The Three Best Things you Must Do in Belize
Ready for an unBELIZEable experience? Well you’re planning a vacation to the right place. A trip to Belize pretty much checks all the boxes when it comes to international travel. Here, you can find epic adventures, beautiful jungles, phenomenal reefs, a rich and proud cultural melting pot, and no shortage of relaxation.
While planning a Belize trip, one can easily slip into option overload regarding what to do and see with the limited holiday time you have. Let us make this simple for you. There are 3 things you absolutely must experience while traveling in Belize:
Scuba dive or snorkel in Belize’s barrier reef (the 2nd largest in the world)
Explore a cave
Visit a Mayan ruin
If you can accomplish those three adventures, then you can proudly say you did Belize right. On this page, we will share with you our favorites from each of these categories as well as some useful information on how to maneuver the country depending on your budget.
1) Scuba Diving and Snorkeling Belize’s Barrier Reef
If you did literally nothing else while visiting Belize, make sure you spend at least one day on the country’s Caribbean barrier reef. YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED. That is, unless seeing a TON of marine life, like nurse sharks, sting rays, eagle rays, sea turtles, and colorful fish and coral isn’t your thing (but it definitely should be).
Where to Dive
With one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, Belize has literally hundreds of amazing dive sites to choose from. No matter where you go, it will be amazing. Simply put, there are two main choices for diving: local barrier reefs or outer atolls.
Though the outer atolls are world-famous (think Great Blue Hole and Turneffe Atoll), you’ll get way more bang for your buck without skimping on world-class dive by keeping it local. Here’s why: for 1 day of diving (3 dives) at an outer atoll, you can get 3 days of local diving (6 dives) for about the same price at most dive shops. Plus, you don’t need to ride in a boat for 2+ hours to reach the dive sites. And trust us, with places like Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Tackle Box Canyon, and so many more, there is NO shortage of marine life and crystal clear waters right off the coast of San Pedro and Caye Caulker.
Pro Tip: Make sure your dive master takes you to a reef with arches and tunnels (like Tackle Box Canyon). Diving through these coral inhabited masterpieces is truly incredible and an experience you will never forget.
Note: If you are not Scuba certified or you’d prefer to snorkel instead, Hol Chan (with Shark Alley) or Mexico Rocks are great local choices. Both are perfect for snorkeling as the water depth is only about 20-30 feet and marine life is abundant and colorful.
Which Dive Companies?
We have two recommendations for our favorite dive shops in San Pedro, which are both friendly on your wallet (at least for Belize diving standards) and fully equipped to make your time on the reef legendary! Deciding between the two depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
If smaller, more intimate dive groups with a relaxed, informal process is what you’re after, then go with Reef Adventure (our favorite dive shop in San Pedro). Reef Adventure’s boats tend to be on the smaller side, meaning they usually have fewer people on their tours and more time to focus on achieving your diving goals. Their guides are excellent and truly masters of the reef, but be aware that the casualness of this dive shop comes with a certain level of uncertainty. For example, don’t expect a super strict schedule (we experienced this first hand with a bit of engine trouble on one of our dives).
DISCOUNT AVAILABLE: Use Promo Code: MAT18 for a 10% discount on local reef diving (and snorkeling tours) as well as a 30% discount on gear rentals.
How to Book: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Reef Adventure’s US office at +1-503-347-7372. Remember to provide them the Promo Code to receive your discount.
Tip: Reef Adventure’s shop is located on the same pier as the Palapas Bar, which we totally recommend you check out after your dives for some well-deserved inner tube relaxation with drink in hand.
Belize Pro Dive Center
If you’d prefer a larger and more formal dive shop experience, but without breaking the bank, Belize Pro Dive Center is a great choice. They are definitely a well-oiled machine, but the groups tend to be on the larger side, which felt somewhat impersonal to us. Though, they have a great emphasis on safety and try to ensure everyone on a tour doesn’t repeat any dive spots they’ve already completed.
How to Book: visit their website.
Where to Stay
Although you technically could stay in Belize City for diving, it would be quite an expensive and long boat ride each day, so we fully recommend embracing island life and staying on one (or both!) of the two cayes (pronounced “keys”) off the coast: Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye. Conveniently, you can get to either by water taxi, which is relatively cheap and leaves frequently from Belize City.
