I have been traveling to Belize every year for more than a decade and am already planning my next trip.
Why? As the only English-speaking country in Central America, as well as one of its smallest (it’s about the size of New Jersey), Belize is surprisingly easy to navigate. Local residents are fun-loving, friendly, and appreciate nature; nearly half of the country is protected rain forest, including Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve, the world’s first wilderness sanctuary for jaguars.
Just offshore lies the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere, teeming with marine life and dotted with dozens of tiny tropical islands ideal for kayaking and snorkeling. Belize’s subterranean rivers make it possible to explore the country’s elaborate underground cave system—which might be the most extensive on Earth (National Geographic explorers have been mapping it since the 1960s)—while floating in an inner tube.
There are also dozens of Maya archaeological sites throughout Belize—many still being excavated—including Caracol, which ranked among the ancient civilization’s largest cities. Though most Belize-bound travelers go to escape the winter blues, spring (especially May and June) happens to be my favorite time to visit.
Here’s a recipe for the perfect week in this ecological and cultural wonderland:
Upon arrival at Belize City’s quirky little international airport, pick up a prebooked car (I reserved mine from Crystal Auto Rental) and strike out west on one of the country’s three main highways (which are really just two-lane country roads) to Chaa Creek, Belize’s pioneer ecolodge, located on 300 acres of private rain forest outside of San Ignacio.
Walk the medicinal trail to learn about traditional healing, canoe on the Macal River while spotting toucans and iguanas in the treetops, and visit the nearby Maya archaeological site of Xunantunich, boasting a spectacular temple.
At sunset, pull up a chair at Chaa Creek’s open-air bar, where owner Mick Fleming periodically turns up to regale guests with tales of his family’s early days homesteading here.
Insider tip: On a tight travel budget? While Chaa Creek’s main chalets cater to upmarket ecotourists, they also offer a lesser-known alternative for more frugal travelers—Macal River Camp, with permanent tents on raised wooden platforms (think shared bathrooms and simple meals featuring local staples like rice and beans). Guests who stay at the camp have access to the entire Chaa Creek private reserve and facilities while paying less than half the price.
Meander down the Hummingbird Highway—part of the southern route and the most beautiful stretch of road in the country, bordered by verdant green mountains and citrus orchards—to the Caves Branch Jungle Lodge.
Owner-operator Ian Anderson and his team pioneered most of Belize’s cave expeditions. Book the original River Cave expedition and, together with an expert guide, don a headlamp and float for seven miles of subterranean adventure. Stalagmites and stalactites give way to periodic bursts of bright sunlight as tubers course through different caves and hidden pools shrouded in lush vegetation.
If you’re after the all-inclusive experience, head to Ambergris Caye, Belize’s version of Playa del Carmen. But for a more authentic option, head south to the village of Placencia—my favorite outpost in the country.
It’s easy to get stranded here, in the sense that the days get slower, swinging in a hammock feels like the right way to pass the hours, and the rum flows easily at the Barefoot Beach Bar, owned by three local sisters. But Placencia also hosts one of the world’s greatest diving and snorkeling experiences—the yearly congregation of whale sharks (at an average of 20 tons, they are the biggest fish in the sea) during the full moons of May and June.
Instructors at the Splash Dive Centre and Seahorse Dive Shop, both based in Placencia, can take you to see these gentle giants in their natural habitat in the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. During the last week of June, locals kick off LobsterFest, an annual three-day beach bash.
Set out at sunrise for the Belize Zoo (30 miles west of Belize City) as you make your way back to the international airport. Zookeeper Sharon Matola has been a leading voice for protecting the rare and endangered species of Belize ever since she arrived more than 30 years ago as an animal trainer for a wildlife documentary. She fell in love, and went on to establish the country’s first zoo.
All of the fascinating creatures in her menagerie—from tapirs to jaguars—have been rescued and rehabilitated and are native to Belize and Central America. The tiny sanctuary has won international acclaim for its creative educational displays and ongoing conservation work, including kudos from actor and biodiversity crusader Harrison Ford, who visited the zoo soon after its 1983 opening during the filming of Mosquito Coast (his photo marks the entrance to this day).
Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.