The Ultimate Guide to Ecotourism in Belize
In our homes, we are continuously encouraged to make environmentally friendly choices. We are advised to eat more plant-based foods, reduce our food consumption, conserve our electricity, save our water, and recycle as much as we can. So, if we are becoming more eco-conscious in our homes, why shouldn’t we apply the same sentiment when we travel? Don’t we want all parts of our life to become sustainable? One way of participating in the sustainable travel movement is by visiting ecotourism destinations. Ecotourism makes it easy for us to adopt eco-friendly principles when we are away from home, helping us preserve the planet while we live out all our wonderful travel fantasies to places like beautiful Belize.
Belize is a country that has put ecotourism on the map. This Central American oasis ticks just about every box on our travel checklist! Tropical jungle walks? Tick. Scenic waterfalls? Tick. Uncrowded beaches? Tick. Incredible wildlife? Tick. Thrilling adventures? Tick. Turquoise blue waters? Tick. Luxury at-one-with nature accommodations? Tick. Delicious locally sourced food? Tick. Ancient ruins? Tick. Eye-opening cultural opportunities? Tick.
It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But you better Belize it. (Sorry not sorry for the cheesy pun). With little-to-no chain hotels or restaurants and plenty of green initiatives, Belize is the ideal country for the beginner ecotourist. Let us tell you why.
Ecotourism in Belize
Sitting next to the Caribbean Sea, Belize is home to the world’s second-biggest barrier reef and Central America’s largest cave system. This little country also holds an impressive selection of Mayan sites, over 400 beautiful islands (called Cayes), and a plethora of picturesque landscapes. Everything from mangrove swamps to soaring forests and sandy bays. It’s not a surprise then, that Belize is one of the most biodiverse places you’ll ever come across.
And the Belizeans want to keep it that way. The country made waves when the government of Belize banned off-shore oil drilling in 2018, then banned single-use plastics in 2019, proving to everyone that they wanted to put nature first. The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was actually taken off the UNESCO World Heritage Sites In Danger list in 2018, due to the country’s consistent conservation and protection efforts.
Ecotourism companies in Belize help to preserve their spectacular surroundings (rather than destroy them) and encourage both visitors and locals to minimise their impact. Gorgeous eco-resorts and eco-lodges are scattered across the country, the same can be said for animal sanctuaries, wildlife reserves, and national park. There are even around 500 different bird species living in Belize, including the colourful Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird. As you can imagine, that means there are endless bird-watching opportunities. (Top tip: Rio Bravo Conservation area is an excellent birding destination).
But it’s not just about the wildlife viewing (though that alone would see us jump on the next plane). Nor is it just the wildlife that’s diverse. Ecotourists can engage with Belize’s many vibrant cultures—including Creole, Mestizo, Garifuna, Maya, and Mennonite—by visiting small villages, trying the local cuisine, and taking part in traditional workshops. Supporting these communities helps ensure that their cultures and traditions will live on for years to come.
Examples of Ecotourism in Belize
Generally speaking, San Ignacio, in the Cayo District, is a good place to start your eco-adventure in Belize. The town is a cultural hotspot and provides easy access to nearby Mayan ruins, archaeological reserves, and the Macal River. Highlights of the area include Chiquibul National Park and Forest Reserve, Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, the Maya Mountains, and Caracol, the largest ancient Mayan site in Belize. You can discover most of these attractions on your own, but joining a guided tour is worth it. Native tour guides offer a unique perspective on the area, so you’ll come away with a lot more than if you venture out alone. And in doing so, you are keeping these locals employed, and helping them create a sustainable livelihood.
Over in the Toledo District, the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment works to protect areas in the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor. One of these areas is Payne’s Creek National Park. This park must be protected since it houses a collection of endangered and vulnerable species including the West Indian Manatee, the Yellow-Headed Parrot, and the Black Howler Monkey. To raise funds for their conservation work while providing locals with sustainable employment, the company set up TIDE tours. Operated by nearby residents, these tours include cave swimming, farm-to-table dining, and cultural workshops. And that isn’t all. The company also runs study abroad programs, research expeditions, and park ranger experiences. Because they really really want everyone to fall in love with Toledo.
As mentioned above, Black Howler Monkeys are one of Belize’s endangered species. Due to habitat destruction, logging, and hunting, these monkeys are at risk. Well, thanks to the Community Baboon Sanctuary (these monkeys are often referred to as baboons), they may not be endangered forever. To combat these threats, the Community Baboon Sanctuary is working with 200 local landowners to preserve the monkeys’ habitat. By creating this wildlife sanctuary and attracting tourists to the area, landowners can profit off of their land without tearing down any more of this fragile ecosystem.
And let’s not forget about Belize’s thriving marine life and the jaw-dropping barrier reef. People come from all over the world to see the Great Blue Hole and stay on the island of Ambergris Caye. The island’s only town, San Pedro, is one of Belize’s most popular destinations because of its proximity to key dive and snorkel sites--letting you embrace your inner mermaid. But for ecotourists looking to go deeper, Reef Conservation International on the mainland runs active marine conservation and dive trips. So you can give all those fish, sharks, and coral, a helping hand. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Because as responsible travellers, we shouldn’t touch or take anything from the ocean.
Belize Ecotourism Association
One of the most notable examples of Ecotourism in Belize is the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA). Located in Punta Gorda, the TEA has been operating since 1990 when they constructed four basic guesthouses. The association has now expanded into a network of lodges across four villages in the Toledo district (Southern Belize): Santa Elena, Laguna, San Antonio, and San Miguel. Their goal is to reduce the area’s poverty and empower the local people.
