some time on the sand or in the water. Both options require a boat ride to get to.
Closest to Your Ship: For the ultimate in R&R at the beach, head to Caye Caulker, a 45-minute ferry ride from the Marine Terminal. Just 5 miles long and 1 mile wide, laid-back Caye Caulker is great for snorkeling as Belize's famous barrier reef is just 10 minutes away.
Best for Sunbathing: A bit farther away is Ambergris Caye, the largest of Belize's islands. Some of Belize's prettiest beaches can be found here, but you'll also find some of the best snorkeling and diving spots, including Shark Ray Alley.
Wet Lizard: The spot to grab a bit to eat and a few cold beers, the Wet Lizard is a happening spot inside Tourism Village. Downstairs you'll find a DJ and a $5-a-spin wheel where you can buy rum body shots, an upside down margarita or bucket of beer. (Open as long as ships are running tenders)
Spoonaz: A small coffee and sandwich shop on the main road, just a five-minute walk after exiting Tourism Village, Spoonaz is as popular for its air conditioning as it is for the lovely sandwiches, meat pies, salads, parfaits and pastries it serves up. (89 North Front Street; open Monday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.)
The Smoky Mermaid: The menu at this seafood place features fabulous lobster and fresh fish dishes. Serves breakfast all day on Saturday. (The Great House, #13 Cork Street; 501-223-4759; open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Nerie's: At the two locations of Nerie's, you'll find Belizean fare for a reasonable price. Try rice and beans, stewed pork or a fish burger. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Corner of Queen & Daly streets; 501-223-4028; 12 Douglas Jones Street; 501-224-5199; open Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Cafe Michel'le: A popular local spot, you'll find tasty burritos, paninis, wraps, salads and smoothies here. It's cash only, so a great place to spend any Belizean dollars you might have gotten as change from a souvenir shop or tour operator. (Corner of Eyre & Hudson Streets; open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
Ruby's Cafe: If you're spending time on Ambergris Caye, consider heading to Ruby's Cafe, which serves coffee, pastries, tostadas, burritos and sandwiches. (Front Street, San Pedro; 501-226-2063; open 5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.)
All ships anchor in Belize City harbor and passengers are whizzed from ship to shore via speedy Belizean tenders; it takes approximately 20 minutes to tender to shore.
When using cash -- particularly with merchants that accept U.S. dollars -- be sure you get change in U.S. currency. And, if you're at all concerned with wildlife conservation, don't buy items that are made from sea turtle shells, black coral or Triton's trumpet shells.
Also, almost all the major attractions are at some distance from the city; so if you're exploring independently and hiring your own transportation, make sure you are back in time at Tourism Village for the last tender departure for your ship.
Belize's currency is the Belizean dollar; visit www.xe.com for currency conversion figures. However, all shops and merchants readily accept U.S. dollars (most also accept credit cards) so it is unnecessary to change money. ATMs are plentiful in both the Tourism Village and the rest of the city.
English is Belize's official language and is spoken by virtually everyone.
Look for the bracelets carved of ziricote hardwood, from the Belizean Handicraft Market Place near Tourism Village. You'll also find an assortment of locally produced mahogany and rosewood carvings, slate carvings, jippi jappa baskets and artwork. (2 South Park Street; 501-223-3636; open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Check out Belize's own Belikin beer available at any of the bars within the Tourism Village, as well as at most restaurants in town. Frozen daiquiris and rum punch are also quite popular.