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  • Writer's pictureMeera Dattani

Places of interest in Belize

As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Belize, Meera Dattani selects a range of visitor attractions, from food markets and national parks to scuba diving sites and ancient Maya ruins, in this historic Central American country.

National parks, world-class dive sites, community tourism and Maya ruins are among Belize’s many attractions. While logging and hurricanes have left their mark on Belize’s forests, with much of it secondary growth, ancient trees remain in protected areas where the canopy ranges from 40 to 120 feet and wildlife flourishes. Belize’s Maya sites are impressive and numerous and it’s worth visiting at least a couple to get a sense of its past. Where possible, book local guides, particularly for the Maya sites in order to have a true insight from a knowledgeable Maya guide. Guides are generally very knowledgeable, friendly, and it’s a way of supporting the local economy in an equitable way.

two people walking towards a temple
Meera with guide Eduardo at High Temple, Lamanai. Photo: Richard Hammond

The largest town in western Belize, San Ignacio is a place you can easily while away a few days; there are some great hotels, excellent bars and restaurants, and it’s a brilliant base for experiencing the region’s Maya ruins, hiking trails and rivers. But the town itself has plenty to offer too. San Ignacio Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays is a lively, local market where you can enjoy delicious tacos, burritos, pupusas (corn griddle cake) and grilled meats, and pick up fresh fruits, nuts, crafts and clothes. San Ignacio Resort Hotel’s Green Iguana Conservation Project is also worth a trip (hourly tours from 8am-4pm; book online) while a 10-minute uphilll walk takes you to the Maya ruins of Cahal Pech, settled around 1200-1000 BC and former home for an elite Maya family. Go early or late afternoon to avoid the heat and catch the best light for views over the temple and river.

signage for San Ignacio market
Entrance to the San Ignacio market. Photo: Richard Hammond

While Cockscomb is best known as home to the highest number of jaguars, it’s difficult to spot these elusive creatures. If you’re determined, book a guided evening tour or stay at least two or three nights; even then, keep expectations in check… the sanctuary covers over 128,000 acres of jungle in the Cockscombe Range of the Maya Mountains, add another 120,000 acres of neighbouring Bladen Nature Reserve, and you can see why jaguar-spotting is a challenge. But by day, there’s a chance of seeing animals such as ocelots, deer and tapir – and you should hear the howler monkeys too. There’s great birdlife with over 300 species including the keel-billed toucan, scarlet macaws and several species of hawk, and the jungle hiking is some of Belize’s best.

Belize has over a rich diversity of wildlife, including ocelots (top right), toucans and howler monkeys

Photos: Belize Tourism Board

Lubaantun Maya ruins, Toledo district, southern Belize

The largest Maya site in southern Belize, Lubaantun has become known for the number of ceramic objects found among the stones, believed to be charmstones or items using during Maya rituals. One of the most common items is a type of whistle-figurine which can play three different notes. Lubaantun looks different to many similar Maya sites, using mostly large stones of black slate, laid so carefully that no mortar was used, and the name translates to "place of fallen stone.”  There are various theories about the role of Lubaantum; the Grand Plaza is so vast that some believe it was a commercial centre, perhaps for a central market and on a trading route. It’s worth taking your time for a wonder to see the ball courts and rituals area.

The old-school, hand-cranked (free) ferry that takes visitors to Xunantunich across the Mopan River is reason enough to visit this vast, impressive Maya site. With six plazas and over 25 temples, palaces and ball courts (plus countless Maya mounds yet to be excavated), this site really conveys the breadth and scale of Maya architecture and skill. The largest pyramid is El Castillo at 130 feet high (second tallest in Belize after Caracol) and if the weather is clear, views stretch across into Guatemala and up towards Caracol in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. A guided tour is highly recommended for a real understanding of the site, plus it supports local guides.

mayan temple with forest in background
The impressive Mayan site at Xunantunich. Photo: Nathan Allen/Belize Tourism Board

With its enviable spot on the New River, Lamanai, which means ‘Submerged Crocodile’, is one of the most intriguing sites in northern Belize. Set in the rainforest, there are stunning views from some of the temples, although at time of writing, you can’t climb the High Temple. Don’t miss the carved limestone masks of the Mask Temple and the stone jaguar formation on Jaguar Temple before climbing up for views. Lamanai was occupied for over 3,000 years and as a result, had a large, long-standing, prosperous Maya community until European contact in 1544. The Archaeological Reserve also has a museum – there’s a well-preserved mask showing a Maya ruler appearing from a crocodile headdress – two Spanish church ruins and a 19th-century brick sugar mill. The boat ride to/from Orange Walk Town is gorgeous (and avoids the alternative – a bumpy road) with a chance of seeing iguanas, Morelet’s crocodile, and plenty of birdlife.

