Belize was the last country on my list in Central America and after 10 years of travelling through the region, I finally made it there.
All I had heard about the place was that it was the most expensive in Central America and that I should visit San Ignacio and Caye Caulker. I knew that it was supposed to be a good spot for snorkelling and diving and full of adventure activities.
So here are my very first impressions after spending a few weeks in the country. I’ll work on some individual posts about each of my favourite things over the next few weeks but this should be a good first taste for now.
My first impressions of Belize
1) Belize Zoo is a must see
This place almost made me cancel the rest of my plans and move in permanently. The Belize Zoo is not really a zoo and the name doesn’t really reflect all the amazing work that they do for native wildlife.
It was started in 1983 to provide a home for a bunch of wild animals that were used to make a documentary about tropical forests. The founder of the zoo quickly realised that its local visitors were unfamiliar with many species of local wildlife and committed to creating a space for wildlife education.
The zoo keeps animals which were orphaned, rescued and born at the zoo, though breeding is not a focus and today the zoo exhibits over 175 animals, representing over 45 native species.
I stayed almost two weeks at the adjoining Tropical Education Centre (or The Belize Zoo Lodge). They offer basic cabañas, fancier houses facing their pond and even dorm style rooms. All meals are served at the lodge and they made me some of the best vegetarian food I had in Belize. You can even do some animal spotting at the lodge where agouti, pacas and even the resident croc are easy to spot and if you’re a birder then they have lots of dedicated walks and an elevated platform for easy spotting.
I’ll write a dedicated post about the zoo and the lodge soon but for now, just know that this is a must visit when you’re in Belize.
2) I’m in two minds about Caye Caulker
I spent just three nights in Caye Caulker and really wanted to stay longer but it wasn’t really for me. For anyone who’s been to the Bay Islands in Honduras or the Corn Islands in Nicaragua then you’ll see that it has a very similar feel.
I arrived on the night of Super Bowl Sunday so my first impression of the island was that it was loud and full of drunk Americans. I could have turned around straight away but decided to give it an extra night.
I grew to like it more in the light of a new day but it still feels very much like less of a real place where people live and more like a dedicated tourist destination where you might go to unwind for a week or two. It has the feel of tiny Playa Del Carmen when I really wanted it to be more like Mazunte, my favourite beach spot in Mexico.
The island is tiny and you can easily walk around it in a couple of hours. Some people rent golf carts and there are also bikes for hire to get around but it’s completely unnecessary. On the main side of the island there aren’t any traditional beaches but if you’re happy to swim off a dock or jump into “the split” that separates the island then you’ll be fine.
I booked in for the famous snorkelling tour around the islands and the reef that includes a visit to Shark Ray Alley, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and a small shipwreck. If you’re lucky and there in the right season you could see manatees along the way, I was not but I did get to hang out with some friendly nurse sharks, sea turtles, rays and loads of tropical fish. This trip was a whole lot of fun but you are often surrounded by boatloads of other tourists at the same time all staring at the one sea turtle.
Caye Caulker is slightly more expensive than the mainland which makes sense given they have to get all their supplies shipped over but it’s possible to eat on the cheap, especially if you like the ubiquitous fry jack.
I probably could have given Caye Caulker more of a chance but it lacks the more flashpacker style accommodation I’m used to and the pricier hotels were out of my budget. Airbnb’s are spread out around the island but a lot of the best ones were booked out well in advance.
3) San Ignacio has so much to do!
You could spend a whole week in San Ignacio and not run out of things to do. It is very well geared towards tourism but still retains a lot of its authentic small-town feel. I started my trip here and it was a good decision. It gave me a deeper insight into the mixed cultures of Belize and I got to do some cool activities.
One of my favourites was the Crystal Cave day trip which involved a 50-minute hike through tropical forest to the cave entrance, where you scramble down 15 feet into the cavernous entrance. Caves played a very important role in the Maya culture, considered to be a supernatural realm where their ancestors' deities resided.
I got to see the shimmering formations in the cave that give it its name, slide and wriggle my way through tight openings and sometimes just grip onto ledges for my dear life. I’m not going to lie, this way one of the toughest things I’ve done in my life and part way through, I really just wanted to throw my things down, have a tantrum and demand to be airlifted out of there. Or however else an ill-equipped over consumer of brownies and pasta gets out of an underground cavern.
