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 or Afro-Caribbean population. Inland are the native Maya people, and especially in the north and northwest of the country Spanish is often spoken. Many refugees from the Caste War of Yucatan settled here. 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 Mayan ruins. Belize escaped the bloody civil conflicts of the 80's that engulfed Central America and while it has not been immune to the rampant drug crime and grinding poverty of its neighbors it is a rather safe destination for the most part located in a part of the world that is not always considered safe. 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.
Territorial disputes between the UK and Guatemala delayed the independence of Belize (formerly British Honduras) until 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation until 1991. 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; very hot and humid; rainy season (May to November); dry season (February to May). Hurricanes season (June to November) brings coastal flooding (especially in south).
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 Tourism Board maintains up-to-date information.
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.
Buses from Guatemala City and Belmopan operate to Flores in Guatemala, and to Chetumal in Mexico.
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, which is a rip off! Even worse is the B$30 departure tax plus B$7.50 marine park fee. I never EVER heard of paying a departure tax when leaving by land. Absolute scam!
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. Most flights are in small Cessnas that seat around 8-15 people.
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.
For those wanting a truly Belizean experience, take the water taxis from city to city. Generally it will cost you anywhere from BZ$2.00 to BZ$10.00.
Of course, if you like to make our own itinerary when traveling around Belize, car hire is an option. 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. These will take you pretty much anywhere you need to be and are relatively well-maintaned roads.
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 get some getting used too.
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 and chartering a sailboat or catamaran is an ideal way to make the most of your available dive time. Very few offer all-inclusive options, but one that does is Legacy Adventure Catamaran Charters, ☎ 501-670-4354 or 501-622-4354 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . offering all-inclusive charters comfortably accommodating up to 12 guests aboard a custom 65 foot sailing catamaran.
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 the premier guiding operations is 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). His guides remain amongst the most highly trained and professional in the country.
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 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 San Pedro is always expensive. The food has to be barged over from the mainland.
That odd looking salsa on your table is really ceviche. Ceviche -also spelled as cebiche or seviche- is a citrus-marinated seafood dish. The Belizians 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.
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 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.
Note: Violent gang related crime is extremely high as of late, especially in Belize City and surrounding areas. The violence is a relate of narcotic trafficking and the struggle for power in the streets. 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. Similar to South Africa, Belize can be equally as safe as it is dangerous. Due to the gaps in the economy and the lack of social welfare, many of the poor areas are prone to crime. Exercise caution, don't visit 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. It's highly recommended that you 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 corrupted police officers. Just exercise common sense and do not go wandering around alone after dark. Stay near tourist areas or other commercial zones.
Do be cautioned that male homosexuality is illegal resulting in a possible punishment of a 10 year prison sentence. Female homosexuality, however, is legal.
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.
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. 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 1 per 40 adults, which is 4 times higher than the USA and 25 times higher than the UK. Safety First!
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 pre-purchased phone cards.
Internet cafes can be found in larger tourist areas, but are infrequent in rural areas. Keep in touch with expats at the Central America Forum.