Tiny Belize has more than its fair share of beaches and crystal clear waters. Location, and the fact that English is the official language, makes the country accessible to North American tourists. Belize City, the capital, has an airport but consider it a transit point to a relaxing vacation. Head for the stretches of coastline, biological diversity and island culture deep in the jungle, or along the northeastern edge of the nation. The affordability of in-country travel and accommodations should seal the deal for anyone considering a trip south of the U.S.
In the western part of Belize, a half-day bus ride from the capital, sits "Cayo," the city of San Ignacio. San Ignacio is the second largest city in Belize, so there are plenty of places to stay from tiny hostels to fancier hotels. You can book ahead of time, or spend a bit of time on foot exploring your options. San Ignacio, and its sister-city Santa Elena, sit near the Guatemalan border and only a short distance from ancient Mayan ruins, such as Cahal Pech and Caracol. Explore these treasures on foot, and visit the on-site museums containing artifacts uncovered during excavation.
Also near San Ignacio is the cave Actun Tunichil Muknal, an important Mayan archeological site that houses the famed "Crystal Maiden," the crystallized skeleton of a teenage girl who was long ago sacrificed to appease ancient gods. Hike into the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, home to species such as the Tapir as well as cougars, jaguars and ocelots. You can also find horseback riding, canoeing or kayaking in this area and visit the Saturday market in the center of the city.
Any visit to Belize should include the famed Cayes (pronounced "keys"), a series of white-sand islands and mangrove forests to the north. Ambergris Caye, the largest of the chain, has a small airport at San Pedro, but all of the Cayes are accessible by boats, which leave regularly from the port on each island where you can check the posted schedule of departure times.
Along the beaches, you can find fishing, snorkeling and dive packages posted outside dive shops and stores. If you're looking for exceptional dive locations, Belize Explorer Travel says not to miss the Great Blue Hole of Lighthouse Reef, a 1000-foot cavern encircled by a coral reef that drops 400 feet. Inside are incredible geological features, unusual species of fish, including black-tip sharks. Across all of the keys, you'll discover bars and restaurants, and many host festivals throughout the year such as Caye Caulker's famed Lobster Fest, which takes place in June at the height of the lobster haul.
Travel south to Placencia by bus or by air via Belize City. Placencia offers long stretches of placid sandy beach as well as convenient excursions into the wilds of the rain forest. Take a tour into the Monkey River Jungle. By boat you may spot dolphins, manatees or crocodiles, and on foot you are certain to hear the screeches of the howler monkeys and catch glimpses of them as they swing through the trees.
Placencia is also the place to join a Whale shark dive, in which you can search for these large and peaceful fish, fairly common at certain times of the year. Whale sharks can be spotted throughout the summer and fall months, but three or four days before and after the full and new moons in April and May is when you'll find them near Placencia. Take a day-trip from Placencia to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary where a variety of hikes are available along the heavily forested Cockscomb Mountains.
Placencia has a wider range of quality hotels than many places in Belize. It is possible to find inexpensive hostels or bungalows or higher-end lodging just by arriving and asking around. Most lodging options offer reservations online or by phone.