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Belize Insider’s Guide: Azure Waters, Green Jungle

by | June 4, 2021

The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Belize: Patricia Johnson and Rachael Wilson of Absolute Belize.

Trusted Travel Expert
Patricia Johnson and Rachael Wilson

A Londoner who gave up the rat race to settle in the tropics (Rachael, who now lives on the coast) and a Belizean who still resides in her hometown (Patricia, who’s based near the jungle), this dream team designs custom-tailored itineraries that capture Belize’s natural and cultural wonders. Rachael and her husband also own a luxury sailing charter company—which makes trips to the world’s second-largest coral reef, just off the coast, much more pleasant and efficient. And Patricia can tap her network of locals to arrange chocolate-making classes in an indigenous Mayan village and catch-and-cook experiences with local fishermen. From scuba diving and sport fishing to Indiana Jones–style cave adventuring, Patricia and Rachael know how to keep the adrenaline flowing. But their trips aren’t just about roughing it: Patricia spent several years working at some of the country’s luxury resorts, so their travelers get special attention there too, and they can orchestrate champagne picnics beside a waterfall or helicopter flyovers of the Great Blue Hole (which can actually be disappointing if seen only from a boat). Patricia and Rachael can arrange forays into neighboring Guatemala too.

Expect trips orchestrated by Patricia and Rachael to start at $700 per day for two travelers, which includes accommodations, private transportation, and some meals and activities.

Covid safety intel

Patricia and Rachael have traveled around Belize during the pandemic to experience firsthand the safety measures that hotels and businesses have put in place. The resorts they recommend—such as Matachica on Ambergris Caye, the Lodge at Chaa Creek in San Ignacio, and Turtle Inn in Placencia—have standalone casitas, cabanas, or villas and have obtained Belize’s Gold Standard certification. On Patricia and Rachael’s yacht charters, the captain and first mate can be tested prior to your arrival; while aboard the boat, they do daily temperature checks, wear masks, and sanitize regularly. Patricia and Rachael’s private guides and drivers wear masks and have daily temperature checks, and vehicles are sanitized before and after use. Most Belizean restaurants are open-air and have been set up for easy social distancing. At this time, Patricia and Rachael advise against interactive experiences such as ceramic making and chocolate making. They also recommend carrying a straw when you fly, so you can drink without removing your mask. They’ve adapted their cancellation policies depending on the hotel a traveler chooses: The Lodge at Chaa Creek, for example, will give a full refund up to 15 days before arrival, and a full credit if your trip is less than two weeks out.

Things to Do and See

Most underrated place
Punta Gorda and the surrounding villages. This region offers the most authentic cultural immersions, and it is one of the few parts of the country where you can easily access both the water and the jungle from the same home base. Snorkel, scuba dive, or fish (maybe even with the chef at your resort) one day and the next visit an inland Maya village or cacao farm—this is the chocolate capital of Belize, after all—or immerse yourself in the Creole or Garifuna culture.

Most overrated place
Belize City has only a handful of cultural attractions, which you can see in a couple of hours. While the international airport is on the outskirts of the city, you can usually continue on to the jungle, coastline, or islands without needing to overnight there.

Hidden gems
Glover’s Reef is an elliptical-shaped coral atoll that stretches 20 miles long and seven miles wide. Its clear waters, white sandy beaches, plethora of marine life, and vibrant corals make it a top choice for snorkelers.

Manta Island Resort is perched on its own private, palm-fringed island, with arguably the prettiest white-sand beach in Belize. This boutique resort has nine cabanas, an infinity pool that overlooks the glistening Caribbean Sea, and an open-air restaurant that serves Belizean-inspired cuisine. It’s a great jumping-off point for all manner of underwater adventures.

Cheap thrill
For about U.S. $45, you can spend a half-day at Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, a short distance from Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. All manner of aquatic life hangs out in this long-established reserve, including eagle rays, French angelfish, grouper, horse-eye jacks, moray eels, parrotfish, permit, nurse sharks, tarpon, stingrays, and turtles.

sharks swimming underwater in Shark Ray Alley in Belize

Shark Ray Alley. Photo: Absolute Belize

Prime picnic spot
Referred to by locals as “Pine Ridge,” the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve is renowned for its abundant wildlife, bellowing waterfalls, and idyllic pools. Take your picnic to Big Rock Falls in the reserve, where travelers and locals alike make the steep but short descent down wooden stairways to the large pools at the base of this impressive, 150-foot-tall waterfall. Launch yourself off the rocky cliff if you dare, enjoy a refreshing swim in the pools, or relax on the banks with a private picnic spread.

