07 Mar Escape to Belize…NOW
Ready to Visit Belize?
We arrived here on November 2nd, 2020 for a year-long adventure. And I believe that qualifies us to answer your questions about your desire to visit Belize.
Vaccines are being administered, travelers are making plans and Belize hasn’t been affected by the pandemic like some other countries you’ve read about. Now that you’ve read some of our stories and mushed through a cold, angry winter in the US, are you ready to plan a getaway to Belize? The big attraction to Belize is of course the water and its accompanying coral reef, and English is their official language. And the people of Belize are incredibly friendly. When you’re here, just ask someone for directions, the best tamales, or where to get gas for the golf cart and they’ll be happy to help. This isn’t Philly. Now, let’s go through some of the quirks, charms, and challenges of visiting Belize. The links to everything you’ll read about can be found below.
Where should I go?
About 75% of tourism in Belize is centered on Ambergris Caye. Just like in many other Caribbean countries, a cay, or Caye (“kee”) is an island. Ambergris Caye is the largest island of Belize and is home to San Pedro, the number one tourist destination of Belize. San Pedro has lots of Airbnb’s, small hotels, budget hotels, posh hotels, American style restaurants, and lots of small and smaller restaurants. It does not have Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors Light or any other lousy American beers and there’s no steak houses or McDonald’s. Still reading? Good. It is the closest island to the majestic coral reef and San Pedro is home to the tourism industry that’s going to get you to the reef. If you’re a diver or snorkeler, San Pedro is where you want to go. San Pedro’s main form of transportation is golf carts and there’s one place I recommend renting from, S & P hardware.
A much smaller island than Ambergris. Caulker is quieter than San Pedro and very rustic. If you’re staying in San Pedro, Caulker can be a day trip via the water taxi. Leave on the 8:30 boat, return on the afternoon boat. The 20-minute ride over is quite beautiful. If you want to stay on Caulker, you’d best be someone that enjoys a Bohemian lifestyle. There isn’t as many choices in dining, or tour guides. It doesn’t have the constant buzzing of golf carts, either.
At the southern tip of a narrow isthmus, Placencia is south, near the border of Guatemala, on a natural harbor and the water is almost as still as a small lake. Placencia is about a third the size of San Pedro and, on average, its small hotels and resorts achieve a higher level of luxury and sophistication than San Pedro’s. Placencia’s Turtle Inn is owned by Francis Ford Coppola. We like Placencia, a lot. While San Pedro practically vibrates in its own key, a stay in Placencia is smooth as a sailboat ride on a calm sea. We love the Caribbean Beach Cabanas in Placencia and La Dolce Vita Italian Restaurant.
If you’re the type to scream when they see a small bug in the house, best to quit reading right now. Although parts of Ambergris Caye, the northernmost area, are still “wild” you probably won’t go there. The rainforest and jungle of Belize is on the mainland. If you’re staying in San Pedro, a trip to the rainforest will require a commuter flight and a day long excursion with a guide. If you stay in Placencia, you’re around the corner from a true jungle river cruise. If you’d like to stay in the jungle, Cotton Tree Lodge is the place to go. You’ll fly into Punta Gorda from Belize City, Adam or Kasey will pick you up and it’s a 30-minute drive to Cotton Tree. Staying at Cotton Tree is a breathtaking experience. You could hear, maybe see Howler Monkeys, Toucans, Macaws, and Parrots. You could tour the jungle with their legendary guide, Agapito, learn bits of Mayan, take Juan Cho’s (Ixcacao Chocolate) chocolate class at his cacao farm, take a guided fishing trip on the Mojo for Tarpon or Snook, take a cooking class from a Mayan cook, and enjoy three delicious meals a day cooked with their organic garden’s produce. They have plenty of chocolate bars, a full bar with cold Belikin, and ten amazing cabanas as well as yoga, massage, games for the kids, and a swimming hole on the Moho River. If you want a serious adventure, one you’ll talk about for years to come, this is it.
The National Zoo of Belize is about 25 miles south of Belize City and if you’d like to see those crazy animals native to Central America, this is the place. Know that half of their animals are nocturnal, and they do offer a guided night-time tour. We went, spent the night at their Tropical Education Center and loved it. We got to feed a Tapir.
