A Sustainable Travel Guide to Belize’s Wonders

Belize sustainable travel guide-11

Sustainable travel has many definitions, but at its essence, aims to have a positive impact on both communities and the environment, while ensuring an enriching visitor experience. 

This ethos pretty much defines tourism in Belize. 

Geographically located in Central America, Belize has one foot in the Caribbean. With a diverse blend of cultures, from the indigenous Mayas to the Afro-descendent Garifuna, Belize is a melting pot of different languages, cuisines, and traditions. 

Belize’s biggest tourism drawcard is its natural environment. The pristine coral reef in the Caribbean Sea and the lush rainforest covering the mainland are the country’s biggest assets, and they understand the economic benefit of protecting it. 

This a country committed to preserving its immense natural beauty, and showcasing it to visitors in the lightest way possible. 

With over 100 protected areas, more than 50% forest coverage, and a UNESCO World Heritage Listed coral reef, Belize is the perfect destination for sustainable travelers. Outdoor adventures abound and authentic cultural immersion awaits in Belize. 

Belize’s sustainable tourism industry 

Sustainability comes from the top in Belize, with the country’s tourism entity, the Belize Tourism Board, leading the charge in implementing a sustainable tourism agenda. 

The government’s controversial decisions in favor of the environment, banning all oil exploration in Belizean waters, and phasing out single-use plastics, highlight Belize’s dedication to preserving its natural beauty. 

The entire destination is marketed with an eco-lens, appealing to green travelers all over the world. And it’s more than just marketing. The claims are backed up by passionate tour companies, green eco-lodges, and community tourism projects all operating sustainable tourism businesses. 

Belize has been recognized for its efforts, crowned as one of the world’s best ethical travel destinations in 2023 by Ethical Traveler, and the country will host the inaugural World Sustainable Travel & Hospitality Awards in 2024.

The tourism board’s website is a fantastic resource for travelers, with a wealth of planning information and helpful sustainability tips.  

Eco destinations in Belize 

Choosing where to visit in Belize is tough in one respect because there are so many fabulous locations to choose from. And easy in another, because there aren’t really any destinations to avoid in terms of sustainability. 

Ambergris Caye is the most popular tourist destination in Belize and is the only place that could be criticized as overdeveloped. 

The island’s main town, San Pedro, is the heart of the resort scene in Belize, and we met many locals who referred to the island as Americanised and touristy. In comparison to other resort cities in the region, it is still blissfully laidback, but if you’re seeking an authentic green getaway, this is one place to leave off your itinerary. 

Luckily there are plenty of other places to choose from if you’re looking to avoid the crowds and experience the nature and culture of Belize:

  • Caye Caulker – Belize’s second most popular tourist destination has grown rapidly in the past decade, although still retains a laidback local feel. With its sandy streets, electric blue waters, pristine reef offshore, and palm-lined coastline onshore, this is the perfect place to soak up the Caribbean vibe
  • San Ignacio – Belize’s inland adventure hub, San Ignacio is the capital of the Cayo District in Western Belize. Use this bustling local town as a base to explore Mayan ruins, extensive cave systems and the protected pine forests of Mountain Pine Ridge.
  • Hopkins – the heart of Garifuna culture in Belize, this coastal village gives you easy access to the best of both worlds in Belize. The Belize Barrier Reef is a short boat ride away, and day trips are possible to the Mayflower Bocawina National Park and Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. 
  • Placencia – if you want to combine sustainability with luxury and relaxation, Placencia is the place. This stunning land spit has the feel of an island, bordered on one side by mangrove-filled lagoons, and on the other by miles of sandy beaches. Eco-resorts sit aside local restaurants, with an easy-going local vibe. 
  • Hummingbird Highway – this lesser-visited region is home to some of the country’s most beautiful jungles, a handful of luxury eco-lodges, and some tasty local cuisine. Explore some lesser-known national parks, like St. Herman’s and Billy Barquedier. 
  • Remote cayes – there are over 400 cayes in Belize, some inhabited, some not. Many of these welcome visitors with varying forms of amenities. If you really want to get off the beaten track you can camp on Glover’s Reef Atoll, enjoy a budget-friendly getaway on Tobacco Caye, or soak up eco-luxury at Thatch Caye. 
  • Toledo District – the southernmost part of Belize is an off-the-beaten-track destination, allowing visitors to authentically engage with Mayan communities, and explore diverse rivers and rainforests from eco-lodges. 

