This swath of coastline, islands, and lowlands is where the country was born, in the area surrounding Belize City, where mahogany poles floated down from upcountry and were loaded onto ships bound for the rest of the world. Today's ocean-side "city" of 60,000 or so is a steamy, 21st-century version of those raucous old days, and it boasts just enough sights and goings-on to make it worth a one- or two-day visit. If you don't appreciate the grit and grime of Belize's one-time capital, the surrounding district offers several remote experiences, all well under an hour from the airport. Shack up at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, Crooked Tree or Monkey Bay Wildlife Reserves, or near the Altun Ha ruins. You can stay in any of these places, or you can book a room in Belize City, make day trips to the above parks, and enjoy the evening Caribbean breeze over your Belize City happy hour by night.
THE NORTHERN CAYES
Pronounced "keez," these dozens of islands consist of everything from the most deserted spit of sand and palms to Ambergris Caye, the original Isla Bonita and home of San Pedro, the most developed and swankiest side of Belize tourism. San Pedro Town and the reef-facing beach resorts that stretch north and south from it are still wonderfully small-scale compared to nearby Mexican and Caribbean destinations, and comprise the most luxurious, expensive, and well-known part of the country. In fact, Ambergris is the only part of Belize that some tourists ever see, spending their entire vacation in San Pedro, so enraptured are they by the chic restaurants, beach bars, shopping, and-oh yeah, world-class diving and snorkeling just minutes offshore. Then there's the more budget-oriented Caye Caulker, just down the reef, with its own rasta-tinted vibe and equally incredible activities. There are also far-off Turneffe Island and Lighthouse Reef Atolls, geographical phenomena that feature spectacular wall diving and Jacques Cousteau's old favorite, the Blue Hole; these atolls are accessed by day trips from Belize City, Ambergris, or Caulker, or from a handful of upscale, on-site lodges.
BELMOPAN AREA AND THE HUMMINGBIRD HIGHWAY
Belize's relatively new capital, Belmopan, is nothing more than an annoying bus layover for most travelers. The surrounding countryside, however-and the beautiful Hummingbird Highway that snakes through it-is not to be missed, whether as stunning scenery from your bus window, or as a memorable morning backdrop when you emerge from your cabin or tent on a bluff above the Caves Branch River. Some of the country's most famous adventure lodges (Ian Anderson's Caves Branch, Jaguar Paw, and Banana Bank) occupy various riverbanks in the area, as does Belize's only mainland golf course on Roaring Creek. The area's accommodations are destinations in themselves, and are also used as bases for forays into the west and south. There are homestay programs in some of the villages along the Hummingbird, as well as trails and guides to take you around Guanacaste National Park, Blue Hole, and Five Blues Lake National Parks.
CAYO AND THE MOUNTAIN
Go west, young traveler! Belize's interior is vast and wild, serviced by only a couple of roads and a growing number of unique lodges and camps. The area, which borders Guatemala's mighty PetÚn Wilderness, can be toured on hiking trails, lazy rivers, horseback, and single track. Clean mountain water awaits you in dozens of caves, waterfalls, swimming holes, and maybe even a hot tub. This is not an area to blow through in just a day or two-not if you'd like to experience its many highlights: ruins, caves, rivers, and waterfalls aplenty. Save a day each for the Xunantunich and Caracol Archaeological Sites, and another 2-3 days to pop over to Guatemala's Tikal. Smaller archaeological sites abound, as do unique ways of getting there-ask your lodge about guided horseback and mountain bike expeditions. You can also paddle up the Macal River from the mellow town of San Ignacio to the Belize Botanical Gardens, then float back down in time for dinner. Cayo is home to one of the world's largest cave systems, as well as the refreshing heights of the Mountain Pine Ridge.
DANGRIGA AND THE
The cultural center of Belize's Garinagu (or Garifuna) population, the town of Dangriga makes an unassuming base for exploring the surrounding islands and a handful of national parks in the nearby Maya Mountains. There's not much to see in Dangriga Town except a typically multi-ethnic array of Belizeans going about their daily lives and occasionally dancing the night away. Still, many travelers are glad they chose to spend a night in 'Griga on their way to or from Tobacco Caye, Southwater Caye, or Glover's Reef. Many also bump down the coast to lazy Hopkins and Sittee River, farther south to one of the many accommodations along the Placencia Peninsula, or stay in a tent in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. This is Stann Creek District, and you can easily spend a week or more here, especially if you make it out to the cayes, where there are plenty of opportunities for kayaking, fishing, diving, snorkeling, and sailing.
PUNTA GORDA AND THE
They used to call this the "forgotten corner" of Belize and, to some extent, it still is. The Southern Highway is paved now-mostly-and boat access to and from Guatemala from the tiny, relaxed port town of Punta Gorda (PG) makes Toledo District a natural stopover for a growing number of backpackers. Still, PG is a long bus ride from Belize City, and the long-awaited investment boom remains just around the corner. Toledo's offshore cayes, upland villages, caves, rivers, and waterfalls are tucked away, and you'll need at least a few days to see them (plus a day of travel on either end if you need to get back to Belize City), especially if you elect to participate in one of the renowned guesthouse or homestay programs. Planned and coordinated from offices in PG, the Toledo Ecotourism Association and Dem Dat's Doin' programs will send you up into the hills to learn a few phrases of Q'eqchi' Maya and how to make a corn tortilla.
Seldom a main focus of most travelers' attention, Orange Walk and Corozal Districts are, more often than not, just driven through-unless, of course, you've heard about Chan Chich or Lamanai Outpost Lodges, both consisting of gorgeous upscale accommodations amid fascinating archaeological sites set deep in the wildlife-choked bush. These areas are must-stops for any serious bird-watcher. You may also have heard about the sleepy streets of Corozal, a gentle Caribbean town, just across the bay from the lights of Chetumal, Mexico, and a possible launching pad to Ambergris Caye.