30 (Beautiful!) Reasons to Visit Belize

great blue hole belize jodi ettenberg

Coming from the dry ochre desert of Oaxaca, Belize was humid, very green, and full of delicious food. My trip to the country was brief but memorable, and honestly among the most fun and relaxing weeks I’ve spent in years of travel. I met new friends, tried wonderful dishes I hadn’t previously explored, and the scenery was truly mind-blowing. I will always remember driving into the dense forests as we criss-crossed the country.

Beautiful, Unbelizeable visit to Belize!

all about belize: where it is, a brief history, and beautiful beaches
Beaches aplenty

A Brief History of Belize

Bad Belize name puns aside, the country’s history is tangled, with pirates and buccaneers and conquests galore. Though the country is Central America adjacent, Belize has a varied and unique demographic makeup. With cultural similarities to Central America and famous Mayan ruins, Belize also houses a large population of Creole (people of mixed Africa and British descent), and Garifuna (mixed-race descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib, and Arawak people) — in addition to those of Spanish and Mayan descent.  The country’s early history reads like a Game of Thrones book, though violent destruction of indigenous culture and people was the sad norm of colonial journeys. *Cough* Columbus *cough*.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the name Belize,

is traditionally believed to have been derived from the Spanish pronunciation of the last name of Peter Wallace, a Scottish buccaneer who may have begun a settlement at the mouth of the Belize River about 1638. It is also possible that the name evolved from the Mayan word belix (“muddy water”) or belikin (“land facing the sea”).

Before the Buccaneers — those ‘maritime marauders’ who came to the country in search of timber and other riches — there were the Maya. During their peak, from 600AD to 900AD, the Maya created advanced city-states in the jungles — among them, Caracol and Lamanai in Belize. From 900AD, the Mayan kingdom declined. Emerging research indicates the fall of the Maya was due to drought. You can read more in my History of Tikal piece, here.

The Maya declined, they did not die off completely. There are Mayan descendants in Belize today, often mixed with Spanish ancestry. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the existing Mayan population fought back aggressively, and the Spanish never got a firm foothold over the country. Following the principles of the Colombian Exchange, however, they did bring a host of new diseases to the region. The population thinned out, and many moved toward the safer center of the country.

In the 17th century, British loggers — the Buccaneers — started settling in pockets of the coastline, in search of timber. They also used the Bay of Honduras as a base to launch raids on Spanish commerce, giving them the name British Baymen. Spain still ‘claimed’ the land for itself, but no matter — they attacked the British, the British fought back, and if pushed away still returned to reclaim access to mahogany. The Baymen settlement was officially established as a British outpost in 1638.

At the same time, large amounts of slaves from Africa were brought into Belize. The Spanish wanted to control the nation for itself, not only for the wood but also as a port for trafficking people. Plundering and skirmishes continued for over a century until the Spanish made one last push to wrest Belize from the British in 1798. They were defeated in the Battle of St. George’s Caye, and the territory was then firmly in British hands.

For an overview of the time between 1798 and the present day, please see the Lonely Planet History of Belize post here.

Calls for an independent Belize grew in number during the 1950s. Britain made Belize a self-governing colony in 1964, and on September 21, 1981 it became an independent country. Tourism is now the most important industry in Belize, as well as exports of sugar, bananas, citrus fruit, wood, and hot sauce (so good).

Quick Facts About Belize

  • Flag of Belize: 
Flag of Belize - Wikipedia
Flag of Belize. Source: Wikipedia
  • Official name: Belize
  • Capital: Belmopan
  • Type of government: Belize has a constitutional monarchy, with two legislative houses: the Senate, and the House of Representatives.
  • Head of state: British Monarch: Queen Elizabeth II. As with Canada, this role is represented by the country’s Governor-General.
  • Head of government: Prime Minister
  • Official language: English
  • Official religion: No official religion established
  • Monetary unit: Belize dollar (BZ$)
  • Population: 419,200 (a 2020 estimate), projected to be approximately 490,000 by the year 2030.
  • Size: 8,867 miles squared, or 22,966 kilometers squared
  • Density: 47.3 people per square mile, or 18.3 people per square kilometer.
  • Urban-rural population: As of 2017, the urban population was 44.8% of the country, with 55.2% in rural areas.
  • Literacy rate: Around 76-77% of men and women are literate in Belize.
  • Location: Located at the Northern edges of Central America, Belize was one the last British colonies on the American continent. Until 1973, it was known as British Honduras, one of the last British colonies in the American mainland. Since its relatively recent independence on September 21, 1981, it is part of the British Commonwealth. (To be even more precise: Belize is located at 17°15′ north of the Equator and 88°45′ west of the Prime Meridian.)


where is belize located
It’s BELIZE! Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Dispute with Guatemala

As I mentioned above, Belize borders Guatemala. But, the two aren’t the friendliest of neighbors. Guatemala has claimed the land held by Belize in whole or in part since 1821. I’m making specific mention of this because Belize unusually campaigned for international help in securing its independence, partly as a response to this aggressive stance by Guatemala.

