Planning a vacation in Belize? You’d be hard pressed to find a more lovely, outgoing country or one with as many adventures right at your feet! Below are my top ten must do adventures in Belize.
When we started planning our Belize getaway, I knew we wanted to visit both the Cayo region (think rain forest, howler monkeys, Mayan temples and cave exploring) and the Caribbean coast (fruity umbrella drinks, brilliant turquoise waters and diving with nurse sharks). The possibilities were honestly daunting, trying to fit in everything I wanted to see and do in 15 days, both time-wise and budget-wise. Now that we’re back home with the memory book full of jaw dropping adventures (and a few pitfalls) I can say that I would have planned our trip a little differently. There are so very many opportunities here, I think we could have planned a six-month stay in Belize and still left feeling like we’d missed a page full.
1. ATM Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal)
We have been blessed to travel through 14 countries and explore more wonders than I could say, and the ATM cave still tops my list of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. If you have the good fortune to find yourself in Belize when the cave is open, GO THERE. Awaken your inner Indiana Jones. Hike through the rain forest, cross a river through the jungle, dive INTO a cave mouth, and swim your way through an underground wonderland of glittering formations and ancient Mayan history. Say hello to the Crystal Maiden, a Mayan sacrifice whose final resting place is so mineral-rich, her skeleton has been covered with crystals. Find hidden nooks and crannies with ceramic pots that are thousands of years old. As if all that weren’t enough, you can swim/glide back through the cave on your way out, passing serpentine flows and ducking under stalactites. You’ll be ready for the fresh local cuisine and rum punch waiting back at the Jeep! We went with Maya Walk Tours and had an amazing time. If you do plan to visit ATM, book early! Guides must be certified to lead you through the ceremonial cave system, and there are only so many licenses given. If you’re traveling with kids, you know what they and you are comfortable with. The recommended age is eight and above. My daughter had just turned eight, and we got the side eye when we arrived. She handled the cave like a champ though, and was wide-eyed, smiling in awe the entire trip. For a more in-depth look at ATM, try this.
2. Belize Zoo
The Belize Zoo is another experience I will remember to the end of my days. It’s not your typical zoo, at least if you’re from the United States. All the animals are native to Belize, and are here either because they can no longer live in the wild or because they were born here. The enclosures simulate natural habitats, and especially in the howler monkey section, it looks like the zoo carved out a large section of rain forest. Here you can feed a toucan and tapirs, or my favorite, you can meet Buddy. I know it looks like Buddy is in a cage here. WE are in the cage. You get locked in this mesh enclosure, and Buddy runs out to meet you. If you’ve never had a 200 pound cat running for you, you’re in for a treat (and maybe dry pants). After a snack of chicken legs, he climbs on top of the cage (the one you’re in) and you can feel his paws and his belly if he’s in a friendly mood. If you have short hair, he will also LICK YOUR FOREHEAD through your cage. Crazy. In the best way!
3. Iguana Conservatory
The Iguana Conservatory is a part of the San Ignacio Hotel. We didn’t stay here as guests, but anyone can come for the tour. You’ll leave with pictures of iguanas all over you. You can feed them banana leaves on the tour, and they know all about snack time. While you listen to the history of the conservation project and hear all about these handsome reptiles, they’ll perch on your shoulder or head, or use you as a stepping block to get to their favored sunny spot. Some iguanas are permanent residents due to medical conditions, while others are released back into the forest once they reach adulthood.
Xunantunich is a 1400-year old Mayan site you can explore on your own or with a guide. We drove to the entrance fully intending to explore on our own, but there are guides who meet you and offer their services right at the entrance. They’re not pushy, and you can say no thank you. After speaking with a guide, we took his tour, and learned all about each temple. He even pointed out howler monkeys I hadn’t seen hiding above, and explained Mayan uses for the local plants. There are signs here and some information, but the guides really know their stuff. Our guide was $20 for the four of us, and we meandered up and over temples and through the rain forest for two hours at our own pace. Xunantunich also has a hand crank ferry to take your car across the river to the archaeological site – huge bonus for the kids! Since our tour left us with a half day left to explore, we drove to Western Dairy for a late lunch. If you’re traveling with kids and/or picky eaters who start to balk at another (utterly delicious) fry jack, take them here for pizza, hot dogs and nachos (in other words, American food). Make sure you try the ice cream on your way out – the local sour sop is fantastic!
5. Rio On Pools
You’ll need a rental car or a tour for this one. We rented a Jeep for our trip (4-wheel drive was not necessary anywhere we went). If you’re staying in San Ignacio, getting to Rio On or Big Rock Falls in the Mountain Ridge takes time. It doesn’t look like many miles, but these gorgeous attractions are on severely rutted roads. I think we topped out at 20 miles per hour. What I thought was a one hour drive took over two each way. The pools though – stunning. You can spend hours jumping from pool to pool, listening to the cascading water and the jungle noise. We didn’t make it to Big Rock Falls this trip, but it’s very close to Rio On. If you didn’t get a late start (like we did), drive the extra few miles to Big Rock Falls (and send me a picture pretty please).
6. Zip Lining Through the Rain Forest
I’d never been zip lining before. My kids have gone, my husband has gone, I’ve always found somewhere else to be. I’m not necessarily afraid of heights, but the idea of being suspended mid-air and trusting a few cables to carry me at 65 miles an hour, over 60 feet in the air… it didn’t sit well. I’m so glad my kids convinced me, even if my ten-year old had to push me from the platform the first (or seven) time(s). At Bocawina, there are nine runs on the course, the longest of which is over 2000 feet. You hike through the jungle to reach the separate platforms, then zip across, almost touching the tree tops. You get a birds’ eye view of the lush canopy, butterflies, brightly colored birds and, if you’re lucky, a monkey. If you’re incredibly lucky, you might even see a jaguar (chances improve on the night zips). The zip guides were fantastic, hilarious and very patient. If you’re on a time limit, don’t let your kids see the sign that second runs through the course are heavily discounted once you’re already suited up!
