It’s been popping up all over the travel scene, from “Best places to go this year” articles — including a nod from National Geographic for 2019 — to “Skip X but go to Y” posts. Belize.
Those of us who have loved “The Jewel” for years, including the fishers and divers who flock here every year, know it was just a matter of time. With an increase in affordable flights from North America, and more travelers favoring bespoke experiences and “obscure” places, it is indeed the perfect time for Belize to shine.
Last year, the Belize Tourism Board reported a 16.6 percent growth in overnight arrivals compared to 2017. The tourism landscape is changing fast. Unsurprisingly, it’s a double-edged sword. Luxury hotels and resorts are multiplying, and brands such as Wyndham, Marriott and Four Seasons, among others, plan to open their doors over the next two years. On the other hand, over-the-water developments in protected areas are moving forward despite protests from Belize’s environmental bodies, tourism stakeholders and residents. In parts of northern and southern Belize, mangroves have been extensively removed to make room for lavish villas, expat homes, and offshore island resorts.
Now more than ever, it’s important to plan a sustainable Belize trip to enjoy this nature- and culture-rich country as authentically as possible while ensuring your travel dollars trickle down to local communities and the environment (aside from that small conservation fee tacked on to your airfare in departure fees).
Following my recent two-month visit to update my fourth edition of Moon Belize for Moon Travel Guides, here’s my selection of seven ways to explore Belize sustainably right now and enjoy a unique and fun itinerary.
1. Overnight in National Parks
Often visited on day trips for hiking, wildlife watching, waterfalls, medicinal trails, and cave adventures, Belize’s national parks are a veritable national treasure. Thanks primarily to an increase in birders and traveling students who’ve been asking for it, a handful of them are now offering improved lodging options — from stand alone cabins to rooms with bunk beds — as overnighting becomes a la mode. You’ll learn a ton hanging out with naturalists and experts who live on site, and leave with a much greater appreciation for Belize’s biodiversity.
One of my favorites, Cockscomb Wildlife Basin Sanctuary — also known as the “Jaguar Preserve” and managed by the Belize Audubon Society — recently upgraded its guest accommodations. I wouldn’t mind staying in the newly built cabin next time. The view from the screened porch makes me think I could spot a jaguar at any moment. Your chances of seeing one increase if you stay on for a couple of nights, giving you a chance to go hiking at sunrise.
As I mention in Moon Belize, there are 17 trails at Cockscomb. They lead towards waterfalls as well as mountain hikes, making it impossible to lack for activities from day to day. Book a room in advance or take a chance and walk in if you like. The only catch: you’ll have to bring your own food, but there’s a communal kitchen you can use.
Another favorite of mine these days is Shipstern Conservation and Management Area. Located well off the beaten track — a 20-minute ride from Sarteneja, in northern Belize — it’s a great spot to escape from it all. Immerse in nature with self-guided trails, and experience a number of tours with on site guides. The newer cabins rival guesthouse rooms in cities, with spacious queen or king beds, A/C, and Wi-Fi. Meals are communal — no cooking needed.
Bocawina National Park, near Hopkins, is another great pick — with stand-alone cabanas and suites at Bocawina Resort and an on site restaurant. Guides will take you to the park’s multiple waterfalls and trails, of varying difficulty. If you’re into extreme adventures, you’ll love the waterfall rappelling and night ziplining.
2. Stay in small towns and villages
Community tourism has grown over the past few years in Belize, as locals improve their activity offerings — building a sustainable future while preserving their culture. These immersive experiences, whether for a day or overnight, are win-win for the visitor and for residents.
Crooked Tree is a prime example. Located just an hour north of Belize City, this Kriol village continues to offer a unique Belizean experience. From its bird-filled lagoon and trails to its newly launched community experiences, including cooking classes, botanical garden hikes and a local museum, it’s one of the most special places in the country.
In the Toledo District or the Deep South, where fewer visitors venture, you’ll find a couple of Maya villages offering homestays. You can also experience the Maya life for a day — because many of these types of “tours” have popped up and can sometimes feel canned, I recommend you sign up with Yaaxche Conservation Trust’s tour arm Ecotourism Belize, or with Toledo Cave & Adventure Tours for more authentic experiences in the district’s villages. Ecotourism Belize applies 100 percent of tour funds to conservation projects in the region, while Toledo Adventures has excellent Belizean tour guides on staff who know the area inside out.
If you’re up for even more cultural adventure, head to the village of Santa Cruz where the Mayan way of life remains firm with 80% traditional Maya homes. Visit the newly opened Visitor Center and hike Uxbenka Archaeological Site.
In the Cayo District, smaller towns such as Bullet Tree Falls boast delightful accommodations. You can stay in affordable riverfront cabins, or at boutique lodges tucked in verdant surroundings — all minutes away from San Ignacio. I stayed at two properties in Bullet Tree that were delightful in their own ways. Belmopan is another niche escape, with surrounding jungle lodges and nature activities; horse lovers flock to Banana Bank Jungle Lodge.
Of course, if you choose to stay in San Ignacio, opt for a longstanding, family-run Belizean hotel like Cahal Pech Village Resort, for spectacular hilly views and staff who will take you to little-known areas.
