In need of feeling accomplished, in need of travel (like everyone), in need of a safe place to go international during a pandemic. Belize was the chosen one. Would you Belize?
While most tourists who are traveling seem to have headed to Mexico, I personally wanted none of that covid party heaven (open borders, no rules or testing for entry, potential spreader events, bars, gathering). Belize asks for a PCR (covid) test to enter, it tracks your movements on an app, it established approved sanitary safe hotels, everyone wears a mask even on a rural road with no one around, sanitizer is literally placed on your hands in most places and there is a curfew. It is a tourist destination and well worth the visit, even now because they have made sure to set up safety measures that are respected and have even allotted extra covid tests so tourists can come and return home safely while not impacting Belizeans. Belize was also my last country to visit in Central America which in it´s own right feels like I accomplished something grandiose…It had been a year since I´ve ventured to an international destination, odd for me since I´m always exploring (abroad usually)…many really have no clue where I actually am most of the time. I didn´t mind one whole year back home one bit, I really had no urge to go international that whole year after la vuelta del mundo (the around the world) trip until about…now.
The only way into Belize today is by air (flight), land and sea borders are still closed…so that is just what I did…my first international flight in nearly 1 year. I left the day after my birthday, kind of a celebratory trip in many ways and went with 2 others from Seattle forming a travel bubble ready for some sun and good times…and did I mention we left 2 days before the only winter snow storm of the season..I really wanted to change my flight and stay for that as I love snow and it has been ages since I´ve been home for one but we chose the date a month prior and it was sheer randomness that we missed it or that we left perfectly timed.
I´d saved Belize for last mainly because they speak English, former British Honduras, and I knew how touristy it was compared to the rest of Central America. After all those years in Panama and Colombia, living so close, I never made it up to check it out…in fact I avoided it and had zero interest in visiting. Going in 2021 was the best for me since we literally had it all to ourselves and I could thus avoid the over tourism I thought I´d encounter here. Yes, others were doing tourism but very, very few (as expected, given the pandemic). Much of Belize´s tourism comes from cruise ships so obviously with sea borders closed…tourists were sparse. We saw a few tourists at the Mayan ruins we visited but they were in tour groups whereas we rented our own car…so we arrived when they were leaving. At one ruin, the main tourists were Belizeans who treated the site as their weekend picnic area, it was quite awesome. At the beaches we saw few others until the weekend arrived…but really only when San Valentin hit…and again many seemed to be those who live there…either expat or original locals (Garifuna, Maya, Kriol – Creole, Mennonite and Mestizo – mixed). As far as language goes they do speak quite a bit of Spanish (+55%) there and tons of Kriol (approx. 45%) too…I guess I shouldn´t have avoided going for so long! Very happy to finally make it and in such an accomplished way with great company.
Once tickets were purchased it was very easy to get excited about the trip, I mean who can resist a country whose marketing slogan is UnBelizeable or You better Belize it, it was so tantalizingly fun to play with the country´s name! Not to mention what the country actually offers to visitors…it is not just Caribbean Sea beaches everyone. Mayan ruins were a major appeal for us, not to mention the national parks offering hiking, waterfalls, pools, endless cave systems and loads of potential animal and bird encounters. My friends got lucky and saw their first Toucan from close up on day 2 in the jungle… which if you have ever tried to spot one, you´d know it´s pretty darn hard since they are usually way high up in a tree…hell, it took me several visits to multiple countries to see one up close! We barely touched the surface in 9 days and we were on the move most of the time…still missed Cockscomb Basin, Blue Hole flight, ATM Cave, plenty of waterfalls and to be fair, a good chunk of the country.
Belize surprised me with the amount of adventure to be had and unique history I´d never thought it would have…all disguised for many years by having English as it´s first language…bummer. We started our trip in Belize City obviously…but only because we had to wait for the ferry to the Caye (pronounced Key!). Before arriving we too were convinced it was pronounced Kay…all that English advertising had us fooled…same thing as the Florida Keys ya´ll! Belize City is the former capital, and is the largest city in the country. The capital was moved to the interior…a newly created city called Belmopan (after ¨Bel¨ in Belize and Mopan…the huge river there) in 1970 after a destructive hurricane in 1961 devastated Belize City. In Belize City you might want to see at least the port, the swing bridge (we think they crank it open!), and the center of town….maybe there is more but that seemed good enough for us. There are two ferry companies for reaching the Cayes. We took Belize Express because hours worked out for us (location is a few blocks different)…but the cheaper (faster) option is Ocean Breeze but due to covid the schedules were not as stated…also welcome to Latin America normal…never quite as it seems.
