There’s no shortage of idyllic islands to discover within the Caribbean, which is why it’s a good idea to tackle this sun-soaked destination by region. The Western Caribbean islands, which are the ones that fall outside of the Gulf of Mexico, feature white-sand beaches, optimal snorkeling conditions, and year-round sunshine.
If you’ve decided to head to the Western Caribbean countries, you still may be wondering what islands and cities to visit. Should you spend time in Cozumel or focus your trip on the Cayman Islands? Here are some of the best Western Caribbean islands to explore so you can start planning your next trip.
For an exotic vacation as active as it is beachy, plan a trip to Belize, a destination that is generally considered the southernmost destination in the Western Caribbean. While mainland Belize is part of Central America, it has a few islands off the coast for travelers who want to squeeze in a perfect tropical beach day, too.
Start your adventure in Belize with a visit to the Lamanai Mayan Ruins located deep within the Belize jungle, which was once the heart of the Mayan empire. The remains at Lamanai are roughly 3,500 years old and include multiple buildings that were used for different purposes, such as a sacrificial altar, various temples, and excavated mounds that surely hold more secrets.
The most exciting way to reach Lamani is on a riverboat. If you’re an adventurous type, try to book a tour that includes a quick river tour along the way.
If you’re less of a history buff and more of a nature enthusiast, one of the best things to do in Belize is to explore the Crystal Caves. Since the caves are partially filled with water, you’ll start your journey by floating deep into the caverns on an innertube (with headlamps, of course.)
Then, explore the cave on foot and marvel at the stalagmites and stalactites while learning about how Mayans once used the cave. It’s a fantastic adventure but perhaps best avoided if you’re claustrophobic.
Because Belize can certainly get hot, you’ll want to spend some time in the water, too. Fortunately, it’s one of the Western Caribbean countries along the Meso-American Reef, the second-largest coral reef in the world. Travelers can scuba dive on the reef or take a boat tour to snorkel in Belize on a few different sites known for healthy populations of fish, sea turtles, rays, sharks, and more.
Read: Best Scuba Diving Spots in the World
If you mostly care about the beach but still want to sneak in a little snorkeling, head to Caye Caulker or Starfish Island, which are both accessible by tours or ferries from Belize City. These islands have some of the best beaches in Belize, excellent snorkeling from the shore, and a handful of beach bars to ensure you’re never too far from a fresh tropical cocktail.
Some of the most beautiful Western Caribbean islands are the three islands that make up the Cayman Islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. And yet, most travelers visit Grand Cayman since it’s the easiest to reach and offers the most to explore.
One of Grand Cayman’s best beaches is Seven Mile Beach—don’t let the name confuse you though as it’s technically only about 6.5 miles long. Along its sandy white stretches, you’ll find nearly everything you’ll need for a perfect beach day.
Stop by beach resorts offering luxury amenities, rent snorkel equipment or jet skis from dozens of shops and rental companies, or swing by a beachfront restaurant for fresh seafood.
A shallow dropoff along the beach is great for swimming and floating, though if you want to snorkel, some spots are better than others. Head to the smaller Cemetery Beach or Governors Beach (both smaller beaches within Seven Mile Beach) to find the best Caribbean coral reefs for fish and marine life.
If you don’t want to risk missing out on world-class snorkeling in Grand Cayman, maximize your chances of a fantastic wildlife encounter by heading to Stingray City. The sandy cove is only a few minutes offshore and home to dozens of stingrays.
The clear, warm water is no more than waist-deep, and the wild stingrays will swim around your feet and legs as they’re used to being around people. Your tour guide will provide snorkeling equipment and most tours will usually stop at other well-known snorkeling sites like Starfish Point.
Grand Cayman is a great island to explore in the Western Caribbean because it offers a wide breadth of non-water activities, too. Visitors can send a postcard from Hell, which is an actual town. It’s named Hell in homage to the otherworldly land formations that look a bit like the tips of flames reaching up from below the surface.
If going to Hell doesn’t sound like your kind of plan, head instead to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. The lush park has several gardens with endemic flora, plus a healthy population of iguanas, as it’s home to a green iguana breeding program.
Most of the park is undeveloped to leave the island in its natural state, but there are a few gentle walking paths throughout the park that pass by more than 60 species of palm trees, a prehistoric-looking fern swamp, and an orchid garden, among other sights.
Read: Best Things to Do in Grand Cayman
Costa Maya is one of the newest destinations to visit along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It was mostly undeveloped until the last decade or so; now it’s growing in popularity as an eco-friendly outdoor destination for travelers moving through the Caribbean Sea.
The Meso-American Barrier reef extends past the city, and one of the best things to do in Costa Maya is to go snorkeling. The reefs here are lively, and with clear water, there’s plenty to see. Most snorkel tours will go to two or three of the best sites for schools of fish and sea turtles before returning to a beach (usually Mahahual) for an hour or two of lounging in the sunshine.
