Deciding between an adventure and a beach retreat can be tough, especially if you each want a different kind of trip. The good news is that in Belize, you can work in both types of activities without losing a day to traveling. It's an exercise in blissful compromise -- spend a few days lazing by the water with a rum punch in hand, then spend a few more hiking along a jungle trail in the wilds of a beautiful, exotic country. And don't worry -- you can get a cocktail in the jungle too.
Before You Go: Need-to-know info
Entry requirements: Valid passport
Language: English (Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna, and Creole are also spoken)
Currency: Belizean Dollar (BZ $2 = US $1)
Flight time: 5 hours from NYC, 8 hours from LA, 6 hours from Chicago
Tipping: 10 - 15% if tips aren't included in the bill
When To Go: Belize at its best
Best weather: Late-November to late-April is the dry season in Belize
Best prices: June to mid-November, but you run the risk of vacationing during a hurricane
What To Do
See the diversity: Belize feels a little more authentic and untouched than your typical Caribbean tourist destination, partly due to the fact that it doesn't pull in quite as many tourists as some of the other countries on the Caribbean. The diverse population -- Belize's citizens have Creole, Mayan, and Mestizo (to name just a few) origins -- make for a rich cultural experience when you're walking through any local town. Belizeans are very welcoming to tourists, so feel free to talk to them about the best places to eat, shop and take in the local flavor. (Belize was British colony until 1981, so you can easily get by speaking English.)
Since Belize is tiny -- about the size of Massachusetts -- you can really see a lot of the country in one week. You can trek through a lush rain forest in the morning, hop on a flight that lasts about as long as a sitcom, and lounge on a picturesque beach that same afternoon. Commuter airlines in the area are both reliable and affordable, but beware: If you're not comfortable flying on a 13-seat plane, you may want to look into renting a four-wheel drive car -- it may be an extra few hours on a bumpy dirt road, but you'll still get to your destination that same day.
Relax on the cayes: The islands off of Belize's coast (the word cayes is pronounced "keys") each offer a different experience, and it's easy to get from one to the other by water taxi (perfect for day trips). Visit South Water Caye for high-end, exclusive surroundings where you can go diving at the nearby Glover Reef Atoll famous for its coral reefs and remote and secluded setting. Caye Caulker is a rustic island known for its old fishing settlement and great opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and other water sports. A slightly more touristy (but still beautiful) beach spot is Ambergris Caye, an island whose southern tip is about 35 miles from Belize City that's been developed with hotels and resorts, mostly in the city of San Pedro. From here, take a diving day trip to Belize's famous Blue Hole, a blue sinkhole made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Here you can descend 140 feet in to a limestone cavern whose roof collapsed 10,000 years ago, leaving a circle of unimaginably blue water. The sinkhole is 1,000 feet in diameter and 412 feet deep.
Explore the jungle: Step off the beach and surround yourself with the sights and sounds of the rain forest (some resorts like the Maruba Resort Jungle Spa and Blancaneaux Lodge are situated right in its midst). Take excursions to ancient Mayan ruins deep in the jungle, go swimming in a river (nothing says romance like kissing under a waterfall), or just kick back at your resort and enjoy the view of the canopy.
Adventure: Bring your hiking shoes. We love the fact that wherever you are in this country, there's something to do to get your adrenalin pumping. Climb the ruin that still holds the record as the tallest manmade structure in Belize: It's at the Mayan site at Caracol. Hop in a tube and drift on a river through a cave where you'll see stalagmite formations and bats hanging from the ceiling at Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort (not for the claustrophobic), or snorkel Belize's 185-mile long barrier reef (the second longest in the world and the longest in the Western Hemisphere). Just southeast of Ambergris Caye in Shark Ray Alley, swim with (as the name suggests) nurse sharks and stingrays.