San Pedro (Ambergris Caye)
Ambergris Caye is the larger and much more developed of the two cayes. San Pedro (the main city on Ambergris Caye) has a much livelier night life and, in addition to more people, it also has a wider variety of food, lodging, and activities to choose from. The exact location you stay in the city doesn’t matter as much because most dive shops conveniently offer to pick you up and drop you off at your hotel’s dock. With that being said, here are our recommendations:
Budget friendly option: Sandbar Beach Hostel
What we love about it: it’s affordable accommodation in the heart of San Pedro, only a couple of blocks from the water taxi.
What could be better: it can be quite noisy at night because, well, it’s a hostel ;)
Nicer but not too expensive: Caribbean Villas
What we love about it: it’s only a few dollars more per night than the hostel but you get your own spacious, comfortable room with AC. Bonus! Robin’s Kitchen, a low key local eatery, is located just down the road, and a delicious place to catch a bite to eat, assuming they don’t run out of food early.. which they usually do.
What could be better: it’s almost a mile from “downtown” San Pedro.
Useful tips if staying in San Pedro:
1) Do rent a golf cart at some point, even if you just want to cruise around town or head over to Secret Beach. However, you will save a ton of money if you rent from an individual shop or person instead of your hotel.
2) Do chill in the inner tubes at Palapas Bar. There is no better way to embrace island life then clear turquoise waters with Belikin (Belize’s national beer) in hand while kicking back in an inner tube and maybe seeing a ray or two swim by. This is the second time we’re mentioning this for a reason!
Caye Caulker is seriously chillllll. Not that San Pedro isn’t (come on, it’s island life in the Caribbean…), but Caye Caulker takes the definition of island vibes to the next level. Their motto is “go slow” so nothing and no one is moving too fast on the island, and there may be more hammocks per capita than anywhere else on earth (not confirmed). Caye Caulker isn’t quite as prime a location for scuba diving and snorkeling, but nothing a quick boat ride couldn’t take care of.
Where to stay: Bella’s Backpackers Hostel
Bonus: most bars tend to have bar swing seating! This is really a Belizean thing in general, but seemed particularly prevalent in Caye Caulker. There is something so relaxing about slowly drifting with your feet in the sand while you sip on your Belikin or rum-punch.
2) Belize Cave Adventures
No matter what level of adventure (and even history) you’re looking for, there are plenty of options to embrace the Belizean cave system in a truly epic way or in a slow, relaxing way, or both! It’s up to you.
Quite honestly, these are some of the best caves we’ve ever visited. Primarily what makes these Belizean caves so unique is that water is flowing through most of them. So, these adventures are just as much about hiking as they are swimming through the depths of the earth. And oh boy, does that water feel good. Look up refreshing in the dictionary and you’ll see Belizean river waters in there (you won’t actually if you’re considering looking that up - but it totally should). The water is perfectly blue and often crystal clear.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave
This place is epic, and our top recommendation for a cave adventure in Belize! Imagine the Narrows of Zion (narrow passages with running water that you wade, swim, and climb through), but underground! Besides the impressive stalactites, stalagmites, bats, and giant cavern rooms, the ATM Cave is famous for being an incredible archaeological marvel with most of the artifacts remaining exactly where they were originally discovered. The Mayan believed caves were the passageway to the Underworld, and this one, in particular, was used for sacrificial ceremonies. During drought years, Mayans would venture deep within this cave to make sacrifices in attempt to bring prosperity and good agriculture on their society. Not to mention, while tripping on some natural medicines… About 1/2 mile into the ATM cave, you enter a very large cavern room where these sacrifices took place and witness the ancient ceramics, tools, and, of course, the eerie remains of those who had been slain for the gods.
As mentioned before, it is required to have a licensed guide to enter this cave and we highly recommend going with MayaWalk. They are incredibly professional and the guides are exceptionally well trained and knowledgeable. They provide transportation to and from downtown San Ignacio and bring lunch for you after the tour.
DISCOUNT AVAILABLE: Use Promo Code FTVMAYA to receive a 10% discount on all MayaWalk tours at checkout.
