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With more than its fair share of natural delights, Belize is paradise for outdoor-adventure enthusiasts, and Belize City is the gateway to its spoils. Shore excursions include river kayaking, horseback riding, Mayan temples, ziplining and cave tubing, or if you’d rather be under the water, the country’s coral reef is one of the best in the world.
Because of this ecological abundance, Belize City is often overlooked, but as the cultural capital of the country, it’s worth a look around. If you do want to get out, some of the cayes are accessible for a day trip by boat or tiny plane.
Cruise ships anchor in the harbor; you’ll be tendered to shore and dropped off at the Tourism Village, from where you can walk to Belize City’s top attractions, or find cabs and water taxis to explore outside the city.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulchre) is the most well known cave in Cayo and the most popular tour just outside of San Ignacio: the entire experience is an Indiana Jones type of adventure, where youâll wonder if you will make it in and back out. Reaching the best parts of the once sacrificial cave requires hiking through a rainforest for an hour and a half, crossing three rivers on foot, swimming through parts of the cave and even going up a narrow ladder to reach the deeper, darker chambers. Efforts are rewarded with the sight of the âCrystal Maidenâ--the skeleton of a young female, fully preserved from thousands of years ago. Along the hike there are also ancient ceramics to see, and youâll leave with a definite sense that the Maya came before you thousands of years ago.
Located four miles south from the shores of Ambergris Caye, Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most visited snorkeling and diving area in Belize. Part of the Belize Barrier Reef, the reserve covers approximately three square miles and is divided into various zones according to marine habitat. The most popular zone is called Hol Chan or “small channel” in Maya -- a 30-foot deep “cut” in the reef where all sorts of marine life have now gathered in one area, making it one giant aquarium. The channel has beautiful live corals and an abundant variety of fish that includes angelfish, turtles, nurse sharks, hog fish, snappers and many other species.
The second most popular zone of the reserve is Shark Ray Alley, a shallower area where nurse sharks and stingrays are plentiful. Grass beds and mangrove areas make up the other zones of the reserve and require a more personalized expert guide -- and while less visited.
Overlooking the beautiful Mopan River from a stunning hilltop, the ruins at Xunantunich are some of the most visited Mayan sites in the world. Located in the Cayo region, Xunantunich, which means "stone woman" in Mayan, dates back to the Classic Era, about 200-900 AD.
The complex is made up of 6 groups and about 25 different temples and palaces, and is dominated by the astonishing El Castillo, which stands 40m (130ft) tall, and from the top, provides an amazing view of the jungle canopy, the other ruins, and even past the Guatemalan border.
Learn about the incredible history of the Mayan inhabitants, the excavations, and the environment on the site, and stop into the visitors' center for more information.
Meaning "submerged crocodile" in Yucatan Mayan, Lamanai is perhaps the most fascinating of all of Mayan sites in Belize if only because it is not yet completely uncovered. See history in the making as you visiting the excavation site, and prepare yourself for amazement when you realize that the hill you're looking at is actually a temple, still buried underground.
The temples you do get see, however, are equally incredible. Rising all the way from the jungle floor to above the canopy, study the amazing carvings and other examples of Mayan architecture in these astounding structures.
If you're feeling daring, venture to the top of El Castillo, one of the larger temples, by way of a narrow set of steps and a rope. The view of the jungle from the top is one-of-a-kind, and after climbing the 100ft (30m) to the top, it will be well worth it.
Part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley is a zone where an impressive multitude of magnificent stingrays with four-foot wingspans and six-foot nurse sharks congregate every day. As fishermen came to this area of the reef to clean out their catch over the years, nurse sharks and stingrays eventually began to gather regularly in search of the boats and their daily treats. The thrill is to swim in waters surrounded by these beautiful creatures. Shark Ray Alley is often best combined in a snorkel tour of Hol Chan and the Coral Gardens.
Home of the motto "Go slow," Caye Caulker is a prime Caribbean island with a relaxed atmosphere, beautiful ocean and excellent oceanfront restaurants and bars that make it one of the best places to visit in Belize.
In addition to lounging on the docks, the most popular Caye Caulker activities are snorkeling and diving. Explore the beautiful reefs either independently or with one of the many excellent tour groups. Most tour companies offer both half-day and full-day snorkeling tours, highlighting the Coral Garden, Shark and Ray Alley and the local reef.
Another way to get to know the local sea creatures of Caye Caulker is by visiting the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, an incredible manatee reserve. If you'd rather spend time on the water instead of in the water, look into renting a sea kayak and get incredible views of the coastline as well as the mangrove forest. The forest reserve covers about 100 acres of the island and is perfect for bird-watchers.
