If you need an escape, might we humbly suggest Belize? Located on the east coast of Central America, nestled against the Caribbean Sea, you’ll find the sparsely populated country—the only one without a coastline on the Pacific Ocean. The scenery is a given, but there’s so much, much more. Though Belize is still quite young, having only celebrated 40 years of independence in September, it’s a place to experience. Minutes upon arrival, you’ll find yourself immersed in a culture that is ancient, flavorful, and so very vibrant.
Be warned, as a whole, the country is casual and laidback. You can skip out on packing your fancier belongings and instead fill your itinerary with a mix of adventure and rejuvenation. Spelunking and a spa day? We’re talking mind, body, and soul. Adrenaline junkies and nature lovers can faun over zip-lining excursions or visit 1,000 Foot Falls. More interested in people-watching? Hit Placencia’s legendarily tiny main street and the annual sidewalk art festival. Foodies, brace yourselves. Dive into Miss Bertha’s tamales, Dario’s meat pies, and—oh boy—Marie Sharp’s hot sauces. There’s truly something for everyone, and there are practical reasons to visit, too. English is the first language, for starters. One U.S. dollar is worth two Belizean, so talk about bang for your buck. And they’ve banned single-use plastics, which is certainly something to celebrate.
Here, find the best of the best in doing, dining, and digs in Belize.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve
Did you know there’s only one jaguar reserve in the entire world? It’s in Belize, obviously. Plan to spend a full day at Cockscomb Basin, where copious walking trails and hiking paths offer the perfect chance to admire the native flora and fauna. Here, monkeys and toucans are par for the course. (Belize is a bird-lovers paradise—there are 300 known varieties in the Basin alone.) Try out the River Overlook or Warrie trails for animal sightings, but take note, it’s unlikely to catch a glimpse of an actual jaguar, sneaky as they are. If elusive jungle cats aren’t your thing, there are also scenic trails leading to waterfalls and lagoons.
The Great Blue Hole
It’s common knowledge that the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, but few may know that Belize’s waters are home to the planet’s largest living reef. Aside from snorkeling, there’s lots to see and do off the country’s coast. Take a boat trip to see the Great Blue Hole—and check out the inland Blue Hole National Park while you’re at it. Looking for a truly unforgettable adventure? Go swimming with behemoth whale sharks at Gladden Spit. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you won’t regret. (Trust us.)
The Maya Ruins
Away from the beach and Caribbean waters, there’s dense, mountainous jungle just waiting to be explored inland. What better way to see the jungle than on horseback? Spend a morning learning from the incredibly knowledgeable guides at Morningside Ranch. These experts—who are of actual Mayan descent, might I add—will lead you through jungle and across rivers on the journey to the ancient Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. Along the way, you’ll hear fascinating tidbits about everything from best equine practices to the medicinal uses of nearby vegetation. Those craving even more cultural history can also plan a trek to Caracol, the largest Mayan ruins in Belize.
Rumfish y Vino
Rumfish y Vino is the kind of restaurant I wish I could dine at anywhere in the world. When great drinks, great food, and great ambiance coalesce, the result is pure gastronomy magic. Enjoy open sea air, warm lighting, and trellised greenery while sipping from the best wine list in Belize, or any of the local beers on draft. The cochinita tacos are a can’t-miss menu item, but I also need to draw your attention to the short rib lasagna. Yeah, they did that. While flip-flops and a cover-up would still suffice, this is one of the more upscale places I visited in Belize, so if you’re looking to break out that mini skirt and snap a pic of your night out, here’s your chance.
If there’s one thing I learned from the late, great Anthony Bourdain, it’s that the more an establishment looks like someone’s mom’s kitchen, the tastier and more authentic the food will be. Luckily for you, most of the options in Belize are mom-and-pop-type joints, as you won’t find any chain restaurants in the entire country. (Imagine that!) You might expect Benny’s Kitchen to serve on paper plates—think: the restaurant where your van driver will give you a rundown of the best menu items because everyone in town loves Benny’s. Take a seat and you’re in for a home-cooked meal. My personal recommendation would be to order as much salbutes, fried shrimp, and fresh pineapple juice as they’ll let you. Although this might be someone’s mom’s cooking, it’s certainly not my mother’s, so I filled up like I was about to hibernate for winter. No offense, mom.
