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Belize it or not: Island-hopping on budget
If you come to Belize, chances are you'll stay on one of the islands, not mainland. Not only is it easier to find nice beaches on the islands (cayes), but it is much closer to the Barrier Reef. And if you are visiting Belize, you simply must see the reef. Even if you don't dive, the ocean is shallow around here and the opportunities for snorkeling are plentiful.
If you're not sold on the idea of island vacation and decide to stay inland and spend time in the jungle instead, you should at least visit the islands for a day or two.
If you arrive in Belize by plane, you will most certainly land at Belize City International Airport. The most convenient way to get to the islands is to fly straight from here.
There are two local airlines that operate all those island-hopping routes: Maya Airlines (owned by Belizeans) and Tropic Air (owned by American expats living in Belize). I have flown both and I couldn't really tell the difference in quality or service between the two. Both use the same planes and operate efficiently. Tropic has more planes than Maya.
It's only a 15-minute flight on board a little Cessna, which is great because it will give you a great opportunity to see the area from up above. You'll actually fly low enough that you'll be able to see sharks and dolphins in the sea below you. If you are lucky, you might even get seated on the jump seat next to the pilot - my favorite spot.
If you want to save money and have extra time, consider flying out to the islands from the municipal airport in Belize City instead. A taxi from the international airport (14 miles outside the city) to the municipal airport will cost you $25US ($50 Belize) and take about 15 minutes.
Here is the benefit. From the municipal airport, Maya or Tropic Air flights to San Pedro go for only $35, instead of $65. If there are more of you traveling, it makes a lot of sense. We did it and our cab driver even gave us a little tour of Belize City for just a few extra dollars. Belize City is not the safest of cities and seeing it from a car might actually be enough for a lot of people.
Taking the ferry
If you are on a tight budget, your best bet for getting out to the islands is a boat trip. Once again, you'll have to take a taxi (or bus) from the international terminal to the water taxi building in the center. From there, boats to the islands leave about 6 times a day, the last one taking off mid-afternoon.
Express ferry from Belize City to Ambergris Caye (San Pedro) costs $12.50 ($25 Belize). It takes about 60-90 minutes and stops at the backpacker mecca of Caye Caulker on the way. Obviously, flying is much more convenient, especially if you--like me--tend to get seasick.