Belize had been on my travel bucket list for quite some time. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in July of last year and going through the emotional and physical turmoil to get back to health, I decided that 2015 is the year that I stop making excuses and start traveling more.
I kicked off the year going to a NASA event in Houston in January. That trip was just a warm-up for the week-long adventure to Belize. Why Belize? I don’t have a clear answer. It’s a country I’ve always wanted to see. And after going to Costa Rica in 2011, I really wanted to see more of Central America.
And while Belize may be known for snorkeling and diving, I was more interested in seeing the interior of the country, including some Mayan ruins.
Flying to and Driving in Belize
Flying to Belize from New England wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. We took a 6:00 a.m. ET flight out of Boston to Miami, and then another leg from Miami to the international airport in Belize City. We landed in Belize City shortly before 2:00 p.m. CT, a total of nearly 9 hours travel time.
Flying to Belize may be relatively easy, but driving in Belize is a totally different story. Driving in Belize requires a whole new level of patience and daring. That says a lot considering how people in the Northeast tend to drive (aggressively – we earn the nickname of “Massholes” behind the wheel).
Be warned: renting a car in Belize is relatively expensive as compared to renting a car in the States. We chose to rent from Crystal Auto Rental based on their reputation and their pricing. The major brands like Budget and Hertz also operate in-country, but we wanted to go with a local outfit. Crystal Auto Rental also offered amenities like a cooler (helpful since temps are in the upper 80s in late February) and a cell phone (my cell phone wouldn’t work in Belize unless I bought a new SIM card) for use during our rental.
For about $550 USD for the week, we rented our 2011 Jeep Patriot 4WD and we were off. Our resort was 116 miles away and our GPS said it would take almost three hours. How odd, I thought, since our route was on Belize’s major highways. It shouldn’t take that long to travel 116 miles.
Well, the photos below show how slow and difficult it can be to navigate a country whose main highways are two lanes and whose bridges are one lane. It’s common to get stuck behind a truck hauling citrus, a tractor, or have the road shut down for tens of minutes at a time as they work to make repairs or to pave.
Passing slower vehicles is common, and the native drivers are way more daring than I was. There was more than one occasion that we would round a blind corner and have a car barreling straight at us in our lane because they were passing someone. If you plan to drive in Belize, make sure your insurance covers any damage to the rental car – either from other drivers or from the unpaved roads – and say a small prayer before you get behind the wheel.
Eating in Belize
If there’s one thing in life that I’m serious about, it’s my food. I always try to eat like a local when I travel, and this trip was no exception. Belize has great food for very little money. Yes, there are more expensive restaurants that cater to First World tourists, but eating like a local in Belize means good food for cheap.
A side note about the links you will find below: Yelp isn’t available in Belize as of this writing, so I’ve included links to the direct sites (if they exist) or links to TripAdvisor or other reviews if the business has no website.
Kropf’s Bakery on the Hummingbird Highway
Located at Mile 31 on the Hummingbird Highway between Belmopan and Dangriga is Kropf’s Bakery, run by members of the local Mennonite community. Both of our guidebooks advised stopping into Kropf’s and we did – twice. There aren’t many places to stop for food on the Hummingbird, so our multiple stops were out of necessity more than desire.
Kropf’s Bakery is best known for their cinnamon buns (below left) which we tried on our first stop, and we picked up a half-loaf of banana bread + a cinnamon bun on our second stop. I’d give both items a 3.5/5 stars in terms of quality and taste if compared to what’s available in the States.
Ms. Bertha’s Tamales on the Hummingbird Highway
Also on the Hummingbird Highway at Mile 27 is this tiny roadside stand called Ms. Bertha’s Tamales. We had passed the stand on several different days, but we were always too early and it was closed. There are no posted hours, but a local told us that the stand opens ~11:30 a.m. to start serving for lunch.
Bertha Lisbey, THE Ms. Bertha, was known all over Belize as making the best corn and chicken tamales. She recently passed away, and it’s her daughter who serves the tamales now. The locals says that the recipe is exactly the same and they are just as amazing as when Ms. Bertha was alive.
Tip: Be sure to try the homemade hot sauce to go along with the best tasting tamale you will ever eat in your life!
Tina’s Kitchen in Hopkins Village
Tina’s Kitchen is an institution in the village of Hopkins. Similar to many other local restaurants, Tina’s is a cross between an open-air porch and your Belizean mama’s kitchen. There is an actual Tina who cooks the food and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see her adorable little grandson playing in the dining area. Yes, it’s a family affair.
Tina’s was our first introduction to a traditional Belizean meal. When you order fish and rice, you get a whole fish – head with eyes included.
