If you’ve ever needed confirmation that good things come in small countries, Belize is living tropical proof. Tucked between Mexico and Guatemala in Central America, with the crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea to its east and dense jungles in the west, Belize checks all the boxes for a thrill-and-chill-out family vacation chockablock with a spellbinding combo of things to see, learn and do.
“Belize’s small size makes it ideal for family trips because you aren’t spending a ton of time traveling between its diverse landscapes,” says Moon Belize travel guide author Lebawit Girma. “Not to mention the ancient Maya, Caribbean, Latin and Afro-indigenous cultures all in one place make it a great learning vacation, too.”
From tubing through caves to snorkeling in the world’s second-largest barrier reef to tasting cocoa beans in the jungle to holding a green iguana in your hands, Belize delivers big on making unforgettable family memories. Mix in the pervasive warm hospitality of the local people and year-round sunshine, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t visit sooner.
Here are just a few of the many ways to bliss out on your next vacation in Belize with kids.
With an entire coastline bordering the Caribbean Sea and more than 200 offshore islands, called cayes, Belize has beaches to spare. You can hardly throw a coconut without finding a sandy spot to sun and swim for the day.
Abergris Caye, Belize’s largest island, is a top choice for travelers, but families should know that seagrass populates the shores due to the magnificent barrier reef just a half-mile away. Clearer water is often found by jumping off, or stepping off, the ends of docks (and there are many).
Planted amid tropical jungle foliage on a strip of beautiful swimmable beach, the thatched-roof cabanas of Ramon’s Village Resort perfect the illusion of staying in a far-flung paradise. Some come with kitchenettes and sleeper sofas, too.
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Neighboring Caye Caulker, also accessible by a short flight from Belize City, oozes island charm and Caribbean vibes. This is helped by the lack of roads and great seaside hotels, many with pools, where you can while away a day. The Split, a literal cut between the north and south islands caused by a hurricane some decades ago, is the most popular hangout for a fun-in-the-sun atmosphere. There are picnic tables and a wooden dock for cannonballing into deeper water.
The Placencia Peninsula, a 16-mile finger of golden sand jutting off the mainland, has some of the best beaches in the country. You’ll pass through the toes-in-sand villages of Maya Beach and Seine Bight, each with tranquil shorelines, restaurants and hotels to consider, before reaching the more densely populated but still small Placencia Village. Here, there’s a pedestrian-only boardwalk (called the sidewalk) lined with restaurants and shops, which is nice for families with small children. The village also has pharmacies and grocery stores for necessities.
The sand and sea scene around Hopkins, a palm tree-encrusted village known for its Garifuna people, descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, is idyllic and you’ll be hard-pressed to find friendlier folks willing to share the rich traditions of their culture. Family-owned Coconut Row puts you in the thick of it all. The beach is just yards away from rooms and apartments, and some have separate bedrooms and kitchens. The colorful hotel can arrange adventure tours near and far, too, including a local Garifuna cooking lesson.
Play castaway for a day at Ranguana Caye, one of many postcard-perfect islands off Belize’s mainland. This one is private and only allows a maximum of 25 day guests, so it feels exclusive. It features a sandy beach, clear swimming waters and even three overnight cabanas.
Adventure is limitless in Belize, and the only worry for thrill-seeking families is how to do it all during one vacation.
The ancient Maya believed the limestone caves of Belize were entrances to Xibalba, their ancient underworld, and were used as ceremonial sites. By far Belize’s most popular adventure that doesn’t involve a snorkel is cave tubing, which is exactly what it sounds like — floating in an inner tube along rivers that dip in and out of caves, often with a headlamp to lead the way. There are several options, but the original is a 7-mile “River of Caves” tube float with Caves Branch Adventure Company. You can also combine it with a zip-lining adventure for a full day of adrenaline-pumping action.
Bring out your inner Indiana Jones with a trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, or ATM cave as it’s called. Inside you’ll see skeletons, pottery and other relics of the Mayan civilization. FYI: You’ll need an authorized tour guide to bring you to the cave, which involves a trek through the jungle and fording shallow rivers and pools, so consider this for older kids/teens only.
For a non-tube outing, head to Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, known as “Pine Ridge” to locals, a stunning landscape of protected pine forests and the oldest of Belize’s natural parks. Go for a hike, mountain bike and even horseback ride in some parts. Check out Thousand Foot Falls, the largest waterfall in Belize, and the Barton Creek Caves, which you can explore by canoe. Big Rock Falls has a refreshing pool at the bottom for an afternoon cool-off. Also popular is the Rio Frio Cave with a 65-foot-tall arched opening along with natural freshwater pools and stalactites.
