You Better “Belize” It

BELIZE CITY, BELIZE: Located in the Western Caribbean, Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America, which by itself makes Belize an attractive destination for many. But it’s not just that, this is a place where adventure, history, calmness, and natural beauty collide in a perfect harmony. 

Belize is a relatively young country and got its independence only in 1981 from England. It is bordered by Mexico and Guatemala. Although the locals speak Creole mostly (broken English), some speak Mayans and Spanish too. And since Belize was under British rule until 1981, the official language here is English. The most convenient thing for the USA travelers about visiting Belize is that you can use US Dollars everywhere. Sometimes you may get changes back in USD or in Belize Dollars but their central bank always makes sure that the ratio stays 1 USD to 2 Belize Dollars all the time. 

Caribbean Sea on one side of Belize City

Belize City is the former capital of the country and the largest city here. After a big hurricane which caused flooding and other damages in 1961, the capital was relocated from Belize City to the more inland area of Belmopan. The population of Belize City is around 75K. Unlike other big cities in the  Caribbean/Latin countries, Belize is on the quieter side. You won’t hear loud music everywhere you go. Life here is slow and laid back. One of the mornings, I even saw the Finance Minister walking his dog without any guard or any police. Someone at the hotel pointed out to me that he holds that he is a minister. 

Radisson Fort George Hotel and Marina in Belize City – where our boat to Caye Caulker docked

Belize City is divided into 2 main parts…the North and the South side. The North consists more of affluent people with nic houses and posh neighborhoods, whereas the South side is mostly a beaten down area where most of the shootings and crimes happen. Tourists aren’t recommended to go to that side by themselves, especially after dark. 

Just FYI, starting from February 2022, Belize mandated that all out of country travelers get health insurance online, which costs me about $19. But no officials in the airport checked my insurance papers. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Belize on the 4th of July weekend in 2022, my 1st international trip after the pandemic started. This was a solo trip for me when I was looking to getaway for just a few days. 

It was a very pleasant weather with soft breeze and temperature around the 80s in July. I did get tropical rain here and there but it lasted for a couple minutes. Only on the day I visited Lamanai, at one point it started pouring really hard and I got all soaked. July is the month when the rainy season starts slowly and sometimes trips can get canceled if the rivers overflow or certain areas get too slippery. 

MY HOTEL: I stayed in Golden Bay hotel in Belize City. Most of the tourists here stay in one of the Cayes…San Pedro and Caye Caulker are very popular and have lots of accommodation options. But I decided to stay in the city and Golden Bay was one of the top ones with a serene view of the ocean from my room. The Caribbean Sea is just on the other side of the street and it was beautiful to walk there early in the morning. Breakfast was included and an airport shuttle is available for $25 each way. The best part of this hotel is their rooftop restaurant, Vino Tinto, with a city view on one side and the sea view on the other side. There is a small grocery/souvenir/department shop downstairs in the hotel building, which was convenient to grab snacks or even do some souvenir hunting. 

Rooftop restaurant, Vino Tinto, where I used to have breakfast in my hotel in Belize City

Like most travelers, if you want to stay in Caye Caulker or San Pedro, you can either take a plane from Belize airport or a water taxi from the city terminal. There are many different water taxi companies who go out to those and other islands everyday. 

EATING and SHOPPING: Belizean food is truly packed with flavors of freshness and a bit of heat…one of the best in that side of the world. Their seafood and chicken dishes are top notch and incomparable. 

My first dinner in Belize City was in Celebrity which was recommended by the taxi driver who showed me around the city. It’s a beautiful restaurant inside and out. I had Caribbean style seafood curry with coconut rice and fried plantain. I was not going to go out at night too far from my hotel either way. So I ended up dining in Celebrity couple more times. For another lunch in Celebrity, I had the traditional Belizean chicken stew with rice, beans, and coleslaw. Everyone coming to Belize has to try their chicken stew at least once and then they will get hooked to it for good. I ended up buying “recardo rojo”, an essential ingredient to make Belizean chicken stew from the airport on my way back. 

Some Belizean food…Caribbean style seafood curry and chicken stew with rice, beans, and plantains

For the 2nd dinner, I tried the restaurant Vino Tinto on my hotel rooftop. Since a lot of their seafood options were unavailable, I went with shrimp ceviche with habanero sauce on the side (yum) and some chicken dumplings.

