Belize, formerly the colony of British Honduras, is the only country in Central America without a coastline on the Pacific Ocean (only the Caribbean Sea to its east), and the only one in the region with English as its official language. The country is located between Guatemala to the west and south and Mexico to the north.
With a long Caribbean coast, Belize is culturally similar to many of Britain's former West Indian island colonies, with a majority creole/(Afro-European mixture) or Afro-Caribbean population. Inland are the native Maya people, and especially in the north and northwest of the country Spanish is the first language spoken. In the south east along the Caribbean coast live the Garifuna (Black Caribs) an Afro-Amerindian culture. German speaking Mennonites also call Belize home.
World class attractions include exploring the lush jungles with exotic plants and animals, deep sea fishing, swimming, snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean sea with its attractive reefs, and visiting the Maya ruins. Income levels are still very low and the infrastructure is very basic. Belizeans are very proud and friendly to visitors and the tourist industry grew greatly in the last decade.
Like the neighboring parts of Guatemala and Mexico, this area was settled for thousands of years by the Maya people. They are still here, an important part of Belize's people and culture. While the Spanish Empire claimed the area in the 16th century, the Spanish made little progress in settling here. The British settled first on the coast and offshore islands for logging. In 1798 British Belizean forces defeated a Spanish attempt to drive them out in the Battle of St. George's Caye, whose anniversary is still celebrated as a holiday each 10 September.
The colony of "British Honduras" grew in the 19th century. At first Africans were brought in as slaves, but slavery was abolished here in 1838. Many refugees from the 19th century Caste War of Yucatan escaped the conflict to settle in Belize, especially the northern section.
The government of Guatemala long claimed to have inherited the Spanish claim to Belize; the territorial dispute delayed the independence of Belize until 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation until 1991. The Guatemalan territorial claim to Belize adversely affected the security and development of Belize for decades. A boundary treaty was concluded between Britain and Guatemala in 1859, and the diplomatic exchanges between the British and Guatemalan governments from 1860 to 1950 hardly impacted on the daily lives of the people in the then British colony.
Belize escaped the bloody civil conflicts of the 1980s that engulfed much of Central America, and refugees from the conflict in Guatemala arrived, mostly settling in the west. While Belize has not been immune to the rampant drug crime and grinding poverty of its neighbors it is a comparatively safe destination in a conflict prone part of the world.
Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy as the old agricultural products - sugar, banana, and oranges - have lost ground. The country remains plagued by high unemployment, growing involvement in the South American drug trade, and increased urban crime. In 2006 commercial quantity oil was discovered in the Spanish Lookout area.
Tropical; warm and humid; rainy season (May to November); dry season (February to May). Hurricanes season (June to November) brings some coastal flooding (especially in south). Weather in Belize varies with location, the north is the driest while the south has the most rainfall. Cool weather is from November to March and this coincides with the peak tourism season when tourists are fleeing harsh winter weather in North America.
Flat, swampy coastal plain; low mountains in south. Highest point: Victoria Peak 1,160 m. Lowest Point: Caribbean Sea, at 0 m.
American, Mexican, Canadian, Singaporean, Jamaican, Australian, Malaysian and EU passport holders do not need a visa, but need a valid passport. Cruise ship visitors do not even need a passport. The Belize.com Editors maintain up-to-date Belize visa information. When leaving country by land, prepare to pay border tax (around B$38) in cash. The cheapest way to get to Belize is not via the traditional U.S. to Belize air route. North America to Cancun, Mexico by air, then via ADO Bus first class bus to Belize is the preferred route for savvy budget travellers.
The Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (IATA: BZE) (ICAO: MZBZ) is in Ladyville, to the northwest of Belize City where it receives international direct flights from Atlanta, Charlotte, Newark, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Flores, San Salvador, Roatan and San Pedro Sula.
From Mexico via Chetumal, or on a much rougher road from Guatemala via Melchor de Mencos.
