Guatemala's Beautiful Neighbor: Belize
Many people who spend a few months in Guatemala or who move here and are awaiting a path to legal residency will do what is called a “visa run”. Upon landing, most visitors are given a 90-day visitor visa that they must renew by either leaving the country and re-entering, or by asking the authorities for an extension due to special circumstances. Because Guatemala and its southern neighbors are part of a cross-border agreement (called the Central America Border Control Agreement, or CA-4), heading to El Salvador or Honduras will not effectively renew a visitor visa. Therefore, most people will go to north to Belize or Mexico. *Please consult a Guatemalan-based immigration attorney for help in understanding visa laws.
Crossing into Belize from Guatemala is mainly done from Flores or Livingston. I decided to take advantage of my proximity to Belize from my time working in Flores and spent ten days there for my first visa renewal. The bus from Flores to Belize City is approximately five hours, and you can take an early bus to coincide with a ferry out to the islands. I chose to go to Ambergris Caye, also known as San Pedro (which is the name of the main town on the island). The border crossing was short and sweet and done on foot, and you meet the bus again at the other side of immigration. The bus dropped me directly at the pier for a ferry ride to the island and I arrived mid-afternoon, just in time for the start of happy hour! After traveling in that heat and lugging my backpack to the hostel, I was due for an ice cold beer, and luckily had booked myself into a room with strong AC.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the places I visited in Belize, from north to south:
San Pedro - Great diving, but swimming is mainly done from piers on the ocean side of the island, as the sea grass grows straight up to the shoreline and most of the beach is narrow, hard-packed sand. There is an excellent choice of bars and restaurants, most on the ocean side, although if you’re looking for a sunset-facing option, take a taxi ride or rent a golf cart and head out to Secret Beach. There are plenty of dive shops that will take you to sites both near and far, and you can expect a great number of nurse sharks, reef sharks, rays, turtles, and a variety of fish. If possible, wait to dive the Blue Hole from Caye Caulker as its much closer. Expect prices here to be a bit higher than elsewhere in Belize.
Caye Caulker - a tiny town with sandy streets and oceanside bars beckoning the laid back traveler. Again, not much in terms of wide, golden swimming beaches although the northern tip of the southern part of Caye Caulker has a public “beach” near the split, however you may be better off cooling down with a drink in hand on one of Sip ’n’ Dip’s half-submerged swings or hammocks, or by taking the free motor boat over to Koko King’s private beach resort and restaurant for the day (highly recommended and free). Diving was awesome and includes the vertigo inducing Blue Hole and some reef walls near other small cayes that have been placed on the protected areas list. Caye Caulker was definitely a must-do.
Hopkins - this small, lazy beach town is quite removed from the tourist circuit. The beach and the main road stretch a few miles long however the beach is narrow and the sea is dark. If you’re looking for off-the-beaten-path, this is it. You’ll possibly wander for hours without seeing other tourists. You can take day trips to nearby parks for hiking, enjoy the Garífuna food and culture, or laze in a hammock and while away the day.
Placencia - situated on what is likely the best beach in Belize, Placencia has a warm, wide strip of golden sand and a clear blue sea just steps from its many bars, restaurants and small guest houses. There are a myriad of both local and expat-owned eateries to choose from, and hotels and housing are being built by the handful. What is still relatively “quiet” in the off-season may not be for long. Diving and day trips to the nearby cayes are popular excursions.
Punta Gorda - this small town is basically on the tourists’ radar due to the boat access coming to and from Guatemala’s two coastal towns, Livingston and Puerto Barrios. To be noted, there isn’t much to do in the town and Placencia is close enough to make the trip down in the morning and still catch a boat to Guatemala the same day. That being said, the town felt safe (except for the eight foot long boa constrictor I spotted being removed from a garbage pile by town officials), and the hostel where I stayed was lovely.
All in all, Belize is a beautiful, easy-to-navigate country open to a wide range of budgets. English is the official language, Belizean dollars are set at a ratio of 2:1 to the US dollar, and both are used interchangeably. Diving is some of the best you’ll find in Central America, as the second largest barrier reef in the world straddles the Belizean coastline, and the “go slow” attitude permeates through all aspects of Belizean life.