The Areas of Belize
NORTHERN CAYES (ISLANDS)
Belize’s top visitor destination, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful island paradise filled with places for travelers to stay, from budget to luxury resorts. The Northern Cayes and Atolls are made up of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Ambergris Caye is Belize’s largest island, about half the size of Barbados. While the beaches may not be as classically beautiful as the Caribbean, Ambergris has miles and miles of beachfront along the incredible Belize Barrier Reef.
San Pedro is the only real town on Ambergris Caye. It’s laid-back with beautiful pastel buildings and golf carts used as primary transportation. Caye Caulker is smaller, less developed, and much cheaper. With sandy streets, low prices, and a no-rush attitude, travelers can’t get over the charm of Caye Caulker. Both the Northern Cayes are known for beach bars and great, if not crowded, snorkeling.
BARRIER REEF CAYES & ATOLLS (ISLANDS)
More than 400 cayes dot the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Belize, most much smaller than Ambergris or Caye Caulker. A caye or cay, pronounced "key," is simply an island. The cayes in Belize range from small spits of sand, to mangrove webs, to multi-acre private island resorts. Usually on the interior of the Belize Barrier Reef, these islands offer breathtaking calm turquoise water and the tranquility you can only get from being that far from civilization. The South Water Marine Reserve offers excellent diving and remote hotels. South Water Caye and Coco Plum Caye Range offer many small island resorts. Farther out to sea, are the Belize Atolls, Glover’s, Lighthouse, and Turneffe. This area offers three of only four Pacific-style atolls in the Americas and some unique island hotels. In the center of the Atoll, the water is mint green with a white sandy bottom, but the surf breaks on the outskirts of the atoll and the color changes abruptly and the ocean bottom drops to 3,000 feet. The views are impossibly beautiful and the diving is unmatched, a favorite of Jean-Michel Coustau.
Known as the “coast with the most,” the southeast coast of Belize offers the best in local culture, cuisine, and beautiful beaches. Stann Creek District encompasses the southeast coast, including the towns of Dangriga, Hopkins, and Placencia, all of which have recently gained popularity as the country’s top vacation destinations. This area has the best beaches on the mainland, although, as with every spot inside the protecting Barrier Reef, the low wave action means the beaches are narrow and there's usually sea grass in the water close to shore.
Hopkins Village is historically a Garifuna fishing village and known as the friendliest place in Belize. It’s not only one of the best destinations in the country for local culture and cuisine, it’s also the perfect launching pad for adventures. Most Hopkins visitors will see ancient Maya sites, go fishing or SCUBA diving, explore the local restaurants, or learn how to play drums like the Garifuna. In Placencia, most travelers spend days shopping along the longest sidewalk in the world, beach bar hopping, snorkeling or diving, visiting a private island, or getting their adrenaline pumping with zip lining and cave tubing. The SCUBA diving sites from the southeast coast, while a little further from shore, are some of the best and least explored in the country, including Glover’s Atoll, named by Jacques Cousteau as one of his favorite dive sites. Placencia recently opened up a cruise ship port and continues to grow as a tourist destinations. If things continue at this pace, this area will one day rival Ambergris Caye as Belize's top beach destination.
The Toledo District is a true rain forest, full of wildlife and brimming with adventure, all while boarding the Caribbean Sea. This southernmost region of Belize has emerged as a popular ecotourism destination. The area is full of Mayan culture, including ancient sites, better known as “Mayan Ruins” to tourists. While there are bigger and more popular Maya sites elsewhere, Toledo also offers a view into current Maya culture that can’t be seen elsewhere. The area does get the most rain in the country, as you’d expect from its rain forest atmosphere. Luckily, this makes for amazing farms and orchards. Known for its incredible cacao, it’s a favorite destination for chocolate lovers. The Toledo District has incredible agri-tourism and top-notch fishing, including one of the world’s best permit fisheries. While there aren’t really beaches, this area is right along the ocean’s edge and just a short boat ride from gorgeous cayes and see-through turquoise waters.
Western Belize includes the Cayo District, a world class eco-tourism destination that refuses to sell out. There are no high-rise hotels here. Instead, Belize offers its commitment to conservation and eco-tourism with an astonishing two-thirds of the district home to national parks and forest reserves. Visitors choose this area for its authenticity, culture, and adventure. You can canoe or kayak the rivers, ride horseback, hike mountain trails, visit ancient Maya sites, go birding and wildlife spotting, shop at the local market, or explore incredible caves, such as Actun Tunichil Muknal, which some call the highlight of their entire Central American experience.
In addition to the growing eco-tourism, there are multiple cities in this area. Belmopan, once just a sleepy village, is now officially known as Belmopan City. It’s one of only two such official government city destinations, the other, of course, being Belize City. San Ignacio is a thriving little town, usually busy with locals buying supplies and travelers looking to grab a bite and a Belikin at one of the many inexpensive eateries. Santa Elena, just to the east of San Ignacio, merges seamlessly to turn the “Twin Towns” into one. Just beyond, are the Maya village of San Antonio.
Easygoing villages known for farms and orange groves, not beach bars or restaurants. Northern Belize borders Mexico and is made up of Orange Walk and Corozal Districts. Almost always sunny, it rains less here than anywhere in Belize. Travelers typically visit Orange Walk to discover Belize’s ancient Maya sites, Mennonite farmlands, or stay in beautiful jungle lodges. Corozal, on the other hand, is known for it’s laid-back atmosphere and the beautiful Corozal Bay. Lesser known, Sarteneja Village in northeastern Corozal, is a fishing village and wildlife reserve. For those wanting a change from small town living, the northern boarder also offers casinos, one claiming to be the largest in Central America, and a duty-free zone.
Northern Belize also includes Belize City, where most travelers enter the country. Belize City is the central transportation hub of Belize, including the international airport, cruise dock, and ground transportation. Many tourists avoid this area, due to increased crime, and instead choose to spend their trip exploring the natural beauty outside the city. If you do decide to spend some of your stay here, it is recommended to stay in popular tourist areas and take the same safety precautions as in any major city.