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  • Writer's pictureImogen Hall

UnBELIZEable: why Belize is the long haul trip to take your kids on

Checking out the Caribbean in the distance from Bocawina Mayflower National Park

In planning our first long haul trip in five years, the children's main criteria was to be able to swim in water that wasn’t frigid, grey and ‘character forming’. There was also a distinct lobby to experience the palm-fringed sandy beaches and bright blue seas regularly depicted in that bastion of BBC television, Death In Paradise. So it’s not that surprising that we quickly fell upon somewhere with a Caribbean coast as an option.

Central America appealed because we knew we wanted a holiday in a destination that offered some serious history. And lastly, we were keen to go somewhere a little bit off the beaten track. You can’t fly directly to Belize from the UK (you have to transit through the US) and when we had to keep explaining to people that Belize was in Central America we knew we ticked that box. The Mayan civilisation still being uncovered in Belize ensured we would get our culture fix.

The only other hurdle we had to jump was to avoid getting Covid as the UK numbers slowly rose again. But, as we said when we booked our flights: if we don’t book, we are not going anywhere. It was a risk we felt was worth taking, although we did also get the best recommended Covid travel insurance.

With Covid hovering in the background, the fact that we actually made it to Belize at all meant our trip got off to a pretty great start. But even without the constant ‘pinch yourself, you are here’ moments, the whole experience of travelling in Belize as a family was incredible - or, as the Belizeans say, unBelizeable! Sitting here in north London now, it’s hard to see how we will be able to replicate it when we next want to go long haul, but that’s a good challenge to have.

So why do we so heartily and enthusiastically recommend Belize for active families like ours? It’s the combination of all the following elements. No one factor stands out over the others for us; they all contribute to a varied, fun, engaging, challenging and yet relaxing and stress-free (yes, really!) travelling experience.

Easy Adventure

Firstly, like its better known Central American counterpart Costa Rica, there is ample opportunity to get involved in ‘easy adventure’. If you have teens in tow, these adrenalin highs are a sure-fire way to keep them engaged. This part of the world is famous for zip-lining through the jungle and it was an experience that lived up to expectations. It was SUPER fun, even for a more tentative eight-year-old. We zipped about 15 lines through the canopy, did a rope walk, a short 50ft rappel (which even the ever-intrepid Harry Hall wasn’t too keen on) and ended the whole thing with a superman (or woman!) style flight back to base. There are loads of places offering zip-lining but we recommend Calico Jacks, which has top-notch safety standards, regular safety checks and excellent guides who made us all feel safe and secure - and challenged.

We also went cave tubing at the No’hoch Chen Caves, horse riding with Outback Trails around the Sittee River, snorkelling on the barrier reef and jungle trekking up to a view of the Caribbean and a dip in a waterfall pool in Mayflower Bocawina National Park.

No fishes out of water here: the boys loved the day spent snorkelling

Accessible wildlife

It is a pretty incredible experience to watch wildlife you usually only see in books or on the TV just as part of your daily routine. We regularly had iguanas cross our path, spotted toucans and macaws from our balcony at one lodge, and were woken by the noisy growls of a troop of howler monkeys hanging out above us at another. Watching fireflies flicker around the jungle in the early evening and rays come into the beach to be fed were other memorable moments.

The highlight, though, was our first main activity in Belize: a snorkelling trip to the barrier reef. The second-largest barrier reef in the world is carefully protected and, although it was less colourful than we imagined, the array of marine life was mind-blowing. We swam with a manatee, sharks, loggerhead turtles, a green moray eel, manta rays and a huge variety of fish. Then as the sun was setting on our journey home, two different dolphin couples were spotted - no wonder both boys cite this as their highlight of the trip.

Back on land, we broke one of the short drives (it’s only 114 km from Belize City to the main town in the jungle, San Igancio) we had with a visit to the Belize Zoo & Tropical Education Centre. This small and very relaxed zoo was set up to house wild animals that had been used in a documentary and were too tame to be released back and has gone onto look after many more endemic animals that needed rescuing. Here we learnt about jaguars and why they need protecting, what a tapir’s prehensile penis looks like and how well crocodiles can camouflage themselves.

Another educational stop was the Green Iguana Conservation Project, based in the hotel that William and Catherine had stayed at on their recent royal tour. Our family has had a soft spot for iguanas since the days when the Octonauts were on repeat so we all loved learning about, and getting to hold, these incredible creatures - all of whom are being reared to be released to the wild to keep population numbers steady.

