Belize is a small Central American nation, located at 17°15′ north of the equator and 88°45′ west of the Prime Meridian on the Yucatán Peninsula. It borders the Caribbean Sea to the east, with 240 miles of coastline. It has a total of 321 miles of land borders—Mexico to the north-northwest and Guatemala to the south-southwest. Belize’s total size is 8,865 mi², of which 8,803 mi² is land and 62 mi² is water; this makes the country ten times larger than the Australian Capital Territory, about half the size of Nova Scotia, slightly larger than Wales, and slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts. Belize is the only country in Central America without a Pacific coastline.
Many coral reefs, cays, and islands to the east—such as Ambergris Caye, Lighthouse Reef, Glover Reef, and the Turneffe Islands—are part of Belize’s territory, forming the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest in the western hemisphere stemming approximately 200 miles and the second longest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef. The country’s largest river is the eponymous Belize River.
The history of Belize dates back thousands of years. The Maya civilization spread into the area of Belize between 1500 BC and AD 200 and flourished until about AD 1200. Several major archeological sites—notably Cahal Pech, Caracol, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Altun Ha, and
Xunantunich—reflect the advanced civilization and a much denser population of that period. The first recorded European settlement was established by shipwrecked English seamen in 1638. Over the next 150 years, more English settlements were established. This period also was marked by piracy, indiscriminate logging, and sporadic attacks by pre-America natives and neighboring Spanish settlements.
Great Britain first sent an official representative to the area in the late 18th century, but Belize was not formally termed the “Colony of British Honduras” until 1840. It became a crown colony in 1862. Subsequently, several constitutional changes were enacted to expand representative government. Full internal self-government under a ministerial system was granted in January 1964. The official name of the territory was changed from British Honduras to Belize in June 1973, and full independence was granted in September 1981.
Belize is often described as a “melting pot” of cultures all intermingled to form a unique “Belizean identity”. Even with the many interracial unions, Belize boasts several distinct and identifiable ethnic groups. These include the Creole, Mestizo, Maya, Garifuna, East Indians, Chinese and Mennonites. These all blend to form a people with a wide diversity of cultures, traditions and beliefs all co-existing in harmony. The Belizean society exemplifies the preservation of individual identities and ethnic differences.
The Creoles make up one-third of the entire population (about 40%), being classified as one of the two largest ethnic groups in the country. The Creoles are descendants of the interracial unions of Africans (who were brought over as slaves) and early European settlers of the Colonial era. The Creoles mainly reside in Belize City, with small groups unevenly scattered throughout the other five districts.
The Mestizos account for 44% of the entire population. They are descendants from the early Mayan and Spanish settlers who immigrated to Belize during the Caste Wars of the Yucatan in the mid-19th century.
The Mestizos mainly reside in the districts of Corozal, Orange Walk and Cayo, as well as on the northern islands of Caye Caulker and San Pedro Ambergris Caye.
The Maya make up the third largest ethnic group in the country (about 11% of population) and are divided into three diverse groups. They are the Yucatecan, Mopan and Kekchi Maya. It is believed that most of the Yucatecan Maya immigrated to Belize, like the early Mestizos, to escape the Caste Wars. They now primarily occupy the districts of Orange Walk and Corozal. The Mopan Maya entered Belize in the 1880’s where they established several communities in the mountainous regions of the southern and western districts. The picturesque San Antonio Village in Toledo is home to the Mopan Maya. Around 1870, the Kekchi Maya entered the country from an area around Verapaz, Guatemala. They settled in the southern lowlands of the country, primarily near rivers and streams. The majority of the Mayan population resides in the southern districts of Stann Creek and Toledo. Their vibrant Mayan history and culture is respected and celebrated in Belize.
The Garifuna make up the fourth largest ethnic group (about 7% of the population). The Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) came to Belize in the late 18th century. The Garinagu are descendants of African slaves who intermingled with Amerindian natives of the tiny Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In the 1800’s British settlers exiled them to the Gulf of Honduras. In 1832 the Garifuna made their way to the southern coast of Belize, where they established five major settlements. The Garifuna culture comprises of a very distinct combination of arts, crafts, music, dance and cuisine.
East Indians, Arabs, Chinese & Mennonites: These ethnic groups make up the small remaining percent of the population.
The East Indian population is the largest of this group. Most of them are descendants of indentured laborers who were brought from their native India to work on the sugar plantations of Corozal and Toledo. Most of them did not return to their country. Because of intermingling with the diverse ethnic groups in the country, a distinct East Indian culture has become blurred over the years. They primarily reside in the Toledo District.
The small Arab population is composed of a mixture of Turks, Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians. They immigrated to Belize in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They reside primarily in the Belize and Cayo Districts. Most of the Chinese population living in Belize today immigrated in the early 20th century. Majority of the population occupy Belize City, however, their presence is well established in every district. Most of the Chinese communities run grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries and are all in the lottery business. They are considered an industrious people. A few Taiwanese families have recently immigrated to the country and have also become hard-working entrepreneurs.
