Located on the Caribbean coast between Mexico andGuatemala, Belize may be small, but this tropical country is anexotic, English-speaking, adventurer's paradise. Almost half thecountry has been preserved as nature parks and reserves, includingtropical forests teeming with unique wildlife and hiding mysteriousMayan ruins, and 174 miles (280km) of coastline featuring thelongest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
The reef and the country's numerous offshore cayeshave made this one of the world's most desirable destinations forscuba divers and researchers who come to explore the myriad ofcoral and marine life. Particularly popular with divers is the'Blue Hole', a famous circular sinkhole on lighthouse reef.
The central lowlands of Belize were once home to themighty and storied Mayan civilisation from around 1,000 BC untilits inexplicable disintegration around 900 AD. There are believedto be thousands of Mayan ruins in Belize, of which about 600 havebeen discovered and excavated, many now open to tourists.
Belmopan is the modern capital, but it is Belize Citywhere visitors will find attractions such as Belize Zoo, museumsand other historic buildings, and the ancient Mayan site of AltunHa, with its immaculate central plaza. Nightlife, shopping andfancy dining are in short supply. The real fun for tourists lies inthe diving, snorkelling, fishing, hiking, birdwatching, kayaking,and exploring.
Like most Caribbean countries Belize was occupied byBritish and Spanish colonialists over the centuries before gainingindependence. Today it is a happy-go-lucky multi-ethnic nation ofwarm, friendly people, very welcoming of the tourists on whom thecountry's economy relies so heavily.
Belize is an under-the-radar travel destinationgrowing in popularity, with more and more tourists drawn to thisexotic locale. Sandwiched between the steaming jungles of theAmazon and the sparkling coastline of the Pacific, there is plentyin Belize to tempt travellers.
The country is home to a number of ancient ruins fromthe Mayan civilisation. One of the most popular sites is thesatisfyingly named Xunantunich, an impressive 7th centuryconstruction on a hilltop, reached by hand-cranked cable ferry.Lamanai (which translates as 'submerged crocodile') is known bothfor its impressive architecture and its dense rainforest setting.Caracol, near the Guatemalan border, was once one of the mostpowerful cities in the ancient Mayan world.
The coast of Belize sparkles with beaches and theworld's second-longest barrier reef. Glover's Reef, named after an18th century pirate, is a collection of small cays with white sand,palm trees and low-key resorts. Lighthouse Reef houses the uniquedive site, Blue Hole. Ambergris Caye is the champion of the touristindustry, a typical paradise of sun-bathing, cocktails, snorkelingand scuba diving. Caye Caulker is laid back and cheaper, itseasy-going attitude complemented by the reggae beats of the Creoleculture.
Belize is also home to some unique wildlife. TheCrooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary hosts flocks of migrating birdsfrom November to April, Mayflower Bocawina National Park has greathiking trails and is home to troops of black howler monkeys, andBelize Zoo hosts a fascinating collection of obscure creatures suchas tapirs, gibnuts, coatimundi, white-lipped peccaries and manymore.
September is the month for festivals and parties. Twoweeks of celebrations take place from National Day to IndependenceDay, and the Belize Carnival reveals exotic costumes and infectiousCaribbean music.
Located within easy distance of Ambergris Caye, the small islandof Caye Caulker is only five miles (8km) long and less than onemile (1.6km) wide. Getting around on Caye Caulker couldn't beeasier; everything is within walking distance, and there arebicycles and golf carts available for hire. More laid-back than itslarger neighbour, Caye Caulker is only beginning to be developedfor tourism, and is still more popular with backpackers and budgettravellers for its cheaper prices. Fishing, kayaking, sailboating,kite surfing, scuba diving, and snorkelling are the main activitieshere, and you can spot sting rays, nurse sharks, and manatees inthe water.
Belize weather features a temperate climate marked by twodistinct seasons, the rainy and the dry. There is a notabletransition from the one to the next. Rainfall during the rainyseason occurs between June and November with rainfall averagesranging between 60 inches (1,524mm) in the north to 160 inches(4,064mm) in the south. Except for the southern regions, therainfall is variable from year to year. Average temperatures rangefrom 81°F (27°C) along the coast to 69°F (21°C) in the hills. Thecoldest month is January and the warmest temperatures areexperienced in May.