7. Silk Caye Snorkel
This is an instance of where all my careful planning went awry. I knew we wanted to split our time between Cayo (jungle) and Caribbean. Looking at maps, it seemed like we could easily set Placencia as our home base for our second half, and take a boat over to Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye. The videos of Shark Ray Alley blew my mind. It was one of the initial lures to visit Belize. We booked everything, the car, our rental house, tours, the whole deal, expecting that we could reach one of the larger cayes from Placencia with a short boat ride. Turns out, no. To get to the larger and more popular cayes, you must drive back towards Belize City and take an island taxi or personal charter. Due to the way the current runs, boats don’t go from Placencia to Caulker or Ambergris. This was very disheartening, and at first I didn’t believe it was true. If you’re just researching and you must go to Shark Ray Alley, plan your trip around getting to one of these cayes. If you might be content with a smaller shark population and still an amazing dive, and you’re in Hopkins or Placencia, fear not! There are other options!
Placencia is a laid back beach town, with allegedly the smallest street in the world (more a widened sidewalk that cars sometimes use). At the end of said street are dive shops aplenty, each with their own tours out to smaller, closer cayes. After breakfast one morning, I walked into a dive shop and explained that I desperately wanted to swim with sharks. The owner booked us for Silk Caye, a picturesque island large enough for three picnic tables, the most scenic outhouse I’ve ever encountered, and a few pelicans. That’s it. After our hour-long snorkel and a delicious lunch, the guide took us out where fishermen have cleaned their catches for generations. The sharks and sea turtles know this, and return daily for snacks. My son jumped overboard as soon as the guide gave the OK, before I even had my snorkel on. You can literally swim with these gentle beauties, sharks and giant turtles alike. An absolutely breathtaking experience!
8. Waterfall Caves Expedition
I apologize for the picture quality – I know it’s awful. This was taken approximately 500 feet beneath the earth, in a waterfall, with a force of water you wouldn’t believe, right before my 8-year old jumped 15 feet into a subterranean pool. The Waterfall Cave Expedition is similar to the ATM cave, but with MUCH added adrenaline. Whereas in the ATM cave you swim and float with the occasional climb, here you fight currents and leap from waterfalls, all underground in this wild cave system. Expect to be exhausted when you get out. This was the one excursion that made me uncertain with my 8-year old. She had to talk to the guides beforehand, and we explained that she did a lot of hiking and swimming at home. The normal age requirement for this tour is “mature 10 and over”, however they will make exceptions if your child is close to ten and very adventurous. She had the time of her life in this cave, but I’m pretty sure a whole swath of my hair turned gray, watching her occasionally tossed back by the currents or leaping from waterfalls. If you’re an adrenaline junkie visiting Belize, you really want to try this adventure! My only caveat – online, they say you have a choice over jumping from the waterfalls or rappelling down. I chickened out and asked for the rappelling. Request denied. You guessed it, I had to be pushed from the ledge again – my feet would not let go. Even with the brief moment of terror, I am so very glad we took this excursion – how many people get to leap from waterfalls 500 feet beneath the surface? Even more surreal – mid-way through, you are served a picnic, still underground, on a crisp white tablecloth amidst the stalactites and serpentine flows.
9. Waterfall Rappelling (Above Ground)
Back at Bocawina (home of the rain forest zip line) are two stunning waterfalls. If you’ve already done the subterranean caving and rappelling, this is a snap. Just as picturesque and adrenaline-soaked, but this time in the brilliant light of day, where you can see the turquoise pools you’re landing in. Bocawina Falls is the more mellow 100-foot falls pictured here, with a fairly calm slope. You might also find butterflies fluttering on the rocks. Antelope Falls is a 1000 foot falls, with rappelling of 250 feet. The hike is more challenging, but the reward is truly worthwhile.
10. Tikal Day Trip
All right, this one isn’t strictly in Belize. Neighboring Guatemala is very close to the Cayo district. Standing on some temples in Belize, you can literally look out over the rain forest into Guatemala. You can drive here yourself (with permission from your rental company) or you can take a day trip (or overnight) with a tour company in Belize. We went with Maya Walk again after our stellar experience with the ATM caves. They drove us the 15 minutes to customs, and from there we met up with our Guatemalan guide, who made us feel right at home. My kids fell in love with his hat, the most authentic beat up Indiana Jones fedora I’ve ever seen. Tikal is MASSIVE. You can tour it on your own, but as the girl who navigates by trees and rocks that look like squirrels, I can tell you I’d be lost there for weeks. With a guide, you also get the history.
I know it’s a little weird, but I had a picture of Tikal on my wall when I was a kid. My dad had wanted to be an archaeologist, and my bedtime stories were more temples and tombs, less Cinderella. I built this trip so far up in my head, I was waiting for the bubble to burst the whole time we drove and mot of the hike. It didn’t. Standing on ground where families went about their lives 2000 years ago, gazing up at a massive temple built by hand, brick by brick, is magical. You can almost feel the history seeping into your bones. And when the sun hits Temple IV and the howler monkeys start their hoot… it’s not to be missed.
And there you have it, the top ten adventures (according to this gypsy mama) for the one of a kind, breathtaking Belize. If you have a favorite not on the list, or you try an excursion, drop me a line!