A Family-Friendly Guide to Belize

Family-Friendly Guide to Belize with Kids: palm trees on the beach

A Family-Friendly Guide to Belize

NYC is covered in a blanket of snow as I type this, and I can’t believe it was only a month ago I was in a Caribbean paradise. 

If all of my vacations consisted of sipping cocktails and working on my tan somewhere beachy and sunny, I’d be happy as a clam. But I have kids, so those vacations are few and far between. As much as I love a relaxing Caribbean Island vacay (like my time in Aruba and in St. Lucia), there’s more than just beaches to explore in Belize – although there are plenty of those too.

When I book family trips, I’m looking for adventurous and exciting activities that will ensure the words “I’m bored” never cross the lips of my easily-distracted children, while still offering some much-needed downtime for tired parents. 

The awesome thing about Belize is that it can do both! Relax by the most crystalline seawater you’ve ever seen one day, then grab a snorkel and explore the extensive barrier reefs below the surface the next. Navigate rocky terrain on a rugged rainforest walk, then immerse yourself in the tranquility of flowing waterfalls at the culmination of your hike. Unlike some of my Caribbean vacations, Belize offers a healthy mix of Island-style living and eco-friendly lodge life. 

belize waterfall

The Central American country – which geographically-challenged folks like myself didn’t realize is NOT an island nation – is bordered by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. On one side lies white sands and turquoise waters; on the other you’ll find tropical rainforests and jungles laden with wildlife. An average annual temperature of 84°F, rarely falling below 60°F, allows for outdoor adventures all year round.

Many Belizeans are descendants of immigrants, making the country a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Their mixed ancestry is reflected in everything from the variety of food you eat to the friendliness of the people you meet. The country’s population is a mere 400,000, and boasts a unique blend of Maya, Mestizo, Kriol (Belizean Creole), Garifuna, East Indian, Mennonite, Arab and Chinese people. 

I spent six unforgettable days in Belize and each one was a new experience filled with incredible adventures. I zipped from one side of the country to the other, encountering a variety of cultures and people, and enjoying new escapades with each arguably different but decidedly amazing day.

Where to Stay in Belize

Belize has hotels for every budget. There are some absolutely stunning hotels that are more affordable than you might think, ones that offer up the kind of luxury you might be craving after an exhausting day of outdoor activities. 

I obviously didn’t stay at all of them – if only I had the time! – but I can personally recommend these, all of which come highly regarded by the Belize Tourism Board. Each property is equipped with welcoming staff, jaw-dropping views, and upscale rooms that are spacious, modern and brimming with amenities.  

These hotels are all great for families, but each one would also make for an unforgettable couples getaway, honeymoon or anniversary celebration. 

Family-Friendly Guide to Belize with Kids: beachfront room with a view
Stunning view from my bed at Naia Resort & Spa Belize

Best Hotels for Families in Belize

Almond Beach Resort is one of the most family-friendly options, with its private beachfront casitas and large family suites, and close proximity to activities. As an extension of the beautiful  Jaguar Reef Lodge, a member of the prestigious Belize Collection, guests have access to additional luxuries. Like my kids, they’re big on barefoot living; when you’re that close to the shore, there’s no need for shoes anyway!

A stay at Hidden Valley Inn Wilderness Lodge is a unique experience you likely won’t find anywhere else in Belize. The luxurious eco-resort sits on 7,200 acres of private forest reserve, offering breathtaking panoramic views of nature and boasting over 90 miles of hiking and biking trails – including kid-friendly ones. There are friendly and knowledgeable guides to lead you on your explorations of the property (or to come find you if you take a wrong turn somewhere). 

The San Ignacio Resort is centrally situated on a 17-acre private estate and just five minutes away from the cultural hub of San Ignacio Town. The 27-room resort features an on-site tour company to help with booking all of your family’s adventures, along with the top family-friendly activity in town, the Green Iguana Conservation Project (more on that later).

Family-Friendly Guide to Belize with Kids: Ray Caye
Ray Caye Island Resort is located on a private beach

Ray Caye Private Island Resort is just what the name indicates: a private island. In fact, their tagline is “Imagine the Caribbean before it got crowded.” With nearly a mile of private shoreline and a limited number of guests at any time, this resort offers the Island experience without any interruptions. Plus, you couldn’t get better views if you were actually IN the ocean. 