And when you order a beer, you’re ordering a Belikin. It is THE beer of Belize, not because it’s any good, but because the brewer has a lock on the market. It was also our first introduction to the artful napkin wrapped around the top of the Belikin. It’s not for decoration, but for cleanliness. Legend has it that in the old days when the bottling process wasn’t so clean, you would need that napkin to wipe the grit from the lip before drinking. (I tried not to think too hard about that fact.)
Benny’s Kitchen in San Jose Succotz
Our second intro to a traditional Belizean meal came from Benny’s Kitchen, just down the street from the ferry crossing from the Mayan ruin Xunantunich (more about that later). I ordered a plate of stew chicken and it didn’t disappoint. A giant plate of food (see below) goes for about $15 Belize/$7.50 USD and the food is filling and super tasty!
Benny’s was also the first place where we saw the tradition of having a sink in the dining room. Our table was right next to the sink and we had a front row seat to who did and did not wash their hands before eating.
But, Benny’s had a Mona Lisa. I give them extra points for the homemade art.
Innies Restaurant in Hopkins Village
I was on the hunt for hudutu (or hudut), the traditional Garifuna dish of a whole fish simmered in a mashed plantain and coconut milk soup. The locals pointed us toward Innies on the south side of Hopkins as _the_ place to get the best hudutu, and they were right.
For $20 Belize/$10 USD, the meal was amazingly rich and flavorful. Thankfully, Innies removes the head from their whole fish. I am always happy when I don’t have to look my dinner in the eyes.
T & C’s Kitchen in Hopkins Village
T & C’s Kitchen is another staple in the village of Hopkins. This local eatery feels more like a friend’s house than a restaurant. If you sit and stay for a meal like we did, you will see a constant stream of locals who come by for takeout. The food here is solid, and my order of fish with rice and beans was tasty and cheap.
Frog’s Point Cafe in Hopkins Village
Frog’s Point is where we had one of the more Americanized dinners while in Belize. Compare my fish and rice meal from T & C’s (above) with the jackfish and rice meal from Frog’s Point (below). The two photos pretty much are a good narrative to how Hopkins is changing as more tourists arrive in the village.
As for the jackfish, it was my first time trying this fish, which was described as being between snapper and grouper in terms of taste and texture. I loved it and would order it again if I saw it on a menu.
Love on the Rocks at Parrot Cove Lodge
Our dinner at Chef Rob’s Love on the Rocks Grill was the most expensive meal during our time in Belize, totaling more than $75 Belize dollars for two people. The novelty is that your main entree is brought to you in raw-ish form. The food sits on a 700-degree lava slab and it cooks right before your eyes. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of “help” that our waiter gave each table. It made for an awkward experience to have him standing over our table waiting to flip over my shrimp for me. (I’ll assume that level of attention is given because, at some point, some dumdum forgot that 700 degrees means do not touch the stone with your bare hands.)
One quick note about the ambiance. The restaurant is actually the back porch of the lodge. Yes, you are right on the beach, but you are practically in the dark. The lighting is terrible, and they were blaring Whitney Houston’s greatest hits the night we were there (including her over-sung version of the Star Spangled Banner.) The meal was neither romantic or relaxing.
I can honestly say that this dinner was the one meal during our entire week that I didn’t think was worth the time or the money. You pay for the novelty of having your food cook on a lava stone, but there is definitely better food available in Hopkins.
Driftwood Pizza in Hopkins Village
Driftwood Pizza is probably one of the reasons that Belize’s vibe is often compared to Key West. This pizza place and bar is literally right on the beach. You’ll see the neighborhood dogs roaming around, watch people play volleyball, listen to some live music, and sit on a picnic table in the sand while eating.
We biked over to Driftwood from our resort, which was down the road. The pizzas are good, but not gourmet as Driftwood claims. We also ordered some conch fritters since conch was in season when we were there. An excellent meal for an okay price (~$45 Belize dollars for two people).
Luba Laruga in Hopkins Village
On our last night in Belize, we had to hit up Luba Laruga. We had biked by there several times and had even taken some pictures at the T-shaped dock right next to it. It was later in the evening by the time we made it for dinner and they were out of conch.
We ended up with a stuffed grouper and a fried, crusted snapper. Our meals were perfect and amazing. Paulette makes the food from scratch in the tiny shed that is Luba Laruga. This meal was the best we had eaten during the entire week. I’m sad that we waited until the last day to try it.
