With a coastline that runs the entire length of the country, a skinny profile that means you’re never more than 100 kilometres from the sea, the northern hemisphere’s largest (and the world’s second-largest) coral reef right on your doorstep, and the environment and climate of the tropics, it’s no wonder Belize is a popular destination for sun, sand, and sea lovers.
Having lived here for over eighteen months, I’ve now sampled a fair few of the country’s islands and beaches – not all of them (there’s over 350 kilometres of coastline and more than 400 islands), but enough to see the main ones and come up with my ‘Top Ten’ (there’s actually only five, but who’s counting?).
For many years a small island with one fishing village, Caye Caulker is now firmly on the Belizean tourist trail, although it has always been more popular with younger independent travellers than older package tourists. Signs like “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” and “Go Slow”, along with the lack of motorised traffic (and paved roads!), and easy-going Caribbean vibe make Caye Caulker a relaxed and friendly place. Suntanned backpackers cycle down dirt roads where the only hazard is the odd sleeping dog, and everything is on ‘island time’. With a wide range of eating, drinking, and sleeping options, many of them at low prices, and all a short ferry ride from Belize City, I’ve probably been here more times than anywhere else in the country (outside of my house, work, and the local pub, that is).
You can snorkel or dive on the nearby reef, go for a sunset cruise, paddle a kayak around the mangroves, take a trip to see the local manatees, or just soak up the sun with a cold drink. Caye Caulker is also (along with nearby Ambergris Caye) the best place to arrange a trip to the northern atolls of Lighthouse and Turneffe, which have some of the best diving in the Caribbean. The only downside to the island is the beach (or rather the lack of) – beaches on the cayes tend to be narrow ribbons of sand, with clear but shallow water and plenty of sea grass. In that respect, they’re not as good for sunbathing and swimming as the beaches of the Caribbean or Mexico’s Yucatán. But at The Split (the middle of the island, where a channel splits it in two), there’s a popular swimming and sunbathing spot. And when the music is playing at the nearby Lazy Lizard bar, the sun is shining, and the beer is cold, who needs a beach?
Hopkins is unlike any other tourist area that I’ve been to in Belize. Sure, there are a few bars and restaurants and a couple of handicraft shops (and plenty of accommodation options for a small place), and there are always some other holidaymakers wandering around. But Hopkins feels less like a tourist trap and more like a Caribbean village, more so than any other beach resort in the country. Wander around the village and the views aren’t of concrete hotels and money-changers and shops selling T-shirts that say “I Can’t Belize It!” (as well as hordes of sunburnt tourists wearing said T-shirts); they’re of wooden houses on stilts, women hanging out washing on lines strung between palm trees, old men asleep in hammocks, and small children playing. Admittedly, there are some huge condos going up at either end of the village, but everything in between them remains cheap and chilled. The locals are mostly Garifuna, which makes Hopkins a great place to be on Garifuna Settlement Day, and on the weekends there’s always someone playing some local music (the Garifuna are justifiably famous for their drumming).
Hopkins can be a little difficult to reach by public transport (there are only two buses a day from the nearest city, Dangriga), but it’s easy to catch a bus on the Southern Highway to the junction and hitch a ride for the last few miles. Like Caye Caulker, the locals are friendly to the steady trickle of tourists who pass through. But unlike the cayes, there’s not as much to do here and nowhere near as many tourists (although for me, that’s part of the attraction). After a swim in the Caribbean Sea (the beach is wider and the sea deeper than at the cayes), or a cycle ride around the local villages, an evening in Hopkins typically consists of a nice meal, a few drinks, and maybe a game of dominoes, while listening to some Garifuna drumming.
From the laid-back and relaxed to the horizontal and near-comatose. Tobacco Caye is one of the smallest inhabited islands in Belize (stand in the middle of the caye and you’re never more than one minute’s walk from the sea). It’s a thirty-minute trip from Dangriga with Captains Buck or Dog (I promise I’m not making those names up!), and once you’re there you have the choice of about six places to stay (all with their own restaurants), plus two bars, sharing the island with its permanent population of twenty, and not that many more tourists. There are no cars (no vehicles of any kind, there aren’t any roads for them to go on!), no dogs, and not much to do, apart from eat fresh fish (all the hotels include meals in their rates, so everyone eats where they stay), swing in a hammock, top up your tan, and swim. Muy tranquilo, as they say in Spanish.
But if you do fancy some exercise, the island is slap bang on top of the reef, so, unlike many places in the country, you don’t have to take a boat trip to go snorkelling, you just slap on your gear and jump in the water. And because the island is less touristed than many other cayes (not to mention less populated), the surrounding reef is in a very healthy state, and is perfect for snorkelling and diving. Tobacco Caye is also one of the closest places to Glover’s Reef, Belize’s southernmost atoll, and the site of some of the finest diving in the Caribbean.
This is where we start to go from relaxed and backpacker-y to more bustling and package-tourist-y. Like many Belizean beach resorts, Placencia used to be a small fishing village, but it’s now given over almost completely to tourism. The 25km-long Placencia peninsula is home to some of the fanciest resorts in the country, and at the end of the peninsula Placencia village is home to The Sidewalk, officially the world’s narrowest street! The road from the mainland was finally paved in 2010, meaning you can now drive comfortably all the way to the village – past the huge developments of Riversdale, by the swanky resorts of Maya Beach, through the Garifuna village of Seine Bight (its small wooden houses sitting rather incongruously between the huge gated resort areas), and into Placencia village.
With a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other (and with no more than 500 metres separating them), Placencia still has a relaxed feel to it, but the main road is often buzzing with traffic, prices are higher than at many places in this list, and there’s less of the local feel that you get in Caye Caulker or Hopkins. But the beach is nice, there’s a wide selection of restaurants and bars, and some beautiful islands off the coast that are perfect for diving, snorkelling, sailing, and fishing. Placencia is also one of the best places in the country to swim with whale sharks, when they pass by every full moon between March and July.
Last on the list is Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island, and the most developed of all the cayes. It’s named for the grey, waxy substance produced in the digestive glands of sperm whales, which was an essential ingredient in perfumes for hundreds of years up to the 1970s, when scientists came up with synthetic alternatives (and some people started to realise that slaughtering an animal so that women can smell nice was a bit out of order). Large lumps of the stuff were often found washed ashore on the island over the years, hence the moniker. [A few quick ambergris facts: sailors originally thought it was semen, hence the sperm whale’s name; it’s actually a secretion produced to aid the whale’s digestion; it’s mostly passed in whale poop, although they occasionally vomit it up as well; the ancient Chinese thought it was dragons’ spittle; and medieval Europeans carried a ball of it with them as a cure against the plague]. And speaking of gross animals, Madonna wrote the song “La Isla Bonita” about the island. Although that was back in 1987, she probably wouldn’t recognise the place today – San Pedro (the capital) is the fifth-biggest town in the country, with hotels on every corner and golf carts zipping through the streets.
But despite all the development, San Pedro (as the whole island is often called, in a classic case of pars pro toto) is still a fun destination – it may be the most expensive place on this list, and have more huge concrete resorts than anywhere else in Belize, but it’s still a long way from Cancún-style development (and having visited Cancún for the first time recently, I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that!). The northern tip of the caye abuts Mexico, and the Hispanic influence is obvious in the people, language, and customs, especially every year at the Costa Maya Festival. There are some great restaurants, and watersports of every description. And like all the islands and beaches of Belize, the pace is relaxed and the weather tropical.