Beaches, Belikin, and backpackers galore: the ultimate guide to backpacking Belize

If Belize was any more laid-back, it would be asleep. Like a Caribbean island bolted on to Central America, this miniature country hugs the coast between Mexico and Guatemala — but the region’s only English-speaking nation has a chilled-out vibe all of its own. Backpackers have flocked to the glassy water, white sand and chilled vibe of Caye Caulker for years, but they’re only starting to wake up to what the rest of the country has to offer — pristine forest, haunting Maya ruins, lavish food and drink, world-class coral reef and exotic wildlife on land and beneath the waves. From cays and caves to lobster and Lazy Lizard juice, this is everything you need to know about backpacking Belize.

backpacking belize, girl standing on a beach

Jump straight to:

  1. The best time to visit Belize
  2. Belize visa
  3. Travelling around Belize
  4. Accommodation in Belize
  5. Best places to visit in Belize
  6. Belize itinerary
  7. Belize costs
  8. Belize food
  9. Belize culture
  10. Belize safety
  11. Belize travel advice

Best time to visit Belize

Belize weather is rainy. Really, really rainy. So rainy, in fact, that the six-odd feet of feet of precipitation that dumps down on Belize City every year is more than the annual rainfall of London, Paris and Berlin combined. So it’s no surprise that the brief three-month dry spell between February and April — combined with the Christmas and New Year’s crowds that roll in over December and January — form Belize’s high season, while the wettest months (September and October) are the quietest for travellers.

The other side of all this tropical Belize weather? The heat. Temperatures hover between the mid 20s to low 30s year round across the country. It’s warmest in soggy June and coolest in relatively dry January, and the mercury rarely dips below 20 anywhere at any time of year. Belize is so small that you’ll hardly notice any difference in climate as you travel around — hot and humid is the weather forecast wherever, whenever.

Even during the rainy season, you’ll see heaps of blue sky poking through the clouds. Belize’s greyest month is September, where you can still expect as many sunshine hours — about 180 in total — as Edinburgh enjoys in the middle of summer. That’s why the country is so lush and green — especially in the interior, where there’s a slightly higher chance of rain year-round.

High season (December to April)

When the Christmas decorations go up in December, so do the hostel room rates. Belize’s high season stretches from the beginning of December to the end of April, when the rain rolls in and the crowds roll out. The price of your hostel bed can leap by as much as 50% between mid-December and mid-January — like most places, Belize’s travel hotspots are busiest over Christmas and New Year’s — then spike again over Easter. You’ll need a reservation (and a healthy bank account) over these periods, but the rest of the dry season is arguably the best time to visit Belize.

January’s dry weather signals the start of prime bird-watching season, and the calmer conditions also make it easier to spot marine life, too — the glassy waters during dry season supply the top snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities. This is also the time of year when whale sharks come to feed off the coast of southern Belize, particularly around the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve near Placencia over the full moons of March, April, May and June.

February means Fiesta de Carnaval in San Pedro, and Semana Santa celebrations grip Belize over Easter. One of the few downsides to visiting Belize late in high season is that there won’t be much lobster on the menu — February 15 begins crustaceans’ spawning season, and the fishing nets are put away until June, so you’ll go hungry if you were saving your appetite for dirt-cheap, ocean-fresh lobster.

Low season (June to October)

If you’re not afraid to get wet, budget travellers can save bucketloads while the rain buckets down. The showers start in June and July before persistent rainfall sets in during August, September and October, when the threat of a hurricane lingers. Savvy backpackers can sniff out bargain tours and accommodation but many places are closed, particularly around September, as rain plays havoc with the roads in remote rural areas.

Lobster season kicks off with a string of food festivals up and down the coast, particularly Caye Caulker, Placencia and San Pedro, as well as Hopkins’ mango fest. The fiesta continues into the Costa Maya Festival in San Pedro in late July, which brings Central America to Ambergris Caye to celebrate the region’s shared heritage.

September celebrations rumble from the Battle of St George’s Caye Day on September 10 until Independence Day on September 21, as every town across Belize throws their own patriotic parades, processions and parties. That’s pretty much the only reason to visit during the height of hurricane season, when many hostels close, unpaved roads are muddy, cave tubing is too dangerous and choppy waters ruin the diving.

backpacking belize, white sand beach with a boat

📷 @michielton

Shoulder season (May and November)

May and November are perhaps the two best months to visit Belize. Like Goldilocks would say if she was backpacking through Central America, it’s not too rainy, not too crowded, and just right. High season winds down after Easter but the rain doesn’t really arrive until June, leaving a neat little window in May. Then the storms ease up in November but the tourists don’t really return until North America starts to freeze around Thanksgiving, making November a great time to visit too.

Need a sweetener? Punta Gorda hosts a chocolate festival in May to celebrate all things Maya, while on November 19, the beaches of the south coast are awash with rum and drums to toast Garifuna Settlement Day. Los Finados — Belize’s answer to Mexico’s Día de Muertos, with similarly colourful tributes to the dead — is another important date on the calendar on the first two days of November.

Belize visa

If you’re reading this guide and asking yourself, ‘Do I need a visa to go to Belize?’, the answer is probably no. Passport holders from every European Union country, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, nearly all of Latin America, and loads more nations listed here do not need a visa to enter Belize. You’re also exempt if you’re not on this list but you’re a permanent resident of the US or Canada, or hold a multiple-entry visa to either of those countries or the Schengen Zone. If you do need to apply for a Belize visa, check here for all the info.

Entering Belize is straightforward, whether you’re rocking up by land, sea or air. You’ll be asked for a valid passport (duh) and maybe (but probably not) proof of funds and an onward ticket to get a 30-day entry stamp in your passport. You can also extend your stay by another 30 days for a maximum of six months at any immigration office (there’s one in each of Belize’s six districts). But really, if you spend any longer than a month in such a tiny country, you’ll have covered every square inch of it.

Although most travellers don’t have to pay for a Belize visa, everyone is stung by the departure tax. If you fly out of the country from Belize City, you’ll be slugged US$55.50, which is normally included in the cost of your ticket. Exiting by land or sea is cheaper — BZ$40 or US$20, payable in cash, and even cheaper on the water taxi out of Placencia, which only costs BZ$7.50 (US$3.75). That amount is the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) fee — the portion of your departure tax that helps fund Belize’s nature reserves, so at least your coin is going to a good cause.

The water taxi from Caye Caulker to Chetumal in Mexico — the stepping stone to Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancún — is always full of bleary-eyed backpackers who had to set an early alarm for the 7am departure. And they might get a rude shock when Mexican customs officials line up their bags and invite German shepherds to sniff through their socks and undies. Drugs are an issue in this part of the world and the customs process can seem a little intense, but of course, you have nothing to worry about if you’re not doing anything wrong.