Several cruise lines call on Belize City. Unfortunately they usually stay only one day, which doesn't allow the opportunity to really see Belize. You can visit one of the Maya ruins, ride an airboat in the salt marshes just outside the city, shop, go to the museum, go to the zoo or take either a short cave rafting trip or go snorkeling, but that's about it. That means about 70% of the things most tourists would like aren't available, not mention the eco-tourism points of interest.
To Puerto Cortés, Honduras, the Gulf Cruza, a small rickety speed boat (20 people) leaves Placencia each Friday at around 9:30AM (4h US$50), going first to Big Creek. It returns to Placencia on Monday. Tickets are sold in the tourist office next to the gas station. Stop by immigration first.
Small speedboats operate on a daily basis between Puerto Barrios in Guatemala to Punta Gorda, cost is around US$20 one way. On Tuesday and Fridays, boats operate from Livingston in Guatemala to Punta Gorda. The ride take no more than 1 hour. Its B$50. There is also a B$30 departure tax plus B$7.50 marine park fee. Foreigners are required to pay departure taxes and a conservation upkeep fee when leaving Belize via land, air, or water. These fees are only applicable to locals when flying.
To travel between Belize City and the islands (Caye Caulker, San Pedro) and even Chetumal, Mexico you can travel by water taxi. San Pedro Belize Express is the best choice for reliable schedules and trained staff. The water taxi is reliable, safe, and depart often. You can catch the water taxi in Belize City at Brown Sugar Terminal near the tourist village. For more information about departure times you can check out the water taxi site online at the Belize Water Taxi website. This site provides the time tables, and further information about travel.
Belize is a fairly small country, and transportation between most destinations is rarely long and tedious.
Tropic Air and Maya Island Air both have multiple flights daily to various towns around the country and to Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. They fly out of both of Belize City's airports, but flights from Belize City Airport (IATA: TZA) are often significantly cheaper than those out of Phillip Goldson International (IATA: BZE). Domestic flights are generally pretty reasonable, and thus popular if your time is limited and budget is not. Flights are operated with planes ranging from 8 to 68 seats. Because of the limited capacity, booking in advance is advisable. Some hotels do also offer to make the flight reservation on your behalf.
Several competing buslines operate on the main road in the north-south direction from Punta Gorda to Belmopan and Belize City. There are bus stations in the main towns, or simply stand on the side of the highway and wave at an approaching bus. Most buses have a conductor in addition to the driver, who stands by the door and will come to your seat to collect the fare at some point during the trip. Fares run anywhere from BZ$2-25 depending on distance traveled.
Express buses can save up to an hour and a half (depending on the distance of your trip); they do not stop for passengers waiting on the roadside, making only scheduled pick-ups and drop-offs in towns.
Most buses in Belize are retired US school buses (Bluebirds), that have been given a slight makeover, a luggage rack installed, and sometimes a new paint job. They generally aren't too crowded, but you may have to stand occasionally.
Children selling snacks and soft drinks often board the buses at stops, and this is an inexpensive way to have a snack if you've exhausted what you've brought along or just want to try some home-made travel foods.
By water taxi
For those wanting a truly Belizean experience, take the water taxis from city to city. The San Pedro Belize Express has the most daily runs and departs from the Brown Sugar Terminal in Belize City at 9AM, 11AM, 12:00 noon, 1PM, 3PM, 4PM and 5:30PM to San Pedro and Caye Caulker.
Departure from San Pedro Town pier on Black Coral Street next to Wahoo's Bar and Grill and leaves at 7AM, 8:30AM, 10AM, 11:30AM, 12:30PM, 2:30PM, 4:30PM to Caye Caulker and Belize City as well as a last boat to Caye Caulker only at 6PM.
