Centrally located on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize is a quick flight from the U.S., which means it's relatively affordable for most people. The country features a wide array of geographical terrains, from coral sand and mangrove islands just off shore and lowland savannahs and lagoons, to the towering Maya Mountains and lush rainforests further inland. So no matter what kind of environment you seek, you will most likely find it here.
For beach and ocean lovers, the Barrier Reef is where you want to go. Stretching 185 miles, the reef is the longest in the western hemisphere and a scuba diver's paradise. You can spend hours exploring the cliffs and crevices of this underwater environment, riddled with every imagineable species of fish, crustacean and algae. Off the reef are three of the four Caribbean atolls and thousands of cayes (pronounced "keys"), or small islands that are either coral sand-covered or mangrove entanlged. This system makes up Belize's marine environment, cited by many as the main draw of the country.
For the hiking types, consider heading further South. The Mountain Ridge Pine marks the beginning of the mountainous region, sitting at 1,500 feet. The Maya Mountains stand at 3,680 feet above sea level and are surrounded by limestone hills that boast the largest cave system in Central America. Thrill-seeking hikers and climbers will lose themselves in this mecca of dense trails, dark caves and scenic flowing rivers.The mountains are filled with a number of nature preserves and Maya ruins, giving people plenty to explore. After a day of hiking, swimming and exploring, many retreat to the town of San Ignacio, the heart of the Cayo District. It's remote location makes it pretty economical for tourists, and there is a bustling culture and atmosphere that proves to be truly authentic, rather than highly commercialized--like some other areas of the country can be.
For the wild adventurer, Southern Belize offers a completely different environment than the sandy, calm beaches to the North. Just to the southeast of the mountains, the region is saturated--literally--with water, with annual rainfall of 170 inches, it is a true tropical rainforest. Deep in the lush ferns and palms, visitors will find overhanging ledges, caves and hundreds of Maya artifacts left behind by the ancient people who once inhabited the wilderness.Some of the main sites you will find there are Lubaantum--the largest Maya ruin in the area--Nim Li Punit, Cahal Pech, Chaa Creek and many others. Toledo is Belize's Southern most district and is one of the most natural, untouched, least visited regions of the country. It features 1,669-square-miles of rainforest, mountains, rivers and ancient sites, as well as 4,000 species of flowers and 500 species of birds. If you're a nature and wildlife buff, this is the place for you. The largest town in Southern Belize, Dangriga, is not the most common place for a stopover, but you really should check it out. Sure, it's a little rough around the edges--and is by no means as big as Belize City in the North--but it is a super funky, vibrant and culturally rich city that marches to the beat of the Garifuna people--the innovators of a unique form of music called punta rock.
I also think that in these less frequented areas, you really get a taste of true Belizean culture, especially with arts, crafts, music and food. Obviously, there are plenty of great dishes to try, but some of the most popular are conch fritters, tamales, garnache, boil-up, dukunu, fry jacks, johnny cakes and ereba. The locals will know the best places to get these regional delicacies, but if you can't find a good sit down place, there are street vendors all over selling hot, delicious meats and cheeses wrapped in hand-made flour tortillas, and don't forget the rice and beans--an essential part to any Belizean meal. But be careful when you order this side, because beans-and-rice is a whole other ordeal.
Who knows if I'll win this trip to Belize--I'm keeping my fingers crossed--but if by some miracle I get selected, you better believe that I'm going to make the most of it and see as much of this fantastic country as I can. But remember, it's a trip for two...so who wants to join me?