Where to go

The reputation of Belize City is not good but the authorities are working hard to clean it up and present a better face to tourists. Special tourist police have been introduced and crime is much less widespread than it was. That said, you may still be offered drugs on the streets. It is worth spending a day or two having a look around Belize City and getting a feel for the old town - it's not possible to really know Belize if you haven't spent some time in the city. Generally, the longer people stay the better they like it and resident Belizeans are friendly and welcoming. The short journey to visit Belize Zoois definitely worthwhile. A little further on is the tiny capital of Belmopan, an hour from Belize City.

The northern cayes, a series of paradise islands with crystal-clear waters, palm-fringed beaches and mangroves, are the main hub of tourism. Ambergris Caye, more upmarket, and Caye Caulker, popular with budget travellers, are the two most-developed cayes, from where you can take trips to the smaller cayes and marine parks. They attract a wide range of travellers wishing to sample the delights of a Caribbean island. The atmosphere is laid-back with plenty of watersports for the active, spectacular diving and snorkelling on the barrier reef and outlying cayes and the world-famous Blue Hole.

On the mainland, the Northern Highway leads from Belize City to the Mexican border through some of the most productive farmland in the country. There is still plenty of room for wildlife at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, for black howler monkeys; the Crooked Tree Lagoons and Wildlife Sanctuary, for birds. The archaeological remains of Lamanaiwith a 112-ft temple (the tallest known pre-Classic Maya structure) is easily visited from Orange Walk, and Altún Ha, once a major Maya ceremonial site, are essential visits for 'Maya-philes'. The largest town in the north, Orange Walk, is a multi-racial city of Mennonites, Creoles, Maya and other Central Americans making their living from agriculture.

The Western Highway leads from Belize City, skirting the capital Belmopan, to San Ignacioand the Guatemalan border. San Ignacio and its twin town Santa Elena have a pleasant climate and are in a beautiful setting of wooded hills straddling the Macal River. A side trip to the Mountain Pine Ridgearea offers great hiking, amid spectacular broadleaf forests, rivers, rapids, waterfalls and caves, making a worthwhile excursion with much to be enjoyed along the entire route to Caracol. There are several Maya sites, notably Cahal Pech, on the edge of town; El Pilar, north through Bullet Tree Falls; Xunantunich, across the Mopan River by hand-cranked ferry at San José Succotz with plazas, temples, ball court and castillo; and Caracol, the country's largest site to date rivalling Tikal in size, where the Sky Palace pyramid reaches a height of 138 ft.

The Southern Highway runs along the eastern edge of the Maya Mountains, through sparsely populated countryside dotted with indigenous settlements, to Dangriga and Hopkins Village and then past the world-famous Cockscomb Basin Wildlife (Jaguar) Sanctuary. The coastal area around Placenciaoffers idyllic palm-fringed beaches, diving and sport fishing, with plenty of accommodation choices for all budgets. Offshore cayes are reached by boat from Dangrigaor Mango Creek. In the far south is Punta Gorda with the ruins of Lubaantun, a late-Maya ceremonial site where the infamous Crystal Skull was discovered. You can stay at guesthouses in Maya villages nearby as part of a community tourism project.

Suggested itineraries

There are two simple options: coming from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, head south into Belize City, pop out to the cayes then make your way south through Placencia to Punta Gorda and on to Guatemala or Honduras; or go west through San Ignacio visiting the caves of the highlands, and then to Tikal in Guatemala. If coming from Guatemala, visit San Ignacio, Belize City and the cayes before heading south. You can get a good feel for Belize in a fortnight.

When to go

The high season runs from mid-December to March and pushes into May with clear skies and warm temperatures (25-30°C). Inland, in the west, day temperatures can reach 38°C, but the nights are cooler and usually pleasant. Between November and January there are cold spells during which the temperature at Belize City may fall as low as 13°C. Humidity is normally high, making it 'sticky' most of the time in the lowlands.

There are sharp annual variations in rainfall. From 1270 mm in the north and around 1650 mm in Belize City, there is a huge increase up to 4310 mm down in the south. The driest months are April and May; in June and July there are heavy showers followed by blue skies. Around August the maugeroccurs, a mini-dry season of about six weeks. September to November tend to be overcast and there are more insects during these months.

Hurricanes threaten the country from June to November along the coast. An efficient warning system was put in place after Hurricane Mitch and most towns and large villages have hurricane shelters. 'Hurricane Preparedness' instructions are issued annually. Do not ignore local instructions about what to do following a forecast.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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