When a a fellow traveller suggested we feature our next hidden gems spotlight on Belize, my hand immediately shot up to share my thoughts. However, when I put pen to paper, okay fingers to keyboard if I’m being honest, I realized I hadn’t been to Belize in almost a decade.
Still the memories of this charming country, as Caribbean as it is Central American, holds a special place in my heart. Because all those years ago, it remains the first time this backpacker's two feet left North America.
From the border town of Chetumal in Mexico to Belize City, I sat next to a man holding a giant swan. The journey was only 169km, but it took a culturally rewarding 5 hours – passing through rural towns and communities. When we left the border there were 5 foreigners on board, and when we reached Belize City, the bus was filled to capacity with school children, locals, military personal and one other person holding a duck.
When we finally arrived I was over come with a bit of “where the fuck am I” sensation as a result of its crass charm, chaotic pace and overwhelming poverty. Although I’ve now learned that the government has successfully gone to great lengths to make the nation’s only cultural hub more tourist friendly, it’s then reputation for crime and slums made me grip my bag just a little tighter.
In time though, that did pass and Belize City’s cultural vibrancy and colorful characters awakened the traveler in me. There was this overwhelming yet somehow seamless mix of cultures – Belizean, Garifuna, Mestizo, Creole and Mayan. By the time we’d found our way to Caye Caulker, we felt we could add expat to that list.
On the road in Belize. Photo from the KOSAN archives.
In Caye Caulker, the people are low key, the pace is slow (in fact you’ll see “no shirt, no shoes no problems” signs plastered around the island), but much like the nation itself it packs a particularly large punch in terms of things to do. Here, the days are long, dogs nap in the middle of the street and there are no cars. This means you can meander around the island on a bike, snorkel along the barrier reef, kayak through the mangroves and do nothing but sit at some café drinking Beliken Beer. On Caye Caulker it doesn’t matter – the pace of things melt together like those strawberry caramilk sunsets you watch from any one of the innumerable piers.
It took a few days to get used to the pace, but once you do, you realize the island and it’s community of rastafarians has its own rhythm and deep charm that will have you re-thinking your entire way of life. At night, still hot enough for your skin to glisten with sweat, you can pick any one of a number of bars to meet fellow backpackers. The Lazy Lizard is a local favorite and Rum Punch is the beverage of choice. And if you find your way to the Lazy Lizard, day or night, you’ll have also stumbled upon The Split, which is a narrow channel that goes from the east to the west side of the island, that was created by a hurricane years ago. Here there are ropes swings, games, hammocks, plenty of cold beer and fellow backpackers practice the art of being chill – you don’t even need to buy anything to hang out here.
Yes, Caye Caulker may not be exactly a hidden gem anymore, and the growing infrastructure is taking it’s toll on the island, but this place represents so much of the “backpacker” culture that it’s worth the trek…and so are a few extra days in Belize City for that mater!
One of the many unnamed, uninhabited Cayes in Belize. Photo from the KOSAN archives.
If you’re headed to Belize in search of rich history and well excavated archaeological sites hidden within the jungle, you’re in luck. While it’s neighbor Mexico, gets most of the recognition when it comes to Mayan ruins, Belize has more than a few that can certainly hold their own. Favourites include Lamanai and Altun Ha, though my personal favourite was Xunantunich. Less busy than it’s counterparts, but no less beautiful, this was a perfect spot hidden in the rough. Located close to San Ignacio, you’ll have to cross the Mopan river via a very small, very rickety hand-cracked car ferry (read: oversized raft) from the village of San Jose Succotz. Well worth the trek, there was hardly a soul in sight when we visited!
Xunantunich, Belize. Photo from the KOSAN archives.
Another favourite destination to visit when near San Ignacio are the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave systems, known to the locals as ATM. We had read about these incredible caves in National Geographic back in the day, and decided to check them out while we were visiting. We decided to wing it and drive ourselves, as it was only about 15km away from the jungle lodge where we were staying. In case you are wondering, 15km in Canada is not the same as 15km in Belize. 2 hours later, after winding roads, bridges of questionable structure, and brief escapade through a river that had swallowed up the road, we found ourselves at the entrance to the park with ATM is located. Well low and behold, you can’t actually enter the park without a guide, and of course, all the guides excursions had already left for the day. We headed back to the lodge, laughing at our lack of planning. We had decided to move on and skip ATM, until we were told over dinner by a group of American girls that it was the number one thing they suggested to do in Belize. The tours were quite expensive ($100 USD per person), especially considering we were on a tight budget, but our curiosity won out and we decided to give it a go. We signed up for the next day, and this time, we made the 15km journey in a much larger, sturdier van along with our guide and fellow travelers. The hike to get to the entrance of the cave itself was approximately 45 minutes, and once you arrive, you’re met with the massive pool of water right at the mouth of the cave. They line you all up and tell you to jump, and the adventure begins! You will hike, crawl and swim through the inner chambers, until you reach an area they call ‘the Mayan elevator’ where you will ascend via rocks and ladders to the upper chambers. Along the way, you will see ancient relics and artifacts dating back to the Mayans. According to archaeologists, as the Mayans suffer drought, famine and sickness, the went deeper and deeper into the cave system performing more and more sacrificial rituals in hopes of appeasing the gods. The last stop on the trek is where the ‘Crystal Maiden’ lies, the preserved skeleton of what is now thought to be a teenage boy, despite the name. I don’t want to spoil the mystery too much, but if you’re considering going, it’s up there with my top 5 travel experiences and I would 100% recommend it.
Xunantunich, Belize. Photo from the KOSAN archives.
Once you’ve exhausted yourself exploring inland, head to the coast to enjoy the beautiful, rather untouched beach front that is Placencia. Touted by Lonely Planet as the ‘caye you can drive to’, this sandy peninsula offers both lots to do or little to do, depending on your reason for visiting. The strip offers a few fantastic bars, restaurants and cafes, all bright, colourful and promising delicious food and ice cold beers. The pristine white beaches and clear turquoise water speak for themselves, however for us, the real draw of Placencia was the world renowned diving. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The reef system, shallow waters surrounding innumerable islands and The Great Blue Hole all provide prime diving conditions. We did 2 dives with Avadon Divers, however sadly, they are no longer operating. There are a few other dive shops in the area, so I’m sure you won’t have any problems finding an alternative.
Placencia, Belize. Photo from the KOSAN archives.
All in all, Belize is an absolute gem and it should hopefully be skyrocketing to the top of your list. No matter where you go, you will be greeted with incredible views, rich history, delicious food and friendly smiling locals. In this case, good things really do come in small packages.
Reef sharks next to the dive shop. Placencia, Belize. Photo from the KOSAN archives.