If there were ever a destination that was trending, especially from Houston, Belize would be that spot right now. And for good reason.
Belize is just a quick 2.5-hour flight from Houston, out of either airport. (If you’ve seen the new Southwest billboards scattered around Houston encouraging international travel out of the newly remodeled Houston Hobby Airport, you know how easy it is to get to Belize now.) Everything is fairly affordable, making it one of the hotspots for Houston travelers, especially for a quick weekend getaway.
Belize lies on the east coast of Central America in the heart of the Caribbean Basin, and is one of those destinations that requires a little extra work, but it’s worth it. There aren’t hotel chains and all-inclusive resorts to help make the booking and logistical stuff easier, but rest assured that’s a good thing. Although it’s becoming more Americanized every day, there is still much of Belize that remains authentic, giving you the best of both worlds, literally. It also happens to be the only country in Central America where English is the official language, so travelers weary of language barriers can flourish here.
As someone who has traveled to Belize quite a few times, I've learned several common misconceptions about Belize. And I have a few tips for the savvy traveler.
For starters, as quick, easy and cheap as the ads make it sound, getting to destinations beyond Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE), which is where you’ll fly directly to from Houston, will cost a little more money and time (not just the 2.5-hour flight advertised). Upon reaching BZE, most travelers venture on to various destinations such as Ambergris Caye (San Pedro) or Caye Caulker by way of a small prop plane by way of Maya Island Air or Tropic Air (which offer excellent views of the beautiful water).
Pretty much anywhere you travel in Belize, you’ll want to – no scratch that – need to, be on the water. Being on an island is great and wonderful but finding yourself in your hotel pool staring into the crystal clear water just yards away will make you wish you did more research before booking your flight on a mobile app the night before. My vote is for Ambergris Caye in San Pedro.
Many traveling to Belize assume it’s a lot like Cozumel or Punta Cana with amazing infinity pools overlooking white sandy beaches and easy access to the water, but that isn’t the case.
Take San Pedro for instance. There are some very nice hotels (nicer ones include Victoria House and The Phoenix), but they aren’t built for guests to spend their entire vacation on their small private sectioned off beaches and tiled pools. Although beautiful and relaxing (and some far from all the action, like Matachica), your pools won’t offer swim-up bars and partying guests. In fact, most of the resorts have a limited number of chairs and hammocks specifically for guests, since it’s an island meant to be seen on the water.
Keeping costs down
As affordable as the flights may be, costs quickly add up booking a few water activities during your stay. I spoke with a few locals and business owners, and the best way to get the most affordable cost is to negotiate all your activities up front. Again, this is why just getting there and going with the flow isn’t necessarily the best option for this particular destination.
For example, I worked out a three-day deal with Belize Parasail (located on Fido’s Dock, which is a great meeting spot for friends or to grab a drink and late lunch). Booking it all together and being up for various adventures really got the price down. One day we went fishing and then took the boat to a private island where the captain cooked the fish we caught while we frolicked around in the beautiful blue ocean. Another day we went parasailing, and another day we went wakeboarding. (Belize Parasail is the only place to offer wakeboarding in the area). Booking them all with the same outlet helped keep it affordable, plus you get the luxury of getting to know the staff, which is key to spending a good week in Belize.
Pretty much all of San Pedro is walkable, so you won’t need a rental car. Taxis are very affordable (and negotiable) and will usually run about $5 - $10, and many get around San Pedro by way of water taxi.
A few tips:
· Speaking of tips, it is customary to tip your captains and guides during your adventure. Most say either $20 or 20% of the trip is sufficient, but the people are so nice, they will appreciate any monetary acknowledgement. This has become a common question for travel etiquette.
· Don’t get sticker shock. About 95% of the prices you see will be in Belize and two Belize dollars equal one U.S. dollar.
· Bring cash. Every place in Belize requires the tab be at least 25 Belize dollars to use a credit card, so for a quick drink or snack, you’ll want cash. They also take U.S. dollars so no need to convert, but make sure to convert or use your Belize money before getting to the airport. I’ve yet to find a place that will change Belize money back to the dollar.
· Go during lobster season, which typically runs February through July. I haven’t been yet, but that’s all I hear anyone talk about is how amazing lobster season in Belize is.
· Keep it casual. Belize is a super casual and comfortable spot. You’ll rarely see girls in heels and guys in anything other than a T-shirt or polo and shorts.
· Like all island destinations, be prepared. Temperatures can drop, rain can fall and wind can pick up – for days at a time.
My preferred itinerary in a nutshell:
Fly Southwest from Houston Hobby Airport to BZE.
Take Maya Island Air to San Pedro/Ambergris Caye.
Stay at The Phoenix Hotel (ranges $325 - $525).
Massage on the beach (in a little hut, with certified therapists) and forego the typical spa scene.
Book an all day private trip (ask for the “everything package”) with Belize Parasail, on Fido’s Dock.
Take a day trip via water taxi (many hotels and resorts offer private water taxis) to Caye Caulker.
Eat (Blue Water Hotel), drink (Palapa Bar & Truck Stop) and relax (everywhere).
Bonus: Although airfare at Southwest and Maya Island Air is non-refundable, tickets can be reused (Southwest up to a year and Maya Island up to six months), without any penalties or change fees, so travelers don’t have to feel locked into particular dates if plans change.