I put Belize on my list of top 10 trips I wish I had taken in 2009, so I was very excited to hear all about Amanda Lobell and Neil Roach’s recent vacation there. They had a fantastic time dividing their week between the jungle and the beach, and managed to see much of this amazing Central American country, which is approximately the same size of their home state of Massachusetts. Here, Amanda shares their highlights and explains the main differences between Belize and Costa Rica.
Where They Went: A few days after Christmas, we flew to Belize City and immediately transferred to a lodge near San Ignacio in the jungle-y Cayo district, where we based ourselves for four days.
We did lots of excursions, including swimming at the nearby Rio on Pools (pictured left) and visiting the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. We also went canoeing and kayaking on the Macal and Mopan rivers and canoeing through Barton Creek Cave (pictured above). It rained a lot while we were there, so unfortunately we were unable to tour Actun Tunichil Muknal (aka ATM) cave, which is famous for its Mayan artifacts and skeletons.
Four days later, we returned to Belize City and caught a 25-minute flight to Placencia, which is a beachy peninsula on the southern coast. (In Belize, flights seem to be kind of like buses — really frequent and you don’t have to book in advance. Flying has become very popular because the roads don’t have a good reputation, although most of them seemed fine to us). We stayed in a town near Placencia — Maya Beach — for three days.
Again, the weather wasn’t great because Belize was having a “cold front,” which sounds funny because it was still 75-80F most of the time. But it wasn’t warm enough for the cloud cover to burn off so we only got one sunny day, which we spent snorkeling off Silk Caye (pictured at bottom), which has a ton of cool fish to observe. Another highlight from our time at Maya Beach was a motor boat tour through the mangrove swamps of Monkey River, where we saw an incredible amount of wildlife: dolphins, howler monkeys, manatees, crocodiles and plenty of birds (pictured right).
Where They Stayed: For the first part of our trip, we stayed at the Maya Mountain Lodge. Then we went to the Maya Beach Hotel, which became our clear favorite. (Despite having similar sounding names, the two hotels are not related.) The Maya Mountain Lodge was fine enough, but we felt that our room could have used an update. We liked that we were able to book all of our activities through the hotel, a convenience factor that was important to us since we weren’t staying in the main town.
That said, the service (including activity booking) was noticeably superior at the Maya Beach Hotel, as it was run by a friendly couple who truly seemed to take an interest in the guests having a good time and exploring the area. We stayed in one of the cheaper rooms which was actually a small studio right next to the main building, and we enjoyed having the privacy. The hotel’s beach was great, and they had a nice hammock set-up and a pretty dock (pictured left). Also, the food at their restaurant, Maya Beach Bistro, was delicious so we ate all of our meals there. They bake their own bread and made really good bagels!
Belize vs. Costa Rica: [Note: Since Amanda had visited Costa Rica a few years ago, I asked her to compare to the two tourist-friendly countries.] Belize and Costa Rica are quite similar in that they are both Central American countries with great beaches and jungles, but they also have their differences. All of Belize’s beaches face the Caribbean, while Costa Rica’s more popular beaches line the Pacific. Hence, Belize’s beaches have more of that classic Caribbean island-feel (even though Belize, of course, is not an island) than Costa Rica’s do. Another difference is that pretty much everyone speaks English in Belize as that’s the official language. So it felt a lot less foreign over all than Costa Rica.
Another thing is that Belize is much smaller so it’s pretty easy to see a lot of the country in a short time, and the tourism industry is set up to facilitate that. For instance, it would have been possible to do a day trip to any of the spots we visited while staying at Maya Mountain Lodge from Maya Beach Hotel, as they were only about a 2.5-hour drive apart. So if you didn’t want to commit to staying in the jungle area but didn’t want to miss some key attractions and didn’t mind long days of day-tripping travel, you could definitely see things you wanted that way; although it might get somewhat expensive as tours tend to you charge you more for further destinations.