I was fortunate enough to spend last week in a beautiful little country in Central America called Belize. Like many people, I didn’t know much about Belize before I went, and wasn’t sure what to expect. After spending an amazing week there, I wanted to share my experiences with you, so that you’ll have some ideas of what to do and where to go if you decide to visit.
I’ll try to be as specific as possible, detailing the names of people we met, places we went, and the companies we used for tourist activities. By no means are these your only options. You could go back to Belize 100 times and always find something new to do, and a different tour company to take you there – but we had such positive experiences, I want to make sure you have specifics in case you want to use the same folks we did.
If you’re considering traveling to Belize, you’ll probably want to get right to the “what to do, what to see” parts of this article – but I believe you should know a bit about a country before you go in and start stinking up the joint, so I’m going to give you a brief Social Studies class on it first. I’ll make it quick, and try to keep it interesting, I promise. Their history and culture is fascinating and I could write a book on it, but I’ll try to give you the cliff notes version. In the meantime, check out some of the photos of Belize we took on Flickr.[nggallery id=19]
In part two of this series, you’ll get a special treat. Not only will I go through our experiences (including specific places to go and things to do), you’ll get the additional commentary of my better half, Lars. We’ll be doing a sort of dual-post, with his comments featured inline with mine. While Lars and I are two-peas-in-a-pod, our perspectives can be very different, and you’ll get both sides. For example, I don’t care that much about food and love the ocean and scuba diving, whereas he is a major foodie and doesn’t much care for the ocean. That said, trying to get two busy artists to collaborate can sometimes be like herding cats, so it may take another day or two for part two to come out. Part one is designed to help you decide whether Belize is the kind of place you might like to visit, and part two will be helpful to you once you’ve decided that it is.
Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, was once part of the Mayan (and very briefly the Spanish) Empire, and it was most recently affiliated with the British Empire prior to gaining its independence in 1981. It is located in the Western Caribbean just below the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Guatemala borders Belize from the west and Mexico from the north. Belize is approximately 8,866 square miles. Its mainland is approximately 180 miles long and up to 68 miles wide. Belize has the second longest barrier reef in the world (165 miles long.)
The main industry for Belize is tourism, due to their lush jungles, gorgeous beaches and amazing scuba diving and snorkeling. They also grow sugar cane and oranges (which they export to the United States), and assorted other tropical fruits and nuts. Oil was recently discovered in Belize as well, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact on the economy that will have.
It should be noted that although tourism is a primary industry for them, no part of Belize feels plastic or “touristy”. Even San Pedro, which is the main tourist town in Belize, has a relaxed, genuine feel to it. Of course you’ll see resorts and bars that cater to tourists (and are therefore a bit more expensive), the atmosphere doesn’t feel manufactured in any way.
The official language is English, although Spanish and Kriol are spoken throughout the entire country as well. The fact that most locals speak English makes it a comfortable option for visitors who want to get to know Central America but may be less comfortable with going to a developing country where they don’t speak the language.
Belizean Kriol, or simply known as Kriol by its speakers, is an English Creole most closely related to Miskito Coastal Creole, but also Limón Coastal Creole, Colón Creole, and San Andrés and Providencia Creole. Kriol was historically spoken by the Kriols, a population of mainly African and British ancestry. However, most Belizean Garifunas, Mestizos, Maya, and other ethnic groups speak Kriol as at least a second language, and it is the only true common language among all groups.
For lack of a more technical explanation, Belizean Kriol is sort of an English shorthand, with some Spanish words occasionally thrown in. Belizean children are taught Spanish and Kriol as children, and they learn English in school. It is absolutely beautiful, comes in a variety of dialects, and is primarily a spoken language. An example of what Kriol sounds like:
What is your name?
(mesolect) /Waat da yu neim?//;
(basilect) /Hau yu neim?//; /Weh yu neim?//
Belizean Kriol is different than the Kriol you will hear in other parts of the Caribbean, and is also different from Louisiana Creole. For more on Kriol, be sure to check out the Wikipedia article. Kriol is hard to learn, and despite my best efforts, I can only understand a small percentage of if when I hear it spoken – and wouldn’t dare embarrass myself by trying to speak it. I’m enough of a gringa when I try to speak Spanish.
