The tiny Central American country of Belize–the size of Massachusetts–is home to astonishing biodiversity and ecosystems: Caribbean atolls, mangroves, tropical forests, and mountains. Take your pick of adventures: snorkel or dive the hemisphere’s largest barrier reef, explore ancient Mayan ruins, bird watch, or trek the jungle searching for elusive jaguars. English-speaking Belize is oriented toward conservation, with an impressive number of wildlife sanctuaries, marine preserves, and experts happy to share information on everything from toucans to the gumbo-limbo tree.
Named for the spectacular Mayan ruins nearby, Lamanai (meaning “submerged crocodile”) blends unobtrusively into the lagoon-side jungle in northern Belize. Guests stay in lovely fan-cooled rooms and are treated to gourmet meals cooked from organic local food. The real show here is nature–and guided excursions give you frontrow seats. You can observe uproarious troops of howler monkeys; paddle a canoe by starlight for upclose encounters with nocturnal birds; climb Mayan pyramids; and help a biologist capture, tag, and record data on endangered freshwater crocodiles.
Log some hammock time at this eco-conscious island getaway, which runs on solar power and uses composting toilets in an effort to preserve the delicate ecosystem. The small hotel offers no-frills rooms and cabins on one of Belize’s loveliest palm-fringed beaches, which is also a turtle nesting area. There’s good snorkeling right offshore; dive trips are optional.
This luxurious jungle eco-lodge takes care of guests and the environment in equal measure. It hires local staff and trains them as guides in natural history, Mayan medicine, and archaeology. Visitors stay in indigenous-style thatched cottages and participate in morning bird walks, caving expeditions, horseback riding, and night safaris. The Rainforest Medicine Trail and Ix Chel Farm protect rescued Mayan medicinal trees and plants. Don’t miss witnessing the colorful lifecycle of the Blue Morpho at the Butterfly Center. Get rustic: The solar-powered, screened bungalows at Chaa Creek’s Macal River Jungle Camp offer outdoorsy accommodations at budget prices.
The Oceanic Society–a U.S. nonprofit group that protects marine wildlife and ocean biodiversity through scientific research and environmental education–operates a scientific field station on Blackbird Caye’s loveliest beach, part of Turneffe Atoll (a circle of coral islands). Deepen your appreciation of marine life by joining snorkel or dive excursions led by expert naturalists. Or sign up for a week of helping marine biologists study dolphins or coral reef ecology. Meals and accommodations in beachfront cabanas included.
Side trip: Take the boat out to Belize’s famous Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye, a national reserve for nesting red-footed boobies.