In keeping with the privacy theme, Naia Resort is nestled within a private 200-acre reserve on the Placencia Peninsula and features peaceful, secluded beach houses that are literally steps from the Caribbean. Placencia is easily one of the most beautiful spots in Belize.  

Things to Do in Belize

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed each hotel I checked into throughout my trip, I was too tired to do more than rest my head at the end of each day. If you’re planning out your activity calendar for your trip, here are some of the most exciting things to do in Belize – with or without kids!

The Belize Barrier Reef

At 185 miles long – spanning the entire length of the country – the Belize Barrier Reef is the second-largest barrier reef in the world and has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. The ecosystems it helps sustain create many of the nation’s most beautiful sights. 

For scuba divers, Belize is a bucket list destination. But you can explore the underwater beauty of Belize with just a snorkel! There are hundreds of snorkeling spots along the Belize Barrier Reef. Just a quick peek below the surface reveals a flurry of vibrant colors and activity, where you’ll find hard and soft corals, sponges, and over 500 species of fish and marine life. 

You don’t have to be a pro at snorkeling to enjoy these views, either; there are guides for every level, even beginners. Life vests are always available and excursions begin right at the shoreline.  

I highly recommend booking a guided Island Hopping tour so you can spend a whole day exploring Belize’s lively and breathtakingly beautiful undersea world from several stunning locations along the coast. Prepare to be exhausted afterward, but it’ll be worth it – I promise!

Family-Friendly Guide to Belize with Kids: great blue hole

The Great Blue Hole

The Great Blue Hole is exactly what its name implies: a great blue hole. But this is no regular hole. Located approximately 43 miles off the coast of Belize City in Lighthouse Reef, this circular marvel spans nearly 1,000 feet wide and over 400 feet deep. Its deep blue color is a stark contrast to the shallow corals and crystalline water surrounding it. 

Essentially, the Great Blue Hole is a giant sinkhole that was formed thousands of years ago, when it was still dry land, eventually covered by the Caribbean Sea and later made famous by Jacques Cousteaou himself. It is the largest geological formation of its kind in the world. Experienced divers travel from all over to explore its mysterious vertical depths.  

This is a must-see, one-of-a-kind experience, so come prepared with something to keep kids occupied so you don’t miss any of it. It might take your breath away but your kids are likely to be less wowed (think: mom why are we flying over a random circle in the middle of the ocean?). Plus, you have to board a small plane to view it, so kids (who aren’t fascinated by planes) might find it all a little anticlimactic. 

Family-Friendly Guide to Belize with Kids: mayan ruins

Ancient Mayan Ruins

Archaeologists believe that Belize was at one time the center of the ancient Maya world. It is often referred to as the “Heart of the Maya,” boasting the largest number of Maya sites in Central America. Among the most famous are Caracol, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, La Milpa, and Lamanai – all of which are open for guided exploration

The largest of the Maya ruins is Caracol, where you can climb the towering ancient temples overlooking the Chiquibul forest reserve. Listen closely for the howler monkeys; I’m still not over that sound!

Before you cross any kind of hiking or site-seeing off your list because your kids will be bored, look into other ways to explore the vast Mayan culture and history in Belize. Families can book guided tubing, canoeing and horseback riding tours through the lush forests, limestone caves, natural pools and stunning waterfalls found at these sites. 

I may be a writer, but it’s difficult to accurately explain the magnificence of these places. Just know that I was making my Instagram followers more envious with each picture I shared. Even on a rainy day, the views are unmatched. 

Mayan Pottery Making

For a particularly family-friendly retreat, try your hand at pottery making like the Mayans did thousands of years ago. Located in the Cayo District of Western Belize, the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative is a non-profit organization formed by nine Mayan women whose mission is to “support and empower women and youths through preserving culture and traditional arts and crafts.”  The group also offers Mayan cooking classes. 

Ziplining

For thrill-seekers (or perhaps aerial-view enthusiasts), ziplining in Belize involves soaring freely over rainforests and even unexplored Maya archeological sites. 

