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Belize, a beautiful Central American country sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, has become one of the hottest cruise ports of call on western Caribbean routes. With its incredible shoreline, dense jungles, and rich history, there’s no shortage of things to see, do, and experience while you’re visiting. We had just eight hours there, but they were jam-packed. Here’s how we spent our time, and what we’d love to check out on our next visit.

A road entering the rainforest in Belize.

Guided Coach Tour

The sea surrounding Belize City is quite shallow, so we were tendered from our cruise ship to the port. It was a quick trip, but it allowed us to get a great view. Candy-colored buildings, businesses, and homes dotted the oceanside, and we were glad we’d reserved a bit of extra time at the end of the day to explore the historic city center. We made our way through the shops at the port (more on those later!), met our guide, and hopped on our motor coach. We were ready for an adventure.

We were headed to an area deep in the rainforest called Jaguar Paw, about 90 minutes from Belize City. It was a terrific, easy ride that allowed us to get up close and personal with several of Belize’s ecosystems.

As we skirted the shoreline, we spotted thick mangroves, which help prevent erosion during storms and provide a stunning -- and somewhat foreboding -- backdrop for kayakers. As we headed inland, the land changed dramatically. The plants grew scrubbier, with widely spaced pine trees taking the place of palms. The soil was a rich red, and it was clearly much drier. Our guide let us know we had entered Belize’s savannah, or grasslands. It was quite remote; we only passed a couple of tiny villages before another scenic shift. The tree canopy closed, getting greener and thicker. We realized we were entering the rainforest, and after about 20 minutes, we reached our destination: the Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archeological Reserve, along the Jaguar Paw section of the Caves Branch River. It was time to have some fun!

A river along a rainforest trail in Belize.

Rainforest Hike

We got off the bus, applied lots of sunscreen and bug spray, and grabbed lightweight inner tubes from our guide. It was time for a hike through the Central American rainforest, right along the river. A gravel trail took us deep into the jungle, and during the trek our guide told us about the Mayans who lived in the area hundreds of years ago. The land and river were sacred to them, as were some of the animals there, including the jaguar, puma, and ocelot. Our guide also pointed out various medicinal plants and trees. We saw tiny but mighty leafcutter ants marching across the trail, and enormous spiders. After about 45 minutes, we reached the spot where we’d begin our float through caves the Mayans once used.

Limestone caves in Belize.

Mayan Cave Adventure

We put on life jackets, donned helmets with lights on them, and then entered the river in a shallow spot. The water was clear and cool, a welcome respite after the warm jungle stroll. Our guide tied our tubes together and explained more about the history of this special place as we slowly floated along. The area’s limestone caves were carved out by the river millions of years ago, and the Mayans used them for ceremonial purposes. As our tubes meandered into and out of the three main caverns, the lights on our helmets helped illuminate the insides of the caves. We were warned repeatedly not to look up with our mouths open, since the bats gathered near the top of the cave tend to poop on tourists below!

While other Belize cave sites, such as Actun Tunichil Muknal, are home to more archaeological discoveries -- including pottery and even the skeletons of sacrifice victims -- ours was still a fascinating and rather eerie experience. Our guide explained how the caves sheltered the Mayans and played a role in their worship and sacrifice.

Once we cleared the three caves, we had a few minutes to swim before we had to return the way we came. It was an unbelievable -- and surprisingly relaxing -- float. We learned an incredible amount, both about the ecosystems and ancient cultures of Belize.

Aerial view of Belize City.

Tour Of Historic Belize City

On our way back to the port, our driver took us on a quick tour of the historic part of Belize City. During the ride, we saw the island’s British roots on full display. The Brits first arrived in Belize in the 1650s, and Belize became a British colony in 1840. Full independence wasn’t achieved until 1981. We drove by the candy cane-striped Baron Bliss Lighthouse, named for the man buried at its base. On Regent Street, we spied the Supreme Court of Belize, a gorgeous New Orleans-style structure, and Saint John’s Cathedral, which was constructed in 1812. We were grateful to have had this brief introduction to the historic part of the city.

Tropical fruits in Belize.

Eating In Belize

While we were tubing, our driver and his assistant went to work cooking up a traditional Belizean lunch. While Belize City looks British, the country’s heart is Creole, with European, African, and Mayan roots. This fascinating mixture crops up in the country’s cuisine. We feasted on grilled jerk chicken, with its spicy, smoky flavor, and red beans and rice, well seasoned with a variety of peppers and hot sauces. The area’s tropical fruit was also amazing: The mangos and papayas were our favorites.

When we arrived back at the port, we had some time to sample other street foods. The salbutes, tiny fried tortillas served with pulled chicken, pork, and avocados, were really tasty, as were the tamales wrapped in plantain leaves. Fresh-caught fish was served up with plenty of lime juice and chilis for a delicious, zippy ceviche. We washed these all down with ice-cold Belikin beers made by the Belize Brewing Company. Needless to say, we were absolutely stuffed by the time we headed back to our ship’s tender.

Shopping In Belize

There were plenty of high-end shopping options near the port in Belize City. There were also a number of handicraft shops in the Fort Street Tourism Village; we saw some stunning and sustainably grown wooden kitchenware there, including salad bowls and cutting boards. However, we did most of our shopping just outside the Caves Branch Archeological Reserve at the end of our float. Local artisans had set their wares out for us to peruse, and we purchased a small Mayan-woven jute basket and some sweet shell jewelry. They were items we could easily stash in our luggage and would remind us of our Belize adventure.

Mayan ruins at Altun Ha.

Next Time Around

There were several places we wished we had had time to explore, but we had to skip. If we return to Belize (which we really hope to do), we would make plans to visit these places.

“The Best Little Zoo In The World”

About 45 minutes from the port, the Belize Zoo features animals native to the country, including big cats, colorful birds, and weirdly adorable tapirs. It’s small but beautifully curated, and it gets rave reviews. You can even book an up-close-and-personal session with some of the residents! Admission costs $15 for adults, and the zoo is open daily.

Mayan Ruins

We had booked an archeological tour at a different port of call, but Belize has its fair share of magnificent Mayan sites. Consider touring Altun Ha, an ancient city north of Belize City where a mysterious and gorgeous jade head was discovered by scientists excavating the site in the 1960s. Caracol is another terrific option. While farther afield (about a 3.5-hour drive from Belize City), it’s the largest Mayan site in the country, with plenty of pyramids to climb and explore, deep in the jungle.

Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System

Belize is well known for its snorkel and scuba scene; its spectacular barrier reef is the world’s second-largest and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many marine creatures make it their home, and they are absolutely stunning to observe in their natural habitat. Your best bet is to hire a charter or take a tour to get to these sites. For land-based over-the-top thrill-seekers, the famed Blue Hole sinkhole sits 40 miles from the coast and offers bucket-list diving and snorkeling opportunities.

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