Belize: Travel/Tourist Information Guide
Belize is located on the eastern coast of Central America. It is bordered to the north by Mexico, by Guatemala to the south and west, and by the Caribbean Sea to the east. It’s the only country in Central America without a coastline of the Pacific Ocean. The capital of Belize is Belmopan, which is located inland, while Belize City is its largest city, located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. Population is estimated at 348,000—the lowest population density in all of Central America. As Central America’s youngest nation, it combines the best of both worlds, having strong ties both to the Caribbean and Latin American region. Belize is a multiethnic state and also highly encourages multilingualism.
The country is divided into six districts: Belize District, Cayo, Corozal, Orange Walk, Stan Creek, and Toledo. Belize District is where you’ll find Belize City, the main airport, and a host of popular offshore islands. Cayo is the rugged central region filled with caves, jungles, rivers, and Mayan ruins. Corozal is a coastal district while Orange Walk is an inland district. Stann Creek is a quiet coastal region south of Belize District, with attractive reef islands and boats going to and from Honduras. Toledo, the southernmost region, has Mayan ruins and boats going to Guatemala. The terrain is mostly flat, swampy coastal plains with forests to the north and low, rugged mountains to the south. Over 60% of the land is covered by forests, and around 20% of the land is cultivated for agriculture and human settlements. The remaining 20% comprises of marshlands, savannahs, and scrublands. The highest point in the country is Doyle’s Delight at 1,124 m (3,688 ft), and the lowest point is the Caribbean Sea at 0 m. Belize is just slightly larger than El Salvador, Massachusetts, Wales, and Israel.
Belize has verdant jungles spanning from the Shipstern Nature Reserve in the northeast, to the Maya Mountains in the southwest. Exploring the terrain could lead one to an array of exotic flora and fauna, or ancient ruins—remnants of a once great Mayan kingdom. The southwest portion facing the Caribbean Sea is lined with miles of white sand, thriving reefs, and clear, turquoise waters. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second longest in the world and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These alluring waters are a major attraction in Belize and serve as a haven for swimmers, snorkelers, divers, kayakers, windsurfers, deep sea fishers, even sunbathers.
Belize is abundant in both terrestrial and marine species, plus a diversity of ecosystems. The country’s ideal position between North and South America allows for a wide range of climates and habitats for both animal and plant life. Its relatively low human population is also a contributing factor for the survival of various wildlife. As of 2010, 36% of Belize’s total land area has been designated as protected areas. Also, 13% of the country’s territorial waters including the Belize Barrier Reef are protected. The country has a low deforestation rate and a high forest cover. Belize also has potential for geology, minerals, and energy like crude oil and hydroelectric, as well as renewable energy resources like biomass and solar.
Belize is a tropical country, which means the weather is warm and humid most of the time, and there are only two seasons—rainy and dry. The rainy season lasts from late June to November, while the dry season is from February to May. Hurricanes are common during the rainy season, sometimes resulting in coastal flooding especially in the south. Mean temperatures vary from 21°C/69°F in the hills to 29°C/84°F along the coast. Temperatures are cooler in the higher inland areas. The hottest month is May and the coldest month is January. Coastal sea breezes plus surrounding jungles and rainforests contribute a cooling effect even during the summer months. Belize has had a long history of devastating hurricanes, the most recent one being Hurricane Richard, a category 2 hurricane that hit the capital and caused millions of damages to crops, properties, and housing. The best time to visit Belize is from late November to mid-April, during the dry season.
Originally a part of the British Empire as one of its West Indian island colonies, Belize shares common colonial history with other former British-occupied Caribbean countries. How the name “Belize” came about is not exactly clear, but the earliest record of it comes from the journal of Fray José Delgado, a Spanish Dominican priest. While traveling north along the Caribbean coast, Delgado recorded the names of the rivers he and his companions crossed: Rio Balis, Rio Soyte, and Rio Xibum. When translated into the Mayan language, Rio Balis is “belix” or “beliz”, which means “muddy-watered”. Muddy-watered may refer to the northern landscape which is dominated by swampy coasts or marshlands.
Belize was once the centre of one of the world’s most ancient and mysterious civilizations—the Mayan civilization. Numerous archeological sites dating to the Maya Classic Period (250-1000 A.D.) are scattered around the country. Mayan ruins are a complex of structures—there are enormous steps leading to tall stone temples with tops featuring 360-degree jungle views, excavated tombs with intricate hieroglyphs, and natural caves once used for ritual sacrifices.
