|Currency||Belizean dollar (BZD)|
|Population||287,730 (July 2006 est.)|
|Electricity||120/60Hz (North American plug)|
Belize, formerly 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. Belize is located between Guatemala to the west and south and Mexico to the north.
With its British colonial history and a long Caribbean coast, Belize is culturally similar to many of Britain's former West Indian island colonies, with a majority creole or Afro-Caribbean population. But it also includes a large native Mayan population, especially in the north and northwest of the country. As a result, although English is the official language, Spanish is also often spoken. In the south east along the Caribbean coast live the Garifuna (Black Caribs), an Afro-Amerindian culture.
After long journeys starting in what is now the Netherlands in 1790, via Germany, South Russia, Canada, the United States, and Mexico several thousand German speaking Mennonite Christians arrived in Belize in 1958 after long and detailed discussions with the government regarding specific exemptions and privileges.
World class attractions include exploring the lush jungles with exotic plants and animals, deep sea fishing, swimming, snorkelling and diving in the Caribbean sea with its attractive reefs, and visiting the Mayan ruins. Income levels are still very low and the infrastructure is very basic. The Belizeans are very proud and friendly to visitors and the tourist industry grew greatly in the last decade.
Like the neighbouring 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 Yucatán 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, and even today lays claim to much of the country.
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 neighbours 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 quantities of oil were discovered in the Spanish Lookout area.
Tropical, very hot and humid. The dry season typically lasts from February to May and then the rainy season typically lasts through to November. Hurricanes that bring coastal flooding, especially in the south, are prevalent in June to November.
The flat coastal plain is swampy with low mountains in the south. The highest point is Victoria Peak at 1,160 m.
Districts of Corozal (coastal) and Orange Walk (inland).
Home of the largest city, the airport and a whole host of popular offshore islands.
Teeming with adventure, this central district is filled with jungles, caves, rivers, Mayan ruins, and much more.
Coastal region south of Belize District, access to quiet reef islands and boats to and from Honduras.
Southern coastal/inland region with more Mayan ruins and boats to Guatemala.
- Belmopan - inland capital
- Belize City - Belize's largest city, on the Caribbean Sea
- Big Creek
- Crooked Tree
- Dangriga - Large Garifuna town in the south, formerly known as Stann Creek Town
- Orange Walk
- Punta Gorda - Beautiful, quiet port town in the South; home to a complex and diverse Amerindian market on the weekends
- San Ignacio - known as Cayo to locals, Maya and Hispanic influence near the Guatemala border
- Benque Viejo del Carmen - Normally just called "Benque", 3 km from the border of Guatemala
- Ambergris Caye - large barrier island in the north
- Caye Caulker - smaller barrier island in the north
- Placencia peninsula - long peninsula (almost an island) off Stann Creek
- Tobacco Caye
- Lighthouse Reef Atoll
US, Mexican, Canadian, Singaporean, Jamaican, Australian, Malaysian and EU passport holders do not need a visa, but need valid passports. Cruise ship visitors do not even need a passport! The Belize Tourism Board maintains up-to-date information. When leaving country by land, prepare to pay border tax (around BZD38) in cash.
The Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (IATA: BZE) 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.
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 snorkelling, 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 09:30 (4 hr USD50), 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 USD20 one way. On Tuesday and Fridays, boats operate from Livingston in Guatemala to Punta Gorda. The ride takes no more than one hour. It's BZD50. There's also a BZD30 departure tax plus BZD7.50 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.
San Pedro Belize Express has over 25 daily departures, 14 first class boats.
Belize is a fairly small country, and transportation between most destinations is rarely long or 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. For bookings from outside Belize, there is only one airviva internet agent, who can make bookings, take payment (credit/debit cards/PayPal) and then send e-tickets. Some hotels do also offer to make the flight reservation on your behalf.
Several competing bus lines 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 BZD2–25 depending on distance travelled.
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.