We had 9 days total in Belize…from Seattle it was a 8 hour flight (red-eye) with layover in Miami… We split our time with 3 nights on the beaches of Caye Caulker, 3 nights in San Ignacio (near Guatemala border) and 2 additional nights in Hopkins (beach). Nearly every moment was filled with activity, adventure and sun. On the Caye we swam, kayaked the whole island, biked (because no cars and we -mainly- love bicycles), walked tons, ate yummy 10$ usd lobster (season ended day we left the Caye), sunbathed, drank Belkin Beer and Panty Rippers lol, did free yoga at Namaste, ate ice cream and I, well, ran of course.
In San Ignacio we did 2 Mayan ruins…the easy to access Xunantunich (pronounced Suna´tunitche – aka Stone Lady in Maya..after a ghost that resides there…eek…no worries they kicked us out at 4 pm) and the not so easy Caracol (largest, oldest site in Belize) and did some cave exploring and waterfall pool chasing at Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Many tourists usually swing over to Tikal in Guatemala from here but given the land border closure this isn´t possible…we even drove to it to have a look…at nothing (although I highly recommend Tikal as it´s a remarkably stunning archaeological site). San Ignacio was by far my (our) favorite of the 3 stops just because it had so many adventures to be had and felt well setup for visitors….which were not many since both the archaeologists and peace corp were definitely missing among the mix….plenty of British military around though.
Lastly, in Hopkins we snorkeled the second largest coral reef in the world (it´s 560 miles/900 km long, going from Cancun to Honduras – 190 miles/300km of it is in Belize), Belize Barrier Reef, and chased more waterfalls at Mayflower Bocawina NP and ice cream (best place ever was Nice Cream, so delish we went 3x in one day!). In the chill very small village of Hopkins I highly recommend walking the beach…day and night, swimming and pulling the lounge chairs up to the surf remnants at night was a real treat even if breaking the 10 pm curfew our last night (you can be on your property after 10pm but might or might not be allowed to be in the water). Hopkins was different than the Caye as there were no docks off the properties, it was all straight beach in Hopkins.
Best of all we had each destination basically all to ourselves, to enjoy for as long as we wanted, by going a bit later in the day and having the 4×4 rental from AQ Car Rental made it easier to reach each jungle location…We hiked a bit in the national parks we visited (to waterfall, pools, viewpoints, etc) and I must say it was a luxury in Belize with only 2 to 3 groups passing you there; here at home (Pacific NW – US-) there are so many passing hikers (+10) on any given trail that you are hardly ever alone in nature…it is crazy to think I left that behind.
The 4×4 was very useful as many roads were just not the best, you really needed a higher clearance vehicle to reach these amazing destinations (this was dry season thankfully, I can only imagine the red dirt roads being a sloppy mess when wet) …especially Caracol which was 3 hours away and quite bumpy the whole way….also be aware of plenty of speed bumps on the main highways and some checkpoints where you come to a complete stop. In addition, gas is expensive here, around 9/10 BZ a liter (um 4.5 usd a liter!). Highly recommend bring some CDs too…there were like 3 radio stations and signal only lasted in the cities..ha ha We didn´t take any music but at the end of day 2 we randomly decided to leave the CD setting on and low and behold we actually did have music (that whole time)!…some Jamaican rap and trap music ha ha…this totally energized us and made our 6 hour bumpy road trip 5000x more worth it lol.
Belize was my last country in Central America and I am glad I saved it for last. My first was Costa Rica, followed by Panama (Bocas del Toro only, later followed by 2 years living in Panama City and exploring 2013-2015), Guatemala (many trips), Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. I enjoyed each country and would (and do) go back to many of them. My all time favorite of Central America is Guatemala…in fact it´s one of my all time world favorites. For me Guatemala really fits in everything I look for…it has amazing people, scenery, history and traditions/culture….it might lack in the food category but truthfully I love Caribbean type foods…rice and beans, lentils and meat…oh and the fruits (yumm)…so I can´t complain. Costa Rica might win as the best place for wildlife in Central America according to me but I´d pick Nicaragua as my second favorite among Central America, followed by Panama…especially for the beaches. Honduras I had some really high and really low (if not worst) experiences there but I would still like to return and visit at least Roatan someday. In El Salvador I am missing the beaches (great surfing if you like that) and San Salvador to really get the feel of their crazy city. El Salvador for me has by far the best food in Central America…winning me over with the Pupusas. I have some blogs on Panama and Nicaragua if interested in knowing more.