Some more dishes I tried in Belize…ceviche, lobster in lemon/butter, and chicken stew

I did some shopping in Lamanai where you’ll find a few souvenir huts. I bought a couple t-shirts and a wooden napkin holder. Altun Ha also had lots of small shops near the exit. I bought a whole bunch of Belizean signature habanero hot sauce bottles and wooden coasters from here. From the shop in my hotel, I bought some Belize coffee, local fruit herbal tea, souvenir cups, and etc. Wooden items made from mahogany trees are everywhere here, like bowls, coasters, or wall decors. 

PLACES I’VE VISITED: There are lots of water related activities in Belize, like scuba diving in the famous Blue Hole, snorkeling in the reefs, cave tubing/kayaking and iplining. Many hops from island to island (Cayes) for a relaxed atmosphere. 

I had 3 and half days to spend in this amazing country and below are some of the places I’ve visited:

  1. Belize City Tour: The day I reached Belize City, I requested my hotel for a private city tour. And they arranged it with one of their trusted guides, Pascal. He charged me $25 for an hour tour of the city. 
Belize sign by the harbor

He took me to the port – where cruise ships come, then to governmental buildings, schools, universities, hospitals, some posh neighborhoods, South side – which is not a recommended place for the tourists, the old cemetery, and etc. We mainly drove around different parts of the city, including the small downtown. The colorful Belize sign and the Baron Bliss lighthouse are both close to each other by the harbor of Belize City.

Baron Bliss lighthouse in Belize City

Just to give you some quick facts, St. John’s Cathedral near downtown is an historic building and a prominent one too. The foundation stone for the structure was laid in 1812 and was consecrated in 1826. The Tourism Village is only open when cruise ships are here and it’s not open to the public. It is a hot post for the cruise passengers who pay a high price to buy local trinkets. There is a market right outside where you can get less expensive souvenirs and anyone can go there. 

St. John’s Cathedral in Belize City

As I was driving along, the guide was sharing stories of gunshots and how/who were killed in different parts of the city. Passing through the South side was a bit uncomfortable but you can see the beaten down houses, underdeveloped neighborhoods, and poor road quality. I was able to see and feel Belize city and its vibe because of this tour. If I had stayed in one of the islands, I’d have missed it.

  1. Lamanai Temple and The New River Safari: Lamanai, meaning “submerged crocodile”, is a must see historic spot in Belize. It’s not just one of the largest Mayan sites in this country but also was a major city in the Maya civilization. 
Boat ride on New River to Lamanai in Belize

I was picked up at 7:15am from my hotel by the tour company. An hour later we were at the New River boating dock with a few others to get on a motor boat. This scenic 26 miles of boat ride up the New River to Lamanai was amazing, especially when you are zooming through some narrow waterways bordered with hundreds of different kinds of trees hanging from both sides of the river. Along the New River, we saw a variety of tropical trees, lotus flowers, and wildlife including a few exotic birds and bats. We were shocked to see some native people swimming and canoeing to catch fish in that river that apparently has lots of crocodiles. We also made a brief pause at the Mennonite village by the New River, who had settled in Belize back in the 1700s. Mennonites are the only group of people who don’t have to pay tax there and live with an almost technology-free life. 

Jaguar Temple in Lamanai Mayan site in Belize

On our way to Lamanai, it rained a few times but going through the winding river with a speed boat was exciting and informational. When you get to Lamanai by the bank of the New River and walk the wooden path through the jungle, you come to a small museum at the entrance that tells the history of Lamanai and its surroundings. After spending a few minutes inside the museum, we started walking through the jungle to get to the first stop, the Jaguar Temple. The earliest known version of the Jaguar Temple was constructed around 500 A.D. with two jaguar face masks on both sides of the stairs. In the 13th century, the Jaguar Temple was refurbished with a new layer that covered the older one. But within a century, all were abandoned and the temple was allowed to fall into despair. Finally, by the 16th century, the whole complex was engulfed by the forest.

Jaguar Temple from a distance in Lamanai, Belize

After passing by a few Mayan house ruins, uncovered mounds, and smaller ruins, we stopped at the High Temple. 33 meters in height from the ground, this is the tallest structure at the site of Lamanai and is also one of the largest pre-classic structures in the Maya area. The initial phase of construction of High Temple began in 100 B.C and was abandoned in the post-classic period. Be sure to climb The High Temple to get a spectacular 360 degree view from the top.