I spent most of my time in San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, a small island off the mainland of Belize. “Caye” is pronounced “key”, and they use the play on words frequently – every restaurant offers “caye lime pie” on the dessert menu. The island is called Ambergris Caye, and the major town on Ambergris is San Pedro. As it was explained to me, the tourists call it Ambergris Caye, the locals call it San Pedro. San Pedro started off as a fishing village, but once the tourist industry began to pick up, many fisherman turned in their tackle boxes and nets for scuba tanks and fins.
Ambergris Caye was named after ambergris, a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of sperm whales (whale vomit). The ambergris used to wash up on the shore of the island, where it would be collected and sold to companies to make perfumes. (Most perfumes no longer use ambergris, and have replaced it with synthetic fixatives.) How would you like to live on an island named after whale puke?
San Pedro is a friendly, clean town with just about all of the amenities a tourist could want. The town is a picture postcard setting – small colorfully painted houses set alongside sand streets nestled beside the clear turquoise sea. Coconut palms sway and rustle in the gentle cooling trade winds. Low rise hotels, guest houses and bungalow style resorts, from modest to magnificent, are nestled along the coast and throughout the town.
There are only a few main streets in San Pedro, and most of your traveling will be done by golf cart, on foot or by taxi. It’s actually strange to get used to – the number of golf carts on the cobbled roads vastly outnumbers any other vehicle, with minivan taxis coming in a distant second. Only rarely will you see a larger vehicle like a truck or SUV. Filtered water is distributed around the town by a John Deere tractor hauling a small trailer stacked high with office-cooler style water jugs. My group rented a golf cart for the week (about $250 US for the whole week), but taxis are never hard to find. When traveling around San Pedro, every taxi trip seems to cost $10 BZ ($5 US), no matter how near or far you are.
Speaking of water – one question I’m sure many potential visitors are curious about is whether or not you can drink the water in Belize. Having spent a very uncomfortable week in the Yucatan years ago, sick in ways I don’t care to think much about in any level of detail from just brushing my teeth with the local water, this was a major concern of mine. There is a water filtration facility in San Pedro, so tap water on Ambergris Caye is safe to drink.
My understanding from the locals is that once you go inland, you’ll want to stick to bottled water, of which there is plenty. Every roadside grocery store and restaurant, no matter how small and remote, offers bottled water for sale.
San Pedro is only a fraction of the overall country, and we did get a chance to head inland, through Cayo and San Ignacio on our way to explore Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-too-nich), the ancient Mayan ruins, about 5 miles from the Guatemalan border.
When you first arrive in Belize, you’ll probably fly into Belize City. Traveling to and from the mainland, you can take a water taxi, or a prop plane (the airline is Tropic Air) to get to Belize City from San Pedro and back. My recommendation would be the prop plane – it’s slightly more expensive than the water taxi, but traveling to the mainland by water taxi can take up to two hours, while the prop plan is a 17 minute flight with a gorgeous view of the cayes.
Heading out to Xunantunich, we took the prop plane to Belize City, where our tour guide (who was outstanding – more on that in part two) picked us up and loaded us into a van. From there, we took the Western Highway, which you can see on the map above, straight across the country westward. We passed through Cayo, which is one of the major argicultural regions of Belize, where we saw orange groves, cashew trees, and the foot of the Maya Mountains. The Maya Mountains are the mountain range that extends through Central and South America, although the name changes to the Andes mountains once they reach South America.[nggallery id=20]
I have traveled fairly extensively throughout the Caribbean and Mexico, and spent some time in Europe. I can say without a doubt that in my experience, the people of Belize are the warmest, most gentle and kind people I have ever met anywhere in the world.
This article attempts to give you an overview of the culture and some things to do, but the real take-away I want all readers to have is that despite all of the beautiful scenery and exciting things to do, the people of Belize are what impressed me the most.