two people walking among a temple in Belize
The impressive Mask Temple at Lamanai. Photo: Richard Hammond

A 45-minute drive from San Ignacio followed by a 45-minute to one-hour hike through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve leads you to the cave opening of Belize’s legendary Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, known locally as Xibalba and translates to ‘cave of the stone sepulchre’. A combo of swimming, wading, clambering and hiking takes you to one of Belize’s most fascinating Maya sites, its subterranean chambers home to the calcified bones of a teenager girl (known as ‘The Crystal Maiden’) alongside skeletons, stoneware and ceramics including the famous ‘Monkey Pot’ with its rare design. A reasonable level of fitness is recommended and claustrophobes might want to avoid. Book in advance as there’s a daily limit and note all tours are guided and weather-dependent.

If you’re botanically minded, these 45 acres of gardens set in a valley on the Macal River surrounded by the foothills of the Maya Mountains are a must if you’re near or on your way to San Ignacio. With two miles of trails, it’s an excellent place to learn about the medicinal plants and their use in Maya medicine on the medicine trail, while the orchid house is home to some spectacular treats from Mother Nature. There are mahogany trees, once the centre of Belize’s logging industry, on the rainforest trail, over 100 palm species in the palm areas, and an impressive collection of gingers and heliconias in the ‘zingiber alley’. Hamilton Hide is a good spot for birders.

Picture, if you will, a huge sinkhole surrounded by a glittering ring of coral in the middle of the Caribbean. That’s the Blue Hole, a UNESCO site probably formed at the end of the last Ice Age, one of Belize’s most popular spots, and a must for divers. With Belize home to the world’s second longest barrier reef, the Blue Hole is part of this Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System and is approximately 1,000 feet across and over 400 feet deep - the site was made famous by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau who called it one of the world’s top dive sites. Marine life includes reef sharks and giant groupers, but it’s also the rock formations that lure divers there. Book with a reputable operator who has guidelines on marine conservation and advice on diving responsibly.

aerial of blue hole in sea
Great Blue Hole, Belize. Phote: Belize Tourism Board

If you’re lucky, one of the first things to greet you as you enter Mayflower Bocawina National Park is the eardrum-busting sound of the howler monkeys. Rarely as close as they sound, but as the world’s loudest primate, you might feel a monster is upon you. Established in 2001 to protect the area’s biodiversity and the park’s Maya sites, Bocawina which is just 20 minutes from Hopkins and Dangriga villages, has a good selection of hikes such as the do-able Bocawina Falls Trail to the more challenging Antelope Falls Trail, and there’s zip-lining and abseiling too. Take swimwear if you’re partial to a dip as there are several waterfalls inside the park. If you’re without a guide, ask the rangers for up-to-date advice.

man and woman walking under sign for national park
Entering the Mayflower Bocawina National Park with a local guide. Photo: Richard Hammond

More of a rescue centre than a zoo, its 29 acres of forest are home to around 150 injured, rehabilitated and orphaned animals covering 45 native species such as tapis, coatimundi, and scarlet macaws. With wildlife conservation and education its central mission, animals are returned to the wild if viable. Belize Zoo is also frequented by creatures from the outside jungle - night tours are best as as many resident creatures are nocturnal. With strict rules such as no feeding or touching animals, there's a concerted effort to promote better human-wildlife engagement. It's also fully accessible for wheelchair users and anyone with physical disabilities.

Monkeys are one of the 20 species at Belize Zoo. Photo: Belize Tourism Board

Set inside a former prison in the city’s Fort George District, the building was built during British colonial rule in the mid-19th-century, and turned into the Museum of Belize in 2002. Inside, Maya artefacts, historic Belize stamps, vintage photos and interesting memorabilia does a good job of telling the story of Belize from ancient Mesoamerican times to slavery and colonisation when it was British Honduras, and through to independence. It doesn’t have as many items as you might want or expect; many reside in museums and other organisations around the world. There’s also an art gallery, gift shop and a small exhibit on Belize’s birdlife.

Belize’s largest Maya site is also one of its most impressive, buried in Chiquibul Forest Reserve near the Guatemalan border. It’s believed that at its peak in Ad 650, this Maya city occupied anything from 40 to 70 square miles with a population of around 100,000. It was an example of Maya ‘technology’ at its best, with rainwater reservoirs and cleverly designed terraces to grow all the crops they needed, and the complex was full of markets, palaces and temples including Caana, Belize’s highest structure. Caracol may not be the easiest site to reach, but it’s worth it and half the adventure lies in reaching this Maya city deep in the jungle.

terraces at maya city
Caracol is an example of Maya technology at its best. Photo: Belize Tourism Board

Find characterful places to stay, places that serve local, traditional seasonal food and drink, as well as outdoor adventure activities and carefully crafted community-run cultural experiences in our Green Traveller's Guide to Belize.


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