Nothing to see here: just hanging out with our mates

Swim time

The desire mentioned above for warm water swimming is a common requirement for families on holiday, and it won’t surprise anyone to know that Belize delivers on this front in buckets (or should that be spades?). As well as there being plenty of lovely small pools in hotels or accommodation complexes, there are plenty of opportunities to swim in both fresh and seawater.

Our experiences of the coast were on Caye Caulker and at Hopkins. In both cases, there was a lot of seagrass to navigate and, sadly, a fair amount of plastic pollution which serves as a very real reminder of the climate crisis. The posher hotels with beach access tend to clean everything up for their guests, but we felt it was good for the children to see things as they really are - and to see first-hand the impact of plastic on the ocean.

In a couple of places (our rental on Caye Caulker and Mariposa Jungle Lodge) we were lucky enough to enjoy the use of a swimming pool, which naturally the kids loved. But actually, some of the best swims we had were in the rivers and waterfalls, probably because they usually came at a point when we were all very hot and sweaty. We swam after horse-riding around the Sittee River, trekking in the Bocawina National Park and on our very last day we borrowed tubes from our lodge, Parrot’s Nest, and floated down the river on a speedy current.

Taking in the view of Caracol from one of the highest structures in Belize.

An ancient civilisation to learn about

As we had hoped when planning the trip, the Mayan ruins provided the perfect historical fix and a restful antidote to the more adrenalin-focussed aspects of our trip. Luckily the kids were as fascinated as we were by the Mayans, in particular the many layers to their underworld and heaven and their extraordinary ball game that involved not using your hands or feet. The first ruin we visited was Caracol, a major Mayan city covering an area larger than current-day Belize City. It’s miles down a dirt track, so few other visitors were exploring alongside us. We also had an engaging local guide with us and, at the moment, you are still allowed to climb up the pyramids, so you could imagine what life would have been like in its heyday. The thing that still blows my mind is that they have only uncovered 10% of the city and the vast majority lies beneath the rainforest still.

We also visited a couple of smaller but still really interesting sites: Xunantunich, which involves taking a hand-cranked ferry across the river, and the more compact’ Cahal Pech, right in the middle of San Ignacio town. In all cases, we were struck by how empty the sites were and how lucky we were to be experiencing them without crowds.

Kid-friendly AND healthy food

It can be easy to dismiss how important what you eat and drink is when you are away, but this trip reminded us how much it adds to the experience when you can eat healthily, have nice treats (local ice cream, for example) and not worry too much about the water. Drinking bottled water is recommended, but brushing your teeth and eating salads are fine. And the abundance of fruit and vegetables makes for plenty of simple salads, delicious fruit juices and a generally healthy gut. Thankfully the mainstays of the Belizean diet are also pretty kid-friendly, with rice and beans (and also beans and rice - there is a difference) and various meaty stews as the usual offering. There are also some excellent fried goods (called fry jacks) in the form of what is basically a savoury doughnut stuffed with cheese, bean paste or eggs. What’s not to love? And every single table has a bottle of the famous Marie Sharp’s hot sauce for those who want to spice up their food. Needless to say, a big bottle back came home with us. The only downside for European coffee drinkers is that the coffee caters primarily for American tastes so expect filter coffees and Americanos rather than robust brews. Unlike Costa Rica, Belize doesn’t grow much coffee, but we did find a sweet local coffee farm where we had a tour, helped grind some beans using Mayan methods and then had a very strong coffee to make up for what we had been missing.

Eco-friendly, sustainable & respectful tourism culture

Admittedly, we had to fly long-haul to get to Belize. But once there, we immediately felt part of a properly sustainable approach to tourism. We knew that the government had passed legislation to protect the barrier reef, so snorkelling as part of a small and registered group was OK. The jungle lodges we stayed in had been built by and staffed with local people. All the guides we used to show us around were fully qualified and well-trained, respectful of their culture and their country, and we didn’t come across any major chains at all. The caveat here is that we didn’t go to Ambergris Caye, one of the islands that has a large tourist development, and we didn’t go on a cruise and the cruise industry is known to have a big impact in parts of Belize. The overall impression we had was of a country that welcomes visitors because it has so much to share with them, but is working as hard as it can to ensure that their tourism industry develops in a way that is sustainable and protects both its people, its culture and its environment for years to come. Belizeans like to say ‘small country, big heart’ and this certainly seems to be echoed in their approach to looking after their country and the welcome they extend to guests.

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