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Located on the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize may be small, but this tropical country is an exotic, English-speaking, adventurer's paradise. Almost half the country has been preserved as nature parks and reserves, including tropical forests teeming with unique wildlife and hiding mysterious Mayan ruins, and 174 miles (280km) of coastline featuring the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
The reef and the country's numerous offshore cayes have made this one of the world's most desirable destinations for scuba divers and researchers who come to explore the myriad of coral 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 the mighty and storied Mayan civilisation from around 1,000 BC until its inexplicable disintegration around 900 AD. There are believed to be thousands of Mayan ruins in Belize, of which about 600 have been discovered and excavated, many now open to tourists.
Belmopan is the modern capital, but it is Belize City where visitors will find attractions such as Belize Zoo, museums and other historic buildings, and the ancient Mayan site of Altun Ha, with its immaculate central plaza. Nightlife, shopping and fancy dining are in short supply. The real fun for tourists lies in the diving, snorkelling, fishing, hiking, birdwatching, kayaking, and exploring.
Like most Caribbean countries Belize was occupied by British and Spanish colonialists over the centuries before gaining independence. Today it is a happy-go-lucky multi-ethnic nation of warm, friendly people, very welcoming of the tourists on whom the country's economy relies so heavily.
Belize is an under-the-radar travel destination growing in popularity, with more and more tourists drawn to this exotic locale. Sandwiched between the steaming jungles of the Amazon and the sparkling coastline of the Pacific, there is plenty in Belize to tempt travellers.
The country is home to a number of ancient ruins from the Mayan civilisation. One of the most popular sites is the satisfyingly named Xunantunich, an impressive 7th century construction on a hilltop, reached by hand-cranked cable ferry. Lamanai (which translates as 'submerged crocodile') is known both for its impressive architecture and its dense rainforest setting. Caracol, near the Guatemalan border, was once one of the most powerful cities in the ancient Mayan world.
The coast of Belize sparkles with beaches and the world's second-longest barrier reef. Glover's Reef, named after an 18th century pirate, is a collection of small cays with white sand, palm trees and low-key resorts. Lighthouse Reef houses the unique dive site, Blue Hole. Ambergris Caye is the champion of the tourist industry, a typical paradise of sunbathing, cocktails, snorkeling and scuba diving. Caye Caulker is laid back and cheaper, its easy-going attitude complemented by the reggae beats of the Creole culture.
Belize is also home to some unique wildlife. The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary hosts flocks of migrating birds from November to April, Mayflower Bocawina National Park has great hiking trails and is home to troops of black howler monkeys, and Belize Zoo hosts a fascinating collection of obscure creatures such as tapirs, gibnuts, coatimundi, white-lipped peccaries and many more.
September is the month for festivals and parties. Two weeks of celebrations take place from National Day to Independence Day, and the Belize Carnival reveals exotic costumes and infectious Caribbean music.
Ambergris Caye is the largest island off the coast of Belize. The 25-mile-wide (40km) island is long and slender, averaging only one mile (1.6km) in width. The most popular attraction in Ambergris Caye is its lovely beaches, drawing visitors for activities such as snorkelling, scuba diving, deep sea fishing, and sailing. The island is conveniently situated for those wanting to dive at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the longest reef in the Western Hemisphere. Ambergris Caye has a lovely, laid back feel with a notable absence of high-rise resorts. The largest settlement on Ambergris Caye is San Pedro Town, a jumble of small hotels, dive companies and souvenir ships, with a few bars and restaurants as well.
Mayflower Bocawina is a small, beautiful park near the village of Hopkins, a great base from which to explore. The jungle and mountains reveal walking trails, swimming holes and some interesting Mayan sites such as the pyramids of Mayflower Maya, and the unexcavated Maintzunun temple mound. There are some spectacular hiking trails, far less busy than the more popular Cockscomb National Park. Visitors can see plenty of bird life, troops of black howler monkeys, and enjoy stunning views from the top of Antelope Falls.