Taxis are common and relatively cheap in Belize. Most taxis do not use meters, so be sure to negotiate the price beforehand.
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 09:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, 15:00, 16:00 and 17:30 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 07:00, 08:30, 10:00, 11:30, 12:30, 14:30, 16:30 to Caye Caulker and Belize City as well as a last boat to Caye Caulker only at 18:00.
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: 07:30, 09:00, 10:30, 12:00, 13:00, 15:00, 17:00 and Caye Caulker to San Pedro: 07:00 (connection to Chetumal), 09:45, 11:45, 12:45, 13:45, 15:45, 16:45 and last boat 18:15.
Chetumal Runs are available from Caye Caulker at 07:00 and from San Pedro at 07:30.
Travelling from Chetumal to Belize, the boat leaves the Municipal Pier at 15:30 en route to San Pedro (90 min) and Caye Caulker (120 min).
Rates: Belize City to San Pedro or return: BZD30 Belize or USD15 (one way), BZD55 or USD27.50 (round trip). Caye Caulker to San Pedro, Belize City to Caye Caulker: BZD20 or USD10 (one way), BZD35 or USD17.50 (round trip).
Compared to most Central American countries, driving in Belize is relatively safe with little crime (except in the San Pedro area), there is not much traffic, and the four major highways are all in good condition. Unfortunately, almost every road off the four major highways is unpaved so a 4-wheel drive vehicle is advisable. It is best not to drive late at night because there is almost no lighting, road signs are poor, and the last stretch is almost certain to be on an unpaved road (you risk breaking an axle on an unseen, but immense, pothole!). You won't need a map because there are few roads and it is hard to get lost.
Rental rates often include insurance so you usually don't need to buy insurance separately. If you plan on using a rental car to visit Tikal in Guatemala, you should plan ahead and you must rent from Crystal Auto Rental because no other company will let you take your car out of Belize. Belize insurance is not valid in Guatemala so check with your credit card or car insurance company to see if they'll cover you for a trip into Guatemala.
Highways in Belize
- The Northern Highway (aka Phillip Goldson Highway) goes from Corozal on the Belize-Mexico border to Belize City via Orange Walk. This is the highway you'll use for the international airport, Altun Ha, and the Lamanai.
- Western Highway (aka George Price Highway) stretches from Belize City, via Belmopan and the Cayo District, to the border with the Guatemalan state of Peten at Benque. Along the way are the Belize Zoo (mile 29), the Hummingbird Highway (mile 47), Belmopan, and San Ignacio (mile 68). Major sights along this route include the adventure itineraries in the Cayo District, Mayan ruins at Xunantunich and access to the road to Caracol, and, from the Guatemalan border, the ruins at TIkal. To get to the Western Highway from the airport, go north on the Northern Highway, make a left at Burrell Boom, and follow the road for 19 km to the Western Highway at Hattieville.
- Hummingbird Highway goes from Belmopan to Dangriga connecting the Western Highway to the Southern Highway. You'll use this highway to get from Cayo, Belize City or the North to the Southern part of Belize. An alternative, slightly shorter, Coastal Highway takes you from Belize City to the Southern Highway but is a mess that is best avoided!
- Southern Highway runs from Dangriga (the Hummingbird Highway) to Punta Gorda, with a recently built section heading to the southern border with Guatemala. Along the way are the coastal towns of Hopkins and Placencia.
As a former British colony, the official language of Belize is English (with non-US spelling), which makes it stand out from its Spanish speaking neighbours.
Spanish, Belizean Creole, Garifuna (Carib) and the Maya dialects of Kekchi, Mopan and Yucatec are spoken in various parts of the country. Spanish is widely used as the first language in northern and western 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.
- The world heritage listed Belize Barrier Reef stretching along the whole coast of Belize.
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.
- Prices range USD65-100 and tours are run by two companies, Jaguar Paw, and Back-A-Bush tours.
Sport fishing 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.