Do I need a Passport?
Did you really just ask me that? Belize is in Central America, it borders Guatemala to the south and Mexico to the north. Yes, you need an up-to-date passport and quit asking me stupid questions. Better dig it up right now and make sure it’s not expiring any time soon. Belizians are very friendly, except for the ones that work at immigration and must listen to Americans spout “I’m an American, damnit, you can’t kick me out of this country” when they point out their about-to-expire passport.
Do I need to learn Spanish?
English is the official language of Belize. However, the US has many dialects (New Jersey sounds much different than Louisiana Creole) and travelling through the states one often hears a variety of colloquial terms they may not be familiar with. In Belize, the locals are likely to speak at least three or more languages, English, Spanish, Kriol, and perhaps even Mayan. So, don’t assume the English of Belize will sound like the English of Ohio. It is helpful if you brush up on your basic Spanish terms such as “where is the bathroom” or “I’d like another beer please” or “My passport is about to expire. Will I get kicked out of the country?”
How long should I be there?
Your travel days back and forth to the US will be long days. If you confine yourself to San Pedro, a week-long trip will get you but five full days on the island.
Air travel is full of restrictions and most of those are at the airports. You will have longer wait times at check-in and you’ll need a negative CV19 test 72 hours prior to arrival. Plan on a minimum two hours at your airport of departure.
Flying into Belize City
There’s one international airport in Belize City. Once you arrive, you’ll have a Rubik’s Cube of immigration and customs to go through. Your luggage may be searched. Make certain your passport and your CV19 test is handy the entire time from landing to departing Belize City. Once you’re done with immigration just follow the signs to Tropic Air. There’s a bar serving up ice cold Belikin in this area.
Flying out of Belize City
There’s Tropic Air, and there’s another airline. Tropic Air flies modern Cessna Caravan 208 Turbines. Their pilots are very professional. And if you move to the front like the boarding agent asks, you might get invited to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, so long as there’s no co-pilot. I did. From Belize City Tropic flies to San Pedro, Caulker, Punta Gorda, and Placencia.
Getting to the Rainforest
You can fly to Punta Gorda from Belize City, or San Pedro, or Caulker. Or your tour operator can pick you up at Belize City Municipal if you take a day trip from San Pedro to the jungle. A flight from San Pedro to Belize City Municipal will be about $50 one-way. The drive from Belize Municipal to Cotton Tree or Punta Gorda area will take four plus hours and cost about $300. Or you can have a real adventure, rent a car from Crystal Car Rental (they’ll pick you up at the airport) drive to the Zoo and spend the night at their Tropical Education Center, in the morning drive over the stunningly beautiful Hummingbird Highway to Placencia, or to Cotton Tree Lodge.
Renting a Car in Belize City Crystal Car Rental. Don’t use anyone else. Ask for Jurgen and listen to his directions with respect to driving across the mainland. And do NOT take the Coastal Highway shortcut.
Snorkeling & Diving the reef
From San Pedro, there are three places to snorkel, Mexico Rocks, Hol Chan, and Shark Ray Alley. These places are protected, and your guide will charge a park entrance fee and once at the site, each swimmer will receive a wristband from the park ranger. If you want to dive the Blue Hole, a trip from San Pedro is an expensive, all-day affair. And if it’s a very windy day, your trip could get cancelled at the last minute. If you want to see the Caribbean’s vast collection of fish and mammals, skip the Blue Hole. It’s just a cave without a roof and there’s little life in a Blue Hole.
Ramon’s or Xsite?
These are the two best aquatic tour operators in San Pedro. We’ve gone snorkeling with Ramon’s and sailing and snorkeling with Xsite. If you want a three-hour snorkeling trip on a motorized boat, go with Ramon’s. If you’ve got a day and love the idea of sailing on a catamaran and seeing the water at a slower pace, Xsite. Our best day may have been a sail with Xsite that took us to Hol Chan, then Shark ray alley, then lunch in Caye Caulker followed by a leisurely sail back to San Pedro. We left San Pedro at 10:00 am and returned with the setting sun. If you’re looking for something magical, this is it.
What else should I know?
