As if basking under the warm Caribbean sun wasn’t enough to lift my spirits after a long Colorado winter, I am served a plate of homemade vegetable tamales and corn tortillas made fresh from the bountiful land around me. I am being treated by the San Antonio Women’s Co-op, a group of women native to the Cayo District of western Belize. In addition to the incredible food, I am honored with stories of their ancestry and customs.
While Belize is only a short, four-hour flight from the Mile High City, it’s a Central American oasis that offers more than beaches and booze. A visit is embedded with an intimate cultural connection between tourists and locals that’s distinct from traditional vacation hotspots. If you listen closely, you will walk away with a clear message on the importance of ecological and cultural preservation.
And as if that wasn’t reason enough to visit, Frontier Airlines recently announced non-stop flights from its home base in Denver to Belize City starting at just $83, making this trip a bit easier for locals here at home.
I started my trip in the western part of the country just miles from the Guatemalan border in the jungle district of Cayo. This region is distinguished by its esteemed ecological reserves, archaeological sites and kaleidoscopic greenery.
In harmony with its Mayan roots, Ka’ana (which translates to “heavenly place”) is an award-winning resort in San Ignacio. It seamlessly blends in with the lush, mountainous surroundings thanks to its eco-luxury design — a perfect place to plant roots during your stay.
After a two-hour car ride from Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, entering the resort is a breathtaking start to the adventure. A stroll through the intertwining pathways leads to an organic garden, a pool with a sunbathing terrace and cocktail service, a luxury spa and the La Ceiba Restaurant, which specializes in farm to jungle cuisine.
The quaint, boutique property features 17 secluded suites and villas that breathe hospitality. Here, the only sounds are natural — the calming flow of water and the sweet harmonies of neighborly birds. Some rooms feature outdoor baths and showers while other boast private pools. As someone used to falling asleep to the blaring sounds of Colorado’s busiest highway, I consistently had the deepest and most rejuvenating rest of my life at Ka’ana.
Guests are welcome to text the front desk via What’s App to book daily activities, request room service and ask questions — a perk I didn’t realize beforehand that proved extremely convenient. You’ll feel like you’re a member of the Ka’ana family by the end of your stay thanks to the limited number of guests and friendly, attentive staff. Room service is daily, complete with a turn-down service and a bite-sized dessert to consummate the end of an extraordinary day.
Ka’ana serves as a basecamp to the plethora of cultural and outdoor activities the region offers. Perfect for solo travelers, couples or families, adventures like ceramic and tortilla making, a trek to the Xunantunich Mayan ruins, cacao tasting, hiking at Big Rock Falls and bird watching tours are all at visitors’ fingertips.
To more fully experience the range of Belize’s stunning natural beauty, I flew northeast to the island of Ambergris Caye, famous for its proximity to the Great Blue Hole, a top wonder of the world.
Arrive by plane or ferry, this more frequented destination was celebrated by Madonna in her hit, “La Isla Bonita.” Located in the southern part of Ambergris Caye, San Pedro is lined with sandy dive bars, wooden houses and seafood restaurants galore. A postcard-worthy town, it’s the ideal destination to curl your toes in the sand and indulge in the Belizean way of life — explore by golf cart, then stop and stay awhile.
Grand Caribe is one of the larger resorts on the island — and it’s impressive from the first look. The high-end property is home to 72 one- to five-bedroom condos all boasting ocean views, full kitchens and balconies to admire the sun rise and set each day. The oversized, luxurious bathrooms are stocked with swan-shaped towels and generous toiletry kits. After a long day traversing town, guests can take advantage of the complimentary laundry service. Grand Caribe’s 500-foot stretch of private beach features free paddleboard and kayak rentals in addition to plush lounge chairs and unlimited towel exchanges. If the three on-site eateries — Rain being the best of them — aren’t your taste, steps away lie San Pedro’s various quirky restaurants.
While I appreciated the almond milk and steaming cups of joe at Ka’ana, I was shamelessly giddy to find oat milk at The Farmhouse Market & Café, a short golf cart ride from the Grand Caribe. This trendy coffee joint serves iced oat milk lattes and a selection of vegan pastries, as well as locally sourced food and artisan products. Five minutes by foot lies a Coloradan’s paradise: 303 Belize. Patrons are greeted with Colorado skiing décor adorning the walls, live music and upscale bar cuisine. If you’re missing Denver’s booming food hall scene, grab a table at The Truck Stop to experience the array of outdoor food stalls serving everything from conch ceviche to mango sorbet.
The pulse of San Pedro is a fusion of upbeat tranquility, and the vibrant energy weaves itself into almost every aspect of the stay. Be sure to book a sunset dinner cruise with Island Dream Tours to get a salty fresh taste of what Belize’s island life is all about. Perfect for vegans and carnivores alike, this party boat is filled with local guides and tourists all happy to be on board. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a dolphin playfully swimming alongside the boat. For me, the night was my version of the Titanic’s “I’m flying” moment.
For a once in a lifetime opportunity, experience the Great Blue Hole — a giant marine sinkhole — from the sky. As someone traditionally afraid of heights, this experience served as a transformative moment for me. I shed an old layer of myself by soaking in the magnificence below me. Tropic Air offers one-hour flyover tours in three- and 11-seat aircrafts. As an everlasting memory, it’s well worth the investment.
When you’re ready to dive into the bright blue Caribbean water, snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are as incredible as they sound. As someone who has snorkeled in the Caribbean Sea before, nothing compared to the detailed half-day tour I booked through the Grand Caribe. It was pointedly instilled into guests that Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a sacred area that even as a writer I’m struggling to explain. It’s an unprecedented haven for marine wildlife. Underwater, everything from sea turtles to octopi are visible and thriving. Plus, saying you swam with nurse sharks in Shark Ray Alley is certainly a cool story to tell.
As a country, Belize is brimming with a huge diversity of natural beauty and a complex cultural history. The welcoming Belizeans are immensely proud of both their heritage and their relationship with the stunning landscapes they call home. For visitors, this deep connection is palpable. Combined with the rejuvenating Caribbean vibe, it’s clear that Belize is a bucket list destination and well worth the trip.
Know before you go: Visitors to Belize are required to purchase Belize Travel Insurance. Fully vaccinated travelers are not required to present a negative test but must show proof of vaccination for entry into Belize’s airport. If unable to show proof of vaccination, travelers must present proof of a negative test. Masks are currently required indoors in Belize.
Learn more at travelbelize.org.