Choose Your Belize Adventure: Islands and Ruins, Caves and Cuisine

On my first full day in Belize, I climbed Mayan pyramids in the scorching sun, then cooled off with a swim to a mountain waterfall.

Three days later, I relaxed in a rainbow hammock in an overwater cabin on a small island along a barrier reef, miles off the Caribbean coast.

And two days later, I gorged myself on a huge Indonesian dish at a five-star, thatched-roof resort owned by Hollywood’s Coppola family.

Welcome to Choose Your Own Belize Adventure.

It’s a small Central American country with a laid-back Caribbean vibe and wild interior, where indigenous influences thrive, Bob Marley is always in heavy rotation, and English is the official language. (Fully independent since 1981, Belize remains a Commonwealth realm – we missed an inauspicious visit by Prince William and Kate Middleton by two weeks.)

Two airlines have added four-hour nonstop flights from Minneapolis to Belize City in 2020, and with coronavirus rules in the backsight, the country is poised for a busy season in 2023. But Belize is, too, so refreshing, the least populated country in Central America. The biggest crowd I saw on my visit last winter was at its cramped central airport. Once we cleared customs, I pulled our rental SUV down a deserted highway surrounded only by wetlands and signs warning of “Tapir Crossing.”

My partner and I wanted to experience a bit of everything: the jungle, the islands and the beach. To pack it all into a week, we traveled independently, but most visitors rely on their resort to guide them to attractions. While getting around Belize’s quiet highways was quite pleasant (more on that later), when I told travelers and tourism workers I was driving, I was often greeted with bewilderment.

I also found that Belize has a wide selection of luxury accommodation as well as some very inexpensive options, but the mid-range is largely lacking – so if you were looking to craft a business plan in paradise, you are the welcome. We booked a mix of high and low priced accommodation so it all evened out.

Ruins, waterfalls and caves

In the western district of Cayo, we settled into the Ka’ana Resort, an all-inclusive ecolodge located outside the bustling little town of San Ignacio. On a manicured estate under towering trees, our condo above the pool was decorated in mahogany. Dinner was served in a courtyard a la “Bachelor”: richly spiced blackened yellowfin tuna for me, followed by ice cream made with a fruit of the day from the ground. Even better, the traditional Belizean breakfast included chips: puffy triangles of fried bread to fill with refried beans, eggs, and whatever else is on your plate.

Ka’ana was a good base to explore, starting with a morning excursion to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. Along the banks of the Mopan River, we rode a “ferry,” actually a hand-cranked platform that slowly crosses the waterway. Once on the other side, we walked into a clearing, where we found ourselves in the middle of a Mayan temple-city from the first millennium.

The heart of the site is El Castillo, a stepped pyramid rising 130 feet above the ground. Climbing to the top, we had stunning views of the forest canopy, reaching the neighboring border with Guatemala. A brilliantly restored stucco frieze depicts masks, deities, a throne and the moon. By noon on a Sunday, Xunantunich had become a gathering place for Belizeans who picnic and hang out in this laid-back yet sacred space.

It was starting to get hot, so we headed an hour into the highlands of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve. Somewhere beyond the single paved road, we descended a steep wooden staircase to the 150-foot Big Rock Falls – the classic image of a mountain waterfall as a sign of beer. I ran into rapids and attempted to swim closer to the waterfall, but the current was too strong, so I was dumped in the creek ahead of visiting Australians and Jamaicans. It was worth trying.

We passed close to 1000 Foot Falls – actually 1600 feet, a contender for the tallest in Central America. It was then that I discovered the madness of Belize’s back roads. The lonely “road” to the falls was rocky and heartbreaking, pushing my Mitsubishi 4×4 to its limits, and we were rewarded at the end with only a distant view of the spout. It’s all part of Belize’s underdeveloped charm, but it made me realize why a lot of people leave the driving to guides.

Hungry, I was relieved to discover that we were not far from Blancaneaux Lodge, one of two luxury “refuges” in Belize owned by the family of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. As fans of everything from ‘Apocalypse Now’ to his daughter Sofia’s ‘Lost in Translation’, we had to head to the gated estate for dinner. In true “godfather” fashion, we enjoyed a killer Italian meal (filet mignon verde for me) at their Montagna Ristorante. Fine Italian cuisine on a thatched-roof balcony in the jungle? It was incongruous, but the next time I’m in Cayo, I’ll stay at Blancaneaux.

