The cool thing about Central America is that just because you’ve seen one of its countries, you haven’t seen them all. It might be natural to assume that Belize would be like Costa Rica, but with more Mayan ruins. It would also be completely wrong.
So is Belize worth visiting? That depends on you, traveling friends, and what you want out of your journey. No matter what, Phillip SW Goldson Airport will be Belize’s first chance to make an impression. This is a Mos Eisley Cantina of an airport – hot, stuffy and far more chaotic than an airport of its Lilliputian proportions should be. Plus points – no jetways! You get to kick it Old School by descending a moving staircase (unfortunately, it’s not attached to a truck like Michael Bluth’s ride in Arrested Development). You’ll also see large commercial aircraft lined up with three-person Cessnas from local airlines. That ups the Indiana Jones factor.
A Diver’s Delight
If you are a diver, Belize is a must. It offers the world’s second-largest barrier reef behind Australia. You can fly from virtually anywhere in the continental U.S., wake up the day after arriving and spot your first stingray after breakfast. If you’re just a snorkler, you can see much of the same cool stuff. Of course, SCUBA divers can go further, longer and deeper. If you just can’t wait to hit the blue and see awesome sea creatures, Belize will delight you. Even just snorkling, I saw barracuda, octopi, small sharks, enormous stingrays (6-foot wingspans!) and sundry other colorful ocean fish.
Flaccid Fare for Foodies
Let’s say you’re really into fine dining, though. You won’t go hungry in Belize. The food is solid and fresh. But there’s not much in the way of upscale dining there. Even at the really slick Five Sisters Jungle Lodge in the Cayo District, the emphasis was more on hearty and filling. I promise that a foodie won’t wake up post-vacation dreaming of Belizean vittles. Beverages aren’t much better – the coffee is pretty blah, especially compared to Costa Rica and Guatemala. Beer? Fuggit about out. There is a decent coffee liqueur perfectly suited to making a Central American twist on a White Russian, though. I’m not sure The Dude would approve, but it’s still good.
You’ll Love the Limestone
While Belizean food won’t whet the appetite, cavers (aka spelunkers, but that’s a dirty word among the faithful) will gorge themselves. Belize is mostly limestone. Just add millions of years of flowing water, and you have a recipe for awesome caves. The Cayo District is riddled with caverns, from fairly well-traveled Achtun Tunichil Muknal (aka ATM) to many others known only to locals. You may have to ingratiate and/or interrogate get the goods. One of our tour guides even mentioned that, back at the height of the Mayan days, an army from Caracol traveled underground for four days to pop out of the earth and put the sword to rival city-state Tikal. Crazy!
Caving is also a very illuminating experience about Mayan culture – you’ll learn that the Mayans considered caves their underworld, and would make sacrifices to appease the gods. Caves contain everything from corn offerings to gifts of human flesh – average Joes, infants and even royalty raised specifically to be sacrifices. The floors of many caves are littered with their bones.
Shopping & Nightlife are the Lowlights
Now, let’s say you’re all about the bling. Hollywood looks to you to set fashion trends. You’re Vera Wang, Ralph Lauren and Mugatu rolled into one person. Belize will have you booking a flight to Paris before your matching diamond-encrusted Versace luggage rolls down the conveyor belt. It’s also pretty hot and sticky – so unless you loaded up with Cloudveil and Patagonia gear, you’re in the wrong country. Get out unless you plan to amuse the locals with your diva antics. You will find no high-fashion items for home or wardrobe here, and that’s just all there is to it. And check this out – I couldn’t even find a jersey from the nation’s soccer league. I could find Manchester United knock-offs a-plenty, but I wasn’t able to find any Belizean soccer shirts. What’s up with that?
Belize City, the nation’s largest but not even its capitol, will not impress you. It’s squat and sprawling, often pretty hard on the eye. There’s no cafe culture and its nightlife will not impress.
Beaches Won’t Impress
What about you beach lovers and sun worshipers out there? You want sparkling white sand and an endless stream of beach-themed cocktails. Okay: Belize may have all that somewhere. But I’m not certain where. I can tell you that San Pedro, Dangriga and Hopkins will bitterly disappoint beach-o-philes. Belize hasn’t been clued in like Costa Rica that dumping trash all over isn’t cool. That stuff washes up everywhere. A few resorts in Hopkins actually employ people to pick the sand on their territory clean. On either side of such properties, you will see astounding amounts of former flotsam. If you’re reading this and think I’m wrong, fine – just be sure to tell us all where you can find a sweet, accessible beach in Belize. I’ll be happy to share your info in a future post.
I must also say that Hopkins is one sweltering inferno of a village. And this comes from a long-time desert rat, a 29-year Phoenix resident. I’m practically a Fremen, but Hopkins baked me out of my gourd when the sun emerged – in January!
Peace Through Superior Firepower
Picture this scene: Your tour guide is driving through the forest on the way to a ruin, and he stops at a wooden building. M-16-toting dudes in battle dress uniforms come out of the building, talk to your driver and follow you to and from the ruin. Your driver tells you they are along to protect you from Guatamalan bandits – you are, after all, close to contested territory. If this freaks you out, stay out of the western end of the Cayo District. Do not go to Tikal or Caracol. If you think that’s awesome, you’re my sort of traveler.