OK, so I really spent more like 10 days in Belize, but most anyone going here would be well advised to sandwich a work week between weekends as I did. Here’s my travel itinerary. It worked out great for me, and incorporates all of the major attractions in the country while appealing to eclectic interests. Keep in mind, I don’t like to hurry while on vacation. If you wanted to do more things, there’s plenty of fat in this schedule. That’s the way I like it!
Arrive at Belize City airport (BZE). Customs are a snap. Grab a cab ($25 US) and go to the Water Taxi pier, where you will go to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Here’s the schedule:
It’s only $12.50 US if you book a round trip (each way), and one leaves every couple of hours during prime time. It’s a great way to see the way locals travel to the islands, it’s cheap, and it gets you to a dock right in the middle of San Pedro Town. In my case, I literally walked from the Water Taxi to my hotel, Tio Pil’s, which is right on the water about 50 feet from the end of the dock. I gave Tio Pil’s a 3 star (out of 5) review on Trip Advisor:
Hard to beat for $60 a night. If you’re staying at a resort, they’ll probably transfer you to their hotel for free.
As an alternative, you can fly from BZE for about $75. The airport on San Pedro is tiny and is also near the town center, but you’ll need a cab or transfer to your hotel. Or you can take a cab from BZE to Belize City Municipal (TZA) and get a flight for about $40, but then you’ll need to pay a cab and hassle with the transfer. I don’t think that’s worth it.
By the time you get to Ambergris, it will be late afternoon, most likely. Step one: set up your tours for the next day (See Day Two). Step Two: Take an hour to walk through the city. It’s tiny, but has a rustic charm. There are 3 streets in essence: Front, Middle, and Back. That’s not their real names, but that’s what the locals call them. Front Street runs parallel to the beach, then Middle parallel to Front, etc.
- Enjoy the scene at the Town Square, which affords a beach view and tacky tourist kiosks selling locally made goodies.
- Belize should really be on our Central Time, but for some reason they’ve chosen Mountain Time. So set your watch back two hours earlier, and enjoy very early sunrises and evenings!
- Make sure to buy some wine or liquor in the duty free shop while you’re arriving at the airport. Spirits are expensive in Belize.
Eat with the locals at Waruguma. It’ll get you into the Belizean diet in fine style. Order the fish burrito but split just one dish, unless you’re VERY hungry. It’s definitely enough for two. Yes, it’s a hole in the wall, but it’s delicious!
Dine at Estel’s by the sea. Have the Huevos Rancheros if you want a filling local treat. You can walk to the pier if you’re taking a snorkel tour, which I’d recommend. Or of course the tour boat will pick you up dockside near your hotel if you like. See my article on a great all-day snorkel excursion:
You’ll be fed lunch on this tour, or you’ll eat on Caye Caulker. My boat guides tried to steer me toward the Rainbow Restaurant right on the pier. Avoid it. Cardboard food, lousy service. You will be tired when you get back, so if you want to treat yourself eat at Blue Water Grill. I gave it 5 stars out of 5 on Trip advisor:
It’s got great service, great seafood, and great ambience right on the sea. You won’t regret it.
Set up your trip for Day Three if you haven’t already. (See Day Three)
- There are no good beaches anywhere in Belize, save Placencia. So don’t expect a lot of beach lounging on Ambergris. Here, in most places the beach reaches within 30 feet of a hotel terrace, and that narrow strip of land provides both pedestrian and vehicular delivery access. No, trucks and people lying in the sand don’t mix well. You would be far better off lying out by the hotel’s pool, unless you are in a resort outside of town.
Eat at Lily’s for breakfast if you’re not diving. Good Fried Jacks, but service is a little slow.
If you are a SCUBA diver, you’ll have a snack on the boat, as the dive leaves at 6:30AM! Take the Blue Hole dive as I described here:
If not, do some of the other water sports, like parasailing, kite surfing, Sea Doos, etc.
For dinner tonight, try Fido’s on the beach. The food is good, the tropical drinks are yummy, there’s live entertainment, and you can “watch the ships roll in” from your table.