The next day I returned to those crazy roads for an expedition to Barton Creek Cave. Fording the creek was the relatively easy part of the ride. When I unexpectedly arrived at the cave – which opened up to a green lagoon through an empty tiki bar – a group of tourists had just wandered in. But later the guide, Alex, accepted a solo tour.

I sat in the front of a canoe wearing a headlamp as Alex paddled through the cave, and I was unprepared for his scale. The vast tunnel stretches for about 8 km under a vaulted cathedral ceiling, of which about 1.5 km is accessible by canoe. The cave, of course, holds an important place in Mayan history. Alex told tales of human sacrifice in gory detail and pointed to ledges where he said artifacts as well as skulls and bones of victims still lay. I turned off my light to experience absolute darkness.

island shelter

On Tuesday, we rode down the idyllic 53-mile Hummingbird Highway to the sea, stopping only at a roadside chocolate stand. In the coastal town of Dangriga, we laid eyes on the Caribbean blue for the first time on the trip. We hid the SUV in a designated spot and boarded a shuttle boat, which took us 11 miles through choppy waters to a small island known as Tobacco Caye.

Belize’s Barrier Reef is part of the second largest coral reef system in the world – a hotbed for snorkeling and diving, with secluded resorts offering week-long off-grid stays. The only short-term availability I could find was a budget gem: Tobacco Caye Paradise, with half a dozen iconic, brightly-covered cabanas perched on the end of the island. These may be the only overwater cabins in Belize – and they cost $80 a night, plus the meal plan.

The rest of Tobacco Caye, which is about the size of a city block, is filled with three other lodges, two bars and a research station staffed by students from the best study abroad trip . But our purple colored one room cabin overlooked the neighboring breakwater and offered complete privacy.

Our first night we lay in hammocks and zoned out the constellations and meteors. The next day was a washout – I thought March was the dry season? – but listening to the rain peel off our metal roof as mist shrouded the islet made for a great recharge. Later I kayaked around the cay in 25 minutes.

Joe, the chef, served three meals a day of Belizean meats and vegetables, while guests gathered to share their day’s exploits. Everyone was a little eccentric and extremely happy to be there. Elliott from Canada was on an extended stay, he said, to “reset my circadian rhythms”. Caitlin from Oregon grabbed a Belize field guide and listed the otherworldly multicolored fish and coral she had seen.

I woke up at sunrise, strapped on my snorkeling gear and waded into the warm waters near Reef’s End. Almost immediately, I encountered a stingray, floating gracefully from side to side. From there, I was propelled into a living underwater world, colored by mounds of giant brain-like corals. A French tourist swimming nearby reported a spiny, poisonous lionfish – beautiful, but invasive. It hovered majestically as motley little fish flew about.

Last resort

After roughing it in the hostel-like cay, we decided to end our trip in absolute comfort in Placencia, the laid-back beach capital of southern Belize. At Naia Resort & Spa, our incredibly large new-build villa featured an outdoor jungle shower and overlooked a wide, white-sand beach. Mysteriously, the place also looked like a ghost town, with people on the beach outnumbering gibnuts – cute big wild rodents that are also a local delicacy.

For dinner, we ditched the gibnuts and headed back to the Coppolas, whose flagship Turtle Inn is on Placencia’s main thoroughfare. The family wants to pay homage to the paradise of Bali, so at the open-air restaurant Mare, I ordered a Dutch-Indonesian rijsttaffel (rice table), a dish I had enjoyed in Holland and Brooklyn.

I was quickly humbled when the waiter brought out nearly two dozen unfinished plates of sumptuous satays, spicy curries and sides. This is the only time I’ve seen a dog begging for leftovers in a five star hotel. We had a more modest, authentic seafood meal on our last night at Maya Beach Bistro, often called the best in the country.

On our last full day in Belize, to burn off this rijsttaffel, I borrowed a sit-on-top kayak from Naia and paddled a mile through brilliant coral beds to False Caye, so named because the island is really a large stand of mangrove trees. I paddled into a sheltered bay of mangroves and parked, and had my favorite time in all of Belize.

There, with all the luxury resorts and other tourists out of sight, I simply sat in silence for a while on my own secret island.

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