How to spend a lazy Sunday
Awake to a glorious sunrise over the Caribbean Sea from your beachfront cottage, or the melodious singing of birds outside your jungle villa. Sip on freshly made Belizean coffee and have breakfast served in your room by your personal butler. If you are staying at a jungle lodge, explore the surrounding area at your own pace: an easy canoe ride on the Macal River, a dip in the waterfalls in the Mountain Pine Ridge, or a hike. You don’t have to plan anything,  just go with the flow.

If you’re on Ambergris Caye, cycle the beach or take a golf cart to Estel’s Dine by the Sea, the oldest establishment in San Pedro Town. Live music, epic portions of BBQ, build-your-own breakfasts, lobster omelettes, and spicy Bloody Marys are the theme, so plan a long ride beforehand to build up your appetite. Then head five miles north to Matachica Resort for a spa treatment. If you didn’t overindulge at Estel’s, the tequila fish tacos and coconut mojitos at Matachica’s Mambo Restaurant are outstanding.

Where to Stay and What to Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Gaia Riverlodge is about an hour from San Ignacio (and a lot cooler too, thanks to its higher elevation). The main lodge sits on a platform that extends out over a hilltop with unobstructed views of cascading waterfalls. Expect to see toucans and other exotic birds flying by, and listen for distant howler monkeys. A hydro-powered tram transports guests from the lodge to its own private waterfalls and natural swimming pools. The only difference between the various thatched-roof, cabana-style accommodations is their views, with the most affordable rooms looking out over tropical gardens.

view from a boat in Belize

Get out on the water in Belize. Photo: Tim Baker

Best-value splurge hotel
A luxury catamaran: Visit the gems of the Belizean waters from the comfort of your own floating hotel. With a private chef and captain/tour guide on board, your itinerary is completely tailor-made; you can go spearfishing and then help cook up your catch, or enjoy a champagne picnic or beach BBQ on a remote island that you have all to yourself. Use of kayaks, snorkel gear, fishing equipment, and paddleboards is included; Patricia and Rachael can also arrange scuba diving and land-based spa treatments and yoga sessions.

Restaurants the locals love
San Pedro: El Fogon is one of the oldest establishments in town, hidden away down a back street. The five-or-so daily changing dishes are cooked in cast-iron pots over an open fire pit. There will always be a local delicacy on offer, such as stewed gibnut (a rodent known locally as the “royal rat”); if conch soup is on the menu, it’s mandatory!

Placencia: Located several miles up the peninsula from Placencia proper, Maya Beach Bistro serves excellent lobster brioche bread pudding, shrimp stuffed squid, and classic fish and chips from its casual beachside setting.

San Ignacio: Set in a turquoise wooden colonial house with lush gardens and breezy verandas, Guava Limb sources all of its veggies from the restaurant’s own organic gardens. From vegan lasagne to local lamb stew to Indonesian gado-gado to Lebanese tapas, global fusion is firmly the theme—with Caribbean classics dotted throughout.

Dish to try
Hudut is a traditional Garifuna meal consisting of fish cooked with coconut milk, onions, garlic, oregano, cilantro, and okra and served with mashed green and ripe plantain (called fu-fu). You can find the most authentic version of this dish in the southern Garifuna villages. For a complete immersion into Garifuna culture in the village of Hopkins, Patricia and Rachael can arrange for you to be outfitted in traditional attire while you learn how to make hudut using homemade tools and time-honored techniques.

Meal worth the splurge
Spend an elegant afternoon or evening at Mare Restaurant. This is the flagship restaurant of Turtle Inn—Francis Ford Coppola’s Balinese-inspired eco-hotel, a short trip from Placencia. Situated under a towering palapa, the restaurant serves fresh seafood and traditional Italian fare with eclectic twists—paired with a selection of Coppola wines—and a traditional Dutch Indonesian Rijsttafel dinner on Mondays and Thursdays.

Contact Patricia and Rachael

Not sure if this is the right person for you?
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Best Time to Go

April. The trade winds are fresh, rains are rare, there are barely any bugs, and high season is winding down.

Worst Time to Go

September to mid-October. It’s humid, rainy, and buggy, leading many resorts and restaurants to close during this period.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Visiting an attraction that’s popular among cruise-ship passengers when a ship is in port. The ships come into Belize City midweek; when they’re docked, avoid the cave-tubing sites, zip lining, the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins, and Goff’s Caye.

The Souvenir

Marie Sharp’s hot sauces have a unique twist: The base ingredient is carrot, which adds a sweetness to the habanero kick. This Belizean entrepreneur started out of her kitchen using ingredients from her family’s farm and now sells her products internationally.

Buyer Beware

Always check whether prices are listed in U.S. or Belizean dollars.

Tipping Tip

As in the U.S., tip 10% to 20% based on the service provided.

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