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Belize is a small country with much to offer. In just a few hours, you can get from the jungle interior, with wildlife, caves and Mayan ruins, to an idyllic Caribbean island with a Rasta vibe, perfect for snorkeling or diving the nearby Belize Barrier Reef.
Xunantunich (Amy Sirot)
Your first step is to fly into Belize City and head for the interior. At this point, you can rent a car or pay for a transport van. Driving yourself around is cheaper but less relaxing, as many sites are on unpaved and unmarked roads. Plus, given that the local economy is heavily dependent on tourism and you've got the cash to get down here in the first place, you may as well spring for the comfortable van ride.
Many of Belize's lush jungle lodges are in the Cayo District, near the Guatemalan border. There are plenty to choose from, but one small lodge stands out for its tranquility, outstanding food and sustainable practices.
Table Rock Jungle Lodge (Amy Sirot)
Table Rock Jungle Lodge consists of some dozen cabañas on 100 acres of forest and farm on the Macal River. Each cabaña has a handcrafted four poster bed, a thatched roof veranda with gorgeous views, tiled floors and river stone-lined showers, and is powered by solar panels. In addition, there are hammock palapas and an open-air dining area, perfect for bird and monkey watching while you eat. The friendly staff sends you a food preference form before you arrive, and are happy to accommodate all manner of dietary quirks.
You'll start the day with oranges from nearby trees, which you can pick yourself, if you're so inclined, and fresh-squeezed tropical fruit juices (try the guanábana). Happily, those juices show up again at cocktail hour. For dinner, start with one of the flavorful soups, including a creamy conch chowder and a spicy black bean concoction. Daily entree options might include a plantain-crusted snapper over sliced potatoes. The desserts are homemade, and hard to resist.
Tikal, Guatemala (Simon Dannahuer/istockphoto)
The lodge offers plenty of free onsite activities, including canoeing, tubing, biking, hiking, and hanging out in hammocks. Eventually, though, you’ll want to go on an excursion. Check out some Mayan ruins. Tikal, over the border in Guatemala, is spectacular. It’s a bit of a journey, at 2.5 hours each way, so if you want to stick closer to home, try Xunantunich, 25 minutes away, or Cahal Pech, just outside of San Ignacio town.
Other recommended adventures include a trip to Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, a beautiful spot with caves and waterfalls, and, if you don’t mind dark, wet places and occasional human remains, the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave.
Big Rock Falls (Amy Sirot)
After a few days with the friendly folk at Table Rock, you’ll settle in and wonder why you’d ever leave here. Only one reason, really—the Belize Barrier Reef.
Head back to Belize City, straight to the ferry terminal, and hop on a ferry to Caye Caulker. You could also go to Caye Ambergris, but it’s a lot more built up. Be forewarned that Caye Caulker does not have many sandy beaches on which to lounge, but it does have the world’s second longest barrier reef close at hand. Stay at the Iguana Reef Inn, which is on the water and has spacious rooms with tiled floors, A/C (though most times of year you won’t need it), in-room refrigerators and a pretty pool.
Caye Caulker (Amy Sirot)
The vibe of the island is low-key. There are no cars, and no paved roads. The commercial area is charming, and there are plenty of good food options. At Wish Willy’s, you wander into what looks like someone’s backyard barbecue and join the party. You make a selection and they throw it on the nearby grill. What comes off it is inevitably delicious, be it meat, fish or veggie. For a super-cheap and tasty meal, try Errolyn’s House of Fry Jacks or the taco cart next to Rose’s Grill & Bar (also good).
You’ll want to get out to the reef as soon as you can. You can see it breaking waves from the shore. As you get closer, the water gets shallow and clear, and well-populated with rays, nurse sharks, tropical fish and the reef itself. Belize has made admirable efforts in protecting its most famous natural resource, and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is just one of the beautiful spots where that effort clearly pays off.
The Blue Hole of the Belize Barrier Reef (Lomingen/istockphoto)
Scuba divers may want to venture further afield to the famed Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole some 1000 feet wide and 400 feet deep, or one of the anomalous atolls.
Nurse sharks (Amy Sirot)
Amy Sirot is a writer, editor and producer whose work has appeared on National Public Radio and in Time Out New York, The Boston Globe, Wildlife Conservation, AMC Outdoors and other publications. When she's not traveling or writing about travel, she is planning her next trip.