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Home to postcard-perfect beaches, lush rain forests and diverse wildlife, Belize offers all the ingredients for the ideal tropical escape and then some. This Central American country is home to ancient Mayan ruins as well as the Western Hemisphere’s longest barrier reef. It also has the largest cave system in Central America. Belize offers a unique combination of natural wonders ready to explore, so there’s no shortage of things to do during your visit.
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Just about everyone has heard of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the world’s largest barrier reef, but do you know where the second-largest barrier reef in the world is located? The Mesoamerican reef is a stunning reef that lies off the coasts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. The 700-mile-long reef follows the entire coast of Belize, sitting in the aquamarine waters that surround the cayes. You’ll be mesmerized by the color and clarity of the reef, which has even been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s truly a magnificent sight to see, but if you aren’t into snorkeling, you can view it from above by taking a water taxi.
The Placencia Peninsula boasts the longest stretch of sands in mainland Belize, known as “barefoot perfect.” The 17 miles of golden beaches are ideal for relaxing in the sun, taking a stroll, or swimming. The area stretches across three villages — Placencia Village, Seine Bight and Maya Beach. Placencia Village hosts a tourist strip with a number of bars and eateries along the coastline, while Maya and Seine Bight are known for their tranquility and fine white sands. Make an escape to one of the small, remote islands and you’ll discover especially jaw-dropping stretches like the half-moon beach on Hunting Caye.
One of the most popular attractions in Belize are its Mayan ruins. Be sure to make time to experience them, as one of the most extensive concentrations of temples and underground ritual chambers, along with magnificent repositories of art in gold, jade, obsidian, pottery, elaborate stone carvings and paintings. Belize is considered the epicenter of the ancient Mayan world, with some of the best known Maya sites including Xunantunich, Caracol, Altun Ha and Lubaantun. Xunantunich, home to the second-tallest ruin in the country, is situated across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz and can be accessed by ferry.
Belize has one of the lowest population densities in the world, which means there are lots of remote, uninhabited regions that are ideal for hiking. Don Elijio National Park is a top hiking destination and is home to practically an endless number of both self-guided and guided trails, offering something for all abilities and tastes. The Jaguar Preserve offers the most extensive jungle hiking trails in all of Belize along with the chance to see the country’s biggest cat. Most jungle resorts have their own nature trails too, where you can trek along the well-defined paths where the plants and trees are marked with small wooden signs that reveal their local and scientific names, and in some cases their medicinal use.
There are a number of waterways popular for canoeing and kayaking, including the Mopan River that flows across Belize to the sea. Before roads were built here, the rivers were the main mode of transportation and commerce, making paddling a great way to step into the shoes of the early Belizeans and experience what life was like before modern times. Tour companies and resorts offer Class II and III rapids for beginners, with instruction provided throughout the runs, including reading the white water, learning about obstacles, and surfing the river waves.
Just a short drive from Belize City and you can see the elusive creatures like jaguars that are hard to spot in the jungle at the Belize Zoo. The internationally acclaimed zoo started out as a refuge for wild animals that were used while making documentaries. After award-winning British filmmaker Richard Foster shot his first film on Belize wildlife, the location and the animals were transformed into the Belize Zoo. There are no drab concrete holding areas with iron bars, rather the more than 150 native animals are kept in as natural an environment as possible, with discreet enclosures interwoven into the trees and plants.
Sampling the local and regional fare is a must when visiting any foreign country. While most tourists try typical Belizean cuisine such as stewed chicken, rice and beans, and ceviche, you may want to sample something more unusual, like coconut fish stew. Game meat like the gibnut is particularly tasty and is cooked with recado, a spice made with annatto seed, and garlic. Don’t miss the country’s delicious artisan chocolates from the Cotton Tree, Moho and Kakaw chocolate factories, which all produce high-quality chocolate that’s made from Belizean cacao beans.
The ATM Cave, or Actun Tunichil Muknal, travels for miles underground as a wonderland series of caves, some of which are over two miles long. The Caves Branch River is a unique river that flows through the karst foothills in central Belize with its headwaters lying deep underground in a cave, emerging onland and flowing 30 miles through tropical rainforest before linking up with the Sibun River. During its run through the jungle it meets up with multiple limestone hills, and instead of flowing around them, it plunges through, providing an unforgettable experience of roaring down the river for two miles underground. The Caves Branch river passes through the caves with enough clearance for adventurers to navigate through them. A number of tour companies offer cave tubing packages of various lengths, some that will bring you out for an entire day, and others designed for cruise ship visitors with more limited time.