Wash your damn hands, wear your damn mask. Belize doesn’t have a modern health care system so their best protection from a virus is the hand sinks and mask. They have a mask ordinance and it’s enforced by the police. Several tourists were issued $500 fines for not wearing a mask, hell they didn’t even have one when the police asked them to put on their mask. We wore our mask except when we were eating or on a sailboat.
Money. One US dollar is worth two Belizian dollars. If you eat at a restaurant with table service, it’s likely they’ll accept your credit or debit cards. If you want to eat local, the food stalls and outdoor restaurants are cash only. An American dollar is just as welcome as a Belizian dollar anywhere you go. When you need to get cash, Scotia or Atlantic Bank has a couple of ATMs here. A withdrawal will cost you about $9.00 US in fees so make it count.
The food. There’s a dozen or so traditional American style restaurants, all within walking distance of one another, on the water in San Pedro. We didn’t care for most of them as they were too expensive for their average level of service and creativity. Belize doesn’t produce, nor do they import American style beef. So do not come here expecting to find a great burger or steak. Same goes for wine. If you must order wine, it’s going to be California commodity juice at nosebleed pricing. If you take the time to stop in at Wine & Vine in San Pedro they can sell you a nice bottle yet they have a very limited selection. There is good chicken here and we’ve had good wings. That being said, if the weather cooperates there’s always fresh fish; Snapper, Grouper, Barracuda, or Wahoo. San Pedro doesn’t have a large commercial fishing operation or a fish market, it’s two guys in one boat knocking on the back door of a restaurant with their catch. If your server says “today’s catch is Grouper” don’t ask her if it’s fresh. Electricity here is super expensive, freezers use a ton of electricity, they’re probably buying fish daily, few restaurants have big freezers, you’re on an island in the Caribbean. Got it?
The street food. Yes! We ate almost all of it and loved almost all of it. There’s amazing chicken tamales at little stands and they average $1.50US. Your chicken tamale may have a neckbone, or wing, or leg in it. Fry Jacks are as versatile as our biscuits, some are plain, some are stuffed. If you don’t want to eat it, you don’t have to. But don’t make a fuss about it. There’s fresh juices for sale everywhere and they’re not pasteurized. It’s just fresh juice that’s been squeezed daily and it’s delicious. If you’re afraid you’re going to get sick, why did you leave your house?
Belizian Restaurants. Our favorites in San Pedro are Neri’s Tacos, Los Cocos Deli, D’Family Coffee House, La Divina Providencia, Caroline’s Cooking, Norma’s Kitchen, Tres Cocos BBQ, Kenny’s Panades (Mahogany Bay), Nara’s Pizza, and Kenia’s Deli.
American style Restaurants. Our favorites in San Pedro are the Truck Stop, Gill-E’s on the beach, Rum Dog, NautiCrab, Ramon’s, and Palapa Bar. Palapa Bar also has the best place to take a dip into the Caribbean and they provide table service at the end of their pier, where the water is eight feet deep and sparkling clean. How cool is that? The Truck Stop makes clever cocktails and serves Hobbs Beer.
Belize Chocolate Company. Yes! You want to go take their chocolate making/history class then have a chocolate milkshake or my favorite, a chilled chocochino. They’re downtown San Pedro near the airport and on the water.
Cigars? Yes! Saul’s Cigar temple is in downtown San Pedro and he has cigars from Belize, Cuba, and all points in between. Saul is a great guy to sit and chat with and his cigar shop is an homage to the Mayan art form.
Mayan Ruins. From San Pedro one can take a short flight via Tropic Air to the municipal airport in Belize City, take a one-hour drive, then one hour by boat to Lamanai. Here you’ll see amazing, massive three-thousand-year-old Mayan temples, learn some Mayan words, receive some lessons in Mayan history, and enjoy a delicious lunch before returning to the airport. This is an all-day affair and worth every penny. Jason at Truly Wild Belize is your guy for this one.
Zip Lines. $50 US for a two-minute elevator ride? Whatever, dude. You won’t learn anything, won’t see anything other than flashes of green, and you took a real airplane to get here and that’s real flying. I don’t understand the attraction to a zip line. Get your kids down on their feet and let them take an actual hike with a knowledgeable guide and they’ll have a truly memorable experience. A zipline ride over the Smoky Mountains will offer the same experience as a zipline ride over the jungle of Belize. Zip lines are the Instagram of the vacation world, a quick, safe dash across blurry scenery and you’re on to the next thing. Where’s my eye-roll emoji?