The dispute is quite involved, but the short of it is that Guatemala, independent from Spain as of 1821, claims that under a 1859 treaty with Great Britain, it agreed to recognize what was then British Honduras so long as Great Britain built a road from Guatemala to Punta Gorda. In 1940, Guatemala said that treaty was void, since the road was never built and other economic assistance never supplied.

Belize, on the other hand, says that they weren’t even PARTY to that treaty, so how could they be bound by it, or have their future decided by it? Belize also argues that under international law, Guatemala is bound to honor the treaty even without the road’s construction.

As of today, Belize remains independent, but the two countries are not friends. In 2018, Guatemala held a referendum where citizens voted to petition the top United Nations Court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), to resolve this long-standing territorial dispute.

In 2019, Belize held its own referendum, with similar results.

And so, the countries have petitioned the ICJ in The Hague  United Nations, via referendum of their citizens who wanted this petition to go forward, to rule on the territorial dispute. As of September 2021, the case is ongoing. You can see case updates here. More about the historical dispute here, if you’re interested.

30 Reasons to Visit Belize in Photos: Landscapes, Food & Wildlife

Still here? Good. I can’t just put up a photoessay without explaining a little about the country.

Landscapes and seascapes

A good place to start.

Lamanai: one of the many reasons to visit belize
The Mayan ruins of Lamanai, formerly a huge city state, in Orange Walk District
Lamanai view
Views from atop Lamanai, which you can (and should) climb.
Mask Temple Lamanai
The mask temple at Lamanai
Beach views in Hopkins, Belize
Beach views in Hopkins, Belize
belize beach hopkins
Boardwalk done recycling-style: old bottles of beer and soft drinks made for a really beautiful walkway.
beach caye caulker belize
Taking in the sun on Caye Caulker
beach caye caulker belize
Wandering Caye Caulker
Sunset Caye Caulker
Sunset during my last night in Belize, on Caye Caulker

Food in Belize

Very friendly for celiacs, with only one place telling me that they used flour to thicken their chicken stews. For the most part, tamales and chicken or beef stews with rice were available throughout the country. In Hopkins, I was able to try Garifuna food for the first time.

food in belize
Rice, beans, grilled plantains and tender chicken — with a side of Marie Sharp hot sauce, of course!
tamales belize
Chicken tamales with cassava mash and a spicy salsa.
women's coop san ignatio belize
Making tortillas at a women’s coop in San Antonio, Belize.
making tamales at a women's coop in san ignatio belize
Making tamales at a women’s coop in San Antonio
Ko-Ox Han Nah san Ignacio belize
Incredible lamb curry and coconut rice at Ko-Ox Han Nah in San Ignacio
marie sharp's hot sauce belize
A hot sauce dream come true! Visiting Marie Sharp’s hot sauce factory on the drive to Hopkins. For more about her company, see here. For picking up some of your own, here. My favourites: the Grapefruit Pulp Habanero, and the Smoking’ Marie’s.
sere fish coconut belize
My favourite Garifuna meal: fish boiled in coconut milk, called sere, served with mashed plantain called hudut. So tasty!

The Great Blue Hole

Activities on Caye Caulker were optional, and I opted to fulfill a long-held dream of seeing the Great Blue Hole.  Flights go out from Caye Caulker or nearby San Pedro, but since I was already on Caye Caulker, I paid the $200 USD to get a flight with two others from the trip.

I can’t scuba dive, so this was the next best option. For me, it was also exactly what I wanted: a tiny plane, amazing views, and a chance to see an aerial vista of a natural wonder that I had read about for decades.

belize blue hole
Another dream come true: the Blue Hole from above! Amazing tiny flight over the turquoise sea.
flight blue hole belize
Foggy views on the departure, but thankfully it cleared up on the way.

