Pairing Guatemala with Belize makes for the perfect twin-centre holiday. A combination of two enchanting countries, bursting with culture, colour and colonial highland towns. Latin America expert, Sarah, soaks up the beautiful scenery, bustling markets and abundant wildlife on a whistle stop tour of both countries.
Culture in Guatemala
Our trip started in the impressive, colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala, a truly impressive colonial city that has also been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua is easy to navigate on foot and the best way to spend your time is by walking around the cobbled streets, admiring the Spanish Baroque influenced architecture and the pastel coloured colonial churches, convents and plazas that all sit in the shadow of three towering volcanoes. I enjoyed walking through the city’s bustling local markets, soaking up the atmosphere with a good cup of Guatemalan coffee.
The emerald crater lake of Lake Atitlan lies a couple of hours west of Antigua. Whilst offering stunning views of surrounding volcanoes and mountains, Lake Atitlan is also home to the indigenous village of San Juan, a true highlight for me and a great place to get a feel for the local community. We visited the chocolate museum there and had a quick introduction to the chocolate making process before visiting a female-run cooperative and enjoying a demonstration of the local dying and weaving techniques. If you want to purchase some local handicrafts, San Juan is the place to buy them because the profits are reinvested into the community and help to pay for local education.
On our way back to Guatemala City we visited Chichicastenago, a large indigenous town known for its traditional K’iche Maya culture, and famous for its market where vendors sell local produce, animal stock and handicrafts. The sounds and smells of this bustling and very colourful market are intoxicating. Just next to the market is the 400-year-old church of Santo Tomas. The steps up to the church are bursting with the colour of vendors selling flowers and the air is thick with burning incense. Inside, the local Mayas practice their traditional rituals in front of catholic relics; I was so intrigued I could have sat there for hours.
Our final destination in Guatemala before crossing the border into Belize was the incredible Maya citadel of Tikal. Situated in the heart of the jungle surrounded by lush vegetation, Tikal flourished between 200 and 850 A.D when it was a hive of activity. No one really knows for sure but some archaeologists believe Tikal was abandoned due to a great famine or epidemic. As well as the mind-blowing ruins, Tikal National Park it is a great place to spot wildlife and whilst there, we were lucky enough to see toucans, a family of coati and some howler monkeys.
Beaches and wildlife in Belize
The first thing I noticed when we crossed the border into Belize from Guatemala was being greeted in English, remembering that Belize, once under British rule, is the only English speaking country in Central America. I also noticed that they drive on the right-hand side of the road but as most of their vehicles are from America, they drive left-hand drive vehicles.
Our first stop in Belize was the Cayo District, Belize’s premier adventure and eco-activity region. It is woven with rivers, waterfalls and azure pools, and is home to the tallest building in Belize, the Maya site of Caana, at Caracol. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rains, the road to Caracol was flooded and the waters were too high to go river tubing and canoeing through Barton Creek Cave. The best time of year to visit Belize is the dry season from February to May, having said that we still made the most of our time in this beautiful region. My highlight was an early morning bird watching trip through the jungle on horseback. It was a very pleasant and easy ride along a jungle path with the hypnotising, melodic sound of birdsong echoing through the forest canopy. We spotted the national bird of Belize – the keel-billed toucan; a dazzling, colourful bird that is truly striking to see flying through the air.
We left the jungle and headed for the slow paced and laid back coastal region of Placencia, which is a dream destination if you love white sandy beaches, warm azure sea and low-key tourism. We happened to be in this colourful Creole town over Halloween, and the local community threw a spectacular Halloween party and danced the night away in true Creole style.
There are a couple of noteworthy places to visit from Placencia, for example the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve. It is recognised internationally as the world’s first jaguar preserve and is known for its spectacular waterfalls, nature trails and neotropical birds. It is inhabited by jaguars but you would have to be extremely lucky to get a glimpse of the elusive big cats.
A bit further along the coast we reached the coastal town of Hopkins, where you can take a snorkelling trip to Tobacco Reef to catch sight of the shy manatees that inhabit the sea grass prairies. Or, if you like adventure, take to the sky at Bocawina Rainforest Resort and ride the longest zip-line in Belize. I experienced the thrilling ride in the dark which quite literally took my breath away.
Our next stop was Orange Walk in the north of Belize. We met our knowledgeable and passionate guide, Ruben, and took a magical sunset boat journey through the calm, mirrored New River to Lamanai Outpost Lodge. Ruben pointed out the many different birds that we encountered along the way; northern jacanas, Jesus birds, snowy egrets roosting in trees along the river bank, snail-kites that have migrated from the Everglades and black collared hawks soaring through the clear blue skies above, hunting their prey.
After a relaxing evening and an early morning wake up call from the resident black howler monkey troop, we had a full day of activities. Our day started with a tranquil, sunrise canoe trip along the New Lagoon then we took a short boat ride to Lamanai, a Mesoamerican archaeological site that was once a major city of the Maya civilisation.
In the evening, we set out on foot to see the creatures of the night. As we slowly walked along one of the lodge trails, again I was relying on Ruben’s eyes and ears to point out the bugs and creepy crawlies. We saw weaver spiders that glow in the dark, toads, a scorpion, and the big bright eyes of a very cute possum hiding in the trees.
Our final destination in Belize and sadly the end of our great adventure was the paradise island of Ambergris Caye, a spot that can only reached by a scenic light aircraft from Belize City. After an active Central American adventure, a few days there was the perfect antidote. To breathe the sea air, feel the fluffy powder-white sand beneath your feet and see the warm tropical clear blue sea lapping the shore line was pure paradise!
My lasting memory of Ambergris Caye, is snorkelling at Hol Chan Marine Park and coming up close to the teeming marine life beneath the waves where you can swim with the resident nurse sharks and southern stingrays.
I left this wonderful part of the world with great lasting memories and hope one day to return to discover more of both of these fascinating destinations.