Hopkins is less of a beach town and more of a beach. Located at the end of a dusty track in a country travelers know best for its cayes, the sun-baked crescent of sand is the end of the road for savvy beachgoers craving access to Belize's thriving reefs, deepest jungles, and unique Afro-Caribbean culture.

Dive charters leaving the fishing boat-covered coast motor an hour or two offshore before dropping swimmers into warm waters above plunging walls covered in corals. The light comes and goes as massive schools of wrasse swim past and six-foot-across eagle rays swoop and soar. The ecosystem is shockingly healthy compared to the rest of the Caribbean, but it is also something of a continuation of the thick forests not far from Hopkins.

A short drive from town down the Southern Highway, a rutted, 4x4-accessible park road, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary welcomes a small number of tourists entirely out of proportion to its considerable beauty. Established in 1990 as the world's first jaguar reserve, the sanctuary is home to not only ravenous cats, but also a variety of bird species, and howler monkeys. The 128,000-acre protected area also encompasses the Cockscomb Mountains, which stand like a giant stone wall emerging from the lush, green rain forest. Some 20 miles of nature trails winds through this natural paradise. Day trekking is highly recommended, but more adventurous types can tackle the Victoria Peak trail, a four-day walk over rough terrain and past Mayan ruins that are only accessible in the dry season. Local guides and permits are, understandably, required.

In fact, the idea of "local" is much stronger and more resonant in Hopkins than in other parts of Belize, a country largely defined by its immigrant groups: the Mennonites, the Chinese, the expats. That's because this is a Garifuna town populated almost entirely by the descendants of West African slaves who escaped from Spanish slave ships in the Grenadines in the early 1600s and interbred with local Carib Indians. The roughly 15,000 Garifuna remaining in Belize are concentrated on this part of the coast, which can sometimes feel almost African due to the drum beats, ceremonial temples, and confusing creole spoken on the streets. Fortunately, the population is extremely open to foreigners. Bars stay hopping into the early hours and local phrases are carefully explained – buiti achüluruni, for example, means "welcome."

More information: Travelers to Hopkins can rent a car at the Belize City airport and make the drive in a few hours or fly to Dangriga on Tropic Air and pay the $100 taxi fare to get south. The former is a better bet since the road winds past marvelous ruins and through the jungle.