Costa Rica was once the big trend in quick getaways to Central America. Now people are complaining that it’s too Americanized and heading for Belize instead.
English is the main language in Costa Rica, but it’s definitely not been invaded by American-style chains as much as Costa Rica (which, regardless of “Americanization,” is still a great place to visit).
Belize is also an enjoyable vacation, but you should understand that it’s not a less-crowded Costa Rica. It’s much flatter, the people are more subdued and the food is more bland. But it’s still got some strong points. Here’s what I learned during my visit.
The SCUBA diving and snorkeling is first-rate
Experienced divers will delight in the opportunities provided by the world’s second-largest barrier reef. So will newbies who can only handle snorkeling. Colorful fish, stingrays, octopus and the occasional lurking barracuda will thrill just about anyone. A wealth of great tours start from Ambergris Caye (pronounce “key”) in the town of San Pedro. Shark Ray Alley and Hol Chan are popular for just about anyone. The water there is fairly shallow, and even snorkelers can get near the bottom for a nice view. Experienced divers can take a longer trip to the Great Blue Hole.
The boats are small, so expect some jostling. Take some anti-seasickness remedies if you’re prone to “feeding the fish.” Get to Ambergris Caye via a two-hour boat ride or a 15-minute Tropic Air flight.
The caving is just as great as the snorkeling
Most of Belize is limestone. Combine that with rainfall, and you get caves. Lots of them. The Actun Tunichil Muknal tour offered by Maya Walk (based in the Cayo District town of San Ignacio) is still one of my favorite tours ever. You’ll spend most of your day driving there, hiking through the jungle, and then descending into a cave where the Mayans once performed human sacrifice – and yes, you will see the skeletal remains of some of the sacrifices. A gushing river runs through much of the cave, and you’ll alternate between wading through it and walking on solid ground.
It can get hot
It’s best to visit in the winter months. Then, the Cayo District and the cayes are pleasant. However, even in the winter, the southeast coast towns such as Dangriga and Hopkins feature blowtorch heat and sopping-wet humidity. This is coming from a longtime central Arizona resident – I know hot, and this is hot. Dastardly mean and hot.
The ruins are incredible
Belize was a major hub of the Mayan civilization. During its height, it spanned much of Central America. Though it declined in influence, the civilization’s power are evident in the remaining pyramids and cities left in the jungle. Many visitors head to just over the border into Guatemala to see Tikal. But Caracol is a bit more accessible because it’s well inside Belize (though still close to the border). Tours are easy to arrange from locations near San Ignacio.
Many of the sites are still being excavated – one of the interesting tidbits I picked up is that the jungle quickly reclaims buildings. For example, our guide pointed to many lumps on the edge of Caracol that appeared to be small hills. They were actually parts of the Caracol complex that had been reclaimed by the jungle and covered in foliage. The Mayans kept the entire site treeless during their reign, and the rain forest was swift to encroach.
Belize City is pretty awful
Travelers love to abuse the Costa Rican capitol of San Jose. That’s only because they haven’t been to Belize City. San Jose is actually pretty cool on it’s own. Go to Belize City, though, and you’ll see that it makes San Jose look like Sydney, Australia. Traffic, pollution, heat and rampant panhandling are the order of the day.