This Central American nation offers more hands-on adventure than most families expect from a tropical vacation, yet it's a safe, comfortable destination.
Belize, a combination rainforest and sun n’surf destination that until recently was considered “exotic,” saw a 7% increase in arrivals in 2005, with 80% of visitors from the United States. Two factors have contributed to this much-needed tourism boost: the fact that Americans prefer to try adventure trips in “safe” destinations closer to home; and the country of Belize itself has a much improved infrastructure. Although there are few first class hotels in Belize, it’s easy to get around and explore the marine life and jungle environments for which the country is famous.
Family learning activities abound, as you can see from the information compiled by The Belize Tourist Board (800/624-0686) in 2006. Whether kids or grownups are interested in saving manatees, swimming with dolphins, feeding butterflies, or sponsoring iguanas, Belize offers them an opportunity. In addition to wildlife, families will want to explore Belize’s culture at many ancient archaeological sites and remote Maya villages. The Belizean people are friendly, speak English, and have developed an impressive force of skilled guides and naturalists.
Unique Eco- and Environmentally Friendly Programs
Swimming with Dolphins
The San Francisco Oceanic Society (800/326-7491) accepts kids into programs at its field station on Blackbird Caye and for the 2008 season has added the “Belize Family Week” Snorkeling Package. Children as young as age 10 on natural history trips, accompanied by adults, or teens over 16 on their own on research trips, may help observe Bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat and monitor reef ecology. Eight day-long expeditions start at about $1,690 for adults and $1,590 for children.
Preserving the Green Iguana
At the San Ignacio Resort Hotel in western Belize, children are always welcome to see the green iguanas being raised for release along the nearby Macal River, an area where the iguana population has declined sharply due to over-hunting. For a small donation, youngsters can “adopt” their own iguana and receive a t-shirt with an iguana logo and certificate. For more information, visit San Ignacio Resort or call (800/822-3274).
The Maya Guesthouse Program
A unique holiday adventure that older children in particular may enjoy is arranged through the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA), in the more remote southern part of Belize. According to Maya Guesthouse Program coordinator Pablo Ack, young people (with their parents) may stay in any of nine participating Maya villages in the lush tropical rainforest. “There’s no better way to learn about our culture and to explore the jungle the way we do,” says Ack. Working cooperatively, villagers offer meals, lodging, music, dance, storytelling, river trips, canoeing, caving, hiking, birding and more. “There’s so much in our country for kids to see and do,” Ack concludes, noting that butterfly farms, ceremonial caves, horseback riding, snorkel classes, and kayaking trips are among the myriad of other available options. For more information, visit Maya Guesthouse Program.
Family Accommodations for Adventurers
The Cayo district has always been popular for its density of Mayan sites, waterfalls, caves, butterfly farms, wildlife preserves and some of the larger jungle lodges that provide an “upscale” rainforest experience. As the country has expanded its tourist offerings and more tourists have responded, a large array of smaller eco-resorts have opened. Many welcome families over and above the extreme adventurers who used to be the country’s staple. Here’s a look at new places that offer the same rainforest attractions at more affordable, family-friendly prices.
The Log Cab-Inn Resort (011-501-824-3367) is a family-owned and operated lodge just a mile from the town of San Ignacio in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Different in style than the better known, elegant Blancaneaux or the wellness-oriented Chaa Creek, this 9-cabin resort boasts of small cabins with mahogany beds made by the proprietor’s family in a local workshop. Home-style meals are served in the main cabin, and families can arrange for horseback riding, cycling, guided jungle walks, or trips to the nearby Mayan sites like Cahal Pech. There is a small pool. Rates start from US$107/N pp including all three daily meals. Children under 12 also stay free with a parent in the same room.
The Casa Maya Resort (877/833-0679) features spacious, thatched-roof cabanas that each have private baths with hot showers and verandahs. A communal lodge is for meals, the small bar and nearby, a new pool. The Casa Maya has access to nature trails, a Medicine Trail with healing plants and an Orchid Trail. Cabanas with two double beds are $120/N based on double occupancy and each additional family member pays $35/N. The three daily meals option costs $40/D pp.