How to Book: Visit MayaWalk’s website or click the button below.
If the ATM Cave sounds kind of intense to you and you’re like, “hey man, I’m on vacation. I just want to chiiiiilllllllll,” or if you want a second cave adventure, cave tubing is your answer. This is a ridiculously chill way to experience one of Belize’s impressively beautiful caves. And yes, it’s exactly as it sounds… river flows through a cave, you get on an inner tube and float right on through it.
Another cool thing about cave tubing besides the impressiveness and expansiveness of the cave is that part of the float is in the jungle before and after the cave. The whole experience really feels like a cross between an Indiana Jones movie and Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland (not in a cheesy way at all). Basically, this adventure pretty much spoon feeds you with a one of a kind experience. All you have to do is kick back and relaaaaaax!
Note: as with the ATM Cave, a guide is required to enter the cave. For a great experience, go with MayaWalk. Also, you can get a sweet 10% discount on your tour when you use promo code FTVMAYA at checkout.
Where to Stay for Caves (and Mayan Ruins)
To enjoy both the Belizean caves and Mayan Ruins to the fullest extent, we suggest you stay part of your trip in San Ignacio. You can definitely do excursions to Mayan ruins and caves from the cayes, but this will require a lot of extra travel time, including boats to the mainland and a shuttle to the sites, which eats away at the amount of time you can actually spend at these places and will cost a lot more dinero (that’s money for you non-Spanish speakers)!
We suggest you spend a few days specifically in western Belize near the Pine Ridge Mountains and make San Ignacio your home base, where most of the tour companies are located.
Old House Hostel
For those traveling on a budget and want a place close to town with a chill vibe, the Old House Hostel is an excellent choice. The hostel is super cozy with plenty of couches and a balcony to hangout on. Plus, the bed in the private room is AMAZINGLY COMFORTABLE! But what makes this place so special is that the first floor of the building is home to Belize Soul Project, an awesome art gallery + local music venue, which also serves delicious and unique homemade wine. The Soul Project rocks out to live music on Wednesday & Friday nights (it’s closed the rest of the week). Be fairly warned, the nights with live music can be pretty loud until about 11pm. But if you’re feeling social, this can be the best nightlife vibe you’ll find in San Ignacio.
Tip: Bring earplugs if you don’t plan on socializing at Belize Soul Project.
Price: $12 - $15 USD for a bed in a dorm room. Around $35 USD for private room with full bed.
DISCOUNT AVAILABLE: use Promo Code FTVHOSTEL to get a 15% discount on any reservation.
How to Book: To get the discount, send them a message (with the promo code) through the contact form on their website.
Maya Mountain Lodge
If hostel life is not your thing and you would prefer something a little nicer, try Maya Mountain Lodge. Situated at the base of the Pine Ridge Mountains and only a pleasant 20 minute walk from downtown San Ignacio, the lodge’s little bungalows with authentic thatch roofs provide you a piece of your own jungle paradise. Since the property is closer to the jungle, you might just see some critters (like parrots) while lounging in your hammock or taking a nature walk. Maya Mountain Lodge also provides cultural demonstrations every night of the week, so a stay here can be both relaxing and educational. Their food, although a bit on the expensive side, is great and ingredients are organic / locally sourced.
Price: $$ - $$$ (check their website as prices fluctuate often)
How to Book: visit Maya Mountain Lodge’s website.
3) Explore Mayan Ruins
The final thing you MUST experience in Belize is a Mayan Ruin. Belize has some extremely well preserved and well excavated ancient Mayan cities, which include remnants of massive temples, palaces, and other artifacts.
With or without a guide, visiting these ruins is a stimulating experience, as the mystical beauty of the structures encapsulates your mind and forces you to ask the big questions like “What happened to the Mayans?” or “Who made these colossal temples? Aliens?”
From San Ignacio, you have a few options on which archaeological sites to visit, including Xunantunich (super close to San Ignacio), Caracol (the largest Mayan Ruin in Belize and famously the Mayan society that is believed to have conquered Tikal), and Tikal (the popular Mayan city in Guatemala).