Nature is the name of the game in Costa Maya, so consider taking a trip to the Bacalar Lagoon. It’s also called the “lake of seven colors,” owing to how much the hue of the water changes throughout the day. The lake can be turquoise, navy blue, sky blue, or even forest green, depending on the weather and how the sun hits it.
Costa Maya’s beaches have shops where you can rent kayaks or paddle boards, plenty of places to grab a fresh Mexican lunch, and piers, swings, and loungers in the surf for your relaxing pleasure. Keep your eyes peeled for crocodiles lazing in the sun here and there in the distance.
Another reason Costa Maya is becoming such a popular area to visit are the two impressive sets of ruins nearby. Guests can explore both the Chacchoben ruins and Kohunlich ruins in a day. The former was the largest Mayan city in the region and is still mostly excavated and sitting deep in the jungle (you may spot tapirs if you’re lucky.)
Kohunlich covers about 21 acres and was built to honor the sun god. You’ll want a knowledgeable guide for both sites since there isn’t much information posted around the ruins.
Jamaica is one of the best Western Caribbean islands to explore for a lively few days spent with friendly people, great food, and tropical reefs and jungles.
Jamaica is world-famous for its fantastic beaches. Take a trip to Doctor’s Cave Beach, a stunning sandy beach with warm and refreshing waters that caused bathers in the 1920s to think it had healing powers. It was common to see travelers sitting in the shallow surf, soaking up the sunshine and hoping to cure their ailments.
While we know today that sitting in the water won’t cure any diseases, it will help you feel more relaxed. This beautiful Jamaican beach has everything you’d want, including lifeguards, beach bars, and places to rent loungers and umbrellas. It’s also part of the Montego Bay Marine Park, so you can snorkel just offshore and see colorful fish species.
Further east on the island, guests looking for a more private beach experience will want to head to Bamboo Beach Club, one of the best places to visit in Jamaica. A day pass gives you use of the private facilities, which include amenities like plush beach loungers and hammocks, as well as access to the club’s menu of fresh seafood and local cocktails.
Throughout the day, employees share traditional Jamaican songs and dances, and guests can even jump in and try their skills at playing the drums. A few different admission packages are available, including high-end packages for guests who want a private beachside cabana.
If you want to explore the interior of this Western Caribbean island, arrange a trip to sites like the Green Grotto Caves (a massive series of tropical underground caverns) or Dunn’s River Falls.
Exploring Dunn’s River Falls is one of the best things to do in the Caribbean, where you can climb the terraces toward the falls or walk along a series of flat walkways at the base. You can also swim in the shallow water at the base of the falls. Be sure to bring a waterproof camera.
There’s so much to do in Cozumel that you could easily spend a week exploring the island and everything it has to offer. But if you’re visiting it as part of a more extensive Caribbean trip, you can still find time to see the highlights, you just have to know where to go.
A marine park surrounds the southwestern tip of the island and houses many established scuba diving and snorkeling sites in Cozumel. Most sites are too far into the ocean to reach during a swim, but they’re not far from the pier and you can go to some of the best sites in less than 15 minutes by speedboat. Most snorkeling or diving tours will visit a few sites.
The Cozumel Department of Parks runs multiple beach parks that visitors won’t want to miss. Two of the best ones are Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park and Punta Sur Eco Beach Park, known as some of the best beaches in the Riviera Maya.
At Chankanaab, guests can snorkel or scuba dive right from the beautiful Cozumel beach. Other activities available include archaeological tours, swimming with dolphins, snuba tours, and a chance to try “sea trekking,” in which you walk on the ocean floor. Adventures aside, there are a few beach bars, a spa, private cabanas, and daily tequila tastings. It’s a great place to experience most of Cozumel’s best adventures in one spot.
If you’d rather focus more on Cozumel’s natural surroundings, go to Punta Sur Eco Beach Park. You’ll find plenty of places to lounge in the sun or grab a bite to eat, but most of the activities revolve around Cozumel’s animal life and natural history.
Rent kayaks and snorkel equipment, take a catamaran ride through flamingo and crocodile habitats, or climb two separate observation towers to look out on the southern tip of Cozumel. Punta Sur is also home to a sea turtle nesting beach and a great museum that delves into the island’s maritime and pirate history.
If you don’t mind a long day while in Cozumel, take the quick 30-minute ferry to Playa del Carmen, the starting point for tours that go deeper into the Yucatan. Embark on a tour of the massive Chichen Itza complex, one of the best Mayan ruins near Cozumel, which includes hundreds of buildings, ball courts, temples, and more.
You’ll learn about the site’s importance to the Mayan people and the legends and stories that shaped their beliefs. There are multiple ways to see the site, including private flights to get a birds-eye view or guided tours with virtual reality goggles so you can see what the area looked like during the Mayan age.
Learn more about all of the destinations and activities you can explore on one of our luxury cruises to the Western Caribbean. Browse itineraries on our website and start planning your next vacation to this heavenly region today.