Given the fact that Belize is so small, it is possible to visit any of the country's major tourist destinations and attractions as a side trip from Belize City. Most are easily reached in less than 2 hours by car, bus, or boat taxi. Other attractions are accessible by short commuter flights. All in all, you can visit almost any destination or attraction described in this book as a day trip, except for the far southern zone.
Other possible destinations for side trips out of Belize City include Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, dive excursions to the nearby reefs, and even to the more isolated dive destinations like the Blue Hole and the Lighthouse and Turneffe atolls. You can also visit the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha, Lamanai, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and even Caracol and Tikal.
The following two options are less than an hour from Belize City and both are highly recommended:
The Belize Zoo: Founded in 1983 as part of a last-ditch and improvised effort to keep and care for a host of wild animals that were being used in a documentary film shoot, the Belize Zoo is a national treasure. Gentle paths wind through some 12 hectares (30 acres) of land, where the zoo houses more than 200 animals, all native Belizean species. According to them, “the zoo keeps animals which were either orphaned, born at the zoo, rehabilitated animals, or sent to the Belize Zoo as gifts from other zoological institutions.” They are seriously invested in education, helping future generations appreciate and protect these wild animals.
Exploring the zoo, you’ll see several species of Belizean cats, April the tapir, crocodiles, and other critters in idealized natural surroundings. The animals here are some of the liveliest and happiest looking I’ve ever seen in a zoo. It’s obvious that they’re well cared for. This is your best shot for ethically experiencing jungle wildlife. All the exhibits have informative hand-painted signs accompanying them.
I highly recommend booking a VIP tour by appointment only with founding director Sharon Matola, the dedicated American woman who initially began the zoo. She is a wealth of information and very special to the Belize community. In 2008 she became the subject of Bruce Barcott’s book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save The World’s Most Beautiful Bird. It’s a short, enthralling read outlining wildlife conservation efforts in Belize, and conveniently sold in the zoo’s gift shop.
Tip: It’s best to visit early in the morning or close to closing time, when the animals are at their most active and the Belizean sun is at its least oppressive. In addition, the zoo can get crowded at times; on days when cruise ships are visiting Belize City, busloads of tourists begin to arrive around 10am, but often are packed up and gone by 3pm.
Note: This is the first and currently only nature destination in Belize that is accessible to wheelchairs.
The entrance is a couple of hundred yards in from the George Price Highway. Any bus traveling between Belize City and Belmopan or San Ignacio will drop you off at the zoo entrance.
George Price Highway, Mile Marker 29. www.belizezoo.org; tel. 220-8000). Admission BZ$30 for adults and BZ$10 for children. Open daily 8:30am- 5pm.
The Community Baboon Sanctuary: There aren’t really baboons in Belize; this is just the Kriol name for the black howler monkeys who reside in this innovative sanctuary. The sanctuary is a community program run by local landowners in eight villages to preserve the local population of these vociferous primates. The howlers found here are an endangered endemic subspecies found only in Belize. There’s a visitor’s center and natural history museum in the village of Bermudian Landing; admission includes a guided hike, which will start here. If you want a longer guided hike, you should hire one of the many local guides for a modest fee. The preserve stretches for some 32km (20 miles) along the Belize River, and there are several trails that wind through farmland and secondary forest. You will undoubtedly hear the whooping and barking of the howler monkeys as they make their way through the treetops feeding on fruits, flowers, and leaves. In addition to the nearly 1,500 howler monkeys that make their home in the sanctuary, there are numerous other bird and mammal species to be spotted here, including peccaries, anteaters, pacas, and coati-mundi. Bring binoculars if you have them. Wayward guides may let you touch the monkeys for extra money, but this is extremely unethical, and should not be supported.
At the visitor’s center, you can also hire a canoe for a leisurely paddle and float on the Belize River. The cost is around BZ$50 for an hour or so paddle in a canoe that will hold two passengers in addition to the guide. Other guided tours offered include specialized bird-watching excursions and night canoe outings to spot crocodiles. Finally, the several small villages that compose the conservation project are wonderful examples of rural Kriol villages. Be sure to visit one or two, stroll around, talk to the residents, and see what kind of craftwork and food you can find. In each village, there are families that rent out simple rooms. Ask at the museum and information center, or reserve in advance via their website.
Bermudian Landing village, site of the sanctuary’s visitor center, is about 32km (20 miles) west of Belize City. If you are driving, head north on the Philip Goldson Highway and watch for the Burrel Boom Road turnoff. Buses to Bermudian Landing leave Belize City several times a day. Call the sanctuary’s visitor’s centerfor current schedule and departure point.
Bermudian Landing Village. www.howlermonkeys.org. tel. 660-3545. BZ$14 Admission fee, which includes a short guided hike.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.