By Brian Major
With the Caribbean dominated by hyperactive all-inclusive resorts, travelers to Belize—in Central America, but touting prime Caribbean-fronted coastline—can still go native. Touting a fairy-tale landscape of white-sand beaches, lush rain forests, and soaring mountains, virtually all activities are accessible from several fun and funky beachfront towns. Belize accommodations are upscale yet small-scale: the largest hotel has 120 rooms.
But nothing lasts forever: Norwegian Cruise Line recently announced a $50 million port development underway in the Placencia region, one of several projects that will soon drive Belize's annual visitor numbers far above the current 250,000 (or just two weeks' worth of arrivals in Cancún). Here, we've outlined five reasons to travel to Belize now, before the crowds arrive.
1. Beach Bumming
Just off of Belize's Caribbean coast is an archipelago of sunny islands (known as cayes), featuring myriad natural wonders and a series of charming beach towns, all easily reached via the well-run local carrier, Tropic Air. In San Pedro, where streets are so narrow that residents drive around in golf carts, a 190-mile-long barrier reef extends along the town's coastline, and the beachfront is lined with dive shops, excursion boats, bars, and restaurants. Conversely, Placencia has few docks or developments, allowing for miles of uninterrupted beach, and just a few cozy boutique hotels.
Insider's Tip: For lodging in San Pedro, try Xanadu Island Resort, which offers a fleet of golf carts for guests, or Las Terrazas, for furnished townhouses with gourmet kitchens and concierge services. In Placencia, look to the all-suite Belizean Nirvana Hotel for its beachfront verandas.
2. Adventure Seeking
Travelers who can't imagine spending vacation time in a beach chair can channel their inner Tarzan in Belize. Start with cave exploration and river tubing at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge in Cayo, where vacationers can rappel into caverns and float along an underground river on inner tubes. Hikers can explore 22,000 acres of protected jungle and mangrove forests at the Shipstern Wildlife Reserve in Corozal, trek to Antelope Falls in Mayflower Bocawina National Park, or follow rain forest trails with panoramic views of the Caribbean at Cerros Caye in Corozal Bay. Or, in Hopkins, visitors can take kayak tours at the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve.
Insider's Tip: In Hopkins, choose from shallow- or deep-water fishing excursions, or rent a bike for local sightseeing amidst minimal traffic.
3. Diving In
Belize diving is world class. The Hol Chan Marine Reserve off San Pedro features more than 160 species of fish and nearly 40 types of coral, plus nurse sharks and stingrays. Caye Caulker, the favorite getaway spot for locals, offers several coral reef dives. Try the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, accessible from Dangriga, or hit up the Splash Dive Center in Placencia, for whale shark diving excursions near Gladden Spit, plus day and overnight trips to the Great Blue Hole submarine sinkhole, ranked among the world's 10 best dive sites by Jacques Cousteau.
Insider's Tip: Plan Gladden Spit dive trips for the months of April and May, prime time for whale shark sightings.
4. Culture Chasing
Belize harbors a happy mixture of Creole, Mayan, Mexican, mestizo, Mennonite, Chinese, Indian, Rastafarian, and Garifuna cultures, adding immeasurable charm and variety to local life. The distinct cultures are celebrated in various festivals highlighting cuisine, art, and music, and, for visitors, there are multiple opportunities to sample ethnic cuisine, traditions, and customs. Hit up Dangriga's Gulisi Museum for its multimedia exploration of Garifuna culture; create Mayan meals and handicrafts at San Antonio Village in Cayo; or learn Garifuna drum techniques in Hopkins.
5. Archeological Hunting
Once at the heart of the ancient Mayan empire, Belize offers some of its most important archaeological sites. Caracol was among the Mayans' most important political centers and remains under excavation, while the ancient trading center of Altun Ha, covering an area of 25 square miles, proposes numerous imposing temples. Located in Belize's Toledo District, the excavated Mayan city at Lubaantun features structures built of large stone blocks, and includes three Mesoamerican ball courts.
Insider's Tip: Interesting fact: Altun Ha's 54-foot-high Temple of the Masonry Altars is the logo for Belize's Belikin beer.
Photo credits: Beach Bumming: Luizrocha | Dreamstime.com; Adventure Seeking: Jesse Kraft | Dreamstime.com; Diving In: Lomingen | Dreamstime.com; Culture Chasing: Baronoskie | Dreamstime.com; Archaeology Hunting: Edonalds | Dreamstime.com