The distance from Corozal in the far north to Punta Gorda in the far south is less than 300 miles. In this pleasingly compact country nowhere is very far from anywhere else, so you’re never going to have to travel huge distances.
That said, given the lack of motorways, the necessary slow-downs for tiny villages and the wild-and-winding nature of some of the roads, don’t expect to be driving all that fast. Not that you’d want to with such beautiful scenery on the other side of the window.
Belize was a British colony until gaining independence in 1981. As such, English is the official language, making navigating by road signs and asking for directions a whole lot easier. Although unlike in Britain, Belizeans drive on the right-hand side, so make sure you remember that before getting on the road!
With your own car, you can go to places not easily visited by public transport. For instance, you might decide on the spur of the moment to pull over for a dip at Río On Pools on your way back from the Caracol ruins.
Alternatively, you might fancy calling in at a smaller Maya site, maybe Uxbenka, as you explore the villages of Toledo. In a car, you are not beholden to the schedule of a tour group, you can stop whenever and wherever the urge takes you.
Plan a short self-drive trip during the dry season, sticking to the major roads, and you can explore Belize in a 2WD car without any problem. Main thoroughfares, such as the Southern Highway and mountain-fringed Hummingbird Highway, offer smooth, scenic rides for those in regular vehicles. Just be sure to check any road restrictions with the rental company before you set off.
However, if you want to get further off the beaten track, a 4WD is ideal. A tougher vehicle will enable you to get down unpaved backroads to access more remote Mayan sites and jungle waterfalls. It also means that you can still explore during the wetter months. For instance, the dirt road leading to Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve might become inaccessible by 2WD after rain, but can still be reached by 4WD. This is a more expensive rental option, but you might end up saving a pound or two overall, by accessing remote places and arranging your own schedule, without needing to rely on guided tours.
Whatever type of vehicle you hire, be sure to check the tyre tread and the spare, and make sure there is some sort of cover should you break down in the middle of nowhere.
Belize is a largely rural country. With the exception of Belize City and a few of the larger towns, traffic is virtually non-existent, making driving incredibly stress-free. You might perhaps want to avoid doing too much driving at night, though, when the roads become busier with cute raccoon-like kinkajous and sometimes even jaguars.
Some of the best food in Belize can be found at the aromatic and abundant roadside stalls. With your own wheels, you can pull over at whichever one takes your fancy.
Look out for those selling fresh tropical fruits, steamed tamales, sizzling barbecue and crisp empanadas.
Click here for the best of Belize’s food and beverages
High on Belize’s list of attractions are the 200 or so paradise islands that pepper the Caribbean coast. These can’t be driven to. Many don’t even have roads; bicycles and golf buggies are the way to get around Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, for example.
The simplest solution is to spend an action-packed week or so exploring the mainland, before returning your hire car to the depot, and then flopping on an island, or hopping between the islands by boat or plane.
If you prefer to keep hold of your car, there are storage facilities that will look after your vehicle while you’re offshore, with some even offering to transfer you to water-taxi terminals or airports, too.
Belize’s best drive has to be the Hummingbird Highway, from Belmopan to near Dangriga. This spectacular route cuts through the foothills of the lush Maya Mountains and vibrant citrus groves. Stop-offs to descend into St Herman’s Cave, hike in Blue Hole National Park and fill up at Bertha’s Tamales are recommended.
Alternatively, for added thrills, take the remote road to Caracol, Belize’s most astonishing Maya ruin. It’s a bumpy but highly recommended ride through the Mountain Pine Ridge, crossing creeks and getting gradually further from civilisation. You’ll start to feel the world belongs to just you and the butterflies.
For a cultural road-trip, explore the tracks spidering off the Southern Highway around Punta Gorda. These lead to small Maya villages, such as San Miguel, San Antonio and Blue Creek, where you can get involved in Maya life.
Check out Belize’s best cultural experiences here.
Belize has some of the best roads in Central America, but it’s all relative: there are still potholes and speed bumps, twists and hairpins, and some of the unpaved roads can be proper bone-rattlers.
That’s all absolutely part of the fun. You’ve come to Belize to have an adventure, after all, so slow down and enjoy the ride.