An Essential Travel Guide for Traveling to Belize
Planning a trip to Belize? Don’t miss these important travel tips before you go. Kristin and I spent 12 days in Belize at the end of 2018. We visited San Ignacio, Placencia, and Caye Caulker. We also crossed the border to Guatemala for a quick visit to Tikal National Park. If it’s your first time heading to Belize, this article should help answer some of your questions with some of the top things I wish I knew before I went.
*Note: I know ... I said "third-world country" in this video, and I want to apologize to the locals for that. A more proper term is "developing country." Despite my greatest efforts to be respectful, I can be a naive American sometimes, and will continue to learn from my mistakes. Third-world was never meant to be a negative term. It originated during the Cold War and unfortunately has been skewed into a negative phrase over time. Enjoy the video!
When to Go
The high season for tourism in Belize is typically December through April and low season is May through October. I recommend scheduling your trip to Belize during the shoulder months — those months that are right in between the highs and lows. For us that meant late November to early December.
Going at these times should allow you to find less crowded tours and in some cases for the same cost or less. Even the hot spots like the easily accessible Mayan Ruins are a lot less crowded. Not only that, but when going in the shoulder months, there are some pretty cool things that could happen if you keep your hearts and minds open. One of those experiences was during our boat tour in Placencia, which I discuss more below. We got to hang out with some locals for the day and it was one of the highlights of our trip.
Where to Stay
Air BnBs have fulfilled the lodging dreams of many. You can easily find great, affordable accommodations all over the world that may have even better locations and amenities than the standard hotels. In Belize, if traveling to San Ignacio, there are quite a few great AirBnB’s off of Bullet Tree Road. Keep that road in mind when booking for San Ignacio. It's in a great location and our hosts were super nice folks from the UK. Take a tour of our place in my Belize Travel Film.
How to Get Around
There are a few ways to get around in Belize. I’m going to lay out some recommendations here.
Let’s talk vehicles. If you are traveling to Belize, or any developing country for that matter, they are essential because you can go where you want, when you want. Not all the roads are paved in Belize. We found ourselves on quite a few dirt roads. But many of the main highways are now paved, and you will be very glad they are when traveling from one destination to the next. If you have some extra coin to spend on a rental car, get one with four-wheel drive. Ours was not. This is great for the super-adventures who want to explore roads off of the main highway and not paved. One of the Maya sites near San Ignacio, Caracol Natural Monument Reservation, can only be accessed with 4x4 and it would be quite the adventure for you to take your own vehicle there. For those who still want to visit some of the caves or ruins in Belize without a 4x4 vehicle, book a tour with a company and let them do the driving and navigating for you. We rented our car from Crystal Auto Rental at the airport because it’s one of the only places that will pre-register your car for traveling across the border to Guatemala (I’ll be talking about this at the end). This is very important to know if you are crossing the border to go to Tikal or anywhere else in Guatemala.
As we venture from the Western side of Belize back to the Eastern Coast, let's talk about water taxis to get to some of the islands. To get to San Pedro or Caye (pronounced "Key") Caulker, use San Pedro Belize Express Water Taxi. This will help you avoid any unfortunate circumstances like boats breaking down. Maybe things have changed with the water taxi companies since I have been. But that company was more reliable at the time. Ask a local which taxi they would take if you can.
Bicycles & Golf Carts
In Caye Caulker, bicycles are the way to go. Golf cart taxis are also an option, but they are much more expensive. It could cost you $20 US in a golf cart taxi to go only a 1-2 miles. When the island is only two miles wide, this is unnecessary, especially if you are staying in a centralized location. But if you have the money, go for it. For us, a bicycle was included in the Air BnB which was really nice. So when booking your accommodation, consider the convenience of have bicycles to get around. It's a lot of fun to cruise around there.
What to See
I want to share with you some personal highlights of my trip to Belize. All of these places or activities are musts in my opinion. Each one is its own unique experience.
