photo: Peter Donaldson/Alamy

Belize: The Other Mayan Riviera

By Waheeda Harris

With its Caribbean coastline, ancient heritage and rugged landscape, Belize just may be the next great Mayan Riviera. Travellers who’ve been to the ruins of Tulum and Chichén Itzá should set sights on this more off-the-beaten-path sun destination. Offering a mix of coastal islands, the world’s second longest barrier reef, lush rainforest and Mayan sites, Belize is emerging as the next hot ticket in Central America.

Many people first discover this former British colony, located south of Mexico and next to Guatemala, by sea. Cruise ships have made Belize City a popular port of call for day trippers. But with direct flights from Alberta, the country has become a destination in its own right for Albertans.

The pre-Columbian site of Lamanai is a perfect introduction for visitors looking to indulge in Mayan history. A 40-kilometre boat tour starts in Orange Walk Town and travels up the New River, passing Mennonite farms, local fishermen and numerous bird species, including egret, heron and the aptly named Jesus Christ bird, which appears to walk on water. You may even glimpse a camera-shy crocodile before reaching the lagoon and entrance to the archaeological site.

A Mayan village first established in the 16th century BC, Lamanai (meaning “submerged crocodile”) was excavated in the 1970s by a team led by Canadian Dr. David Pendergast of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. It features three major pyramids: the Mask, Jaguar and High temples. The first two seem smaller than they actually are, while the High Temple, believed to date from 100 BC, is a towering 33 metres and offers a view above the treetops. A modern wood staircase makes your climb to the top easier and protects the temple’s ancient steps from erosion.

For those who want to channel Indiana Jones while learning more history, San Ignacio is the place to be. Found within the lush interior near the Guatemalan border, Belize’s second-largest city is adventure tour HQ—for ziplining, hiking, white-water rafting and caving.

Belize Lamanai Temple
The ancient ruins of Lamanai (photo: SD619/iStock)

The Actun Tunichil Muknal, known locally as the ATM, is the must-do cave tour—but it’s not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to swim and wade through a river and hike for 45 minutes in the unrelenting sun before entering the cave. Guides lead small groups and all the wading, swimming, climbing and scrambling up, over and through rock formations of the cave is a prelude to a lesson in Mayan history. Once used for religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the ATM features ancient ceramics and human bones. But the main attraction rests at the end of the cave, past an expansive area called The Cathedral. Here you’ll find the ghoulish Crystal Maiden, a complete calcified skeleton of a teen girl, an apparent sacrifice to the rain god Chaac.

For some modern comfort after such intrepid exploration, head by bus to the coastal town of Hopkins, a two-hour drive south of Belize City. A decidedly different kind of resort area, Hopkins doesn’t have large chain hotels—or even a paved road. But there are many family-run resorts, friendly locals and an endless beachfront. This is a welcome spot for laid-back sun-seekers and swimmers who don’t mind sharing the Caribbean Sea with manatees. (Belize boasts Central America’s largest population of the gentle marine mammal.)

This part of Belize is also home to the Garifuna, a civilization descended from Arawak and Carib Indians. The Garifuna made their way from St. Vincent via Roatán, Honduras and onto Belize in the 1830s, when it was known as British Honduras. Visitors learn first-hand about the Garifuna by tasting hudutu, a hearty fish and coconut-milk soup served with a side of mashed plantain, at one of the many local restaurants. Or listen to street performers playing punta and paranda, two styles of music fueled by drums and maracas. Those who want to go a step further can take a class in drumming at the Lebeha Drumming Center. Would-be percussionists learn hand-drumming techniques and discover more about the importance of music to Garifuna culture.

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As in many areas of Central America, Belize’s rainforest and wildlife are under threat. That includes two indigenous primates, the Geoffroy’s spider monkey and Yucatán black howler monkey. At the Community Baboon Sanctuary in the village of Bermudian Landing, visitors venture through the trees to meet the resident monkey population. The sanctuary is run by a local women’s group and works with the community to protect the monkeys and their habitat. To help support the sanctuary, travel companies like G Adventures include the facility on their tours.

Another women’s organization working with the community and tourists is the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative in southern Belize. Offering lunch and hands-on tortilla-making classes, the cooperative has made it a mission to educate themselves, their fellow villagers and visitors about Mayan history through cuisine and art.

The group was founded to encourage women to reclaim their past by creating pottery in the style of their ancestors. It also added a training program to provide work for unemployed youth in the community. By trial and error, the women have learned how to make their own ceramics, using the ancient techniques of sourcing clay from fields and creating natural paint from rainforest plants. The co-op has a gift shop selling handmade creations, such as ceramic jewellery, pots and bowls, along with embroidered items, including dresses, belts, tablecloths and tea towels, which make for truly one-of-a-kind Belizean souvenirs.

Belize Caye Caulker
The colourful coastline of Caye Caulker (photo: National Geographic Creative/Alamy)

Belize’s offshore islands lure many travellers with their low-key vibes and easy access to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Small ferries transport water lovers from the port of Belize City to popular isles, including Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, where the pace is decidedly slower than the mainland.

Going barefoot on Caye Caulker is the standard: Cars are rare and the fastest transportation is by bicycle or kayak, which is also the best way to explore the island mangroves. Caye Caulker’s main street brims with small hotels, souvenir shops—to purchase a neon “Un-Belizeable” t-shirt—and casual beach bar-eateries.

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Experienced divers focus on the well-known Great Blue Hole, first popularized by French marine biologist and explorer Jacques Cousteau. The hole, including its surrounding reef, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and does require some skill to navigate; less-experienced divers and snorkellers should stick to the calm waters of the reef. Boat tours take swimmers and snorkellers to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve to see stingrays, sharks, seahorses, dolphins and the occasional manatee and sea turtle.

Following an afternoon exploring the depths of this pristine sea, it’s time to kick back with a cold Belikin, the national beer of Belize. Basking in the sun and gazing at Belikin’s temple-emblazoned label, it’s easy to under-stand why this Mayan paradise is on the verge of a tourism boom.

Belize Statue Toucan
Belize boasts distinctive history and amazing wildlife (photos: Dinodia Photos/Alamy; Brent Ward/Alamy)

THE ESSENTIALS
Getting there: WestJet offers seasonal direct flights from Alberta to Belize City. Book your flights with AMA.

Language: A former British colony, the majority of Belizeans speak English and Spanish

Currency: The Belize dollar, which is worth about 60 cents Canadian

Weather: Year-round average temperature of 26 C, plus humidity; sunscreen and insect repellent are essential

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SEE IT WITH AMA!
AMA will help you find the perfect vacation to Belize—whether you’re looking for flights, packages or even a guided adventure

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC JOURNEYS EXPLORE BELIZE
G Adventures, Depart Oct. 2017–Dec. 2018
10-day guided adventure of Belize, including immersive cultural experiences. Take part in a Garifuna drum lesson, tour a hot sauce factory, navigate Mayan ruins and relax on pristine beaches
Call a travel specialist: 1-866-667-4777

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