It’s hard to imagine cucumber-cool Belizeans having an argument about anything, but Belize and Guatemala are engaged in a territorial dispute over the southern half of the country — land that Guatemala reckons belongs to them. The matter remains unresolved — you’ll notice the border on Google Maps is marked by a dotted line rather than a solid one — but it shouldn’t affect backpackers at all, and there are few reports of any major issues. The crossing between Belize’s San Ignacio and Guatemala’s Flores — the only land border these neighbours currently share — is just like any other. The rest of the map is so jungly that no other roads connect the two countries.

backpacking belize, girl standing on a rope bridge

📷 @maher

Travelling around Belize

  • Flying into Belize

Belize has two airlines — Maya Island Air and Tropic Air — that run efficient services across a number of super-short domestic routes on even tinier propeller planes, some seating as few as three passengers. The flights are quick, but you pay for the convenience — the 10-minute hop from Belize City to Caye Caulker costs US$64 on Maya, while the half-hour trip from Belize City to San Ignacio starts at US$133.25 on Tropic.

From north to south, Maya connects Corozal, Orange Walk, San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel, Belize City, Dangriga, Kanantik, Placencia, Savannah and Punta Gorda, while Tropic covers Corozal, Orange Walk, San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Belize City, Belmopan, San Ignacio, Dangriga, Placencia and Punta Gorda. Tropic also links Belize City with three international destinations: Cancún in Mexico, Flores in Guatemala and Roatán on Honduras’ Bay Islands.

These two airlines also put on scenic flights over the Great Blue Hole and some of Belize’s other big-ticket attractions… for a price. A one-hour flyover can cost US$200+ — email the carriers for a quote, if you’ve got that sort of cash to splash.

There are two airports in Belize City — the Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) about 16 kilometres from downtown, and the Belize City Municipal Airport (TZA) much closer — that both service domestic destinations, so check your booking before you rock up to the wrong place.

International flights aren’t cheap either — the one hour 45 minute journey from Belize City to Cancún costs around US$300 on Tropic, for example — so most backpackers won’t fly in and out of Belize. And there’s really no need to, with boats and buses linking Caye Caulker with Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, San Ignacio with Flores in Guatemala, and the south with Honduras — these are the logical exit and entry points to Belize for backpackers winding through Central America.

  • Belize water taxi

A fleet of ferries putter between the mainland and the islands, particularly the well trodden route from Belize City to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. How to get from Belize City to San Pedro and Caye Caulker isn’t difficult to figure out — Ocean Ferry Belize (five daily departures) and Belize Water Taxi (nine daily departures) are the two main operators, setting off from the Belize City ferry terminal near the Swing Bridge. On Ocean Ferry, the 45 minutes to Caye Caulker costs US$15 one-way and US$25 return, while the one hour and 15 minutes to San Pedro is US$23 one-way and US$35 return.

Belize Water Taxi is a little more expensive, but they’re also your ticket into Mexico. The daily boat to Chetumal in Mexico — your gateway to the Yucatán Peninsula, including Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancún — leaves Caye Caulker at 7am (US$55 one-way) then San Pedro at 8.30am (US$50 one-way).

The Thunderbolt boat also makes a daily run from Corozal — an untouristy town just south of the Mexican border — to San Pedro and back (BZ$50 one-way, BZ$90 return). Down the coast, the superbly named Hokey Pokey Water Taxi links Placencia with the mainland seven times a day, plus a series of charters between Placencia, Dangriga and Punta Gorda and ports in Honduras and Guatemala. Between the cays, water taxis are everywhere, and some river boats also chug around inland, such as the Lamanai Maya complex.

backpacking belize, Belize/ Belmopan, roaring creek river

📷 @___yugen___

  • Buses in Belize

To list every bus company in Belize would keep us here all week, and to transcribe their hand-scribbled timetables would take even more time. Long story short, there are loads of buses tackling three main routes out of Belize City, with most long-distance ones departing from the old Novelo’s terminal on West Collet Canal Street. One is the journey north to Corozal, en route to Mexico. The second goes west to San Ignacio, then onwards to Flores and the rest of Guatemala. Number three heads south, stopping in Dangriga, Independence (where you can hop on a water taxi to Placencia), and Punta Gorda.

All that competition means prices are consistently low. The bus from Belize City to San Ignacio, for example, takes a tick over two hours and costs around BZ$10, while the six-hour trip all the way down to Punta Gorda shouldn’t set you back any more than BZ$30. International buses are a little more pricey — you’ll pay more than BZ$100 for the twice-daily, 10-hour, air-conditioned ADO service from Belize City to Cancún via Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Express services are also often worth the extra couple of bucks, because they’re quicker and less crowded.

Although most buses in Belize are converted school buses shipped in from the United States, they’re not really like those sweaty, overcrowded chicken buses you see bumping through Latin America on TV shows. Sure, they’re hardly luxurious. But for a cheap way to cover the short distances between inland destinations, they’re perfectly fine.

  • Driving in Belize

Car rental isn’t dirt cheap — expect to pay around BZ$100 for a small car, or BZ$150 for a 4WD per day — but they can be a worthwhile investment if it saves you from shelling out for private transfers and tours day after day. If you can split the cost of a car between a couple of new mates you meet in your dorm, then driving in Belize becomes a much more affordable way of seeing remote landmarks like Maya ruins and nature reserves that are too hard to get to on public transport and carry a BZ$150+ price tag with a guide.

It’s easy to figure out the main roads — the Philip Goldson Highway going north, the George Price Highway going west and the Southern Highway, you guessed it, going south — although the smaller unpaved tracks are a trickier to navigate, and sometimes impossible during the rainy season. A vehicle with good clearance, if not a 4WD, is essential. Gas isn’t too pricey — about US$1.20 a litre — and the distances between destinations are tiny. You can zip up to Corozal in about two hours, San Ignacio in a similar amount of time, and all the way down to Placencia or Punta Gorda in four or so hours.

Belize City is the best place to pick up a rental. You’ll spot familiar names Budget, Hertz and Thrifty, plus local operators like AQ and Crystal both at the international airport and downtown. Carry all the regular things you need to rent a car — a valid driver’s license, a credit card, and proof that you’re 25 years of age (sorry, young’uns). Driving in Belize is generally safe — just be careful where you park, keep your eyes out for potholes, speed humps and rain, and be alert of your fellow drivers. This is Latin America, after all.

The other rental option is a golf cart, which costs a similar amount to a regular car. These vehicles are a lot more popular with cruise ship tourists in San Pedro and Placencia than they are with backpackers on Caye Caulker — but if walking five minutes from your hostel to the beach feels like too much effort, go for your life.

