Belize Is the Perfect Low-Key Caribbean Paradise for Your First Vacation back

The tiny country offers the same luxury and adventure as its better known neighbors with far less of the fuss

April 28, 2021 10:03 am
San Pedro, Belize
San Pedro, Belize
Merritt Thomas

“Charlie’s rule is ya gotta catch,” I’m told by my skipper for the day, a man you may or may not guess goes by Captain Charlie. We’re heading out to fish alongside the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest  in the world, with the morning’s objective being to fill an icebox with yellowtail snapper. Lunch is on the line — Charlie has brought no backup rations for our planned beach barbecue; see Charlie’s rule — so that’s what I’m literally hoping, that lunch is on my line, as I cast once more into the coral-rich waters.

Charlie has worked at and fished the waters around the Matachica Resort for the past 21 years, which is where I’m staying on Ambergris Caye, about five miles north from the island’s main town, San Pedro. A day on the water is integral to coastal Belize’s appeal, though a day under the water, with world-class snorkeling and diving, including at Belize’s famed Great Blue Hole, is even more popular.

The fish apparently weren’t hungry until we were, with the memories of a barren morning being wiped away at long last as the sun came out and the tides calmed down, a late hot streak stocking our coffers. I have a sneaking suspicion that Captain Charlie’s struggles were staged to keep my own morale from nose-diving, ensuring that we were suffering together. Nevertheless, we cruised ashore to a local beach where you can rent a proprietor’s hearth to prepare your fresh catch of the day. Charlie cooked up what he calls his fisherman’s barbecue feast: fillets cooked over the open flame with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, cilantro, butter and “grandma’s spice mix,” then served in the form of DIY tacos.

Bellies full, we went back to the reef and this time went under for a snorkeling outing, hitting several spots in the Mexico Rocks complex, part of a protected marine preserve. Green turtles, green moray eels and nurse sharks took their turns in the spotlight — with Charlie occasionally taunting his fishing adversaries. “I ate your sister!”, he says with glee while pointing out some of the snapper which eluded us for so long earlier in the day — along with a lobster den, a few dozen of the critters cuddled together in a coral outcropping, guarding against those moray eels, no doubt.  

Belizean Beach Life

The sun must set on all good days, so it was time to head back ashore — no hardship, since Matachica is often listed among Central America’s top resorts. The property consists of 32 beachside casitas and bungalows, with an on-site spa, large pool deck and a pier lined with little lounging and sunbathing nooks.

Matachica casitas
Matachica casitas
Jake Emen

The eating is good too, even when you aren’t reeling it in yourself. Matachica just launched a casual restaurant, Mambo Bistro, joining its more formal Mambo Restaurant. Local ingredients, flavors and inspirations are integral to the cuisine at each outpost, and are combined with the French culinary background of chef Léon Cerredo  and pastry chef Stephen Lighter, the son of the resort’s hotelier, Daniel Lighter. Options might include fried fish croquettes served with a zingy ginger-sriracha, mango shrimp doused in a spicy mango sauce and Belizean grouper en croûte, with Lighter also serving a rotating assortment of specialty breads of the day.

When it’s time to get off campus, the best way to explore the rest of the island is via golf cart, with a bumpy but straightforward 30-minute ride getting you into town. The resort keeps a fleet on hand so there’s always one handy when you’re ready. Besides exploring San Pedro, you may also target Ambergris Caye’s secret beach — which is named Secret Beach, has myriad signs showing people how to find it and is, by far, the most well-known and popular beach on the island, lined by beach bars and restaurants such as Secret Beach Belize and Pirate’s Not-So-Secret Beach Bar & Grill. Many of these establishments have palapas and lounge chairs directly in the water, and with music pumping on their speakers, the collective vibe is more Cancún or Negril spring break-light, as opposed to the more low-key approach to hospitality you’ll find elsewhere on the island.

Corn tortillas
Corn tortillas
Jake Emen

If there’s a single essential stop in San Pedro though, it’s Estel’s Dine By The Sea, a laid-back, toes-in-the-sand breakfast and lunch joint. It’s an excellent stop to sample the food many visitors have highlighted on their hit list for Belize: fry jacks, a fried dough often served with jam, butter and honey, stuffed with eggs, or used to scoop up any sauce or condiment of your choosing. At Estel’s, they have stuffed fry jacks, fry jack nachos and loaded fry jack breakfast plates.

Traveling to Belize Today

After a lengthy shutdown which devastated the country’s tourism industry, Belize is open to American travelers and eager to welcome them back, whether you’re vaccinated or come with a negative COVID test in hand. Precautions are still in place, though, including curfews and mask requirements, and yes, they take both seriously.

