1 Week in Belize: Coral Reefs and Jungle Explorations

1 Week in Belize: Coral Reefs and Jungle Explorations

Note: This article shares our experience as part of a Lindblad Expeditions trip, and Adam is a Lindblad employee. The content that follows reflects our views and experiences and is not representative or influenced by Adam’s affiliation with the company.

As the National Geographic Sea Lion came into view from our seats on the shuttle boat, anticipation swept over all of us, row by row, on our approach to the ship that would be our home for six action-packed days. Any vacation can be exciting, but expedition travel is on a different level; the Sea Lion would be our floating hotel, our restaurant, and our transportation to some of the most beautiful and wild parts of our planet. The people seated around us were strangers onboard for many different reasons, but not for long; our experience would be shared and memories intertwined whenever we thought about this adventure. After months of looking ahead, the moment had arrived: we were ready to explore beautiful, mysterious Belize.

For years, Belize has been highly ranked on our list of dream vacations. Although it’s closer to home than many of the destinations we have visited, finding a convenient way to see both popular spots and off-the-beaten path locations felt too complex to plan. Our trip with Lindblad Expeditions took the guesswork out of planning a great itinerary; the Sea Lion would anchor near the hiking trails, rivers, and reefs we wanted to explore, and it would shuttle us between locations while we slept or had lunch. Every day would be filled with new experiences: snorkeling, learning about Mayan ruins, and observing wildlife unlike anything we had seen before. We had no idea how refreshed and inspired we would feel when our whirlwind of a week came to a close; here are just a few of the incredible experiences Belize has to offer.

Belize by Land: Exploring the Coastline by Foot

One big highlight to traveling on a small expedition vessel like the National Geographic Sea Lion was how nimbly it connected us to destinations larger ships could never approach. Belize has some of the most spectacular flora and fauna on the planet and is home to some of the most remarkable animals we could have imagined, and we were glad to follow our team of naturalists as they showed us just how alive Belize really is.

Mayflower Bocawina National Park in Belize
Mayflower Bocawina National Park
Located along Belize’s southern coast, Payne’s Creek National Park welcomed us with two big surprises. As our photography expert Jeff started to share a few tips with us, a rustling behind him caught everyone’s attention. We watched with awe and a twinge of fear as a neotropical rattlesnake slithered through the tall grass, away from the sounds of our voices and camera shutters. Neotropical rattlesnakes, the only rattlesnake indigenous to Belize, has a bite so venomous it can render a human blind, paralyzed, and may eventually send a body into respiratory failure. Fortunately, they prefer not to deal with humans at all, and we gratefully watched as he disappeared from view. One hazard off the radar, Jeff pointed to a tiny plant that posed a surprising threat to flies and bugs: the sundew, which presents as a harmless little pink flower. Jeff snapped a photo of the sundew, and through his camera’s powerful zoom we could see the tiny little tentacles that trap their prey. No bigger than the size of a fingernail, I would have walked by it without a thought if I hadn’t been encouraged to take a closer look. 10 minutes into our first stop on Belize’s coast and we were already mesmerized by its stunning biodiversity.

Our favorite hike took us through several miles of Mayflower Bocawina National Park, where our fellow travelers divided into three groups: those looking for a leisurely birdwatching walk, those ready to swim at the base of a waterfall, and those hoping to see Mayan ruins. We were part of the last group, and our excursion had everything except a chance to swim to relieve ourselves from the heat and humidity. Starting out with Fabio, our guide, we paused to see what remained of 11 structures that were occupied during the late 9th century AD. As our hike into the jungle began, we were frequently interrupted by the sounds of trogans, tanagers, and kiskadees calling to each other from high overhead. Our most important physical test was a steep hike up a narrow path to see the Tau Witz ruins. Tau Witz translates to dwelling of a local god on a hill, a description we found to be especially fitting as we caught our breath after the moderately taxing climb. Tau Witz is largely unexcavated; it’s distinguishable only by a single stela. Standing by the stone column, Fabio explained that the hills that rose beyond us masked a temple hidden by the vegetation that reclaimed it when it was abandoned. Looking around, I would never have guessed an ancient civilization was hidden in plain sight. I wondered what other clues to our planet’s extraordinary past were waiting to be discovered.

Belize by Sea: Life Above and Below the Water

Silk Caye, Belize
Silk Caye, Belize
Belize is full of connections to our planet’s history—and not all of them are above water.

I pondered this as I floated in the warm sunshine, peering into the water through goggles and breathing through a plastic tube. Below me, a colorful angelfish shimmered in the light before disappearing into elkhorn coral. A short distance away, I drifted over the biggest starfish I had ever seen. Although I was familiar with coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, I knew almost nothing about the world’s second largest reef system. More than 65 types of coral and 500 species of fish call the reef home, and over the course of several snorkeling trips I had the chance to observe quite a few of them.