Hitchhiking is also pretty common in Belize, especially in remote areas that aren’t covered by regular bus services. Sure, there are all the obvious risks — hitching with a friend makes it a bit safer — but you’ll also spot plenty of locals sticking their thumbs up near bus stops and petrol stations, so you won’t be totally out of place. Buses are so cheap that there’s no real need to hitchhike major routes, though.

Taxis are also unnecessary when most Belizean towns are so small. A fixed rate of BZ$10 usually applies within towns, and the trip from the international airport to the middle of Belize City costs BZ$50 for one or two passengers.

backpacking belize, coloured houses on stilts by the sea

Accommodation in Belize

Hostels in Belize are as laid-back as the locals — you can look forward to free rum punch, beachfront bars and hammocks hanging from every available hook. In the past, accommodation in Belize was difficult to book online — the backpackers of yesteryear just had to rock up on Caye Caulker and knock on doors to find a spare bunk — but the best properties are now listed so you can plan precisely where you’re sleeping.

Prices are seasonal — expect to pay around BZ$20-25 for a dorm and BZ$70 for a two-person private, but a bit more in high season, when you’ll need to make a reservation in advance if you’re travelling around Christmas, New Year’s and Easter. And there’s a couple of things to note with the price. Firstly, you’ll have to pay a 9% tourist tax on top of the rate listed. Secondly, a lot of places only take payment in cash. It will be noted in the hostel listing if so, but cash is king in South America so you should always be prepared, especially in rural areas.

backpacking belize, Lower Dover Belize hostel

📷 @lowerdoverbelize

Hostels in Caye Caulker

Not surprisingly, Belize’s backpacker hub is home to the best selection of budget accommodation in Belize. Dirty McNasty’s is the stuff of legend. Up and down Central America, backpackers ask each other ‘Did you stay at Dirty McNasty’s in Caye Caulker?’ — and being the biggest hostel in Belize, the answer is usually yes. The rooms are nothing fancy, but the atmosphere certainly is. This party hostel par excellence dishes up free breakfast every morning then scoops out free rum punch every evening, as well as offering free canoe rentals to paddle around the island.

Travellers Palm is another one of the top-rated hostels in Caye Caulker. Only 50 metres from the water, Travellers Palm boasts its own private dock and free-to-use kayaks, as well as a third-floor rooftop terrace slash kitchen with ocean views from the hammocks and lounges. Every room — both the clean, colourful dorms and the en-suite double-bed privates — has a fridge and a freezer, plus free tea, coffee and purified drinking water.

See more hostels in Caye Caulker

Hostels in San Pedro

Many backpackers skip Ambergris Caye altogether and head straight to Caye Caulker, so there aren’t many hostels in San Pedro for budget travellers who do choose to spend the night on this touristy atoll.

Sandbar is the go-to budget option, occupying a prime seaside location that would normally cost a fortune. Only a few blocks from the ferry terminal in the Boca Del Rio part of the island, Sandbar’s beachfront watering hole is kitted out with a small pool, plenty of hammocks and direct access to fluffy white sand that expensive resorts could only dream of. The aqua-hued 12-bed dorms and four-bed privates are equipped with privacy curtains, lockers and personal power points — and even though BZ$30+ is more than you’ll pay in other parts of Belize, it still represents great value for money in pricey San Pedro.

backpacking belize, sandbar hostel pool with people drinking beer

📷 Sandbar

See more hostels in San Pedro

Hostels in Belize City

The country’s biggest metropolis is little more than a bus station to many backpackers, so you’re not exactly spoilt for choice when it comes to hostels in Belize City.

The Red Hut Inn is one dependable choice though, with four and eight bed dorms from BZ$30 and tidy privates from BZ$70. Although it’s about five kilometres (i.e. a BZ$10 cab ride) from downtown, the waterfront residential neighbourhood is a lot quieter than the city centre, especially on the roomy sun deck. The Red Hut Inn is also a good place to plan the rest of your Belize itinerary — the property organises car rental, private tours to Xunantunich and Altun Ha, plus electric bike rental to pedal around Belize City itself.

See more hostels in Belize City

Hostels in San Ignacio

Behind Caye Caulker, this town near the Guatemalan border is Belize’s second busiest backpacker destination — and that’s reflected in the excellent range of hostels in San Ignacio.

Bella’s is a good old-fashioned bohemian backpackers, from its fairy-lit rooftop full of new friends to the excellent kitchen and barbecue facilities. A family-run guesthouse close to the bars and restaurants of downtown San Ignacio, Bella’s also organises cave tubing trips and Maya ruin tours for guests of its cosy five and eleven-bed dorms and double-bed privates.

backpacking belize, group of backpackers at Bella's Backpackers

📷 Bella’s Backpackers

A few blocks away on the banks of the Macal River, the Old House Hostel fills a stately British colonial home with a warm backpacker atmosphere throughout the sturdy timber dorms and one private room. You’ll often find owners Aldo and Davina chatting to guests on the balcony couches in the evening, if they’re not hosting live music in the creative art space slash Soul Project bar downstairs. The hostel also hosts a free walking tour plus trips to the ATM cave, Maya temples, waterfalls and all the other adventures that surround San Ignacio.

See more hostels in San Ignacio

Hostels in Placencia

Placencia is another place where baby boomers outnumber backpackers, meaning hotels outnumber hostels too.

Anda Di Hows Hostel — that’s ‘under the house’, if you don’t read Kriol — became the first real backpacker’s in the village when owner Pandora opened a single 10-bed dorm beneath the stilts that prop up her own home. A night in that room costs BZ$25, which is a bargain for this spectacular beachfront location at the southern end of the peninsula, especially when each bed comes with its own individual fan and locker, plus access to the kitchen, veranda, hammocks, barbecue, kayaks and snorkel gear. Quirky touches like the glass wall made of bottles in the bathroom and a curvy bar to mix your own drinks in the kitchen infuse plenty of character, and since Pandora lives upstairs, reception is pretty much open 24 hours.

See other hostels in Placencia

Hostels in Hopkins

Sitting in the middle of this serene Garifuna village, The Funky Dodo is Hopkins summed up in a hostel, with a vibe as relaxing as the town itself. This property is spacious, from the 14-bed dorm and the twin and double privates to the alfresco kitchen and the hammock-laden common areas, shaded by dangling palm trees just a stroll from the beach. Owners Roy and Anna can also organise a range of tours from just US$30, which is great value if you haven’t got a car — cave tubing, zip lining, snorkelling, plus expeditions out to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Mayflower Bocawina National Park and a night-time crocodile spotting adventure are all possible here.

backpacking belize, the funky dodo hostel

📷 The Funky Dodo

See other hostels in Hopkins

Best places to visit in Belize

Belize might only be 290 kilometres long and 110 kilometres wide — roughly the same size as Israel, Slovenia or Central American compadre El Salvador — but this compact country packs plenty inside its bite-sized borders.