Masks are required everywhere. You wear them in cars with your guide; you wear them walking around city streets or Maya ruins; you wear them out on the boat with Captain Charlie. Fines start at $500 for first offenders, and negligent tourists have been charged. Don’t be those people. Even if you are vaccinated, the onus is still on you to help keep others safe: the country wants and needs to be open because it’s so dependent on tourism revenue, but doesn’t have the same type of healthcare infrastructure that some of its larger neighbors do. The good news is that Belize’s vaccination program has been making steady progress, and when I visited in April, tourism employees were entering the current priority tier for shots. Almost everyone in the industry I spoke with had either received his or her first shot, or had it scheduled for the weeks ahead.

Heading to the Country’s Interior

As much as you may be reluctant to leave the beach behind, there’s a whole other world awaiting in the rest of the country, nearly half of which is covered by subtropical jungle or rainforest. San Pedro has a small airport which connects back to Belize’s international gateway, Belize City, a short 15-minute flight back to the mainland. Alternatively, there are 90-minute ferry rides; either way, you’ll have a car transfer of two to three hours ahead of you if you’re aiming to head to the Cayo District, an area of the modern country which was once part of the heartland of Maya civilization.

The most well known archeological site is Caracol, an important regional powerhouse for the Maya covering 200 square kilometers, with an estimated population of 100,000 at its height. The smaller site of Xunantunich is also noteworthy, and happens to be somewhat more accessible from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, the modern-day hubs for the region. Xunantunich is known for its towering El Castillo, a 130-foot tall temple, and abuts the country’s western border with Guatemala.

The historical presence and importance of the Maya has a strong pull in this part of Belize, but it’s not all history. Nearly 11% of Belize’s modern population is Maya, and the majority of the country is Mestizo, a mix of indigenous and European descent (most commonly Maya and Spanish). The Yucatec language is also still spoken, among other Maya languages.

One place to get a taste of both Maya history and modern life is at the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative, in the village of the same name. There, you may get a hands-on demo in art of scratch-made corn tortillas — rolled by hand with nothing but corn and water, then sampled with a drizzle of coconut oil and a sprinkle of salt — as well as pottery, with the women having revived traditional Maya ceramic techniques.

All such excursions can be arranged by your resort, which in my case was the Gaia Riverlodge, Matachica’s sister property, which has more than a dozen villas tucked into the lush environs of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. The area is home to a handful of high-end resorts, notably also including Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux. It is a trek to get here, though, with the final hour of the three-hour journey from Belize City consisting of what guides euphemistically refer to as the “massage road,” a bumpy dirt trail rife with potholes and assorted obstacles and diversions. Relief is on the way, eventually, via a multi-year road-construction and pavement project.

Sunset from Gaia
Sunset from Gaia
Jake Emen

At least the end justifies the means. Gaia overlooks the Five Sisters Waterfall, exclusively accessible by guests of the property. The falls are the heart of the resort, providing a show-stopping vista from several of the villas, as well as the resort’s main restaurant and lodge, while the constant crashing of the water provides a tranquil backdrop. From the resort’s perch, you can trek down 284 steep, zigzagging stone steps to reach the water below — a picturesque natural swimming hole with a hammock-strewn lounge area — or make use of the property’s on-demand funicular service up and down the cliff’s sheer face.

With no television or cell service and wifi only available in the resort’s main building, I’d encourage you to bring a book or two, hit those hammocks, and embrace the sounds and sights of nature as your entertainment. The property has four miles of nature trails and is an ideal setting for birding as well, as long as you’re cognizant of some of the jungle’s less welcoming residents, including venomous snakes and a ragtag crew of big cats that includes jaguars, pumas and ocelots. Between the thatched-hut villas complete with canopy beds, exotic animals and jungle setting, staying at Gaia feels faintly akin to being on a safari.

If the waterfall is the heart of Gaia, then its organic garden is, perhaps, the stomach. Dozens of long beds are lined with colorful, vibrant crops: multiple varieties of tomatoes, pineapple, green beans, soursop, eggplant, jalapeño and bell peppers, oregano, three types of mint, water spinach, mango, sorrels and much more. It’s all lovingly overseen by the property’s gardener, Sam, who told me, “when I got here, they said nothing could grow. Three months later, we were harvesting.” He uses traditional Maya practices combined with some modern training, and has been so successful that his garden now supplies all the produce for both Gaia as well as Matachica.

From serene relaxation to adventurous days on the water and in the jungle, Belize is a choose-your-own-adventure style destination. Choose wisely — although you can’t really choose wrong.


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