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Notes on Belize
I am not a travel blogger, I am not a travel blogger, I am not a trav...
I just returned from a two-week trip to Belize (with a quick jaunt over to Guatemala). While this is decidedly not a travel blog, I wanted to share a few observations about an often passed-over country and what it's like.
Belize is a small country that forms the southernmost portion of the Yucatan Peninsula (Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and other Mexican destinations are on the northern end). The country is very small, both from a geographic and population perspective. It's about the size of Massachusetts and its population is under 500,000.
Belize was a British colony until 1981(!), the influence of which still looms large. Most notably, it is the only Central American country that has English as the official language. Another legacy of their colonial history is that Belize is more of a Caribbean country than a Central American one. It's a member of CARICOM, a European-Union-like regional bloc of Caribbean countries that bills itself as “the oldest surviving integration movement in the developing world”. It is also part of several Central American regional blocs, but its size, language, history, and geography mean Belize has more in common with the Bahamas than Guatemala.
Speaking of Guatemala, the two countries do not get along. In a dispute that goes back over a century, Guatemala originally refused to even recognize Belize as a country. Today they have moderated their stance, and now only claim a paltry half of Belize as their own. Given that Guatemala has a military an order of magnitude larger than Belize, this is somewhat disconcerting for the small nation. Fortunately, both countries are currently seeking to adjudicate their dispute by going through the International Court of Justice. Wikipedia has a very thorough article on the disagreement.
Belize is somewhat of an island of stability in a region, that while not in upheaval, has seen better days. US State Department travel advisories need to be taken with a grain of salt, but Belize stands out for being relatively safe. With the exception of the southern half of Belize City, the US State Department recommends exercising increased caution (Level 2 of 4) when traveling in Belize. This contrasts with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, which are either Level 3 (reconsider travel) in their entirety and/or have areas that are designated Level 4 (do not travel), a status shared with Afghanistan and North Korea.
This stability has resulted in surprisingly large amounts of migration from other Central American countries. International immigration is generally from lower-income to higher-income countries; people want to live in a place where working will allow them to have their needs met and be economically successful. Belize has a similar wealth and HDI to neighboring countries, yet there has been so much migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that the CIA now estimates there are more native Spanish speakers in Belize than native English speakers.
Belize’s biggest strength is its natural beauty. For such a small place, Belize is blessed with a cornucopia of national resources. Mayan sites , caves, Mayan sites in a cave, the Great Blue Hole, the Inland Blue Hole, jungles, waterfalls, beaches, and the world’s second-biggest reef. It’s an incredible place to saunter, swim, snorkel, scuba, spelunk, or just sit.
I’d say the biggest weakness of Belize is the value for money. Belize is very much a developing country. This site states the average salary is only $800 a month. Yet prices were relatively high. On tourist islands off the coast this is to be somewhat expected, but I was still surprised. It’s going to be far cheaper than the United States, but considerably more expensive than Guatemala or even Mexico, a much wealthier country. Some goods and services, such as the (very cool) ATM cave ($100) or a piña colada on the beach ($12) may cost the same amount as in Europe. I think Belize is worth the price, but visitors should do their research.
That said, there are deals to be had. You just have to search a bit for them. Identical snorkel trips may be $90 or $55 a person depending on the company. I stayed in a gorgeous cabana right on the beach for $100 per night and found a bar that offered mid-shelf rum cocktails for $1.50. I had a lot of delicious meals for under $10, and some amazing street food for under $3.
I found Belize to be very safe. There are police around, but not so many that it made me wonder why. The majority of violent crime is gang/drug related, so stay out of the southern half of Belize City (which does not at all overlap with the tourist areas), don’t go traipsing around the jungles on the borders with Guatemala or Mexico, and don’t partake in any drug trafficking, and you will almost certainly have a safe visit.
The big traveler’s debate is between Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye (note: caye is pronounced key). Both my wife and I preferred Caye Caulker but liked both. Caye Caulker is very relaxed. There aren’t any paved roads on the island and most hotels are small. People set up grills in their backyard and cook anything from lobster to conch to sausage for customers. You can walk from one end to the other in 20 minutes. It’s very much Gilligan’s Island.
Caye Caulker’s biggest weakness, however, is it exists solely for tourists. Ambergris Caye, which is mostly based around the town of San Pedro, is a tourist destination as well, but we enjoyed that it was also a proper town. Kids are walking around in their school uniforms, local businesses sell more than just t-shirts, and we saw several Belizean weddings. San Pedro has a lot more going on, from restaurants to nightlife, but that also means more noise and traffic.
The people of Belize, especially given there are not many of them, are amazingly diverse. Some are the descendants of African slaves, some Mayans, some Spanish, some British settlers. Most are a combination of the above. There is also a thriving Mennonite community that I believe made its way to Belize from Russia via Canada and Mexico. The Mennonite community currently operates most of the dairy industry in Belize, and it was interesting to see them walking around in their homespun clothing.
Belizeans are incredibly friendly. Years of traveling have taught me to be on guard when someone wishes to “help” me, as that is usually followed up with demands for payment or some sort of scam. Belize, however, was the opposite. People would readily ask what I was looking for if I appeared lost and then continue on their way. This even included pointing me toward their competitor’s businesses. One day I was walking back to town on a dirt road and the first person to go by on a motorbike offered me a ride. Since most people speak English, it also meant I was able to learn a lot about them and their country. I would go so far as to say that Belize has the friendliest people of any country I have ever visited.
While most people in Belize speak English, they also speak Belizean Creole, a combination of several languages. It was fascinating to listen to, because while I could pick out the occasional word here or there, it was largely indecipherable to me. Listening to locals switch between English and Creole depending on who they were speaking to was impressive.
While many tourists stick to the islands off the coast of Belize, I highly recommend at least one destination on the mainland. I spent four nights in San Ignacio and loved it. Other destinations include one of several eco-lodges off of the delightfully named Hummingbird Highway and several beach towns in the southern part of the country.
My personal highlights were the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, walking the streets of San Ignacio, relaxing at Secret Beach (not at all a secret, but still a great spot), and snorkeling at a spot called Mexico Rocks. In just an hour in the water, we saw countless fish, barracuda, sea rays, eels, lobsters, and even a sea turtle. That’s more wildlife than I’ve seen at some aquariums. Oh, and it was just a 25 minute boat ride from San Pedro.
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