The unit of currency is the Belize Dollar (BZD), which is fixedagainst the US$ as BZ$2 = US$1. Most tourist resorts, hotels,restaurants and tour operators accept US currency. Credit cards arealso accepted, and most banks in Belize City and Belmopan willadvance cash against Visa or MasterCard. When using credit cardsmost establishments will add a five percent service charge to thebill. First Caribbean International Bank has several ATMs in BelizeCity. Always make sure you understand which dollar rate is beingquoted, either Belize Dollars or US Dollars.
English is the official language and the one mostcommonly spoken, but you will hear Creole, Spanish, Garifuna andMayan as well.
Electrical current is 110/220 volts, 60Hz. Flat bladeswith round grounding pin or rectangular blade plugs are used. Mostof the electricity is provided by Diesel/GeneratorSets.
United States citizens do not require a visa for stays of up to180 days. A valid passport is required.
British passport holders, irrespective of endorsement regardingnational status, do not require a visa - immigration officials willgrant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this originalallowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport is required.No visa is required.
Canadians do not require a visa - immigration officials willgrant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this originalallowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport isrequired.
Australians do not require a visa - immigration officials willgrant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this originalallowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport isrequired.
South Africans do not require a visa - immigration officialswill grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of thisoriginal allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport isrequired.
Irish nationals do not require a visa - immigration officialswill grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of thisoriginal allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport isrequired.
United States citizens do not require a visa for stays of up to180 days. A valid passport is required.
New Zealanders do not require a visa - immigration officialswill grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of thisoriginal allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport isrequired.
All visitors to Belize (except cruise ship passengers) mustproduce a passport valid for at least the period of their intendedstay. We recommend, however, that passports be valid for six monthsafter departure from holiday destinations. All visitors should alsohave return tickets and documents for onward travel, and fundsamounting to US$50 per person per day. Visas are usually granted onarrival for 30 days but extensions are usually possible for afee.
No vaccinations are required for entry to Belize. Travellersarriving from a yellow-fever infected area require a vaccinationcertificate. Cases of dengue fever have occurred, and seem to be onthe increase, so insect repellent is strongly advised. Malariaprevention is recommended for those travelling outside Belize City.Potable water is available in most areas of Belize but it isadvisable, if in doubt, to drink bottled or boiled water. Medicalfacilities are poor in the city, and almost non-existent elsewhere.Cases of severe illness or injury usually require expensive medicalevacuation. Adequate medical insurance is therefore vital. Fordivers there is a hyperbaric chamber at Ambergris Caye.
Tipping in Belize is voluntary but as in any country, goodservices should be rewarded with a 10 percent tip. Upscale hotelsand resorts may add a 10 percent service charge to guests' billsand this usually goes to the porter and maid who assisted you. Tourguides should be tipped a few extra dollars for their effort andtaxi drivers should be tipped only if they help carry your bags ortake you on a guided tour.
Although most visits to Belize are trouble-free, there have beenincidents of tourists falling victim to violent crime. Muggingshave been reported in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, and Placencia, andin parts of Belize City. Visitors should take sensible precautionsto minimise the risks. These would include not wearing expensivejewellery, keeping valuables out of sight, staying in groups,avoiding dark alleys, and not walking alone on the beach at night.It is also advisable to use qualified guides for exploratory tripsoff the beaten track. The country is prone to hurricanes betweenJune and November.
Homosexuality is illegal and considered to be sociallyunacceptable.
Belize has a fairly informal business style, althoughpunctuality and politeness are appreciated. Handshaking, theexchanging of business cards and some small talk is expected beforegetting down to business. Dress is usually casual, but neat, withmen in short-sleeved, collared shirts without a tie; howevergovernment-related business is more formal. Business hours areusually 8am to 12pm and 1pm to 5pm Monday to Friday.
The international dialling code for Belize is +501. The outgoingcode is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for theUnited Kingdom). The area code for Belize City is (0)2.International Direct Dialling is available. Mobile telephonecoverage is available throughout most of the country with theBelize Telemedia Ltd GSM 1900 network. Roaming costs can beexpensive. For visitors staying longer than a week or two, thecheapest option is usually to buy a cheap local phone with aprepaid sim card.
Wifi and 4G is widely available throughout most of the country.Internet cafes are virtually non-existent these days.
Travellers over 18 years do not have to pay customs duty on 200cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250g tobacco; wines or spirits notexceeding one litre and personal goods or souvenirs to the value of200 BZD. Restricted items include plants, meat and meat products,live animals and processed food items.
Belize Tourism Board, Belize City: +501 223 1913 orwww.travelbelize.org
Belize Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 3329636.
Belize High Commission, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 77233603.
