By Peter Majerle Photo by Andrés Madrigal
Belize, Central America's only English-speaking country, is also the region's smallest. But size sure doesn't matter here. Costa Rica International Traveler takes you to Belize and tells you where to go and what to do there.
Deep within St. Herman’s Cave in central Belize, we switched our headlamps off. Immediately all traces of light vanished. The shimmering columns of quartz and the pieces of millennium-old pottery disappeared in the absolute darkness. I knew that we were the only souls inside the cave system, yet the distant underground river spoke in tones of a hushed conversation. I heard footsteps. Suddenly, in the absence of light, the caves came alive. I could see why the Maya felt that this cave was a spiritual center, the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld. I was in the middle of a Belize that I had no idea existed 48 hours earlier.
You’ve seen its white-sand beaches and calm turquoise waters on magazine covers, and friends have probably raved about the scuba diving. Belize is very much a water-based destination. What many travelers don’t realize, however, is that Central America’s only country of English colonial background holds a wealth little-explored gems in the interior.
With a population around 70,000, Belize City is by far the largest in this country of 280,000 people and is the main economic and cultural hub. However, the city is very much an uncomplicated town where the only franchise restaurant is a lone Subway.
Belize’s sophistication comes not from glittery nightlife and towering casinos, but from a varied, well-serviced tourism industry that savvy travelers are only beginning to discover. Less than 250,000 travelers spent at least one night in Belize last year, far below the average for the rest of the region. And many of those travelers came as package tourists to San Pedro, where those with dreams of perfect beaches, tropical sun and fruity rum drinks come for an all-inclusive party. For those looking to have everything right at hand, San Pedro is great. For those looking for something a bit further off the beaten path, the rest of the country is your playground.
In the southern Stann Creek and Toledo districts, for example, you’ll find Garifuna communities, Maya villages, and archeological sites dating back over 1,000 years. Elaborate cave networks lie below the surface, and waterfalls slash through the dense jungle.
In the north, near Corozal, you might find that you’re the only tourist in town. The area’s laid-back combination of Latin and Caribbean vibes make for an interesting base to explore the nearby archeological sites of Santa Rita and Cerros. Immigrant women sell handmade Salvadoran pupusas on street-side food stalls, and the sweet aroma of a coconut-laden Belizean dish, rice and beans, wafts from small restaurants downtown.
In the Cayo district, in the central part of the country, opportunities for adventure abound.
Caving, exploring Maya ruins, kayaking and jungle exploration are just some of the options. San Ignacio, the district’s largest town, has a colorful market on Saturdays that attracts people from around the country. And the Lodge at Chaa Creek, located just outside San Ignacio, has been rated by Caribbean Travel & Life Readers’ Poll as the best eco-resort in the Caribbean for four years running.
Anywhere you go, though, the diversity of languages and cultures is amazing. Creole is the lingua franca, and nearly everyone speaks English. Spanish is very common, and you’re likely to hear Belizeans speaking Garifuna, Maya languages, archaic German, and more. This linguistic diversity belies the country’s size and population, but it illustrates the variety that you will find throughout the country.
There is also an interesting variety of Maya ruins. Most cruise ship tourists disembark and head to Altun Ha, the closest site to Belize City. It’s an impressive introduction to Belize’s archeological offerings, and the Temple of the Masonry Altars stands 54 feet high, overlooking the top of the forest canopy. Altun Ha had around 9,000 permanent residents during its peak, making it a small town compared with other Maya cities found deep in the Belizean jungle. Lamanai has temples over 100 feet high. And the city of Caracol was home to some 150,000 people, making this a much more densely populated site than the more famous Tikal, in Guatemala.
And of course, there is the water that initially made Belize a popular tourist destination. The country’s Barrier Reef extends the length of the country some 15 to 40 kilometers off shore. The longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, it houses one of the richest marine ecosystems on the planet. And underwater visibility is excellent. “If you can’t see 100 feet, we say it’s a bad day,” said Richard Sjogreen, a diving guide at the Blue Marlin Resort. Richard took us from the palm-ringed, sandy island that houses the resort to Paradise View, a 10-minute boat ride from the hotel. There wasn’t another human in sight.
While Richard led the scuba divers to 85 feet, I headed with my snorkeling gear towards the reef. Under the Belizean sea lies an entire universe of brilliant color. Schools of fish moved like liquid neon signs; colorful coral bobbed with the current like a fantastic forest; a giant loggerhead turtle headed for deeper waters. Close by sting rays, nurse sharks and moray eels patrolled the ocean floor and crannies in the coral. I felt like I was living in a National Geographic special.
Back on Southwater Caye, at the Blue Marlin, we had a hearty traditional Belizean Sunday lunch of chicken, rice and beans, salad, and a sweet fried plantain in the lodge’s pleasantly weathered dining room. Rosella Zabaneh, the owner of the Blue Marlin, chatted with us as we prepared to move on. “We’ve had some of the same people come back here every year for the last 20 years,” she said. “I like to say that when people come here, they arrive as strangers, but they leave as friends.” The same is true, I thought, about my first trip to Belize. After entering deep into this Caribbean nation, my only thought on the flight back home was, I can’t wait until I come back.
Quick Facts Belize
Capital: Belmopan (pop. 9,000).
Largest city: Belize City (70,000)
Area: 23,000 sq km (8,866 sq mi)
Slightly smaller than Massachusetts
Official Language: English
Spanish, Creole, Garifuna, and Mayan widely spoken throughout the country
Currency/Exchange Rate: The Belize Dollar (BZ$) Pegged at BZ$2=US$1
Rainy season is June to November. Weather is always warm and humid.
Electric System: 110 volts AC (same as North America and Costa Rica)
Basic Entry Requirements: Valid Passport (see www.btia.org for more information)
Exit tax: Travelers must cancel a US$36 exit tax when leaving by air.
How to see Belize
• Belize Tourism Industry Association
• Belize Tourism Board
• Discovery Expeditions
WHERE TO STAY
• Radisson Ft. George Hotel
Great for executives and tourists alike.
• Best Western Biltmore
Families, groups and business travelers.
• Black Orchid Resort
Charming family-run hotel. Take a boat ride with owner Doug Thompson, a treasure trove of info on Belize.
• El Mirador Hotel
A locally run hotel in the heart of this laid-back town.
• Chan Chich Lodge
Beautiful bungalows sit in the jungle, near an archeological site.
• Sun Breeze Hotel
Located in the heart of Belize’s most popular destination.
• Hamanasi Resort
People flock to this beachfront hotel for the diving, but the nearby town of Hopkins is interesting for its Garifuna culture.
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