Family Adventure in Unspoiled Belize
Every now and then, I get to step outside my day-to-day role at work and experience first-hand what a privilege it is to travel as a CLIENT of Protravel International. Our itinerary was designed by a wonderful colleague and veteran Luxury Travel Agent, Roberta Long-Kelleher, who used her favorite Belize on-site tour operator — Elegant Adventures — to arrange our transfers, internal flight, and hotel bookings. And as clients of Protravel International—a Virtuoso agency—we had access to exclusive VIP amenities, including upgrades, excursion credits and included breakfast. Especially when traveling with young children, you do not want to leave anything to chance in these uncertain times. Working with an experienced Travel Agent and reputable land and hotel operators meant every detail was taken care of and we had the peace of mind to focus on precious family time.
My husband, 9-year-old daughter and I enjoyed an unforgettable 7-night trip to Belize, an up-and-coming destination for spectacular eco-tourism, adventure travel, cultural enrichment, wildlife experiences, and secluded beach vacations or honeymoons—in other words, there is something for everyone. We were so grateful to escape the freezing temperatures of New York City and visit this wonderful country. Especially if you have been to and enjoyed Costa Rica, I highly recommend you consider Belize for your next family travel adventure.
Belize is located on the eastern coast of Central America, bordered on the northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Ocean and on the south and west by Guatemala. With an area of 8,800 square miles and only 387,879 inhabitants—the lowest population density in Central America—you can enjoy a pristine jungle ecosystem, meaningful interactions with local people, and an authentic cultural education. And be sure to experience the delicate, but as yet-unspoiled, coral reefs.
Packing tips: make sure your whole family has a couple of sets of long and short-sleeved rash-guard shirts. Also, bring your favorite bug repellant and plenty of strong SPF sunscreen. I am also really glad I decided to bring a GoPro camera and some related gear for the trip; you will see why below (spoiler alert: shark close-ups!)
A Perfect 7-night Itinerary
A Crossroads of Cultures
Due to its fascinating pre-Columbian, colonial and modern history, the artwork, social composition, language, cuisine and music reflect a mixture of Mayan, Guatemalan, Mexican, Mestizo, African, Creole, Garifuna and Chinese influences; plus, there are communities of Amish & Mennonites (who strangely control the poultry, egg and dairy industry of the country.)
First Stop: The Belize Zoo
To break up the 2-hour drive (parents know how important this is) from the Belize City airport to our first resort, we made a delightful visit to the Belize Zoo. The zoo was started by an NGO in 1983 as an effort to provide a sanctuary for a collection of wild animals who were discarded by film crews, orphaned, rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, sick or injured. It has become a small but effective (and wheelchair-accessible) wildlife education center with over 175 animals, representing over 45 native species. As their website notes, “A visit to the Zoo is the best way to get an introduction to the animals of Belize, and to understand why it is important to protect the habitats that sustain them.” Our favorite mammals were the variety of gorgeous jungle cats—from a jaguar down to a little margay—and the baby spider monkey riding on its mommy’s back. Our favorite birds included the nationally-treasured keel-billed toucan and an enormous harpy eagle (wingspan = 7 feet!) The zoo also has a nice collection of reptiles.
Chaa Creek Lodge: A Very Special Resort
Since my husband Steve is a passionate naturalist, hiking and trees are a must for him, so we spent the first three nights at the magical Chaa Creek Lodge, an eco-resort and 400-acre private nature reserve located in the Cayo District. First established as a small family farm in 1981, it has developed into one of those hidden gems you want to share with everyone you know. The resort has received well-deserved international recognition as a model for sustainable tourism and responsible travel by Conde Nast, National Geographic Adventure, and Travel + Leisure magazines. Chaa Creek runs educational and natural history programs with a focus on Belize Maya culture, plus free early morning birdwatching excursions, a butterfly farm, horseback riding, hiking, a medicine trail, a lovely salt-water infinity pool and canoeing on the Macal River that runs through it. The food was fresh and well-prepared and the wi-fi is strong enough for the million photos you will want to Instagram!
We stayed in a luxury treetop Villa (#10, previously refurbished for a stay by Prince Harry, if that entices you), which literally took our breath away. In my nearly 30 years of world travels, I have seldom enjoyed such a beautiful, quiet and peaceful place to sleep, with the wrap-around porch and plunge pool overhanging the jungle foliage and flowing river below. The photos below really do not do it justice. Needless to say, these secluded hideaways are ideal for a romantic getaway, babymoon, proposal trip or honeymoon.
Plus—by a sheer stroke of lucky timing—we were also able to view the January 21, 2019 super blood wolf full lunar eclipse (the last one until May 2021) plus millions of stars from the hammock on our porch!
