With picturesque fishing villages, ancient Mayan sites, colonial towns steeped in history and more orange groves than beach bars, easy going Northern Belize is a great place to get off the beaten track and explore. With an area of around 3,000 square miles and a population of 80,000, the main activity here is farming and for miles the landscape is dominated with citrus groves, cattle ranges and sugarcane.
The main districts are Corozal on the Mexican border in the north and Orange Walk, around 50 miles from Belize City, both on the northern highway. Given their proximity to Mexico, both towns have a more Mexican vibe than other areas of Belize – this is evident in the cuisine, where you’re more likely to be eating empanadas than rice and beans. Along with exploring back roads and tiny villages, there are some noteworthy attractions that should not be missed.
Several of the most interesting Mayan sites are in Northern Belize, in particular Lamanai, which is Belize’s longest occupied Mayan site where signs of occupation span from 1500 BC to AD 1700, when the Spanish missionaries arrived. Of the 50 or so Mayan structures, the most impressive is the stepped temple, built into the hillside overlooking the New River Lagoon, which is said to be the largest pre-Classical structure in Belize.
The best way to approach the ruins is by boat, a 90 minute trip from Orange Walk Town. The journey passes through some of the most beautiful jungle in northern Belize, with great opportunities for wildlife spotting, as well as seeing the Mennonite community of Shipyard, before reaching Lamanai.
For wildlife enthusiasts, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is possibly the best area in all of Belize for bird and animal lovers. Traveling by canoe through the chain of inland waterways, look out for crocodiles, iguanas, turtles and the largest flying bird in Central America – the jabiru stork, with a wingspan of up to 12ft. Among the plethora of birds to spot, look out for ospreys, egrets, kites, hawks and all 5 species of kingfisher native to Belize.
Corozal town and Sarteneja, on the northern coast are great places to explore on a day trip. Corozal Town, bordering Mexico, is a prosperous commercial centre with the hub of the town life based on the bay, with waterside thatched bars and parks. There are some fine examples of Spanish colonial structures to explore, in particular the old market and customs house, built in 1886. By contrast, Sarteneja, a 30 minute boat ride from Corozal, is a tiny, fishing village, largely untouched by tourism.
For a glimpse of how things were when a fishing village was just a fishing village, it’s well worth the trip.