Belize’s most popular emblem is the holy grail of diving. Recognized as one of the world’s top dive sites and a World Heritage Site along with the Belize Barrier Reef, the stunning, deep blue circular sinkhole is located on Lighthouse Reef atoll, one of three atolls in the Caribbean, all of which are in Belize. About 1,000 feet in diameter and with a depth of over 400 feet, the Blue Hole is a geographic phenomenon unlike any other. The once-dry and above sea-level cave collapsed centuries ago, creating a site where divers can swim through gigantic stalactite and stalagmite formations and all along a cave wall, starting at about 100 feet, submerged since the Ice Age. Jacques Cousteau is said to have sailed to the hole in 1971 to study the Hole’s formations, eventually revealing the site’s wonders.
Established as a reserve in 1944, the over 100,000-acre Mountain Pine Ridge is easily the most breathtaking scenery in all of the Cayo District, if not Belize. The Chiquibul Road will lead you through pine forests, waterfalls, cascading water pools over granite boulders and the Maya Mountains in the distance – it’s a sight to be seen. Touring the area can be done from San Ignacio by car, as there is no public transportation out this way. The road can get fairly difficult in the wet summer season and requires strong knowledge of the area as well as a good dose of patience. There are opportunities for stops showing the varied landscapes of the reserve, including at the Rio on Pools for a fresh water swim or exploring the limestone Rio Frio Cave.
Caracol is the single largest archeological site in Belize, and one of the biggest Mayan structures in the world. Discovered in 1938 by loggers, the Classic Period complex covers over 30mi (48km) squared of land, including over 35,000 structures, five plazas, and some of the most beautiful jungle in Central America.
Occupied as early as 1200 BC, dozens of hieroglyphic texts have been discovered in the ancient city, carved into altars, walls, facades, capstones, and ball-court-markers. Rich in tropical wildlife, learn about the Mayan civilization in one of the most astonishing cities known to modern man.
Visiting Caracol is an exercise in discovery: as you walk through the amazing Caana pyramid, the largest in the complex, rising 140ft (420m) above ground, experience the magnificence of the Mayan architectural prowess and ability. From the central acropolis to the ball courts to the astronomic observatory, you are sure to be amazed.
Big Rock Falls is a large waterfall located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve that attracts a number of visitors who enjoy swimming and cliff jumping.
Part of the Vaca Plateau, the falls can be reached via a short, but somewhat difficult, 15-minute hike. The trek is pretty much straight down and includes a fairly steep section with a not so sturdy railing and a rope to hold on to and aid in the climb down. Once at the water level, you must walk over slippery, uneven slabs of granite rock. The deep emerald pools are perfect for swimming or cliff jumping, and the water is very deep so there is little risk of hitting the bottom when jumping in.
Getting to Big Rock Falls from San Ignacio can be an adventure in itself. The drive is approximately 13 miles over unpaved roads throughout Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve with scenic views.
Lighthouse Reef is an incredible atoll, a coral island encircling a lagoon, in the Caribbean Sea, and was made famous by legendary sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, who rightfully declared it one of the top ten diving locations in the world.
Follow in Cousteau's footsteps by diving in the Great Blue Hole, the underwater sinkhole in the center of the lagoon. Interact with the fauna of the coral reef, including amazing Caribbean reef sharks, Blacktip sharks, barracudas, stingrays, turtles, and hundreds of different fish on a guided or independent dive.
Visit Long Caye, where you can snorkel in the protected lagoons and see the bountiful wildlife, including rare birds, iguanas, and other tropical species. The experience will only be matched by visiting Half Moon Caye, the idyllic island that includes a national park and a bird sanctuary.
Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is located off the coast of Belize in the southeastern part of Lighthouse Reef Atoll and belongs to the Belize Barrier Reef. With the introduction of the National Parks System, the tiny island was classified as a natural monument and has since served as a bird sanctuary. The western part of the crescent shaped island is covered by dense coastal forest mainly made up of the orange-flowered Ziricote trees, which are the preferred nesting ground for many migratory birds, such as the red-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds. The trees are also home to a number of green and black iguanas and the Belize leaf-toed gecko.
The eastern part of Half Moon Caye only sees sparse vegetation and the main attraction on that part of the island is the stunning beach dotted with coconut trees. Apart from spotting rare birds and enjoying the island paradise feeling, most visitors come here for the diving opportunities.