The people of Belize range from those of Caribbean descent, with very dark skin and heavy Kriol accents to those of Mexican and Guatemalan descent, with lighter skin and more Latin American features. One of the beach vendors was selling a blanket that I wish I could have bought (I didn’t have any cash on me) that was a hand-embroidered blanket, about 3’x4′, that showed rows and rows of people meant to represent the people of Belize. What struck me as so lovely about this blanket is the wonderful variety of skin tones on the small, embroidered faces.
In many of the other places I have traveled, specifically those in developing areas where the tourist industry is prominent, I have often gotten the subtle feeling of “we’re glad you’re money is here, but we wish you weren’t.” It’s hard to explain, and I mean no disrespect to any of the other Caribbean areas. It felt like they had come to terms with the fact that tourists were necessary, and they did their best to put up with us and make our stay nice. Don’t misunderstand me – the people elsewhere have always been very nice, but I often felt there was a sense of genuine warmth that was missing. (And frankly, being a New Yorker, I am absolutely guilty of that myself, so I can’t really point fingers.)
In Belize, the feeling you get is completely different. There is a warmth and kindness to the Belizean people that I have never experienced before. Everyone you pass on the street will say hello, ask you how you’re doing, and give you a warm smile. I have never felt more welcome anywhere in the world.
While staying in San Pedro, we stayed for one night at a resort called Banana Beach (which I highly recommend, although it is not cheap. More on that in part two, though.) While there, we ate dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, and befriended a waiter there, named MC.
MC was born in Belize, and has dark black skin, dark eyes and an infectious white smile, which he shows off frequently due to his lighthearted sense of humor and positive outlook. One night after the dining area closed and his shift was done, he joined me and a family of Canadians I had met on the trip for a few drinks. He explained to me in his thick Kriol accent that he doesn’t consider his job to be just that of a waiter. He is a representative of the Belize people, and it is important to him that everyone who visits Belize feel welcome and safe and to learn what a wonderful place it is. In fact, after almost every shift, MC could be found talking to the tourists, answering questions and making them smile.
The sense of pride in the people of Belize is remarkable. It is entirely common to see the people of San Pedro wearing “San Pedro” shirts – something only tourists might do in other countries. Belizeans are proud to be Belizean and that pride is easy to recognize. The locals can be seen dutifully sweeping the porches and sidewalks of their homes every morning, and even if they don’t have much, they have pride in what they have. I think Americans could take a lesson or two from the Belizeans.
Crime and Safety
Unlike many other places I have visited, San Pedro felt very safe – and the parts that were less safe were pretty obvious. Because tourism is their main industry, crimes against tourists are not common, but naturally you’ll want to use common sense as well. I can say that I was walking around San Pedro as late as 3AM, and never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe. At no point on my trip did I (or my compatriots, some of which were less used to places like New York City) feel uneasy.
When to Visit
The climate in Belize is tropical, and the locals tell me that February is one of the best months to visit. The weather is warm and humid most of the time, but I’m told that October is the one month you do not want to be in Belize if you can help it. October is their hurricane season, and weather can be unpredictable and unpleasant.
An Important Note
BRING BUG SPRAY. No foolin’. I am one of those people that WILL get bit if there is a mosquito within 100 miles of me, and although I was usually diligent with the bug spray, the few nights I forgot to spray my feet caught up with me. My feet and lower legs are covered in mosquito bites. Then again, Lars didn’t use bug spray, and didn’t get a single bite, so I think it largely depends on the person.
If you’re not prone to mosquito bites, you may want to bring bug spray anyway, to combat the sand fleas. You won’t run into sand fleas if you’re just beach-bumming it, but they cluster around the piles of seaweed that wash up on shore, so if you’re going for a beachside stroll, its better to be safe than sorry.
Before you leave for your trip, you may also want to take precautions and begin anti-malaria treatment, which is as simple as taking quinine for a few weeks before your trip.
That’s it for now – so much more to come later, I promise! We just got back at 2AM this morning, so we’re still sortin through notes. There’s so much to tell and share!