We've all returned from a trip wishing we would have known this or that.
It's hard to know what to expect when visiting a new country.
I recently visited Belize with limited expectations. Belize is a Central American country with unique characteristics, especially in comparison to nearby countries. Formerly known as the British Honduras, Belize has a lot to offer to travelers who are seeking a mix of adventure and culture. Being the youngest country in Central America, the tourism infrastructure is still being developed.
The few expectations I had were based on my only source of reference - the internet. However, there are some things that I wish I would have known before arriving to make the most out of my time there.
Here are 8 things to know before going to Belize:
YOU DON'T NEED TO KNOW SPANISH
English speakers won’t have any communication issues when visiting Belize. Belize was previously occupied by the British, so the official language is English. Despite most residents speaking multiple languages, it's the only country in Central America where Spanish isn't the official language.
Let's be real! On one hand, this was certainly convenient. On the other hand, I was bummed that I couldn't practice my Spanish as much here.
Funny story, though....
I was beyond excited to be learning Spanish throughout my time in Latin America. I wasn’t shy about it AT ALL. I took every opportunity that I could to flex my Spanish skills - or lack thereof. I still had a lot to learn so I’d refer to Google Translate if necessary.
After being in Belize for 5 days, I somehow forgot that everyone spoke English. One early morning in Caye Caulker, I headed to a nearby food shack for breakfast. I was in a rush & there were a few words I still didn’t know. So I figured I'd just plug my order into Google Translate to avoid holding up the line. I get to the counter and realize that I’d completely forgotten my order. So, I was forced to read directly from the app.
Let’s just say….it was painful. Very painful. The woman behind the counter physically cringed, then smiled because she probably felt bad for me.
“Hehe, we speak English”, she said.
Oh, Gosh. How embarrassing! Did I wake up and forget what country I was in or what? I already know that everyone speaks English. I clearly wasn’t thinking. Maybe I was so excited to speak Spanish? I don’t know, but thankfully the mother & daughter just laughed it off.
Let's just blame this incident on an early morning? Okay? Okay.
You can rest the night before your trip knowing that you'll likely be perfectly fine without knowing any Spanish.
GET OUT OF BELIZE CITY
Knowing where to go will prevent disappointment and wasted time.
Everything I read online before visiting Belize said to get out of Belize City asap. So, I did. Apparently, there is a lot of crime and there isn’t much to see or do in regards to tourism. I arranged a water-taxi upon arrival in Belize City, so I left shortly after arriving. I was able to see a bit of it, and I’m honestly not so sure I would have felt comfortable there as a solo traveler.
So where should you go?
I visited San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Hopkins, and San Ignacio. I also spent 3 days sailing & snorkeling uninhabited areas of the second largest barrier reef in the world.
Upon entering Belize, I only planned to visit the Cayes(small islands) - Caye Caulker and San Pedro. These Cayes are both known for watersports, but they certainly have their differences. I talk about those differences here. There are over 200 additional Cayes to visit in Belize. Through a 3-day sailing trip, I was able to visit smaller, more remote Cayes.
Once I learned that most activities were on the mainland, I extended my stay in Belize and headed westward.
After leaving the islands, I spent 2 days in Hopkins - a small, coastal Garifuna village known for its Afro-Caribbean culture. It rained both days that I visited, so I mostly spent my time here winding down. You can visit the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve and the bioluminescent bay nearby.
I took a bus from Hopkins to San Ignacio, specifically to visit the ATM caves and because it was the best city to enter into Guatemala from Belize. The ATM caves were an absolute adventure, unlike anything I’d ever done before. You can also visit nearby ruins like Cahal Pech & Xunantunich. I found Xunantunich to be extremely peaceful and I actually valued my experience here more my visit to Tikal in Guatemala. *Gasp*
THE BEST TIME TO GO
If I'd arrived in Belize only a week later, two things were likely to occur:
I wouldn't have had a place to stay OR I would have experienced a very special cultural event in the country.
I didn't pre-book any lodging and I never considered that I was arriving right on the cusp of Easter holiday - which is the most celebrated holiday throughout Central America. The government, public utilities, small business, and banks shut down at midday on Holy Thursday through the following Monday. If you're here at this time, it might be difficult to move around using public transport or find a place to stay with availability. Locals said that everything is typically booked around this time because family members visit each other and celebrate together. On the other hand, you'll witness Belizean celebrations & traditions that you'd likely otherwise miss out on. if you do plan to visit during Easter, be sure to book ahead of time.