- Make sure to say “Hi” to the locals. They are genuinely friendly and will smile and try to engage you in conversation. If you’re from New York, don’t worry, this is just how normal people interact with each other…:) In general, they’re not trying to sell you anything (but not always).
This can be a free day, or as I suggest you can do some more snorkeling. But since this is your last full day on the island, let’s take it easy, and just do a half-day’s tour.
We should start with a good breakfast as always, and I’d recommend Palapas, an overwater restaurant that thankfully opens early. Then walk it off by sauntering down the beach and compare prices for your snorkel trip. You can find out more on my snorkeling article here:
After a hard day diving the World’s Biggest Aquarium, you’ll be ready for some good grub. Go to Robin’s Kitchen for some great Jamaican jerk chicken and pork.
- The water is undrinkable here, but most hotels provide you with pure drinking water. Just fill up a container or two before you leave or else you’ll have to buy it.
Time to move! Let’s head to the mainland, where our final destination will be San Ignacio. Take the morning ferry back to Belize City, where you’ll need a cab back to the airport to get your rental car. Maybe. Some rental companies will pick you up at the ferry. In any case, make sure you get a four-wheel drive vehicle, as you might need it!
Now about that rental vehicle. You don’t need any transportation around Ambergris because it’s so small and the cabs are plentiful and cheap. But for the rest of the tour, it’s possible to take the bus instead of renting. I almost always choose renting because I want the flexibility it allows me, and it really doesn’t wind up costing as much as you think once you subtract out the bus, cab, and bike fees, etc. So I can’t tell you if Belizean buses are worth taking or not. But I recommend renting an SUV. You’ll have at least three more days with some long drives of three plus hours in front of you and a whole lot of side trips. Trust me on this. Rent an SUV.
Many Belizean vehicles are manual transmission only, so if you’re not used to using a clutch, make sure you specify an automatic. Some companies do not even offer them!
Take the Western Highway until you reach the turn off for the Belize Zoo around mile 30. The highlight of this small attraction is the Jaguar exhibit and of course the ubiquitous Howler and Spider Monkeys. One of its most endearing features is that you can get really close to the animals. Here in the USA it’s a lawyers dream come true, but in Belize, where the sleazebags haven’t yet coopted the judicial system, you can actually get close enough to a Tapir to pet it. Kids will love this place as well. Go there! Allow 2-3 hours, then…
Get back on the Western and head on through Belmopan, the capital, on your way to your final destination. If you left early, you’ll have time for zip lining as well. Here’s one company:
They’re right on the Western not far past the zoo.
I almost NEVER get up early, so I didn’t do it. 🙂
Eat right past the zoo at Cheers (mile 32). Yeah, I know. They even ripped off the logo! But, it’s a great place with cheap eats served up quick, and there’s not much in the way of choices. You’re starting to get out in the boondocks.
You’ll arrive late afternoon in San Ignacio. Check into a hotel of your choice. I stayed at the Cahal Pech, but I’m sorry I can’t recommend it:
However, the food is excellent and is served poolside, where you have a lovely and panoramic view of the city lights at night.
Take time tonight to schedule a trip to Tikal on Day 6. Your hotel clerk can do this for you. Tikal boasts the largest and most impressive collection of Mayan temples and ruins in Central America.
- Be VERY CAREFUL of the “car killer” speed bumps. The first one I hit made me feel like a stuntman in a B movie. After my SUV came back to earth, I felt compelled to inspect the undercarriage for damage. These beasts have warning signs about 100 yards in advance, but I never did pay much attention to road rules in the USA. Bad mistake in Belize.
- I didn’t see any reason to loiter in San Ignacio. But it is a good base from which to stage Day 6 and 7
- You may be tempted to go to Caracol, which is within the Belizean border. I do not recommend this. Yes, it is closer and cheaper to access. However, the road is extremely rough, and the State Department occasionally issues bandit advisories. But it is the most important ancient Mayan city-state within Belize, and is not as crowded is Tikal. I’ve heard it is very impressive. Pick your poison.
Rise early, because your tour to Tikal begins at 7:30. However, your driver does not wake up until 8. While you’re waiting, have pancakes at the Pancake House. The expat Canadian missionaries that own the place will bend over backwards for you, even if you’re in a hurry. Everything is home made. Delicious!