There are boats departing from Caye Caulker to both Belize City and San Pedro Town and they leave from the pier in front of the Basket Ball Court. Caye Caulker to Belize City: 7:30AM, 9AM, 10:30AM, 12:00 noon, 1PM, 3PM, 5PM and Caye Caulker to San Pedro: 7AM (Connection to Chetumal), 9:45AM, 11:45PM, 12:45AM, 1:45PM, 3:45PM, 4:45PM and last boat 6:15PM.
Chetumal Runs are available from Caye Caulker at 7AM and from San Pedro at 7:30AM.
Traveling from Chetumal to Belize, the boat leaves the Municipal Pier at 3:30PM en route to San Pedro (90 min) and Caye Caulker (120 min).
Rates: Belize City to San Pedro, San Pedro to Belize City: $30 Belize or $15 US (one way), $55 Belize or $27.50 US (round trip) Caye Caulker to San Pedro, Belize City to Caye Caulker: $20 Belize or $10 US (one way), $35 Belize or $17.50 US(round trip)
Of course, if you like to make our own itinerary when traveling around Belize, car hire is an option. Driving around Belize can be fun.There are several car hire companies based at the major airports for travelers convenience and some basic rules to remember are that the roads are bumpy - very bumpy - so a four wheel drive is the best choice. Lighting on minor roads is not great so stick to highways or day time driving. The main highways through Belize are the Northern Highway, beginning at the Mexican border, The Western Highway from Belize City to the border of Guatamala and the Hummingbird Highway which takes you to the Southern part of Belize. These will take you pretty much anywhere you need to be and are relatively well-maintaned roads. The Hummingbird Highway is the oldest, and roughest of the paved highways, and you will often experience potholes, stretches of gravel, and unmarked speed bumps along the way, especially in the mountains. Always use caution when entering the vicinity of towns and villages. The newest paved road is the Placencia turn-off, which is smooth and very well-marked all the way to the southernmost tip of the Placencia Peninsula.
As a former British colony the official language of Belize is English, which makes it stand out from its Spanish speaking neighbors. Spanish, Maya, Garifuna (Carib), and Belizean Creole are widely spoken in various parts of the country. Many Belizeans speak a mix of Creole and English among friends, and full English to foreigners. The strong Caribbean accent may take some getting used to.
Old Belize is a landmark attraction, offering a total Belize experience for locals and tourists.
At its heart is the Old Belize Exhibit, a stirring, large as life, cultural and historical display taking visitors back in time to various defining segments of Belize’s past, with authentic relics from key periods, a haunting introductory teaser to the Mayan legacy in Belize, an eerie depiction of the Belize City of Colonial days, an intimate glimpse into 18th century logging camps, and more.
Old Belize also features the only beach in Belize City, the Old Belize Marina, a full service restaurant, plus conference facilities and banquet hall.
Old Belize is located at Mile 5 on the Western Highway, a $10 US cab ride from the Tourist Village, Brown Sugar Terminal, downtown Belize City, and most central locations in Belize City.
Soar over Belize's rain forest by taking a Zip-line tour. These tours usually begin with a short hike up to the first base where a tutorial is given on how to safely use your equipment.
Sportfishing in Belize is second to none. The bonefish is the premier fly fishing game fish in the world and it can be found in the grass shallows through Belize. It's pound for pound perhaps the strongest animal in salt-water.
Also world-class is the snorkeling and scuba diving. There are many exceptional dive sites to be found in Belize. One of the best ways to explore Belize waters is by chartering a sailboat or catamaran \to make the most of your available dive time. For those with a smaller budget, snorkeling and driving excursions can be found along the beaches of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. The most common excursions will take you to both Hol Chan marine reserve and Shark Ray Alley. These trips usually cost about $35USD and includes snorkel gear. Be mindful of an additional $10BZ charged to Foreigners as a park tax. This money goes toward the upkeep, and protection of the reef. / Diving excursions are also offered to the Blue Hole, but expect to pay a lot more for the privilege.