Belize’s first Mennonites migrated from Mexico between 1958 and 1962. They purchased large chunks of land, established settlements in Orange Walk, Cayo and Toledo, and commenced their distinct agricultural lifestyle. The Mennonites are members of a resilient religious sect, which originated in the Netherlands in the 16th century by a former Roman Catholic priest called Menno Simmons, as a reaction against the deepening relationship between church and state. Mennonites run their own church-based communities, and in keeping with their traditions, close themselves into reserved communities, maintaining the use of their archaic German dialect, and living simplistic lifestyles, as can be seen in their style of dress and their homes. Men traditionally wear long beards, straw hats, and dark trousers, while women wear long floral-print dresses and head scarves. Even though they observe complete sovereignty over their communities, they have slowly been incorporated into the life of every Belizean, particularly through their contribution to the agricultural industry. Mennonite farmers can easily be considered the most productive and successful in the entire country. They operate the best dairy industry in the country that regularly supplies the nation with eggs, poultry, fresh milk, cheese and vegetables. They are also famous for their furniture and home construction.
British influence can still be seen in many social situations. Flowers or confectionary are acceptable gifts to give to hosts if invited to their home for a meal. Dress is casual, although beachwear should not be worn in towns. It may be inadvisable to discuss politics, particularly if of a partisan nature. Time is much more flexible here and any impatience towards the lack of punctuality will not be well received. You’ll be asked to get onto Belizean Time.
English is the official language, but Spanish is spoken to some extent by over half the population. Garifuna (Carib), Maya and Creole are also spoken as well as a German dialect (by the Mennonites).
Parliamentary Democracy with Queen Elizabeth II as a constitutional monarchy. Gained independence from the UK in 1981.
110 volts AC, 60Hz. American-style two-pin plugs are standard.
Belize has a tropical climate with pronounced wet and dry seasons, although there are significant variations in weather patterns by region. Temperatures vary according to elevation, proximity to the coast, and the moderating effects of the northeast trade winds off the Caribbean. Average temperatures in the coastal regions range from 75 °F in January to 81 °F in July. Temperatures are slightly higher inland, except for the southern highland plateaus, such as the Mountain Pine Ridge, where it is noticeably cooler year round. Overall, the seasons are marked more by differences in humidity and rainfall than in temperature.
Average rainfall varies considerably, ranging from 53.1 inches in the north and west to over 177.2 inches in the extreme south. Seasonal differences in rainfall are greatest in the northern and central regions of the country where, between January and April or May, fewer than 3.9 inches of rain fall per month. The dry season is shorter in the south, normally only lasting from February to April. A shorter, less rainy period, known locally as the “little dry,” usually occurs in late July or August, after the initial onset of the rainy season. Hurricanes have played key—and devastating—roles in Belizean history.
Clothes to Wear:
Lightweight cottons and linens. A light shell jacket is recommended for rainy season. Long sleeved shirts and pants are needed for protections against mosquitoes.
Entry & Exit Requirements:
All U.S. citizens must have a U.S. passport valid beyond their planned departure date, proof of an onward or return ticket, and sufficient funds (a minimum of USD $60 per day) to cover the cost of the length of stay. No visas are required for citizens of the United States for tourist visits. Visitors planning to stay more than 30 days must have their passport re-stamped by a local immigration office and pay an additional fee of approximately USD $25 for every month. All tourists and non-Belizean citizens are required to pay an exit fee of USD $39.25. This fee is included in the price of all U.S. airline tickets. Cruise ship passengers are charged USD $7 whether they leave the ship or remain onboard, and this charge is included in the price of the cruise ticket.
At the land borders, U.S. citizens are charged USD $15 if their stay was less than 24 hours and USD $18.75 if the stay was more than 24 hours.
U.S. citizens traveling with their children may be asked by immigration officials to show U.S. birth certificates for each child. When children are not traveling with both parents, immigration officials often request signed documentation to establish the children are traveling with the permission of both parents. Such documentation may include notarized letters from the parent(s), custody or adoption papers, and death certificates in situations where one or both parents are deceased.
U.S. citizens on closed-loop cruises (i.e., cruises that begin and end at the same U.S. port) will be permitted to depart or enter the U.S. with a birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID. However, the U.S. Embassy recommends that passengers carry a passport in case of an emergency. Check with your cruise line to ensure you have the appropriate documentation. U.S. citizen passengers leaving their cruise ship and return by air to the U.S. will be required to present their valid U.S. passports to airline officials before being permitted to board the aircraft.
The Embassy of Belize is located at 2535 Massachusetts Avenue, NW,
Washington DC 20008. Tel: (202) 332-9636; Fax: (202) 332-6888; Website: http://www.embassyofbelize.org/. U.S. citizens living or traveling in Belize are encouraged to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in order to obtain updated information on local travel and security.
U.S. citizens without Internet access may sign up directly with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Enrolling is important; it allows the State Department to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency.