The average yearly temperature is 84° F (29°C), so you're likely to get warm weather regardless of when you visit. The high season for tourism in Belize is from November to April. The low season is from May until October. Prices will be lower in low season, but there is also the threat of rain or hurricanes.
THEY'LL TAKE YOUR MONEY
No need to whip out your currency exchange app here!
1 US Dollar = 2 Belizean Dollars.
There's also no need to exchange your dollars upon arrival.
Belize has its own currency, but dollars are accepted throughout the country.
Use cash instead of credit, as you'll likely be charged a transaction fee.
YOU'LL PROBABLY BLOW YOUR BUDGET
Belize is not a budget destination... at least not in comparison to its neighbors, Mexico and Guatemala.
One of the highlights of my trip was exploring the ATM(Actun Tunichil Muknal) caves. It was truly an exceptional experience - unlike anything I've ever done before. It hurt to pay $90 for this tour but it was so great that I found it to be worth the money.....
....until I got to Guatemala and unexpectedly explored a very similar cave near Semuc Champey for FREEEE. Oh and in a much more natural way - I'm talkin' melting candles guiding us through the dark. Forget helmets and headlamps!
I can't lie. I was(and maybe I still am) pretty upset about it.
Food & lodging is affordable, but tours will eat up most of your money.
Like Costa Rica, most adventure activities in Belize can only be done through packaged tours or with guides. Doing multiple tours will cost you hundreds of dollars, so things can add up really quickly.
Be prepared to pay for any activities like snorkeling Hol Chan Marine Reserve & Shark Ray Alley or visiting the ATM caves near San Ignacio.
IT'S THE HEART OF THE MAYAN CIVILIZATION
"I can't believe we have this place to yourself. This is absolutely serene.", I said as I scaled to the top of the pyramid-shaped ruins at Xunantunich.
Xunantunich is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the western Cayo District of Belize. I was able to visit with a local and I was blown away by the lush green vegetation, the bird's eye view from the top of the ruins, and the howler monkeys scurrying through the trees.
Oh, did I mention we had this paradise all to ourselves?
My experience at Xunantunich was better than my experience at the most well known Mayan sites, Chichen Itza and Tikal - simply for the fact that we didn't have to deal with crowds.
This is just one of the ancient Mayan sites Belize has to offer. You can also visit Caracol and Cahal Pech.
WHAT TO EAT
You'll come across a McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks, or KFC in the smallest of countries.
NOT in Belize, though.
In fact, the closest thing I found to fast-food was a Chinese restaurant that sold chicken tenders in the middle of Hopkins, Belize. For some reason, it was the only restaurant open in the small, single dirt road town while I was there. Otherwise, I would have gladly had another serving of coconut rice & beans with Stew Chicken.
Belizean food will keep any thoughts of chain restaurants out of your mind. The food reflects the melting pot of the country with Mestizo, Creole, Mayan, and Garifuna flavors. Some of my favorites included coconut rice & beans, hudutu, fry jacks, ceviche, meat stew, & of course, Sere.
Whatever you choose to eat, be sure to pour locally made Marie Sharp's hot sauce all over it for the perfect kick.
Try it all. Just don't drink the water unless you want to spend your trip on the toilet.
IT'S THE BEST PLACE TO SNORKEL
Did you know Belize has the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world?
If you're going to snorkel anywhere, it should be here.
The Blue Hole is a huge bucket-list item that many travelers seek to check off when visiting Belize. Its the largest seahole in the world - an extraordinary experience for divers. I opted out of this activity for one main reason:
I don't have my divers license yet. After an intro dive in Hawaii earlier this year, I'm actually unsure if I'll ever get it. I haven't decided whether I like diving or not yet.
I did do quite a bit of snorkeling though and I had so much fun. I snorkeled with sharks during a day-trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve & Shark Ray Alley.
I also did a 3-day sailing trip through the Cayes. This was my first sailing experience and I fell in love. I snorkeled like it was my job during this trip and I was able to see such beautiful marine life.
I hope some of these tips can help you prepare for your trip to Belize! It's certainly a unique destination worth discovering.
Looking back, What's Something You Wish You Would Have Known Before Visiting a New Place?
Stay tuned for more posts from Belize!