Beguiled in Belize: Head to Central America for the perfect family-friendly Spring Break getaway | VailDaily.com

Beguiled in Belize: Head to Central America for the perfect family-friendly Spring Break getaway

Caramie Petrowsky
Special to the Daily

Surrounded by the sparkling emerald green Caribbean Sea, I stepped off the boat onto a dock and took a deep breath. At the end of the pier, beyond a narrow swatch of white sandy beach, sat El Pescador resort, a series of charming colonial-style buildings surrounded by palm trees swaying gently in the breeze.

In short: perfection.

Any trepidation I'd had about traveling to Central America with our two young kids disappeared. My husband held our 3-year-old daughter's hand as they peered down into the water, checking out a 2-foot string ray that cruised beneath in search of a late lunch. My 8-month-old son looked around, grinning despite hours of being hauled around on two vans, two planes and a boat in a five-hour time span.

I admit, I was nervous about traveling internationally with a 3-nager and an 8-month-old, but Belize turned out to be the perfect family-friendly destination. It's safe, fairly affordable, the official language is English (it's a former British colony), and the exchange rate is super easy to master — $2 Belize to each $1 U.S. What's best, the people there are welcoming and warm; and they loved on our kids at every turn.

We split our weeklong trip in two, spending the first half of our week on Ambergris Caye, Belize's largest island, soaking in the sun, sand and Caribbean. The second half we stayed just outside San Ignacio, the Western Cayo District's main town and the perfect jumping point to check out nearby Mayan ruins and a few wildlife experiences we knew the whole family would love.

Ambergris Caye

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A cheery El Pescador staff member met us at the boat and showed us to our home for the next three nights — a beautiful, very comfortable villa, one of eight on the property.

Hand-carved mahogany stingrays and dried palm fronds painted to look like fish decorated the walls. It had every amenity we needed and more, including a full kitchen, a mini library and a collection of DVDs.

The view from the hammock on our second story deck looked down at the pool and the breakers crashing into the world's second longest barrier reef in the distance. It's a quiet, super friendly resort. Staff members wear shirts that say El Pescador Family, and indeed, they treat you as such.

While I headed to the pool just steps from our room, my husband headed to the dock for a free fly-casting lesson. El Pescador is a renowned family-owned fishing lodge, serving fisherpeople from around the world who gather on Ambergris Caye in search of the saltwater fly-fishing Grand Slam — a feat that involves catching a bonefish (nicknamed the gray ghost), permit and tarpon either on the same day or in the same trip. The permit and bonefish are fairly likely. Tis that third, the tarpon, which can get as big as 200 pounds and look downright prehistoric, that prove elusive for the majority of folks.

Even if you're not interested in the fishing, there is plenty to keep you entertained. Our first full day, after a few leisurely hours at the pool, we borrowed a canoe and paddled around the mangroves in the inner lagoon, stopping to look at a large lionfish, an invasive species that's certainly not welcome.

During the late afternoon, we rented a golf cart — the preferred transportation — and ventured into San Pedro Town, stopping at the Belize Chocolate Company and a few nearby stores to buy souvenirs before heading for dinner. Huge chunks of tender conch studded the ceviche and seafood burritos at Waruguma, a local's joint that came highly recommended. The food was mighty tasty, though not as memorable as the fresh snapper meal we devoured the night before at El Pescador.

El Pescador set up the one excursion we did while there — snorkeling Hol Chan Marine Reserve, located just 4 miles south of San Pedro. The 3-square-mile area was the first marine park established in Belize. Hol Chan means little channel in Mayan and is named for a break in the Belize Barrier Reef.

Floating through the crystal clear water, we marveled at eagle rays, schools of snapper, barracudas, monstrous parrotfish and a moray eel fighting a nurse shark for a piece of conch. At Shark Ray Alley, huge nurse sharks and stingrays gently glided nearby.

San Ignacio

The largest modern town in Western Belize is San Ignacio, a beautiful 70-mile, two-hour drive west of Belize City. After picking up our rental car, we stopped for a quick lunch before pulling into the Belize Zoo, one of the highlights of our entire trip.

The charming, 29-acre animal sanctuary features more than 175 animals, all native to Belize, including the tapir, Belize's national animal. Our entire family loved learning about the zoo's residents by reading handwritten signs introducing us to the animals, from the jaguar named Junior Buddy to the super rare Harpy eagle. More than a traditional zoo, this felt more like a farm for rescued animals. Splurge and pay a bit extra to feed the toucan.

Next we headed for Ka'ana Resort & Spa, a gorgeous boutique resort with just 15 suites and two villas; Ka'ana means "Heavenly Place" and this lovely sanctuary certainly fit its name.

Tucked in the lush jungle just outside of San Ignacio, the gorgeous resort even has its own heli pad and outdoor yoga areas where you can put the in-room yoga pads to use. After checking out our beautiful room with a private outdoor terrace and balcony, we wandered out to explore the impressive on-site 2-acre organic garden. Myriad fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown for the resort's restaurant. Our daughter even got a chance to pet the chickens in the coop. Ka'ana was the perfect jumping off point to explore the nearby flora and fauna.

Over the course of three days, we spent the majority of our time outdoors, which the kids loved. We toured the small museum and butterfly farm at Chaa Creek, learning about the lifecycle of the Blue Morpho butterfly, nicknamed the Belizean Blue, which landed on us as we listened intently.

If you go, be sure to stop into the San Ignacio Resort Hotel and check out the Green Iguana Conservation Project, which offers tours (8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily for $9 per person) that teach about this endangered reptile. Our tour guide, Nigel, patiently answered every question as we held the very gentle creatures.

The highlight of our time on this side of the country was touring Tikal, the ancient Mayan citadel located in Northern Guatemala. Tikal is around a two-hour drive from San Ignacio and it was a day well spent.

Our guide — Elias Cambranes of K'Atun Ahaw Culture and Adventure Tours — holds dual Belize-Guatemala citizenship. As such, he is the only Belizean tour guide who can cross the border and do the entire tour with you. Along with plenty of Belize and Guatemala history, we learned about the fascinating Mayan ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is thought to have 3,000 buildings, though only 15 to 20 percent of the structures have been studied.

We trekked a total of 4 miles in the National Park, through the gigantic ceiba, mahogany and tropical cedar trees. We spent the most time in the Great Plaza absorbing the grand Temple I and II. Looking out across the jungle from the top of Temple IV was something we'll never forget. The pyramid, which was built around 741 AD, is the tallest pre-Columbian structure still standing in the New World. It took our breath away, just like much of the trip did.

Nearly a year later, our daughter still asks, "Can we go to Belize again, Mommy?"

With certainty, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Where to stay in Ambergris Caye

El Pescador is 2.6 miles north of San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye. Standard rooms start at $200 per night in a standard room in low season. Visit http://www.elpescador.com.

Where to stay in San Ignacio

Ka’ana Luxury Resort is located at Mile 69¼ on George Prince Highway, San Ignacio Cayo District. Visit http://www.kaanabelize.com. Children 12 and younger stay free when sharing a room with an adult. Suites start at $299 per night during standard season. Of note: Ka’ana’s sister resort, the luxurious beachside Itz’ana Resort (opened in 2017), is located on the southern coast in Placencia. Visit http://www.itzanabelize.com to learn more.