Sustainable stays 

Choosing a sustainable place to sleep in Belize is easy, given the abundance of eco-lodges, low-impact resorts, and locally-owned guest houses. 

Belize stands out as a country largely free from major hotel chains, which is a refreshing change from its neighbors, and much more beneficial for the Belizean economy. 

Unlike neighboring tourist hubs like Cancun, there are only a handful of multinational hotel brands around the country. Forget the high-rise mega-resorts, and there are none of the sterile, cookie-cutter hotels that are the same all over the world. Instead, Belize’s accommodations have a local feel and unique character. 

Of course, there is some foreign ownership of accommodations in Belize. However, in most cases, these businesses are independently owned, often by expats who have called Belize their home for many years. 

There are a handful of exceptional eco accommodations that have achieved the renowned Green Globe certification: 

  • Xanadu Island Resort – Ambergris Caye
  • Gaia Riverlodge – San Ignacio
  • Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort – Hopkins
  • Itz’ana Belize Resort & Residence – Placencia
  • Ka’ana Belize Resort – San Ignacio
  • Matachica Resort & Spa – Ambergris Caye
  • Turneffe Flats – Turneffe Atoll
  • Turneffe Island Resorts – Turneffe Attol

This list is just the tip of the iceberg though. There are countless other eco-lodges scattered around Belize’s lush rainforests and tropical cayes, that may not have this level of certification but are still operating low-impact, eco-friendly accommodations. 

A quick search on any hotel’s website should reveal a plethora of eco-initiatives. Booking.com and TripAdvisor’s sustainability ratings also provide a helpful starting point for identifying green properties. 

Low impact adventures

There is an endless list of adventures in Belize, from the reef to the rainforest. The most popular things to do in Belize all trend towards light, low-impact activities. 

On the reef

The Belize Barrier Reef runs the entire stretch of Belize’s coastline and is part of the broader Mesoamerican Reef, which is the second-largest barrier reef in the world. 

Belize’s section of the reef is well protected and has achieved UNESCO World Heritage Status. The government and tourism board regularly commit significant funds to projects to ensure the continued health of the reef. 

As a tourist visiting Belize, you can experience the underwater wonders reef by snorkeling or scuba diving, both of which can be enjoyed from any point along the coast or cayes.

I was impressed with how regulated these activities were, and the vast majority of operators were doing the right thing. Visitors to the reef are actively encouraged to avoid sunscreen and single-use plastics, and most experiences have a strong educational component fostering a deeper understanding of the delicate marine ecosystem.

The sheer diversity and abundance of marine species are unbelievable and incomparable to anywhere else in Central America. 

A day spent snorkeling off the coast of Caye Caulker could see you swimming alongside turtles, rays, sharks, and even manatees, along with a rainbow of colorful corals and reef fish. 

If you’re a dedicated ocean lover, many of the smaller cayes house marine research stations and offer lengthier volunteer or internship experiences, where your diving can help the reef. From coral planting and surveying to lionfish hunting, you can give back to this incredible marine ecosystem. 

In the rainforest 

Over 50% of Belize’s land mass is forested, and there are more than 100 protected natural areas to explore. 

The biodiversity of Belize’s jungles is rich, with hundreds of species of flora and fauna to discover. We were lucky enough to see Belize’s national animal, Baird’s tapir, in the wild, as well as its national tree, the mahogany tree. 

The Community Baboon Sanctuary in northern Belize is a community-run preserve that protects the endangered Black Howler Monkey (locally known as Baboons!). The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is the world’s first jaguar reserve, providing critical habitat for the largest and most elusive feline in the Americas. 

Bird watchers will love the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary and the Rio Bravo Conservation Area. The most sought-after sightings are of Belize’s national bird, the keel-billed toucan, and the equally noisy and colorful scarlet macaw.

