There are good reasons for the saying: “It’s better in Belize.” Just consider its grand inventory of Mayan ceremonial cities; its scuba and snorkeling playgrounds along the second longest barrier reef in the world; and its wildlife sanctuaries sheltering jaguars and more than 300 species of birds. The gateway to all this vacation riches is Belize City, where St. John’s Cathedral, the oldest Anglican church in Central America, is a stately counterpoint to the city’s otherwise ramshackle Caribbean charm. Of particular interest in this British Commonwealth nation is the Museum of Belize, housed in what was formerly “Her Majesty’s Prison.” The best place to stay is the Fort George neighborhood, home to most of the city’s best shopping, dining—the Wet Lizard for Belizean food—and accommodations—Radisson Fort George fronting the ocean and The Great House, part of the city’s inventory of delightful Victorian architecture.
From Belize City, take your pick of Mayan ruins to explore. Howler monkeys are the first to greet visitors traveling the New River to Lamanai, a jungle-bound complex of large pyramids and open plazas. For a quicker trip, hail a taxi and head to Altun Ha for a climb up the 5-story Temple of Masonry Altars. Western Belize (beyond San Ignacio) is home to the largest known Classic Mayan city, Caracol, whose “Sky Palace” pyramid is the tallest manmade structure in the country. (Attention birders: this is keel-billed motmot and scarlet macaw territory). And while in this neighborhood, think adventure and check into a plush tree-house suite at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, complete with a guided inner-tube float through a network of dramatic limestone caves. Comforts are also sublime offshore on Ambergris Caye, known for its lovely resort inns—the newest in barefoot luxury, the 13-villa El Secreto—and informal restaurants—Elvi’s Kitchen for conch fritters and key lime pies in and around San Pedro Town. But the main attractions are sub-marine. On a jaunt to Shark Ray Alley, snorkelers commune with gentle nurse sharks and stingrays; and on a full-day’s run to Lighthouse Reef Atoll, divers take on the world-famous Blue Hole. Of note back on the mainland: seaside near Hopkins Village, Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort tops Conde Nast Traveler’s list of best resorts in Central (and South) America.
BEST TIME TO GO: The dry (and high) season, late-November through April
FUN FACT: Belize Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve is the world’s only reserve dedicated to protect the endangered jaguar
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta to Belize City
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport
CURRENCY: Belizean dollar
MUST-TRY LOCAL FOODS: Conch fritters; Goss chocolate, homemade locally; visitors to Maya villages have a chance to make their own
BEST BUYS: Local-artist paintings at Fine Arts in Belize City and Belizian Arts in San Pedro; handmade jewelry at Ambar in San Pedro; Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, sold everywhere