Your tour will make some gratuitous, yet somehow…annoying stops along the way to the Guatemalan border, so you’ll have a chance to stop at a rather ordinary looking lake. Here, you’re supposed to have a photo op. In the background, you can capture the stone-age scene of women pounding out their laundry on boulders, while others carry huge baskets on their heads up steep hills in seemingly effortless and hands-free fashion. No men anywhere to be seen.
Then you’ll pick up your tour guide, and finally you’ll cross over into Guatemalan territory. The customs are handled by your guide.
Then it’s on to Tikal, right? Wrong, gringo! You’ll also stop for the tour guide’s cousin’s trinket shop, which actually does have some decent souvenirs. They make the somewhat dubious claim that everything there is made locally, but I have my doubts about the “Columbia” brand shirts.
Finally, after about 2 hours, you’ll arrive at the park, where you’ll be able to see some workers erecting a thatched roof system if you’re as lucky as I was. Your guide will take a lot of time explaining the flora and fauna along the trail to the ruins. Then you’ll see it: rising from the jungle like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, the temples stand as mute but magnificent testaments to the peoples that once populated this area. It really boggles the mind that a city of perhaps 200,000 souls was able to carve out an advanced civilization in this rain forest over 2000 years ago.
Temple IV is the largest of them all, standing over 200 feet tall. From the top, you get a stunning view of the tree canopy below and the temples defiantly rising through it, refusing to yield to the millennia they spent under the roots of the jungle. Extraordinary.
As you walk through these ruins, you’re at once awed and repulsed, since you know that many of them were used as altars from which human beings would be sacrificed to one of the Mayan’s 13 gods.
This is an exceptional trip, and one which is of interest to anyone with even a mild interest in history, archaeology, or even just a sense of adventure. Don’t go to Belize and not visit Tikal.
It will be late when you get back. Make your reservation for the ATM cave for Day 7 and have dinner at Flava’s Bar and Grill. They have a little bit of everything, and it won’t break the bank.
- Bring your Passport to Guatemala!
- Bring plenty of water for Tikal. Otherwise, you will be forced to make an awkward and, inevitably, unfavorable currency exchange while you purchase bottled water from a vendor who wants Guatemalan pesos.
- Bring insect repellent for Tikal
ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal. It is a labyrinth of caves, many underwater, which were used by Mayans at the end of the Classic period (around 900AD). This is more of an extreme type of adventure than a tour, so beware!
An alternative would be either to try a run to Caracol (see Day 6) or, my preference would be to go to the Caves Branch River and go tubing. This would give you the caving experience without the death defying stunts. Here’s a website to get you started:
Tips for ATM:
- Bring a change of dry clothes for the long ride back
- Bring water
- DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT THIS IF YOU’RE NOT IN GOOD CONDITION, CAN’T SWIM, OR ARE CLAUSTROPHOBIC!!! You’ll be required to swim, climb, and grope your way in the dark over boulders. There’s a very good chance someone in the group will fall down at least once. This isn’t anything like Mammoth or Carlsbad in the States. You could get seriously injured here. You’ll be wading through water in the dark for much of the four-hour trip. It’s not for everyone. I saw people in their 60’s do it, though, so don’t let this discourage you. Just be aware that if you are disabled or frightened easily, this isn’t for you.
- Wear clothes that will be comfortable all day in the water. The water is cold, but most people are comfortable.
Once again, you’ll be picked up for your 8:30 trip at about 9. Then, you’ll be whisked to the gas station, where the driver will fuel up, before making a run to his friend’s convenience store, where passengers are encouraged to buy something. Finally, you will drive 7 miles down a very badly rutted dirt road, fording two streams, before you arrive at the parking lot for the caves around 11.
Here, you’ll be told you must leave your cameras in the car. You’ll take the tour-prepared lunch (chicken, I think) and will be issued a miner’s helmet with light and possibly a machete. Put that in a bag with your water, and off you go!
It’ll take 45 minutes to an hour to get to the cave entrance. Your guide will once again be the “monkey whisperer” and show you lots of medicinal herbs and plants. You’ll eat lunch at an old archeological camp and take a dip in a tropical pool at the mouth of the cave just for fun.