Xunantunich is a spectacular Maya site that is very easy to get to in San Ignacio. If driving there, you will take your car across a manual ferry. It is a very clever way to cross a river and you don't even have to get out of the car. I recommend going right when it opens to try to experience this sacred site with less crowds. Another way to get some peace and quiet there is to walk around at your own pace. Tours can be great too, because you will probably learn more on a quick walking tour. We discovered pretty quickly that it is not a big site so after 3-4 hours here you may be ready to move on. Regardless of when you go, visit Xunantunich because it is so easy to get to. Many of the other Mayan Ruins of this scale are a longer journey. This one just happens to be right outside San Ignacio.
The Hummingbird Highway
The Hummingbird Highway is one of the most beautiful roads I had the pleasure of driving on and was by far my favorite drive in Belize. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but it cuts through the Mayan mountains. Every bend is another view and I could probably drive back and forth on it a few times without getting bored. While traveling on this road, take your time, because on this highway it’s definitely about the journey and not the destination. A sunrise or sunset on this road or even finding a place to stay off of it both sound really nice when I return.
This highway links up to some great spots like Blue Hole National Park, which features Herman’s Cave. Billy Barquedier Waterfall also lies off of this highway. Park there and take a twenty-minute hike to a peaceful waterfall and swimming hole. Only go if there is someone there to watch your car. We tipped a very nice gentlemen to keep an eye on it. Why? Theft is common in Central America but can easily be avoided if you know how. On the Hummingbird Highway be sure to stop at The Country Barn and taste some delicious, home-made ice cream.
ATM Cave Tour
Actun Tunichil Muknal. When people say the "ATM Cave Tour," this is what they are referencing. This is probably the craziest, most haunting thing I’ve done, and I would probably do it again. According to National Geographic, it is the most sacred cave in the world. This is one of the things Belize is known for and what attracts many people every year. Because of this, you will want to sign up for this tour as early as popular. It will probably fill up quite fast. Expect an hour van ride past farmland and crossing a few different rivers before getting to the mouth of the cave.
Be warned, though, it isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires spelunking half a mile through a cave, going in and out of tight spaces in a cave for a few hours. If you are claustrophobic, this might not be for you. But I am a little claustrophobic, and was able to get through by putting my trust in our guide. They know what they are doing if they have been in there enough. I felt safe with him. This also means you should be well-equipped. Make sure you have yourself a pair of water shoes or shoes you don’t mind getting ruined. I was able to find water shoes in downtown San Ignacio. Some of the stores are used to people buying them for the ATM Tour.
Finally, and I cannot stress this next point enough: go with a reputable company. Other guides we found in the cave did not seem quite as helpful or organized as ours. Look for a guide that has an accumulation of experience because safety is paramount. You are not rock climbing and hanging off a cliff, but it is also not the safest thing in the world. For that reason, I don’t recommend this tour for kids under 12. I'm not sure what the age requirement. That's just my personal input.
Whether in Placencia or on one of the keys (islands), consider a Catamaran Tour instead of just a regular boat tour. There's nothing like sailing. You don't have a noisy gas engine behind you. It's a lot more peaceful and authentic. Sailing on a catamaran became one of the highlights of our trip while in Belize. In Placencia, we went with a company called Day Tripper, and I highly recommend them. We ended up on a boat with some locals and it was so much fun hanging out with them and getting to hear some Belize Kriol (the native language). They even invited us out to dinner afterward. Dining with locals and getting a feel for their lifestyle in paradise is a special memory to have.
On the islands of San Pedro and Caye Caulker you can find plenty of "street lobster." The roadside grilled lobster in Caye Caulker is legit. So if you love seafood get one or two and experience a local delicacy with some beans and rice. In the states they would charge me three times for the same meal.
While you may be tempted to try “The Lazy Lizard,” because of its reputation, be wary of overpriced drinks and food because of its location. If you go there, it's for a Spring Break party vibe and the atmosphere, which is totally fine. But I wouldn't go there just for the food or drinks.
Marie Sharp's Belizean Hot Sauce is a gem. You'll notice it for sale just about everywhere around the country, including the airport on the way home. This hot sauce would make an amazing gift for anyone back home. Make sure you buy enough for yourself, too. It’s addicting. You can order it online in the USA as well. So this won't be the last time you buy it. Don’t pack it in your carry-on. It is a liquid so it will get confiscated and you won't be happy about it, at all. If you’re going to buy some, make sure you have enough room in your checked baggage.