Belize islands

The cays sprinkled along the Caribbean coast sit at the top of any list of places to visit in Belize. The second largest coral system on the face of the earth (behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), Belize is brimming with more than 100 species of coral and 500 species of fish — and scientists reckon they’ve only discovered 10% of the creatures out there. The two big Belize islands are Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, whose turquoise water and snow-white sand look like they’ve been ripped straight off the wrapper of a Bounty chocolate bar.

Caye Caulker is Belize’s backpacking hub, where the Caribbean vibe is at its most mellow. The island is plastered with signs reading ‘Go Slow’, and that mantra is followed fanatically. Nowhere in Belize is Creole culture more evident than Caye Caulker, with reggae on the radio, Rastafarians running your boat tour and Caribbean cuisine on the menu.

There’s not really many things to do on Caye Caulker… and that’s kind of the point. There are no cars on the island — rent a bike to get around, or shuffle at a snail’s pace like the locals — but there are some of the best beaches in Belize, plus swimming spots off the docks. Caye Caulker is also a snorkelling paradise, with a fleet of boats chugging travellers out to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve to snorkel with nurse sharks, sting rays and other marine life, enjoying crystal-clear visibility through the glassy water.

backpacking belize, hippo swimming

📷 @maeganluckiesh

The only problem with all this unspoiled coral reef? It makes Belize surfing a bit of a non-event. There aren’t really any surf breaks on Caye Caulker, nor hardly anywhere across the country — unless you make the journey to Long Caye at Glover’s Reef, not far from the Great Blue Hole.

Back on Caye Caulker, backpackers make a beeline to the Split — the 50-metre gap in between the north and south chunks of the island, with deep, clear waters for a dip. The biggest attraction isn’t the swimming, though. It’s the Lazy Lizard Bar, with its tables dunked in the sheltered waters so you can sip on a bottle of Belikin with the tide up to your waist. On the other side of the Split, the Koko King complex is one rolling all-day party too, while the I&I Reggae Bar is the top spot after dark. The bars on Caye Caulker beat the Belize City nightlife hands down — especially for backpackers.

Further north, Ambergris Caye is just as gorgeous, but it’s bigger, more developed and crowded by older tourists wearing pastel-hued polo shirts and socks with sandals. The impact that cars make on this island — Belize’s largest — underlines exactly why Caye Caulker doesn’t want them. And the list of things to do in San Pedro Belize comes with a price tag — a day on the water from Ambergris Caye can cost twice as much as a similar tour from Caye Caulker, just to snorkel exactly the same sites. San Pedro is also an easy day trip from Caye Caulker if you want to tick it off that way, too

Belize City

Belize City is often a pitstop rather than an overnight stay for travellers, but it’s got enough to occupy a day or two. Only 100,000 people live in Belize’s largest city — there are four bigger towns in next-door neighbour Guatemala, for comparison — so it’s not as big and crazy as most Central American metropolises. Oh, and fun fact: it’s not the capital either. That distinction goes to Belmopan — a centrally planned city halfway between here and San Ignacio that backpackers should only really visit to extend their visa, if they need to.

backpacking belize, belize city by the sea

There are plenty of places to visit in Belize City — the colonial architecture of the old town, the One Barrel rum factory and the stately Museum of Belize, plus the Maya ruins of Altun Ha and Lamanai and the rescued animals at Belize Zoo not far from the city. But steer clear of the waterfront Tourism Village and the attached Fort Street Plaza (or at least keep your wallet in your pocket while you’re there) — that’s the cruise ship terminal bustling where baby boomers pay a bundle for overpriced souvenirs to stuff into their suitcases.

Looking for Belize City beaches? You’ll be disappointed, because they don’t exist. But just wait for the islands Belize is famous for. Belize City nightlife, on the other hand, comes alive on Fridays and Saturdays — keep an ear out for the punta music pumping out of the venues along Newtown Barracks Road. It’s harder to find a good party during the week, though.

Belize jungle

If the coast feels Caribbean, Belize’s interior is pure Central America. About 60% of the map is covered in lush forest, and 37% of the country is protected by national parks and nature reserves — that’s even more than leafy green Costa Rica’s 27%, by comparison. And if you want to see Belize off the beaten path, the country’s interior hasn’t been trampled by tourism, so you’ll feel like you have the whole place to yourself. Well, at least until you hear the squeal of a howler monkey, or catch a glimpse of the jaguars, butterflies or dazzling toucans that are hiding among the trees.

San Ignacio — Belize’s second biggest city, situated near the Guatemalan border on the road to the mighty Maya civilisation of Tikal — is the perfect launchpad for these fresh-air adventures. A winding 80km drive from San Ignacio is another epic Maya complex on Belizean soil: Caracol, one of the largest archaeological sites in Central America. This place used to be bigger than modern Belize City, and housed twice the population beneath the awe-inspiring stone temples that still pierce the forest canopy.

backpacking belize, belize temple ruins

Much closer to San Ignacio, Xunantunich — another Maya city right next to the chilled-out town of Benque — isn’t as famous as Caracol, but it’s almost as impressive. Then there’s Actun Tunichil Muknal (a.k.a. ATM), a three-mile long cave crawling with ancient ceramics, skeletons and kill holes, which are exactly what they sound like — markings that indicate where sacrifices to the gods were made. The most famous (and spooky) relic is the so-called Crystal Maiden — the bones of a sacrificed 18-year-old girl that have been calcified into a sparkling skeleton

Tubing through the Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve, horse-riding at the Mountain Equestrian Trails, checking out the Green Iguana Conservation Project, paddling through Barton Creek Cave and zip lining at Calico Jack’s are a few other ways to get your blood bumping in the middle of Belize. Then after all that activity, treat yourself to some chocolate. Hop on a tour of one of the loads of cacao farms around San Ignacio to see the traditional Maya method of making the sweet stuff. And yes, they give out samples.

Southern Belize

If Caye Caulker has a Creole flavour and San Ignacio is a date with the ancient Mayans, then the south coast of Belize — particularly the twin towns of Dangriga and Hopkins — provides an introduction to the Garifuna people, the descendants of a group of African and indigenous Caribbean ancestors who escaped slavery in the 17th Century. The rhythms of Garifuna drums rumble along the sun-kissed beaches that border these unfussy villages on the road down to Placencia.

Sitting at the end of a long, snaking peninsula, Placencia boasts some of the best beaches in Belize, where the white sand is shaded by mammoth palm trees, like some cartoon depiction of a tropical paradise. This hugely popular resort will be too touristy for backpackers searching for Belize off the beaten path. But the shimmering water holds huge allure for others, as does the onward trip to Glover’s Reef, a remote atoll that offers one of Belize’s few surfing spots at Long Caye, or the diving around Gladden Split.