Then you plunge in, literally. You swim about fifty feet to access a small landing inside the cave, and for the next 75 minutes you’ll be wading, swimming, or climbing through huge caverns and be able to gawk at majestic crystal stalactites and stalagmites.
Finally you’ll arrive at a series of mystical chambers where there are pots, beads, obsidian blades, and the skeletons of sacrificial victims. It’s like walking through a lost world, where the people just died and left their treasures. It’s all very eerie, and very impressive.
This is a once in a lifetime experience, and there is rumor that the Belizean government won’t allow these tours much longer. I’m amazed they allow it now. Just the week before, some bozo dropped his camera on a human skull, knocking a nice chunk out of the cranium (thus the no camera rule). And of course I’m sure people have been injured in the cave, so the liability is enormous. So do it now, while you still can. I doubt you’ll have the chance for long.
When you return, you’ll be exhausted. Eat at your hotel. 🙂
We’re really at the end of the trip here. For the rest of our time, we’ll relax on the beautiful beaches of Placencia. These pretty stretches of golden sand are punctuated by Coconut Palms that grow right down to the water’s edge. It’s common to swing from a hammock and just watch the world go by while sipping on “that frozen concoction that helps you hang on”. Spend as much time as you have left here. If you want more action, just take up any of the water sports or activities.
- If you time your trip to Placencia within a few days of a full moon, you have a good chance to swim with the mammoth Whale Sharks that feed near Gladden Spit just offshore.
- Placencia has the only drinkable water in Belize, right out of the tap!
Drive down from San Ignacio in the morning on the Western until you reach the Hummingbird Highway around Belmopan. This is the most amazing road in the country. You’ll drive through and over the Maya Mountains on your way down into the valley, passing over rivers and past waterfalls as you go. You have time to go to St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park. No, not the Barrier Reef Blue Hole. This one is inland, and it is yet another series of caves with a nice swimming hole from whence the park derives its name. I didn’t do it because I was all “caved out”. I wanted sun and sand by this time!
Drive until you hit the Southern Highway and head south until you reach your destination hotel. Almost all of them are right on the main road. I highly recommend the Laru Beya:
If you got here early, you have plenty of time to explore Placencia Village, which boasts the “World’s Narrowest Main Street”. Hey, at least they’re famous for somethin’!
Eat at the Laru Beya. Fantastic atmosphere, service, and food, and far cheaper than Ambergris! For your other nights, pick the Maya Beach Hotel for fine dining, and Tutti Frutti if you’re on a budget.
That’s a great itinerary, and it includes most of the country’s highlights without wearing you out. There’s something for everyone: beaches, caves, Mayan temples, adventure, SCUBA, snorkeling…you name it! So have some fun, and let me know if this helped!
A lot of people joke about “Belizean Time” here, and for good reason. You’ll find that punctuality is rare. Your best option is just to put your fun face on and go with the flow. Allow some extra time to do whatever. It’ll probably take longer here. But so what? You’re on vacation!
Okay, I want to come to Belize today!!!
Hey, I’d take you, girl! Maybe I could even talk you into a dance…:)
How much did this run you?
I don’t remember. It’s been a while. Certainly it was thousands of dollars. I could have saved quite a bit by not doing the Blue Hole and staying in more modest accommodations…plus of course a lot is dependent on how good an air fare you get to Belize from wherever you’re coming from.
Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to more added agreeable from you! By the way, how could we communicate?|
We can communicate here. Usually I’m good with responses but my email was screwed up recently.
I know you said you asked your hotel to book you a trip to TIKAL but can you let me know which company you ended up using? I’ll be staying in San Ignacio.
The tour was offered through the hotel, using their own staff at Cahal Pech. But we picked up our tour guide en route, so really all the hotel was doing was providing the transportation.
Since I can’t highly recommend it, I wouldn’t necessarily book the tour through the hotel. It’s not that they were worse than the alternatives: I don’t know that. They did a nice job of allowing us to roam freely through the ruins while still giving us some background on the dead civilization and its inhabitants. They also showed us several different animal species that I would have missed without a guide. But I think you would get that from most tours, and ours had a few annoyances.
