Belize is an increasingly popular but unspoiled destination for adventurous travelers who don’t want to sit on a beach all day. Belize, a quick flight from Florida, is a great off-the-beaten-path country that offers a variety of activities.
We’re living in southern Belize’s Toledo District at the moment, on a family sabbatical with our four young children. When we go out for a day trip with the family, we’re surprised at the uniqueness and charm of each individual town.
If you are focusing your trip to southern Belize, you can fly into Philip Goldson International Airport in Belize City and rent a car to drive the five hours south. Alternatively, you can take a small commuter flight out of Belize City into Placencia and either rent a car there or use the public transportation (buses). I would recommend having your own vehicle, though, since much of Belize is very spread out.
About an hour an a half south is the largest town in the Toledo District, Punta Gorda. Dubbed ‘pG’ by locals, this authentic town of 5,500 residents sits right on the Caribbean Sea. The infrastructure here in PG is the most developed in all of southern Belize.
Market day in PG is a cool experience if you’re in town on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday. Local farmers from the surrounding villages come in on these days to sell their produce. Also for sale is clothing, household items, and handmade furniture built by local Mennonite families. A building at the market houses the fish market where you can purchase what the local fisherman caught this morning and even have it cleaned for you.
In general, you’ll find everything you need for a nice vacation right in PG, including restaurants, lodging (try Hickatee Lodge just outside of PG), and a plethora of tourist attractions. If you’re basing yourself in PG, you can set up day trips to tour a chocolate farm, visit a butterfly farm, or learn about history at multiple Mayan ruins.
Placencia is located at the tip a long, narrow peninsula, and when driving into town you can often see turquoise water on both sides. Placencia is a small village dotted with colorful houses, shops, and restaurants. Even though it’s technically accessible by car, the community has a decided island feel. When driving into town, keep your windows down to fill your lungs with some of the freshest air you’ll get anywhere.
On your way into town, you’ll see housing of various styles and you might have the thought, as I did, that development is coming to this small village. Some are thatched or wooden huts, so typical here in Belize. Others are two-story vacation homes that offer every luxury a first-world visitor cares to enjoy. Most are painted the bright pastels befitting a Caribbean, seafront village.
Tiny shops and art galleries line the main dirt road in Placencia. you’ll have your pick here of many quaint hotels and B&Bs, most right on the beach. And, when it is time for a meal or a drink, you’ll find a choice of beach-side watering holes that offer everything from casual, local fare like conch ceviche to upscale dining.
In Placencia, you’ll see kayakers picking their way over slight swells and others just sitting and chatting on the benches adorning the beach. Belize’s Barrier Reef can be reached with a short boat ride from Placencia. This Reef is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. With a ton of tours available, Placencia can be as active – or as contemplative – as you’d like.
For an interesting side trip out of Placencia, Monkey River Village, a small Creole fishing community, feels like a world away. A 30-minute guided boat ride will get you to this tiny town of 300, where you can stop for a meal at Alice’s to dine on a typical, very reasonably-priced Belizean meal of rice, beans, and stewed chicken.
Afterward, your local guide will take you down Monkey River, pointing out iguanas, howler monkeys, and crocodiles. I would recommend doing the night tour of the River, when the moon is high and the stars are allowed to be bright without the light pollution of a developed area. At night, the noises of the jungle are deep and mysterious and, if you look carefully, you can see yellow eyes glowing in the trees.
Somehow, the night time is better for storytelling. Our guide was Percy, a local from the Village who knows the jungle inside and out. He’s tramped its depths since he was a boy and the only way out of town was in a dugout canoe down the river. The knowledgeable guides will teach you about flora and fauna, call out to the howler monkeys high in the canopy, and maybe even catch a crocodile for everyone on the tour to hold.
Another up-and-coming tourist town that still holds onto its Belizean identity is Hopkins Village, the largest Garifuna settlement in Belize. This sea-side town has a variety of dining and lodging options and has a distinctly coastal, bohemian feel. This town, like so many areas of southern Belize, is at the end of a rough road but well worth the bumpy ride.
Known for its friendly people and beautiful views, Hopkins is a great place to both kick back and enjoy a laid-back vibe and soak up the local culture. Here you can learn how to play the traditional Garifuna drum, go birding, visit the largest live barrier reef in the world for snorkeling, or take a tour of a nearby lagoon to view Caribbean wildlife.
Southern Belize offers visitors many options for soaking up local ambiance, learning about the culture, and exploring the natural world. A week-long vacation is not enough to see it all. I guess that’s why we decided to stay for six months.
Guest Article By: Domini Hedderman
Domini Hedderman is a blogger and travel writer. For more tips, advice, and lessons learned on the road, follow her story at renaissancehousewife.com.