If you’re keen to strap on your hiking boots, there are countless trails to explore, leading to secluded swimming holes, expansive networks of caves, and epic viewpoints. 

The Billy Barquedier National Park and St. Herman’s National Park on the Hummingbird Highway offer fantastic examples of all these things. 

For more thrilling adventures, you can also zipline across the canopy, rappel down the side of waterfalls, and even try cave tubing. Yes, floating on an inflatable tube on an underground river through a cave is possible in Belize! San Ignacio is the best jump-off point for the activity, which has to be done with a local guide. 

Cultural immersion experiences

Belize has a rich and fascinating blend of cultures to discover, particularly the indigenous Maya and Afro-descendent Garifuna people. 

The history of the Mayan culture in Belize spans thousands of years. As the first inhabitants of the country from 1,500 BC, they developed complex and advanced cities that can still be visited today. Xunantunich, Caracol, Cahal Pech, and Lamanai are some of the best-preserved Mayan cities to get a glimpse of the impressive ingenuity of the Mayas. 

You can also engage with the unique Garifuna culture. Living primarily in villages along the coast, like Hopkins and Dangriga, there is a range of community tourism initiatives where visitors can sample and cook Creole cuisine, try their hand at African drumming, or Punta, the traditional Garifuna dance. 

Local delicacies

The chain-free nature of Belize extends to its dining. You won’t find a McDonalds in the entire country! Or any other fast food chain for that matter, which is a huge sustainable win. 

Restaurants are primarily locally owned, which benefits the local economy. There is an emphasis on tasty local cuisine with fresh ingredients sourced from farmers and fishermen around the country. 

You’ll be eating a lot of ‘rice and beans’ a Belizean speciality that is tastier than it sounds, with delicious coconut flavors. It’s usually served with some form of protein, plantain, and salad. 

Seafood is another must-try, with an abundance of fish, lobster, conch, shrimp… the list goes on and on! Often served in creamy coconut curries or grilled up on a barbeque. 

Belize’s version of fast food focuses on quick, tasty snacks often with a bit of grease and carbs involved! Fry jacks are a delicious staple for breakfast, and salbutes, ganaches, and tacos are available from mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall style restaurants. 

In terms of groceries, there are no chains here either – no Walmart, no Costco, no Tesco. Instead, you’ll shop at small mini-mart-style stores or local markets. 

Try to shop at local produce stalls wherever possible, as many of the bigger grocery stores are foreign-owned. 

Tips for responsible travelers in Belize

  • Say no to single-use plastics – this applies everywhere in the world, but pack key items like a reusable water bottle, cutlery, straws, and tote bags to avoid the need for plastic. 
  • Don’t fly – Belize is a tiny country, and traveling from one end to the other doesn’t take more than a few hours. Whilst the local bus may not be the most comfortable method of transport, avoid short-haul flights around the country, unless it’s strictly necessary to reduce your carbon emissions. 
  • Choose ethical tour operators – while the vast majority of tour companies in Belize operate under strict eco-guidelines, there are outliers. Do your research before you book any activities. Companies doing the right thing will proudly promote it, with information on their website and social media about their sustainable practices. This is particularly important for any activities involving wildlife.
  • Eat, stay, and shop local – this is pretty easy in Belize, when most tourism businesses are locally owned, and there aren’t any chains. But it’s always worth double-checking to ensure your money is benefiting the local economy. 
  • Don’t use sunscreen – even ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen can introduce foreign bodies to fragile ecosystems like Belize’s barrier reef and jungle pools. Cover up instead. 

Final thoughts on sustainable travel in Belize

Although small, Belize has so much to offer eco-travellers. There is something for everyone, from tropical cayes in the Caribbean to the wild and untouched jungles of the interior. 

The country has a genuine commitment to protecting its environment, preserving and showcasing its culture and heritage, and retaining local control of its tourism industry to benefit its economy. 

If you’re looking for your next sustainable destination that you can explore while minimizing your environmental impact, choose Belize. You won’t be disappointed! 

Sally, the blogger behind Sally Sees, fell in love with Latin America and loves inspiring and helping others to plan epic adventures in this incredible part of the world.