When you travel with your children, you always hope they will learn from and remember the experiences they have, becoming citizens of the world and stewards of nature. I will be forever grateful to the wonderful staff at Chaa Creek for putting a glass and wooden box in our room containing a single perfect Blue Morpho Butterfly chrysalis/pupa for her to care for while we were there and release back to the wild. She named the butterfly Sonia, after a school friend, and watched it fly away into the jungle the morning we departed.
In addition, we were honored to participate in the resort’s “pack-a-pound” initiative, which gives guests an opportunity to donate school supplies to needy classrooms in Belize.
I highly recommend Chaa Creek to anyone (aside from those with mobility issues) who craves an authentic luxury Belizean experience.
Adventures in the Jungle
We spent our first full day enjoying a zip line and cave-tubing adventure, part of our custom itinerary. A short drive and brief hike in both cases. We had wonderful private guides and drivers throughout the journey who gave us real insight into the daily lives, socio-economic relations, politics, culture and natural wonders of the country.
The ziplining was exhilarating (see my first GoPro video below.) And despite a torrential downpour while we were tubing, we saw tiny baby bats and learned that in Mayan mythology, these caves were considered the entrance to the underworld, Xibalba. We also heard that Belize and New Zealand are the only places in the world you can go tubing through a natural (vs manmade) cave system. The only thing I regret was missing the waterfalls, so be sure to try and do that and share your photos with us!
The next day was overcast and rainy, so we just relaxed (and worked on homework, to make up for a few days of missed school) under umbrellas at the pool and I got a therapeutic massage at the lovely Chaa Creek Spa up at the top of the property.
Next Stop: the Coast
My daughter and I are huge beach and ocean lovers, so we took a car 3 hours to the coast to spend the next four nights at Turtle Inn, one of two luxury eco-resorts in Belize (the other being Blancaneaux Lodge at the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve) owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor.
Situated on tropical grounds on a strip of beach along the Caribbean Sea and featuring colonial-style, thatched-roof cottages with gorgeous woodwork details throughout (and a touch of Southeast Asian Apocalypse Now aesthetic.) We were upgraded (again, always use a well-connected travel agent!) to a truly beautiful two-bedroom cottage with a screened-in porch, comfortable bedding, ceiling fans, free Wi-Fi, and indoor and outdoor showers. Try to book one of the oceanfront cottages if you can. Falling asleep to the sound of gentle waves and stepping a few feet from your room into the ocean is magical. Be sure to wake up early enough to catch the spectacular sunrise over the ocean. There is a small but pristine kids pool and an adults-only pool on property.
The staff is very warm and friendly, and both the main restaurant, Mare and the other, Gauguin, are lovely venues to dine in (don’t miss the silent Buster Keaton films screenings), as is the beach bar. The resort also offers wine tastings from the Coppola vineyards.
You couldn’t ask for a more quiet, restful place from which to enjoy numerous local excursions—which is what everyone we met was doing—or simply lying by the ocean or pool and unwinding with a good book and listening to the amazing variety of birdsong. Turtle Inn is a perfect multi-generational resort, with something for everyone, and we met many loyal repeat guests.
All the kids really loved being invited to feed lettuce and bananas to the adorable turtles who greet you from a little pond at the front entrance. We took a quick cab ride (the resort also has bikes) into Placencia to get gifts and delicious fresh tropical gelato at Tutti Frutti, a local favorite.
And since Turtle Inn is just 1 km from the Placencia Municipal Airstrip, we opted to take a quick prop plane ride back to the International airport to catch our flight home.
An Underwater Experience of a Lifetime
When you look back on a trip, there are always those moments that will stay with you, and which you can conjure up in your mind’s eye for the rest of your life. For me, it was the sight of my ocean-loving daughter Mariska (whose name means “of the sea” in Russian) fearlessly jumping off our boat into the shallow crystal waters on the edge of the reef to snorkel with nurse sharks, stingrays and sea turtles all around us. There were two truly lovely couples with children—also staying at Turtle Inn—on our little boat that day, including Dillon, 6; Liam, 11 (pictured below) and my daughter and I suspect none of them will ever forget that day.
As the largest and most intact reef system within the Northern Hemisphere, the Belize Barrier Reef comprises seven marine reserve zones, over four hundred cayes and three atolls. The reef’s sparkling blue waters are a haven for its marine community and an enticing exploratory region for SCUBA divers and snorkelers. There are over five hundred species of fish, seventy hard coral and thirty-six soft coral species to behold. In 1996, this reef was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significant habitats and natural development.
The snorkel tour itself was a bit rough around the edges service-wise, but we all had a blast, and our videos below capture only a fraction of the awe and beauty we encountered. If you love the ocean, do not miss this dive trip of a lifetime.