From big cats to sharks, Belize has it all. Not only can you spot a huge range of wildlife, the country also offers numerous opportunities to get closer to the action than you would ever imagine.
1) Jaguar Encounter, Belize Zoo
The Belize Zoo (www.belizezoo.org; US $8 adults, $4 children) describes itself as 'the best little zoo in the world' and this may not be far from the truth. The zoo was originally set up to rescue animals which had been used in the filming of a documentary but rapidly developed into an education centre housing approximately 100 animals native to Belize. Whilst the zoo itself is well worth a visit, for an additional US $50 (for a group of 1 to 5 people) visitors get a once in a lifetime chance to get up close and personal with one of the zoo's resident jaguars, Junior. Junior's mother was pregnant when she was rescued by the zoo but unfortunately rejected Junior when he was born forcing the keepers to hand rear him. The encounter with Junior lasts approximately 15 minutes and involves entering a 'cage' within his enclosure where you can stroke him through the bars, feed him chicken feet and even let him lick your hands and your head. Not only do you get the chance to come face to face with the third largest big cat in the world (only lions and tigers are bigger), your money helps to fund conservation and education initiatives.
Where to stay
We stayed at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge (also known as Ian Anderson's Jungle Lodge) near Belmopan. The lodge offers a wide range of accommodation from beds in a bunkhouse (US $15 pp) to treehouse suites (US $225), all set in lush jungle surroundings. As well as this the lodge offers a swimming pool and specialises in a range of jungle activity tours.
Belize Zoo is on the Western Highway half way between Belmopan and Belize City. The easiest way to get there is by 'regular' bus (see below); the journey takes about 45 minutes from either city, costs US $2-3 and there is a bus shelter right outside the zoo.
To get to Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, catch any regular bus heading south from Belmopan (approximately 30 minutes, US $2) and ask to be dropped at the lodge; it is then a 15 minute walk down a track. Private transfers cost US $35 from Belmopan or US $130 from Belize City.
2) Green Iguana Conservation Project, San Ignacio
Situated in the grounds of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, the green iguana hatchery will delight both adults and children alike. After an informative tour along a medicinal plant trail by an enthusiastic guide (during which you get the chance to snack on termites!) you reach the hatchery where the iguanas are separated into enclosures according to their ages. The guide demonstrates their natural behaviours and introduces you to several iguanas which all have their own distinctive personalities. Then there's plenty of time to hold the iguanas and pose for photo opportunities with an iguana sat on your head!
Where to stay
We stayed at Parrot Nest Lodge ( US $45 per night) in nearby Bullet Tree Falls; this was our favourite accommodation of the whole holiday. You'll struggle to decide what you like best about this place - sleeping in a treehouse, the friendly owners (who cook amazing meals and will drop you off in town), tubing down the river (free when you stay there) or the wildlife (iguanas, humming birds, agoutis and a meadow full of fireflies at dusk).
The easiest way to get to San Ignacio is to catch an 'express' bus (see below) from Belize City (2 hours, US $3-4). Bullet Tree Falls is a 15 minute bus (US $0.50) or taxi (US $7.50) ride from San Ignacio.
3) Snorkel with whale sharks, Placencia
Several times a year (peaking around the full moon in April and May) the opportunity arises to snorkel with whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea. Be warned though, this is not for the faint hearted! After an hour's journey out over calm water, snorkellers are transferred into a small boat to travel out over the reef into the open ocean (and large waves). As well as whale sharks, you also have a chance of seeing mako sharks, bull sharks, hammerhead sharks and dolphins. Sounds scary? Well believe me, the sea sickness (which everybody in our group experienced) is plenty enough distraction from the fear of being eaten! Whilst the trip can be mildly traumatic, the potential wildlife encounters more than makes up for this (we saw a whale shark from the surface and a pod of dolphins swam right past us while we were snorkelling).
Where to stay
We stayed at Manatee Inn (US $30-40) in Placencia. This friendly Inn offers simple, clean and modern en-suite accommodation set back slightly from the beach at the northern end of the village.
By bus, the journey from Belize City to Placencia takes 4-5 hours (US $7-12). Buses directly to Placencia are infrequent; a more interesting option is to catch the bus as far as Independence on the Southern Highway and catch the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi (12 minutes, US $5) along the creek to Placencia. Flights from Belize City to Placencia cost US $80-100 one-way and take 35 minutes (see below for more information).
4) Snorkel in Hol Chan Marine Reserve
For a slightly more relaxed encounter with the marine life of Belize, opt for a day trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Trips can be arranged from both Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker but are generally slightly cheaper from the latter (approx US $60-90). As well as the chance to snorkel in amongst marine fish in coral gardens your trip will also include a stop at Shark Ray Alley where you can snorkel amongst harmless nurse sharks and rays. You are also very likely to encounter turtles during the day - we saw three different species during our visit.
Where to stay
We stayed at the candy coloured Barefoot Beach (US $49 to $145) on Caye Caulker. The hotel is within easy walk of restaurants of bars and can also easily be reached on foot from the airstrip. The main selling point is a private deck with thatched 'palapa' and hammocks where you can relax and make the most of the sea breeze - you are also likely to spot the odd ray drifting by underneath you!
Flights from Belize City to Caye Caulker cost US $35 one-way and take 15 minutes. Alternatively, catch the water taxi from the dock in Belize City (US $8 one-way, 1 hour).
5) Visit Tikal in Guatemala
Okay, this isn't actually in Belize, but can be done in a day trip (or better as an overnight trip) from San Ignacio and should not be missed. Tikal is the most impressive Mayan site in Central America with the spectacular temples deep in the jungle providing numerous opportunities for spotting wildlife. To make the most of your visit, stay in one of the hotels within the park and go exploring after the crowds have gone in the afternoon (you get free entry for the following day if you enter after 4 pm) and before the tour groups arrive in the morning. Being in the jungle at 6 am, shortly after sunrise is an unforgettable experience and you will have a strong chance of encountering spider monkeys, howler monkeys, agoutis, coatimundis, toucans, parrots and numerous other birds. You won't be able to stop yourself singing 'King of the Swingers' as you watch monkeys clambering over temples in the Gran Plaza!
Where to stay
We stayed at Jaguar Inn (US $61), right outside the gates to the park. This is the cheapest of the hotels at the park but the accommodation is comfortable and convenient and we even managed to bag free breakfasts in exchange for bringing chocolate digestives and hobnobs from the UK for the manager!
Tours to Tikal from San Ignacio cost from US $135 (one day) to US $350 (overnight). It is also relatively easy to travel independently (see my guide on this - coming soon!).
Getting around Belize
Belize is a relatively small country and getting around is very easy, especially as English is the official language.
The quickest way to travel between the main destinations is by air. Two airlines, Maya Island Air (www.mayaregional.com) and Tropic Air (www.tropicair.com), offer reasonably priced domestic flights in 12 seater planes.
Buses are the cheapest way to travel; although they can be a bit cramped and uncomfortable you get to see a lot more of the country and travel with the locals. There are two types of bus: 'regular' buses which will stop anywhere along the route and the slightly more expensive 'express' buses which travel between the main towns without stopping. For up to date information on routes, timetables and prices see the Belize Bus Blog (www.belizebus.wordpress.com).
Private transfers can also be arranged through hotels and private companies although these can be expensive unless there are a few people to share the cost. William's Shuttle (www.parrot-nest.com/belize-shuttle.html) is generally highly recommended.