Can a touristy hotspot live up to the hype? We went to Belize to find out.
PALENCIA, Belize — Travelers always feel a healthy dose of skepticism when going to a touristy hotspot. It’s not that anyone is above being a tourist — I’m certainly not — but a massive focus on tourism can sometimes give a destination those amusement park vibes. I had my doubts about Placencia, Belize, the beachy resort destination that people who have been gush endlessly about and one with heaps of five-star reviews online. Surely something had to give. But not wanting to waste an opportunity to travel after two years of mostly sitting at home and social distancing, I hopped on a plane to Central America to see if the place lives up to the hype.
The Mayans originally inhabited the area around Placencia until English Puritans settled on the peninsula in the 17th century. The Central American wars of independence in the 1820s then drove that group out, and around that time Placencia was resettled by a fishing community. The Spanish later arrived, giving Placencia its name: Punta Placentia, or “pleasant point,” in homage to its temperate weather and warm waters. By the end of the 1900s, Placencia had gained popularity as a tourist destination. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find a walkable area in the main part of the village and a variety of hotels, restaurants, and local businesses dotting the streets.
I arrived in the small village after a half-hour flight from Belize City. Driving down the peninsula, I was glad I wasn’t seeing high-rise hotels. Rather than massive, towering blocks of buildings from chain companies, the lodgings keep low to the ground at one or two levels. Even some of the island’s most well-known properties, like the family Coppola-owned Turtle Inn, don’t peek high above the tree cover.
Luxury hits a little different here. Don’t expect enormous, uber-luxe global resorts. Placencia isn’t trying to be that. Instead, you have your pick of boutique stays with thoughtful touches.
I stayed at Sirenian Bay Resort & Villas, a spot that both travelers and locals enjoy. The all-inclusive, award-winning resort has private spaces for guests only, but something special about Sirenian Bay is its commitment to the community. During Covid, they continued paying their staff despite the lack of tourism, and their mini golf and an open-air bar are open to the public.
The scale of Sirenian Bay felt just right. I could walk from reception to my bungalow in less than a minute (it’s the same for all their bungalows), and the pool was practically at my doorstep, yet I never felt cramped. I indulged in the things I always try to do at resorts like this — luxurious outdoor showers and calming spa treatments — but I also easily made my way outside on excursions and visits to the village.
Like many travelers to this area, I desperately wanted to experience what Belize is best known for: adventure. The country has the second largest barrier reef, and subtropical jungle or rainforest covers half of its land area, offering plenty of opportunities to get out and explore nature. While I’m never one to pass up lazy midday pool sessions with a tropical cocktail in hand, the natural beauty of Belize is one of its draws.
Captain Jak’s organized my outings, including an adrenaline-pumping zip-line journey through the Mayan King Range forest, followed by a relaxing river tubing ride down the South Stann Creek River. I wouldn’t consider myself the type of person who enjoys extreme outdoor activities, and this ended up being the perfect pairing. Getting to see the land from above proved thrilling, and then I got to wind down in the cool waters of the river.
Snorkeling, however, easily topped all of my experiences. There’s something incredibly special about tuning out the sounds of the outside world, listening to the murmur of the water below the surface, and witnessing sea life so close. I watched coral dance in the swell of the water and followed schools of colorful fish and nurse sharks. My boat took me to Silk Caye and Laughing Bird Caye, where I spent as much time as possible in my snorkel gear following my guide around. The slight sunburn on the back of my legs was absolutely worth it.
For a change of pace from more physical activities, I spent one afternoon strolling the village of Placencia. I encountered the usual beach town suspects — busy sandy boardwalks and beachfront bars blasting pop music — but I didn’t have to look too hard to get a taste of local life, both figuratively and literally.
At the immensely popular Tuttifrutti Gelateria, a refreshing scoop of gelato was a delicious, flavor-filled break from the hot, humid weather. I grabbed a pastry and perused the shelves at the Literary Lizard, a used bookstore and cafe that makes sure no one has to sit on the beach book-less. I sipped a glass of rose at The Little Wine Bar Placencia, an adorable and cozy spot that offers respite from tropical cocktails. Other Belizean-owned favorites to check out include the Creole cuisine at Wendy’s Restaurant, the handmade jewelry at Kaj Expressions, and the mouthwatering seafood drinks at The Galley Restaurant & Bar.
As someone who loves sitting down and chatting with the locals, I enjoyed wandering around meeting people. A few cultural experiences planned through Sirenian Bay gave me the chance to see how Belizeans live and work and ask questions about their lives. At a cacao farm, the owners toured me around their property and welcomed me into their personal space, going so far as to host a meal and play live music. Another night at the resort, I watched lively Garifuna drummers perform with singers and dancers. In between songs, the musicians explained the meaning of the lyrics and how this music is a connection to the people’s African and indigenous American roots.
While I only visited Belize for a short time, the locals seemed happy to share their culture and give travelers experiences beyond the typical adventure vacation. These weren’t tours purely for entertainment; everyone welcomed questions and wanted to share as much as guests were willing to learn. The openness of the people I met made me feel like the experiences were unique and special, just for me.
In the end, I didn’t have to look hard to find out why Placencia remains a popular destination. Every morning, I woke up and chose my adventure — on sea, on sand, on a beach lounger — and the people I encountered and who shared a little of their day with me made the trip unforgettable. No amusement park vibes here. Just good times with good people that I’ll never forget.
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