Belize In 5...

Tucked into a humid corner of Central America, Belize rises from Caribbean coral, cayes, and atolls in the east, to coastal wetlands and savannas, and finally to upland pine forests and river valleys in the west. In these settings, travelers dive, sail, fish, paddle, hike, bike, ride, and explore. Most opt for some kind of “surf and turf” vacation, spending half their days on the coast splashing around and the rest of their time in the highlands, visiting caves, ruins, and waterfalls. In fact, many resorts cater to this formula, teaming up with sister properties to provide creative tour packages.

Planning a trip to Belize is easy: avoid the hurricane months of September and October and know that April and May can be particularly dry, hot, and dusty. You'll want to make reservations during high season (late December), but the rest of the year you can usually book places pretty late, or even just show up.

5…Climb a castle

The Xunantunich archeological site, built atop a limestone ridge above the Mopan River in western Belize, is not as easy to reach as Altun Ha, which is much closer to Belize City and the coastal resorts. You have to drive two hours west to the village of San Jose de Succotz, near the Guatemalan border, then put your car on a hand-cranked ferry. But the view from the main structure, El Castillo, is worth the trip. On the way up, note the unusual stucco frieze (a reproduction), then enjoy the sea of green forests in all directions once you are at the top, 135 feet above the plaza below. Xunantunich is believed to have been built sometime around 400 B.C. and deserted around A.D. 1000; at its peak, some 7,000–10,000 Maya lived in this city. That means the forests you see from the top of El Castillo probably did not exist back then because of the population pressures.

The ferry operates 8 AM to 3 PM daily, and is free, but feel free to tip the operator. Don’t miss the 4 PM return ferry with the park rangers, or you’ll be swimming. Entrance to the Xunantunich is US$2.50 per person; guides are available for US$20 per group.

4…Escape to your island

Belize has over 200 cayes (pronounced “keys”), or islands, in its quiet, beautiful corner of the Caribbean. Many cayes are uninhabited clumps of sand and mangroves, but a handful are livable. The most popular of these are Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, where an enormous range of accommodations and restaurants service the thousands of tourists who come to visit.

Or, you can also choose a much more exclusive island experience, like that had on South Water Caye, a privately owned island 14 miles offshore from Dangriga and 35 miles southeast of Belize City, at the center of Belize's largest marine protected area. The island is less than a mile in length from north to south and only a quarter of a mile at its widest point. The main barrier reef crests just a stone’s throw from shore, atop a 1,000-foot coral wall. That means South Water has one of the few beaches in Belize where you can snorkel amazing coral formations right from the beach in front of your cabin.

There are three places to stay on South Water, all of which have sister resorts on the mainland. The nicest hotel is Pelican Beach Resort (tel. 011/501/522-2044, US$258–292, price includes three meals). Power is from the sun, and composting toilets help protect the fragile island ecology.

3…Go caving with a crystal maiden

Belize has one of the most extensive and fantastic cave systems in the world, especially the Cayo region which is riddled with underground passages and archaeological sites. Nearly every hotel in the country offers caving trips, usually floating on inner tubes through underground passages of the Caves Branch River, often with massive groups of tourists. These are fun trips, but more independent types reserve a day for the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, or Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM). Mayans began using this site in early classic period (A.D. 300-600), and, according to Belize’s chief archaeologist Jaime Awe, they ventured deeper and deeper as the drought above ground grew worse, making more desperate human sacrifices as they went.

Amazingly, tourists are allowed into the cave where they will see 1,000-year-old skeletons and pottery shards left behind by the Maya. It is not a journey for the faint of heart though, involving a 2-mile hike and multiple river fordings just to get to the entrance. Then begins the swimming (yes, swimming), crawling, and climbing to get to the cave’s deepest secrets and grand caverns. Be sure to wear clothes and shoes that you don't mind getting wet and muddy, plus something to change into after you emerge from the cave.

The typical day trip to the cave costs $80 per person and lasts from about 8 am to 5 pm. Several tour companies offer such trips to ATM, including Pacz Tours, based in the town of San Ignacio (Burns Ave, tel. 011/501/824-2477), which also has a two-day overnight trip to the cave and Roaring River valley for $250 per person.

2…Travel the Chocolate Trail

This trip begins in Punta Gorda, also known as “PG,” a small seaside town in Belize’s extreme southeast corner. It’s a quick flight from Belize City (or a 4-hour drive) to get there. The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao, or “food of the Gods”) has gained renewed importance in the culture and economy of Mayans in southern Belize and travelers are invited to check it out. The tree’s fruit yields a slimy-sweet pulp covering seeds that are later dried, fermented, and ground into chocolate.

Your first stop is in PG proper: go to Cotton Tree Chocolate (#2 Front Street, near Texaco, 011/501-621-8776) for a free tour of the small factory and a sample of unique products including rum-filled chocolates, hot chocolate mixes, chocolate soap, and other treats. (You may also want to grab a slice of “Punta Pizza” upstairs.)

Adventurous travelers can arrange a getaway to one of the Maya villages across the region, where you can stay in a simple guesthouse and learn about cacao growing, chocolate making, and life in a modern Maya village. Contact the offices of the Toledo Eco-tourism Association (Tel: 011/501-722-2096) or go straight to the village of San Felipe, to the house and chocolate workshop of Cyrila Cho (San Felipe, tel. 501/663-9632). Her five-hour chocolate tours begin with a visit to an organic cacao farm and continue with lunch in Cyrila's home, where she and her daughter then lead a chocolate-making session.

1…Waterfall picnic in the Mountain Pine Ridge

The steep landscape of Belize’s highlands means lots of falling water. In fact, Thousand Foot Falls (actually 1,600 feet high) is the tallest waterfall in Central America, but you can only see it from afar. Luckily, the area is riddled with more accessible and exclusive cataracts, especially on the property of Hidden Valley Inn (tel. 011/501/822-3320, US$205 for a double, plus meals and taxes). Hidden Valley Inn is an upscale nature lodge on 7,200 acres of private property. Hike, bike, or ride a horse on their 90 miles of trails to one of the many private natural nooks on the property; seek out Secret Pools and Falls, an unforgettable spot draped in orchids and palmetto palms. Honeymoon packages include a gourmet picnic and chilled bottle of wine at the rustic table near the water’s edge.

Other waterfalls in this area are phenomenal, especially Five Sisters Falls and the pools at Río On. If you’re looking for an overnight splurge or simply a place to stop during your exploration of the Mountain Pine Ridge, visit Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge (tel. 011/501/824-4912, from $250), whose cabanas and villas overlook the rocks and falls of Privassion Creek. You’re welcome to stop here to admire the scenery and wood-fired pizza restaurant, serving organic vegetables from the on-site garden and imported wine from Coppola’s California vineyards.