The Cayo district is characterized by limestone hills underlain by a network of underground rivers, caves and sinkholes. The caves are magnificent, with huge caverns and tight passages, underground waterfalls and dazzling arrays of mineral-encrusted stalactites and stalagmites. This underground world was sacred to the ancient Maya and many artifacts from decorated pots to human remains are still intact in the caves. It is dangerous (and illegal) to enter the caves without a licensed guide. Most guides are trained in both the geology and mythology of the caves as well as in modern first aid and cave rescue techniques.
One of Belize's greatest attraction Actun Tunichil Muknal, these spectacular caves combine adventure caving with amazing history. Traverse the cave system and river with a guide to see the calcified Mayan sacrifice remains at the end. Don't be afraid of getting wet.
Ian Anderson's Cave's Branch* Anderson organized the initial guiding training programs in the country, out of which grew the Belize Disaster And Rescue Response Team locally called BDARRT (now an independent NGO).
The Belize dollar (BZD, usually symbolized with a "$") is officially worth exactly 1/2 of a U.S. dollar. Because of this simple and consistent exchange rate, U.S. dollars are widely accepted, but this means you should be careful to clarify which "dollars" you're talking about when negotiating prices. It's often better to assume Belize dollars because many merchants will jump on your uncertainty and attempt to double their price by saying "No, in US Dollars". Belize dollars come in denominations of $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100; $1 and smaller amounts are coins. The 25-cent coin is often called a "shilling".
The primary meal found virtually everywhere is red beans, clean rice, and chicken.
Most chicken in the country is prepared and served on the bone.
Rice and Beans is a mixed dish with some spices and usually coconut milk added to make a sweet and hot staple of the Belizean diet. Beans and Rice is white cooked rice with a side of stewed red kidney, black or pinto beans.
Citrus plantations are numerous, so fresh oranges and grapefruits are abundant. Pineapples, papayas, bananas and plantains are also grown and sold in roadside markets.
A famous hot sauce in Belize is Marie Sharp's made from the very potent local habanero pepper. It comes in a variety of flavors (mild, hot, extremely hot).
Eating in tourist towns such as San Pedro and Placencia can be very expensive if you eat at the tourist restaurants however if you find the local places, meals can be very inexpensive and very tasty.
For the uninitiated, that odd looking salsa on your table is really ceviche. Ceviche - also spelled as cebiche or seviche - is a citrus-marinated seafood dish. Belizeans use fresh raw conch and / or shrimp, lime juice, vegetables such as cilantro and carrots to make this tasty and refreshing dish. Ceviche is healthy eating and excellent as a snack or main dish at beer parties. A recent innovation by Belizean chefs is to use the invasive Lion Fish for ceviche. This fish is also delicious when grilled and helps keep down the number of this species in an eco-friendly way.
Pupusas are hot corn (maize) pancakes stuffed with beans and / or chicharron (fried pork rind) and topped with marinated veggies sold in stalls on the streets in most towns thoughout the country. It is the cheapest and safest option if you want to eat on a budget.
Belikin is the national beer and comes in four varieties: Belikin Premium, Belikin Beer, Belikin Stout, and Lighthouse Lager. Guinness Stout is also available in Belize but it is brewed by the Belikin Brewing Co. All are sold in returnable bottles, so make sure you are aware of the deposit if you are taking your beverages to go.
One Barrel Rum is the locally-distilled molasses-tasting rum. Travelers Rum has a distillary on the Northern Highway about 6 miles from Belize City with a gift shop and hospitality bar. You can purchase rum in a variety of colors and sizes, up to a 70 gallon cask.
Both are widely available around the country. But if you also like wine there is cashew wine (which is very popular in Belize), ginger wine, sorrel wine and blackberry wine.
There are great opportunities for scuba diving off of Belize atolls. Check out [www.reefci.com] for some very interesting 1 week adventures that are both informative conservation education as well as great scuba diving. If you want to learn about Belize's history the Museum of Belize, House of Culture, and of course, traveling and discovering are recommended.