Belize is a melting pot of cultures and languages. Creoles make up almost a quarter of the population. They are an Afro-European or Afro-Caribbean mix concentrated mostly near the Caribbean coast. Then there’s the native Mayan population living mostly in the north and northwest part of the country, where Spanish is commonly spoken. Along the Caribbean coast to the southeast live the Garifuna, an Afro-Amerindian culture. They account for 5% of the population. Mestizos are the largest ethnic group in Belize, accounting for half of the population. The mestizo culture started when the Spaniards intermarried with the Mayans. German-speaking Mennonites account for 4% of the population. They are mostly farmers and craftsmen with origins from Russian Mennonites of German descent who settled in territories held by the Russian Empire during the 18th-19th centuries. Most of them came from Mexico during the 1950s, and some of them came from Mennonite communities in Canada and the United States during the 1960s. During the 1980s, significant mestizo population from conflicted nations like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, fled their own countries to seek refuge in Belize. They continue to change the country’s demographics.
Belize is the only Central American country with English as its official language. More than half of the population is bilingual, and many are multilingual. Most Belizeans speak in English and Spanish, or Belizean Creole, locally known as Kriol—an English-based Creole language. In daily social and informal interactions, locals speak Kriol with each other, but will speak in full English when conversing with foreigners or when in a formal setting. Locals speak with a very pronounced Caribbean accent. Mestizos, Latinos, and Hispanics speak Spanish as their first language. In schools all over the country, Spanish is taught as a second language. In the northern towns like Corozal and San Pedro, a mixture of Spanish and Kriol is spoken, which is called “Kitchen Spanish”. There are three Mayan languages spoken by the Mayan population: Q’eqchi’, Mopan, and Yucatec Maya. Majority of the Mennonite population speak Plautdietsch, a German dialect, while Mennonites from the U.S. speak Pennsylvania Dutch.
Half of the local population is Roman Catholic, while the other half comprise of different Protestant groups and other religions. Many Belizeans are religious and consider Sundays an important time for family, church, and relaxation. Most businesses are closed during Sundays and social events during this day are more likely to be low-key.
Belize is known to be the origin of chewing gum and punta music. Punta music has Afro-Caribbean origins and is a popular genre of Garifuna music. The country is also popular for its festive September Celebrations. Popular tourist activities in Belize include exploration of Mayan ruins, a day tour of Old Belize, cave exploration, scuba diving, snorkeling, sport fishing, horseback riding, and zip lining.
Belizean cuisine is a hybrid of all major ethnicities in the country. Their food can be best described as closely resembling Mexican/Jamaican/Anglo-Caribbean cuisine. Belizeans are fond of rice, red beans, and chicken. Breakfast typically includes homemade fry jacks, bread, or flour tortillas. While in Belize, try various local fare like ceviche—a citrus-marinated seafood dish, escabeche—onion soup, falmaau—fish with coconut milk, hodut—mashed plantains with dumpling consistency often eaten with falmaau, panades—fried maize shells filled with beans or fish, and papusa—maize pancakes with different toppings. Once you get away from the big cities and further into the rural areas, the more the food gets simpler. The staple for Mayans are beans, maize, and squash. The Garifuna are fond of cassava, fresh seafood, and vegetables. When it comes to drinks, they offer Belikin—the national beer, One Barrel Rum—a locally-distilled molasses-flavored rum, and cashew wine, which is a very popular drink.
The tourism industry in Belize has grown significantly in the last decade. It has become the mainstay of the country’s economy, even surpassing the agricultural industry. Major locally-produced agricultural products in Belize are sugar, bananas, and oranges. The local currency is the Belizean dollar (BZD), and the U.S. Dollar is also widely accepted.
Belizeans are very proud of their culture and are friendly and welcoming to visitors. They are some of the most socially relaxed people in the world and enjoy casual conversation. That, coupled with the generally slower pace of life, contributes to Belize’s charm. Mayan communities can be a bit more reserved, and they value politeness and respect especially to elders. Belize can both be safe and dangerous for foreigners and tourists. Violent gang-related crimes are common in Belize City and the surrounding poor areas. Caution should always be exercised especially when dealing with strangers. Stay in the designated tourist zone that spans north of the marina to the southern extension east of the main canal. Do not wander alone at night. Tourist police forces dressed in khaki regularly monitor the area, and in case of any problem, they are there to help. Infrastructure in Belize is very basic and pay phones are the most common public phones. There are internet cafes in the bigger cities and popular tourist areas, but are infrequent in rural areas.
Getting around Belize
In Belize, public buses are the main form of transportation. There are bus terminals in large cities and towns such as Belmopan or Belize City. In smaller towns, there are bus stops. Locals catch a bus simply by standing on the side of the highway and flagging one down the road. Other means of transportation are taxis, water taxis, and rental cars.