Francis Ford Coppola loves Belize so much, he opened two resorts there since his first visit. It took the rest of the world about three decades to catch on to the country's allure. High on travel magazines' lists of top destinations for 2012 and 2013, Belize is the Central American underdog travelers are quick to flock to, thanks to its untapped culture, friendly locals, and affordability. The country is chock full of boutique hotel gems, commanding ruins that rival Mexico, an underrated culinary scene, bohemian-minded beach towns, and even some activities that you can't do in Mexico and Central America. The weather is warm year-round but with high-season looming in early November, here's a starter kit to help you start planning your travels now.
Voted "2nd Top Island in Mexico and Central and South America" by Travel + Leisure for two years in a row, Ambergris Cay is an old-school, barefoot-minded oasis. Some hotels are decades old, locals and visitors get around by golf carts, and there are no corporations in sight (sorry, Starbucks). While backpackers thrive on nearby Caye Caulker, they still mix with high rollers in Ambergris and take to the carefree, laidback atmosphere, the vibrant nightlife (beach bar hopping is de rigueur), and the wealth of water activities. Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, and Ambergris Cay is the launching point to thrilling excursions.
Divers (and even non-divers) make a beeline to the famous Blue Hole, a large sinkhole that drops 400 feet into the ocean. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is just minutes from the shore of Ambergris Cay by boat and swarming with hundreds of marine life, including ubiquitous sting rays and sea turtles. Shark Ray Alley is just waves away, where visitors can get up-and-personal with friendly nurse sharks and manta rays. Don't forget your underwater camera.
Stay: Victoria House. The 42-room, British-colonial-designed Victoria House is a charming boutique with several spacious room types (from plantation rooms and private casitas to contemporary infinity suites) that will impress all types of travelers. Right on the beach, Victoria House has two pools, a beach bar, and fine Caribbean cuisine to boot.
Home to fantastic ruins and other ancient attractions, the Cayo District will bring out your inner archaeologist. Within lush jungles, Cayo is rife with Mayan sites and plenty of pre-Columbian temples to discover (there are many pyramids in this area that have yet to be excavated).
The mother-load of visitors flock to Caracol, the most famous Mayan site in Belize; it is so immense that it's hard to capture entirely in your camera lens. One of the more interesting (and easily one of the most photogenic) ruins is Xunantunich near the small town of San Ignacio, close to the border of Guatemala. To get here, visitors must board a ferry operated by a crank and, from atop the main temple, impressive views abound. The most thrilling site is the ATM caves, where visitors cross three rivers then navigate an underwater cave system with head lamps to arrive—two hours later—at an ancient sacrificial chamber full of thousand-year-old skeletal remains.
Stay: Ka'ana Belize Resort. This luxury resort with 10 casitas and 5 Balam rooms is completely off the radar, and that's what their guests prefer. Service is memorable at this intimate hideaway tucked within lush jungle foliage. Expect local, handmade soaps, a saltwater pool, and an intimate wine cellar. The hotel commissions most art and furnishings from local artisans and the 2 new villas opened in March 2012 are ultra pampering. Ka'ana also boasts its own organic garden.
While Toledo is referred to as the Deep South of Belize, "wet and wild" is equally appropriate: it's known for rainforests, waterfalls, extensive cave systems, and protected areas teeming with wildlife, especially in gateway city Punta Gorda. Locals in small villages speak in Creole dialect, and wildlife—from howler monkeys to tree iguanas to 500 species of birds—keep all animal lovers camera happy. A visit to Belize isn't complete without sampling the iconic chocolate, and a chocolate trail to Cyrila's Chocolate Factory brings visitors to organic cacao orchards with a comprehensive tour.
Stay: Belcampo Belize. Taking over a former fishing lodge, Belcampo Belize is a new 12-room, sustainably-managed eco-lodge with a 3,000-acre organic farm in the rainforest. Fast-becoming a favorite for food lovers, bird watchers, adventure seekers, and honeymooners, Belcampo offers hands-on classes focusing on cacao, coffee, and rum, as well as other enriching activities in the 12,000-acre rainforest.
Locals vacation in Placencia, so you know you've found an authentic, tourist-light destination. This sixteen-mile peninsula is a sprawling beach town lined with swaying palm trees, endless hammocks, and friendly restaurants and bars along the shore. Soak up local Garifuna (an indigenous community) flavor and culture, and head inland to ruins, waterfalls, and mangroves. Don't miss the area's highlight: Cocksomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's only jaguar preserve in an area of the jungle that's largely untouched.
Stay: Turtle Inn. You can't expect a world-renown director to have a mediocre vision. Francis Ford Coppola's second resort in Belize (the other is Blancaneax Lodge in Cayo) is right on the beach with 25 thatch-roof cottages and villas (the seven villas all come equipped with three bathrooms). All have screen porches, Japanese baths, hand-carved doors, and outdoor showers. The restaurant Mare has a wood-burning oven for terrific pizzas.
Insider Tip: Many tour operators to Belize are still learning the ropes in this emerging destination. Travel Beyond is one of the top, US-based tour operators that offers streamlined tours.
Jimmy Im is a freelance travel writer based in NYC. He's hosted programs on the Travel Channel and LOGO, and makes regular appearances on morning news shows as a "travel expert." He teaches travel writing courses and is also cofounder of OutEscapes.com.