The Best of Belize on a Budget

by  Teresa Bitler | Jul 9, 2013
Great Blue Hole, Belize
Great Blue Hole, Belize / hartmanc10/iStock

Belize has its share of trendy resorts and exclusive retreats, but you don’t have to spend a small fortune to enjoy its lush jungles, Mayan ruins, and Caribbean coastline. With a little planning, you can afford to snorkel, dive, and explore this exotic locale on any budget.

What to Do:
Belize is for the active vacationer, there's no doubt about that. Snorkel off the world’s second largest barrier reef, dive into the depths of the Blue Hole, and deep-sea fish. Inland, climb to the top of Mayan temples, hike through the jungle to waterfalls, and explore caves filled with broken pottery and artifacts.

To make the most of your vacation dollars, take advantage of the complimentary bicycles, kayaks, catamarans, and golf carts available at your hotel or resort, as well as any free activities offered. (For example, Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company & Jungle Lodge offers free cheese tastings while Hickatee Cottages in southern Belize hosts weekly Garifuna drumming lessons.) Also, don't miss out on Belize’s national parks, like Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (entrance is about $5), and archaeological sites, such as Altun Ha (entrance is about $5).

You can also save money on tours by shopping around or waiting until the day-of for last minute deals. A word of caution, though: When it comes to active adventures like caving, horseback riding, or snorkeling, don’t sacrifice safety to save a few dollars. Before you go out, make sure your guide is certified, has substantial experience, and can provide medical assistance for injuries, if necessary.

Where to Eat:
You won’t have any trouble finding good food at a reasonable price in Belize. Watch for Belikin beer signs hanging outside small restaurants or jerk chicken sizzling on outdoor grills for the best deals (and often the best meals). Typical roadside fare consists of rice, beans, coleslaw, chicken, and a fried plantain – all for just $3. Add a Belikin for a dollar or two more.

In coastal areas, treat yourself to seafood. A lobster pulled from the ocean just hours before can be had for as little as $15. You’ll also find garlic shrimp, conch ceviche, and grilled grouper on the menu at exceptional prices.

Location matters when it comes to food, too. You’ll pay more for a meal in popular tourist destinations like Ambergris Caye than you will in harder-to-reach communities like Punta Gorda. To save money, don’t eat like a tourist, even if you are surrounded by them. Seek out the restaurants where locals, tour guides, store owners, and hotel staff dine – just ask them about their favorites.

How to Get Around:
If you plan to stay put in one destination, transportation is simple. You can take a water taxi to Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker, and Tropic Air flies to regional airports throughout Belize. Most lodges and resorts will drive you to and from the regional airport, for a fee.

If you're feeling intrepid, a rental car can actually make sense despite the high rental rates ($75/day, on average) and high gas prices (up to $6/gallon). Without one, you might be limited to taking excursions offered by tour companies, which can really add up. When I was recently in Belize, I noticed several companies offering a $90/person tour to a Mayan site that I had visited in my rental car for a few dollars of gas and the $5 admission fee.

If you decide on a rental car, make sure to go with a company that offers newer models with reasonable mileage - not all do. I recommend Crystal Auto Rental.

Where to Stay:
Lodging in Belize ranges from backpackers’ bunkhouses to luxury resorts. The golden rule? The cheapest nightly rate isn’t always the best deal. Some lodges and resorts are so secluded that your meals are limited to on-site dining ($20 per person, per meal, excluding beverages). Others charge hefty fees for transfers to and from the airport or for golf cart and bicycle rentals. Before you make a reservation, also consider the additional expense of paying for tours and other activities. Sometimes an all-inclusive or a package deal offered by the resort or lodge makes the most sense on a budget.

For even greater savings, consider vacationing off the beaten path. If you’re looking for a diving or snorkeling experience, check out Placencia or Punta Gorda. If you want an inland adventure, think about heading north to Orange Walk.

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