Transportation from the airport to Belize City was 25$ usd by taxi (5$ extra if more than 2 people…). By the way, even taxi drivers sprayed our hands with sanitizer…very on top of it Belize! Once you leave the airport they use only BZ currency which is half that of $1 usd…so 30$ BZ is 15$ usd….harsh reality when you return home and it is double…ouch…that 4$BZ ice cream is now really 4$usd…boo…take me back! Ferry to Caye Caulker is 1 hour, maybe 1.5/2 for San Pedro (aka Ambergris Caye…more developed, most popular Caye).
Other things to note… The food is not just ice cream and lobster lol, it is rice and beans or beans and rice (yes, there is a difference), fry jacks (like an elephant ear fry bread with ingredients placed on it then folded), seafood in general and other tasty dishes…many gluten free (one in the group needed that). Mosquitoes and botlass flies (black and tiny) definitely exist as my body is still recovering but if you put repellent on in time you´ll be fine and we only really had issues in the jungle (evenings especially)…and mainly from the Botass fly. I also saw yellow flies (Doctor fly?) that seem to be the equivalent of horse flies and I know sand flies are around too but had no problems there. I hear coconut oil is best to keep at bay these and the Botass fly. You do not have to go through an agency for most excursions if you have a car. For example, we went cave tubing outside of Belmopan with an agency but literally all they did was call the guide and lead us to the destination from the roadside…Easily you can go to the tubing location, pay for entry, have the tubing company call a guide, wait for them to arrive and pay for equipment. It comes out cheaper in a group that way if you have your own vehicle…Considering Covid though guides are no longer just available on-site so you will have to wait a bit longer to start….also most places do have capacity limits but given covid again there seemed to always be space for last minute arrivals.
Given the pandemic and knowing things related to health & safety is a huge question for most, here is what I found:
The population is 400,000 and really spread out all over the country…plus COVID cases are very low (20 maybe). Everyone everywhere uses a mask (even the most rural locations) and it does get checked as we had a police stop driving and tell us once to raise the mask (no one was around). Fines are up to 2500$usd if you are caught without it and not using it correctly…hence why everyone does as told and even warns you if they see you with it down. We saw someone try to enter a grocery store with it placed below the nose and they were yelled at and were stopped by those working (or in line) until they raised their mask the way it should be placed.
Sanitizer was plentiful if not sprayed directly on your hands everywhere you went. It was literally way safer than anything I´ve seen in the US for sure! Even at the ruins of Caracol (middle of nowhere) they had sanitation stations!
PCR testing (covid tests) available in each major city and at the airport. Belize ramped up it´s testing to allow for tourists to visit safely. Cost of a test is changing constantly, one in our group forgot the required covid test and got it upon arrival (they tested a week prior instead of the 72/96 hour requirement of Belize) for 50$ usd then when we left we got one at the airport for 75$ usd (30-40 minute rapid testing)…as (new, as of Jan. 26, 2021) requirement for re-entering the US – you must have results before check-in unlike Belize (which allows you to fly and get it upon arrival).
While going to Belize (and many other open Caribbean/Central American nations) you need the local tracking App downloaded and registration completed before check-in…this took about 20 minutes. Highly recommend doing so before arrival to airport! From experience, one in our group forgot this and got really delayed at check-in, etc (Android phones have harder time downloading…manual download).
Lastly, booking hotels had to be Golden Standard ranked accommodation, Belize had tons of them! You definitely need one reserved for arrival but after that I highly recommend reserving locally to get the BZ rates on these Gold Standard approved locations (bring antibacterial wipes, we did). We also had antibacterial wipes and used them to do frequently touched surfaces.
Gold Standard Hotel in Belize
Blogs about Panama
Blog about Nicaragua