A recent debate on a popular travel bulletin board focused on the appropriateness of the Caves Branch Lodge (011-501-822-2800, 800/357-2698) in the Belmopan district for children. Explorer/entrepreneur and Lodge owner Ian Anderson is best known for his “Bad Ass” adventures in the surrounding jungle. But after 10 years of leading rainforest adventures, caving on the Caves Branch estate, and tubing on the River, the lodge’s guides now work with families and younger children to provide archeological tours and softer adventures. Lodge accommodations range from “jungle suites” (said to be very nice) to campgrounds suitable for lower budgets. Kids 9 and under stay and eat free, and kids 10-16 pay a discounted rate. The Cave Branch website says “We are able to provide child minding services for those ages that are still not appropriate for participating on the trips.” Reserve ahead for this service.
The nearby Banana Bank Lodge (011-501-820-2020) welcomes families more overtly. This lodge is known for its “Jungle Equestrian Adventures,” which promise sightseeing by horseback, as well as boat and tubing tours. Meals are served family-style, and a variety of indigenous animals (including a wounded jaguar) live in a rehabilitation facility on the property. Notes E. Paul Jr.: “Banana Bank is a great place for families. John and Carolyn (owners) go out of their way to make you feel at home.” Double rooms start at $130 including breakfast, kids under 11 stay free, and kids 6-11 pay only 50% for other meals. All-inclusive plans are available as well.
Family Accommodations for Beach-Goers
Over the summer, values crop up at the jungle lodges, and many feature their seasonal value packages at the site www.summerinbelize.com. But especially in the hot and humid summer, families with limited time like the southern coastal area of Placencia, where the mainland jungle meets beautiful sand beaches. This location enables families to easily experience “both worlds” offered by this environmentally rich country.
The best known resort in the area may be Jaguar Reef (800/289-5756) which has seen its market evolve over the past decade from escorted wildlife tourists to adventurous families. Their “Walk on the Wild Side” seven-night family vacation package offers an air-conditioned, two-bedroom, two-bath beachfront suite, all meals, three day-long adventure trips, airport transfers and taxes and starts at $3,840 for a family of three (two adults and one child, though children under 18 sleep and eat free.) Doesn’t that sound as sophisticated as a Caribbean all-inclusive? Jaguar Reef also has lesser-priced Ã la carte options with more simple rooms from about $190/N; kids 3-12 years pay half-price for meals and kids under 3 dine free.
The Nautical Inn Retreat (011-501-523-3595) in Placencia is a more rustic choice. They organize excursions in diving, snorkeling and fishing, as well as day-trips into the rainforest through the world’s only Jaguar Preserve, and trips to ancient Maya sites. The four-acre property has two-story cabanas set in a semi-circle on the beach, surrounding a swimming pool. Each has simple wicker furnishings, A/C, TV, a phone and coffeemaker, and many have two double beds. On some evenings, a local Garifuna (Carib African) band of dancers and drummers performs. Summer rates start at $116/N, based on double occupancy. Kids under 12-years-old also stay free.
If all you’re interested in is the beach, you should take the ferry or fly over to Ambergris Caye, the most developed of Belize’s barrier reef islands. The upscale Banyan Bay Villas (866/466-2179) have a convenient, central location. With larger units and a well-maintained sand beach, this condo may be more expensive than others, but families appreciate the large pool, and the availability of sailboats and kayaks for rent. There are very few good beaches on Ambergris because of the spectacular coral, and with younger children, it makes a big difference to have fine sand nearby. You’ll probably want to pack aquasocks for everyone anyway, so you’ll be comfortable and prepared for off-island snorkeling tours. Ask the Banyan Bay concierge about kid-friendly fishing and snorkeling trips; in the summer, full condos with kitchens and stylish dÃ©cor run $225-400/N.
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