By Maria Russo
A tiny country with an even tinier population, Belize is one of the few places on earth where you will find undisturbed jungle, long stretches of placid beach, plenty of organic farms and a healthy handful of people who go without modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing, yet live contently and peacefully off the fertile land.
It is also a place known for one of its more touristy islands, Ambergris Caye, which still, in many ways, is laid back (golf carts are the preferred method of transportation here) and brimming with great local restaurants, chocolate shops, cafes and bakeries.
Unfortunately, many people never truly experience the many places in Belize that make the country so alluring. There is much we can learn from a country that values sustainable tourism, its fascinating Mayan history and the health of its natural environment. It is a destination that offers the greatest of simple pleasures rooted in a culture that values community and Mother Nature's fruitful gifts.
Located northeast of Belize in the Caribbean Sea, Ambergris Caye is the country's largest island. It's fairly easy to get here, only requiring a taxi from the main airport to the Marine Terminal in Belize City where you can take a 90-minute ferry ride to San Pedro, the island's main town. You can also take a short flight from Goldson International Airport in Belize City to San Pedro Airport on Ambergris Caye. Both of these options are relatively hassle-free.
Victoria House - Ambergris Caye
One of the best places to stay on Ambergris is the Victoria House. The property is stylish in an understated way with a stunning beach that is quiet and peppered with palm trees that lean, stretch and bend around the grounds like minimalist art sculptures. The hotel's elegant dining option, Pamilla restaurant, is consistently known as the island's best.
The staff here makes you feel like family and cannot offer enough information on the best places to experience the local flavor. You can rent a golf cart from the front desk for a fixed daily or weekly rate, which is the best way to soak in life on the island. The hotel is located five minutes from the heart of San Pedro making daily excursions a cinch, should you decide to leave the sanctuary of the property.
There are a slew of attractions in San Pedro for every type of traveler, but being a foodie, I, of course, was drawn to the local food scene.
Coconut Curry Shrimp - Elvi's Kitchen
Elvi's Kitchen is one of the best spots for a taste of Belizean fare. Ms. Elvi's authentic recipes explode with flavor and spice and the restaurant's vibrant ambience is reminiscent of a Carribean version of my grandmother's house. Try the Mayan Fish and Coconut Curry Shrimp and you'll feel right at home.
MOHO Chocolate - Roasted Cacao Beans
One would be remiss if a stop at MOHO Chocolate and the Belize Chocolate Company is not arranged. Both shops are located in San Pedro and offer delicious, sustainable products and interesting background stories.
MOHO Chocolate is owned by a Belizean family who produces organic chocolate on a small farm in the south of the country. The Belize Chocolate Company was started by a couple from the UK who fell in love with Belize and then later fell in love with making chocolate in Belize. The shop couples as an adorable café with an outside area for sipping Belizean coffee and devouring one of the many delicious chocolate cakes on offer.
Cinnamon Bread by The Baker - Ambergris Caye, Belize
Two bakeries, The Baker (located halfway between the Victoria House and the heart of San Pedro), and Kristy's Pastries (San Pedro) are worth a visit after an early morning stroll on the beach. Try the cinnamon bread, which comes out warm and soft, at The Baker and the banana muffins and cardamom custard danishes at Kristy's.
Photos courtesy of El Secreto
If you want to trade the effervescent spirit of San Pedro for complete tranquility, sail away to El Secreto, an ultra-luxury resort located on the North side of the island. The 13-villa resort retreat is accessible only by boat, tucked away in its own private beachfront enclave. The owners' vision was to fuse "exotic style of the South Pacific, with the authentically relaxed-nature of the Caribbean, while also paying careful attention to every detail of the resort's design and service."
The staff here is not as welcoming as other high-end resort's that I've stayed at, but having the sea virtually at your doorstep and a large minimalist reflecting pool to practice yoga next to was an exquisite treat.
Caye Caulker is a small island located approximately an hour and 15 minutes ferry ride from Ambergris Caye. You can stay here, but accommodations are limited.
This little island has a special vibe; one that is cozy, friendly and distinctly bohemian. You can easily walk a large chunk of the island in one day and not miss any of the great little eateries and conch stands that line the main strip.
"The Split" Caye Caulker
The island is most known for "the Split", a narrow waterway that divides it in two. Some people say that the Split was created by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, which devastated Belize City, however this is a myth. Ramon Reyes, the Village Council Chairman at the time, recounts that he and others dredged the waterway by hand after Hurricane Hattie opened a passage a few inches deep.
Amor y Café - Caye Caulker, Belize
A day on Caye Caulker should consist of breakfast at Amor y Café where you can watch locals, expats and visitors pass by on foot or on bicycles (the only means of transportation here as cars are prohibited) as you sip your Belizean coffee, scoop down some granola with fresh tropical fruit and munch on some toast with a side of eggs.
