Rich in exotic wildlife, tropical forests, white-sand beaches and lost civilisations, Belize really is a diverse pocket of overlooked beauty. This is a trip that has something for everyone - food lovers, wildlife spotters, jungle hikers and beach junkies alike will all find something to love about Belize. Maya sites - Visit the lesser-known ruins of Xunantunich and Lamanai, and explore the impressive temples of Tikal (Guatemala) Belize Barrier Reef - Just off the small island of Caye Caulker is some of the best snorkelling in Central America, in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea Wildlife - Spot birds in wetland areas, and find howler and spider monkeys, toucans, crocodiles and many more in their natural habitats
Arrive in Belize City, the capital of Belize until 1970 at which time it moved to Belmopan. Its a typical Caribbean town, parts of the town are still largely built of wood and galvanised iron, with many of the original colonial style houses in an elegant state of disrepair. For those arranging their own flights our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 6 pm for the welcome meeting after which we head for dinner at the hotel. There are no other activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Belize City at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Belize's Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (airport code BZE), which is 16km, around 20 minutes' drive from the hotel. Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information as soon as you catch up. If you have booked your flights through our office then you will spend the first night of the trip in Houston at an airport hotel. Our hotels have a frequent complimentary shuttle service from the airport that you will need to catch (further details about this will be given to you in the joining instructions section of your trip notes), and you'll have the evening free to explore. You will then fly on to Belize City tomorrow morning to meet the rest of our group and our local leader.
Heading along the northern highway, we pick up those joining from London at the international airport, before continuing to the atmospheric Maya ruins of Altun Ha. Those joining from London may wish to change into walking shoes and other comfortable clothing before departing from the airport. The pyramids and temples in this compact site are a great introduction to Belize's diverse cultural history - within less than one hour we will have journeyed from the Caribbean vibe of Belize City to the land of the ancient Maya. Later in the afternoon we travel inland to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, an important wetland habitat. Settling down for two nights we enjoy the hospitality of our local hosts on the shores of the Crooked Tree Lagoon. Established in 1984, this maze of waterways and lagoons supports a wonderful variety of wetland species, perfect for our first close-up encounter with Belize's famed wildlife.
Rising early this morning or tomorrow morning, we explore the lagoon by boat. In this birdwatchers paradise we may spot wood stork, numerous herons, vultures, kingfishers, raptors and shore bird, and perhaps most notable of all, the rare jabiru stork - the tallest flying bird in the America's standing at 5ft with a wingspan of up to 9ft. We return to the lodge for breakfast and then set off by vehicle to the New River for the boat ride upstream to the 2000 year old jungle ruins of Lamanai. Water birds are abundant in the ancient rainforest cover and crocodiles may be spotted lurking along the river bank. Lamanai, the original name of these Maya ruins, means Submerged Crocodile, which helps to explain the numerous carved crocodile representations at the site. The ruins are located some distance off the beaten track and are still not reconstructed or cleared. We approach on foot following rough trails. The surrounding rainforest with its thick canopy of huge trees, and humid atmosphere adds an aura of mystery to the scattered and overgrown relics. A cache of children's bones has been unearthed from beneath one of the stelae, suggesting that the Maya practiced human sacrifice here.
An optional early bird walk and sunrise along the Crooked Tree Lagoon can be an unforgettable experience in this important wetland sanctuary. After breakfast, we visit the Community Baboon Sanctuary in search of howler monkeys. Here we have a chance to watch troops of black howler monkeys swinging from the trees in their natural habitat, before we begin our journey south along the scenic Hummingbird Highway, where orange and grapefruit groves are surrounded by a backdrop of lush jungle clad limestone hills - The Maya Mountains. We will visit a local organic farm and tree planting project along the way in this beautiful setting. Our day ends in the beach resort of Placencia, a town located at the end of a narrow peninsula between mangrove lagoons and the Maya Mountains and the Caribbean Sea.
Placencia is southern Belize's premier beach spot and a jumping off point for visiting numerous cayes that form part of the Belize barrier reef - the longest reef system in the western hemisphere. Today, we have the option to visit Laughing Bird caye. It lies 9 miles west of the Placencia Peninsula and is an area of specific biological interest within the world heritage site. It is a picture postcard uninhabited tropical island that allows us to experience a guided snorkelling trip directly from its coral sand shores. Alternatively, you might like to relax and enjoy local life at the beach in Placencia.
This morning we visit the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. This is the world's first and only jaguar reserve, in the heart of an important large tract of undisturbed tropical forest that is thought to have the densest population of jaguars in all the America's; the magnificent cats are a protected species here in their natural habitat and are no longer hunted as big game: however we would have to be extremely fortunate to spot one. They can grow up to six feet in length and weigh some 159 kilograms. The reserve is home to five species of wild cats, wild pigs, dwarf brocket and white tailed deers as well as Belize's national mammel - the Tapir. The park is also home to more than 300 species of birds that can be found on an extensive network of maintained trails. We plan to do a hike through the rainforest to a small waterfall and for the more energetic a hike to the clearing of "Ben's Bluff" that offers incredible views of the forest and towards Belize's most iconic mountain - Victoria Peak at 1120m. Leaving the park we drive on towards San Ignacio on the hummingbird highway, we can stop at the "other" Blue Hole - a collapsed limestone cavern for a welcome swim in fresh water in yet another large protected forest reserve - the Blue Hole National Park.