Visiting the awe-inspiring Mayan ruins of Belize is must, and there are many to choose from. Among the most popular is Caracol, the largest in Belize, tucked deep in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. Xunantunich (the “Xu” is pronounced like “shoe”) is easy to get to, just 20 minutes’ drive from the town of San Ignacio. It is known for its large scalable temple, El Castillo (Spanish for “The Castle”). Beware: Both sites have very steep and uneven stairs with no guardrails.
In Belize’s southern Toledo region, an often-forgotten area full of potential for adventure with far fewer crowds, Mayan archaeological sites scatter like fallen coconuts and many remain unexcavated. However, Lubaantun is easily accessible, impressive and safe for younger children to explore. The site is known for the famous Crystal Skull, which supposedly was discovered there in 1924. Read all about it at the onsite visitor center.
Chocolate is always a good idea, and can be eye-opening when you get to taste cocoa beans right from pods pulled off a tree in a remote jungle, such as on the farm of Eladio’s Chocolate Adventure. You can follow it up with lunch and a lesson on how the beans are transformed into smooth, tasty chocolate. Local guide Bruno Kuppinger is the guy with the knowledge (and the 4WD) to get you there.
Drumming and dancing doesn’t get better than at the Lebeha Drumming Centre in Hopkins, where you can watch, listen and dance as local Garifuna share the culture of their ancestors. If you’re lucky enough to be in Hopkins on Garifuna Settlement Day, November 19 every year, you can watch the re-enactment of their arrival in 1802 on the shores of Belize, celebrated by drumming, dancing and all-day revelry.
Above sea level is amazing in Belize, but when it comes to dipping below the surface of turquoise Caribbean waters, the country can’t be beat, especially if you’re a diver or snorkeler. Stringing along the entirety of its coast is the Belize Barrier Reef, 191 miles of the magnificent Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System and the largest barrier reef in the world behind Australia’s.
If your goal is to dive and snorkel every day, Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are best for their easy access to the reef, just a half-mile off shore. To get to both, it’s just a short hop on Tropic Air or Maya Island Air, or a longer ferry ride, from Belize City.
Search the Internet for Belize diving and otherworldly images of the legendary Blue Hole National Monument will fill the screen. The massive marine sinkhole, measuring more than 1,000 feet in diameter and more than 400 feet deep, is a bucket list location for divers from around the planet.
Also close to Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker is Hol Chan Hol Marine Reserve, a beginner-friendly snorkeling destination covering approximately 3 square miles. It’s divided into different zones, including the popular Shark Ray Alley, where you can come face to face with nurse sharks and stingrays.
The reef is much farther offshore from places such as Hopkins, Dangriga and Placencia, but fear not: There are tour operators aplenty to make a spectacular day of getting there.
Glover’s Reef Atoll, about 50 miles off the mainland and 15 miles outside the barrier reef, is an underwater paradise with some of the best diving and snorkeling in Belize. South Water Caye, a 15-acre island, sits atop the barrier reef. If you want to stay on location, check out locally owned Pelican Beach Resort, where you can snorkel off the beach into the reef.
The Turneffe Islands make up the largest of the three offshore atolls in Belize and are the most accessible from the mainland. The variety of marine life and coral formations is astounding.
In addition to swimming with sharks and rays on Caye Caulker, much of Belize’s wildlife is found on land in protected nature reserves, forests, wetlands and national parks.
Known as one of Belize’s top birding spots, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a wetland of 16,400 acres with lagoons, swamps and marshes where you can also hop in a canoe and look for crocodiles, iguanas and turtles. Keep your eyes peeled for the jabiru stork — the largest flying bird in Central and South America with a wingspan of up to 12 feet.
Calling itself “wildly civilized,” the jungle resort at Chaa Creek balances adventure and luxury better than most in Belize, and you’ll likely see howler monkeys, amphibians, parrots and toucans on your walk to dinner. Their Blue Morpho Butterfly Exhibit brings visitors into the world of these iridescent blue beauties, found only in certain parts of Central and South America.
Even if you’re not a guest of the delightful San Ignacio Resort Hotel, you can still check out the Green Iguana Conservation Project by stepping into a habitat on the hotel grounds to learn about efforts to protect and preserve the endangered species. You’ll even get to pet them, feed them and let the new babies crawl up your arm for the ultimate Instagram post.
Editor’s Note: Kimberley Lovato visited Belize as a guest of www.travelbelize.org. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Kimberley Lovato except where noted.
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