Scuba Diving and snorkelling
The snorkelling and scuba diving is world-class and there are many exceptional dive sites to be found in Belize. One of the best ways to explore Belize waters is by chartering a yacht to make the most of your available dive time.
For those with a smaller budget, snorkelling 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 USD35 and include snorkel gear. Be mindful of an additional BZD10 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 characterised by limestone hills underlain by a network of underground rivers, caves and sink holes. 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 artefacts 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.
- Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge, Caves Branch (Hummingbird Highway south from Belmopan). 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 Sleeping Giant and Caves Branch are operated by the same owner. There are up to 16 different tours they operate everyday. The Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM caves have the highest number of tourists visiting a tourist destination in Central America. Also knows as the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre this river cave has pristine remnants of some Mayan human sacrifices. It is a surreal experience complete with beautiful cave formations an underground river and Mayan collectibles. No wonder the Mayans called it the Xibalba or the dark underworld.
The Belize dollar (currency code of BZD), sometimes written with "B$" or just a dollar sign: "$", is officially worth exactly half of a US dollar. Because of this simple and consistent exchange rate, US dollars (USD) 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 BZD2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100. BZD1 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 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 flavours (mild, hot, extremely hot).
- That odd looking salsa on your table is really ceviche. Ceviche -also spelled as cebiche or seviche- is a citrus-marinated seafood dish. The Belizeans use fresh raw conch and vegetables.
- Papusas are maize pancakes with different toppings sold in stalls on the streets in San Pedro town . It is the cheapest option if you want to eat on a budget.
Eating in San Pedro can be expensive if you eat at the tourist restaurants; however if you find the local places, meals can be very inexpensive and very tasty.
Belikin is the national beer and comes in four varieties: Premium, Beer, Stout, and Lighthouse Lager. Guinness Stout is also available in Belize but it's also 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 and Traveller's Liquors' distillery is 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 colours 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 reefci 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, travelling and discovering are recommended.
Violent gang-related crime is high as of late, especially in Belize City and surrounding areas. The violence is related to narcotic trafficking and the struggle for power in the streets. Theft and assaults are common in some parts of the country. Travelers should maintain a high degree of vigilance. 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 the most dangerous area 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. Just exercise common sense and do not go wandering around alone after dark. Stay near tourist areas or other commercial zones. 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.
Other areas of Belize are generally safe, 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.
Under Section 53 of the Belize criminal code, homosexual activity, even between consenting adults, is a criminal offence punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment, although this law has apparently never been enforced and is currently being challenged in court. Additionally, under Section 5(1) of the Immigration Act, the government is entitled to deny LGBT travelers entrance to Belize. There are also no legal protections in place for victims of anti-gay discrimination in Belize.
Belize is a relatively healthy country. Bottled water is a must in most areas. And, unless you eat only at ultra-touristic restaurants, dysentery will probably strike at some point; be prepared with over-the-counter medication and prescription antibiotics.
The CDC lists all of Belize except Belize City as a malaria risk area, and recommends the antimalarial drug chloroquine. Dengue fever is also a risk in Belize. Other drugs may also be recommended in certain circumstances - consult a qualified professional specialist.
Insect/mosquito bites should be prevented with appropriate clothing, repellents and insecticides, and bed nets if sleeping in non-air-con/unscreened rooms.
The sun, as anywhere else in the tropics, is very intense. A hat, high-SPF sunscreen, and sunglasses should do you fine.
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.
The adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is currently at 2.5% or one in every forty 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 and accept pre-purchased phone cards.
Internet cafés can be found in larger tourist areas, but are infrequent in rural areas.
The government previously did not allow Skype and forced tourists to call out of the country using its own government-owned phone company. In a recent change the main telephone company, Belize Telemedia Limited, has removed blocks from all voice over internet protocol services. Applications such as Skype and Vonage are now able to work within the country and may prove to be a cheaper medium of communication when calling back home.