The beer. Belikin. It’s traditional lager and stout and rather, uh, traditional. Or you can have a Landshark, Jimmy Buffett’s rather…um…dull, traditional, boring, overpriced lager. There’s a new Chinese brewery, Pirate, and we didn’t get a chance to taste it yet. There’s also Hobbs Craft Beer and they make a killer IPA, a fine chocolate stout, and my favorite is their Jaguar Pale Ale. And don’t forget to leave a big tip for your bartender.
The wine. I thought we covered this earlier?
The liquor. There’s plenty of Rum, Tequila, and Vodka here. If you’re going to get drunk and sunburned, please make sure you’ve got one of your party as a designated driver. Although it’s just golf carts, the roads are narrow and bumpy, and if you wreck your golf cart, the police WILL be involved.
The electricity. Belize buys it from Mexico and it’s expensive. Therefore, a lot of the restaurants and Airbnb’s do not have air-conditioning. You’ll be dining al fresco for the majority of your stay.
The plumbing. San Pedro doesn’t have a modern sewer system, so you’ll see signs in the bathrooms asking you to put all the toilet paper in the waste basket. Yup. ALL the paper. Just do it please because their septic systems cannot handle much paper.
Health care in Belize. You do not want to require medical attention on San Pedro. Their emergency clinic often stitches up drunk Americans that have turned their golf cart over. Please don’t be that guy.
The police in BZ. Just wave to them, do what they say when they ask. They travel on motorcycles and blue golf carts and occasionally have check points. Sometimes they carry large rifles. Do NOT leave your hotel without your American driver’s license. At a checkpoint they’ll want to see a driver’s license. Do not try to tip the police officers.
The traffic laws. There are few speed limits, no speed traps. There’s plenty of oversized speed bumps, on San Pedro, Placencia, and the mainland. And you’re probably travelling in a rented golf cart. Don’t break the golf cart and don’t turn it over on the speed bump.
The beach. San Pedro doesn’t have a beach like we do back home. They have sea walls. Don’t plan on taking a long run on the beach, or the sidewalk. Sidewalks come and go abruptly, the roads are narrow, and the traffic is a mish-mash of bikes, motorcycles, big trucks, golf carts, taxis and construction projects. And wear shoes if you plan on walking into the surf because we’ve seen plenty of construction debris on the shoreline even in the nice parts of town. That’s why we swim at the end of docks of places like Ramon’s, Rum Dog, or Palapa Bar.
Will I see a shark? If you snorkel at Shark Ray alley, you will get up close and personal with nurse sharks. Apex sharks rarely come into the reef as there’s only a narrow opening. You *might* see a Hammerhead or Bull shark. We did.
A sea-turtle? Only if you go snorkeling/diving and it’s not guaranteed. These are wild animals and they’re not on your schedule. We’ve seen a couple, and we’ve been to the reef five times.
A manatee? Maybe. If you go sailing with Xsite you’ve got a good chance, likewise if you stay on Caye Caulker. And tip your guides whether you saw a manatee or not.
Can I touch the coral in the reef? Don’t touch the damn coral! On one of our trips to Hol Chan, some hungover, relatively healthy a***hole was so pathetic he couldn’t manage to swim more than five feet at a time and his fins kept dragging across the coral. Our guide, and me, fussed at him three or four times. A coral reef is incredibly fragile so don’t touch it and this means keeping your feet off it. If you’re woefully out of shape, you may get beat up snorkeling the reef. The currents can be strong, your guide will put you in a life vest, however, you still need to keep your feet up and you’ll still need to muscle through the currents. If you are unable to keep your feet up when you swim, tell your guide before you drag your fins across the coral.
Will I see Parrots, Macaws, Toucans, Iguanas, Jaguars, Tapirs, Coatimundi, Anteaters, Jaguarundi? If you want to see these animals in the wild, go to Cotton Tree Lodge for a few days. In San Pedro, iguanas and parrots are everywhere, even at Victoria House. Otherwise, plan a trip to the National Zoo. It’s very doubtful you’ll see a Jaguar in the wild, perhaps one swimming across a river on your jungle cruise.