The Paddle House
What I do recommend is dining breakfast, lunch, or dinner at The Paddle House. What I do not recommend is browsing its photo gallery of sumptuous dishes—it is mere self-torture. The laidback atmosphere, gorgeous ocean vistas, and beachy interior only bolster the culinary experience guaranteed at The Paddle House. Plus, as with everywhere you go in the country, you’ll be treated like part of the family.
Big Dock Bar
Kicking off your sandals and rope-swinging over open waters seems like the kind of thing you probably shouldn’t do after a mojito (or multiple), but hey, you’re on vacation, right? Located in Hopkins, the Big Dock Bar encapsulates much of what there is to love about Belize in one treehouse-like watering hole. That is to say, there are beautiful ocean views, plenty of local rum, and ceviche to make your mouth water. This is the kind of spot where you could merrily sip the day away. When in Rome—er, Belize.
Barefoot Beach Bar
Barefoot Beach Bar is the place to party in Placencia, if not all of Belize. How do I know? Because it’s where the locals go. It shares all the characteristics of your typical beachfront bar, complete with a candy-colored shiplap, an open-air design, and tables in the sand. What sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill Margaritaville, though, is the block party-esque vibe that runs throughout. The bar is owned and operated by three sisters, and don’t be surprised if you see them walking around to chit-chat with familiar faces. Make sure to order a bitters shot (a traditional menu item you’ll find at many Belizean bars), made of white rum infused with medicinal roots and anise foraged from local jungles. In need of a snack? Order the breadfruit chips with a healthy side of ketchup.
Big Sipper Cruise
You’ve got to love a designated driver—particularly if what they’re driving is a boat. All aboard the Big Sipper Cruise for a float around the coast. The rum drinks, of course, will be flowing as the double-decker party pontoon navigates through local canals. Take a shot for every enviable vacation home. If you time it right, you’ll catch a glorious sunset. There’s simply nothing like getting buzzed on a boat.
Located inland on the western side of Belize lies Ka’ana. This lush spa getaway breathes new meaning into the word “oasis.” Picturesque casitas boast secluded yards with outdoor patios and bathtubs. The luxe villas even have private pools, although the shared pool is more than sufficient for basking in the sun alongside native iguanas. The property’s restaurant and bar are a fairy-lit sight to behold, and you absolutely must order the stuffed fry jacks for breakfast. Don’t forget to grab a cocktail by the firepit either, or do as I did and sip an ice-cold Belikin, the national beer of choice, while enjoying your room’s outdoor shower. Coming soon, Ka’ana will even have a designated landing spot for helicopters, in case you’re fancy like that.
Chabil Mar Villas
Chabil Mar will go down in history as the place where I got the best damn massage of my life. If you’re looking for a beachfront resort, look no further than this gem in Placencia. In addition to stunning grounds, this property boasts two luxurious pools, complimentary kayaks, bikes, and paddle boards, plus a shuttle into town, among other amenities. Each of Chabil Mar’s suites are uniquely designed and decorated, so no two are the same—except for the hammocks that hang outside of each unit. Take a stroll down the dock to dine at Café Chabil’s floating eatery (make sure to order the salbutes and the local cheese plate if they’re on the menu). And definitely make time for one of those incredible Thai massages; your shoulders will thank you. And have I mentioned the remarkable Belizean hospitality? The staff at Chabil Mar takes it to new heights—I ordered a strawberry daiquiri before taking a dip, and a delightful staffer waded into the ocean waters to deliver it. Now that’s service with a smile.
The Lodge at Chaa Creek
Ethical tourism is—or should be—part of all conversations regarding travel. In San Ignacio, you can find The Lodge at Chaa Creek, an award-winning hotel that puts conservation at the forefront. Whether you stay in one of the luxe villas with a private jacuzzi and butler service, or instead opt for the budget-friendly “eco-pods” for a camp-like experience, 10 percent of all revenue is donated to local environmental or community projects through the Chaa Creek Cares initiative. This 400-acre nature reserve has everything you need for an unforgettable stay. Along with offerings like hiking trails, canoes, and horse stables, Chaa Creek has a cultural history center, butterfly farm, hilltop spa, organic produce farm, and al fresco dining. Honestly, you never have to leave the property…but you probably should.
Meg Donohue is the Associate Fashion Commerce Editor at ELLE.com. Her passions include spicy foods, sustainability, and the Y2K remake of Charlie’s Angels. She will never stop hoping for a One Direction reunion tour.