What makes this association extremely special is its one-of-a-kind tourism packages. These packages vary from one-day experiences to immersive overnight stays. So what will you get up to if you book a package? Everything from guided jungle walks and cave treks to cocoa farm tours and cooking lessons. You’ll also stay in a local guesthouse, eat traditional food dishes, and make authentic connections with the local Mayan community. The guide-to-visitor ratio is no more than 1:2, so this is an incredibly intimate experience. Learn why the rainforest is important to the community, and how the land provides them with all they need—and how it has done for many years.
The TEA is extremely transparent with where your money goes (a full breakdown is listed on the website) and it is obvious that your visit to these villages has a positive impact on the community. By taking an interest in the traditional lives and practices of these residents, you are helping them grow without them losing their culture.
How Can I Follow Sustainable Tourism Practices in Belize?
We should think about and follow sustainable tourism practices every time we step out the door. Literally. Every damn time. Because it’s only fair that once we leave our homes, we take note of how beautiful our world is. And how we must do everything in our power to keep it beautiful.
Here are some suggestions on how to apply these principles while in Belize:
- Support the local economy. This means buying souvenirs directly from local makers, purchasing food from family-run businesses and booking tours with locally owned companies.
- Eat and buy food products that are in season and locally grown. Opt for sustainable seafood. Shop at farmers’ markets.
- Reduce your carbon footprint by taking public transit or renting a bike in areas where it is suitable to do so. Public bus services are available in most major Belizean towns. Cycling is a fun way to get around, especially on the Cayes.
- Bring reusable items, such as bags, bottles, and cutlery, with you on your trip. This way you can minimise your waste—our blog on 30 ways to reduce your waste has more ideas on how to do this.
- Avoid purchasing illegal animal or plant products, like items made from tortoiseshell, as this encourages locals to hunt or poach to make money. Ecotourism aims to provide locals with alternative employment to these illegal trades.
- Sign up for wildlife experiences with reputable, registered companies. We would all love to see sea turtles, dolphins, and whale sharks but we must make sure our interactions with these animals are not putting those species at risk.
How Do I Find the Right Responsible Tourism Companies in Belize?
It does take a little bit of time to track down responsible, ethical, and sustainable tourism companies, but it is definitely worth the effort. A quick google search will usually send you in the right direction, especially if you use keywords such as responsible tourism, ecotourism, sustainable travel, Belize conservation etc.
When you find something that interests you, head to the company’s “about us” page. Even better if they have a “sustainability” or “conservation” page. This is where you’ll find their key values. Many eco-conscious companies list their awards, certificates, or partners in their company description.
For example, you may see the Green Globe certification logo. This international certification program is “a structured assessment of the sustainability performance of travel and tourism businesses.” The Green Globe website allows you to find and search members by country. There are currently several Belizean businesses registered with them. If you are a Tripadvisor fan, look for listings with the Tripadvisor Green Leader logo. The green leaf icon makes it easy to identify eco-friendly tourism providers.
In addition to this, the Tourism Belize website is a superb resource. You can learn a lot about a country from its tourism website! Scroll through the full accommodation and activity directory or find places of interest by clicking on the interactive map. The website also lists exciting outdoor activities (think canoeing, kayaking, scuba diving, zip-lining and snorkeling) and provides information on wildlife sanctuaries, National Parks, marine protected areas, and other natural wonders. Everything on their website is checked and verified by the Belize tourism board, so you know it’s trustworthy material.
What Are the Best Eco-Lodges to Stay at in Belize?
It’s pretty hard to narrow down accommodation options in Belize as there are so many. So we’ve just picked a few excellent eco-lodges and eco-resorts to share with you.
Chaa Creek: founded in 1981, The Lodge at Chaa Creek is one of Belize’s original eco-resorts and has won numerous awards for its sustainability and green tourism practices, including first-place honours at National Geographic’s World Legacy Awards. Situated on a 400-acre private reserve, the resort offers various types of accommodations—villas, cottages, tree-top suites, and riverside eco-pods—so there are offerings for every budget. The Chaa Creek Cares™ initiative means that ten percent of accommodation revenue is put towards local environmental and community projects, so the Belizean people really do benefit from each guest’s stay.
Copal Tree Lodge: situated in the Southern Belizean jungle, this eco-resort boasts an impressive 12,000-acre nature reserve, owns an organic farm and rum distillery, and presents luxury private suites in a picture-perfect location. Their commitment to preserving the environment includes a yearly tree-planting program, so you could say they are doing tree-mendous work.
Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort: this beachfront eco-resort sits in the perfect location for water-lovers looking to explore the Belizean coral reefs and Caribbean atolls. Since the resort is still on the mainland (and not on an island), visitors can easily fit in a day trip to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary—the world’s only Jaguar preserve—which is a quick drive away.
Black Rock Lodge: a stunning off-the-grid eco-lodge that relies on renewable energy sources and offers tourists the chance to go on magical bird-watching adventures with some of Belize’s top birding guides.
Table Rock Jungle Lodge: at this eco-lodge, expect fabulous farm-to-table dining, on-site canoeing expeditions, and charming cabanas decked out with handcrafted furniture and panoramic jungle views.
Which will you choose?
How Can Wakeful Travel Support Me in my Ecotourism Journey to Belize?
The Wakeful Travel community is here for you, both before you travel and while you travel. We truly believe in ecotourism and its benefits, but we do understand that planning a trip like this can be challenging. In addition to reading our blog series on ecotourism and sustainable travel, we suggest using your Wakeful Mindful Travel Journal to record any research you do on Belize. The journal has space for you to visualize your trip, note down all your reservations, and document your journey while you’re on location.