For our winter getaway this year we decided to check out Belize as it’s known for both diving and adventure travel – two things we love! Wanting the share the experience, we met up with some long-time former Ohioan friends as well as new friends that we met while in Cozumel two years ago.
Trip Planning Good to Know:
- The official language of Belize is English.
- While there is a Belizean dollar, the US dollar is accepted everywhere and the exchange rate is a very easy to calculate $1 BZD to $0.50 USD.
- The sun is strong and it can be buggy during certain times of the year so bring plenty of reef safe sunscreen and bug spray with you. Consumer goods on the Cayes can be costly as everything must be shipped in.
- Belize is super, super casual. You won’t need anything dressier than a nice sundress or short/top combo. I promise!
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Eco-Adventures in San Ignacio
After picking up a car at the International Airport from Crystal Auto Rental (best prices, great service), we headed out on the hour and a half drive to San Ignacio, the heart of Belize’s Cayo District. It’s a popular launch point for exploring the areas renowned ruins and caves. We lodged at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, a family run, 26-room, boutique property situated on spectacular jungle grounds where you may even catch a glimpse of a toucan at breakfast!
The ATM Cave is arguably the most popular site in this region. So much so, that they’re starting to talk about limiting visitors. What makes this cave so notable are the calcified human remains visible in some of the burial chambers as well as a large collection of intact Mayan pottery.
Exploring the cave is somewhat rigorous. You will cross several rivers on the 45-minute hike to the cave and will enter the cave through water. Once inside, passages are, at times, very narrow and slippery. Be forewarned but not afraid, what awaits you inside is worth the effort. NOTE: You can only visit this site with a guide. Book in advance. Wear water shoes and bring a pair of socks for areas where water shoes are not allowed. No photography.
Sound like it’s just too much for you? There are other caves that you can visit for kayaking or tubing such as Barton Creek or Jaguar Paw.
This activity was based right at our hotel! A staff member will give you a short tour of their on-site rehab facility. You’ll even have a chance to feed and hold some of the iguanas. More into plants than critters? They also offer a medicinal plant tour on the property.
Located close to the border with Guatemala, a trip here offers extraordinary views of both countries from the 130-foot tall temple, El Castillo. This site is a short drive from San Ignacio (public transport also available). We enjoyed a couple of hours exploring the ruins and even found some howler monkeys resting in a tree on our way out of the complex. NOTE: Pick up a guide right before you board the crank ferry. They share some of the history and know all the great photo spots!
While smaller than the other ruin sites, Cahal Pech is located right in the town of San Ignacio, so very convenient. The ruins of Tikal (across the border in Guatemala) and Caracol, while a good bit farther away, are other popular choices for those wanting to experience ancient Mayan history.
We enjoyed several meals at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel’s Running W Steakhouse. Their meat is sourced from their family’s ranch and both the steaks and breakfast sausages were incredible. Guava Limb was a favorite restaurant in town. They have beautiful patio and garden seating as well as a brand new wood fire grill that churns out some fantastic pizza. The Ice Cream Shoppe is super-popular and features both traditional and local flavors like soursop and jackfruit.
Sun and Sea in Ambergris Caye
We traveled to Ambergris Caye by small plane (Maya and Tropic are the two providers), although there is also ferry service available. The flights are only 15 minutes whereas the ferry takes about an hour and a half. Our friends generously hosted us as their guests at their AirBNB property in San Pedro. They also have two houses in SW Florida available and are designated Super Hosts so you can rent safely from them knowing that they are both experienced and provide excellent service!
Due to bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef, as of 2019, the Belize Barrier Reef is now the largest coral reef system in the world (source: Wikipedia)! Needless to say, water activities take front and center stage here. Get around the island by renting a golf cart and splurge for one with heavily padded seats as the roads are quite bumpy!
While the Blue Hole is incredibly famous, the most remarkable thing about Ambergris Caye is the number of dive spots mere yards off shore. Our group used both The Dive Bar & Amigos del Mar for trips. Below are some highlights of the various reefs explored. NOTE: Dive Bar has kayaks and SUPs available at their location with no charge!
If you decide to forgo a dive at the Blue Hole (it’s an all day trip and more architectural as opposed to sea-life oriented), considered taking a flight over the sight. Both Maya and Tropic offer viewing trips and it’s a much quicker and arguably, more interesting, way to see the formation.
Shark Ray Alley
Those who prefer snorkeling to scuba diving may want to take a trip to Shark Ray Alley. The spot became a popular place for harmless nurse shark and rays to congregate and pick up a few easy snacks when local fishermen used to clean their catches here.
Is all this talk of snorkeling and diving wearing you out? Maybe you’d just prefer to sit on a beach with a rum drink in hand and soak up a few rays. Well, plan to spend an afternoon at the not-so-secret “Secret Beach“. The water is blue beyond imagine and so shallow that you can nearly walk to one of the neighboring islands. Lined with bars and restaurants that have in-water tables, you’re guaranteed a relaxing and fun time. Stay for the spectacular sunset then hustle back to town before it gets too dark.
Take the ferry from San Pedro over to ultra-sleepy Caye Caulker (30-minute ride). Rent some bikes and explore the main island for awhile before taking the small shuttle boat over to the We’yu Hotel Complex for an afternoon on their beach. The jerk fish I had at their Koko King Restaurant was excellent as was the ceviche at Lazy Lizard on the main side of Caye Caulker.
Explore San Pedro
Plan to spend at least half of one day in town exploring San Pedro. We came across the Gallery of San Pedro and Ambar Jewelry in the Fido’s bar/restaurant complex. Gallery of San Pedro has a second location near the roundabout next to Georgie’s Crust and Crumbs Pie Shop. Both locations offer a fantastic assortment of Belizean art. Treat yourself to some delicious sweets at Belize Chocolate Company and swing by the San Pedro Island Artisan Market. Plenty of bars to stop at along the beach side if you need a cool refresh!
Truck Stop is one of the most popular dining spots on Ambergris Caye! They have a swimming pool, live music or in-pool movies most nights and a fun assortment of food truck food ranging from pizza and tacos to Asian and ice cream.
Rain is the most formal restaurant we visited while on Ambergris but nice shorts or a casual sundress are still fine to wear. Owned and run by celebrity chef Chris Aycock, the rooftop terrace makes a meal here feel extra-special!
Elvi’s Kitchen is in downtown San Pedro and offers typical Belizean fare. The setting is very charming – think sand floors, a tree growing up through the center of the restaurant and all sorts of Belizean artwork.
Tipsy Lobster is an outdoor seafood grill and their whole fish and fish kebabs are both out of this world. This simple, fresh, feet-in-the-sand approach to dining is what Ambergris Caye is all about.
At Caramba’s don’t even look at the menu. Just make your selection of fish based on the fresh catch out front and share them with your table, family style. Preparation methods include…mole, Mayan, blackened, and more.
Crocs is best known for their amazing sunset views but I’ll tell you, their coconut mojitos weren’t too shabby either! It’s rumored that crocodiles move into the shallow waters below the bar each evening but they must have been hiding the night we were there.
You will not go hungry (or thirsty) on Ambergris! Other places worth checking out are the third floor restaurant in the Lina Point complex (great jerk chicken and the chef’s frozen key pie quickly becomes an addictive nightly tradition), Sandy Toe’s bar and the huevos rancheros at Latitude’s (both in town) and Stella’s Sunset Bar.
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