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  • Writer's pictureMeera Dattani

Outdoor adventure and cultural experiences in Belize

As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Belize, Meera Dattani selects a range of outdoor adventure activities, including island nature trails, birdwatching, kayaking, and snorkelling (all with an emphasis on conservation), and a range of carefully considered, community-led cultural experiences in this fascinating and beautiful Central American country.

With nature and culture at the heart of what makes Belize such a special place, low-impact activities are easy to find here. From expertly crafted food tours that go out of their way to tell the wider story of a place (as well as fill your rumbling tummy) and carefully considered, community-led cultural experiences that educate and inform about Belize’s myriad cultural groups from the Maya to Garifuna, to nature-led activities, such as island nature trails, birdwatching, kayaking, and snorkelling, with an emphasis on conservation, and local guide-led walking tours that champion small food producers and lesser-known histories, there’s no shortage of bona fide options in Belize.

two people talking on a bird tower surrounded by mangroves with sea in the distance
Meera with guide Eldon August, a tourism conservation officer from Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association, at the 40-foot high bird tower on the Calabash Nature Trail. Photo: Richard Hammond

Few things beat walking along a hammock bridge surrounded by forest before climbing a 40-foot-high bird tower on a tiny island in the middle of an atoll in the Caribbean Sea and seeing nothing but miles and miles of mangroves, interrupted only the deep blues and greens of the Caribbean Sea. This is part the Calabash Nature Trail, so-called after the towering calabash tree that the ancient Maya probably planted (you might see ancient Maya mounds made of coral rubble). You’ll learn about the poisonwood tree and its antidote, the ‘peeling skin’ gumbolimbo tree, understand the importance of mangroves in the face of climate change, and you might spot blue land crabs and iguanas. Book via Visit Turneffe (a partnership between TASA/Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association and BlueWild Ecoventures) but it’s more likely you’ll visit via your resort or tour operator.

man and woman by signage for a nature trail
Calabash Nature Trail is run by Turneffe Atoll Sustainabilty Association. Photo: Richard Hammond

This gorgeous, tiny, crescent-shaped island on Turneffe Atoll is an Audubon Society-managed national park and bird sanctuary with a lovely nature trail from the jetty to the beach. Usually crowd-free, its highlight is the treetop platform for birdwatching over the canopy, where the island's resident red-footed boobies and frigate birds congregate. Look out for hermit crabs, iguanas and turtles as you walk through the old-growth forest. For divers (and snorkellers), the caye's 900-metre reef wall makes for a memorable wall dive. See also:

Red-footed boobies showing red
Red-footed boobies nesting among frigate birds on Half Moon Caye. Photo: Richard Hammond

Belize’s first official snorkel or underwater trail is by Calabash Caye in Turneffe Atoll, and it’s been designed to show the best of reef life in the area but also educate snorkellers about the reef ecosystem and marine conservation. While the trail is only around 300 metres long, life underwater takes on a new meaning; don’t be surprised if you’ve been hypnotised for an hour or so by shoals of fish, colourful coral and swaying seagrass. Sometimes it’s worth just stopping to hover, to see who or what might pass below you. Guides will also show you the seaweed farm, an enterprising way to offer alternative livelihoods to local farmers.

tropical fish underwater with coral
On the snorkel trail, Turneffe Atoll. Photo: Richard Hammond

A boat tour through this protected area of waterways, swamps and a 20-mile lagoon is a fantastic birdwatching spot during the November-May dry season for numerous resident and migratory birds. Crooked Tree, between Belize City and Orange Walk Town, was initially set up by the Belize Audubon Society, who manage several protected areas in Belize, and originally to protect the jabiru stork, but many other species, including kingfishers, egrets and herons reside here too. It’s a wildlife haven in general, and you might spot iguanas, howler monkeys, coatimundis, and even river turtles and crocodiles. A boat tour or kayak/canoe is a lovely way to experience the sanctuary but you can also hike along the boardwalks and enjoy incredible views from the observation towers. Crooked Tree village is also a longstanding Creole community with cultural and cooking experiences available.

jabiru stork
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary was initially established to protect the Jabiru stork. Photo: Belize Tourism Board

There are food tours and there are food tours. Dr Lyra Spang is a food anthropologist who educates and feeds you over a few hours as you walk through Belize’s laidback beach town of Placencia. Starting with a chocolate tasting in her Taste Belize store, where you can also buy 100% Belize-made honey, spices and beauty products, she introduces you to her own farming background and to Belize’s cultural and historical influences. From collecting tamales (steamed corn tacos) from a Maya lady, eating rice and beans made with real coconut milk outside a roadside kitchen, and trying corn tacos at a taco stand, to herbal bitters and fried breadfruit sticks in a beach bar and trying seaweed shakes, this is a top-notch food tour that champions the diversity of Belizean cuisine. Lunch and dinner tours available, plus Placencia bar crawl, cacao farm visits, and Garifuna and Maya cooking classes.

two women chatting with food in background
Meera with Dr Lyra Spang on a food tour of the laidback beach town of Placencia. Photo: Richard Hammond

Garifuna Cultural Immersion Experience at Lebaha Drummers, Hopkins, Stann Creek District, southeastern Belize