I’m glad I did it though and while I was sore for days afterwards, still kind of am, I think, I highly recommend that you try this or any of the other cave experiences while you’re in Belize.
My next favourite thing was the Green Iguana Conservation Project. Created in 1996 because of the decreasing survival rate of Green Iguanas in Belize caused by overhunting, the owners decided to start a program that would both protect the species and also educate locals and visitors about these very cool reptiles.
The project follows a continuous course of rearing the Iguanas from the egg to juvenile stage and then later sets them free by releasing them into their natural habitat. There are some special long-term guests who can’t be released because of permanent injuries or because they were raised as pets and are now too comfortable with humans.
I got to learn a bunch about them and also had the opportunity to pet and hold some of the more chilled out ones. At first, I was terrified to even reach out and touch them but by the end, I was holding my little friend for over 20 minutes and didn’t want to put him back.
4) Accommodation is geared to the super budget traveller or more high-end visitors
Belize is filled with eco-resorts and jungle lodges and these are supposed to be great, if you can afford it. There aren’t many hostels in the country and if you’re outside of the tourist hotspots you’ll be lucky to find one.
Most towns will always have some basic budget lodging so if your standards are low and you’re happy with a place to rest your head at night then you’ll be fine. I skipped some places, though, because of their lack of quality mid-range or even high-end budget options.
I’m sure as tourism picks up, this will improve but just be warned that if you’re looking for quality budget or mid-range places to stay then you might be disappointed.
5) Eating vegetarian in Belize is relatively easy
I definitely was spoiled by my time at the Tropical Education Centre where they made me all sorts of local-style food with fresh veggies and locally made meat alternatives. When I was travelling around though, I could always find the staple rice and beans, potato salad and plantains and stuffed fry jacks were also a favourite quick snack.
Many tourist towns will have good spots with separate vegetarian sections on a menu or will be happy to make something special for you. Don't forget my #1 tip for eating vegetarian while traveling - when in doubt, try breakfast for lunch.
6) Buses are basic but get you can get where you need to go
If you’re happy taking basic chicken buses around the country then you’ll be fine. Shuttle transfers are pricey so I tried my best to avoid theme especially when it costs no more than $10 to get from one side of the country to the other.
The one issue I did have was there’s no clear timetable or schedule and there are loads of different bus companies servicing each region so you have to rely on often outdated advice online. You could end up waiting up to an hour or more for a bus if you haven’t timed it well and some routes (like the Dangriga to Placencia route) only have one or two buses a day.
If you’re hitting the two main tourists spots of San Ignacio and Caye Caulker then you’re not going to have an issue taking local transport. Buses are as frequent as every half an hour and ferries are hourly during the busiest times.
Once you want to get a little off the beaten track though, you’re at the mercy of the transport Gods. All I’ll say for now is try not to travel on a Sunday when everything slows down even more and don’t just turn up expecting that you will get where you’re going. I relied heavily on the often updated Belize Bus website which is run independently and relies on user submissions for timetable changes.
7) You’ll still get to practice your Spanish
One reason I wasn’t super keen one Belize is that I thought it would interrupt the Spanish immersion that I was getting in the rest of Central America but that was so wrong.
Even though the main language is English, you’ll mostly here a mix of Creole and Spanish as you travel around. The Belizean people are made up of Maya, Kriol, Mestizo, Garifuna, East Indian, Mennonite and Chinese. There are also a large number of expats in areas like the Cayes and San Ignacio.
Sometimes I wasn’t sure which language to start off with but you’re usually fine with English and most people were happy and able to chat in whichever language I chose. The Belizean Creole is very different to what I learnt in Trinidad but if you know you’re creole then you should be able to understand what’s going on.
Overall I will say that I kept trying to compare Belize to its neighbouring countries but you can't really do that here. Belize is really in a class of its own. While it's easy to say I recommend Nicaragua over Guatemala and mainland Honduras is best left to more seasoned travellers (or anyone who's keen!), Belize for me is difficult to rate or describe.
If you love wildlife, nature or adventure activities then Belize would be a great place to visit. It's friendly English speaking residents make it an easy place to navigate and it's definitely worth at least a week of your time.