Another Mayan temple in Lamanai, Belize

While it started raining really heavily in the jungle, we passed more ruins that are scattered everywhere and came to the 3rd Mayan temple in Lamanai, called Stela Temple.

The highlight of Lamanai was the last site, called Mask Temple, one of the most majestic Mayan sites I’ve visited in my travel experience. Approximately, from 200-100 B.C, the construction in Lamanai began, and the Mask Temple was one of the earliest establishments here. Originally, there were 4 large masks that adorned the stair sides. By the 7th century, there were only 2 masks left and by the 15th century all had fallen into ruins.  People can climb most of these temples in Lamanai for spectacular views of the surroundings. 

Mask Temple in Lamanai, Belize

As you walk from temple to temple through the jungle and what’s left of this ancient village, plenty of ruins can be seen that are still unexcavated. We even saw and heard howler monkeys, wood-peckers, and toucans on a few trees as we were appreciating nature and Mayan intellect. In addition to that, the variety of rare and unusual trees are fascinating to look at. 

Other than the temples, there are ruins of houses, plazas, ritual sites, sports arenas, and etc in Lamanai. Not all these structures were built in the same decades. They were done in phases and generations. Don’t be shy to climb these temples and get a better view of the jungle from the top.

Walking through the jungle in Lamanai from one Mayan temple to another – in Belize

Do take bug spray if you decide to go to Lamanai. Mosquitos are EVERYWHERE and these tiger mosquitos will attack you from every direction, especially in the summertime. Thanks to one of the people in the group who let me use his mosquito repellant. Wearing flip-flops wouldn’t be very comfortable here. Good hiking shoes or snickers are highly recommended. And if you are going there in July, like me, carrying a poncho would be a smart thing to do. 

I booked the trip using the Viator app. It was $160 per person that included hotel pickup/drop off with all the admission fees, transportation, and lunch. The tour company’s owner’s wife cooked us some coconut rice with beans, potato salad, and chicken stew for lunch. That was one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever tried in the whole Caribbean or anywhere really. The whole tour took about 7-8 hours and finally, I was back in the hotel by 3:30pm.

  1. Altun Ha Mayan Site: Altun Ha was not in my original itinerary. I was supposed to go to the Xunantunich Mayan site. But on the day of, the tour got canceled. Desperate to plan out the whole day at the last minute, I ended up hiring the same guide from my hotel who took me to the city tour on my first day there. 
One side of Altun Ha complex in Belize

It was an hour drive from Belize City to Altun Ha, which literally means “Stone Water ” and unlike Lamanai, most of the excavated ruins here are displayed almost in one big plaza full of old structures. Altun Ha was a complex and a wealthy ceremonial center that formed an important link in ancient Maya coastal trade routes. 

Altun Ha ruins in Belize

Temple of the Sun God, which rises some 54 feet above the plaza floor, is the focal point here. Make sure to climb those few steep steps to get on top to an imposing overview. On the top of Sun Temple, archeologists discovered 7 tombs along with many spectacular jade objects. Among those, including the Jade Head depicting Sun God, in one of the 7 tombs. The Jade Head is the largest carved jade treasure in the Maya world. The Jade Head of Altun Ha remains the single largest piece of carved jade within Mesoamerica and the western hemisphere. When it’s on any display, the insurance value for the Jade Head is somewhere from 5-10 million USD. Belize Central Bank currently holds this 9 lbs weight Jade Head in a secured vault after it became a National Treasure and an icon for Belize. 

Temple of the Sun God in Altun Ha, Belize

Other than the Jade Head, over 800 jade items and more than 50 major carved pendants were unearthed at Altun Ha. Jade is a very hard stone and this material was the most valued by the Maya.

The earliest evidence of settlement at Altun Ha dates back to 200 B.C and occupation continued until about 900 A.D. Altun Ha reached its peak around 500-600 A.D with about 10,000 residents. Excavations revealed an incredible and unexpected material wealth at this ancient Maya site. The whole plaza consists of many ruins of sports arenas, houses, and etc. 

View from top of Temple of the Sun God in Altun Ha, Belize

Altun Ha is about 65 mile from Belize City by car. Usually a group tour to Altun Ha is about somewhere around $65 but because of the last minute change, I ended up paying $125 for a private tour. We were able to walk around the ruins and climb the main Temple of Sun God in just an hour. 