Renting a car/cart/bike. If you’re coming to San Pedro, a car is out of the question. There’s plenty of taxis and renting a golf cart is a necessity. A bicycle? If you’re going to Placencia, bikes are a great idea. If you’re in San Pedro, nope. There’s three paved roads, they’re bumpy as hell, there’s no traditional Emergency Room like we know back home, the roads have no bike lane, there’s a scary mix of carts, taxis, big trucks with poor brakes, cops on motorcycles, open holes in the street, etc. Back home I cycle three thousand miles annually and I wouldn’t dream of riding a bike in San Pedro again. Yeah, I did it for a week and don’t recommend it. For your golf cart, S & P Hardware in San Pedro. If you run out of gas on your way to secret beach, they’ll come and rescue you, no questions asked. They’re good people. And let’s make sure we lock that cart up every time we get out of it.
Suppose I wreck or lose my golf cart? I thought I told you not to do that. This is going to cost you big bucks.
Wi-Fi & Google & Directions & Maps. There’s few street (the side streets) names in San Pedro and your international plan is going to cost you a fortune and throttle your bandwidth. And there’s no 5G here. Don’t plan on jumping in your cart and asking Siri to “take me to the beach” because it may not happen. San Pedro has three streets running north/south; Front, Middle, and Back. Front Street goes north across the bridge and south all the way to the end. It’s easy to find your way around San Pedro. If you’re going to drive across the mainland, get directions and a map from Crystal Car Rental.
Suppose I get drunk and sunburned and ask the band to play Freebird? Won’t be the first time that’s happened.
Things not to bring: Fancy evening clothes, white clothing, hairspray, lipstick, sweaters, snorkel gear, cycling helmet, running gear, fancy clothes, tight blue jeans, fancy clothes. The temperature in San Pedro varies about ten degrees from midnight to noon, the humidity is always about 85% so tight clothes are not a good idea. The golf cart rides and the humidity will destroy your hairdo. If you go snorkeling, Ramon’s or Xsite has all the high quality gear you need.
Things to bring: Ear plugs, swim suits, long sleeve sun-proof shirts by Columbia, a pair of light, long pants and heavy socks if you plan on visiting the jungle or Mayan ruins, a big hat, polarized shades, reef friendly sun-screen, Off!, Tums, patience.
Where will I stay?
In Belize City? You should not stay here.
The Zoo. Our overnight at the Tropical Education Center and evening tour of the Zoo was amazing.
In San Pedro Ramon’s is right downtown, offers professional service, respectable food, and a fun, tropical environment. We didn’t stay at Ramon’s, we did eat with them, went on several cruises, and swam a lot at their dock. This is a good group of people. If you go snorkeling with them, ask if Rayolando is available to guide you.
Victoria House is south of town, a bumpy ten-minute ride from the airport. Victoria House is polished, luxurious, and achieves a high level of service. If you require a Four Seasons expectation at your hotel, this is it. Their food is quite wonderful and given their location, they have an excellent wine list.
Feathers Guest House. If you’re the Airbnb type and prefer a smaller check average over a higher standard of luxury, we stayed at Feathers Guest House. Hosts Diana Evans offers a comfortable bedroom, a community kitchen, and she knows everyone and everything in San Pedro. If you’re a decent cook and plan on spending seven to ten days on the island, a stay at Feathers gives you a great location, a reasonable price, and the opportunity to cook with some of the local ingredients. You will need a golf cart if you plan on staying here.
The Blue Tang Inn. On the water, downtown San Pedro. We toured the Blue Tang and had drinks with them. Their staff is friendly, their rooms tidy and charming, and they’ve got a great location for a four-day stay.
Cotton Tree Lodge, San Felipe. This is where you want to go to have the adventure of a lifetime. Owners Adam and Kasey van Tassel can take you on a real jungle cruise, fishing for Tarpon and Snook on the Moho, Fly Fishing for Bone in the Caribbean, a birding excursion that will blow your mind, a cooking lesson with a Mayan cook in her home, and they’re wonderful folks. Innkeeper Valerie runs a tight ship and their kitchen with Chef Marcello produces lovely meals. You should come to Cotton Tree Lodge.
You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, recovering tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here