Difference between revisions of "Belize"
Revision as of 23:26, 17 June 2013
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 often 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 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 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.
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; 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. When leaving country by land, prepare to pay border tax (around B$38) in cash.
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.
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. For bookings from outside Belize, there is only one internet agent, airviva , 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 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 your own itinerary when traveling around Belize, car hire is an option. There are several car hire companies based at the Philip S.W. Goldson Airport (BZE), including major international companies (e.g. Hertz, Avis, Thrifty) as well as local companies (e.g. Pancho's, Crystal). Several companies also have rental offices located in Belize City proper. Car hire will run upwards of $80/day, even during the low season. Be aware that many rental cars in Belize have manual transmissions, although cars with automatic transmissions are not too difficult to come by. The roads are bumpy, so a four wheel drive is recommended, especially if you plan to drive on minor roads.
Driving is on the right-hand side of the road. Drivers can pass slower vehicles on the left, being very careful to check for on-coming traffic before making a pass. 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 Guatemala border; and the Hummingbird Highway, which takes you to southern Belize. These highways will take you almost anywhere you need to go and are relatively well-maintained. And although they are not marked well (i.e. no mile/kilometer markers or town signs), the road system is relatively simple to navigate and it's easy to know where you are. The Hummingbird Highway is the oldest, and roughest of the paved highways, and you will often experience potholes and stretches of gravel. 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. Always use caution when entering the vicinity of towns and villages, because Belizean roads are notorious for steep speed bumps.
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.
Mayan Ruins Exploration
Many of the Maya ruins (listed above) can be visited in person. Unlike most ruins, many of those in Belize can still be climbed and explored by foot.
Xunantunich, Caracol, and ATM Cave are all very easily accessible from San Ignacio, either self-drive or on a guided tour. San Ignacio is also a launching point for visiting Tikal. Most hotels in San Ignacio will arrange tours of the nearby sites and Tikal for guests. You can also arrange tours through any of the tour companies whose offices can be found in the central part of San Ignacio (on or around the pedestrian stretch of Burns Avenue).
Tours to the ruins can also be arranged for visitors staying in the Cayes. On Caye Caulker and in San Pedro, you will find tour companies that can arrange tours of some of the Maya sites.
When traveling inland to San Ignacio, there are lots of opportunities to explore the jungles by horseback.
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 cultural and historical display that takes visitors back in time to various defining segments of Belize’s past. The display contains many 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, and an intimate glimpse into 18th century logging camps, and more.
Old Belize also features Cucumber Beach (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 $10BZ charged to Foreigners as a park tax. This money goes toward the upkeep, and protection of the reef. / Diving excursions are also offered to the Blue Hole, but expect to pay a lot more for the privilege.
The Cayo district is characterized by limestone hills underlain by a network of underground rivers, caves and sinkholes. The caves are magnificent, with huge caverns and tight passages, underground waterfalls and dazzling arrays of mineral-encrusted stalactites and stalagmites. This underground world was sacred to the ancient Maya and many artifacts from decorated pots to human remains are still intact in the caves. It is dangerous (and illegal) to enter the caves without a licensed guide. Most guides are trained in both the geology and mythology of the caves as well as in modern first aid and cave rescue techniques.
Belize's greatest attraction Actun Tunichil Muknal, these spectacular caves combine adventure caving with amazing history. Traverse the cave system and river with a guide to see the calcified Mayan sacrifice remains at the end. Don't be afraid of getting wet.
Ian Anderson's Cave's Branch* Anderson organized the initial guiding training programs in the country, out of which grew the Belize Disaster And Rescue Response Team locally called BDARRT (now an independent NGO).
The Belize dollar (BZD, usually symbolized with a "$") 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 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 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.
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 beginning and experienced scuba divers to have underwater adventures at the Belize atolls. Placencia is a particularly popular area. ReefCI offers week-long adventures that are both informative conservation education as well as great scuba diving. http://www.reefci.com
Organic Eco Farming
Organic crops are available for purchase and consumption all around Belize, especially at Farmer's Markets. If you have ever wanted to get insight into organic farming techniques, San Lorenzo Farm in San Ignacio is a great place to learn, participate, and indulge in some homegrown organic foods. Go visit for a half day, or spend the night as part of an eco-farm stay. http://www.hannastables.com
Located nearby San Lorenzo Farm, Hanna Stables offers daily horseback riding tours to nearby attractions including Mayan ruins. Personalized lessons for those interested in learning about horses and horsemanship are also available. Visit for the day for a quick lesson, or stay multiple nights. It's a horse lover's paradise! http://www.hannastables.com
To learn about Belize's rich history, the Museum of Belize is a great resource. http://www.nichbelize.org/mob/the-museum-of-belize.html
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. 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.
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 hunt for software pioneer John McAfee and the arrest of his friends and staff denotes a downturn in governance and probity in Belize, and are arranging a travel boycott until the Belize government and its heavy-handed special operations 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.
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.
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. The government does not allow Skype and forces tourists to call out of the country using its only government-owned phone company.
Beyond Touring*Offering ecotours with community development, includes culture, zip-lining, reef excursions and cave exploration. Ecotour packages are customized for couples, families and students groups. Also includes 501(c)3 Non-profit doing Belize community work.
Bocawina Adventures & Eco-Tours * Bocawina Adventures is located at the Mayflower Bocawina National Park (Belize) and has the longest zip-line course in Belize and Central America, with 12 platforms and one of the longest zip-line runs is 2,300 feet long. Besides that they offer Night zip-lining, Waterfall rappelling, Horseback riding tours, Cave tubing tours, Mayan ruin tours, Birdwatching tours, Hiking tours and Snorkeling/SCUBA diving tours.