  1. The Museum of Belize: From Altun Ha, my guide, Pascal, dropped me to The Museum of Belize in Belize City. It’s a very simple but educational place to learn about this country. The museum is dedicated to promote and preserve Belize’s cultural life. It displays the history of Mayan civilizations, slavery in Belize, the development of Belizean independence, and a lot more. 

The present museum building is a former prison and was built in 1857 as the Belize Prison. In February of 2001, after a complete renovation, it was converted to The Museum of Belize. You can see a small portion of that prison near the end of one side. 

One of my favorite paintings of Pen Cayetano inside The Museum of Belize

Entry fee to the museum is $7 per person and it closes at 4pm. And I only spent about half an hour going through the 1st level and 2nd level, which had an art exhibition by one of Belize’s most prolific artists Pen Cayetano. 

  1. Caye Caulker Island and The Split: There are about 400 cayes in Belize and about 250 are habitable. Caye Caulker is one of the most popular ones among them and is only about 21 miles/30 minutes boat ride from Belize City. This is a popular island for cheap accommodations, fresh food, fun nightlife, and relaxation. 
Walking around Caye Caulker in Belize

This tour to Caye Caulker was $45 for half a day trip and I was picked up from my hotel at 8:30am. From the marina, we were taken to Caye Caulker by a speed boat. This was an incredible ride and we passed by lots of smaller and private islands on our way, as our guide was telling us about their culture and history.  

Once we reached Caye Caulker, some went to snorkel and a couple of us stayed back just to hang out by the beach and enjoy the island. We were given about 3 hours to explore the island anyway we wanted. I mostly hung out in and around The Split, which is a popular swimming area at one end of the island. This “beach” is basically a sunken area surrounded by cement seawalls on one side.  The water here was relatively shallow and it has a diving board at one side too for some splashes. People sit on the walls lazily to catch some tan or read books or just look at the vast sea as far as the sight goes. 

The Split in Caye Caulker, Belize

“Go Slow” is the motto of Caye Caulker and you’ll literally see signs of that in different places. The locals follow that unofficial rule wholeheartedly. This is a very laid back island with picturesque views at every corner. There are only a few cars here since most people use golf carts to get around. You can rent these carts or bicycles through different companies. I saw many tourists hiring a golf cart driver to get a tour of the island as well. There is only one main street in Caye Caulker near The Split and you can’t get lost here. Most of the streets are sandy or unpaved.

It can get really hot on these islands but the pleasant Caribbean breeze cooled me down while strolling. Wandering around the brightly colored buildings and shops was relaxing. Sit down by the water or in a cafe to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of this island. Whatever you do, just don’t rush.

The main street of Caye Caulker, Belize

I was told that some of the restaurants here take a long time to prepare food (following the “Go Slow” slogan), therefore, it’s better to order your food early. I didn’t want to take a chance and exactly knew where I wanted to eat. For lunch, I had a fresh lobster in butter/lemon sauce  with rice, beans, and grilled veggies in LandShark, right by The Split with a splendid ocean view in front of me. Caye Caulker had their annual lobster festival just the weekend before and they are known for their fresh and tasty lobsters. So, lobster was in my mind from the beginning. 

Lazy Lizard is another famous restaurant in The Split. Try out fresh fruit smoothies from local shops or have some fresh coconut water. There are plenty of options for meals here, from ocean side restaurants to street side BBQ places. As I was strolling, I saw people grilling chicken, pork, and seafood by the streets. There were lots of shops selling souvenirs too and some by the streets selling seashells and jewelry made out of that. 

By the sea, Caye Caulker in Belize

On our way back, I had one of the unique experiences which was very educational too. Our guide got a whole bag full of raw sardines for us and she taught us how to feed those to a whole group of tarpons in the shallow side of the sea. Although I didn’t do it, some people fed sardines to those fishes. It’s fun to watch how those tarpons snatches the sardine from their hands. 

Overall, Belize had more than what I expected. Initially, I was feeling a bit uncomfortable about staying in Belize City and not in one of the “Cayes”. I was also debating if I need to go on more than one Mayan tour. But I don’t regret any of my decisions. Every country has its bad neighborhood but as tourists, staying alert and smart are part of the plan. Belize is not like other Latin countries. It has a very attractive heritage, rich history, appealing tourist spots, mind-blowing scenic beauties, unforgettable food, and yet the ease of traveling everywhere. This is definitely one of the hidden gems of the Caribbean. 

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