Nestled on the sunny shores of the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize is a charming outlier — an English-speaking nation within Latin America; the bridge between the Caribbean and Central America; and a fascinating confluence of West African, Mayan, English, and East Asian cultures. Blessed with an array of natural wonders, consummately hospitable locals, and world-class resorts, Belize could have been custom-made for family travel. Better yet, flights to Belize are a breeze — just five hours from New York City and a little over two hours from Miami and Houston — which is a particular boon if you’re traveling with kids in tow.
Belize’s small geographical size belies its large variety of cultural and ecological treasures. You could spend an unforgettable week just exploring the pristine rainforest, brimming with endemic wildlife and concealing ancient Mayan ruins. Alternatively, you could focus your vacation on the coast, hopping between tiny cayes, exploring Garifuna culture, and relishing the dolce vita of sumptuous tropical resorts. But, for my money, sampling both jungle and beach is the most rewarding way to immerse yourself in the Land of Make Belize.
Beginning in San Ignacio, the gateway to the rainforest, and ending in Hopkins, an idyllic coastal fishing village, here are some family-friendly Belize activities to dazzle travelers of all ages.
Family-friendly Belize: San Ignacio
A small, charming city in the Cayo District, San Ignacio is the launching point for outdoor adventures like spelunking and rafting, as well as exploring Belize’s Mayan ruins, which are among the most majestic in Central America. While the Caracol and Xunantunich archeological sites were abandoned centuries ago, Mayan culture is still alive and well in San Ignacio. At the San Antonio Women’s Coop, artisans maintain ceramic-making traditions passed down through the generations, painting their stoneware with scenes from the Popol Vuh, an ancient Maya document that chronicles Mayan myths and other cultural relics. Restaurants around San Ignacio serve many of the same dishes the Pre-Columbian Mayans enjoyed.
Peruse the Belize Zoo
Belize is a biodiversity hotspot for both marine and terrestrial species. The Belize Barrier Reef is second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the nation has long been a coveted destination for diving and snorkeling.
The Belize Zoo began a rehabilitation center for injured or orphaned wildlife. Here, visitors can observe and learn about fascinating animals such as jaguars, ocelots, and scores of iridescently plumed birds. Make sure to visit the tapirs — the playful, long-snouted creatures designated as Belize’s official national animal.
Explore Mayan Ruins
The Mayan Empire ruled the Yucatan Peninsula for roughly three millennia, creating one of history’s most complex and enigmatic civilizations. Around 900 CE, the Mayan Empire mysteriously collapsed, but its legacy lives on in Belize — in crops like avocados, cacao, and chili peppers; in the genetics of Belizeans; and in majestic ruins like Xunantunich, an ancient city deep in the jungle. While archeologists are still uncovering much of Xunantunich, the crowning structure of the ruins is a colossal step pyramid, 130 feet tall, of carved stone. Those willing to scale the stairs to the pinnacle are treated to stunning views of the forest and mountains. On clear days, you can see well into neighboring Guatemala.
For an invigorating morning, arrange a horseback ride with Belize Exotic Vacations to Xunatunich. The equestrian journey winds through jungle trails, small farms, and across the Mopan River via a barge. The guide, Rodolfo, is a fourth-generation Belizean farmer, and his knowledge of Mayan history and Belizean culture is encyclopedic. For delicious Belizean cuisine with a nod to Mayan tradition, head to Benny’s Kitchen, a restaurant overlooking the Mopan River. Belizean cuisine echoes that of the Mexican Yucatan — heavy on fish, chilies, and citrus — but blended with African ingredients like okra and rice. Benny’s crafts classic Belizean dishes such as pibil (slow-cooked pork paired with pillowy corn tortillas), salbut (fried corn masa topped with meat and greens), and fish steeped in piquant coconut broth.
Tuck into Belizean BBQ
You’ll catch the aromas of sweet smoke before you see Tolacca Smokehouse. The menu focuses on smoked meat with a tropical flourish — think wood-smoked pork, beef ribs, and chicken marinated with Scotch Bonnet pepper and fruit juice — but Tolacca also serves delicious pasta dishes and vegetarian options. With a wooden platter of smoke-kissed meat and a saucer of homemade chili sauce, you’ll want to order at least a couple of ice-cold Belikin pilsners.
Where to stay in San Ignacio, Belize
We hope you love the San Ignacio Resort Hotel! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
San Ignacio Resort Hotel combines luxury with laid-back Belizean charm and intimacy with nature. The suites, sumptuous and abutting the edge of the forest, boast outdoor porches complete with hammocks and coffee tables. With a freshly pulled Nespresso in hand, I spent an hour each morning reading and writing on my porch, soothed by the pleasant hum of the jungle.
