Belize is catching on. It made its way onto my radar a few years ago when I worked at an advertising agency that created its tourism campaign. Back then, Belize was still an overlooked country hidden beneath Mexico’s flashier, more developed Yucatan.
Increasingly, travelers are looking for more authentic experiences, even during beach vacations. Belize is an easy contender for the “next best destination” round-up lists. Many major US airports have direct flights into Belize City. There’s a fascinating mix of cultures, yet English is the national language. And their currency is legally tied to ours in a 2 BZD to 1 USD ratio.
Practicalities aside, Belize is beautiful. Along the coast, white sand meets clear blue water of the Caribbean. Inland, dense jungles conceal ancient Mayan kingdoms. Friendly locals, comforting food and a laid-back vibe make you feel at home. While waterfalls, big cats, rowdy monkeys and fast-moving spiders remind you that you are far from it.
I’m not claiming to be an expert on Belize culture or travel. I’ve been there twice and learned several lessons both the easy and hard way. I know little about the island culture of Ambergris or the urban scene in Belize City. But I do know plenty about the village life in Placencia – a small spit of land jutting into the Caribbean Sea in southern Belize.
With that in mind, here are some tips for traveling to Central America’s best (and last) hidden gem.
First and foremost – wear sunblock.
Pack plenty and wear it between the hours of 8a-4p. Belize is likely a lot closer to the Equator than you are normally. Unprotected skin will burn. Quickly. Ruthlessly. Don’t waste your trip being a human warning sign to others.
Luke and I checked a bag for the sole purpose of being able to bring two full bottles of Sun Bum SPF 50 with us, rather than rely on the cut-rate stuff we bought at the local grocery store last time. We went through an entire bottle in one week, wore sun shirts and camped out beneath the shade of a palm tree from 10a-2p. We didn’t come back as two bronzed gods, but we didn’t have to scratch at our peeling skin with a credit card on the flight home either.
A close second – wear bug repellent.
Ever heard of sand fleas? They’re tiny crustaceans that jump onto your legs, bite your skin and cause you to itch from the knees down. Guess where they live – in Belize. So do botlass flies – the assassins of the Cockscomb Basin.
Unlike mosquitoes, you don’t hear botlass flies coming. They are tiny, so you don’t really see them land. And they’re sneaky – striking while you’re busy climbing up the vertical wall of vines to swim in a crystal clear pool at the top of a waterfall.
Their bites will swell and turn an angry red if you don’t squeeze the fluid out of each and every one of them. I counted 68 on my legs alone. The ones I missed were in hidden places, like the crease between my leg and butt cheek, and itched. like. hell. every time fabric rubbed against them.
You have been warned.
Travel with an open mind.
Don’t come to Belize expecting to be catered to like you would be in other tropical destinations. This is still a developing nation, so shit happens and you have to roll with it. Some of the utilities we take for granted like WiFi and electricity are very expensive and considered a luxury. Gas costs over $6 per gallon, so a lot of people hitchhike or pile into the back of pickup trucks. Dogs roam freely in and out of open-air restaurants. Some of the best food is served out of the worst-looking shacks.
Placencia offers more of a polished environment for tourists compared to the nearby villages of Seine Bight and Hopkins. But nothing is fancy, formal, nor precisely on-time. If you’re the kind of person who loves the beach, but prefers to hide from the local culture, Belize is not for you. If you’re cool with your fancy shoes being a pair of Birkenstocks and having only sporadic access to your work email, welcome to paradise.
Exercise a healthy sense of self-preservation.
“This can’t be safe,” will often be the first words to enter your head when traveling through Belize. Driving will feel chaotic for those used to wide, paved roads. The national parks have few safety precautions in place to protect you from wildlife or natural elements. The rangers assume common sense, not guard rails, will prevent you from petting a jaguar or getting too close to the edge of a cliff.
Our world of easy access to things like Alexa, Google Maps and Amazon Prime have dulled our self-reliance on fundamental skills like way-finding, improvisation and asking for help. Belize will thrust you into a place that’s initially intimidating and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding once you start to realize you’re not as helpless as you thought you were.
The best for last – have a sense of adventure.
Belize is a straight-up dream for certain types of travelers. Those interested in exploring nature will love snorkeling and diving along the second-largest barrier reef system in the world. You’re guaranteed to find yourself surrounded by sea turtles, nurse sharks, healthy corals, eagle rays and, if you’re truly lucky, whale sharks. Remote jungle hikes will lead you to ancient Mayan ruin sites, howler monkeys, jaguars, waterfalls, swimming holes and extensive cave systems.
Those interested in cultural and culinary exploration will love experiencing Belize’s latticework of Mestizo, Maya, Creole, Garifuna and Mennonite communities. In my experience, the locals are friendly and welcoming. They have a “go slow” attitude and genuinely enjoy meeting new people. Even street vendors want to get to know you before getting you to buy things from them.
The people of Belize will force you to step outside of your day-to-day cultural norms and embrace slower and intimate interactions with strangers. Ultimately, this will be the reason you come back to Belize.