Violent gang related crime is extremely high as of late, especially in Belize City and surrounding areas. The violence is a consequence of narcotic trafficking and the struggle for power in the streets according to the Belize Country Profile. Rape, theft and assaults are daily occurrences in many parts of the country. Human trafficking also plays a role. Travelers should maintain a high degree of vigilance when traveling the country. Like South Africa, Belize can be equally as safe as it is dangerous. Because of gaps in the economy and the lack of social welfare, many of the poor areas are prone to crime. Exercise caution, avoid areas that have obvious amounts of poverty or crime, and Belize can be a very safe and rewarding country.
Belize City is one of the most dangerous cities in Belize, although it's very easy to be safe there. Remain in the tourist zone that runs just north of the marina to the southern extension to the east of the main canal. There are plenty of khaki tourist police monitoring the area, and should you have a problem, feel free to approach them. Be sure to know the police officer. Belize City is known for corrupt police officers. Just exercise common sense and do not go wandering around alone after dark. Stay near tourist areas or other commercial zones. Read and carefully study the latest Belize Travel Advisory.
Other areas of Belize are generally safe as well, but like any other place in the world, one should always have some skepticism when dealing with strangers. Most are genuinely helpful, but it never hurts to be cautious. Belize City south side is beautiful as well as dangerous. Otherwise, Belize City is a great place to go if you want to eat, learn or shop.
Some travellers believe the government harassment of American software pioneer John McAfee and the arrest of his friends and staff in late 2012 on trumped-up charges, was the highlight of the downturn in governance and probity in Belize. Some expats encourage a travel boycott until the Belize government and its heavy-handed Gang Supression Unit (the GSU) desist from these activities and return to the rule of law. Obviously whether a prospective traveller wishes to factor Belize's poor recent human rights record into travel plans is for the individual to decide.
Belize is a relatively healthy country. Bottled water is a must in most areas. And, unless you eat only at tourist restaurants, dysentery may strike at some point; be prepared with over-the-counter medication and prescription antibiotics. Medical care in Belize is not up to first world standards.
The CDC lists all of Belize except Belize City as a malaria risk area, and recommends the antimalarial drug chloroquine. Other drugs may also be recommended in certain circumstances - consult a qualified professional specialist.
Insect and mosquito bites should be prevented with appropriate clothing, repellents and insecticides, and bed nets if sleeping in non-air-conditioned and unscreened rooms.
The sun, as anywhere else in the tropics, is very intense. A hat, high-SPF sunscreen, and sunglasses should do you fine. For public events in the summer, umbrellas, light and loose clothing and a couple liters of cold purified water will hold you in good stead if you must venture out in the midday sun.
Many places in Belize are very hot and humid, and dehydration is a risk. An expat suggests to drink as much water as you want, and then drink that much again. Lamentably, and because of high crime, many public events - for example football games, school children parades, the annual Agriculture Fair in Belmopan and others - are held during the day under the broiling summer sun when temperatures can easily reach over 100 Farenheit.
The adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is currently at 2.5% or 1 per 40 adults.
Belizeans are some of the most socially relaxed people in the world, especially if you venture inland away from the tourist islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. The pace of life is generally slower in Belize, so it's good practice to begin any social interaction, even to ask a quick question, with eye contact and a genuinely pleasant greeting. Most rural Belizeans enjoy casual conversation and you could easily find yourself chatting it up for a few hours. Hey, it's part of the charm!
The Maya communities can be a little more reserved at times. As always, a little respect and politeness will carry you through.
Payphones are the most common public phones in country, and accept only pre-purchased phone cards. Cellular phones are the most popular forms of communication in Belize.
Internet cafes can be found in larger tourist areas, but are infrequent in rural areas. The government does not allow Skype and forces tourists to call out of the country using its only government-owned phone company.