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Tourist Profile: Belize

Wedged into the northeastern corner of Central America between Mexico's Yucatán peninsula and the Petén forests of Guatemala, Belize offers some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in the Caribbean. Belize is a bit of the side-slip of Central America. It has more of the looks of the neighbouring Caribbean Islands than the surrounding countries: the medium is English, most of the inhabitants are Creole and it has a "coup-free" history. And above all there is a very relaxing, laidback atmosphere.

In a way this country does not belong in the list with the other Latin American countries, but for a long time Spain did have his grand influence on the country and therefore we think it's a country you shouldn't miss in your travel through the Latin Americans. In certain areas of the country, such as Orange Walk and Corozal District in the north and the Cayo district in the west, Spanish is spoken as a mother tongue by the majority of the people. The country actually consists of marginally more sea than land, with the dazzling turquoise shallows and cobalt depths of the longest barrier reef in the Americas just offshore. Go snorkelling or diving and take a look in the brilliant, techni-colour world of fish and corals.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

Belize can be a difficult place to travel - only three of its major highways are fully paved, prices are high for this part of the world, and except in the touristed areas hotels are few and far between. Because of Belize's small population and lack of industry, much of Belize has remained virtually undisturbed. About 66% of the country is still forested.

The Cayo District is the Belizean frontier (you'll see more cowboys on horseback than in any other part of the country).The Cayo District has some of the most beautiful scenic attractions in Belize: clear, meandering rivers, lush jungles, green hillsides, thundering waterfalls, huge cave systems, two of Belize's most important Mayan ruins, and a pine ridge forest reminiscent of the Sierras. It's rich with wildlife and a favoured destination for eco-tourists. Scattered along the reef, a chain of islands, the cayes protect the mainland from the ocean swell and offer more than a hint of tropical paradise. Beyond the reef lie the real jewels in Belize's natural crown - three (Blue Hole,Half Moon Caye and Turneffe Islands) of only four coral atolls in the western hemisphere. The two most visited islands are Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. Caulker is commonly thought of as the low-budget island and Ambergris is more resort-oriented and the largest of the country's cayes. San Pedro started as a fishing village and has become the largest tourism destination in Belize. A beautiful caye with white coral beaches offers a full variety of tourism facilities, and easy access to the reef.


The very small Caye Caulker is two islands now since Hurricane Hattie split it just north of the village in 1961.The reef is just a short boat ride from the eastern shore and offers some of the world's most exciting diving, snorkelling and fishing. The ramshackle, colourful Caribbean Belize City was Belize's former capital and is the country's only settlement of any size. The tropical storms which periodically razed the town in the 19th and early 20th centuries still arrive to do damage to its ageing wooden buildings. When there's no storm, Belize City bustles, steams and swelters. Few people come to Belize City for a holiday or to see the sights but it's the transport and commercial hub of the country, so travellers are likely to spend some time here. When you're there anyway, go visit attractions like Battlefield Park, which is always busy with vendors, St John's Cathedral (the oldest Anglican church (1847) in Central America), the Bliss Institute (the city's cultural center), the Paslow Building (post office) and of course the Image Factory Art Foundation (showcasing work by Belizean). The main commercial streets are Albert, Regent, King and Orange Sts. Belmopan is the country's new capital city and lies in the Cayo district, carved out of the tropical jungle in the geographic center of Belize, near the foothills of the Maya Mountains. It has a population of nearly 7000, most of whom are civil servants, and is in the first phase of a 20 year development period.

The most imposing building is the National Assembly on Independence Hill, patterned in an ancient Mayan motif. The Belmopan New Museum has an impressive number of attractions many of the Mayan treasures uncovered throughout Belize's countryside. Go visit the Independence Plaza which marks the center of the city. Next to the plaza is the Market Square where much of the local commerce takes place; vendors sell everything from tropical fruits and tomalleys to Mennonite watermelons and copycat designer jewellery. Or visit the Guancaste National Park, a few minutes out of Belmopan, one of the oldest reserves in Belize. Placencia is perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula in Southern Belize but this laid-back beach town is worth every bump and grind of the dirt roads you need to travel to get here. All commerce and activity used to be carried out by boat, thus the village's 'main street' is just a narrow concrete footpath less than 1m (3ft) wide. The main attractions are the beaches and water sports, but there's also fishing, bird and manatee watching, overnight camping on remote cayes and excursions to jungle rivers. Although Belize is a small country; there's always much more to see. Because of the very low-developed tourism you can feel like a discoverer yourself and see places that you've never heard about before.

