Ruins, Rain Forests, and Reef
Sample the best of all that Belize offers—ruins, rain forests, and reef—in only seven or eight days. If you have only five days, shave off some time in the Cayo and head to Actun Tunichil Muknal on Day 2 instead of Day 3.
Day 1: Arrival
Fly into the international airport near Belize City and immediately head out to the Cayo in Western Belize, about two hours by road from the airport. Stay at one of the superb jungle lodges, such as the Lodge at Chaa Creek, Mystic River Resort, or duPlooy's, or, for less money, Black Rock, Table Rock, or Crystal Paradise.
Logistics: The best way to see the mainland is by rental car. Pick up a car at one of the car-rental agencies in kiosks just across the main parking lot at the international airport. If you'd rather not drive, you can arrange a shuttle van, take a bus, or ask your hotel in the Cayo to pick you up. Buses don't come to the international airport—if you're taking one, you have to take a taxi into town (BZ$50). Tropic Air has service from Belize City to the Maya Flats airstrip between San Ignacio and Benque Viejo.
Day 2: Exploring the Cayo
On your first full day in Belize, get out and explore San Ignacio and the beautiful hill country around the Cayo. Among the top attractions are the small but interesting Mayan ruins at Xunantunich and Cahal Pech, Green Hills Butterfly Farm, the Rainforest Medicine Trail at Chaa Creek, and the Belize Botanical Gardens at duPlooy's. Save a little time for walking around and shopping in San Ignacio. After a full day of exploring, have cocktails and dinner at your lodge.
Logistics: You can do all the main attractions and San Ignacio in one day if you have a rental car and if you don't dawdle. Sans car, you can hire a taxi for the day, or opt for your hotel's tours.
Day 3: Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
Prepare to be wowed by the ultimate cave experience. Go into the mysterious and beautiful Mayan underworld and see untouched artifacts dating back thousands of years.
Logistics: You must have a guide for ATM, so book your trip the day before with an authorized tour guide company. It's an all-day event, and you'll get wet—bring a change of clothes and wear walking shoes, not sandals. If you're badly out of shape or have mobility or claustrophobia issues, this isn't a tour for you. You have to hike several miles, swim a little, and clamber through the dark. Photography in the cave is not permitted.
Day 4: Tikal
Tikal, very simply, is the most awe-inspiring Mayan site in all of Central America, rivaling the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of Angor Wat in Cambodia. It's well worth at least two days and nights, preferably staying in one of the three lodges at the park, but even on a day tour you'll get a sense of the majesty of this Classic-period city.
Logistics: Although you can go on your own, the easiest and most stress-free way to see Tikal is on a tour from San Ignacio—you'll leave around 6:30 am and return in the late afternoon; lunch is usually included. Overnight and multi-night tours also are available.
Day 5: Caracol and the Mountain Pine Ridge
A terrific day trip is to Caracol, the most important Mayan site in Belize. The trip there is part of the fun—you bump along winding roads through the Mountain Pine Ridge, past the Macal River, and through broadleaf jungle. If you've seen enough Mayan ruins, skip Caracol and spend the day exploring the Mountain Pine Ridge—there's the Rio Frio cave and numerous waterfalls. A bonus: the higher elevation here means it's cooler and less humid than other parts of Belize. If you don't mind packing and unpacking again, for your last night in Cayo consider switching to one of the four lodges in the Pine Ridge. Our favorites are Blancaneaux and Hidden Valley Inn.
Logistics: From Blancaneaux or Hidden Valley it's around a two-hour drive to Caracol, and about an hour longer from most lodges around San Ignacio. The road can be near-impassable after heavy rains, and there have been some incidents with bandits from Guatemala, so check locally for the latest conditions and cautions.
Alternative: If you tire of rain forest and ruins, and long for the sea, head a day early to San Pedro or Caye Caulker.
Day 6: San Pedro
Return to Belize City by plane, car, bus, or shuttle van. Then fly or take a water taxi to San Pedro (Ambergris Caye) for fabulous eating (our favorites include Rojo Lounge and Market at Azul Resort, El Fogon, Aji Tapa, Robin’s Kitchen for low-cost local cooking, and, for breakfast with your feet in the sand, Estel’s). Try to arrive early enough to do a snorkel trip to Hol Chan/Shark-Ray Alley.
Alternative: San Pedro's a bustling town, so if you want a more laid-back and less-expensive experience on the water, stay on Caye Caulker instead. You still have access to the same snorkel and dive sites, with less costly hotels and restaurants.
Day 7: Blue Hole
Take a day trip to dive or snorkel the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef atoll. Dive boats also stop at Half Moon Caye for other dives (or snorkeling) besides the Blue Hole.
Logistics: A trip to the Blue Hole involves a full day on the water, so bring seasickness medicine, a hat, and plenty of sunscreen. Dive boats to Lighthouse leave early, usually before 7 am.
Alternative: If you’re not up to the time and expense required for a trip to the Blue Hole, there’s excellent diving on the Barrier Reef just a short boat ride from San Pedro or Caye Caulker.
Some dive organizations recommend a minimum 24-hour interval between a dive and a flight, so if you’re flying out early the next day consider diving earlier in your trip, or snorkel instead. Also, the Blue Hole is a deep dive recommended only for more experienced divers.
Day 8: Departure
Return to Belize City by plane or water taxi for your international flight.
Logistics: Plan on arriving at least two hours ahead of your international flight. There's often a long line at check-in.
Mayan Sites Blitz
If you want to see the top Mayan sites in one trip, base yourself in the Cayo for a few days. If after a few days in western Belize and Guatemala you still haven't had your fill of things Mayan, you can add extensions to northern Belize and to Punta Gorda in southern Belize.
Day 1: San Ignacio
San Ignacio is an easy jumping-off spot for seeing several small but fascinating nearby ruins. If you get an early start, you can take in Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and El Pilar. Both Cahal Pech and Xunantunich can be reached by bus (albeit with a short hike after the bus ride in both cases), but a taxi or rental car is needed to get to El Pilar. Guided tours of all these sites can be arranged in San Ignacio or at lodges and hotels in the area.
Day 2: Caracol
Caracol, the most important Mayan site in Belize, deserves a full day. You can drive yourself—or go on a tour. There is no bus transportation in the Mountain Pine Ridge. Even if you arrive independently, you can hire a guide to show you around once you're at the site, or you can tour it on your own. There's an informative museum and visitor center. Due to a series of bandit incidents, trips to Caracol are being done in convoys, protected by Belize Defence Forces soldiers. Check locally for updates.
Days 3 and 4: Tikal
Tikal is by far the most impressive Mayan site in the region and shouldn't be missed (check in advance about travel warnings to the area). Many operators offer day tours of Tikal from the San Ignacio area.
Altun Ha, the ruin closest to Belize City, gets crowds of cruise-ship day-trippers; try to avoid days when there are several cruise ships in port.
Before heading anywhere remote by yourself, check with the locals to find out if there have been any recent safety issues.
On your visit to Tikal, stay at one of the three lodges at the park—you'll be able to visit the ruins early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when howler monkeys and other animals are active and most day visitors have left. If you can't overnight at Tikal, do a day tour from San Ignacio; there also are daily flights from Belize City to Flores near Tikal.
Bring bug repellent. Mosquitoes are especially bad around Cerro Maya in Northern Belize and at the ruins near Punta Gorda.Updated: 12-2013
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