Going to Belize With Kids…
Rarely is there a perfect vacation. Especially if kids are involved. Lost luggage, delayed flights, sunburns, stomach bugs, car problems, sleepless nights… there are endless ways the universe, or your children can sabotage your vacation.* Luckily Belize with it’s beautiful jungles, uncrowded Mayan ruins, and pristine barrier reef make it almost impossible not to have an incredible trip. Adding to Belizes’s appeal are the friendly people, the fact that it’s an English speaking country, easy to naviagte, and remarkably clean. This little country might be tiny in size but offers a massive amount of adventure potential.
*True story: on our trip to Belize we had lost luggage, delayed flights, a bad sunburn (the six-year old), a stomach bug (the eight- year old), a rental car that broke down, and a sleepless night (kid bad dreams). We also had a scorpion on a foot scare and a tick in a belly button incident. But when asked “how was your trip?” we enthusiastically replied “great!!”. Belize with kids is really that awesome.
Planning A Family-Friendly Trip to Belize
Where to go in Belize With Kids
Most travel guides and blogs will advise a weeklong itinerary that divides your time between the San Ignacio area and either Caye Caulker or Amgeris Caye. It’s pretty much assumed that if you’re traveling to Belize you will spend a few days on one of these cayes. However, as any parent knows, there are things that people without children can do effortlessly that are a disaster when you attempt to do them with kids. Personally, the thought of driving 2 1/2 hours to San Ignacio from the airport, spending a few days in San Ignacio, then driving back towards Belize City, returning the rental car, catching a taxi to the ferry terminal, and then a ferry ride to the cayes sounded more excruciating than watching a two-hour elementary school Talent Show. So I rebelled against the usual Belize tourist norm and decided to skip the cayes. Instead we divided our time between San Ignacio and Hopkins, a lively town on the coast. If you’re not too horrified by this confession or my dislike of talent shows, read on.
How Does Belize Compare to Costa Rica?
Costa Rica rivals Belize as a tantalizing eco-tourism destination. Having been to both countries, the biggest difference for visitors is the beaches. Costa Rica has a plethora of surf spots and beautiful beaches. Belize has no surf, at least nothing that’s ben discovered yet.. Furthermore the prettiest beaches in Belize require a boat ride to one of the cayes whereas in Costa Rica getting to the beach is as easy as putting on a pair of flip flops.
The jungles lodges, rainforest, and variety of adventurous things in Belize are comparable to what you’d experience in Costa Rica. A major difference is that in Belize you can visit Mayan ruins. Additionally, in Belize there are phenomenal spelunking opportunities. Whether it’s tubing through a cave or hiking deep into a cave, there is an adventure for every type of cave explorer..
A big perk of Costa Rica, especially for animal loving kiddos, is the abundance of monkeys. I naively thought that Belize would also be overflowing with primates. Sadly the only time we saw monkeys was the evening that we caught a glimpse of a troop of Howler monkeys’ across the river from our jungle lodge. It was very exciting for our kids to see the Howlers, even if they were just blurry black blobs. Alas that was our only monkey encounter in Belize.
Belize has a reputation for being one of the most expensive countries for travelers in Central America. While it wasn’t exactly cheap, it wasn’t overwhelmingly pricey. Maybe I’m just a little jaded by trips to Hawaii and living in California but I found Belize to be surprisingly affordable for a family trip. Our incredible jungle cabana was $150 a night. A delicious plate of fish, rice, beans, and plantains was $10. In the touristy parts of Costa Rica you can expect to pay about the same for lodging and meals.
Sample Itinerary for a Week In Belize
Day 1: Arrive in Belize and drive to San Ignacio
Assuming you land sometime during the day, there’s no need to spend any time in Belize City. Instead of wasting a precious day of vacation in Belize City, rent a car at the airport and drive to a jungle lodge in the San Ignacio area. Since the drive takes about 2 1/2 hours make sure you have enough time to get there before dark. It’s not fun or safe trying to drive in an unfamiliar country in the dark. The Belize Zoo is on the way if you feel like making a stop, otherwise head directly to your accommodation. Have a refreshing “welcome drink”, explore the property, and settle into your Belize vacation.