As sinkholes go, the Great Blue Hole in Belize is unparalleled. Located near Lighthouse Reef, approximately 100km (63 miles) from Belize City, it is the largest natural sinkhole in the world and part of the UNESCO-recognized Barrier Reef Reserve System.

flight blue hole belize
We circled around the Blue Hole, affording a view from all sides.
flight blue hole visit belize
I like the view with the plane in the shot – shows just how closer we were to the hole as we circled.
flight over blue hole belize
Blue upon blue.
shipwreck lighthouse reef belize
An old British cargo ship named “Transfer,” stuck on Lighthouse Reef near the Blue Hole
caye caulker the split
Caye Caulker from above! Includes a view of “the Split” between its two parts.
caye caulker aerial view belize
On the return to Caye Caulker

Iguana Extravaganza

Though my injuries aren’t the focus of this photoessay, I would be remiss if I did not include some iguana shots from my trip.

For starters, I was more than slightly obsessed with iguanas during my time on the Galapagos Islands. The land iguanas were particularly fun to observe, gleefully catapulting salt into the air and scaring all of the nearby iguanas. A pattern emerged quickly: the animals stood piled atop each other, one would spit salt aggressively into the air, and the half-dozen nearby would skittishly flip out, then settle back into repose. It happened over and over, and I giggled like a child.

In Belize, the iguanas were far more colorful, and given that they were kept in a park, I was able to get closer. One might argue too close, because months later I still have the claw marks on my leg from where an iguana tried to climb me like a tree, shocking the staff. Apparently I have the dubious distinction of being the only person in the history of The Iguana Project‘s existence to have been mauled.

The best reasons we came up with is as follows: we fed the iguanas leaves, and coincidentally I wore a t-shirt that looks like leaves.

That or iguanas hate me.

You decide.

iguana san ignatio belize
Iguana bigger than my head? CHECK!



iguana belize
iguana sanctuary belize
My fave of all the iguana shots. SO ELEGANT! Such wow.
iguana belize
Very sultry. Too bad he was the one to then CLIMB ME LIKE A TREE.
iguana sanctuary in belize
This was the picture I snapped when Mr. Iguana from the prior photo decided I was a giant leaf.

Snakes and Tapirs, Oh My

While I’m not a big fan of spiders, I do not have a problem with snakes. This was a good thing, because upon entry at the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center I was promptly draped with a large snake. No complaints; just glad it wasn’t a tarantula.

Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center

I was extremely excited for the zoo because the Jodi hierarchy of animals is as follows:

  1. Tarsiers (the reason I went to the Philippines, and of course I went to Bohol and went nuts.)
  2. Alpacas or llamas (Found a place called Shamarra Alpacas in NZ and went nuts, but I also drive my family bananas with my enthusiasm on a regular basis because there are a few alpaca farms near my dad’s place in Quebec.)
  3. Wombats (Australia! Check.)
  4. Owls (Not yet, BUT ONE DAY)
  5. Tapir (Baby tapir are far cuter but I love their awkwardness at all ages)
  6. Harpy Eagles (mostly because they look like Sam the Eagle from the Muppets).
  7. Shoebills (crazy clacking and fascinating dinosaur birds)

The zoo not only had a Harpy Eagle enclosure, but also housed quite a few lumbering tapir.


tapir belize
Ending on a high note: TAPIR!

Further Reading About Belize

This post is a joyful list of why I enjoyed my visit to Belize, including some of the places that made it memorable. As always, I wanted to provide some additional reading for those traveling to Belize. I am a big believer of learning everything you can on your travels – longtime readers are here for that reason! – and guidebooks and history books are a good spot to start.

  1. The Frommers Guide to Belize was written by my friend Ali – who I met during this trip! She fell in love with the country so much that she kept going back, living and writing from there, and it eventually led to a contract for the guide book. She is a wildlife and travel journalist, so it was a perfect fit. The Frommers guide to Belize.
  2. The Lonely Planet guide to Belize, 2019 edition.
  3. Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide, by Alan Twigg
  4. For the food-lovers: Flavors of Belize, by Tanya McNab, and the awesomely-named I Belize You Can Cook Book, by Gregory Arana (never change, Gregory).

And for readers with more, uh, salacious tastes — I know you’re out there — the second book in Kimberly Fox’s Bad Boys on the Beach series is set in Belize.

Is shorter form your preference? See this beautiful piece tracking hummingbirds in the jungles of Belize.


From animals to sinkholes and lots of great meals in between, this was a wonderful trip to Belize. My skin, parched from the months in Oaxaca, was thrilled be in humidity for a few weeks.

