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In Belize nearly all journeys begin and end in Belize City, the country's biggest urban enclave and port of entry, though in truth it's not a very enticing tourist destination in itself. Belize City sits in a swamp that stretches across Haulover Creek at the mouth of the Belize River, criss-crossed with narrow streets and rather smelly canals which are lined with a jolly jumble of buildings, some little more than dilapidated shacks and others attempts at rather pretentious modern stores. In between are some pretty wooden houses and colonial landmark buildings.
The city has clung tenaciously to its muddy roots since it was abandoned as a Mayan fishing camp in the 1600s and taken over by pirates and buccaneers as a logging camp. Late in the 17th century, the Spanish cut down the mahogany upriver, floated the logs downstream and exported them from the motley little encampment at the river mouth. Later the British established Belize Town, which began the city's formal, rather tragic, passage into modern times. Three times devastated by fires, scourged by disease epidemics, flattened by hurricanes and tidal waves, the city somehow survived. Today, in the new millennium, it subsists on tourism and fishing, remaining the cultural, commercial, and social centre of Belize despite the capital having been moved to Belmopan in 1969.
Most visitors to Belize City come ashore on tenders from dozens of luxury cruise liners that include the city in their itineraries, mainly to allow passengers to take adventure excursions to see and experience the wonderful natural attractions of the interior and coastline of Belize. Cruise passengers are welcomed at the showpiece Belize Tourism Village, where courtyards and attractive buildings contain a variety of restaurants, souvenir shops, craft stalls, and other facilities to cater for their needs. It is the departure point for numerous land and marine tours.
Independent visitors to Belize also generally start their exploration of the country in Belize City, and can find some sights of interest to fill a few days layover in the town, including the world's only manually operated swing bridge, some colonial architectural treasures such as the Paslow Building, the novel St John's Cathedral built by slaves from bricks brought as ballast in ships from Europe, and the art gallery at the Bliss Institute, bequeathed to the city by British Baron, Henry Bliss, who died on his yacht in the harbour. Also well worth a visit are the Maritime Museum and Museum of Belize.
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.
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.
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.
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