Day 2: Tubing, Horseback Riding, Iguanas or More…
How you want to spend your first full day in Belize depends on how exhausted you are from your travel day. Tubing is really fun for all ages and one of the most popular things to do in Belize. There are several different outfitters who can take you on a 1/2 river adventure. You can have your lodge make the tubing arrangements or you can do so ahead of time.
If you’re not doing the ATM cave, or if you really like caves, go “cave tubing.” Caves Branch will take you on a river float through seven miles of caves. Just a heads up, cave tubing does require a bit of time in the car to get to the tubing location. Family friendly activities that involve less driving are the interactive iguana tour at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, a horseback ride, (arranged by most lodges) or just checking out the trails and things to do at your eco-lodge.
Day 3: ATM Cave
The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is a very popular and well known Belize attraction. In the twenty-five+ countries that I’ve visited, I’ve never experienced anything like exploring the ATM cave. More than just a cave, the cave is a preserved underground museum. Unlike most countries who excavate artifacts and place them inside museums or climate controlled warehouses, Belize decided to leave the relics inside the ATM cave. As a visitor you get to walk, very carefully, amongst Mayan skeletons and pottery dating back over a thousand years ago. Even if you’re not impressed by bones and broken bowls, the beauty of the cave itself and the adventure of wading through an underground river is pretty epic.
*Cameras aren’t allowed in the ATM cave. Part of the fun is knowing that you’ll have to capture the moment with your memory!
Day 4: Climb Mayan Ruins
From San Ignacio there are several different ruins you can visit. The closest and smallest are Cahal Pech. Many visitors bypass Cahal Pech and head to Xunantunich or Tikal. However, for us with kids on a hot day, the compactness of Cahal Pech was perfect. The kids ran around the ruins for forty-five minutes and probably could have stayed longer if our stomachs weren’t grumbling for dinner.
If you do want a larger Mayan site, go to Xunantunich. It’s still fairly close to San Ignacio and has a little ferry you take across the river. From the top of one of the ruins you can see Gutamala. Start in the morning and then grab lunch in town afterwards.
For a full day excursion you can explore the ruins of Tikal. This involves crossing the border into Guatemala. Typically rental car companies in Belize don’t allow you to take a rental car out of the country. This means your only option is to book a tour, which typically costs at least $100 per person. Unless you really want to see Tikal, save yourself some stress and some money and stick to the ruins in Belize.
Tip for visiting Mayan ruins in Belize: Most people arrive in the morning to avoid the heat. Another option is to go at the end of the day when it’s also a bit cooler and the crowds have cleared out.
Day 5: Chocolate and Waterfalls
Today you’ll be leaving San Ignacio and driving to Hopkins, a lively Caribbean village on the coast. To get from San Ignacio to Hopkins is about a 2 1/2 hour drive on the Hummingbird Highway. Since even just a 2 1/2 hour drive with kids can be a challenge, I would recommend doing a few fun stops along the way. Your kids will be less rambunctious in the car and you’ll get to see more of Belize. #winning!
Stop 1: Take a tour of a chocolate farm at La Manai Chocolate Co . The tour lasts 30-45 minutes and teaches you about how chocolate is made. Everything from the growing of the cacao bean to the “winding” and grinding. Kids can help grind the beans using a stone dating back to the ancient Mayan era. In the end you get to eat the chocolate you made. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t taste like the chocolate chips that you put in your Sunday morning pancakes! However, we brought our chocolate paste along with us and would nibble it anytime we needed an extra jolt of parent energy.
Stop 2: The Inland Blue Hole/ St Hermans Cave. Everyone told us to check out the Inland Blue Hole. Unfortunately due to Covid it was closed. However, within the same park is St Hermans Cave and a few hiking trails. To burn off a bit of the chocolate we took a little hike through the park and wandered into St Hermans Cave. The cave isn’t nearly as beautiful or impressive as the ATM cave and be prepared for mosquitos. Nonetheless it was an easy stop on our mini Hummingbird Highway road trip.
Stop 3: Billy Barquedier National Park. If you need to cool off, about 40 minutes past the Blue Hole/ St Hermans cave is Billy Barquedier National Park. It’s a short walk to the falls and bypassed by most travelers.
Tip for the Hummingbird Highway: If you didn’t already go cave tubing you can stop at Cave Branches for cave tubing.
