Standing at the very top of an ancient Mayan ruin, surveying the sweeping views of dense jungle stretching all the way to the Guatemalan border on the hazy horizon, I was struck by the sound of silence. Apart from the sporadic squawking of tropical birds and the odd rustling of monkeys swinging between branches, there was nothing but peace. Where else in the world could you experience such an awe-inspiring historical site, with not a single other tourist in sight?
For me, it summed up the very essence of Belize; a beautiful, beguiling and off-the-beaten-track country boasting some of the world’s best diving, lush rain forests, and deserted remains of the Mayan dynasty I’ve ever experienced.
Which brings me back to Caracol, where I’d climbed the steep stone steps to the summit of Caana - which translates as Sky Place. It’s the largest structure in this 75-square miles complex of ruins which forms the largest Mayan site in the country, covering an area greater than the capital, Belize City.
On a day trip you can gain a real insight into this ancient world from its eerie stone-carved tombs (beware the bats!), hieroglyphic inscriptions, awe-inspiring temples and altars, even learning about ball games played by the 200,000-strong civilisation that once lived here. It was mind-blowing.
Caracol is tricky to access - which made it all the more thrilling. Located 25 miles south of San Ignacio, you’ll need a four-wheel drive (and preferably a guide - we went with Yute Expeditions) to navigate the three hours of unpaved and seriously bumpy ‘roads’ that wind their way to the site. It’s surrounded by dense jungle - in fact, the vast majority of the site hasn’t even been excavated yet - so no wonder tourists are few and far between. Visit now, before the rest of the world catches on!
In San Ignacio we stayed at Ka’ana Boutique resort, a charming five-star establishment where I had my own jungle casita complete with outdoor hammock, and where the pool had a phone (called the ‘Margarita hotline’) for swim-up bar service from the main hotel.
Our next hotel stop in this Central American country was in Placencia, where we bumped into honeymooners aplenty at the luxurious Naia Resort and Spa, and where the beach villas are the rooms to request.
We were greeted by a beach BBQ bonfire and a performance by Garifuna drummers, which taught us plenty about the island’s rich culture (not to mention the difference between local delicacies ‘beans and rice’ and ‘rice and beans’). From here, sticking with the jungle theme, we experienced another highlight of our Belizean adventure - a visit to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where a variety of treks for all abilities provide jaw-dropping vistas and ample opportunity to spot tropical wildlife.
We chose one of the hardest paths (I wore flip flops but top tip - do NOT do the same) and it was out-of-breath difficult, steep and sweaty, but thanks to our amazing guide we spotted Jaguar, lynx and wild pig footprints, and an abundance of exotic birds and plant species. Once at the summit we were rewarded with a truly breath-taking scene, followed by a much-needed dip in a waterfall in a jungle clearing where we felt like the only people in the world.
Another top tip - take plenty of water. (As in, as much as you can possibly carry). And look out for the mahogany tree that was planted by the Duke of Edinburgh on a visit here in 1988.
Our intrepid, inner Lara Crofts satisfied, next up we were headed to the islands - via a few flights on national airline TropicAir, whose tiny propellor planes operate like regular buses up and down the country and are one of the best ways to get around. Caye Caulker was our destination, a tiny speck in the Caribbean Sea and the very definition of ‘island vibes’.
A panorama of brightly-coloured building facades met us as we trundled through the unpaved roads of the island in our golf buggy taxi from the ramshackle airport - there are no actual cars on mile-long Caye Caulker - and by the time we arrived at our hotel, Iguana Reef Inn four or five minutes later we had seen everything there was to see on the island.
This is a sleepy place with little to do, but if you’re into diving or snorkelling, it’s a mecca. Belize has the world’s second-largest barrier reef (after Australia) and Caye Caulker is the perfect jumping off point.
In just one memorable day we swam with reef sharks, manatees and turtles, countless tropical fish in a kaleidoscope of colours, and had a boat party with buckets of ceviche, rum punch and singing and jokes aplenty from the amazing team at Raggamuffin Tours.
That night we dined at Happy Lobster Restaurant and Bar - fab meal - and had a bit of a boogie to reggaeton and backpacking classics in a laid-back beach bar specialising in cheap drinks, karaoke and barefoot dancing ‘til dawn.
There are currently no direct flights to Belize from the UK which is why the best time to visit is now, before it becomes more accessible to the masses. Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio is launching his own eco-hotel there this year, and other famous fans include the Duke of Sussex, so it’s only a matter of time before it becomes well and truly established on the tourist trail. If you’re looking for adventure in 2020, Belize could be just the ticket.