Located within easy distance of Ambergris Caye, the small island of Caye Caulker is only five miles (8km) long and less than one mile (1.6km) wide. Getting around on Caye Caulker couldn't be easier; everything is within walking distance, and there are bicycles and golf carts available for hire. More laid-back than its larger neighbour, Caye Caulker is only beginning to be developed for tourism, and is still more popular with backpackers and budget travellers for its cheaper prices. Fishing, kayaking, sailboating, kite surfing, scuba diving, and snorkelling are the main activities here, and adventurers can spot sting rays, nurse sharks, and manatees in the water.
Travellers to the central lowlands of Belize can visit the fascinating ruins of ancient Mayan cities, which date back more than 2,000 years. The region's lush, steamy tropical jungle is an other-worldly setting in which to view the Ruins, which themselves offer astonishing insights into one of the most revered of all ancient cultures. Modern-day Belize contains (among others) the sites of Caracol, Cerros, and Cahal Pech. The ruins at Altun Ha are popular due to their easy distance from Belize City. Lamanai, located in Northern Belize, is the site of some especially picturesque and interesting pyramids, as well as an ancient ball court and other structures. Other popular sites include Tikal, El Pilar, and Xunantunich.
Glover's Reef Atoll is one of only four atolls (ring-shaped reefs made of coral) in the western hemisphere, and a truly mesmerising place to visit. The partially submerged coral island, which is also a marine reserve, is 20 miles (about 32km) long, and is home to the richest variety of sea life in the Caribbean. The atoll is ringed with white sand beaches, dotted with coconut trees, and its interior lagoon boasts more than 800 coral patches, with pinnacles rising above the water's surface. While Middle Caye and North Caye are uninhabited, there are luxury resorts along Southwest, Northwest, and Long Cayes. Active types can spend all day diving, swimming, snorkelling, and fishing in the turquoise-blue water.
One of Belize's largest protected areas, Cockscomb is home to the world's first jaguar sanctuary, dating back to 1984. The park also has a large diversity of fauna and flora, and hosts around 50 jaguars. These are famously shy cats, but the visitors' book at the entrance to the park suggests they are occasionally seen. The park is also has pumas, tapirs, anteaters, and armadillos, the jaguar's favourite food. Visitors may see, but will certainly hear, the family of black howler monkeys that live near the visitors centre.
Situated fifty miles off the coast of Belize, the Lighthouse Reef Atoll is an ideal island getaway, with spectacular beaches and some of the best dive sites in the world. An icon of Belize tourism, the Blue Hole is a perfectly circular, deep-blue sinkhole that is surrounded by the lighter shades of the reef. Explored in 1970 by Jacques Costeau, who declared it one of the best dive sites in the world, divers from all over the world now flock here for a chance to experience the exhilarating descent into its azure depths. Tourists can stay on Half Moon Caye and Long Caye; the other islands are uninhabited.
Belize Zoo has an interesting history. It was the scene of a wildlife documentary that was filmed in the 1980s. On finishing the filming it was discovered that the animals were party tame, so the zoo was started on site. The bizarre occupants include tapirs, gibnuts, coatimundi, scarlet macaws, white-lipped peccaries, pumas and many more. Nighttime visits are advised, as many of the animals are nocturnal. Most of the animals are rescue cases and attempts are made to return them to the wild if possible. The zoo is unique in that animals from the surrounding forest can and do visit their friends on the inside.
Belize weather features a temperate climate marked by two distinct seasons, the rainy and the dry. There is a notable transition from the one to the next. Rainfall during the rainy season occurs between June and November, with rainfall averages ranging between 60 inches (1,524mm) in the north to 160 inches (4,064mm) in the south. Except for the southern regions, the rainfall is variable from year to year. Average temperatures range from 81°F (27°C) along the coast to 69°F (21°C) in the hills. The coldest month is January and the warmest temperatures are experienced in May.
The unit of currency is the Belize Dollar (BZD), which is fixed against the US$ as BZD2 to US$1. Most tourist resorts, hotels, restaurants and tour operators accept US currency, so visitors should make sure they understand which dollar rate (Belize or US Dollars) is being quoted. Credit cards are only accepted in large tourist facilities; ATMs are widely available in larger towns.