Day 6: Bocawina National Park+Ziplines
Many people head to Bocawina for the ziplines, and with good reason since Bocawina has the longest zipline in Belize. However, you can easily spend a 1/2 day in this gorgeous park. There are six different waterfalls you can hike to, some with swimming holes. Get to Bocawina in the morning and hike to Antelope Falls. This hike is considered “strenuous” because the last section is quite steep. There is an abrupt drop off in some of the final sections of the trail but there are also ropes to assist hikers. Fortunately the steep part of the trail takes only about ten minutes and the rest of the trail is fairly easy. When you reach the falls you can swim or jump off rocks into the large pool.
After hiking to Antelope Falls you can hike to another waterfall or simply head over to Wild Fig restaurant for lunch. Serving guests at the Bocawina Rainforest Lodge, this is the only place to eat in Bocawina. The tables outside are set in a beautiful garden and while the prices are a little high, the ambiance and delicious food are worth it.
From Wild Fig, walk across the parking lot to the zipline . The friendly and professional staff will get you geared up then take you to the course. Be prepared to do a bit of walking and climb a steep set of stairs. It was while I was climbing the stairs laden with the heavy gear that I began to regret finishing my sons’ french fries…
Ziplinning takes about two hours and is tons of fun for kids and adults. The views from the platform are gorgeous and on the longest zipline it’s possible to go almost 30 mph! There was a child in our group who was too young to go on her own but it was arranged for her to be attached to a guide. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a four-year old so excited!
Day 7: Snorkel Trip
Taking a trip to one of the cayes off the coast of Belize is a vacation must-do. What’s a caye? Pronouced, “key”, they are small sandy islands. Some have posh resorts on them and some are completely uninhabited. Most snorkel trips include a stop at a caye as well as a snorkel stop at a vibrant section of reef. With elementary aged kids a half day trip was plenty of snorkel and boat time.
If you’re staying in Hopkins you can arrange a snorkel trip out to South Water Caye. It’s about a thirty minute boat ride, and absolutely idyllic on a calm, sunny morning. Another option is to book with an outfitter that is based in Placencia. From Placencia there appears to be more tour options and it is the main departure point for Laughing Bird Caye, another popular snorkel day trip destination.
Tips for Snorkeling in Belize:
- Plan your snorkel trip for the day with the sunniest weather and smoothest seas. Snorkeling is so much better when it’s sunny and calm!
- The Caribbean Sea is warm but some kids might get chilled if they’re in the water for an extended amount of time. If you have a child that gets cold easy, having them wear a light wetsuit might help them enjoy snorkeling more.
Day 8: Look for Jaguars.. and Swim in a Waterfall
After all the beauty of Bocawina I couldn’t imagine a better day of hiking in the rainforest. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve surpassed all expectations. Cockscomb’s claim to fame is its elusive jaguars. We didn’t see a jaguar, most visitors don’t, instead we spotted tons of birds and enjoyed a refreshing afternoon swim in a waterfall.
To get to Cockscomb it’s a bumpy drive down a dusty dirt road to get the park entrance. Not surprising since dirt roads in Belize seems to be synonymous with awesome destinations. In fact if you’re on a paved road, you should be worried.
Anyways, once you pay your park entrance fee there are a multitude of short trails to chose from. Maybe the dirt road deters visitors or maybe most people don’t chose to do a strenuous hike in the tropics in the middle of the day, but we encountered only two other people on the trail for our entire hike.
Whether you’re hiking with kids or without, a sweaty hike is a lot more fun when there’s a waterfall to swim in. We heard that Tiger Fern Trail was a good one to do if you wanted a waterfall and didn’t mind a bit of uphill trekking. Upon checking in at the visitor center the ranger told us the Tiger Fern Trail was 6km and indeed had a waterfall that you could swim in.* It’s mostly uphill on the way to the falls, with the final section being a steep descent down to the river. Along the way there are benches to rest at, just don’t stop for long or the mosquitos will find you. At the top you emerge from the jungle into a large clearing with big views. By this point you’re so hot and sweaty that you’ll take a quick glance at the view and then hurry onwards towards the falls. When you get to the first waterfall, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the jungle, then cross the stream and continue onwards to the second waterfall!
*The sign at the trailhead for the Tiger Fern Trail says that it’s 2km to the falls. Actual distance to the falls TBD.