If you decide to visit one of these sites with MayaWalk, use promo code FTVMAYA at checkout for a 10% discount on all tours.
Xunantunich is located just a few miles from San Ignacio, making it an ideal stop for travelers who are short on time. Plus… it’s cheap! If you arrange this outing on your own and would like to learn more about what you’re seeing, local guides can be hired near the ferry river crossing entrance to the park. Regardless, board the hand-crank ferry to cross the river and start your hike uphill for about a mile. Then, take as much time as you’d like exploring these beautiful ruins. Be sure to carefully climb to the top of the main temple for a breathtaking view of the surrounding jungle and maybe even see some of Guatemala!
Getting there: Take the public bus (near the welcome center in San Ignacio) to the ruins for about $2 BZD or a taxi for $4 - $5 BZD per person.
Entrance Fee: $5 BZD ($2.50 USD) per person.
Highlight: Spectacular views from atop of a massive Mayan Temple and close proximity to San Ignacio.
Caracol Mayan Ruin Adventure Day
Caracol Mayan Ruin
If you find yourself in San Ignacio with some extra time and are torn between visiting Tikal or Caracol, do yourself a favor and head to the far less visited Caracol. Situated deep in the jungle near the Guatemala border, Belize’s largest Mayan Ruin is begging to be explored. The road along the way is mainly dirt, rocks, and cracks, requiring a high clearance and, ideally, 4-wheel-drive vehicle. But the journey there is half the fun! You can either rent a vehicle (in San Ignacio) and do this on your own or go with a company.
Don’t be alarmed if you see military about. The Belizean army offers an optional convoy to escort you down the last hour (and worst) section of the road towards the ruins. You do not have to take the convoy. But, if you do, they leave at 9:30am from the checkpoint and depart at 2pm from the ruins. We didn’t take the convoy and ended up arriving about 45 minutes before those who waited. For those 45 minutes, we had the whole ancient city to ourselves, which was pretty dang cool!
Entrance Fee: $15 BZD ($7.50 USD) per person
We highly suggest making a couple stops on your way back from Caracol to San Ignacio. Options include exploring the Rio Frio Cave (no guide needed) and/or taking a refreshing swim in Rio on Pools or Big Rock Waterfall. If you manage your time well, you may be able to visit all three after Caracol Ruin (each are only a 5-10 minute walk from their respective parking lots). But, if you don’t, we recommend stopping at Big Rock Falls and Rio Frio Cave.
Rio Frio Cave
On the way out, you can do a quick detour to Rio Frio Cave. This immense cave has, unsurprisingly, a cold river running through it and the gargantuan cave mouths at both ends are impressive. Since the cave consists of one long, massive room with large openings, it is naturally well-lit and can be explored without a guide.
Entrance Fee: FREE!
Rio on Pools or Big Rock Waterfall
Pair this with a stop at Rio on Pools, a set of natural pools along the river, or Big Rock Waterfall, a majestic and large fall, on the way back to town. Cool off at the end of your long day with a refreshing swim at Rio on Pools or Big Rock Falls. You may have time for all 3 as they are each only about a 5-10 minute walk from parking. But, if you don’t, we recommend stopping at Big Rock Falls and Rio Frio Cave. Note, the walk to the falls has a lot of stairs and slippery rocks near the end. So if you are travelling with someone who isn’t up for that, the pools are a great choice as well for a refreshing cool off.
Entrance Fee: FREE!
Where to Stay
As the Belizean caves and Mayan ruins are very close to each other, we highly suggest staying in San Ignacio (same suggestion as the caves). If you skipped that section, here is a link back to that information.
Bonus: Getting Around Belize
Belize City to the Cayes
Recommended Route: Belize Express Water Taxi - runs around $28 to $38 USD round trip (depending on which Caye you visit).
Expensive / Unique Route: Sea plane flight - around $120+ round trip
Belize City to San Ignacio
Local Public Bus: $5 USD ($10 BZD) per person; no AC; 3-4 hours
Shuttle From Water Taxi: $15 USD ($30 BZD) per person; AC typically; 2-3 hours
Taxi: $90 - $100 USD total
Rental Car: We wouldn’t recommend renting car in Belize City.
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