Located in downtown San Ignacio, the local farmer's market is a great idea for those looking to take home souvenirs or buy local produce to eat while traveling. From food to trinkets, this farmers market has everything you could ask for at half the price of touristy shops/vendors. It’s one of the most popular markets in the country and a necessity to visit if you happen to be there when it's open.
Things to Watch Out For
Here are some things to look out for while in Belize.
I’m going to be honest with you here. Don’t set your expectations too high for WiFi. Yes, they have WiFi in Belize, but it won’t be as fast as yours in the States or Canada or the UK. Stay patient and allow those webpages another few seconds to load. Don't go to Belize to watch Netflix or download or stream things. Enjoy the hummingbirds and the beautiful outdoors. It's the place you want to go to turn off your phone for a week and not even look at it.
The locals refer to them as "Sleeping Policemen," but I know them as speed bumps. They are sometimes called pedestrian walkways as well. They are unmarked, and in our time in Belize we figured out that outdoor vendors will typically sit at these areas to sell things. So if you are driving on a highway and see a stand set up, be aware there may be a speed bump there. It's pretty humorous the whole trip, but could also be completely disastrous if you are driving at night and hit one of them. For that reason, I didn't even consider driving at night. If you do drive at night on a highway, just drive slow and look out for those stands or the car in front of you braking because these speed bumps are unmarked in most cases. Going too fast could definitely ruin that beautiful car you rented and put a dent in your vacation. It’s recommended to not drive at night if you don't have to. Get some extra sleep and wake up for a beautiful sunrise the next day.
Belize makes it easy for money if you're visiting from the United States. At the time of writing this, Belizean dollars have a 2:1 ratio with the USD. So if you have $50 American dollars, you’d have 100 Belizean. While this is simple, withdrawing money sometimes isn’t. In San Ignacio, every other Friday is payday, so don’t expect to withdraw cash on this day unless you like waiting in long lines. I found that out the hard way. Withdrawal cash when it's not pay day for everyone else.
Crossing the Border to Guatemala
As I mentioned previously, we rented our car from Crystal Auto Rental at the airport because it’s one of the only places that will pre-register your car for traveling across the border to Guatemala. Even with this registration for crossing, it still took us an hour to cross the border. First, they fumigate your car to make sure there are no bugs or pesticides being taken across the border. This part is easy. You just keep your windows rolled up and they will spray your car. They don't do anything to the inside of it. It is a standard procedure. After that there will be little kids here that will greet you and start walking you through the process to get through. Then you’ll be waiting in limbo land for a while as three different people check your paperwork and sign off on it. You'll likely wait in two different lines and the guards will ask you where you’re going, where you’ll be staying, etc. and you’ll eventually get a sticker on your car to head into Guatemala.
Be sure to exchange money at the border. The child or children that helped you learn how to get through will expect a tip. Give them $5 - $10 USD. They will likely ask you for more money but don't get guilted into donating more than you are comfortable with. Next, there will be a bridge you have to cross that will be $2-3 USD, but now you’ll be paying in Guatemalan currency, so just keep that in mind. Also be warned that upon crossing the border to Guatemala, you’ll immediately be thrown into a Spanish-speaking country and you need to be prepared to start using some Spanish. I know enough to get around. If you are completely foreign to it, just give the guy at the bridge $3 US and see what happens lol. Belize is the only country in Central America with English as its official language.
Enjoy your trip to Belize! It is a wonderful place full of amazing wildlife and people. There not many places in the world you can experience jungles, mountains, caves, reefs, and crystal clear water all within a few hours of each other. Wherever you decide to go there, be respectful and kind and for the love of all that is good on Earth, avoid littering. Treating the locals as friends and leaving places without a trace is how you will go from being a tourist to a respected traveler. Respect goes a long way. Comment below if you have any questions, and enjoy this travel vlog summarizing our 12 day trip into a 45 minute film.
Written by Brady Skye
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