CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
Central America's perfect, penny-pinching blend of island beaches, virgin rain forest, and Maya mysteries
English-speaking and just a tad larger than New Jersey, lush Belize looks like a Caribbean island accidentally washed ashore on the Central American mainland. Its pace is molasses--slow, its populace smiling and easygoing--and its politics not perfect but relatively open and stable. With reggae rhythms, coconut palm-lined beaches, and breathtaking scuba diving (on the world's second-largest barrier reef), it's easy to mistake it for any of the more famous tradewind-kissed island "paradises" out to sea further east. But there's a key difference: Belize has none of the megaresorts, casinos, and sprawling development that have ruined so much of the Caribbean, looking instead to low-key cultural tours and ecotourism. The lack of large, glitzy resorts and hotel chains means an abundance of inexpensive, laid-back mom-and-pop guesthouses, and the low per capita income means an abundance of affordable restaurants and other services. The Belizean dollar is stable and pegged at 50: to the U.S. greenback (no need even to waste commission fees on changing money; almost any tourist establishment will take U.S. dollars and give you change in Belizean dollars at a rate of two to one). For the budget-minded looking for a relatively close and multifaceted tropical vacation with Maya culture to boot, friendly Belize is one of the cheapest places on earth.
Why multifaceted? Because there's plenty of life beyond the reef and beaches: Belize's interior is a 65-percent uninhabited wonderland of deep jungle rain forest, exotic native species, and myriad Maya temples. The country's populace is an English-speaking rainbow mix of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, and even German Mennonite, in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbors like Honduras and Guatemala (a mere two decades ago, Belize was British Honduras, one of the last British colonies in the Western Hemisphere).
Most visitors opt for "surf-and-turf": a few days of inland adventure (usually in the lush Cayo district), then some R&R on one of the offshore islets called "cayes" (pronounced "keys"). Belize City is mostly for passing through, having little of interest - not to mention a somewhat dicey reputation.
Belize was hit by Hurricane Iris in October of 2001, devastating the once popular backpacker beach village of Placencia on the country's southeastern shore. Luckily, the remainder of Belize's verdant and wild beauty was left for the most part unscathed.
Your basic costs
The most popular way of getting around - for tourists and locals alike - is "puddle jumping" on small aircraft, since Belize is home to only four paved roads (and just four traffic lights, which in any case are usually out of order or simply ignored) and boat rides can be wet and bumpy. Most flights use Belize City as their hub; Tropic Air (26-2012, tropicair.com) and Mayan Island Air (23-1140, ambergriscaye.com/islandair) both operate short flights throughout the country. Round-trip airfare from Belize City to the cayes, for example, costs you $52.
Most accommodations in Belize are on the simple side, with ceiling fans and no TVs, but their prices are nothing short of astounding. All offer much cheaper rates in low season (roughly Easter through Thanksgiving - which includes the autumn rain-and-hurricane season). You can try your hand at bargaining hoteliers down below their asking rates in low season, but winter usually means everything is booked up, so planning ahead is crucial. One very special accommodation option is the Maya Homestay Network (72-2470) in the southern Toledo district, where you can stay with a Maya family and learn local cooking and traditions for as little as $5 per person per night (plus a $5 registration fee) and meals for $2 each.
The Cayo district: the jungle interior
Ultrabudget travelers or those just passing through stay in town - otherwise, most tourists opt for the more comfortable jungle lodges around the area. If you're in San Ignacio, try the cheekily named Hi-Et (12 West St., 92-2828), in an old-fashioned plantation-style building with wraparound porches. Five basic but bright rooms with double beds, shared baths, and fans are located directly above the friendly host family's living room and cost a mere $12.50 per person for a double.
Within a short drive of San Ignacio, rain forest lodges are made up of quiet, stand-alone cabins with two double beds and private bath, as well as inexpensive restaurants on the premises. My favorite is the Black Rock River Lodge (92-2341, blackrocklodge.com), ten miles outside San Ignacio and perched on an ancient Maya site within its own steep, dramatic valley of limestone cliffs visible above a rain forest river below the property. Spacious cabanas with shared baths are $25 per person per night, and for $8, John, the friendly manager, will whip you up an American breakfast with unlimited coffee and juice. A little closer to town is Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916). Its simple but comfortable thatched-roof bungalows sit aside the Mopan River, where you can swim and play in inner tubes. Your own private bungalow with bath is $20 per person ($32.50 in winter's high season), and the vivacious host, Chena Galvez, serves a hot and filling breakfast including fruits and local "fried jack" biscuits for only $4.50.
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