Guests at San Ignacio are treated each morning to delicious Belizean breakfasts — fry jacks (airy fritters slathered with fresh butter and jam), rashers and eggs, hash browns, and a schmear of refried beans with the texture of cream cheese. Wash all that down with strong Belizean coffee to kickstart a day of adventure.
San Ignacio also houses an iguana sanctuary on its grounds, and visitors can arrange guided tours to learn about these regal reptiles. After an activity-packed day, unwind at San Ignacio’s lobby bar with a cocktail or pour of delicious Belizean rum like Tiburon or Copalli.
Where: 18 Buena Vista Street, San Ignacio, Belize
Price per night: From $200
Family-friendly Belize: Hopkins
A two-hour drive takes you from the rainforest to the balmy coastal town of Hopkins, a transfer you can arrange through the concierge at San Ignacio Resort Hotel. Hopkins is the unofficial capital of the Garifuna, descendants of the survivors of a wrecked 16th-century British slave ship. Spread along the islands and shores of Honduras and Belize, the Garifuna have kept a distinctive culture, musical tradition, and language over the centuries. Hopkins’ beaches — graced with swaying palms, perfumed tropical breezes, and powdery white sand — are hypnotically beautiful. Foodies can’t leave town without sampling Garifuna delicacies like hudut (fish cooked in coconut) or conch soup. Music lovers should inquire with the concierge at The Lodge at Jaguar Reef (more on that below) about where to see live punta rock, a traditional Garifuna music.
Hop between tiny islands
The gin-clear waters of the Belizean coast are dappled with scores of cays, sand bars, and archipelagos. Many such islands, mere specks in the ocean, are small enough to throw a frisbee across. But even on the tiniest island, you’ll find a beach bar and fishermen grilling up fresh lobster.
For an afternoon of island-hopping, book a tour with Get to Know Belize Adventures. Soaring across placid waters on a motorboat, Captain Jeffrey ferries clients from the pier at The Lodge at Jaguar Reef to cays about 15 miles off the coast. Plan to spend at least an hour in the charming Tobacco Caye, a Lilliputian islet smattered with beach bungalows, friendly dogs, and an animated beach bar. Guests rent the island’s minuscule cabins and pass the days playing volleyball, swimming, and enjoying a schedule filled with delicious nothing. Tours with Get to Know Belize Adventures include snorkeling in a section of the barrier reef, waters teeming with rainbow-colored tropical fish, sting rays, and coral.
Zip-line through the rainforest
Somehow, zip-lining is both relaxing and exhilarating. The heights and rapid acceleration of the zip-line summon the adrenaline, but the serene views of the forest canopy and mountains are eminently soothing. An hour by car from The Lodge at Jaguar Reef, Bocawina Rainforest Resort has a full zip-lining course of nine runs and 14 platforms. Meticulous guides explain safety protocols before beginning the course, and they accompany guests on the platform on each zip-line. The course can accommodate even small children. You’ll get some exercise, too, as a few of the runs require a decent hike through the mountains. The entire course takes about two hours to complete. Make sure to bring your camera as the views are sublime.
Make chocolate at Maya Village
As a lifelong chocoholic, I absolutely had to visit the chocolate-making workshop at Maya Village. The two-hour tour begins with a presentation by a Mayan farmer on the history of cacao and how this beloved crop is cultivated. Next, guests see how cacao pods are roasted, ground, and sweetened into that euphoric ambrosia we call chocolate. And, yes, you get to eat chocolate to your heart’s content. The gift shop sells chocolate bars, cacao nibs, and Mayan handicrafts. You’d be hard-pressed to find richer chocolate ice cream than Maya Village’s.
Where to Stay in Hopkins, Belize
We hope you love The Lodge at Jaguar Reef! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
Right by the glassy waters of the Caribbean, The Lodge at Jaguar Reef is a beachside sanctuary where the days pass as serenely as a tropical wind through palm fronds. The rooms, complete with jacuzzis and outdoor terraces, are so comfortable that I could have spent the whole day reading, listening to the waves, and lazing around in my suite. The dining at The Lodge at Jaguar Reef matches the luxury of the lodging. From freshly squeezed juices at breakfast to fried fish sandwiches at lunch and top-shelf wine at dinner, each meal at The Lodge at Jaguar Reef is a treat. Make sure to visit the restaurant on the pier to enjoy a bowl of ceviche, a dish of sparklingly fresh lobster or snapper enlivened with lime juice and Belizean chili.
Where: 100 Sittee River Road False Sittee Point Hopkins, Belize
Price per night: From $203