The best time to travel is the dry season from November to May, but this is also the busy winter tourist season, when prices rise and hotels fill up. It's cheaper to travel in summer (July to November), but keep in mind that this is hurricane season.

Currency: Belizean dollar (BZ$)

  • Budget: US$3-7
  • Mid-range: US$7-10
  • Top-end: US$10 and upwards
  • Budget: US$8-15
  • Mid-range: US$15-25
  • Top-end: US$25 and upwards

Compared to the rest of Central America, Belize can be expensive. Even if you're travelling there on a budget, you'll pay at least US$15 (and more often US$20) per day for a room and three meals. On the upside, staying at a flashier hotel and eating decently won't push your costs up much higher than this. It's easy to change US dollars just about anywhere, and US dollar travellers' cheques, pounds sterling and Canadian dollars can be changed at any bank. Other currencies could cause you difficulties. You can change money legally on the street or at border crossings (at a better rate than the banks will give you). Belizean ATMs will not accept foreign cards. Most businesses will accept cold hard US cash money without question. Haggling is not a popular pastime in Belize, but it might be worth a try if business looks slow. Only the posher restaurants, bars and clubs are likely to expect a tip - 10% is the going rate. In over- touristed areas, tipping tour leaders and dive operators is becoming more common.

The first inhabitants of Belize were the Maya and Carib Indians. Belize was a part of the great Mayan empire which stretched through Guatemala, southern Mexico and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Though the history of the Maya can be traced back for over 4000 years, the Classic Period of more advanced Mayan civilization began around the 3rd century AD and reached its height between the 6th and 8th centuries. By the 14th century it was in serious decline. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, many of the Mayan cities were deserted.

The Spanish considered Belize a backwater suitable only for cutting logwood to be used for dye. Although the Spanish 'owned' Belize, they did not rule it. The lack of effective government and the safety afforded by the reef attracted English and Scottish pirates during the 17th century. When piracy became passé, many of the pirates began working in the logging trade. Belize was British by tradition and sympathy by the time that a British force routed the Spanish armada off St George's Caye in 1798, delivering Belize from Spanish rule. In 1862, while the USA was embroiled in its Civil War and unable to enforce the terms of the Monroe Doctrine, Great Britain declared Belize to be the colony of British Honduras. After WWII, Belize's economy weakened, leading to agitation for independence.

Democratic political parties and institutions were formed and self-government was granted in 1964. The government decided to build a new capital at Belmopan in 1970, after Hurricane Hattie all but destroyed Belize City in 1961. Independence became a reality in September 1981 when British Honduras officially became Belize, a member of the British Commonwealth. Guatemala, which had territorial claims on Belize, threatened war in 1972, but British troops were stationed in Belize to make sure the dispute remained purely diplomatic.

During the volatile 1980s, Belize remained stable and pro-US, thanks predominantly to large influxes of US aid. In 1992, a new Guatemalan government recognized Belize's territorial integrity. The British garrison was withdrawn in 1994; Belize now has a standing army of only a few hundred soldiers. Since the fall of General Noriega in Panama, Belize has become a major transshipment point for cocaine heading into the US from South America. Cultivation and smuggling of marijuana is also prevalent.

The small population of Belize is culturally diverse. This multiplicity of ethnicities, languages, religions, modes of dress, cuisines, styles of music, and folklore reflects the cultural mix. There are many ethnically distinct communities, but people of different groups also mix in many social contexts: at work, in schools, and in the political parties that are not ethnically based. Though prejudices exist, there is no history of interethnic violence in Belize.

The social class of the people—whether they are poor or middle class—affects whether they will have such amenities as a car or television and influences as well whether their children will complete secondary school. Belizeans who have television watch mostly foreign programs, such as Mexican soap operas and North American sports; and the music they listen to largely reflects the traditions of their ethnic group, though recorded music from the Caribbean and United States is widely enjoyed by young people. One hybrid musical form, “punta rock,” seems to blend Caribbean soca, calypso, and reggae styles with merengue, salsa, and hip-hop. Also popular are the traditional sounds of brukdown—the tapping of assorted bottles, tables, cans, or other objects—an energetic percussion that originated in the logging camps.

Food also reflects ethnicity and international influences, but corn tortillas and rice and beans are widespread staples. Other assorted fare may include Jamaican stews and jerks, Mexican-style chillies, or English roasts. One of the special “national dishes” is the tailless gibnut (Agouti paca; a relative of the guinea pig), called the “Royal Rat” on many Belizean restaurant menus because the British press had objected to its being served to Elizabeth II in 1985. Locally produced rum, beer, and chicha (a fermented corn drink) are common, as are soft drinks.