The Bocawina Rainforest boasts one of the longest ziplines in Central America, with 14 platforms, nine runs – the longest at 2,300 feet – and over two miles of tree time. Of course there are ziplines for those who seek slightly fewer thrills (like children, for example).  

Listen for the shocking roar of the howler monkey in the rainforests of Belize.

Wildlife Protection

Belize is famous for its abundance of tropical wildlife. Jaguars roam the jungles and both natives and visitors alike clamor to catch a glimpse of one; they are more active at night and wouldn’t be likely to go near a human, so sightings are rare but not unheard of. I wasn’t fortunate enough to spot one, but my tour guide easily coaxed a tarantula from the ground at one point, so I was kind of all set on the wild animal encounters at that point anyway. My teenage son was very jealous he missed meeting my new arachnid buddy.

Marine and wildlife conservation is taken seriously in Belize, where there is a small population of people but a vast wilderness and almost 200 miles of barrier reef along the coastline to protect. Families can learn about these efforts in educational and engaging ways. 

The Belize Zoo

The Belize Zoo was started in 1983 to provide a home for a collection of wild animals which had been used in making documentary films about tropical forests. Forty years later, the “backyard zoo” has become a world-renowned wildlife education center where visitors connect with the animals. Visitors can meet furry and feathered friends indigenous to Belize, like tapirs, ocelots, pumas, coatimundis, and harpy eagles. 

The Belize Zoo is the first nature destination in Belize that is fully accessible to visitors with physical disabilities. 

Green Iguana Conservation Project

Since 1996, the San Ignacio Resort Hotel has been at the forefront of conservation efforts for the threatened Green Iguana. Today, the property offers visitors an exciting, interactive experience to learn how vital these amazing reptiles are to the ecosystem and get a firsthand look at the process of incubation, hatching, rearing, and releasing of the species. You can even “Adopt an Iguana,” with proceeds providing scholarships for local children. This exhibit is a popular one for kids! 

Birding

Belize is home to over 500 avian species, including some that are rarely found elsewhere. In an effort to develop the bird tourism market, which helps to protect endangered species like Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Yellow-headed Amazon, the Belize Audubon Society has trained over 50 locals to be bird guides in areas with critical forest habitats. They offer sample birding itineraries or you can book a guided excursion with a tour company. 

The Keel Billed Toucan is the national bird of Belize. If you keep your eyes peeled and a pair of binoculars handy, you’re likely to spot one of these bright yellow-billed birds during your trip. I did!

Psst… Check out Expert Tips for Traveling with Young Kids 

The Food 

Belize’s unique blend of ethnicities and cultures is highly reflected in its food scene. You’ll find a mixture of what might seem like Caribbean, Mexican and African inspired eats on your dining adventures; more accurately, Belizean fare is a blend of Creole, Garifuna, Maya, Mestizo, East Indian and British cuisine.

You’ll be served rice and beans on the side of most dishes, though it will be made differently depending on the cultural influence. You’ll also find a bottle of Marie Sharp’s on every table; the famous habanero sauce is made and manufactured from farm to factory all in Belize! Trust me, it’s good stuff. I snagged a few bottles at the airport before I left. 

Belize food
Typical Belize lunch: rice and beans, stewed chicken, fried plantain and a refreshing Belikin beer

Food Tours

What you won’t find in Belize is any fast food. There are no American franchises in Belize, so the kids are going to have to find something beside chicken nuggets on the menu. My suggestion? Satisfy those cravings with some of Belize’s delicious street food. 

I indulged in an afternoon walking food tour of San Ignacio, Western Belize’s eco-tourism hub where small restaurants and street vendors serve up traditional tasty eats. I sampled salbutes, garnaches, panades, fresh ceviche, meat pies, fry jacks  – which you’ll also find on most breakfast and dessert menus – and even some high-quality domestic rum made from locally sourced sugar cane. 

Fine, I admit it. I rode a golf cart. Who could walk after all that eating? 

Another thing you won’t find much of is dairy in Belize. As someone who lives and dies by my cream-filled morning coffee, I wasn’t thrilled about that. Not the end of the world, but also not the best start to my morning. Just a heads up for my fellow java heads! 