The bottom line is if you’re staying at Cahal Pech I’d use “their” tour just for convenience. If you’re not, I’d take somebody else’s tour.
How can I do this itinerary condensed a little as we would have 7 days. I also would be traveling with two little ones (2 1/2 year old and a 5 year old). Trying to book ASAP and I’m not sure if I have to book everything separate, hotels and flights or if I can book something all together. Love the day trip to Guatemala and I don’t want to miss that. Any way to help figure this out would be great! Thanks!
Option 1-You can cut one day from your Ambergris Caye section easily. I allowed a “free” day in the itinerary. You cannot do the ATM cave with the little ones anyway, so skip that, and you save another day in San Ignacio. Now you’re down to only eight days from my 10 day itinerary and you could cut one day in Placencia if you wanted to. However, that would mean spending a lot of “windshield time” between San Ignacio and Placencia for really only one night’s stay.
Option 2-Spend an extra day in Ambergris, skip the ATM cave in San Ignacio, and skip Placencia altogether. Placencia has beautiful, uncrowded beaches-but if you have traveled much in the Caribbean, they will not seem extraordinary to you. Ambergris does not have good beaches at all, but it offers far more sporting activities that are harder to find elsewhere-however, a lot depends on whether a two year old can snorkel. I don’t know that. If they can, it’s definitely worth the trip. If not, try this:
Option 3 (Your BEST choice)-Skip Ambergris. Go directly to San Ignacio (one day), do the ruins at Tikal (2 days), then on to Placencia (3 days). You can spend 3 more days there and take a flight home on day 7. The advantage to this itinerary, which I think fits you best, is that you can still do most of the activities that are available from Ambergris by taking one of the many charters available from “downtown” Placencia, but they just take you a little longer to get there-yet you still have a nice beach if all you want to do is build sand castles.
BONUS: it makes your travel planning easier, because you only need 2 hotels (Placencia and San Ignacio)
DOUBLE BONUS:If you are going on or near a full moon, I would definitely take a Whale Shark tour from Placencia. I wouldn’t miss that personally! I wasn’t there at the right time, unfortunately, but if I were, I would not miss the chance to see these giant fish. It is one of the few places on earth where they are reliably sighted. In fact, if I were going during a full moon, that alone would be enough to make up my mind-I would go to Placencia.
I am sure a travel agent can arrange everything for you, but really the task (of making separate bookings for hotel, transport, etc.) isn’t daunting at all if you just follow my recommendations. Remember you only need 2 or 3 hotels, airline tickets, and a rental car. All of the other activities can be booked on site once you’re in country. Please let me know how it works out!
thanks for the information! do you know if ATM is still an option?
Yes it is:
It really is an adventure more than a tour. I’m very surprised to see it’s still available.
This is one of the best itineraries I’ve seen sans the rental SUV. (I guess I’ll try my luck w/ public transportation.) Thank you so much. I’ll be starting from Dangriga. Do you have an opinion on what my order should be… Ambergris, San Ignacio then Placencia???or does the order not matter much.
It doesn’t really matter that much. You’ll likely fly in and out of Belize city, which is close to Ambergris, so you could do as I did and go there first, but of course you could always hit it at the end just before you went home. Likewise, you won’t spend any extra time if you reverse the order with Placencia and San Ignacio. I’d just do what gave me the cheapest rate (though it probably won’t matter). The only reason to go in a particular
sequence is if you can hit Placencia on a full moon…that would give you the chance to see the whale sharks!
I really appreciate all your info. Thanks so much!
Hi, Thanks for the great info. Some questions:
We only have 7 days, so i’m trying to find where to cut out days. We do want to go scuba diving, but are thinking of skipping the blue hole. Do you think we should skip Ambergris altogether and just scuba from Placencia? We do want to do the ATM tour as well.
Thanks for any advice!!
Tough question. The best diving is close off the shore at Amergris, but the beaches are better in Placencia. If I had to choose, I’d go to Ambergris if diving was my priority, and Placencia if I wanted to lounge more on the beach. That said, you can take some boat trips to some great dive locations from Placencia. It will take a bit longer than from Ambergris, but I think it’s a good choice for you.