I spent several hours below the water during our expedition—a very long time for someone who had never snorkeled before, but once I caught a glimpse of the world below the waves it was hard to pull myself away. Parrotfish and hogfish slipped in and out of the coral. Barracudas and jellyfish swam dangerously close to my legs before darting away; most of them have no interest in bothering humans, although I was still happier to see them depart. Our snorkel guides were quick to point out fire coral, which stings skin that comes in contact with it. I found myself developing a strong appreciation for how complex the reef ecosystem is; it is beautiful, but it can also defend itself.

Swimming wasn’t our only mode of transportation when we were off the Sea Lion; some of our favorite experiences took place in zodiacs as we floated along rivers too small and shallow for our expedition ship to navigate. Lined with two rows of travelers, the nimble rubber zodiacs could noisily speed through channels just as easily as they could drift on the current with the motor quietly puttering. From the zodiacs, we saw hundreds of birds fly above us and plenty land just feet away from where we sat with cameras and binoculars in hand. On the appropriately named Monkey River, we sat for several minutes as we listened to two groups of howler monkeys yelling out to each other above our heads while an enormous iguana watched from a nearby tree. The jungle was alive all around us.

Belize Magic: Unexpected Moments

ParrotAs a Lindblad Expeditions guest, the moments between our planned adventures were punctuated by unexpected moments to experience Belize’s culture more deeply. After our morning spent exploring Bocawina Mayflower National Park, we took zodiacs from the Sea Lion to Placencia to enjoy the world-famous Garifuna Collective, whose music introduced us to the soulfulness and traditions of the Garifuna people. Music is an enormous part of their culture; drawing strength from their ancestors and community, their music is driven by an energy that swept over our group. By the time the Garifuna Collective played their last song for us, all of us were on our feet, swaying or dancing to the complex rhythms that were impossible to ignore. At one point, when slipping away from the dance floor for a drink from the bar, I was stunned by the dramatic red and orange sky behind the Sea Lion in the distance. Pausing for a moment to soak in the music, the sunset, and the early evening warmth, I was reminded of why we travel in the first place. You just never know when something incredible is about to happen.

Later that night, settled into a chair in the ship lounge lounge, I experienced another type of magic as I listened to a presentation by one of the expedition’s naturalists. Each night, when dinner was over, many of us gathered in the lounge for a brief session designed to educate us about the amazing work happening to uncover new facts and information about our planet. We learned about history from Fabio, who told us about how his work is changing our historical narrative and bringing clarity to our global timeline. We discovered local culture from Randy, who grew up in Belize and shared Belize’s native Kriol language with us. I came to look forward to our evening educational sessions as much as I looked forward to the sun and sand during the day. Our week in Belize exercised our minds just as much as it did our bodies.

Life on the National Geographic Sea Lion

National Geographic Sea Lion
National Geographic Sea Lion
To see some of Belize’s most tucked away corners, there is no better home than the Sea Lion. Expedition ships are often small, and this one hosted just 42 of us during our stay. In the morning, freshly baked pastries welcomed us in the lounge before the restaurant’s doors opened, where a full buffet was ready to fuel us. On most days we returned for a plated lunch before we were back in zodiacs and off to another afternoon of hiking or snorkeling. In the evening, we enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres as our expedition leader Shawn and the team provided a recap of our day and a look ahead to the next, and then it was on to a three-course dinner that never failed to impress us. One night I enjoyed a perfectly prepared rack of lamb; on another night, we savored spiny lobster tails with warm butter.

There is little you can’t find on an expedition ship. Some guests started each day with a morning stretch class or relaxed with a massage; others explored the open bridge to meet the captain and learn more about the Sea Lion. When we returned to the ship for lunch, our rooms had been refreshed, and in the evening our beds were turned down with a piece of chocolate placed on the pillow. Falling asleep to the ship’s gentle rocking each night, I was impressed by how luxurious the whole experience felt—and how responsible it felt at the same time. The entire experience supported the local communities we got to know, and traveling with Lindblad gave us a chance to meet and support local artisans and businesses. Buying a souvenir from a local artist might seem like a small way to make a difference, but every small act can add up to a big difference. Lindblad helped us to understand how every one of our decisions can lead to a great, lasting impact on the people and communities we meet.

Visit Belize!

Over the years, we have realized that our favorite vacations are the ones that leave us thinking about what we experienced long after we return home. That is true of the time we spent exploring Belize with Lindblad Expeditions. The big moments come up in conversation all the time: what it was like to swim with parrotfish and stand in front of Mayan ruins. We find the smaller moments pop into our memories just as frequently: feeling the salty breeze on our skin as a zodiac darted from the ship to the shore or hearing a chachalaca squawk above us. Belize welcomed us every morning with surprises and sent us to bed each night with memories we will never forget.

Weeks after returning home, we smile when we remember that somewhere out there, in their own corners of the globe, our fellow travelers’ memories are intertwined with our own. Travel will educate and inspire you, and it will also connect you to people in ways you never imagined. For us, our week on the National Geographic Sea Lion with Lindblad Expeditions connected us to people and places that represent what travel is all about.

More Information: Expeditions.com

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1 Week in Belize: Coral Reefs and Jungle Explorations