Family-Friendly Guide to Belize with Kids: chocolate making

Chocolate Making

The ancient Mayans believed chocolate to be a gift from the gods and were known to consume it often and in a variety of ways. A large amount of cocoa is produced in Belize today, and some even refer to the nation as the “Cradle of Chocolate.”

This is why interactive chocolate-making tours are a popular tourist activity in Belize today. Visitors participate in the process of making hot chocolate, from cacao to cup, then indulge in the sweet fruits – or beans – of their labor.   

Know Before You Go to Belize

Here’s a few things to consider when booking a trip to Belize.

Traveling to and Getting Around Belize

Connections are only fun when you’re dating. Thankfully, you can easily catch a direct flight from NYC to Belize. When you’re traveling with kids, in particular, direct flights are a must. For those of you who love JetBlue as much as I do (oh hello, extra leg room and free wifi!), you can now fly directly from NYC to Belize (JFK to BZE). In fact, I was proud to be aboard JetBlue’s very first flight to Belize! 

From BZE, connections can be made to various destinations within Belize, including Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Corozal, Dangriga, Big Creek, Placencia, San Ignacio, Corozal and Punta Gorda.

December vacation? Our elf only trusts JetBlue to get him this far from the North Pole.

In order to enjoy everything this beautiful country has to offer, you’ll need to explore different parts of it. This means you will probably be taking at least one or two domestic flights, which are typically single engine planes that can hold up to 14 passengers.

If you’re the motion sickness type, sit as close to the front as possible. The same goes with any excursion you’ll be driven to via car, as the roads in parts of Belize are not fully developed and make for a bumpy ride. 

In certain areas, particularly the city, you’ll see more golf carts than cars. It’s easy to hail a golf cart to get to your destination – and it seems both residents and tourists travel via golf carts regularly.

Drinking Water

Be cautious about drinking the water in Belize. Like many countries in Central America, tap water may not be safe for consumption due to the potential for contamination. Of course, most hotels will offer guests plenty of bottled water and the tap water is filtered. Many businesses in Belize have rain cisterns for filtering water. I was told it was safe for ice in your drink, teeth-brushing, showering, making coffee, etc. To be safe, check with the staff at your hotel before taking a drink from the tap.

Currency

Luckily for those of us who aren’t great at math, the exchange rate in Belize doesn’t require a calculator. Two Belizean dollars equal one US dollar ($2 BZD = $1 USD) so conversion is as simple as dividing in half. Most places show prices in both USD and BZD. 

Most businesses accept US dollars, so you don’t need to change currency upon your arrival. Just be sure to bring some extra cash for tips, souvenirs, snacks, etc. I didn’t come across many ATMs dispensing American money in Belize.

Language

English is the official language of Belize, making it the sole Central American country where English is the primary language spoken. However, the majority of Belizeans regularly communicate in Kriol (Belizean Creole). Other languages spoken include Garifuna, Mandarin, Spanish and Maya.

Weather

As you’d likely suspect, Belize’s climate is tropical. Temperatures rarely fall below 60°F during winter months (November to March); in the summer (May to September) they linger around 86°F. Water temperatures are warm enough for swimming year round.

Humidity is consistently around 85 percent, so you can probably leave the hair dryer home. It’ll leave room in the suitcase for all the Marie Sharp’s hot sauce you’re taking home. 

The best time of year to visit Belize is during the dry season, between January and May, when there is significantly lower rainfall than the rest of the year. When it does rain, it is usually in mild, short bursts.

June through December is Belize’s wet season, when parts of the country receive up to 150 inches of rain and Caribbean storms usually pass through in late afternoons. 

Hurricane season runs from mid-August to late October, and while hurricanes don’t often make landfall in Belize, the damage can be bad when they do. Travel insurance is highly recommended if you’re booking during hurricane season. 

Belize’s beaches, jungles and rainforests are rife with insects, particularly pests like sand flies and mosquitoes that leave behind itchy bites. Come prepared with plenty of insect repellent and remember to reapply frequently when outdoors, particularly during the wet season.

For more information about Belize, visit travelbelize.org.

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