San Ignacio, a traditional Belizean town, is an ideal place to base ourselves for the next couple of days. Straddling the Macal River which was once a critical transportation artery for the Maya and later the European settlers it is now a centre for many adventurous activities. Today we make a visit to the great classical Maya site of Xunantunich, Mayan for 'Rock Stone Maiden', perhaps for phallic or fertility reasons. We go by bus and then cross the River Mopan by traditional hand-winched ferry to arrive at the site. Occupied until about AD 850, the main plaza is dominated by an awesome structure called El Castillo - a massive pyramid which rises to 40 metres. On the top is a partially restored stucco frieze representing the Sun God and astronomical signs of the Moon and Venus. The superb view from the summit looks out over the forest with the Maya mountains to the south and the lowlands of Guatemala to the west. After visiting Xunantunich, we journey to San Ignacio and the lively market, full of Belize's colourful cross section of diverse people and the local produce they bring to town from the surrounding hills on a Saturday. The afternoon is free for personal exploration or cave canoeing into the Mayan underworld at the stunning Barton Creek cave system, located near to the Orthodox German Mennonite Communities found in Belize's interior.
Today is free to relax in the hotel's gardens and pool or perhaps make an independent visit to the nearby Cahal Pech Archaeological site - a popular option is to visit one of the region's most impressive botanical gardens - the Belize Botanical Gardens. This extensive botanical collection in the Macal River Valley is surrounded by Rainforest and rich in wildlife. From the gardens, we can paddle by canoe through unspoilt jungle scenery back to San Ignacio.
Leaving Belize today we drive to Tikal, just over the border in Guatemala. Arriving at Tikal we spend the day exploring this great Mayan metropolis, which can justly be compared with Egyptian and Greek masterpieces. Initially settled about 600 BC, Tikal was abandoned by its rulers around AD 890 and totally deserted a hundred years later. The city covered an area of 16 square kilometres. Re-discovered in 1848, only a few of its great temples and pyramids have yet been excavated. Accessible by foot are a number of outlying and little known temples still covered by a tangle of undergrowth, and for those with a head for heights, the views from the temple tops out over the jungle and the hidden city below are mesmerising.
Today we rise to the sounds of the surrounding jungle coming to life. Unaccompanied, we have a chance to return to the site for a further exploration of the jungle encroached ruins. It is possible to go into the site to watch the sunrise from atop of Temple 4, the highest structure in the site at more than 200ft above the forest floor. Clear sunrises are uncommon however owing to the humidity the rainforest generates. Witness instead the roof combs of the surrounding temples reveal themselves as a forest wakes and the sounds of toucans, parrots, spider and howler monkeys fill the air. Alternatively you can enjoy the day relaxing, excellent bird watching and wildlife can be seen around the hotel pool! There are two small museums located close to the hotel, or you may like to visit Guatemala's second largest lake - Peten Itza - and the colonial island town of Flores.
This morning we drive to Belize City and take a water taxi to Caye Caulker. Once a pirate lair, this tiny but enchanting tropical island lies 34km northeast of Belize City and about 1.6km inside the greatest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The water taxi transfer takes about an hour and is a highlight in itself, speeding through the turquoise waters. The island remains uncrowded, and unluxurious, with relatively modest prices in restaurants and bars, owned and run by the friendliest of local people. The local fishermen produce lobster, conch, fish and crab to supply the domestic and foreign markets. Fresh seafood is readily available and lobster is the best buy when in season from Jun to Feb. There's time to relax - our hotel has a beach, which is rare on the island - as well as to enjoy a number of optional trips. You may take a snorkelling trip out to the nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve & Shark and Ray alley, or take a full day trip out to Goff's Caye to observe the Manatees in their natural mangrove habitat. Scuba diving is also available.
Today we spend some time either relaxing or we can participate in one of many of the optional activities available on the island. The Belize cayes have some of the best snorkelling in Central America, and it's well worth a trip to Goff's Caye or Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
The trip ends at our hotel on Caye Caulker. From here, we get a water taxi back to Belize City. The water taxi takes around one hour. The earliest water taxi is at 6am and operates throughout the day. An onward road transfer to Belize's Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (airport code BZE), will be provided. The earliest your flight can depart is 9.30am. For those on later flights we will provide unaccompanied water taxi transfers later in the day with connecting onward road transfers to the airport. If departing today from Belize City, these transfers will be provided free of charge.
10 Break Fast(s) 1 Lunch(es) 2 Dinner(s)
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