Months ago, when I started telling friends and family that I would be starting an internship in Belize, I was surprised how many people were unfamiliar with the country. “Where in the world is Belize?” No, it’s not part of Mexico. Yes, it’s a country in Central America. No, it’s not an island. Yes, they speak English. In fact, it’s one of the official languages.
While not overwhelmingly small, Belize seems to fly under the radar for many people. Even fewer people (including fellow tourists we’ve met in Belize) are aware that the capital city is no longer Belize City. At approximately the centre of Belize is Belmopan (where we are based), the smallest capital city in the continental Americas, and one of the youngest in the world. Belmopan was created for one reason—to be the new capital city, after the destruction caused to Belize City by Hurricane Hattie in 1961—and thus has been said to be lacking a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ in tourism books and blogs. However, in almost every direction is a flurry of awe and adventure, and we interns have been dropped right into the middle of it.
To add a disclaimer, though there are countless places to see in every direction, I only go on to discuss the handful I’ve been able to visit with the time and resources we have here.
Perhaps my favourite venture south (which you’ve likely read about in the other interns’ posts if you’re reading this one) was to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Our hike up to the Tiger Fern campsite can be described by a rainbow of adjectives, varying with each intern you ask (I highly recommend asking Krysta, who recently unearthed her rather passionate aversion to incline hiking). Despite our decision to begin our ascent at peak heat, frequent breaks, a lot of water, and some colourful objections got us to the site in no time. After a quick waterfall dip, we set up camp and enjoyed the 360 views as the sun set. In the morning, the clouds that had settled in the valley produced a sea of white around our island campsite until the rising sun caused them to melt away. Later in the day we made a pit stop in Hopkins, a coastal town with countless mango trees and, understandably, host of Belize’s annual Mango Fest.
Further south along the coast you’ll find Placencia, nicknamed the island you can drive to, a touristy town on a peninsula with a healthy population of expats. Some highlights for us here included staying on the long stretch of beach, kayaking to a snorkel spot (albeit in a one-person kayak, which Hailey and I flipped), and enjoying some authentic gelato.
Most of the tourism action in Belize can be found on the north islands—Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Though less than an hour from each other, the islands have very different vibes, and though small, have something to offer everyone. The busy town of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye has countless docks dotted with fishing and diving centres along the waterfront, and all the restaurants and shops you could dream of. Golf carts are the ‘when in Rome’ of San Pedro and are a handy tool to get you to the famous Truck Stop or the not-so-secret Secret Beach. Fun Fact: this island was rumored to have inspired Madonna’s 1986 hit single ‘La Isla Bonita’, and in turn adopted the title as its nickname.
Caye Caulker on the other hand, lacks the high-energy buzz that San Pedro has, and proudly boasts the slogan ‘Go Slow’. Apart from a handful of golf carts, the sandy roads are mainly trafficked by foot and bicycle—one of this tiny island’s many charms. A narrow canal separates the island in two, producing an inviting swimming spot that attracts loungers all day long. In-water tables, DJs, platform jumping competitions and beach volleyball accompany a ‘hair of the dog’ experience for many of those at the Split. Caye Caulker is one of my favourite places to visit on a weekend for the stress-free atmosphere, great street food, snorkeling, and vibrant night life.
JJust 45 minutes west of Belmopan is San Ignacio, another big tourist hub, and just a short drive away from the Guatemalan border. You could easily fill a day in this warm, hilly town, wandering the narrow streets and extensive market. But it also acts as a base for those wanting to explore the nearby Ancient Maya archaeological sites, Cahal Pech and Xunantunich, or the expansive Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Different from the other reserves we’ve visited in Belize, this park is mostly comprised of pine forest as opposed to dense, humid jungle, thus giving it a more dry and open feeling. This makes taking a dip in one of its cool waterfalls all the more satisfying. The streams responsible for the many waterfalls and swimming spots mainly feed into the Macal River, which we had the pleasure of paddling down for a full day with some work friends.
Also in this direction is the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, a Maya archaeological site that requires an experienced tour guide to explore. This was easily one of the coolest tours I’ve ever done: navigating through dark, tight spaces in underground streams, trusting the person in front of you, and learning about ceremonies of the Maya through crystallized human skeletal remains, ceramics, and different cave formations. I was also overly excited to have spotted a whip spider in the cave (for reference, this is the type of spider that Mad-Eye Moody uses to demonstrate the 3 Unforgivable Curses in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).
This is where most of the action happens. Our favourite office and playground: the Caribbean Sea. More specifically, the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve (TAMR): highlighted as the largest and most biologically diverse atoll in the Western hemisphere, and rumored to be home to the famous Neverland of Peter Pan (seriously, check out the YouTube video ‘Film Theory: We Found Neverland!’). The atoll stretches 30 miles from north to south, and is the focal point of our host organization’s marine research. Our field work operates mainly out of Calabash Caye, where the University of Belize Environmental Research Institute (UBERI) has a field station (CCFS). CCFS is neighbour to one of the three bases that the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA), the co-managers of the atoll, operate from. TASA is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations at Turneffe, conducting regular patrols and ensuring users are following TAMR regulations.
Feeling ecstatic after our first dive in Belize.
The project we interns work under is a collaboration between UBERI and TASA, which means we get the pleasure of working alongside TASA Conservation Officers on the ground (but actually water). Hailey (fisheries intern) and I (tourism intern) join patrols to collect fisheries catch data and tourist demographics. When not working with TASA, I’ve been fortunate enough to assist with snapper spawning aggregation monitoring dives, university courses, and various other projects—coral spawning is coming up this week. Despite all this, some of my best memories at sea are just getting from place to place (but hey, they say it’s about the journey not the destination, right?). The blues of Turneffe cover the spectrum from white to navy and beyond, rolling with a dynamic depth no photo or painting could truly capture. I could easily spend a whole day perched on the edge of a TASA patrol boat, looking out for the resident dolphins and trying to take mental images of the endless shades of blue.
Who needs to breathe when the water’s this clear??? Snorkelling in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, home to the Great Blue Hole.
Calm Amidst the Commotion
Belmopan has been an important hub for us—not only as a central travel point, but also as a workplace and home base. The city has its familiar charms: heading to our favourite lunch spots and cute coffee shops, taking trips to the ice cream corner, getting ceviche on a Friday night and ordering from the Food Hub on a weekly basis became regular comforts. Early on I may have even developed a small addiction to cholis—a blended coffee drink not unlike a Tim’s Ice Capp, with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, then sprinkled with cinnamon.
Not so far from the city are two small national parks—St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park and Guanacaste National Park. The former has a couple caves to explore, as well as a small network of jungle trails leading to a refreshing swimming hole. St Herman’s Blue Hole (not to be confused with the Great Blue Hole, very much 70km offshore) was formed by a collapsed limestone cave which is connected to the St. Herman’s cave by an underground stream. The latter proudly boasts being Belize’s smallest national park. At first, we had branded this park as ‘somewhere close by to check out if we have nothing else to do’, as our Google searches hadn’t produced anything too enticing. However, to our surprise, we arrived to find the perfect swimming spot—a cool cascading river that joins to a deeper, warmer one, giving you the option of a warm or cold dip—and we had it all to ourselves.
It’s hard to Belize that (sorry, had to) this opportunity has almost come to an end. I’ve been able to see and do more than I could have imagined six months ago. Everyone has been so welcoming, and I’m fortunate to have learned so much from new colleagues and friends. It’s easy to understand why Belizeans are so proud of their beautiful country, and I’m extremely grateful that I got to experience a glimpse of it.