This cultural experience run by Hopkins Uncut is a fantastic introduction to Garifuna drumming, traditions and food, with an underlying objective of keeping Garifuna culture alive and accessible for future generations. After watching a mesmerising drumming performance, you’re invited to take a seat and have a go yourself – it’s a privilege to drum alongside the Lebaha Drummers who perform around Belize and internationally. The cooking lesson is just as fun and perfectly steered by chef Kenima Williams who teaches you to make a delicious hudut soup of coconut milk, peppers, chillies and fish (optional), and served with plantain. It’s very interactive and you’ll be grating coconut husks, mashing plantain using a huge (person-height) pestle and stirring it all up before sitting down to a delicious lunch. More info: Booked via Hopkins Uncut | Lebeha Drumming Centre | Kenima’s Garifuna Cooking Class

woman drumming with man playing caracas
Meera learning to drum alongside Lebaha Drummers. Photo: Richard Hammond

For stellar birdwatching, green iguana-spotting or simply a relaxing paddle, go kayaking or canoeing down the Macal River. It’s relatively tame i.e., the water is mostly flat and Grade 1 if we’re talking rapids, making it one of the best spots for river kayaking for all abilities, and you can do it guided or self-guided. Depending on how long you have, you might want to stop at the botanical garden, butterfly farm or tour the medicine trail at Chaa Creek Lodge. Look out for kingfishers, mangrove swallow and the Black Phoebe, or you can book a specialist birdwatching guide too. Even if you just want to row the calm waters of the lower Macal, it’s a real treat. Experienced kayakers might want to consider the Mopan River instead.

Just outside the town of San Ignacio, San Antonio Women’s Co-operative is a female-empowered, community initiative led by Timotea Mesh with a dual purpose of empowering local women and young girls, and preserving Yucatec Maya cultural traditions, from recipes to pottery to embroidery. After an introduction to the cooperative, guests take part in an interactive cooking class, learning to grind corn kernels into a soft dough and making homemade corn tortillas. There's a chance to try your pottery skills - a lot harder than it looks - before enjoying one of the best lunches you'll have in Belize.

woman rolling soft dough
Learning how to work with soft dough at San Antonio Women’s Co-operative. Photo: Richard Hammond

Eladio’s Farm & Chocolate, Punta Gorda, Toledo District, southern Belize

The cacao bean is Maya ‘gold’. In Belize’s southern region of Toledo, Eladio Pop has been taking guests on cacao farm tours for many years where guests can take a short trail through the forests where Eladio cracks a cacao husk, before learning about the bean-to-bar process. You get the chance to take part in cracking, winnowing and grinding the cacao bean, before tasting the chocolate the Maya way; an unsweetened chocolate drink served from a gourd. That’s when you’ll realise how much sugar and milk goes into the chocolate we know!

Living Maya Experience, Big Falls, Toledo district, southern Belize

Since 2012, the family have been sharing local Kek'chi Maya customs and culture from a recreated traditional Maya home, as it might have been as recently as 50 years ago, in the village of Big Falls. You might watch a skilled artisan produce detailed Maya craftwork or play traditional musical instruments, and learn about the importance of the forest to Mayas - everything from food and medicine to furniture – and a tour around the yard reveals the importance of plants, herbs and spices. Guests can also get involved in preparing food, such as making corn tortillas or grinding cacao beans, before helping to cook on an open fire. Vegetarians are catered for too; just let them know when booking.

Mennonite community visit, Orange Walk District, northern Belize

Know for their tight-knit, often private communities, the Mennonites of Belize are conservative Christians of Dutch/German descent who fled Europe from the 17th century; there are around six communities numbering 12,000 in northern Belize’s Orange Walk and Cayo Districts. Tours are limited but sensitively organised with families, such as Cornelius and Anna Schmitt, who are comfortable sharing stories and traditions. Using limited modern technology, they’re known for their work ethic, and own and run some of Belize’s biggest dairies and farms (not without contention, of course, but that’s another story). A horse-and-buggy tour at Indian Creek ends with a delicious lunch of schnitzel, pickles, salads and potatoes. Mennonite communities, like any, vary from the traditional to modern, and the tour challenges assumptions and invites you to ask questions. Booked via

group of Mennonites on horse-drawn carriage
The Mennonites of Belize are conservative Christians of Dutch/German descent. Photo: Richard Hammond

Orange Walk Town taco and town tour, Orange Walk District, northern Belize

Northern Belize doesn’t appear on all itineraries, but Orange Walk Town, Belize’s third largest city, has a rich history captured in Banquitas House of Culture, and is a great place to observe everyday life. Tour guide Manuel Novelo’s passion for his hometown is infectious. Tracing its history from its time as a Maya trading route to an outpost for the British-run logging camps, Novelo shares his knowledge, including OWT’s status as the town of tacos (each year, it hosts a TacoFest), leading you to his favourite spots in town including his must-visit taco stands. Novelo is also an environmentalist; during lockdown with his grandchildren, he planted mahogany trees, a species logged to near-extinction during colonial rule. Tour guides with heart and soul can bring the most unassuming town to life.

The start of Meera's Orange Walk Town tour with local guide Manuel. Photo: Richard Hammond

For characterful places to stay, where to find local food and drink, and places of interest throughout Belize, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Belize


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