Placencia — as well as most other traveller stops along the coast — is also a possible departure point for the Great Blue Hole, one of the top diving sites on the face of the earth. Three hundred metres wide, 125 metres deep and 70 kilometres off the coast, this colossal sinkhole full of rare fish and millennia-old stalactites is scuba-diving nirvana. The Great Blue Hole was made famous by Jacques Cousteau — the French undersea explorer in the red beanie who inspired that Bill Murray movie The Life Aquatic — when he charted it in 1971, and divers have flocked here ever since. You can snorkel over the top or pay a fortune for a scenic flight, but PADI-certified scuba divers will get the most out of the experience.

Inland, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is the only jaguar reserve on the planet. Unfortunately, jaguars — like most big jungle cats — are notoriously elusive. But even if you don’t spot one, the web of well-maintained walking trails, a trove of towering waterfalls and sightings of tapir, deer and a galaxy of birdlife means you won’t head back to the hostel disappointed.

Further south, Punta Gorda truly shows Belize off the beaten path. This humble fishing town used to just be the hop-off point for boats to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala, but has become a laid-back place for backpackers to spend a couple of days visiting the nearby Maya settlements of Lubaantun and San Antonio, splashing through the Blue Creek cave, and exploring the pristine Rio Blanco National Park.

backpacking belize, man canoeing through trees in the river

📷 @nicossuave

Belize itinerary

With the bars and beaches of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to the north and the tropical jungle of Guatemala to the west, Belize is a stepping stone between two of Central America’s more famous attractions — and that means it might be hard to find more than a couple of days in your schedule for Belize. If so, make Caye Caulker your number one priority.

Short stays

If you’re drawing up a Belize itinerary 4 days long, the most tempting — and probably smartest — option is to lounge around on Caye Caulker the whole time. This laid-back island 45 minutes’ ferry from Belize City is the postcard perfect picture of Belize you’re dreaming of in your head — sandy streets, azure water, cold beers, fresh seafood and backpackers galore. There’s a reason Dirty McNasty’s is one of the most (in)famous party hostels in Latin America.

Four days doing nothing except sunning yourself at the Split would be four days perfectly well spent. Caye Caulker’s motto is Go Slow, after all. The picnic tables in the paddling pool of the Lazy Lizard bar are like magnets for backpackers, unable to pull themselves away from their glowing green Lazy Lizard Juice slushy cocktail and ocean-fresh lobster burrito. Besides knocking back the free rum punch at Dirty McNasty’s, this is pretty much how most backpackers invest their time on this sun-kissed atoll — and this uber easy-going lifestyle is exactly why Caye Caulker is Belize’s backpacking hotspot.

Of course, there’s more to do on the island than just luxuriate at the Split (as tempting as that might be). The tons of tour companies lining the shore are waiting to introduce you to the enormous coral reef that straddles the Belizean coast. The quintessential full-day tour takes you to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a chunk of reef swimming with marine life. Raggamuffin — the rasta-themed operator that’s one of the biggest on the island — offers a typical full-day tour, scheduling snorkelling stops at Hol Chan, Ray Alley and Shark Alley, plus places to admire coral, manatees and glittering tarpon fish. The full-day trip (10.30am to 5pm) costs US$75, which is the going rate around town.

There’s an array of other tours on the table, especially during high season, and the price depends on factors like how long you’re out on the water, how many people are on the boat, and how good a negotiator you are. Guides will even take you all the way out to the Great Blue Hole, if this is your only stop in Belize and you’re desperate to tick this scuba diving icon off your bucket list. Or you could always just kick back with a Belikin at the Lazy Lizard. Your call.

backpacking belize, aerial view of belize

Belize itinerary 5 days? That extra 24 hours buys you another day hanging out at the Split, another tour out on the water, or a day trip from Belize City. The town itself isn’t worth much of your time during such a short stay, but the attractions that surround it certainly are. Choose from the cave tubing tours that wind along the Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch River, the Maya ruins of Lamanai or Altun Ha, and the Belize Zoo, Crooked Tree or Community Baboon wildlife sanctuaries, before spending the night back in the city. In fact, Belize is so small that you can swing a day trip to almost any corner of the country if there’s something you’re particularly eager to see.

Most backpackers’ four or five days in Belize will be bookended by Tikal and the Yucatán. To get from Caye Caulker to Guatemala, catch a boat back to Belize City then hop on a bus for Flores. And for Mexico, hop on the Belize Water Taxi to Chetumal, before a coach up to Tulum, Playa del Carmen or Cancún. You can also get a long-distance bus into Mexico from Belize City.

For a Belize itinerary 7 days in length, Caye Caulker should occupy the bulk of your time before seeing the mainland. From Belize City, follow the road to your next destination. If you’re en route to Guatemala, base yourself in San Ignacio to tube through the Caves Branch River, delve into Actun Tunichil Muknal cave and visit the Maya city of Xunantunich on the road to Flores and Tikal. But if you’re on the road to Honduras, stick to the coast, soaking up the Garifuna culture in Dangriga as well as the sunshine in Placencia before catching the ferry from either town to Puerto Cortes, then onwards the Bay Islands. Four days on Caye Caulker then three days on the mainland should cut it.

Longer Belize itinerary

As beautiful as it is, Belize is only a small piece of the Central American puzzle, so two weeks is ample time for a thorough Belize itinerary. A fortnight is enough time to see all the best bits, from the islands to the south coast to the dense green interior.

Let’s say you’re coming from Cancún via Chetumal, it might be worth staying one night in San Pedro — but you won’t be missing much if you make a beeline straight to Caye Caulker, where backpackers are more at home than they are on upper-crusty Ambergris Caye. After three days of sun, sea and snorkelling, head to Belize City for two nights, if only for the day trips out to the surrounding wildlife reserves and Maya sites.

Next stop San Ignacio, for three days exploring caves and more Maya ruins. The millennium-old time capsule that is the ATM cave should sit at the top of your to-do list, wading through chest-high water to reach the spooky dry chambers dotted with bones and relics, while San Ignacio is also surrounded by stacks of cave tubing opportunities elsewhere. A longer Belize itinerary also leaves room to follow the long and winding road to Caracol, a mammoth Maya civilisation shrouded in dense jungle. Note though that these kind of day tours cost around the US$100 mark (with transport and food included), so start saving your pennies or cobbling together a Jeep full of friends to do it yourself instead.

backpacking belize, two people under waterfalls

📷 @bbaker

From there, cruise down the Southern Highway for two nights in Dangriga or Hopkins. Zip-line through the Mayflower Bocawina National Park, indulge in a Maya chocolate factory tour, swim with manatees at the Gales Point Wildlife Sanctuary and tread the trails of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary — the world’s first and only jaguar reserve. You might not spot a big cat, but you will see plenty of birds, including Belize’s national emblem the keel-billed toucan. Get there in the morning before the heat arrives (as well as the big, noisy tour groups), then spend your evenings swigging rum on the towns’ tranquil beaches.