5 Reasons to go to Belize with Kids
1. Endless Nature
In Belize there are endless ways to enjoy the outdoors. Tubing, hiking, exploring caves, zip lines, the possibilities are endless. The jungles are teeming with flora and fauna and barrier reef is home to a thriving community of sea creatures. In fact, we discovered more corals and a greater variety of animals off the coast of Belize than in Hawaii.
2. Easy Driving
In comparison to other countries in Latin America, driving in Belize is as easy as sipping rum punch at the beach. Most of the signs are in English, there’s rarely traffic, and even the major highways are two-lane roads. If you do get lost it’s easy to ask for directions since it’s an English speaking country. Furthermore, the country is so tiny that you can get pretty much anywhere in a few hours.
3. The Caves
Caves offer the perfect amount of intrigue, adventure, and spookiness for kids…and adults. In Belize there are plenty of caves to explore! Whether you chose to wade upstream into the ATM cave or simply float downstream through a cave, your family will love all the spelunking opportunities in Belize.
4. Touch History
Unlike many of the popular ruins in Mexico that prohibit visitors from climbing on the structures, in Belize you can wander on and among the ancient Mayan ruins. This might be awful in the long term for preservation, I’m no expert. However, I do know that for kids it’s a lot more fun to get to actually climb to the top of a Mayan pyramid rather than just look at one from behind a rope fence.
5. Clean and Safe
Did you know that in most parts of Belize the tap water is safe to drink? We still drank filtered water but it was great peace of mind to know that if someone opened their mouth in the shower it wouldn’t lead to a day spent on the toilet.
Aside from clean water, the country itself has an overall clean feel. There is minimal litter and even a few signs encouraging people to use reusable bags. The rivers flow with clear water and its mostly seaweed, not trash, washing ashore on the beaches.
What to Bring to Belize
Aside from the usual stuff you would pack for a tropical getaway, here are some Belize vacation essentials..
- A few quick drying tank tops or t-shirts ( cotton in the tropics gets damp and stays damp)
- Water shoes (great for waterfall swims, cave tubing, and the ATM cave)
- Bug spray (natural and ones containing Deet both worked)
- Reef safe sunscreen (Sun Bum smells good and is safe for the reef)
- A long dress or light pants + a long sleeve shirt. (for cooler nights/ mosquito protection)
- A rash guard or wetsuit top. (for cave adventures/ snorkeling)
- Hiking shoes (No need for hiking boots unless you’re doing long hikes. All-terrain sneakers work for most trails)
- Reusable water bottle. Most hotels have free filtered water available to guests.
- A small daypack.
Know Before You Go… To Belize
While driving in Belize is fairly easy, filling your tank is hard on your vacation budget. When we were there gas was around $4.50 a gallon, making one gallon of gas the same price as a plate of fry jacks. Fortunately, with the country being so compact you shouldn’t have to fill your tank too often.
Little Biting Creatures
By the end of our trip I was covered in bug bites. The two main culprits were mosquitos and teeny, practically invisible sand flies. The sand flies, also called no-see-ums, are particularly deceptive because they just look like a tiny black speck when they land on you. If you don’t want to be itchy on vacation, make sure you regularly apply bug repellent. And don’t forget about your feet, they love to nibble your ankles while you’re eating dinner!
It Can Be Surprisingly Cool at Night
I came to Belize prepared for sweltering heat and was astonished to discover that our nights in San Ignacio were a little breezy and cool. I had assumed that the lightweight sweatshirt that I wore on the plane would be stashed in my suitcase once I landed in Belize. However, I wore it almost every evening in San Ignacio! You won’t need a down jacket but do bring a layer or two just in case.
Dirt Roads are the Norm
As mentioned above, many of the best things to do in Belize are at the end of a bumpy, dirt road. I know how tempting it is to go with the cheap, four-door sedan rental car. 99% of the time we cram into a tiny rental with suitcases wedged in around the kids in the backseat. In Belize I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get something better suited for dirt roads. Our small Jeep SUV was perfect for navigating ruts and rocks. We never needed 4-wheel drive, it’s more about having a car with good clearance.
You Can Use US Dollars
Spending money abroad has never been easier. Belize tries to keep the exchange rate at 2:1. ( two Belize dollars= one US dollars) and USD or Belize dollars are accepted throughout the country. This means no need to wait in line to exchange currency at the airport!
Further Reading on Family Vacays
The Bottom Line: Safe, beautiful, English speaking, and endless things to do make traveling to Belize with kids an easy adventure abroad.