U.S. Embassy in Belize
4 Floral Park Road
Emer. a-h Tel: 011-501-610-5030
Embassy of Canada to Guatemala
13 Calle 8-44 Zone 10
Edificio Edyma Plaza
Tel: (502) 2363-4348
Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) hotline for international travelers at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or via the CDC website at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the infectious diseases section of the World Health Organization (WHO) website at
http://www.who.int/topics/infectious_diseases/en/. The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
Banks & Currency:
Belize Dollar (BZD; symbol BZ$) = 100 cents. Notes are in denominations of BZ$100, 50, 20, 10, 5 and 2. Coins are in denominations of BZ$1 and 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1 cents. American money is eagerly accepted anywhere in the country. Belizean money is worthless outside of the country since most exchange houses will not deal with the currency. Exchange your Belize bills before leaving the country.
Currency can be exchanged at most banks, hotels and travel agencies. While not strictly legal, there are also freelance money exchangers who often have a better rate. Many ATMs accept foreign cards, but there is a $500 limit per day and many machines are out of order or out of cash. ATM exchange rates are usually 1% lower than bank rates.
American Express, MasterCard and Visa are accepted. Most establishments will add a 5% service charge to the bills of customers using credit cards. Traveler’s Checks can be exchanged; commission will usually be charged. There are few places accepting checks so you may have some difficulty cashing them in more remote areas. Checks with any imperfections will be rejected.
Banking Hours: Mon-Thurs 8am-1pm, Fri 8am-04:30pm. Times may vary according to destination.
Country code: 501. Stay away from the blue and yellow phones in tourist areas. You’ll pay close to $US40 per minute for long distance calls. Roaming agreements exist with most international mobile phone companies. Coverage is good along most of the coast and along the main routes to Mexico and Guatemala. Turn your phone local by inserting a SIM chip bought for US$25 and then using pre-paid cards sold throughout the country. You can also get yourself set up with a plan with Digicell or with Smart Phones.
There are Internet cafes in urban centers and popular tourist centers offering reliable connections. The larger urban cities are starting to offer wireless. Mail to Europe takes up to five days. Post office hours: Mon-Fri 8am/08:30am-12pm and 1pm-04:30pm. A few open on Saturdays.
Food and Drink:
There is a selection of restaurants which serve international, Chinese, Creole and Latin American food. Service and quality vary but the food is generally cheap.
- Tacos, corn or flour tortillas, with shredded chicken, onions, cabbage and cilantro.
- Rice-and-beans; for a change of pace, switch to beans-and-rice (where the beans are cooked separately and spooned with their own gravy over white rice).
- Split peas and pigtail over rice.
- Cow-foot soup.
- Fry Jacks: fluffy fried crescents of dough.
- Johnnycakes: flattened biscuits.
- Conch fritters.
- Marie Sharp’s hot sauces.
- Plantains, fried to a sweet golden brown.
- Coconut rum mixed with pineapple juice.
- Belikin beer.
- Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.
- Lighthouse Lager.
- Fresh orange, lime, watermelon or papaya juice.
While Belize could not be considered a major clubbing destination, there is no shortage of bars throughout the country. In Belize City, the main spots tend to be the bars in the top-end hotels, which usually have live bands. There is also a casino. San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, has a lively bar scene and a couple of clubs. San Ignacio has some excellent music bars. Be aware that bars can become dangerous after 11pm.
Belize doesn’t have the same traditions with handicrafts as its neighboring countries, Mexico and Guatemala. Selections will be limited and rather expensive. The best handmade crafts and jewelry are found in the Ambergris Cayes. Further south you can find hand woven baskets created by the Mayan women, as well as mahogany chairs and other carvings. Probably the most distinctive craft are the drums created by the Garifuna. Standard souvenirs fare includes slogan T-shirts and Belikin paraphernalia. Travelers should be aware of their home country’s rules on importing exotic goods.
Shopping hours: Mon-Sat 8am-12pm, 1pm-04:30pm and 7pm-9pm. Some shops close on Wednesday afternoons.
Baggage rules for international and domestic air travel have changed much in recent years, differ from carrier to carrier and these days even may cover your on-board bags. Checking luggage may cost a separate fee or may be free depending on your personal status with the carrier. We therefore encourage you to read your ticket’s small print and/or contact your carrier for exact rules.
Many restaurants and hotels automatically tack on a service charge of 15%. Cab drivers are not tipped unless they have helped you with your luggage. Tour guides are always tipped.
PHOTOS & VIDEOS
In some countries you must refrain from photographing sites such as Military bases and industrial installations. Also be aware of cultural sensitivities when taking pictures of or near churches and other religious sites. It is always courteous to ask for permission before taking photographs of people.
USE OF DRONES
The use of drones is being legislated by many countries. In some cases drones are already forbidden and their unauthorized use may carry severe penalties. If you plan to travel with a drone please contact the embassy or consulate of the country you wish to visit.