Amor y Café Granola, Caye Caulker, Belize
Once content, walk off the meal with a stroll along the main stretch of the island. Here you will find surf and diving shops, small B&Bs and hotels, eateries, and lively food stalls. Pause for a snack at King Kebab -- the secret to these succulent conch kebabs is the oh-so-delicious glaze -- then hunt down The Lunch Man (he moves his location along the main strip each day) for some excellent Belizean fare. He'll also share some great stories about how he learned to cook from his grandma who passed down many of the recipes he uses today.
Continue walking along Front Street until you reach the Split. Find a shallow spot in the water to bask among for the next several hours as you chat with locals and float along the gentle waves.
The View at Paradiso Cafe - Caye Caulker, Belize
Later dry off and grab lunch and a fresh fruit smoothie at Paradiso Cafe before heading back to San Pedro.
King Kebab Barbeque - Caye Caulker, Belize
Conch Skewers by King Kebab - Caye Caulker, Belize
Located on the western side of Belize, which borders Guatemala, Cayo is the country's largest district. Agriculture is the primary industry here, making it a lovely spot to observe the true Belizean way of life. There are several national parks in the surrounding area that offer jungle, cave and Mayan ruin explorations.
Ka'ana Resort Villa
In the town of San Ignacio, the capital of the Cayo District, lies Ka'ana a boutique resort that offers luxury accommodations - 17 rooms in total - which vary from intimate Queen Casitas to ethereal one and two-bedroom Pool Villas; excellent organic cuisine (many of the ingredients are taken straight from the property's onsite garden); and journey experiences that connect travelers with many of the natural wonders in and around Cayo.
Being that it was my first visit to Cayo, it was wonderful to have a group of knowledgeable staff that lived locally and could offer interesting information about what to see and experience during my stay.
Being that Belize requires travelers to go with a guide when exploring some of its national parks, my husband and I relied on Ka'ana to arrange two journey experiences (with local guides) offered through the hotel.
Yaxha National Park, Guatemala
The first experience required an easy 60-minute drive across the Guatemalan border to Yaxha National Park, a Mesoamerican archaeological site in the northeast of the Petén Basin region, and a former ceremonial center and city of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization.
The ruins are nestled in the jungle, making for a surreal experience with the haunting sounds of howler monkeys in the distance.
Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable, offering interesting stories about the history behind the ancient Maya civilization and the ruins, which include the remains of more than 500 structures with a number of major archaeological groups linked by causeways. Approximately 40 Maya stelae have been discovered at the site, about half of which feature sculptures.
Our journey ended at sunset with an easy hike up 216, the tallest pyramid structure in Yaxha. The view is quite stunning, especially while the sun melts behind the verdant canopy of the jungle.
View from 216: Yaxha National Park , Guatemala
Our second journey experience was much more adventurous and required some stamina and a tolerance for chilly water and human remains.
Deep in the heart of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve lies, Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM, a cave that houses a notable Maya civilization archaeological site that includes skeletons, ceramics, and stoneware dating back approximately 1,000 years. The cave was believed to be the site of offerings and human sacrifices
After traversing the jungle, crossing three rivers, treading through chilly water, squeezing between stalactites and completing a steep climb up a vertical rock formation, we reached the cave's main chamber, which houses several areas of skeletal remains. (Before entering this area, we were asked to remove our shoes and slip on socks to reduce foot traffic).
The most notable remain is "The Crystal Maiden", the skeleton of a teenage girl, possibly a sacrifice victim, whose bones have been calcified to a sparkling, crystallized appearance.
The overall time spent in this magnificent cave is three hours, which allows visitors to truly absorb the historical phenomenon that is this natural and cultural wonder.
Since we had planned on being in Cayo for only three days, we were limited to what we could experience there. Ka'ana offers several other journey packages that fuse nature and culture complemented with the knowledge and savvy jungle skills of local guides.
Conch Ceviche at Ka'ana Resort
Placencia and Punta Gorda
Although I did not visit either of these areas during this trip, I felt it was necessary to mention them since all my research showed that each destination offers intimate experiences with nature and local communities. Placencia is most known for its nearly perfect beaches and Punta Gorda is revered for its sleepy fishing villages and undisturbed jungle.
The best way to gain an appreciation for all that Belize has to offer is to spend time exploring the diverse regions of the country. You will, undoubtedly find that the country's offering of simple pleasures creates a rich experience for anyone willing to seek them out.
About the Writer
Maria is the Co-Founder & Editor of The Culture-ist. She has worked in print and broadcast media at companies such as: MTV Networks, Harper's Bazaar, Warner Bros. and WOR News Talk Radio. Her work has appeared on National Geographic, BBC America, The Huffington Post, People, Stylelist and AFAR among others. Maria is a philanthropy buff and avid traveler who loves natural wonders, cultural food experiences and finding the remaining places on earth left undisturbed. Follow Maria on Twitter @MariaCultureist
Photos by Anthony Russo unless specified otherwise