There’s even more golden sand in Placencia for the next two days. The peninsula has a slightly San Pedro-style vibe — there’s more hotels than hostels here — but you can’t argue with those beaches and the crystal-clear reef snorkelling. Swim with tropical fish, eels, turtles and even whale sharks, the largest species of fish in the ocean, which feed around Gladden Split over the full moons between March and June. You can also launch your Great Blue Hole trip from Placencia. Expensive, yes, but well worth it for diving devotees.

Then Punta Gorda is a nice place to relax for a night or two after a fortnight of racing around Belize — plus there’s a lap of interesting attractions just outside of town, such as the Maya settlements of Lubaantun and San Antonio, and the outdoors adventures to be had in Río Blanco National Park and Blue Creek Cave. From there you can cruise into Guatemala then Honduras.

Swap the order of this two-week itinerary if you’re hitting up Flores and Tikal straight after Belize — come down the coast from Belize City before heading inland to San Ignacio — and flip the entire plan on its head if you’re coming from the south on the way up to Mexico.

If you’ve got an even longer Belize itinerary, there aren’t any other major stops you could add, besides maybe the untouristy towns of Corozal and Orange Walk in the north of country, the latter providing a convenient base to bounce into reserves like Lamanai, Crooked Tree and the Rio Bravo Conservation Area. Any extra time is best invested in longer stays in the destinations outlined above — Caye Caulker, Belize City, San Ignacio, Hopkins, Placencia and Punta Gorda — so you can tack on more day trips to those natural delights on their doorsteps. Or you could get sucked into another fortnight in Caye Caulker. Seriously, that place is like quicksand.

backpacking belize, white sand beach with sign posts

Belize costs

How expensive is Belize?

Belize feels like a Caribbean island sewn on to Central America — and that includes the prices. If you’ve been island hopping through Jamaica and the Bahamas, then Belize costs won’t be much of a shock. But if you’ve been backpacking north through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, then you’re going to have to make a little extra room in your budget. Although it’s worth every cent, Belize carries a reputation for being one of Central America’s most expensive countries — particularly San Pedro and Placencia, and especially during high season (December to April).

So how expensive is Belize? The answer to that questions depends on how many activities you cram in. A rough rule of thumb would be to budget US$30-40 per day — maybe US$50 if you feel like lobster for dinner and a private room at the hostel — then add US$70-100 for each tour you take (to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve near Caye Caulker, to the ATM cave or the Caracol complex near San Ignacio, or the the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary from Placencia, for example). That’s where Belize costs really add up.

You’ll find dorm beds for about US$10-15 and two-bed privates from US$35 — a little less in low season, and especially in backpacker hubs like Caye Caulker and San Ignacio rather than San Pedro and Placencia, which welcome larger numbers of cruise-ship guests (and their bulging wallets). Public transport is inexpensive — no bus should cost more than US$10 — and taxis are cheap too, with fares usually set at US$5.

Belize food costs very little compared to western countries, although more than many Central American neighbours. Expect to pay around US$5 for a plate of chicken, beans and coconut rice or US$10 for barbecued lobster instead — one of the great treats of travelling through this part of the world. A bottle of Belikin sets you back roughly US$2; rum is even cheaper. And you can save a few bucks eating street food, too — you’ll spot locals grilling fish near the water for just a couple of Belizean dollars.

Now, tours. This is where Belize costs a bundle. The attractions themselves are inexpensive — it’s only US$5 to get into the Xunantunich Maya site near San Ignacio, or US$15 for the Belize Zoo, for example — but agencies charge anything around the US$100 mark for most day trips. Transport is the main thing you’re paying for — many of these remote attractions aren’t accessible by public transport — so hiring a car from about US$50 a day can be a savvy investment, especially as a group.

backpacking belize, hammocks

📷 @charleslesliejr

Unless your car rental place offers a fleet of amphibious vehicles, you’ll need to shell out for a snorkelling tour, though — set aside at least US$75 for the quintessential Hol Chan cruise from Caye Caulker, and upwards of US$200 to get out to the Great Blue Hole. That second journey is only really worth it if you’re a certified scuba diver who can delve into the sinkhole rather than just snorkel over the top of it. And if you’re planning to get your PADI certification in Central America, save up until Honduras instead — you’d pay US$400 for the standard four-day course on Ambergris Caye compared to just US$250 or so in Bay Islands backpacker haunt Utila.

At prices like those, tours become a question of priority. Snorkelling with the coral and marine life off Caye Caulker is the number one thing to do there, while the ATM cave is probably the top attraction in the interior. The Maya city of Caracol is among the best in Central America, and the Cockscomb jaguar reserve is one-of-a-kind. These day trips are expensive — budget US$100 for each one — so think about what’s going to deliver the most bang for your buck in your Central American itinerary. For instance, if you’re heading onwards to Tikal, it might feel like doubling up to trek down to Caracol. Or if you’re about to spend a week snorkelling off the Bay Islands, instead of paying for cruises off Caye Caulker, you might want to redistribute your budget towards cocktails at the Lazy Lizard. Up to you.

Belize currency

Belize uses the Belizean dollar (creative name, right?), but virtually everywhere accepts US dollars as well. Working out the exchange rate is easy — it’s pegged to the greenback at two to one, so if you’re paying BZ$20 for your dorm bed, you’re spending US$10. That’s roughly nine Euros, eight British Pounds, or 15 Canadian, Australian or New Zealand dollars at the time of writing.

Because you can pay in both currencies, prices are often written as BZ$ or US$ for clarity. And when they’re not, just ask. Big transactions such as tours are usually done in US dollars, whereas smaller things like meals or items in the supermarket are expressed in the local currency. Notes come in denominations of $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 (all carrying a very youthful portrait of Queen Elizabeth on them), and the coins are worth one, five, 10, 25 and 50 cents, plus $1.

Rather than getting ripped off at a change house, paying for something in US dollars then asking for the change in Belizean dollars is a good way to get your hands on some local cash. If you’re carrying enough greenback, this is a clever way to avoid a trip to the ATM for backpackers only spending a couple of days in Belize. You will need cash, though — although some places take credit cards, loads of them won’t, including hostels.

ATMs are hit and miss. Belize Bank, Atlantic Bank and ScotiaBank are the friendliest for foreign cards, and you’ll spot branches in pretty much any town you’d visit. The problem is that the machines are often out of order or out of money, and even when they’re working, they might not process international transactions. That’s why it’s handy to carry a second card, or maybe a stash of cash cleverly hidden in your backpack, just in case.

backpacking belize, person walking through bushes with a surfboard

📷 @epicurrence

Belize food

Belize food culture is a cocktail of flavours from across the Caribbean, Central America and Africa, much like the country itself. So much Belize traditional food hinges on rice, beans, coconut and seafood — especially along the coast.

