With extraordinary Mayan ruins, rich wilderness and marine life, glorious tropical islands and a hospitality industry built around sustainability, Belize could be Central America’s best-kept secret, writes Emily Eastman
The road rattles and buckles beneath us as our driver navigates deep ruts, vast stones and puddles of undetermined depth. To call the route to Caracol bumpy would be imprecise; these roads are rugged, stomach-churning, and worth every jolt for the destination: the largest Mayan site in Belize, situated deep in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve.
We’ve come to Belize slightly ahead of the curve for the British market, which might mean rough terrain (although the tourist board promises that the jungle roadways will be paved in the next year or two), but it also means deserted destinations which, in more well-trodden holiday spots, would already be overrun with fellow travellers.
As we hike the short distance to Caana (“Sky Palace”), the largest building at Caracol, I count just five other people exploring the site. And what a site it is, containing more than 35,000 buildings. In fact, archaeologists believe there to be more Mayan structures in Belize today than modern buildings. At the height of its power, Caracol was home to 180,000 people – a far greater population than that of modern-day Belize City, which is the country’s largest metropolis, and Belmopan, its capital.
We clamber to the top of Caana for solo photos (and to marvel at the view of the surrounding wilderness, Guatemala just over the horizon), duck into burial chambers and admire the religious altars, plazas and the incredibly advanced astronomical observatory. With a footprint of some 195 square kilometres, much of Caracol is still awaiting excavation – 3D mapping has revealed large sections and structures long shrouded by jungle.
But Mayan ruins aren’t all that this jungle contains. We make stops at Rio Frio Cave – an enormous natural cavern replete with giant stalactites – and Rio on Pools, a series of small waterfalls and connecting pools, deep enough to swim in, that offer a refreshing break from the road. It’s worth pulling in for an hour spent climbing over the rocks, shooting down the natural water slides and attempting to swim against the currents for that perfect Instagram shot.
For the eco-conscious
Our tour of Belize is a snapshot of all that this English-speaking country has to offer. Eco-focused travel is a recurring theme; on an overnight at the five-star Ka’ana Resort and Spa, Belize’s only hotel to hold Small Luxury Hotels of the World status, we learn of its philosophy of blending sustainability with luxury and adventure. Excursions are encouraged, and we head out with Yute Expeditions to meet the fabulously named Adrian Choco and learn about the Mayan chocolate tradition.
Heritage, sustainability and ecotourism come into their own in Belize. On a snorkelling trip from Caye Caulker, I’m impressed by the commitment of Raggamuffin Tours to protect the reef – the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Our entertaining guides Shane, Javi and Hugo tell us when to apply sunscreen to ensure it’s properly absorbed before we enter the water, and the operator is one of the few that abstains from attracting marine life with food. It makes for an incredible, authentic experience – we jump from the catamaran quickly to swim alongside two enormous manatees and, later, slink into the water among four-metre-long nurse sharks, huge stingrays and serene sea turtles.
I’ve snorkelled worldwide, and nowhere else have I encountered such rich, diverse marine life in one stretch of ocean. The coral is largely undisturbed and, where bleaching has occurred, huge reclamation programmes are under way to restore them back to full health, which so far have a 90 per cent success rate.
Caye Caulker itself is the place to be for undeniable island vibes. Golf buggies and bikes are the only traffic along the sandy roads, which are lined with rustic bars and restaurants in uniquely Caribbean hues. You can reach this and Belize’s other northern islands by ferry from Belize City or by propellor plane with Tropic Air. You can’t beat the latter for uninterrupted views of the cayes or for selfies with the pilots, and the airline has recently announced scheduled tour flights from Placencia to the Great Blue Hole, a giant marine sinkhole.
For beautiful beaches, Placencia ranks highly. This charming fishing village has beautiful resorts (Ka’ana’s sister property, Itz’ana, is currently under construction here) – we stay at the four-star beachfront Naïa Resort and Spa, which is 100 per cent Belizean owned and boasts the country’s largest spa. As well as an opportunity to relax, Placencia is also a chance to learn more about Belizean culture. We spend an evening entertained by Garifuna drummers from the Mawelele (“our voice”) group, and learn how the Garifuna people came to settle here and about their enduring traditions.
We’re visiting in low season, but in high season (November to March) Placencia village bustles with a craft market that I’m told is worth a visit. Yet even in low season, the bars and restaurants of Placencia thrum with activity. It’s a nice background to one of the best meals of the trip; at the Maya Beach Bistro we share tamarind shrimp and goats’ cheese with whole roasted garlic before I devour a main of peanut-coated red snapper with curried watermelon.
Placencia is also a great base for outdoor pursuits. Take an hour’s drive (on smooth roads) to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which stretches for more than 128,000 acres – where jaguars roam and montezuma birds nest. Despite a long menu of easier options, we ambitiously hike the Tiger Fern Trail, which we later discover is classified as a “strenuous” route. Sore legs aside, it’s worth every sweaty step (and ant bite) for the awesome jungle vistas and refreshingly cool waterfall pool, all of which we have to ourselves.
A week spent here leaves me wondering how Belize has largely stayed off the tourist radar – something that is no doubt soon to change as word spreads and the promise of direct flights from London sits tantalisingly on the horizon. For now, it’s the perfect suggestion for clients seeking something a little different; adventure, eco-pursuits and luxury all rolled into one un-Belize-able holiday.