Wet & Wild in Belize

If your dream family vacation involves a beach with the whitest sand and lightest water, get thee to Belize.

kids water crop

But Belize is so much more than just stunning beaches! We were looking for an ecofriendly escape in Central America, with some combination of roughing it and a few small luxuries. My husband, Stephen, and I finally narrowed it down to a coin toss between Nicaragua and Belize. After a little more research, Belize won out—we wanted a more snorkel-friendly (rather than surf-friendly) beach experience for our 8-year-old and 6-year-old. Plus Belize’s Mayan ruins and jungle adventures offered something new and unusual that we could all explore together.

family ruins

We weren’t disappointed. The spring weather was fantastic—80- and 90-degree Fahrenheit temperatures and sunny every day (though verging a little more hot and humid in the rainforest)—and the mix of adventure, exploration, rest and relaxation was perfect for us. We specifically chose off-the-beaten path towns and resorts to avoid the overcrowded tourist destinations.

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And traveling with the children just made everything better. I’m always surprised that the kids rise to every challenge—whether it’s exploring an underground cavern in the jungle or riding a boat into the middle of a reef and jumping off without any land in sight. Their curious nature about everything is truly contagious.

cave family


The ROAM Report : Belize


Travelers : Stephen, Dina, Kate (8) and Jack (6)

Date :  April 2015

Itinerary : 10 days at three ecofriendly resorts and lodges. We began in the jungle then drove two hours south to the coast at Placencia, then took a one-hour boat trip to Hatchet Caye. (See details in “The Good Stuff” below.)

Budget : Approximately $9,500, plus airfare

The Good Stuff 

Jungle Treehouse Our first stop was Chaa Creek. We stayed three nights in a fantastic treehouse in the jungle near San Ignacio, about 20 miles from the Guatemalan border. Because of the remoteness of the location, it was all-inclusive because it was the only option! All meals, several tours/guided walks and transfers to/from the resort cost $1,300 per adult plus $300 per child for the three-night stay.

horseback

Beachside Near Placencia Nights 4-6 were spent at Chabil Mar, a boutique resort just five minutes from the village of Placencia with easy access to jungle and coral reef attractions. Three nights cost $1,800 for a two-bedroom condo; no included meals.

kate sand

Private Island We splurged on Hatchet Caye (pronounced “key”), a tiny private island in the Caribbean Sea for our last nights. A two-bedroom bungalow and all meals for all four days was $3,700.

family waterfront

Belize Reef While most tourists think of Jacques Cousteau’s Great Blue Hole when they think of Belize, the underwater sinkhole isn’t necessarily the best snorkel spot, as it’s more interesting to the scuba divers who can swim deeper down into the abyss; it’s also a hassle to get to, requiring a boat trip over 50 miles of open ocean. So to maximize our kid-fish-fun ratio, we opted instead for simply snorkeling the Belize Reef. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which stretches from Cancún to Honduras (crossing Belize along the way), is the second-largest reef in the world, second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and a marine preserve. We were lucky enough to both enjoy the reef from jumping off the dock at Hatchet Caye and chartering a boat for the day. We got to snorkel with nurse sharks, turtles and stingrays, which was one of our best memories.

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Fishing We were able to fish right off the dock in both Placencia and Hatchet Caye. We also did a fishing excursion that was easy and fun for both the kids and the grownups. Jack caught his first barracuda and Kate learned to cast!

jack barracuda

Kid-Size Mayan Ruins Visiting the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, meaning “stone woman” for the female ghost that supposedly haunts these parts, was a must for us. These ruins are near the Guatemalan border, about 15 minutes from San Ignacio. Kate and Jack could easily hike to the top of the pyramids. A two-and-a-half-hour drive away are also the Guatemalan ruins of Tikal, known as the crown jewel of Mayan sites, but we decided to hold off on those until we could spend more time. We just didn’t feel like subjecting the kids to five hours in the car through the sweltering jungle. (My elbows are sweating just thinking about it.) Xunantunich, was perfect for us this time around.

family pyramid

Rainforest Trekking Hiking in the rainforest at Chaa Creek was awesome, especially the night walk to see tarantulas, scorpions and other night creatures. We also really liked checking out the medicinal plants, still used by many Belizeans and marked with care by a botanist, on the property. While visiting the Chaa Creek butterfly farm right after Jack’s kindergarten class learned all about butterflies, Jack stumped me and Steve on the word “oviparous” which means “egg laying.”

Jungle Biking Steve really enjoyed mountain biking in the jungle past unexcavated Mayan ruins near Chaa Creek. (The property owners don’t dig out the ruins for fear that the government will seize the property, so the area feels very undiscovered.)

Zip-Lining  Whizzing through the jungle was a dream come true for the kids—and the adults had a pretty good time too.

kate zippin

Sampling the Local Cuisine Since we were no longer staying at an all-inclusive resort, we finally got to sample the local cuisine in the town of Placencia. And we were very happy that we did! With a mix of Latin and Creole influences, the food in Belize is very good and the seafood along the coast is superb. Standout dish: chilaquiles in spicy sauce.

The Not So Good 

Hachet Caye Is Remote If you need lots of activity and people around, the remoteness of being on a private island for several days might not be for you. We loved it, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, when we arrived, a yoga retreat had just left the island, so other than the staff, we were the only ones around on an island that can normally accommodate about 30 guests. (Which also meant we had the run of the place, including first and last dibs on all the kayaks, snorkel gear and dive boats.) We loved racing hermit crabs through obstacle courses – but if you need more excitement than that, it might be good to stay on the mainland.

Private Is Not as Posh as It Sounds Yes, Hachet Caye is a private island, but the tagline is “Imagine the Caribbean before it got crowded.” Nature is the draw on Hachet Caye, not luxury digs. (For example, the pool here is basically a large aboveground pool that’s decked in. Though with the sea only a few feet from every place on the island, one might wonder why there needs to be a pool at all.)

Cruisers A Comin’  This year, Norwegian Cruise Line is debuting the new island port of “Harvest Caye” just south of Placencia which will increase tourist traffic to southern Belize and the Placencia area.

Watch for Hurricanes  If you’re planning a summer trip, be aware that Belize is subject to the Caribbean’s hurricane season from August to October.

Good to Know

Crime Stats The U.S. State Department rates Belize high for crime, but most of the violent crime occurs in southern Belize City, where gangs are known to operate. We never felt unsafe, but it’s a good idea to take proper precautions with your valuables when visiting tourist areas, just as you would anywhere.

Good for Next Time 

Boat Charter It’s on the bucket list to charter a boat and sail around the barrier reef for a few nights.

Cave Tubing Belize has the largest cave system in Central America, and the caves were used by the Mayans for religious ceremonies and sacrificial bloodletting. Although the kids couldn’t wait to unleash their inner Indiana Joneses, they were neither old enough nor tall enough to go on the river cave tour this time around.

Good Resources 

We found helpful information in Lonely Planet and on TripAdvisor.

Good Family Trip? 

Belize delivers not only white sand, epic reefs and lazy days, but Mayan ruins, jungle adventures and colorful local culture. It’s a something-for-everyone spring break destination for families with kids of all ages. We all loved every bit of Belize – the people, the scenery, the food, the accommodation – and without question, we would do this exact trip again tomorrow!

fishermen

 

by Dina Harrison, January 2016

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