Snapper and grouper are the most common fish on the menu, and you’ll also have the chance to tuck into barracuda steak, tangy ceviche and barbecued lobster for a bargain as you trek down the Caribbean coast. Treat yourself to ocean-fresh lobster at a fraction of the price you’d normally pay — although the lobster season is closed from February 15 to June 15, so any you eat then would either be frozen or illegal. Bad either way.

Belize’s three main ethnic groups — Mestizos plus Maya, Creoles and Garifuna, more info in the Belize culture section below — each add their own seasoning to the national cuisine.

San Ignacio is the best place to tuck into Mestizo and Maya food, including a smorgasbord of chicken stews. Caldo is a chook soup seasoned with Maya spices such as annatto, an indescribably nutty, sweet and peppery seed native to this part of the world. Then there’s escabeche — chicken in an oniony broth — and chimole — or ‘black dinner’, named after the dark blend of spices it marinates in.

Mestizos have also given Belize food culture some of its favourite street snacks. Cochinita pibil is slow-roasted pork that melts in your mouth, wrapped up with pickled red onions in a tortilla. Tamales are an ancient Maya food, bundling chicken, pork or vegetables in a maize pocket and a banana leaf. Panades are a Belizean riff on the South American empanada, deep-fried tortillas stuffed with smoked fish and topped with cortido — a spicy sauce of vinegar, onion, salt and peppers. And garnaches are like a mini Belizean pizza — fried tortillas slathered in refried beans, grated cheese, onions and cortido — while salbutes are their slightly fancier cousin, topped with chicken, onion, cabbage and peppers.

Creole cooking can’t get enough of rice and beans paired with some kind of protein — chicken, beef, seafood, you name it. Creoles’ signature dish is the bile up (or boil up) — a plate packed with eggs, fish, pig tail, cassava, sweet potatoes, plantains and basically anything else you can find, swimming in tomato sauce.

backpacking belize, a selection of belize food of coconuts and rice

Fry jacks, and their twin Johnny cakes, represent the classic Belizean breakfast, either stuffed or topped with savoury or sweet ingredients. Creoles also claim cow foot soup — the name says it all — as well as the much more appetising (and wonderfully named) dessert called stretch mi guts, a hard toffee.

The Garifuna people — descendants of an indigenous group that escaped slavery in the Caribbean before migrating to Belize — cook up plenty of plantain, cassava (or tapioca), banana and seafood. Seré, a creamy fish stew drenched in coconut milk, is one Garifuna speciality, and ereba, hard pancakes made out of cassava flour, is another.

One of Belize’s most exotic dishes is gibnut, a giant rodent that was served to Queen Elizabeth on a visit to the country in 1985, giving this delicacy the nickname ‘royal rat’. Gibnut is served grilled or stewed if you’re adventurous enough to try it. And although this particular kind of bush meat might be fit for royalty, stick any other rodents in your mouth at your own risk.

Belikin is Belize’s national beer, showcasing Altun Ha temple on the label. Belikin brews a normal lager, a light, and three varieties of stout — one sweetened with cane sugar, one spiced with sorrel and another flavoured with chocolate. Lighthouse lager is another local option, while Guinness, Jamaica’s Red Stripe and Trinidad and Tobago’s Carib are popular imports.

Wine in Belize is an experience — you’ll see drops made out of everything from cashews to tropical fruits like mangos and soursop. But rum is the classic Caribbean go-to booze. The two main distilleries are Travellers Liquors, the place that makes One Barrel, Belize’s most famous gold rum which also has a museum in Belize City, as well as the Cuello family operation in Orange Walk. If you can ignore the awful name, the panty ripper is quintessential Caye Caulker cocktail, mixing coconut rum with pineapple juice.

And there’s one last drink you should try in Belize: seaweed, a frothy concoction of milk, cinnamon, sugar, cream, dried seaweed and ice in a blender, often sweetened with fruit, spices or vanilla to mask the taste of the green stuff. This marine milkshake is one of those magical elixirs that’s meant to cure headaches, colds, arthritis and even your libido, so if you’re planning to pick up at the Lazy Lizard, knock back a glass of seaweed or two beforehand.

Belize culture

Central America’s youngest independent nation has a history that stretches back much further than that. Maya civilisation flourished in the region now known as Belize until the Spanish and the British rocked up in the 16th and 17th Centuries, decimating the population. Britain won a war calling dibs on the area in 1798 and it remained a colony (known as British Honduras) until Belize became independent from the UK in 1981.

Belize language

That colonial history explains why Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America, giving English-speakers a break from all that Spanish they’ve been mangling throughout the rest of the region. TV is in English, menus are in English, bus timetables are in English and the locals speak English. Spanish is spoken by about 30% of the population, especially closer to the Guatemalan border, including a local dialect called kitchen Spanish. But for English speakers, the Belize language barrier is non-existent.

Although the official language might be English, Creole — spelled Kriol in that tongue — is a source of great national pride. Originally the language of the Creole people and based on English with some American and African dialect sprinkled in, Kriol is now spoken by most Belizeans and is a big part of the country’s identity. Because it’s derived from English, you’ll be able to interpret some of it… until the conversation screeches to a halt with ‘Me noh andastan’ (I don’t understand).

Belize people

Expect to hear one piece of Kriol — the warm greeting of ‘Aarait?’ (Alright?) — from loads of strangers on the street, just one example of how easygoing Belize people are. The locals are extremely welcoming of tourists, and in general the Belize culture and lifestyle is incredibly laid back, which is a huge part of the nation’s Caribbean charm.

Belize is home to just over 400,000 people — roughly the size of Bristol, New Orleans, or about three apartment blocks in downtown Hong Kong. But the population is incredibly diverse for such a small group of people.

There are three main ethnic groups — the indigenous Maya and Mestizos (people of mixed Maya and European heritage), Creoles (descendants of African slaves), and Garifuna, indigenous to the Caribbean island of St Vincent before fleeing slavery to Central America. Half of the Belize people are Mestizo, one fifth are Creole, and a small but important five per cent are Garifuna. One in ten are Maya, mainly made up of the Yucatec, Mopan and Qʼeqchiʼ groups in the south of the country, who each have their own language.

You’ll notice more Mestizos and Maya inland, strong Creole culture around Belize City and the cays, and Garifuna influences on the south coast, particularly towns like Hopkins and Punta Gorda. There’s also sizeable Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern communities — former prime minister Said Musa was of Palestinian descent — and even a population of Amish-style German Mennonites.