St. John’s Cathedral dates back to the early 1800s and is the oldest Anglican church in Central America. The cathedral, located in Belize City, is not only a place where the congregation still celebrates their faith, but it also has a big historical influence due to its colonial past. When the colonial empires fought over control of what was back then known as British Honduras, the cathedral was built by slave labor over eight years. Painstakingly, with bricks brought on ships all the way from Europe. The façade looks humble, but it just so happens that this little Anglican church is the only place outside of England, where real kings were crowned.
Four kings of the Indian Miskito tribe, which inhabited the Mosquito coast, were coronated with full British ceremonial pomp that rivaled the kingly ceremonies back in London.
San Jose Succotz is one of Belize’s small villages in the Cayo District, near the Guatemalan border. This peaceful village lies along the banks of the Mopan River and is best known as the home of the Xunantunich Maya site. El Castillo is the signature temple of Xunantunich, the second tallest structure in Belize. Most travelers visit San Jose Succotz to explore the ancient Maya site, but there is more to this rural Maya village than many people realize.
Belizeans are quick to point out that Succotz is also the home of its championship San Jose Succotz Marching Band. The village also hosts the popular annual Succotz Fair that showcases traditional Maya and Mestizo culture. San Jose Succotz is also home to a number of important medicinal plants utilized in the Maya culture. At least 64 species utilized in over 100 remedies have been identified in the area.
In 1983 Richard Foster came to Belize to film a wildlife documentary. Over a dozen animals used in filming became partly tame by the time shooting wrapped, so Sharon Matola, the American biologist in charge of their care, decided to found the Belize Zoo to give them somewhere to call home.
Today, the Belize Zoo covers 29 acres (11.7 hectares) and is home to more than 150 animals representing 45 species native to the country. Many of the zoo’s residents are rescue animals who have been injured, orphaned or donated from other zoos, and the spacious enclosures make it feel more like a wildlife refuge than a typical zoo.
Among the Belize Zoo’s star tenants are the five species of wild cats native to Belize: jaguar, puma, margay, ocelot and jaguarundi. Other animals in residence include spider monkeys, manatees, scarlet macaws, toucans, tree frogs and boa constrictors.
Belize’s Blue Hole National Park (officially St Herman’s Blue Hole National Park) sits near the capital city of Belmopan and is home to two cave systems (Crystal and St. Herman’s), along with nature trails and the jungle pool that gives rise to the park’s official name.
The caves are the main attractions in the park, with the cave and hole connected by an underground stream. The Blue Hole pool was formed by an underground limestone cave that collapsed, creating the sapphire blue pool at the bottom of the cenote. Visitors also typically visit Crystal Cave, also called Mountain Cow Cave, which can be seen on a guided tours through the Mayan underworld known as Xibalba.
The park has a series of small trails, many of which are good for birding, as the forest canopy is low-lying. Birds spotted in the region include jacamars, blue-crowned motmots, scarlet-rumped tanager, nightingale wren and the long-tailed hermit hummingbird.
Altun Ha is the site of the ruins of an ancient Mayan city, and covers about 5mi (8km) squared. The central area of the site has over 500 historic structures to visit, mostly built during Maya Classic era (200-900 AD). Take a step into history at this extraordinary site, and examine the way the 10,000 inhabitants lived in the area.
The site is divided into two main clusters, Plaza A and Plaza B, each with its own special attractions.
Plaza A features the mysterious Temple of the Green Tomb, wherein jade, jewelry, flints, and other historic items were found.
Plaza B is home to the biggest structure on the site, the Temple of Masonry Altar, which rises over 60ft above the plaza. Thought to be the main religious center of the civilization, the temple houses the famous head of Kinich Ahau: a 10lb (5kg) piece of jade carved into the head of the Mayan sun god. This is believed to be a national treasure of Belize, and is depicted on the local currency.
Crystal Cave, also known as Mountain Cow Cave, is located within the Blue Hole National Park near Belmopan, Belize’s capital city. To get to Crystal Cave, you may have to start with a moderately challenging, 50-minute hike through lush rain forest and steep terrain. Depending on your entrance point, you then descend by rope for 15 feet to drop into the mouth of the cave.
Ancient Mayans believed this to be the domain of their gods, earning it the name of Xibalba. Mayans said this is the portal between the tangible human world and the invisible world of the gods. Sacred rituals and important ceremonies were once performed here, and visitors today will see remnants such as ceremonial bowls, pots, and even skeletal remains from sacrificial victims. Crystal Cave is also full of natural wonders including unique rock formations, massive stalagmites and crystal clusters, a major attraction. The calcite formations cover the floors, walls, and ceiling of Crystal Cave.