Belize High Commission, Ontario, Canada: +1 416 865 7000.
United States Embassy, Belmopan: +501 822 4011.
British High Commission, Belmopan: +501 822 2147
Canadian Honorary Consulate, Belize City: +501 223 1060.
South African High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (alsoresponsible for Belize): +1 876 620 4840.
Australian Embassy, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (alsoresponsible for Belize): +1 868 822 5450
Mission of Ireland to the UN, New York City, United States (alsoresponsible for Belize): +1 212 421 6934.
Ambergris Caye is the largest island off the coast of Belize.The 25-mile-wide (40km) island is long and slender, averaging onlyone mile (1.6km) in width. The most popular attraction in AmbergrisCaye is its lovely beaches, drawing visitors for activities likesnorkelling, scuba diving, deep sea fishing, and sailing. Theisland is conveniently situated for those wanting to dive at theMesoamerican Barrier Reef, the longest reef in the WesternHemisphere. Ambergris Caye has a lovely, laid back feel with anotable absence of high-rise resorts. The largest settlement onAmbergris Caye is San Pedro Town, a jumble of small hotels, divecompanies and souvenir ships, with a few bars and restaurants aswell.
Mayflower Bocawina is a small, beautiful park nearthe village of Hopkins, a great base from which to explore. Thejungle and mountains reveal walking trails, swimming holes and someinteresting Mayan sites such as the pyramids of Mayflower Maya, andthe unexcavated Maintzunun temple mound. There are some spectacularhiking trails, far less busy than the more popular CockscombNational Park. Visitors can see plenty of bird life, troops ofblack howler monkeys, and enjoy stunning views from the top ofAntelope Falls.
Travellers to the central lowlands of Belize canvisit the fascinating ruins of ancient Mayan cities, dating backmore than 2,000 years. The region's lush, steamy tropical jungle isan other-worldly setting in which to view the Ruins, whichthemselves offer astonishing insights into one of the most reveredof all ancient cultures. Modern-day Belize contains (among others)the sites of Caracol, Cerros, and Cahal Pech The ruins at Altun Haare popular due to their easy distance from Belize City. Lamanai,located in Northern Belize, is the site of some especiallypicturesque and interesting pyramids, as well as an ancient ballcourt and other structures. Other popular sites include Tikal, ElPilar, and Xunantunich.
Glover's Reef Atoll is one of only four atolls(ring-shaped reefs made of coral) in the western hemisphere, and atruly mesmerising place to visit. The partially-submerged coralisland, which is also a marine reserve, is 20 miles (about 32km)long, and is home to the richest variety of sea life in theCaribbean. The atoll is ringed with white sand beaches, dotted withcoconut trees, and its interior lagoon boasts more than 800 coralpatches with pinnacles rising above the water's surface. WhileMiddle Caye and North Caye are uninhabited, there are luxuryresorts along Southwest, Northwest, and Long Cayes. Active typescan spend all day diving, swimming, snorkelling, and fishing in theturquoise-blue water.
One of Belize's largest protected areas, Cockscomb ishome to the world's first jaguar sanctuary, dating back to 1984.Home to a large diversity of fauna and flora, the park hosts around50 jaguar. These are famously shy cats, but the visitors book atthe entrance to the park suggests they are occasionally seen. Thepark is also home to pumas, tapirs, anteaters, and armadillos, thejaguar's favourite food. Visitors may see, but will certainly hear,the family of black howler monkeys that live near the visitorscentre.
Blue Hole is a world famous dive site situated offthe east coast of Belize on Lighthouse Reef. The perfectlycircular, deep blue sinkhole, surrounded by the lighter shades ofthe reef, has become an icon of Belize tourism. Explored in 1970 byJacques Costeau, who declared it one of the best dive sites in theworld, divers from all over the world now flock here for a chanceto experience the exhilarating descent into its azure depths. Thereis not much sea life in the hole, and the dive is relatively short,so a trip is usually combined with other dives at LighthouseReef.
Belize Zoo has an interesting history. It was thescene of a wildlife documentary which was filmed in the 1980's. Onfinishing the filming it was discovered that the animals were partytame, so the zoo was started on site. The bizarre occupants includetapirs, gibnuts, coatimundi, scarlet macaws, white-lippedpeccaries, pumas and many more. Nighttime visits are advised asmany of the animals are nocturnal. Most of the animals are rescuecases and attempts are made to return them to the wild if possible.The zoo is unique in that animals from the surrounding forest canand do visit their friends on the inside.