This list is by no means exhaustive, as there are many more small villages and towns to explore, but it’ll get you going in the right direction.
3. Cook, plant, taste: Cultural activities
I’ve always believed that the best way to explore a place is to experience the people and their culture first-hand — no intermediary needed. It’s how I’ve always experienced travel and life abroad from a young age, and the rewards are innumerable.
With bigger resorts and new tour operators popping up across Belize, it’s becoming harder to sift through the authentic choices and the ones that provide value. Yes, that’s a shameless but true plug for why travelers still purchase well-researched guidebooks.
One of my favorite cultural experiences in Belize is the Garifuna Cultural and Culinary Tour at Palmento Grove Cultural Lodge in Hopkins. Getting to Ms. Uwahnie’s new location is an adventure that will leave you wanting for more. Spend a day learning about Garifuna history, music, dance, and make a Garifuna lunch from scratch in a traditional kitchen. It’s an all-in-one place experience you won’t find anywhere else in Belize.
San Pedro Food Tours, located in the most visited and touristy part of the country, offer cooking classes as well as walking food tours around downtown San Pedro for a basic introduction of Belizean dishes and drinks. Run by two siblings who were born and raised in San Pedro, it’s a great opportunity for cultural exchange with young Belizean entrepreneurs.
How about spending the day in Punta Negra, off the coast of Punta Gorda? You’ll need to arrange this one in advance, but it’s worth it. This remote Kriol village has one of the most beautiful shorelines I’ve seen in a long while — particularly with Belize’s beaches being plagued with sargassum and suffering from coastal erosion. Head there on a day trip, swim, learn how to make coconut oil, devour Miss Paula’s Kriol lunch and take home a box of her famous coconut fudge. Pack the repellent for the sand flies.
Remember to book directly with licensed local tour operators and guides; this ensures your travel dollars make the most impact.
4. Go birding
Birders have always had their sights on Belize for its more than 300 species and its vast green, protected spaces. But birding has become even more popular over the past couple of years, with birders asking for additional overnight accommodations in parks. I’ve taken to birding myself and participate any chance I get.
Any time of the year works, but to make the most of it, time your visit for the Belize Birding Festival — the second edition will take place October 19-20, 2019. It’s a superb chance to spend time with Belize’s top birding experts and naturalists, as well as visiting ones.
5. Stay environmentally aware
Like most of its neighboring Caribbean and Central American countries, Belize is facing a number of environmental and tourism-borne challenges. In good news, the Belize Barrier Reef was taken off the UNESCO’s in-danger list in 2018. A single-use plastic ban is also expected to go into effect this year, though implementation methods remain unclear.
In the meantime, you can do your part. Minimize your trash, and be responsible in your use of resources such as water and electricity. Bring a refillable bottle, and pack a light shopping bag that can double as a beach and grocery bag.
Be aware of safety practices when snorkeling along the Belize Barrier Reef. Don’t touch marine life, don’t step on corals and use reef-safe sunscreen lotion.
When you’re out dining (preferable to take out), ask if the restaurant is part of the “Fish Right, Eat Right” program. This indicates they’re sourcing their seafood responsibly. If you don’t see the sticker, you can ask your restaurant about it and encourage them to join. Know the in-season dates. Lastly, eat local or dine in restaurants that source their menus locally.
6. Tour lesser-visited sights
If there were anything close to overtourism in Belize, it would be the tour groups that descend on Actun Tunichil Muknal (“ATM”) cave in the Cayo District. Considered one of the “ultimate” adventures in Belize, it’s also one of the most trodden.
Instead of ATM — where cameras were banned in 2012 — you could hike Yok Balum or Blue Creek cave in southern Belize, for adrenaline-pumping adventures and no crowds.
Rather than rushing off to the northern cayes as soon as you land in Belize, you could head to Burrell Boom and stay at a river lodge. Go on a sunrise boat tour down the historic Belize River from there and arrange a hike at the Community Baboon Sanctuary to spot howler monkeys.
The crowded waters of Hol Chan Marine Reserve and its corals could also use a break. Snorkel the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve along the Belize Barrier Reef — enjoy its shark and ray alley and coral gardens. Better yet, snorkel in seclusion along South Water Caye or along the Snake Cayes, off the coast of Punta Gorda.
There are plenty more incredible places in Belize that deserve attention and aren’t on Trip Advisor (and that’s a good thing).
7. Choose a responsible tour operator
Remember what I said about hotels multiplying? The same is happening with tour operators. Beyond meeting licensing requirements, you’ll want to look into their overall company philosophy. Do they show up on time (one was actually a no-show recently; a first in Belize)? Are their guides allowing guests to touch the marine life while snorkeling? Are they speeding in their boats — which often ends up killing or injuring manatees and other sea creatures? Are they contributing to their communities?
There are many excellent sustainable tour companies around the country, whether you’re into diving, fishing, or community tourism. When in doubt, stick with the long-timers and pick up the most updated Moon Belize.
As tourism continues to rise in Belize, keep these sustainable travel insider tips in mind to create a fun and unique itinerary. For more details and complete planning info, consult the current or the new edition (my fourth) of Moon Belize releasing this October.
Speaking of the 2019 edition: there’s a new cover photo you might have noticed in the videos posted above — captured by yours truly. Can you guess where this is?