Note: I visited Belize as the final trip of my 6-year brand ambassadorship with G Adventures, which has now ended. The tour itself and my transportation to and from Oaxaca were paid-for by G Adventures. I paid for the optional activities like the Iguana Sanctuary and the Blue Hole flight.

jodi ettenberg
DON’T WORRY GUYS, THIS ISN’T ONE OF THE 30 REASONS. It’s just a happy smiley Jodi photo. Yay for a lovely trip!

I had not spent much time in Central America or the Caribbean prior, and was unsure of how I would enjoy my visit to Belize. I ended up loving the food and the laid-back attitude, was in awe at the tropical waters, and felt like those short 10 days just weren’t enough.


30 thoughts on “30 (Beautiful!) Reasons to Visit Belize”

  1. Ouch! Can’t believe you got mauled by one of the Green iguanas at the Iguana Project. I was there myself about 7 years ago and it surprisingly became one of my favourite memories from Belize. Do you have any other experiences similar to the Iguana Project that you would recommend visiting if we are given the chance? Eco-conservatism projects are totally worthwhile checking out as we make our way around the planet.

  2. I would also recommend visiting the south of Belize, which is fairly off the grid.

    Punta Gorda and Placencia are really nice and off the beaten path as far as Belize goes. It’s almost like a different country when compared to the frat-like San Pedro.

  3. This looks amazing! I basically knew nothing about Belize before this post, except Blue Hole, which I’ve seen photos of on calendars and things. But it looks absolutely stunning. And your photos of the iguanas are amazing – they’re such beautiful colours!

  4. ‘Love the photographs Jodi. And what a story! Humped by a reptile! Thank goodness it wasn’t worse.
    I don’t know much about Belize. Strike that.
    I don’t know anything about Belize but it sounds similar to the Mayan culture. I need to know more!

    1. It’s a mix of many different cultures, as I said in the history, which is part what make it different to countries like Guatemala, or Caribbean countries. It’s got influences of both regions. And delicious!

  5. A friend of mine did her semester abroad in Belize and I was so so jealous! This post has revived those yearnings to visit. Great photos! Also, iguanas are totally awesome!!

  6. My wife and I absolutely loved our trip to Belize – 5 days in the jungle and 5 on the ocean back in 2008? Came face-to-face with a whale shark and saw the blue hole at 120 feet! (You really should get your scuba training!)

    Glad you had a great time – I’ve got great memories. Can’t wait to return with our kids!

    1. I don’t scuba because I’ve got an ear disorder where they’ve said it’ll rupture my ear drums and it’s a permanent no-go. I’ve asked every ENT I’ve seen and they always say “nope, don’t do it”. I took up skydiving instead. :)

  7. I was JUST in Ambergris Caye in August, but we weren’t able to swing the Blue Hole. Oh well, looks like I will defintiely have to go back! Plus I want to check out Caye Caulker in the future, too.

    Great photos!

  8. I’m enjoying your blogpost with a great photos. Gladly to hear you’re safe and always happy while traveling :)

  9. Jodi, the pictures are incredible – just a few would be enough to get convinced ;) It makes my heart slightly cringe though, as I almost stepped on that beautiful soil 2 years back, but a very unfortunate reason stopped me from doing it last minute: visa. I need one, but it was impossible to get one in Germany (where I stay now), as the Belize consulate simply ceased to exist :P

  10. You forgot to mention that Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America. Makes it a very easy destination.

  11. Nice pics; heading to belize. Staying 2 days in the San Ignacio area, will do ATM Caving for day 1…Any recommendation for my other day?
    The iguanas do look nice-but I already have one at home

  12. Stunning! Absolutely stunning! Just looking at the pictures rejuvenates me in the midst of my ‘regular’ job. Thank you for giving an informative description of its history as well, I have never heard of Belize before. Belize is definitely going on my list(Oh yeah, i am staying away from iguana :D , will just love it from afar…)
    PS: You are so beautiful!

  13. I went to Belize as part of a senior year biology trip and I had the best time of life up until that point. So beautiful- jungle, beach, and I just loved it!

  14. Brendon Bracewell

    Thanks for these awesome tips. This is the first time I’m going to travel alone from Australia to Belize. Thanks for your wonderful article.

  15. Extraordinary descriptions of an unspoiled Paradise!! This convinced me that Belize will be our first trip, following the current worldwide plague.

  16. Belize is surely an impressive holiday destination. Another famous holiday destination is the Seychelles, have you been there?

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