Playing and Relaxing in Belize
Although we didn’t get to visit any of the cayes or atolls, we did factor in plenty of time for beach days. Hopkins Bay Resort has a really nice stretch of private beach in Southern Belize. It was quiet the week we were there (one of the ladies working the front desk told us that the resort was only 60% full that week) so it felt like we had our own beach during many of the afternoons we spent relaxing in the hammock under the palm trees.
Day Trip to Mayan Ruins
One of the major attractions to staying inland in Belize are the Mayan ruins throughout the country. We chose a make a day trip to Xunantunich, a Mayan ruin on the other side of the country at San Jose Succotz near the border of Guatemala. The 3+ hour-long drive would give us a chance to see several parts of the country while getting to/from Xunantunich.
We arrived at the entrance to Xunantunich after a harrowing drive straight through the middle San Ignacio, a very hectic city just to the north, thanks to the GPS. There is a hand-cranked car ferry that will take you across the river to the ruins. Like many things in Belize, the signage wasn’t very good and we drove right past it on the first try.
Once we got on the ferry, the trip is super short. I’m not sure the story behind why there is still a human-powered ferry when a small bridge would suffice. I can’t complain, however, since I was able to get a picture of me working the crank for the ferry. The guy in the photo below was super nice and offered the photo opp.
Once you get your ticket ($10 Belize/ $5 USD) at the main gate, it’s an easy walk to the ruins. The ruins of Xunantunich have gotten a really nice makeover and is very tourist-friendly. If you ask a local, that is a bad thing. However, the ruins are easy to navigate and have good signage.
El Castillo is the main attraction at Xunantunich. At 130 feet tall, it is the second highest structure in Belize. You can climb to the very top and have a great 360-degree view of Belize and Guatemala. I am not generally afraid of heights, but some of the stairways up to the top were a bit tricky – steep but short stone steps that are completely open on one side. The view is totally worth the climb though.
St. Herman’s Cave and Inland Blue Hole
Belize is known for the Great Blue Hole, a giant cenote (sinkhole) about 45 miles off the coast. I researched trying to hop a helicopter or small plane to see the Great Blue Hole from the air, but I couldn’t swallow the $650 to $1,000 price tag for just a few hours of flight time. (Turns out, there are really only two or three companies that offer air tours, so they can charge you whatever they want.) What people may not know is that there is an inland blue hole. I was hopeful when I read about it and knew that we had to try and go see it.
Speaking of research, be prepared to be confused as you try to figure out the correct entrance (there are two parking lots). The guidebooks will all mention St. Herman’s Cave, Crystal Cave, and the Inland Blue Hole together without actually explaining that it’s the same park land and the same entrance fee. St. Herman’s Cave is the first ~300 feet or so into the cave system. Crystal Cave is essentially the rest of the cave system and requires a hired guide for your visit.
The Inland Blue Hole is either a 45-minute hike from the parking lot at St. Herman’s Cave, or you can drive down the highway a few miles and access it via the other parking lot. I must say that the Inland Blue Hole is underwhelming during dry season. It was interesting to see it, given that it’s supposed to be 25 feet deep. I couldn’t figure out where it would get that deep and I didn’t jump in to try and find out.
Cave tubing and zip lining
Our cave tubing and zip lining adventure was the one “packaged” tour that we booked. I wanted to have at least one day/activity set up in advance before we arrived. We booked our cave tubing and zip lining day via ROAM Belize, a local agency based in Dangriga. Our ROAM Belize escort for the day, Angel, arrived exactly at 7:00 a.m. to pick us up from our resort. We were his only guests that day so it was pretty much a private tour for the day.
Angel drove us ~2 hours to Caves Branch Outpost at Nohoch Che’en National Park (Mile 37 on the Western Highway). Caves Branch Outpost is base camp for both cave tubing and zip lining.
We were suited up with an inner tube and a head lamp for cave tubing as the first activity. The walk to the cave entrance took about 20 minutes, with our guide stopping along the way to point out various trees and plants that have medicinal use or historical significance.
We had luckily arrived earlier than the cruise ship crowds that swarm into Caves Branch Outpost and we were the only two people on our cave tubing tour. You can check out a video of the cave entrance here. I don’t have many photos of our tubing experience since holding a large DSLR in the dark while floating in a tube wasn’t the best idea.
Immediately after cave tubing was Howling Hills Zipline, a trip across six zip lines in the jungle. By this point, we were stuck in a larger group that had arrived from a cruise ship stop. The crew working the zip lines are used to the crowds and they did a great job in keeping us moving.
After zip lining, it was time for a quick lunch. Angel got us back to our resort by 3:00 p.m. What a full day!
Full Belize Photo Set
You can find my full trip photos on my photo site.