English is the official language and the one most commonly spoken, but visitors will hear Creole, Spanish, Garifuna and Mayan as well.
Electrical current is 110/220 volts, 60Hz. Flat blades with round grounding pin or rectangular blade plugs are used. Most of the electricity is provided by Diesel/Generator Sets.
US nationals: United States citizens do not require a visa for stays of up to 180 days. A valid passport is required.
UK nationals: British passport holders, irrespective of endorsement regarding national status, do not require a visa - immigration officials will grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this original allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport is required. No visa is required.
CA nationals: Canadians do not require a visa - immigration officials will grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this original allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport is required.
AU nationals: Australians do not require a visa - immigration officials will grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this original allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport is required.
ZA nationals: South Africans do not require a visa - immigration officials will grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this original allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport is required.
IR nationals: Irish nationals do not require a visa - immigration officials will grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this original allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealanders do not require a visa - immigration officials will grant a period of stay on arrival and extensions of this original allowance will be possible for a fee. A valid passport is required.
All visitors to Belize must produce a passport valid for at least the period of their intended stay. It's recommended, however, that passports be valid for six months after departure from holiday destinations. All visitors should also have return tickets and documents for onward travel, and funds amounting to US$50 per person, per day. Visas are usually granted on arrival for 30 days but extensions are usually possible for a fee.
No vaccinations are required for entry to Belize. Travellers arriving from a yellow-fever infected area require a vaccination certificate. Cases of dengue fever have occurred, and seem to be increasing, so insect repellent is strongly advised. Malaria prevention is recommended for those travelling outside Belize City. Potable water is available in most areas of Belize but it is advisable, if in doubt, to drink bottled or boiled water. Medical facilities are poor in the city, and almost non-existent elsewhere. Cases of severe illness or injury usually require expensive medical evacuation. Adequate medical insurance is therefore vital. For divers there is a hyperbaric chamber at Ambergris Caye.
Tipping in Belize is voluntary but as in any country, good services should be rewarded with a 10 percent tip. Upscale hotels and resorts may add a 10 percent service charge to guests' bills, and this usually goes to the porter and maid who assisted them. Tour guides should be tipped a few extra dollars for their effort and taxi drivers should be tipped only if they help carry bags or take travellers on a guided tour.
There have been incidents of tourists falling victim to violent crime. Muggings have been reported in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, and Placencia, and in parts of Belize City. Visitors should take sensible precautions to minimise the risks. These would include not wearing expensive jewellery, 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 trips off the beaten track.
A laidback attitude permeates Belize and usually carries over into conversation, so visitors who approach locals should try to be friendly, relaxed and patient. Locals aren't especially accepting of homosexuality, but are unlikely to show their disapproval. Still, there are no gay venues and, as a precaution, it's best to avoid public displays of affection.
Belize has a fairly informal business style, although punctuality and politeness are appreciated. Handshaking, the exchanging of business cards and some small talk is expected before getting down to business. Dress is usually casual, but neat, with men in short-sleeved, collared shirts without a tie; however government-related business is more formal. Business hours are usually 8am to 12pm and 1pm to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
The international dialling code for Belize is +501. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). Roaming costs can be expensive. For visitors staying longer than a week or two, the cheapest option is usually to buy a cheap local phone with a prepaid SIM card. WiFi is widely available Belize City.
Travellers over 18 years do not have to pay customs duty on 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250g tobacco, wines or spirits not exceeding one litre and personal goods or souvenirs to the value of 200 BZD. Restricted items include plants, meat and meat products, live animals and processed food items.
Belize Tourism Board, Belize City: +501 223 1913 or www.travelbelize.org
Belize Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 332 9636.
Belize High Commission, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7723 3603.
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.
Australian Embassy, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for Belize): +1 868 822 5450
South African High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (also responsible for Belize): +1 876 620 4840.
Mission of Ireland to the UN, New York City, United States (also responsible for Belize): +1 212 421 6934.
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