Belize is also a deeply religious country — roughly 40% Catholic, 40% Protestant, followed by a collection of smaller faiths and a growing number of people with no religion. That religious streak explains why Belize culture can be quite conservative — same-sex sexual activity was only legalised here in 2016.

backpacking belize, 3 people sitting on a bench

📷 @vincefleming

Creole culture

Creoles used to be the biggest ethnic group in Belize until recently, which is why Creole culture is such a huge part of Belize culture, especially the Caribbean vibe the country is famous for. A massive diaspora of Belizeans live abroad too — there’s 160,000 living in the United States, most of them Creole.

Wherever they live, language is key to Creole culture. Historically Kriol was only spoken by Creoles, but being the majority of the population for so long, the whole country adopted the vernacular. Even today, when only one in five Belizean residents is ethnically Creole, the majority of people speak their language. Meals like coconut rice and beans, bile up and cow foot stew are also key dishes in the national cuisine.

Music is another important expression of Creole culture — the calypso-inspired brukdown genre in particular. Wilfred Peters, better known as Mr Peetaz, is a national icon for his brukdong myoozik performances over a 60-year career before he passed away in 2010.

Belize culture and lifestyle

The Caribbean tunes that infuse the cays’ sandy streets are the perfect reflection of Belize culture and lifestyle. On top of brukdown, a modern genre that evolved out of calypso’s African rhythms, punta is Belize’s most iconic style.

These Garifuna beats provide the perfect party soundtrack, especially contemporary punta rock. Punta is normally performed in indigenous Garifuna dialects dating back centuries and accompanied by a dance where a hip-swinging couple is surrounded by a circle of eager dancers itching to shimmy into the spotlight themselves. Andy Palacio is the biggest name in punta if you want to plug him into your Spotify.

Belize also imports reggae from the Caribbean, plus everything coming out of the US. But marimba-heavy Maya and Mestizo music survives in the north of the country, where a version of cumbia — more famous in Colombia and Panama at the other end of Central America — is also mega popular.

Belize safety

Statistics can be used to prove anything — 93% of people know that — and Belize’s crime numbers aren’t flattering. In fact, the country claims the seventh highest murder rate per capita in the world due to drug trafficking via Belize into Mexico. But unless you have aspirations to become the next Tony Montana or Gustavo Fring on your backpacking trip through Central America, you’ve got nothing to worry about. None of this drug gang stuff affects travellers, and in reality Belize feels a lot calmer and safer than its neighbours Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

In Belize City safety can be a little more sketchy than other parts of the country, particularly south of the Haulover Creek in the area known as Southside. Use all the common sense you’d apply anywhere else — don’t wander down unlit, unpopulated and unfamiliar streets at night, don’t approach any shady characters, don’t flash your $2000 Rolex, yadda yadda yadda. Basically, don’t make yourself a softer target than the cruise ship tourists docked in the port. Muggings can occur — don’t try anything heroic if you’re unlucky enough to be tangled up in one — and drug gangs do exist, but they’ve got no beef with backpackers if you give them a wide berth.

backpacking belize, girl sitting on a rock looking out over trees

📷 @vincefleming

Elsewhere in Belize, safety is barely an issue for travellers. Swilling too much rum and stumbling around secluded areas is never a smart idea, but your chances of getting mugged are slim, especially if you don’t flash your iPhone or SLR camera in the wrong situation. Again, some petty crime does happen, so take all the usual precautions — carry your valuables with you on the bus, lock your hostel room’s door and don’t leave your wallet sitting on your beach towel with an enormous neon sign saying ‘Steal me!’ flashing above it. Other than that, Belize feels very safe. The biggest danger on the sandy streets of Caye Caulker is suffering a fall after your fourteenth cocktail at the Split.

If anything, nature poses the biggest threat. Stay safe while swimming and resist the urge for a dip when you’ve got a belly full of lobster and Lazy Lizard juice. Remember to apply sunscreen unless you fancy turning the same colour as the crustaceans you’ve been chomping on. Check the weather forecast for hurricanes around September and October — in 1931, one storm blew down two thirds of Belize City, and as recently as 2016, Hurricane Earl caused US$110 million worth of damage. And keep your eyes peeled for poisonous spiders and snakes when you’re hiking as well as sting rays and sharks when you’re snorkelling — listen to your diving instructor, otherwise a nurse shark might gnaw your arm off.

At the risk of sounding like a nagging, paranoid relative, travel insurance is one thing you’ll never regret paying for — but you could certainly regret being a cheapskate and not protecting yourself against much bigger costs if something goes wrong. A few hundred bucks is very little to pay for peace of mind and potentially saving tens of thousands down the track.

Belize travel advice

Belize vaccinations

Your recommended Belize vaccinations are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, measles, tetanus-diphtheria, typhoid and yellow fever. If that list makes your head spin, just head to a travel doctor a couple of months before you set off and ask them for all the necessary jabs.

One thing you can’t be vaccinated against though, are mosquitos. Mozzies are particularly annoying during the wet season (June to October) and sometimes carry tropical diseases like malaria. Sand flies are a pest on the islands, too. Pack a strong insect repellent — look for the heavy-duty stuff containing DEET for maximum protection.

You’ll also want to pack a first-aid kit to help with food poisoning — one of those ever-present risks in Central America — as well as any nicks you pick up in the jungle. That means some antidiarrheal medication and rehydration salts to bounce back after a couple of days perched on the porcelain throne, plus antibiotic ointment, cortisone and bandages for minor bumps and cuts.

Tap water is generally safe to drink, but many hostels also offer their own purified source of H2O. And as bad as it is for the environment, bottled water is super cheap, too. Don’t stress too much about a day or two with a grumbling tummy — head to the doc if any stomach complaints last more than three days. Belize’s public hospitals aren’t great, which is another great advertisement for travel insurance, ideally with medical evacuation included.

What to pack for Belize

When you see a sign saying ‘No shirt, no shoes, no problem’ on Caye Caulker, you should take the message seriously. On the cays, anything more than swimwear is pretty much considered formalwear, so pack your bikini, your board shorts and your sandals to shuffle around in. T-shirts and shorts generally do the trick — the temperature rarely dips below 25 degrees, so backpackers rarely need to back anything heavier, besides a raincoat and an umbrella during wet season. Don’t worry about bringing anything dressy to go out in — Belize’s nightspots aren’t that stuffy.

Unless you’re planning to camp overnight in one of Belize’s many nature reserves, there’s no need to pack boots and head torches and all those other things that only ever end up at the bottom of your backpack when you’re staying at a hostel. And even though Belize City has a slightly dodgy reputation, there’s no need to wear a dorky travel belt — a place would have to be life-threateningly dangerous to justify one of those crimes against dignity.

backpacking belize, stingray swimming

📷 @kween_photos

Ready to backpack Belize after reading our ultimate guide? Start planning that trip now and in no time you’ll be chilling on the shores of Caye Caulker with a Lazy Lizard cocktail in hand and a newly-found chill outlook on life. Bliss! Anything you still wanna know? Let us know in the comments!

About the author:

Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.

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